After returning from summer vacation in Hawaii I needed a little remixing exercise to get me back into a music production mood. The Kerli’s “Army of Love” remix opportunity on www.indabamusic.com looked like just the ticket. I signed up and downloaded the vocal stems. Technically speaking, they weren’t the best vocal stems I’ve ever heard. They downloaded as WAV files but sounded like they had been converted from MP3 files. And, there was some type of parallel effect or headphone bleed mixed in with the backing vocals. You could hear the original music in the backing vocals stem. But this is what everybody had to work with, so I got busy.

I timed the vocals into my Pro Tools session, made a slight tempo change, a few beats per minute faster, and found one of my tracks that sort of matched Kerli’s performance. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on this so using one of my already produced tracks made the most sense. With a key and tempo change, a few new chords, and a couple of structural modifications to the drums I was able to get a tight sounding mashup.

Then, I spent a lot of time making the vocal stems pop in the mix. The magic bullet for this job was iZotop’s Nectar, the “complete vocal suite” plug-in, and the always fun Stutter Edit plug-in (which I’ve blogged about previously, Stutter Edit by BT). I also did a lot of automation on the vocals to remove breaths, background noise, and bleed from the original tracks.

Whew, a lot of work, but I think it came out sounding pretty cool. It was definitely a good warm up before getting back into my busy composing and production schedule. Plus, I got to play with Nectar and Stutter Edit. All the synth and drum sounds are being produced by Reason 5, rewired into Pro Tools 9. Here’s the video tour of my remix session.

I also threw together a cool video montage to go with the remix. You can find it on my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/erikhawkmusic. (Like me on Facebook please.) And, if you feel inspired to do so, you can listen to and vote for my remix on the indaba music site.  Thanks!

I always sequence my drum beats in real-time, using a MIDI controller, such as my keyboard or drum pads. But, I understand that not everybody feels confident enough to knock out their beats in this manner. And, if you don’t feel confident about playing a drum beat it makes perfect sense to gravitate towards a drum pattern sequencer (such as the one found on Redrum). Feeling out drum beats using step keys, as the pattern loops over and over, is a great way to get your feet wet. Plus, there’s definitely something positive to be said about the pattern sequencer “feel” and what it can add to dance, hop-hop, and other styles of electronic influenced music.

That said, I’m here to tell you that there’s a better way to pattern sequence. Using your DAW program’s snap to grid mode, Pencil Tool, and MIDI editing tools you can knock out superior sounding pattern sequences and arrange your patterns into a song in a fraction of the time that it would take you to automate all of your patterns using a traditional pattern sequencer. Students often ask me how to program beats in their DAW, and this is the secret. So, drop your virtual drum instrument’s built-in pattern sequencer and start using your DAW program’s Pencil Tool and snap to grid function instead. If you’re going to program beats, and you’re already using a pro DAW (such as Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Record, and Logic), this is a great way to drop your beats. Have fun! :-)

Oops, I hit the maximum allotted time for a video on YouTube. Here’s the second half.

PS — Remember, if you double click on these videos you can watch them in HD on the YouTube site.

I was going to do a video on how to play drums on your MIDI keyboard controller, but I can’t top this guy. Well, maybe I could, but he’s just way to entertaining to pass up. How he’s playing the drums on his little keyboard is indeed a method used by the pros. And, the only thing I’d add is, when you’re recording your drum parts into your sequencer, if your timing isn’t as spot on as his, enable input quantize and set it to sixteenth notes. (Also, make sure that you’re playing along with your sequencer’s click track or the input quantize won’t mean anything.) This way, nearly everything you play will sound cool and you too can be a rock-and-roll keyboard drummer!

The usefulness of a good sampler in your production toolkit can’t be overlooked. It’s great for everything from developing your own custom sounds to consolidating your favorite samples into a single instrument. Back in the 80s, dance and hip-hop pioneers could put together an entire track using a hardware sampler with just 2 MB of memory (that’s MB not GB). On it they’d have all of their drum samples, bass and keyboard sounds, even guitar phrases and backing vocals. Working this way, with just a few MIDI sound modules and very limited RAM really forced you to be creative, to write solid beats and killer songs. Unlike today, you weren’t in a position to dazzle listeners with layers upon layers of neatly produced sounds because, frankly, you just didn’t have the tools. Instead, you had to focus on the basics, where every part that you played was integral to your song’s arrangement.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. It’s such a privilege to have all this production power in our computers at our fingertips, but having all of this power is no guarantee that we’ll be able to write good music. As an exercise in my Producing Music with Reason course I demonstrate the unbridled power of Reason’s NN-XT Sampler and what you can do with it when you truly understand how to milk it for all it’s worth. Students generally find the lesson to be an eye opener, but because it’s such a different way of working and thinking about arranging it can be a confusing lesson. So, in addition to the online lesson material, and the assigned reading, I’m posting a 9 minute video that follows me through the entire process of constructing a custom NN-XT patch.

Those of us that ran up a credit card bill in the 80s buying just one Akai or Roland sampler for around $2,500, well, we were determined to get the most out of our new hardware. We had excellent incentive, we had to write a “hit” to pay off our credit card bill. There’s much less incentive nowadays, beyond the personal challenge, to write an entire track using just a sampler. But, I’d strongly encourage you to give it a try because besides the fact that it’s a lot of fun it will force you to learn a sampler inside and out and to stretch your production chops and think in new ways.

Now, here’s some incentive: Imagine if you will that you’ve been caught in a temporal vortex and transported back in time to 1982 and the only way for you to get back home is to write a satisfactorily slamming beat with your Akai S900 sampler and 2 MB of memory. Now there’s a challenge, are you up for it?

Here’s my attempt to get back to the present, written entirely using Reason’s NN-XT sampler and a few effects devices. And, just to make things even more realistic, I did this in Reason Adapted, the limited features version of Reason.

Big Samples MP3

Big Samples Reason Song File

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…”

Ever wish that you could do take after take in a session without having to look at the clutter of tracks piling up? How about the ability to turn one take on at a time and listen to it without having to turn all of the other takes off? The old school term for this sort of function is, virtual tracks. These were widely employed in the first hard disk recorders to hit the market because they had a limited track count but a not so limited storage capacity. For example, you had 24 voices that could sound simultaneously, for 24 track playback, but each track could have up to 99 virtual tracks associated with it (dependent on the size of the internal hard drive, of course). This greatly expanded production power, giving you more options in the number of takes you could record, or create through editing, per track.

Even today, with our powerful computer based digital audio sequencers, virtual tracks are still very useful. To this end, Pro Tools features a type of virtual tracks function called playlists. Each track (MIDI and audio) in your Pro Tools session (LE and HD) can have as many playlists as you need attached. These might be different vocal takes, different real-time groove settings applied to a MIDI performance, or different arrangements of the track’s audio or MIDI regions.

A sound designer I know in Los Angeles who has developed sounds for many movies and TV shows uses playlists to quickly audition different treatments of sound effects for the director. He uses AudioSuite to process the sounds ahead of time, and when the director comes to listen he can fluidly play different versions of his effects while locked to picture. Pretty darn cool.

Here’s a video I made about using playlists in Pro Tools to easily record and manage different MIDI takes.