I’ve received many requests for tutorials on writing/producing a hip-hop or dance beat. In theory, this is a nice idea. In reality, there’s just no way you can encapsulate all of the creative and technical know-how that goes into writing and producing a great sounding beat in a single tutorial. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped me from trying, because even if I can’t pack all of the relevant information into one tutorial, it’s still worth doing for the information that I can share in about a ten-minute video.

So, I threw on some clothes, my Remix Miami T-shirt, didn’t bother to shave, set up the camera (top view down so you could see my hands on the control surfaces), and wrote a hip-hop style beat off the top of my head. It took me around 40 minutes, but I edited the whole process down to about a 12-minute video. Obviously, there are some parts missing, such as playing with MPC backdrops for Kong, or running the hi-hats through a compressor. But, if you watch carefully, it’s all there, because in addition to the techniques I describe as I’m working, you can also see all the device settings and the connections when I flip Reason’s rack over. The video is in HD so you can totally see all the details. I used Reason 5, Kong for all the drum sounds, and Thor for the bass line. Enjoy!

The Reason Bass Line Battle was a wonderful chance to flex your drum and bass production skills. Just 8 bars of rocking drums, funky bass, and swanky percussion using Reason’s Factory and Orkester Sound Banks and the Reason Electric Bass refill (or Electric Bass Demo refill, given away for free as part of the contest). And, you weren’t limited to just entering one bass groove, you could enter up to three!

This all sounded like too much fun and I couldn’t help myself, I entered two bass grooves. My entries are titled “Fat Spaghetti Funk!” and “Jungle Biscuit Bounce!”, under the username, “muzicali”. CLICK HERE to vote for me, this link will take you to a page where my submissions are right at the top. (Voting ends Dec. 5th, 2008.) There are about 338 entries, many of which are absolutely amazing. It just goes to show you how much talent is out there! Truly inspiring. (All of the bass line entries are auditioned as streaming audio, so you don’t need Reason to hear the entries on the Propellerhead’s Web site, you only need to log into the Web site.)

Besides having fun writing these grooves, I figured it would be useful to have these song files as production tutorials. Not only do they stress the importance of having a solid drum and bass foundation for your songs, they’re a good demonstration of how to mix drums in Reason (heck, how to mix drums period), and show off how great the Electric Bass refill can sound when used creatively and with purpose.

“Jungle Biscuit Bounce!” is a straight up groove, meant to demonstrate how tight a drummer and bass player can sound when they’re both sitting in the “pocket”. While “Fat Spaghetti Funk!” is a more flamboyant performance, meant to show how great a drummer and bass player who are communicating and really playing off of each other can sound.

That said, here’s a Zip containing both of my Reason song files and the Electric Bass Demo refill which I used to produce the grooves. After you’ve unpacked the Zip, simply move the Electric Bass Demo refill next to your other factory refills and the song’s NN-XT devices will find their samples fine. Have fun exploring these Reason racks and don’t forget to vote for me!

Click here to link to a page where you can download the Zip (about 26 MB).

Download directions:
Right-click PC and from the pop-up menu choose, “Save Link as…”
Control-click Mac and from the pop-up menu choose, “Save Link as…”

When it comes time for students to mix their final class projects, a common question I hear is, “Should I put the EQ before or after the compressor? Which way is correct?” There’s not actually a right or a wrong way here. Instead, it’s about the sound that you’re going for, the sound that you hear in your head. Each position, EQ pre (before) or EQ post (after) compression produces a distinctly different sound, a different tonal quality and coloration. As a rule, using EQ in front of your compressor produces a warmer, rounder tone, while using EQ after your compressor produces a cleaner, clearer sound. So, the question you need to ask yourself for each channel in your mix is, “Do I want to EQ the compressed signal or do I want to compress the EQed signal? What sound do I want for this signal?”

I find that in most of my mixes about 80% of my EQ is post compression. I usually start with all of my channel EQ set up post compression, but in Pro Tools it’s a snap to drag and drop the EQ plug-in to a different insert slot and hear the difference. To facilitate this workflow I have my compressor plug-in inserted in slot C and my EQ plug-in inserted in slot D. If I then want to hear the EQ pre compression, I simply drag it to insert slot B. This works great even when I’ve already created my EQ curve post compression, I simply drag the EQ plug-in pre compression and Voila! I can immediately hear how my signal sounds when I’m compressing the EQed signal, versus EQing the compressed signal.

It’s also fine to insert your EQ pre and post compression. But, you should employ this technique sparingly because over doing will likely lead to an over EQed mix that sounds harsh and grating. An acceptable way to apply EQ pre and post compression would be to employ a single High-Pass EQ band pre compression, to sculpt your signal at a macro level before compression, and a multi-band parametric EQ post compression to really fine tune the sound.

EQ Pre and Post Compression

Of course, I can talk about how EQ sounds pre and post compression until I’m blue in the face. Carefully listening to the difference between the two positions is what will cement the sonic image in your mind and allow you to reach for the appropriate color in your mix. Below is a rather heavy handed EQ job pre and post compression for you to hear the difference. However, don’t just take my word for it—especially since streaming Web audio and computer speakers lack the clarity necessary to hear this level of fine sonic detail—you should also experiment with these two EQ positions in your own DAW software program in order to hear the difference on your own system.

Reason Song Template

Sep 06 2008

Many students have asked me for a Reason song file template to be used as a starting point for their own projects. This sounded like a good idea to me so I’ve cooked one up that’s especially suited for most forms of popular electronic music, from hip-hop to dance. It’s not meant to be used verbatim, instead, you should modify it to your liking and save it as your own Reason song file template. It’s also pretty complex and if you’re not an advanced Reason user there may be some sections of the routing that you might not know how to use yet. Many of the techniques presented in this template are thoroughly covered in my Berkleemusic course, Producing Music with Reason.

Remember that after you create your ideal song template, you can have it loaded automatically whenever you launch Reason. This way, you’re always ready to start writing, with no time spent setting up your rack. In Reason’s Preferences, under the General tab, set the Default Song to Custom and choose your song file template. And, remember to set your song file to Read-Only. This will ensure that when you save a song it won’t write over your original template file.

Reason General Prefs

Here are some highlights and tricks (in no particular order) for using my song template and making it your own:

· Several instruments are set up as combinators. The instrument Inside the combinator is routed through compression and parametric EQ processors for mixing. To browse for any instrument while still maintaining all of the connections, find the instrument inside the combinator and use its Patch Browser. And, when browsing for patches, select the Show All Instruments option so your patch browsing is not restricted to a single device type.

· You can control either the combinator itself or the device within the combinator from a track in the Sequencer. I have both types of control tracks set up. The main advantage of using the combinator track to control a single instrument inside the combinator is that you can automate the combinator’s knobs and buttons from this track. Of course, you’d need to assign the combinator’s knobs and buttons to some device parameters for them to be active. (Keep in mind that I’m not talking about a multi instrument combinator patch here, for which you’ll always need to use the combinator track to gain control over all of the instruments inside the combinator.)

· There are several labeled clips on the Song Markers track in the Sequencer. These can be used as song markers to organize your song structure. Modify them and make your own as necessary.

· There’s a mastering combinator set up and ready to roll in the rack. Only, it’s set to Bypass because, as a rule, it’s better to produce and mix your track without monitoring your work through active mastering processors. In short, this is because the mastering processors are coloring your mix prematurely, before you’ve completed your production. Instead, save the mastering for after your mix is completed. (I’ll cover this topic in more detail in a future blog.)

· Not only are all of Redrum’s individual outputs routed through compression and parametric EQ processors, for the best control possible over each drum part in your mix, I’ve also connected Redrum’s sends to some extra parallel drum effects (a DDL-1 for delay and a Scream for lo-fi). You can use Redrum’s sends to send a drum signal to these effects before the Drums sub mixer. The effects themselves are returned on Channels 8 and 9 on the Drums sub mixer.

· I’ve set up parallel compression for your drum mix by splitting the output of the Drums sub mixer into two signal paths, one that is compressed and one that is not. Both sub mixes come up on Channels 1 and 2 of the Main mixer. This way you can easily mix in the parallel compression effect on your drums to taste.

· After the Main mixer, I set up a Sub Master mixer for some fun with global effects. The Main mixer’s output is split off to the following effects: there’s an MClass Compressor for parallel compression, an ECF-42 for that classic filtered sound, and a PH-90 for that classic phasing sound. The returns for these effects are muted on the Sub Mixer. Mix their levels to taste and automate how and when they drop into your mix (don’t leave them on all the time).

That’s the scoop. Have fun with this Reason 4 song file template.

Reason 4 Song File Template

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

Using EQ Effectively

Mar 31 2008

A common question that students ask is, “How do I use EQ? What’s the best way to EQ each instrument in my mix?” Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. Unlike a compressor plug-in, most EQ plug-ins don’t have presets—if only it where this simple. Instead, EQ curves vary from mix to mix, and from track to track. Even the same instrument, recorded during the same session, but in a different song, will be treated differently. This is because no one instrument is ever heard in a vacuum, and every arrangement is unique. Consequently, each mix requires its own set of individual EQ curves to make it sparkle and shine.

That said, here’s the rub. The secret to efficient EQ processing is twofold: an ability to hear the frequencies that you want to change, and a working knowledge of the EQ controls with which to do the job. Both of these orders are easily accomplished by themselves, it’s putting them together that can be challenging.

In order to accurately hear your music you must have a good monitoring system, professional studio monitors, and, preferably, more than one set of speakers. (See my earlier blog on Setting Up Multiple Monitors for Better Mixing.) Your monitors must be positioned properly in your room and your room should be tuned to achieve the best possible listening environment. (I’ll discuss how to tune your room in a future blog.) The bottom line is this, if you can’t hear what you’re working on because all you own for monitoring is a pair of headphones and computer speakers, you can’t expect to become an EQ master.

Next, you’ll need to understand all of an EQ processor’s parameters. For example, the difference between Frequency and Q controls, and when to use a high-pass filter versus a low-shelf EQ. Such details are explained very nicely in the PDF document that comes with Pro Tools 7.4, and can also be downloaded directly from the Digidesign Web site, the DigiRack Plug-Ins Guide (version “v74”). (Some versions of the DigiRack Plug-Ins Guide without the “v74” appear to be missing the DigiRack EQ plug-in chapter.) Consequently, I won’t waste space trying to explain all of these parameters here, just read the manual.

Now, let’s jump to the chase, how to go about finding a particular set of frequencies in your signal that you can hear needs help (and you can hear this because you have properly set up monitors and a fine listening environment). My favorite technique is to insert a parametric EQ, and to use it like an EQ magnifying glass in order to find my troublesome frequencies. This is a technique that has been in use ever since the invention of parametric EQ, so I’m sure it has several other names, but I call it the “magnifying EQ trick.” Here’s a video I made on how the process works.