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.

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

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