Thursday 26 March 2009

Student Diary - Structure and Arrangement

This is the stage which I, and many other budding producers who I have talked to, tend to neglect more than any other, despite a solid arrangement being absolutely vital to the listenability (yes, I just invented that word) of your tune. A poorly structured song will just not sit right in peoples ears because they are used to a certain classic length and order of verses, choruses and all the bits in between. If you are making music for the club you need to arrange your tune making sure the intro and outro are 'DJ friendly', and if you want to make a successful pop tune convention suggests that there is an even more rigid formula to follow.

So why do people tend to neglect structure and arrangement? Looking through my hard-drive you will find probably 80% of my tunes are unfinished. I create a hook and start to arrange; then I get frustrated or bored and say I will come back to that one and finish it later but I rarely do. I think the main reasons are that it simply isn't as fun or straightforward as creating the 4 or 8 bar loop; the rigid rules and fiddly, time consuming nature can sap the enjoyment out of the whole process. Also, even when you create a great hook, by the time you get to these final stages, you have listened to the same 8 bars so many times that you can literally grow sick of the sound of it.

But you must complete your tracks, resisting the urge to move on if you think you are on to a winner because, 1) if you leave it a while, you often will have lost the verve and enthusiasm when you return 2) you will have nothing to show for all your hours of hard work, 3) as a DJ, there is nothing quite like the feeling of satisfaction when you mix your tune in to another for the first time, and crucially 4) your learning curve will plateau and you will stop improving.

So my tutor demonstrated some ways to develop our arranging skills, such as the A-Bing technique whereby you breakdown a track that you like in the Logic arrangement view, and then imitate the structure of that track using your own parts. This technique is also the starting block of making radio-edits, a vital tool for any producer who wants the tune he is working on to get mainstream radio play which, in this age of digital piracy, is perhaps a more realistic way of earning some serious cash from your music.

I'm sad to say next week is the culmination of this Introduction to Logic Production Course. There's a multiple choice test to check at least some the information has sunk in! And Ian will go through my final mix-down with me before I hand in my final project. So this coming week I'll be reading back through all my notes and putting the finishing touches to my track. Looking forward to getting my hands on my certificate and putting it all in to action…

See you next time.

Friday 13 March 2009

Student Diary - Getting to grips with the mix-down

Coming towards the tail end of the Introduction to Logic module it is time to learn how to properly mix down our tracks in order to make them sound as balanced, clear, and punchy as possible.

Once again I was itching to get to this lesson because I recognised that my mixes were not sounding nearly as good as the records I buy and listen to. I had tried incorporating a couple of my tunes into my sets when playing out on big sound systems and it was immediately obvious that there was much scope for improvement on the mix-down. As you may have realised yourself, any part of a mix that sounds iffy at a relatively low volume on a pair of studio monitors will be amplified and sound increasingly more obvious as the size of the sound system increases. It's a bit like slicing a shot in golf... the stronger the headwind you are hitting into, the more viciously the ball will curve away from its intended target.

So, I understood the theory and purpose of the mix-down; the importance of using dynamic processors such as 'eq', 'compressors' and 'limiters', but I was struggling to get to grips with the correct practises when using these, and the complex terminology and elements of mathematics involved. How do the various parameters affect the sound exactly? How do you calculate ratio and threshold? I was unsure whether, through my own learning, I was heading along the right lines or starting to pick up some bad habits.

You can tell Ian knows the workings of a mixing desk like the back of his hand, so he was adept at presenting the basic principles in clear and simple terms for us. Eq is used to create room in your mix, and compression and limiting allow you to add punch, crispness and volume.

The key to uniting these 3 elements is 'routing': The dynamic effect of eq, compression and limiting is affected by the order in which they are routed. Often it makes sense to group parts of your track together (for example your percussion parts); routing, using sends and buses, makes this possible and enables you to apply effects to multiple channels at once. What surprised me is the level of detail Ian was going into to get the sound perfect, sometimes eqing then running sounds through up to 3 compressors as well as a limiter. So it's clear to see how crucial it is to comprehend this technique.

Good mixing skills are all about practice. A producer's ear can only be refined by hour upon hour of listening, tweaking, listening again, then tweaking again... your ear never stops learning. But on top of that, your mixes must be based on a firm foundation of knowledge of the tools you are using. Within more creative aspects of production, the rules are there to be broken, but in the mix-down there are certain rules you must follow before you can achieve professional sounding results hence why this professionally taught course is so beneficial.

I've uploaded my latest track onto my Soundcloud account, so you can check out how I'm getting on. Feedback is much appreciated.


Tuesday 3 March 2009

Student Diary - Sampling and Music Law

I made it into class on Saturday morning despite feeling a little worse for wear (self induced admittedly!), and we continued our foray into the art of sampling. This week we went over the complex legal issues associated with sampling and royalties in the music industry, looking at some famous legal cases from down the years.

The topic of music and law is so huge that it could be a whole course in itself (and probably is somewhere), so we really only scratched the surface in a few hours but it was still very useful to get a concise overview and some good advice from my tutor Ian. He has felt the cost of carelessness with regards to copyrighting in his own career, losing out on large sums due to not protecting the rights of some of his past productions. And on the flip-side, royalties from some relatively small (but sensibly protected) projects from which he did not necessarily expect to make much money are continuing to tick over and exceed those expectations.

If you are going to use samples, it is important to have some understanding of the consequences of your actions and the processes through which you can protect yourself. Of course if you are creating music using all your own sounds and original ideas then you have nothing to worry about... but if you do become successful enough to influence other artists, then weeding out all those who have used your work without your permission can be a lucrative pursuit, which is why at one stage Michael Jackson went as far as to employ a whole team of 'musicologists' to do so for him!

Having heard some snippets from Ian's impressive collection of the most sampled tracks, I began to appreciate just how influential funk in particular was to countless other genres. It is staggering how many well known contemporary tracks are almost completely based on old ones, often not just the bassline being copied but the melody and percussion as well. We questioned should discovering that the core elements of a song you love were in fact created by someone else, diminish your estimations of the producer doing the sampling? The answer in Ian's opinion was no. What sets exceptional producers apart is an ability to pick out something in a lesser known track that they think has the potential to appeal to the masses and then being able to re-interpret it for a new audience. After all they are called ‘producers’ rather than 'musicians'.

Some might argue that the main ingredient of a good producer's armoury is this deep understanding of music, old and new, and the ability to link ideas from the past to the present. That is why sampling is in such prominent use and has lead to so many of contemporary music's biggest hits.

The sampling classes have inspired me to open my ears to a wider variety of music again. I have always liked most genres, but since I started DJing, I have perhaps started to neglect listening to the things that wouldn't fit in with my 4/4 sets. Such rigidity could be a bad habit to get into if I want my productions to reflect how I have been influenced by a broad musical spectrum. So I reckon it's time to dig out those old jazz, funk and alternative CDs that have been gathering dust on my shelves and give them another listen. I am not sure whether I will use actual samples in my own tracks or not, especially to the extent that some established producers do... I don't think I can afford to risk becoming embroiled in extensive legal battles anytime soon! However I will make more of an effort to draw inspiration from further afield than simply the other DJs I hear in the clubs and on the radio.