Category Archives: recording
So, I’m always on the hunt for gear that makes my job as a musician/music producer and songwriter a lot easier/cheaper. Laptops are essential, these days. And/or hardware samplers… but, which is better?
For live use… a lot of people recommend using hardware samplers… because there’s basically like zero chance of a crash. Yes, but…
If you take care of your laptop, how often do you actually find it crashing or slowed down? Zero percent of the time? That’s kind of me, in a nutshell. If you know what you’re doing… it’s about as reliable (if not more than) a hardware sampler. I don’t have pop-up ads on my shit, and the audio playback is precise… because I tweak it, and I monitor my internet activity… and/or I don’t go on the web at all, on a music-making laptop.
Let’s say you’re in a duo (basically all bands I’m in are duos)… and, say you need backing tracks to fill out your sound. There’s only two people… playing two instruments and singing… so… you might need something to play a beat, or layered background/countermelody vocals, and/or keyboard parts, or basslines…. that’s where a laptop or hardware sampler come in. Most duos are often either two guitars/singing… or a guitar and a piano, and singing. Or, a mix of all (such as duos like Shovels & Rope). But most often, it’s either two guitars and singing, or guitar/singer, and pianist/singer.
First Aid Kit (guitar/vocals, and keyboards/vocals)
Angus and Julia Stone (guitar vocals, and guitar/vocals)
Wye Oak (bass/guitar/vocals, and drums/keys/computer)
Lemolo (keys/guitar/vocals, and drummer/backing track player)
Beach House (keys/vocals/drum machine, guitar/vocals)
Goodbye Heart (keys/vocals, guitar/drum machine/vocals)
Ok… so, here are your current choices for a hardware sampler:
Korg Electribe Sampler ($400 street)
Roland SPD-SX ($800 street)
Roland SP-404SX ($500 street)
used Akai MPC1000 ($varies)
used Akai MPC500 (often less than $300 used)
Akai MPX8 or MPX16 ($100 or $200)
Pioneer/Dave Smith Toreiz SP-16 ($1500 street)
Now, here’s the problem with hardware samplers: STORAGE (or lack thereof!)
Electribe? 270 seconds, in mono (that’s about 5 minutes.. and only 5 minutes of samples…. without having to load anything. Sure, you can use a 32GB SD card… but that’s only for loading samples into RAM… which, you only have 5 minutes of storage. Only 5 minutes.
Roland SPD-SX – Price is ridiculous. But, you get 4GB of storage. That’s 720 minutes, of mono samples. Yes, you read that right. 12 hours. Now we’re talking… but… this device is useless, unless you’re a drummer. What if you’re a vocalist who just wants to lightly push a button, on a small device on a stand (I’ve seen a lot of vocalists do this.. in professional bands)? Not everyone wants to hold a drumstick the entire set…
Roland SP-404SX – A little pricey…. 2GB of storage. 360 minutes, in mono. Six hours. Possibly more, with an SD card, but I think the RAM (the internal memory) is 2GB. Not bad… not bad at all. Haven’t messed with this, so I don’t know the full capability… but, it seems like a good value… I’ve seen pro bands use this live, such as the all-woman Brooklyn indie band Teen.
Akai MPCs-– not a lot of storage (the MPC1000 was the last unit sold new until 2009… until recently when Akai has announced new (and VERY pricey) hardware samplers……. . Upgrading the ram on one of these older units to 128MB (the maximum) allows about 24 and a half minutes of mono samples. Not bad. If it’s a stereo WAV file that’s 5 minutes long (about 50MB), you can store about 4 of them in an MPC with its RAM maxed out. But that’s only 4 songs. Your set is probably 8-10 songs. Sure, you can put together a sequence with smaller samples… but that’s a lot of work. But, the MPC is tried and true… and many people use them live… still. I find the workflow to be ridiculously slow and counter-intuitive (always have, with MPCs).
Akai MPX8 and MPX16. SLOW LOADING TIMES. Bug-ridden. Crappy menus. 60MB of total storage (yeah, that’s decent– enough to fit one 5-minute stereo WAV file as a backing track, but sadly… I think each pad on each of these units can only store like a 4MB sample, per pad)…. The MPX16 is decent… but, I read it’s bug-ridden.
Pioneer/Dave Smith Toraiz SP16. Find the need and fill it? Yeah. They have. But at what cost? 8GB of flash memory, and 256MB for audio sample memory… wait.. what? I’m a little confused about that. Also, each sample can only be 32 seconds or less, long… so, forget about stereo WAV backing tracks…. A beautiful device, for sure… but… $1500? Whoa.
I can get an 8GB Dell Precision laptop (quad-core i7) for only $250 used on ebay (full HD display at 1920×1080 resolution)… swap out the HD for a solid-state hard drive (525GB Crucial SSD is only $150 new)… now we’re at $400. Upgrading the RAM to 16GB from 8 is a $50 investment. $450 total, now. Pick up a used Novation Launchpad or Behringer TC64 (just like a Launchpad) for about $50. Total cost: $550. Or, if you want to trigger the samples with your feet… a Behringer FCB1010 ($150 new) or a used Line6 FBV Shortboard MKII ($125 used).
A Launchpad comes with Ableton Live Lite 9, which is powerful as hell, and free. And you can trigger ANY samples you want… size is only limited by your hard drive. Ableton will work fine on a 4GB laptop, but even better on a 16GB one.
Or, you can go the route I’m figuring out— Reaper 5, with “Playtime” (a virtual instrument designed by a hardcore Reaper fanatic, which works exactly like Ableton’s “Session View”) OR…. Reaper 5 and “Regions” (each region triggered by MIDI notes or CCs). Backing tracks are a breeze, using Reaper 5 and creating Regions from whatever audio clip is on your timeline… plus, you can infinitely loop Regions, and move onto another… and it won’t play the one you clicked to or triggered, until the current one has stopped playing.
Why the fuck would anyone buy or use a hardware sampler for live use, when a laptop is commonplace live, these days… and… a laptop with a MIDI controller is just so much more cost-effective (and the storage and options are basically unlimited)…? I would feel completely comfortable using a laptop live, especially with a solid-state hard drive in it…. why the hell not? That’s fast as hell, and rock-solid stable.
I know I’m babbling about this (it’s 2:11am and I had a huge coffee about two hours ago)… I really need to make a YouTube video talking about the pros and cons, and showing how effortlessly a laptop and MIDI controller can be used to great effect, for live…
Since I make all of my music on a computer… creating backing tracks is simply a matter of simplifying an arrangement, and muting lead vocal tracks, and/or mixing things down to a simple 5-track setup, per song (bass, drums, keys, extra guitars, backing vocals)…. I don’t have to manually re-arrange something in a hardware sequencer… and sample, re-sample… load/chop/tweak… why? It just doesn’t make any sense.
Any duos out there? Any electronic musicians who perform live? What do you use? What do you hate? Pro-laptop? Anti-laptop? Talk to me. I have 60+ readers on this blog… talk to me. Let me know you’re out there. Let’s create some kind of community, here… I want to know what you think and what you’re using.
God, I’ve been so busy lately. Anyway…
Basics of Harmony! Ready? Go!
It’s actually quite simple.
Let’s say you’re singing a very, VERY simple melody. You’re playing a C chord on the piano in steady quarter-note pulses. And you’re singing a simple melody, that you want to practice harmonizing (say, along with your phone, after you record a voice memo or demo or whatever).
You’re playing C… you’re singing a C note, in this rhythm:
One and…. (rest on 2) and threeeeee…. (hold through 4)
Let’s say the lyrics are this… “thinking, of you…. thinking, of you”
The best way to harmonize this line is in THIRDS. What’s a 3rd? Well, it’s a distance between two notes. Often, the root note of a chord (such as C, in a C chord), up to E (in a C chord, that’s the 3rd).
So, you demo’d your simple song… and you sang “thinking, of you” in this rhythm: 1 + (2) + 3 (4).
Now you’re singing along to your idea… but this time, you’re singing an E note (above your original melody), with the same lyrics.
It’s literally that simple.
In ALL catchy music, vocals are most commonly harmonized by a 3rd (up from the original melody). You can also harmonize DOWN a 3rd (such as singing an A note while the lead vocal sings a C). This isn’t always a good choice, in a major key, because it creates minor harmony, or possibly a country thing (between the vocals and piano, you’re singing and playing a C6 chord, which is very oldschool country).
Less common are 5ths, because as you sing 5th harmony.. you create what is sometimes weird-sounding, called “parallel 5ths” (it’s a classical rule you don’t always want to break). Another good harmony is up a 6th. Or 4ths/suspensions.
I’ll try to find some audio examples of this on YouTube, for a future post… or an addition to this post.
Vocal harmony is friggin’ awesome.
Go listen to the cranberries “Dreams”, and “Linger”. And then Fleet Foxes “White Winter Hymnal”. And furthermore, anything Jacob Collier does on YouTube (that dude is out of this world insane…. I have no friggin’ idea what he’s harmonizing, most times I watch his videos). But, if you’re looking for pretty and simple— how about also checking out Band Of Horses’ “Marry Song”, or anything by the indie slowcore band Low.
Stay tuned for the next post… I’ll post audio examples and YouTube vids.
I played a big part in developing and popularizing this cool MIDI-based software, that allows you to quickly do a lot of cool MIDI stuff. I last talked about it a few years ago, as there was a big update to version 2.5. Now, RC has been updated to version 3.1, with a new user interface, and many more features. I invite all of you (especially those of you who love MIDI composition) to check out the demo. It’s worth your time.
A little history:
RapidComposer was created by Attila Mezei, a Hungarian software developer. When RapidComposer began, it had a very rough start, because it crashed so much. But I discovered it, and saw its potential, so I emailed Attila, and offered to help him work a lot of the bugs out, and do a tutorial series on it, as well as help him develop phrases and new soundfonts which I created from scratch. I did all of this for version 2.5, and in exchange, Attila gave me a license for the full version of the software. RC 3.0 was released in spring 2016, and offered a lot more than 2.5.
Six years after RC debuted, its fanbase grew exponentially, and I am really happy for Mr. Mezei. He truly has created something amazing that no other software developer has done yet, and with so many features.
Check out some of the videos created by a very helpful member named “Yellukhan”:
Now, this guy uses RapidComposer, but with realistic virtual instruments from Kontakt and such… the built-in sounds when you download RapidComposer are soundfonts (created by Attila, and myself). They may not be very realistic, as you get the best sounds when RapidComposer is controlling virtual instruments such as Omnisphere, EZKeys, or any realistic Kontakt library (found in Native Instruments’ “KOMPLETE” series). But it’s pretty impressive, what RapidComposer can do… if you take the time with it. So again, check it out and let me know what you think! Comment below… especially if you’re a MIDI geek!
1. Get it done. Don’t make everything perfect.
Write all the time, and stop striving to reinvent the wheel. You’ll never write “In My Life” or “Fix You”. Neither will I. They’ve already been written. Just write. A lot. Daily. Slow and fast songs. Silly stupid songs. Serious ones. Get it done, and stop giving a damn what people think.
2. Get opinions from those you care about.
You made a 5-song digital EP? Awesome. Check in with friends. Send mp3s via email. “What do you think of the EP? Which song is your favorite? Am I onto something, here?”
Low-sung verses. Higher-sung choruses. Slow guitar strums with a fast beat. Or the opposite. Piano songs. Acoustic songs. Mix it up. Maybe a song entirely with bass guitar, sax, and drums (the band Morphine made a career of a similar sound).
4. Forget what you know.
Know a lot about music theory? Who cares? Forget about it, when you write. Detune your guitar into some weird altered tuning so you are forced to try new shapes with your fingers. Go into a sound in your keyboard that makes little sense. Don’t always run to the grand piano preset. Throw an effect pedal in between your keyboard and computer, and see what comes about. Experiment with a loop pedal. Take chances!
5. “I’m not as good as…”
Never compare yourself to others. Friends of mine are insanely talented. INSANELY. Their keyboard skills make me want to quit playing keys. Their singing voices are insanely trained. So what? I am not a trained singer, but I can sing, and harmonize. I can play basic piano stuff, but I cannot play difficult passages or songs. I can’t shred a blues solo, and my fingerpicking is capable, but nothing spectacular. Doesn’t matter. I focus on my strengths. Do the same for yourself.
6. Focus on the end result, the goal, the reason you do this.
Stop dissecting every step along the way when you’re writing and recording. “Too much string noise when my finger scraped the strings, there”… or “my voice cracked a little, in that part”…. “my harmony sounds a little weird, but ok…” Who cares?! Roll with it. Then listen to the song when it’s done, then make new decisions and choices. I wrote a song years ago. Recorded it in late 2014. It was cool, but I decided I hated it when listening to it again, last week. I changed the keyboard parts, and sped up the song while retaining the same key (thank you, computers). Now I love the song, and it’s infinitely better. Took two years to tweak it. Needed to give it a rest… listen, and then all the “here’s how I need to change it” brainstorming came out, within one listen of the song. I’ll release it soon… hopefully. End goal, right?
7. Be YOU.
Be yourself. Always. Stop singing like John Mayer or Ben Howard. Sing like YOU. I taught myself to sing listening to Green Day, Third Eye Blind, Ben Lee and Jimmy Eat World a lot in the late 90s. My voice is similar to theirs, and I love that. My songwriting style is similar, in some ways, too. It’s simple. It sounds like me. I can’t do Sigur Ros, and I can’t do Jason Mraz. I can’t do Bon Iver unless I’m playing with my vocal harmonizer pedal and lots of reverb. I fuck around, and roll with whatever sounds good to me. I love so many singers (and TONS of female singers, too) but I can’t do them. I can only do me.
8. Minimalist. Simplicity.
I saw an acoustic singer-songwriter a month ago. Too many fancy chords, rhythms, fancy-pants nonsense. His shit was forgettable. Then a few days later, I saw another dude. Lots of G and Cadd9 chords with a capo. His lyrics, delivery, and vibe of the song spoke to me way more intensely than the first guy.
Matthew Sweet wrote “Sick Of Myself” in 10 minutes. He thought it was a stupid song. Turned out to be one of his biggest hits, and he never regretted putting it on his 1995 album, “100% Fun.”
Jason Mraz… most of his really easy shit… A Beautiful Mess, I Won’t Give Up… SIMPLE AS HELL. And perfect. John Mayer’s “Gravity”? NO ONE CAN ARGUE HOW FUCKIN’ GREAT THAT SONG IS. Simple, and perfect. People like shit that they can just vibe to. They don’t need masturbatory musicianship. They want something that speaks to their souls. Make music like that, and change the world.
I can do shit solo. And often do. But I also come up with some great shit, working with people. Don’t be afraid to. It’s important.
10. Rest. Think. Watch TV. Read. Kill it, but chill, too.
Rest. Rest. Rest. REST. Stop working so hard. Hell, just yesterday, I killed it with my friend Mike. We tracked three new hip-hop songs to beats we threw together in a few hours. We shot a video session for YouTube. We shot video as he tracked vocals, so we can have material for YouTube. We ate food and talked about nutrition and working out. We took a break and hung out. But in 8 hours, we did a LOT, and killed it. Today, I plan on doing the same. But first, I needed four hours to chill, blog, and help all of YOU. Then I’m going to hit the studio hard and work on shit. It’s 5pm. I have til about midnight. I’ll get it all done, and I’ll take a break in between. Don’t forget to fucking REST. Seriously. Ok? Cool. Get to work. Or chill.
Have a tip to share? COMMENT!!! 🙂
From Soundfly…. I recently discovered this course while researching some material for my 9th annual songwriting/recording summercamp at the school I teach at in the Philly ‘burbs, and I think this course is really, really helpful for recording a demo at home and on the cheap…… ALL instruments, too. The entire course is two and a half hours, and well worth your time.
Do check it out, and check out more of what Soundfly.com has to offer… all of their courses are long and useful, not just this one. Really dope site.
What do I mean by this?
Stuff everyone knows, but what no one does: stop buying shit. Stop assuming the next piece of gear will make your recordings more professional and completely make your songwriting a thousand times better.
I think back to 2002-2004. I bought SO much shit.
I got a steal on a Novation Nova IIx synthesizer in late 2002. It was $999 from Sam Ash. Retailed at the time about $2500. I have no idea why it was so cheap… maybe a closeout or something. But I bought it. I loved it. I used it for a cool pad sound in the Beauty’s Confusion song “Blue Deluge”, in the chorus. And that’s all I used it for.
A thousand dollars for a cool patch sound, and an arpeggiator that was extremely fun to fool around with. The patches were all insanely fun. It was a great analog-modeling synth.
Luckily, I was able to sell it for about $1250 after getting bored with it, a few months later.
I also remember, a few months before picking up the Nova IIx, I bought an E-Mu Proteus 2000 rackmount for $800 from Sam Ash. I even bought a $200 “super-realistic strings” chip upgrade, that allowed the rackmount to add a bunch of sounds to it. $1000 for sounds that ultimately sounded pretty damn dated, a few years later.
The rackmount soon grew to be a pain in the butt, so I sold it at a loss, and instead, bought the E-Mu Proteus Keys, which was the “keyboard” version of the Proteus 2000:
This keyboard moved with me to the Philadelphia area, in 2004. I sold it about a year later, for around $300 (with the $200 string chip).
You want to hear the best part? Several years ago, E-Mu released the Proteux VX virtual instrument for free, with all the sounds from the Proteus 2000. A mere 65MB download. And it sounds exactly like the hardware.
In late 2002, I also bought a used Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 (had to drive three hours to pick it up). It cost only $450. I sold it about a year later for exactly the same price (someone drove two hours to pick it up). I loved that thing. They now sell for $1500 used. Should have hung onto that one. But I’ve found that cheap or free virtual rhodes instrument VSTs/plugins sound as good as the real thing.
I bought a Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer five separate times in my life, and sold it five separate times. First one I got for only $300 (broken joystick/pitch bend). Sold for $400. The others, I bought for slightly more and sold for slightly more about 6 months to a year later. Last one I bought in 2011 cost me only $650 (locally through craigslist). Turned around and sold it for $900 five months later (also through craigslist). I’ve found the TAL U-No62 virtual synth, and its big brother, TAL U-NO-LX sound EXACTLY like the real thing. The first thing is free. The big brother’s only $40 or so. Get a cool midi keyboard that has assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, and you can control every parameter of the virtual version, and hot damn, it almost feels like and plays like the real thing.
I have a habit of doing this a lot. Oftentimes it’s just to make ends meet and pay bills. Sometimes it’s all about checking out gear and messing with it, and then parting ways with it with someone more excited and/or experienced.
Since I play everything, I’m prone to buying a wider variety of gear. But…
These days, my studio is so damn stripped-down, it’s ridiculous. I own a handful of gear, but only the shit I truly, truly need.
In the early 2000s, I collected synths, almost… Juno-60, Casio CZ-1000, Roland Juno-1 and Juno-2, Proteus Keys PK-6, Kawai K4, Roland D-50…. what the hell was the point? None of that shit was helping me finish songs.
I owned one microphone (one) from early 2003 to 2009. An AKG C2000B. I still use it. Past few years, I’ve bought more and more mics. They’re always useful.
Keyboard-wise? An M-Audio Oxygen 61, to control ALL of my virtual synths (most of which are freeware/great-sounding). The other keyboard I own is a Yamaha P-60 digital piano (weighted keys). I teach on it and love the feel of it. I’ve owned the same one since 2005.
Drums? I have a Pacific CX kit I play out with (white marine pearl). Got it on trade. I record all my acoustic drum stuff with a Sonor Safari bop kit. My cymbals are cheap, but awesome-sounding Paiste 404 crashes and a ride, and New Beat hi-hats by Zildjian. I own a second Sonor Safari, that I converted into an electronic/triggered kit on the cheap.
Guitars? Not many. A couple acoustics (Martin and Yamaha). I have an Agile Les Paul clone ($300 with custom Seymor Duncan pickups), and a Gibson SG Special. I used to own a Fender strat, which I miss. I have a Fender jazz bass for all my bass needs. I have a modest pedalboard with relatively cheap pedals. I have a Vox practice amp, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’68 reissue, for live use.
I have your typical “must-haves” for any home studio in 2015/2016– a good USB audio interface, studio monitors, dual flat-panel widescreen displays, mic stands, different mics, a harmonizer, cheap mic preamp, and a midi drum pad (Maschine MK2)… and that M-Audio Oxygen 61.
Anything else is just not necessary.
Trim the fat. Utilize negative space in your home studio. Basically everything you need to record good music can be found “in the box” (on your computer). All of my effects (reverb, delay, compression, etc)… all “in the box” (mostly the stock plugins included with Reaper 4 and Reaper 5). The less options, the better.
It took me like 15 years to realize I didn’t need most of the shit I bought. Don’t be stupid like me. Research, and buy only what you need. Even if you’re a multi-instrumentalist…. you don’t need much.
via SoundOnSound magazine…. this is without a doubt, the best article I’ve ever read on vocal recording in a home studio, from start to finish. Seriously, this is it:
This is a FANTASTIC, easy-to-follow video, on how to make high-quality acoustic panels for your home studio, on the cheap. One of the best videos I’ve found, to date.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqZPhfxSaTk&w=400]
This entry will probably raise the price of all this stuff I’m about to mention, but here goes, anyway…
CAD M179 mic
Sells new for about $120. I have read that pro engineers LOVE this mic and it is extremely versatile. Haven’t used it, but no one has a bad thing to say about this mic.
MCA SP-1 mic
Sells new for about $60. Apparently it is one of the most-used inexpensive mics in studio situations. From lead vocals to drum overheads, the SP-1 is a go-to mic.
Can be found new for only $180, or used for $125. Need 8 more channels for your home studio, via ADAT/optical? Nothing can be found cheaper. It has 8 XLR ins and 8 XLR outs (but you don’t need the outs if you’re using the optical connection for the 8 additional inputs). It’s relatively quiet, as long as you don’t push the gain too hot (sounds like ass at near-max gain). A lot of audio interfaces come with optical inputs these days, including the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo
Sells new for only $69. A 2-input USB audio interface with phantom power? And by Focusrite? There isn’t a better deal out there, if you’re getting into home recording. Good friend of mine calls it the “cute little hamburger”. It rules.
Best condenser mic for the price, in my opinion. $95. It sounds great on female or male vocals, and acoustic guitars, too!