There once was a DAW program called Record, and then there wasn’t.  In its place rose Reason 6, with all of Record’s features (audio tracks, a new Main Mixer, and Line 6 Guitar and Bass amps) but without its marketing cloud of confusion.  Or, so it would seem, I’m not really sure since I’m not privy to such top secret information.  But, as an end user, the sudden drop of Record like it was a scalding hot potato and the Release of Reason 6, with a name your own price upgrade path, made me feel awfully uncomfortable about what might be going on inside Propellerhead.  Fortunately, the heads at Propellerhead appear to have a plan, a path back from the precipice that was Record.

With the release of Reason 6.5 (due sometime in the second quarter of this year) featuring a newly unveiled third party effect development system called Rack Extensions, and a spanking new iOS App called Figure, I’m excited to report that Propellerhead is definitely back in action and firing on all cylinders.  I think that Rack Extensions is a brilliant move both from a business and creative standpoint, and the complaint that Reason doesn’t support third party plug-ins will be a thing of the past.  Plus, Figure looks like an absolute blast and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

While I’m talking about Reason, I should mention that we’ve been having a ball with Reason 6 in my Producing Music With Reason course at Berkleemusic.  The projects students have been cooking up with all its new features and the audio tracks are amazing.  It’s really exciting to be hearing students put all these creative tools in Reason 6 to good use.  I can’t wait to hear what our community does with Rack Extensions in the next version of Reason.  But now, enough of me talking, check out this video detailing the new music-making wonder tools from Propellerhead.

Contests are a cool way to promote your songs and get your name out there. Here’s a good one that I’m in right now, the www.indabamusic.com Nightclub City Original Song Contest. The song I entered, “Super Star”, is a killer track from my new album that has already been heard on Ugly Betty (ABC), in a great scene with Vera Wang and Posh Spice.

Here’s it is in Ugly Betty, along with a montage of a couple of my other songs in popular television shows.

But, back to the contest at hand. This contest is for some potential airplay that could really help get my song out to a wider audience. Please take a moment and vote for me, it would mean a lot. I would love to finish in the top 25, right now I’m hanging out around number 60, out of over 1,000 entries. Please vote before October 7th, because that’s when the contest ends. Thank you!

If you like the song, and as a special thank you for your support, “Super Star” is available as a free download on my facebook page,
http://www.facebook.com/erikhawkmusic

A common question I hear from students is, “Do I need to hire a mastering engineer?” The answer is, it really depends, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re just making some homemade CDs to pass out to friends or sell at your gig, you don’t need to spend the money on a mastering engineer. If you’re submitting your songs to a music library, your songs need to be mastered, but you might be able to do this yourself using some of the awesome mastering software programs available. I’m certainly no mastering engineer but I’ve mastered a lot of my own songs that have gone on to be featured in T.V. shows and movies. However, if you’re planning on pressing up 1,000 or more mass produced CDs for worldwide distribution, and the album is important to you, spending the cash to hire a great mastering engineer is essential.

After writing, producing, and mixing the fourteen songs on my upcoming album I had seriously had it with listening to my own tracks over, and over, and over again. So, when I finally made the decision to spend a couple thousand to hire an experienced mastering engineer, I breathed a big sigh of relief. Even though it would be a significant dent in my pocketbook I knew the right mastering engineer would be worth the price.

My choice of a mastering engineer was Michael Denten at Infinite Studios (and, on Myspace). Uploading my project to him was an exciting moment because I knew he would listen to my project with fresh ears, in a completely different studio, and give me some honest feedback on my mixes. Having worked with Denten for a few years in the 90s, I knew how he liked his mixes, phat and present. I knew that with his extensive experience working with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, from Digital Underground to E-40, that he would naturally bring this big, round, bass heavy sound to my project. And, I was confident that my project would benefit from this sound. It’s critical to choose the right mastering engineer for a project, because as much as the right mastering engineer can blow up your sound, the wrong mastering engineer can totally screw up your sound.

Denten was busy so it took him awhile to get to my project, but when he did take his first listen he opened up my eyes and ears to some mistakes that I had made in my mixes. I figured he would have some suggestions, and I figured there was no way I was going to nail all my mixes right out of the gate, so I was able to listen to his feedback with an open mind. You’ve got to remove your ego from the equation in order to hear blunt feedback on your own material, especially material you’d been working on for months and months. You’ve got to remember that this is about what’s good for the song, not what’s good for your ego. Denten didn’t disappoint, he took me to school and made suggestions that where spot on and really helped me to improve my mixes. Let me paraphrase some of his suggestions so you understand what I’m talking about.

“This song is muddy in the 500 Hz range, you need to clean this up.”

“What happened to the kick drum here, it’s leaning to one side.”

“The lead vocals are way to dry on this song, they’re not sitting in the mix right.”

“The drum loop in this song isn’t punching through the mix enough, you need to split it out to different tracks so that you can treat the high, mid, and low frequencies separately.”

“You need to add some sub bass here for more bottom end. You should use the Waves MaxxBass plug-in.”

“Your mixes aren’t very wide. Don’t be so conservative on your panning, spread things out.”

Some pretty blunt criticisms, and those were just the main ones. There were many other smaller, equally helpful suggestions that he made throughout the process.

After receiving his initial feedback I went back to my studio and made the changes. My mixes sounded so much better, and, as a result, my masters sounded a whole lot better, and my entire album sounded better. Thank you Mr. Denten! This is what a great mastering engineer can do for your mixes before they’ve even touched them, they can be a second set of ears and give you crucial feedback to help you improve your sound. Then, when they actually do their job and master your music, your songs are going to sound a whole better than if you had skipped this step and gone straight to mastering all of the tracks on your own. So, if you’re serious about releasing an album worldwide, and you plan to spend the money on physical CDs, don’t skip this step, hire an experienced mastering engineer to take your project to the next level.

Some of the control room monitors at Infinite Studios.

Winter NAMM 2010

Jan 22 2010

Here’s just a quick report on this past weekend’s NAMM show in Anaheim, California. Watch this, it’s the next best thing to going to the show. Well, actually, probably better than going to the show because you don’t have to deal with the crowds. Hopefully, you’ll find this video both informative and entertaining. Some of the highlights include the Korg Kaossilator, Akai MPC20, Max for Live, and Teenage Engineering’s OP-1.

Also, here’s a more extensive look at what I think is one of the coolest new products, the Ableton and Serato Bridge. The ability to mix your Live multitrack sessions straight into your Scratch DJ set is impressive. The ability to save your DJ set as an Abelton Live multitrack session is downright amazing! I’ve been dreaming of a product like this for years, ever since trying to multitrack DJ sets in order to tweak and overdub new parts after the fact. This really takes DJ “mix tape” productions to a whole other level. I can literally see a cottage industry of entrepreneurial music producers offering DJ “mix tape” production as part of their services. And, I’m pretty sure it could be a very lucrative side business.

Copycat Cool

Apr 15 2008

There’s a saying, “Copying is the highest form of flattery.” Copying is also one of the best ways to hone your production skills. Taking the time to pick apart and recreate a song done by your favorite producer is almost like being an intern for that producer. You’re getting the benefit of dissecting the techniques used to produce their unique sound without the hazards of being an actual intern (you’ll never be shackled to the coffee maker nor asked to clean up after the band).

When selecting a song to copy, make sure that it is full bandwidth audio (like what you find on an audio CD), not a compressed audio file format (such as MP3 or AAC). You need to be able to hear every nuance of the original production, and a 128 kbps MP3 file just isn’t going to cut the mustard, there’s just too much audio content missing. You can audition MP3 files to find the song that you want to copy, but when you’ve identified the song, you should buy the audio CD to ensure that you’re listening to the best quality audio available.

The object of copying a song is to get as close to the original sound as possible. However, even though this is a great bar to shoot for, it’s not usually possible from a technical standpoint. For example, the producer used a $20,000 Lexicon 960L reverb unit, and all you have to work with is D-Verb (the Pro Tools LE factory reverb plug-in). Obviously, their sound isn’t going to compare. Fortunately, simply going through the process of copying the song as closely as you can is practice enough. Even if your copy isn’t a dead ringer, you’ll still be going through the steps and experiencing the techniques required to create the producer’s sound. Of course, ultimately, the idea isn’t to become a clone of your favorite producer, it’s to learn a variety of techniques and then to apply them in your own unique ways.

Neither is it necessary to copy an entire song, from start to finish. It’s fine to copy just a short section of the song. For example, the chorus, the bridge, or simply the intro beat. The production elements that you’re wanting to emulate are, more often than not, contained in only a few bars of the music. Copying just a section makes it convenient to loop the part, then beat match your session’s tempo to the loop. This also makes comparing your copy to the original song, right in your session, a total snap. Plus, with your session beat matched to the original, it becomes possible to extract the loop’s groove (using a tool like Beat Detective in Pro Tools) and apply it to your own tracks.

Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself when you copy a production:

copycat questions

Attached is a Pro Tools session in which I’ve imported and looped a short drum loop from Missy Elliott’s “Sockit2me” (produced by Timbaland). Then, I’ve used Xpand! and the Pro Tools LE stock plug-ins to copy the song’s basic production sound. It’s not perfect because of the limited palette of sounds I had to work with, but it certainly captures the flavor of the original beat. In fact, I even picked up an interesting production trick along the way: hard panning a gated reverb return to the left speaker, and then hard panning the original dry signal to the right speaker. See if you can hear this effect in the original loop and then find how I recreated it in my mix.

Copycat Cool Pro Tools

Do you think you’re set with one pair of professional studio monitors? If so, think again. Most home-studio owners purchase one good pair of powered reference monitors and that’s it. However, to truly hear how your music will translate to the outside world, the real world beyond the four walls of your comfy studio, you should be working on at least two sets of speakers: your main near-field monitors and a set of small, inexpensive desktop computer speakers (minimonitors). This dual monitor approach will let you hear how most listeners will be hearing your tracks—over a cheap home stereo system, a television, or computer speakers—instead of the precise, accurate, and “flat” sound of your pricey studio reference monitors.

Of course, chances are that your audio interface only has one set of monitor outputs (a pretty standard design). This begs the question, “Where do I connect another set of speakers?” The solution is to add an analog monitor control box to your system. The stereo mix coming out of your audio interface’s monitor output is then connected to this box and split (multiplied) into several monitor output paths, each of which can be sent to its own monitor destination (including headphones). Two of the most popular solutions on the market are the PreSonus Monitor Station ($400) and the Mackie Big Knob ($390). Each of these units is designed to sit on your desktop and provide ergonomic monitor control, making it easy to switch between monitors while you’re mixing without losing your “sweet spot” (the listening position between your monitors that sounds the best).

The point of near-field monitoring is to remove as much room coloration from your listening position as possible. Though it’s no less important to tune your room for better acoustics (a topic for another blog), a proper near-field setup can reduce much of the room tone that you would normally hear if you were seated farther away from your monitors, outside the sweet spot. Today, most well-designed studio reference monitors feature frequency fine-tune controls for tailoring a speaker’s response to best fit your listening environment. For example, to compensate for a room that adversely emphasizes low frequencies, you could roll off your monitor’s low-frequency response by a couple of dB. Foam speaker-isolation wedges (such as the Auralex MoPAD) are also an option and allow a monitor to be decoupled from what it sits on, preventing the speaker from transferring sound to the surface in a way that might adversely affect what you hear.

Now, for the speakers. Keep in mind that the size of the low-frequency drivers (the woofers) determines your monitors’ low-frequency output. The larger the woofer, the more bass you’ll hear in your mix. Consequently, you should stick with a 6-inch woofer or larger for your main monitors. In my opinion, the best enclosure-size-to-bass-output ratio for your dollar comes from monitors with 8-inch woofers (such as the Mackie HR824 or Event Studio Precision 8). Of course, you can add a subwoofer to augment monitors with small woofers, but for most music-production applications, having the bass in your face is preferable to having it under your seat or to the side of your workspace. By comparison, your minimonitors should have a 3- to 4-inch woofer (such as the Edirol MA-7A or M-Audio StudioPro3). And, for the sake of quality and convenience, the minimonitors should be self-powered, just like your main monitors.

How your speakers are set up is also crucial for good monitoring. For the best near-field monitoring possible, make sure that your speakers are upright and level with your head. When seated in the sweet spot between your speakers, your head and the two speakers should comprise the three points of an equilateral triangle. You can place the minimonitors just to the inside of your main monitors. Make sure that the speakers are as far away as possible from any walls to avoid potential low-frequency interaction with your room’s physical structure. Pushing your speakers against the wall or shoving them in a corner is never a good idea. Remove any impediments that might interfere with a clear line of sound from the speakers to your ears (such as plastic figurines and stuffed animals—really, I’ve seen it done). And, watch out for possible reflective surfaces just beneath the monitors (such as a large mixer or laminated tabletop) that may cause high-frequency reflections to bounce off and sully your sweet spot.

Between your main monitors, a pair of minimonitors, and a studio-quality pair of headphones (such as the Sony MDR-7509 or Ultrasone Proline 750), you can construct a clear picture of how your mix will sound in the real world without ever leaving your studio. Plus, with a good monitor controller you’ll never need to move from your sweet spot to switch monitors. Now, with all of this control at your fingertips, the only trick is to remember to get up and use the restroom every so often. Though, seriously, if that’s not inspiration enough, many an award winning mix engineer has been known to walk outside the studio, and down the hall, in order to hear how their mix sounds from a completely different perspective—for real, it really does work.

Proper Monitoring Diagram

During this season of gift giving and gear lust I would like to remind us all (myself included) that it’s not the gear that makes great music. You’re the one that writes, plays, and produces the music, not the equipment. In fact, I bet, if you put your mind to it, you could write a cool beat with a kazoo and some cardboard boxes, and nary an AC outlet in site. But, instead, you’ve embraced high-tech music gear as your recording instrument of choice.

Sure, quality recording products give you the tools to make excellent sounding recordings. Assuming, of course, that you have some basic knowledge of music and recording engineering. However, ultimately, it’s the quality of the song that matters the most, because no matter how well a bad song is produced, it’s still a bad song. By comparison, a well crafted song that is also well produced has the potential to be a hit.

So, when purchasing your next amazing high-tech music making gizmo, keep in mind that it will not be able to magically make your songs better. If you already own all the equipment to record your tracks (for example, a computer, DAW software, audio interface, MIDI controller, and quality studio monitors), and you imagine that this next piece of gear will make your productions that much better, think twice before you spend your hard earned cash. Sometimes, it’s not a lack of gear that’s holding you back, but a lack of knowledge about how to use the gear you already have to its absolute fullest potential.

Fortunately, there is today a wealth of resources available to help you improve your craft, on both technical and creative fronts. If you can play an instrument and have a decent grasp of music theory and notation, you’re ready to jump right into production classes (such as Pro Tools 101 and Producing Music with Reason). If you’re shaky on the fundamentals of music and have not mastered an instrument, than you should start at square one and study music theory and an instrument (such as Music Theory 101 and Berklee Keyboard Method). If you’re not currently in a position to take Berkleemusic online courses, to start you on your way, treat yourself to a couple of books from Berklee Press (such as Instant Bass and Producing in the Home Studio with Pro Tools).

Lots of enthusiasm for making music is excellent, and most certainly a necessary ingredient to being successful in this industry. However, along with all that enthusiasm you’ll also need to know which end of a microphone boom to sing into. (See the YouTube video below.)

Happy Holidays! Have a safe and musical New Year!

Why You Need Reason 4

Oct 25 2007

Is Reason 4 Cool? Is Tony Hawk a good skateboarder? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” But the question I inevitably hear is, “Why do I need to update Reason if I just use it as a virtual sound module.” Now, that’s an easy answer, the Thor Polysonic Synthesizer and the RPG-8 Monophonic Arpeggiator.

You’ve heard of Thor the Norse God of Thunder, right? Initially, I thought the guys at Propellerhead were just being silly, but this new synth is aptly named because it does produce some thunderous sounds. Take for example the Moog influenced Fat Boy bass patch, or the endlessly entertaining sequenced and rhythmic patches (such as Elastic Overdrive or Modular Funk Machine). Thor has a built-in step sequencer for some amazingly complex and funky sounds. And, if designing sounds isn’t your thing, the Reason 4 Factory Sound Bank comes with a dozen folders packed full of earth shaking Thor patches: Bass, Fx, Lead Synths, Pads, Percussion, Poly Synths, Rhythmic, Sequenced, Textures, Voice and Choir, Signature Patches (patches created by well-known artist and producers), and several uncategorized patches in the Thor Patches parent folder.

At the Reason Producer’s Conference in San Francisco, just before the Release of Reason 4, I distinctly heard Propellerhead product specialist James Bernard answer a question on the possibility of having an arpeggiator function in Reason with, “There will never be an arpeggiator in Reason.” Clearly, he was pulling our collective leg. The RPG-8 is dope! It is a comprehensive arpeggiator with a load of parameters for shaping arpeggios. For example, Hold, Octave Shift, Velocity, Gate Length, it can generate up to a four octave arpeggio, and there are controls for introducing random and sequenced variations (such as the Pattern Steps with which you can mute specific steps in the arpeggio). Better still, the RPG-8 can be controlled by your ReWire master application. For example, in your ReWire master, assign a MIDI track’s output to the RPG-8, send it a chord (or even a single note) and it will play an arpeggio using the instrument device that it is connected to in the Reason rack. Talk about cool!

For those of you with Pro Tools 7.3 and Reason 4, I’m attaching a ReWire session to show you how the RPG-8 can be controlled from an Instrument track in Pro Tools and sending an arpeggio to Thor at the same time. In the Zip folder you’ll find the Pro Tools 7.3 session file and Reason 4 song file. Remember to launch the Pro Tools session first, then the Reason song file. (For those of you without Pro Tools 7.3 and Reason 4, I’m also attaching an MP3 so you can at least hear what I’m going on about.)

1) Session Zip

2) MP3 Audio File

Thor and RPG-8