Wednesday 18 February 2009

Student Diary - The Art of Sampling

Whether you are someone who is morally opposed to using snippets of other people's tracks in your own music or not, the art of sampling is a crucial skill to master in order to be a complete producer and enhance your overall understanding of the history of production.

We started by learning the basics of Recycle, a sample editing package that owes its popularity to its simplicity, intuitiveness and ease of use. Usefully, Recycle is integrated with Logic's own sampler the EXS24, so they can be used in conjunction to chop up the audio samples, adjust them in tempo and convert them into midi. Then the clever bit; using Logic's piano roll to splice and edit the sample in order to remove any sounds that you may want to get rid of and create your own interpretation to be part of your new track.

Ian (my tutor) talked about how the Hip Hop and Jungle movements were almost entirely based upon a few sampled James Brown drum loops, and even a quarter of a century later they are still in prominent use. My immediate thoughts were why rehash the same old loops when there is an infinite amount of new rhythms to explore? This surely only serves to drive a genre to stagnation, which some might say has been becoming true of Hip Hop for a long time. I guess the reason could be that groundbreaking, genre-defining songs can be so powerful that people are turned off when they don't recognise certain elements of them in new music they hear. Or, that producers know what works and are unwilling to risk losing money and credibility by experimenting with fresh sounds.

Personally, I do like the idea of old songs being dug up and given a new lease of life with a contemporary slant. I think that samples can add soul and depth to tracks when used well, but if not carefully chosen and subtly integrated can give the impression that the producer is too lazy to think of his own ideas.

A couple of favourite albums of mine that I think use the art of sampling to perfection are Merka's 'Make and Do' which infuses the breaks sound he built his name on seamlessly with elements of soul, jazz, funk, deep house, techno, jungle and cinematic score. It sounds like a mish-mash but trust me, it is brilliant! And Akufen's 'My Way' which uses chopped up samples from a cross section of Montreal's FM airwaves to create a funky tech-house masterpiece.

Go check 'em out!

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Student Diary - Exploring Synthesis

We're now getting into the really juicy part of the course, learning how some of the synths in Logic work, and how the various parameters and filters affect the output. This is where we start adding meat to the bones, or in other words basslines and melodies to our drum patterns.

It is exciting to be able to connect the style of a favourite producer or an effect in a particular track to the techniques which we are being taught; the "aaah... so that’s how he does it" moment if you like.

Take for example 'Wobble Bass', the staple of the Jump-up Dubstep sound which has exploded into prominence in the past couple of years. I now know it is achieved using the LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) assigned to a parameter, most commonly the cutoff. The LFO speed can be altered, but usefully remain in time with the track tempo, for a fast wobble over a 16th note down to a really slow one over 16 bars. Rusko is a favourite producer of mine who has truly perfected this technique to create some of the most squelchy, bone crunching, dancefloor destroying basslines that I have ever had the pleasure to ‘get my skank on’ to! Check his tune ‘Woo Boost’ for a perfect example.

The ES2 is a spaceship-like synth with a seriously daunting number of knobs and twizzly bits for a novice producer. I’ve fiddled around with the parameters a fair bit before but have never quite managed to work out was affecting what. Within one lesson I have a much firmer grasp on how the sound is affected by oscillators, filters and other parameters. Learning more about envelopes has clarified in my head how techno producers such as Nathan Fake, Extrawelt and Stephan Bodzin go about creating those spacious, evolving soundscapes in their tracks; The sort of music that I love to listen to whilst gazing out the window on a long, rainy bus journey (which seems to happen quite a lot in London!)

Now I can’t wait to try emulating these sorts of effects used by my favourite producers. And most synths follow the same theories and principles, so hopefully I will easily be able to translate these techniques to some of the other synths that I am looking to get my hands on!

Thursday 5 February 2009

Student Diary - Allister Whitehead DJ Masterclass

In addition to the actual music courses, Point Blank invites regular guest speakers to give students an extra bit of insight and inspiration. This month's guest was Allister Whitehead who, as you can see from his bio in an earlier post, is a hugely respected DJ and producer with experience stretching back 20 years to days of The Hacienda. His thoughts were eye-opening for a budding DJ and he more than ably tackled the barrage of questions from a packed studio.

Here's my summary of some of his most pertinent points:

• 20% of being a successful DJ is down to technique and talent, 80% is down to social battles.

He said the phrase 'it's who you know not what you know' was a cliché for good reason... it is absolutely true! Do everything possible to immerse yourself in the scene that you want to be part of. Get a job in a trendy shop or bar in the town centre and try to get to know the influential figures.

• Aim high. If you have a favourite club, you should aim to be DJing there within 5 years. Go to that club every week, stand by the DJ booth, chat to the DJs and promoters, work out the type of tunes that the crowd responds to.

• Try to let this guide the tracks you buy but maintain your own individual and unique style. This is what you want people to end up associating your name with. Don't compromise your tastes purely to satisfy the crowd by playing exactly what the headliners are banging out. This leads to DJ clones and will put off the loyal group of people who come to that club every week. They want to hear something new and exciting.

A story that illustrated this point was Allister sticking by a new tune that cleared the dancefloor the first time he put it on. Any DJ who has cleared out a room with a track that went down like the Titanic (and this includes myself) will know what a horrible feeling this is and it is hard to resist putting that record back in the box for good... But he had confidence that this track would grow on people, so he kept on playing it and sure enough, a month later, people were screaming out for it.

• Take any gig you can get no matter how small or how little you are getting paid. It is essential to get out of your bedroom and DJ live to real people; you never know who might be there and what opportunities may come of it. However if the night is completely at odds with your own style, then think twice. Maybe this isn’t the club for you.

• These days, producing your own tunes is almost essential in making a name for yourself as a DJ. Although there is not much money to be had through the sale of music anymore, your DJ career will be vastly accelerated by making good music.

Despite doing a lot of remix work in the past, Allister said his biggest regret was not making more of his own unique material because it is the songs that live with people forever while memories of good parties invariably fade. He rated Graeme Park as his favourite ever DJ but his decline in relation to Sasha, another pioneering DJ who came to prominence in the same era (although not as technically gifted in Allister's opinion), was reflected by the fact that Sasha consistently produced quality output whereas Park never really produced his own material.

• Finally his thoughts on managers and promoters can be summarised quickly and bluntly: People have to make money out of you before you make money out of them!

Thanks to Allister for his time. I'll be back again soon.