This year’s NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) was off the hook!  A few years ago when the economy was really in the doldrums there were significantly fewer participants. This year saw hundreds of manufacturers displaying their wares, thousands of patrons checking out the newest music gear, and a whole lot of business deals in the works.

Best of all, this year’s NAMM highlighted electronic dance music (EDM) for the first time with DJ sets and audio expos, including panels featuring Crystal Method’s Ken Jordan and Grammy Award-nominated DJ/producer BT hosting the Technical Excellence and Creatively Awards (TEC). Nightly, there were DJs, including Greyboy, QBert and Melo D, spinning on The Venue Stage presented by Pioneer DJ. In short, it was a wild party for music gear addicts.

There are so many products to see in a show of this size that it’s impossible to see them all. So when I’m wandering the floor I usually have a few general categories I’m looking out for. This year, the categories were: innovative mixing control surfaces, MIDI controllers with decent finger drum pads, and interesting new software. Anything else that catches my eye and holds my attention is frosting on the cake.

Mixer Control Surfaces

If you’ve been paying attention it’s obvious that touch screen control of your software is the wave of the future. From iPads to Windows 8, direct interaction with your software using a touch screen is cropping up all around us. Just look at what Mackie has done with its DL806 and DL1608 units. I had a chance to check out the latest control software (Master Fader 2.0) for the iPad and it felt amazing. Very positive and intuitive. Plus, the new EQ and Compressor models were stellar.

The DL Series employs an iPad as its brains and remote mixing via iPhone.

The SSL Nucleus is cool, and even though it’s also an audio interface, in my opinion it’s way overpriced. Consider the options (sans audio interface), if you’re on a budget, Behringer introduces the X-TOUCH Universal Control Surface for just $599. It’s due out later this year, features motorized faders, scribble strips, and runs in HUI and Logic control modes. It has some striking similarities to Mackie’s venerable old HUI control surface.

The Behringer X-TOUCH features both HUI and Logic modes.

Or, for just half the price of the Nucleus you can pick up Slate Pro Audio’s Raven MTi 27-inch Multitouch DAW Controller ($2,500). It’s like an iPad on steroids! I finely had a chance to sit down with this beast at the show and it was astounding. I will definitely be scrutinizing the Raven MTi more closely and seriously considering one for my home studio. Just think about it, no more delicate motorized faders and knobs to break.

MIDI Controllers & Finger Drum Pads

For a long time there’s only been a few good choices on the market for small, inexpensive keyboard controllers that also feature great finger drum pads. Major kudos go to Alesis for designing the new V Series keyboard controllers with the drum pads to the left of the keyboard rather than above the keyboard. About time! The drum pads felt responsive with a nice velocity curve. The keyboard comes in 25, 49, and 61 key flavors and should be available in a couple of months, starting at $129 for the smallest unit.

The Alesis V Series keyboards have drum pads in line with the keyboard.

I’m a big fan of Nektar keyboards because they feel great and integrate seamlessly with Reason (as well as many other DAW programs). Unfortunately, their keyboards have been out of the price range of many of my students. So I’m very happy to announce that they have a couple of new, less expensive, keyboard controllers, the LX49 (shipping now for $180) and the LX25 (coming soon for $120). Considering how well Naktar’s Panorama keyboard works with Reason, I’m sure the LX series keyboards will integrate just as seamlessly. If it does, the LX25 will be my new top pick for students who need a small MIDI controller keyboard that works great and doesn’t break the bank.

Nektar’s LX49 has a little sibling coming soon, the LX25 for just $120.

M-Audio’s new Trigger Finger Pro looks interesting but I wasn’t excited about how the drum pads felt. On-the-other-hand—or should I say finger?—Arturia’s BeatStep feels really good, with very responsive pads, and an intriguing built-in 16-step sequencer. For $99 it’s hard to complain about this fun gizmo.

Arturia’s BeatStep controlling an Oberheim synth module.

But if you’re looking for a MIDI controller that’s really different, check out the AlphaSphere (about $800).  I had a blast playing with this device. They had it set up to work with Ableton Live. The pads are squishy and send MIDI aftertouch so you can apply pressure on a pad to modulate your sound source. Too cool!

The AlphaSphere is a blast to play.

Tweaking & Hero Cams

Hands down the most exciting piece of software I saw was iZotope’s Break Tweaker ($249 but currently on sale for $199), developed with BT. (Interesting, the software’s acronym is the same as the artist’s name, strangely suspicious.) I got the full demo at the show and it looks amazing. I can’t wait to get my hands on this and start tweaking!

GoPro was at the show, yes, the live action camera people. They had an amazing booth set up with a big, see-through isolation booth containing instruments for bands to play. There were GoPro Hero 3+ cameras available for the musicians to attach to their instruments (such as the headstock of a guitar) as they were jamming and the video from each camera was streamed to giant screens outside the booth. Seeing the GoPro cameras being used for musical performances gets me thinking about how these cameras could be used for teaching online and video chats. This is going to be a fun ride!

 

A couple of electronic dance music (EDM) production tricks that can come in handy for all types of beat driven, electronic music styles: hip-hop, pop, rocktronica, deep house, electro, glitch hop, dubstep, trance, hard dance, you name it.

Big Room Sidechain Compression

Complextro Audio Edits

It’s super easy to sidechain compress in Reason.  And this is the key to producing that classic, pulsing synth pad sound you hear in dance music.  You know, the synth pad that throbs in time with the kick drum.  Here’s a video on how to set this type of sound up in Reason.  Plus, I show you how to keep it going even when your song’s main kick drum drops out, so you can produce inspirational breaks in your arrangement without ever losing the pulse of the kick.

Here’s the completed combinator patch that I demonstrate in the video so you can explore how it’s put together right in your own Reason Rack.

Combinator Patch [COMING SOON]

 

Sorry for the absence but I’ve been busy rolling out a new book and a new Berkleemusic course that I’m very excited to tell you about. During my years of teaching for Berkleemusic I’ve seen many students struggle with a common problem, how to program and produce convincing drum beats. They might be a virtuoso instrumentalist, an amazing guitar player, a wonderful singer, or a brilliant songwriter and lyricist, but when it came to writing a convincing drum beat for their music they had no idea where to start. Literally, no idea. From what I saw, over and over again, from one term to the next, there was clearly a need for some instruction in this area.

It just so happens that I absolutely love writing and producing drum beats. I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen and bought my very first drum machine, a Roland Drumatix TR-606. (I wish I still had that thing.) When I was eighteen and saw David Frank, of The System, on stage with a bunch of Oberheim gear, jamming along with the DMX drum machine I knew what I wanted to do. By twenty-one I was in my own Oakland, Bay Area, studio writing and recording beats professionally for aspiring hip-hop artists who would walk in with a song and say, “I want to sound like this.” Talk about a great way to cut your chops. Those were the days when West Coast hip-hop was flowering, full of funky, sampled breaks and fat, Akai MPC beats. What fun! Since then I’ve gone on to record plenty of live drum sessions, write bunches of dance music cues for film and TV, and arrange orchestral percussion for film trailers.

Long story short, I’ve written a book titled, Producing Drum Beats: Writing & Mixing Killer Drum Grooves (Berklee Press, 2010). It’s a guide for aspiring music producers who want to get started programming and producing killer drum beats from scratch. If you have no idea how to begin your own drum beat, if you’re unclear about the tools and techniques you’ll need to use to produce your own convincing drum beats, this book is meant for you. Keep in mind, it’s not a drum recording handbook, I don’t discuss how to mic a drum kit, nor is it written for experienced producers who are already adept at programming and mixing their own beats. This book is for beginners and musicians who have spent years studying another instrument and suddenly realize they need to know how to produce believable drum beats in order to sell their songs.

Beyond the book’s text, it also comes with a CD that’s packed full of cool demo samples. There are drum loops and MIDI files from reputable sound developers including, Big Fish Audio, Smart Loops, KEYFAX, and even a multitrack drum recording from MultiLoops. The exclusive demo samples are worth the price of admission and I can’t thank these companies enough for allowing me to include their material.

Producing Drums Beats by Erik Hawkins

Producing Drums Beats by Erik Hawkins

Here’s a PDF of the contents and the Introduction.
Producing Drum Beats TOC and Introduction

As if writing a book wasn’t enough of a monumental task, I’ve also authored a new Berkleemusic course based on the premise of the book. The new course is called, Programming and Producing Drum Beats. In the book I had to adhere to a page count and obviously couldn’t include multimedia and video demonstrations. In the online course I had no such restrictions and was able to build an incredibly intense and comprehensive curriculum focused entirely on producing drum beats. The course contains pages and pages of content that augment the chapters in the book, bunches of informative videos, super cool interactive workshops, and weekly assignments that will challenge you and push your skills to the next level. So, check out the book, if you like it, sign up for the course, and as Janet Jackson said, “Give me a beat!” (from the song, “Nasty”, on the album, Control, A&M Records 1986).

A few nights ago, at RSPE Audio here in L.A., I had the opportunity to hear R&B and hip-hop mix specialist Dave Pensado talk about his mixing techniques. Pensado has worked with a who’s who of name artists: Mary J Blige, Beyonce, Keyshia Cole, Christina Aguilera, Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Destiny’s Child, Pink, Brian McKnight, Ice Cube, Warren G, Lil’ Kim, Mya, Elton John, Sting, Seal, Kelly Clarkson, and others. It was a pleasure to get an inside look into his mixing process, check out one of his Pro Tools sessions (an Aguilera song), and even ask him a few questions about parallel compression and how he uses it. (I’ll discuss what he said about parallel compression in another blog.)

While he was talking, he alluded to the fact that he had done a lot of articles where he talked about his mixing techniques. So, when I got home I googled him, and sure enough, there are some excellent articles available on the Web where he talks about most of the stuff he covered in the seminar. One of the best articles I found is from Sound On Sound, where he shares his actual plug-in settings from a couple of The Pussycat Dolls’ songs that he mixed, “Beep” featuring will.i.am, and “Buttons” featuring Snoop Dogg. The article is part of Sound On Sound’s inside track series, Secrets of the Mix Engineers: Dave Pensado. In fact, I think this is such a juicy article I don’t want to take a chance that it’ll be pulled off the Sound On Sound site so I’ve archived it as a Zip, along with all of the plug-in screen shots, and I’m attaching it to this blog. I hope you find it informative. If you do, be sure to thank Sound On Sound and Dave Pensado (he’s on Facebook).

Download the Zip: pensado_soundonsound

Now, here’s something that Pensado said in the seminar that stuck in my head. It’s not something that I’ve seen quoted in any of his articles. You know how I’m always going on about the importance of checking your mix on different speakers? I even wrote a blog awhile back on how to set up multiple monitors for checking your mixes, Setting Up Multiple Monitors for Better Mixing. Here’s what Pensado said, I think it’s excellent advice and totally hits the nail on the head.

“Probably 80% of consumers are listening to music on their computers and iPods. So, if you’re not checking your mix on ear buds you’re missing the boat.”

And, on that note, here’s the video for “Beep”, listen to it on your ear buds.