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…”

More Than a Mashup

Jan 18 2008

A mashup (AKA bootleg) is taking two songs and beat-matching them together to create a new blended mix of both songs. For example, the classic mashup of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and New Order’s “Blue Monday.” It’s often done using full stereo mixes (with vocals), or, alternately, an a cappella and a stereo mix (possibly an instrumental). To hear a variety of well crafted mashups, check out Party Ben.

Mashups became such a hit on the dance-floor that some producers (such as Richard X) went on to remake parts of the original songs in order to clear the entire mashup for commercial release. For example, the 2002 UK hit by the Sugababes, a combination of the lyrics from Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” and the music of Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?”

The point behind my little history lesson is, you don’t always have to play a traditional instrument, or even record a track, in order to be wonderfully creative with music. I have the privilege of working with music production students at all levels of experience, some are seasoned musicians while others are just starting piano lessons. Obviously, for our production project in class, I expect students to create their own tracks, one way or another. It’s a snap for experienced players to record a performance, but a serious challenge for students just beginning an instrument to record something decent. As an alternative, I encourage the use of MIDI files, a cappella mixes, and sampling. (For educational purposes only, of course.) These resources can provide a signal and a musical performance with which to practice your production chops whether you play an instrument or not.

However, if you have never worked with samples or imported a MIDI file, taking advantage of these resources can be intimidating. One of the best ways I know to explain the whole process is to show you in a song. So, without playing a darn thing, just using my ears and production skills, I produced a mashup in Reason 4 using an a cappella, a MIDI file of a cover tune, and a sample of the original tune — all items I found for free on the Web. This mashup features Tone-Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina” and Kraftwerk’s “The Model.”

You can download the Reason 4 song file below (it’s about 8 MB) and explore the production, from its samples to its mix. To download an MP3 of the mashup, visit my myspace page.

Cold Medina Mashup

Writing Rough Drafts

Nov 17 2007

It’s easy for me to advise you to finish all of your productions, no matter what (see my earlier blog, How to Become a Great Producer), but what exactly are the steps to getting your tracks done? Let’s address the all too common complaint of, “I start lots of cool tracks but can’t seem to finish any of them.”

In my experience, there are two prevailing reasons for not getting your tracks done, you are your own worst critic and never satisfied with your music, and you are uncertain as to exactly how the production process should progress. Either one of these reason’s would be enough to derail your train, put them together (as is often the case) and you have a roadblock that’s a serious challenge to overcome.

Learning the technical skills behind music production is easy to address. Take some courses at Berkleemusic.com and study hard. No matter the area in which you need to improve and acquire proficiency, we’ve got it covered—musicianship, songwriting, music theory, recording, sequencing, mixing, and mastering—it’s all here. Quelling your inner critic so that you can finish your music requires a distinctly different and, most often, a less obvious path. However, no matter the path you take to find your balance and harmony, embracing a clearly defined process (complete with a list of steps you need to follow to reach your goal) can help you to better steer your music productions from start to finish. For me, the process of writing rough drafts, lots and lots of rough drafts, is the key to bringing my productions to fruition time and time again.

A rough draft is a sketch of your intentions. It’s a process that helps to bring the music you’re hearing in your head into the physical world. It lets you find the balance between what you can imagine and what is actually possible given your skill level and the tools at your disposal. It is a wonderful way to quickly build the framework for a song, because without this framework you would have no structure on which to hang your musical ideas. It’s about getting the big picture recorded first, so that you can focus on the details later. Writing drafts has become a truly essential part of my creative process, and without it I would most certainly get stuck in the details, lacking a clear direction for my song.

Of course, writing rough drafts, like any other discipline, takes practice. You’ll need to accept that your first, and possibly second drafts will probably suck—mine certainly do. But, like any discipline, with regular practice writing rough drafts will become easier and more fluid over time.

Here’s a list of the rough drafts I write each time I do a track:

1) The Basics: A starting point for your song. This might be a beat, a bass line, some chords, a melody, or any combination of these ingredients. It might be two bars or sixteen. Get it down quickly and without second guessing yourself.
2) Put It In the Pot: Record every idea that you think might work. Throw it all into the mix, to be sorted out later. Again, do this quickly and without second guessing yourself. Remember, hard drive space is cheap and MIDI sequences require hardly any storage space at all.
3) Song Structure: Rough out a basic song structure. From all the parts that you put down in the last step, arrange a working song structure. Slide the parts around, mute regions, slice and dice, whatever works to create distinct song sections using the parts that you’ve recorded so far. Keep in mind that it’s easy to add or subtract bars later on should you need to alter the song structure.
4) Produce Transitions: Now it’s time to get detailed. Produce your song section transitions using techniques such as drum fills, synth rises, arrangement builds, musical crescendos, chord inversions, etc. Take your time and really work out the performances. You may find yourself making some significant song structure changes at this stage of the production.
5) Bells and Whistles: The final stage of the music production. This is the time for you to add those last production touches, the ones that will have listener’s saying, “Wow, that was cool!” This is also a good time to begin your rough mix, the first mix pass where you begin finalizing levels, panning, EQ, compression, and group effect settings. (After this step it’s onto the final mix down and mastering.)

Students often ask me the loaded question, “How do I become a great music producer?” Now that’s an easy one to answer in a thirty minute chat, not. But, actually, the answer is deceptively simple. The key to becoming a great music producer is to be a finisher. That is, complete your songs, wrap your productions, put an end to the tweaking, stop being a perfectionist, just finish it.

Every time you complete a production you move one step closer to becoming a great producer. This is because every time you complete a project you have a finished work to show for your efforts. Plus, you get the added bonus of learning something new each time you wrap a song and honing your production skills in the process. There actually is a formula for getting your songs done, but it is a personal formula that only you can develop for yourself, over time, one production at a time, with study, practice, and the feedback of contemporaries.

Begin by setting manageable goals for yourself. “This month I will finish one song, it doesn’t have to be perfect but I will get it done.” Don’t let your perfectionist side stand in the way of moving quickly through the process of completing the production, from the writing, to the recording, to the production, and the mixing. If at any point in the process you find yourself stuck and taking more than a few hours on a part or a tweak, forget about it and move onto the next step. The part in question will still be there for you to tweak later, but if you don’t get the whole song down, the entire production mapped out, fretting over a single part without the whole picture in view is myopic and self-defeating.

Your first several productions probably won’t sound that great. This is to be expected, you aren’t going to produce a hit overnight. However, somewhere down the road, in five, ten, or two dozen productions your tracks will start to sizzle. You will lock into your own personal production formula and start to roll with it. This year you might only finish four not so well produced tracks, but next year, if you keep at it, I guarantee you that you’ll find yourself completing ten much better tracks. The next thing you know you’ll be producing two dozen “radio ready” tracks in a year. If you keep at it on a daily basis you will become increasingly better at what it is that you really want to do, finishing great sounding tracks.

To quote the hit songwriter, Diane Warren, “I just kept doing it. In a nutshell, I just kept doing it no matter what.” (You can read the complete interview with Diane Warren, by Michael Laskow, the president of TAXI, here, http://www.taxi.com/faq/ar/warren.html.)

Alvin & The Chipmunks