On Home Studios

One of the best things about a home studio is that once you’ve got it set up, you can just start using it. You don’t need to book time, you don’t need to schedule things ahead of time, you don’t need to hire somebody else’s engineer. Just pick up your instruments, fire up your control board, and go. Every note of Psycliq’s musical catalogue has been recorded in my home studio, with the execption of those couple of tracks I composed and recorded while on an airplane that one time. In other words, the studio part is pretty great.

But one of the worst things about a home studio is that your recording space needs to be shared with the rest of your life. Even if you’re lucky enough to set a room aside, the rest of the house is still likely to be buzzing with all kinds of noise from kids, spouses, TV’s, radios, pets, and all kinds of other things. In other words, the home part of “home studio” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

For one, the setup definitely makes recording things like vocals or acoustic instruments very, very tricky. But the other issue is one of distractions, especially if you’ve got kids and they want to play the instruments and push the buttons and turn the knobs just like Daddy does. One moment you’re all set to sit down and record a new idea, and the next moment you’re desperately trying to figure out why every input to your box has been padded by -15db while trying to figure out exactly where your headphones are now. You may have guessed that I speak from experience.

For these, and many other real-life reasons, I’m going to be relocating my home studio to a different part of the house. One a bit more removed from the rush of toddlers. One a little more isolated from the noises of every day life. And most importantly, one with a door on it. Pro tip: doors are good.

But even with a planned studio shuffle and all kinds of life in the way, we’ve got some goals here at Psycliq Musical Productions for 2012. As we move into the year, I’m going to be diving back into recording and making a new full-length record. The lucky folks who subscribe to the Newsletter already know the title and more information about it, and they’ll keep getting some exclusive updates, too. But suffice it to say that I’m very excited about the prospects. I’ve set a goal of getting it released by the end of this calendar year. At the moment, I’ve got 20 tracks demo’d out that might make it, but who’s to say what the cutting room floor will really see. We might even put up a preorder bonus thing that gives you access to all of the demo tracks, whether they make it in or not.

But whatever comes, I’m going to try my darndest to get this thing rolling. Here goes nothing.


House of the Remixed Sun

First, a quick note: Have you downloaded the Telegraph EP yet? It’s a limited edition! Not many copies left and only a couple weeks to grab them!

After I basically finalized the the mix for “House of the Rising Sun” to a point I’m pretty happy with, I continued to poke at it a little bit more because I can’t leave well enough alone.

At first it started with me just cutting out some of the tracks and adding a few filters to other tracks to create a very sparse organ-driven version of the song. The regular mix is a kind of slow, loud shuffle with lots of layers happening to it, and I was looking to trim things down and open them up a lot. Of course this wasn’t good enough and I ended up routing the melody synthesizers through the organ sounds. Even so, it was nice and simple and a good exercise in remixing from existing track stems.

Then things got a little nutty. I pulled open the regular mix and swapped out the drums entirely for a much more driving march beat, something I’ve been calling a techno-stomp. I also mixed in most of the synth sounds throughout the song instead of fading them in and out. It completely changed the feel of the song, and so I swapped out the effects on the bass and guitars and a few of the other synths. I even added a flanger to the organ, just because. However, this wasn’t nearly cacophonous enough, so I added a secondary drum track, some synth bass, and some mellotron strings to fill things out.

My poor little computer was having trouble keeping up with the results, especially when I bounced out all the individual tracks, but I like how it sounds. I think it has on the order of 17 active tracks, most of theme stereo with plugins running on top. For reference, most Psycliq songs have about 5 or 6 stereo tracks, tops.

What started out as a little production exercise is going to turn into a digital single. Sometime in the next few weeks, you’ll be able to pick up “House of the Rising Sun” from all over the place with at least these three mixes, maybe more if I go even crazier.  And then it’s on to some new, original music!


Somebody Stop Me

I’ve been slowly but dilligently working away on finishing up “House of the Rising Sun” here in the studio, and I’m glad to say that it’s nearly complete. I’m trying out all kinds of new production techniques and getting a handle on new pieces of software and hardware while putting this together.

The results are currently something of a monster. With all of the tracks activated (including the MIDI tracks that have since been printed to audio), I had to zoom out as small as I could just to get them to fit on the screen. Now this is nowhere near what a Celldweller song looks like, but for me, it’s pretty crazy. There’s definitely a lot going on in here, and I wanted to try and bottle some chaos with my take on this song.

I’m also trying my hand at doing a bit more EQ and mastering on this track than I ever have before. It’s tricky business, and I’m sure there are a lot of things I’m doing wrong. But in the end, It’s all a learning experience, and I intend to take everything that I’m doing here and apply it to future recordings.

Overall, I am really liking how this is coming together. “House of the Rising Sun” should be available in about a few weeks’ time, once I’ve got all of the final mixing taken care of and can get it packaged up. It’ll be available as a digital single from the Bandcamp site, so keep an eye out!


There is a House down in N’Awlins

I’ve been hard at work on a cover of “House of the Rising Sun” over the past couple weeks. I’m using it as an opportunity to find my way around new software and equipment, and to try out some new ways of working with what I’d had already.

One really big change? No programmed drums on this track. They’re still synth generated, but I played the whole rhythm section on the MPD18 drum pad controller. The results are a lot more organic than usual, with a lot more variation in dynamics. I’m sure I’ll gravitate back towards at least a few programmed loops, but this has been a really interesting experience. Granted, the fact that the song is in 6/8 helped push that decision, but it’s still been good. I’ve also been figuring out how to mix using the nanoKontrol2, and it’s already been a great upgrade to its predecessor. The physical control over volume sliders is actually making me use the volume automation a lot more than I used to, and doing things by ear instead of by what was easy to set up.

The song itself is really starting to come along, and I’m excited about the arrangement. I’m hoping to have it wrapped up sometime in mid August if all goes well. Subscribers to the newsletter will be getting a preview cut of it in the next week. Want in on the action? Subscribe today!


More Kontrol Than Ever

Right after Christmas of last year, I posted about my first run in with the KORG nanoKONTROL and my adventures in getting it hooked up with ProTools. Many things have happened in the intervening seven months, but two items are of particular note here. First off, KORG came out with an updated version of the nano series, tweaking all of them in pretty good ways all around. Second, I finished graduate school, and set about to upgrade a bunch of bits of studio equipment and software as a kind of graduation present.

I’ve only had it plugged in for a few minutes, but the nanoKONTROL2 is an upgrade to its predecessor in many ways. First off, it has native support of the HUI protocol, which ProTools speaks without any further configuration. Thus, you plug this guy in, fire up ProTools (or any number of other editor softwares), and you’re good to go. One of the most immediate differences is the support for the lights behind all the buttons. While the original nanoKONTROL does have lighted buttons, the hacked scene file I had to use to hook it up didn’t let the DAW light buttons up appropriately. Thus, you had no indication on your control of the state of any of your tracks, or even which tracks were selected. Withe the nanoKONTROL2, all of this comes working out of the box. The dedicated solo, mute, and record switches work exactly as you’d expect, and the transport controls all do what they should as well. There are a few new controls on this device as well. In particular, there are buttons for switching track groups (something that had to be done with a mouse with the original nanoKONTROL) and for navigating between markers in the song. Even a few minutes in and it’s already a better experience overall.

I feel kinda bad about upgrading so soon after getting the original, but it’s hard to argue with such progress. I’m going to keep it around for the moment and reprogram it into a general MIDI controller, with the intent of using it in software synths, effects plugins, and things of that nature. We’ll see if it ends up being truly useful in that mode, but there are at least many good possibilities ahead.

Another newcomer to the recording studio is the Akai MPD18, a 16-pad drum controller. As I understand it, this is what one uses to create Phat Beatz. Or bizzeatz. I’m not sure, really. In any case, the velocity sensitive pads on this will be much more conducive to programming drum tracks than either a mouse or a piano keyboard ever were. Since it’s just a basic MIDI controller as well, and not a drum machine in and of itself, I can also use this as a MIDI trigger for other things. Perhaps someday if I ever get up the nerve to play live, this will all come in handy.

As you can see by the low-quality smartphone shots of my desk here, all of these devices leave me with about a mile and a half of USB cables strewn about, leading me to get yet another USB hub for the workstation. Several years ago, I very gladly picked up one of these guys to keep things from falling back into the oblivion behind my desk. Cordies are totally awesome. So simple of an idea, but so well executed. I haven’t yet figured out if latency is going to be an issue with all of the intervening hardware, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

The rest of the studio upgrade is all software, most of which is still on its way. Finally able to upgrade ProTools, Reason, Melodyne, and Amplitube to their latest releases, I’ll have a shiny and full suite of new tools with which to work on new music.

Oh yeah– there is new music. There is actually quite a lot of new music, and once I get all the software installed and set up, I’m going to be working on it in earnest. Keep tuned for more of that.


Moogerfoogers on the Cheap

I had cause to squeal like a little girl last night, and that cause was Moogerfoogers.

For those of you that don’t know, the Moog Music company (makers of fine analogue synthesizers) also makes a range of effects pedals these days called Moogerfoogers. And I dare you to say “moogerfooger” ten times fast. They’re all-analogue and are practically modular synth components, and they cost somewhere between $200 and $900 each. A bit rich for my budget. However, Avid, the folks who make ProTools, have managed to put together some really great software emulations of the real thing. It’s not the same, that’s for sure, but they do a really good job of reproducing the effects they create digitally. The pack of four sells for $500 these days, which is also a bit much for me to drop on four audio plugins, even in the midst of trying to update my studio.

Last night, however, I found hope. Back when I first bought my Mbox2, I sprung for the “Factory Bundle”, which came with a bunch of extra bits of demo software like Melodyne, Abelton, Reason, and most importantly the Moogerfooger Analogue Delay. I have used this delay effect on every major Psycliq recording to date, and I just absolutely love its sound and definitely wanted to keep it working during the upgrade. Thus, I went poking around the internet to make sure it would still work when I upgrade to ProTools 9, and I saw that I would have to get a patch from Avid to keep things happy. Not too surprising, I had to do the same thing when I upgraded from 7 to 8. But then I found something interesting.

In the Avid store, I stumbled across the Mbox and Mbox 2 Factory/Producer Factory 8.0 Upgrade for $15. It was a bundle that included all four Moogerfooger plugins as well as a few other nice ones, including the Cosmonaut Voice effect that I was fond of from the original Factory pack. For only 15 bucks, I was expecting this to simply upgrade the license to the plugins I already owned. Imagine my surprise then when I found out that it does in fact come with everything on the box, in full, no strings attached.

I quickly fired up ProTools and pulled open Mettle to make sure the delay plugin still worked, at least. Having confirmed that, I dug through the menu and found the other three Moogerfoogers happily staring at me. I toss the lowpass filter onto one of the tracks and hit play.

This is the part where I squealed with glee.

So for $15, I’ve got a suite of world-class effects, and I can’t wait to see what I can do with them now. Stay tuned to hear.


For posterity’s sake

Over the last week or so I’ve been taking some time in the evenings to do something that I should have done long ago: create per-track mixdowns of all of my released songs. This basically means getting back into ProTools and bouncing out each individual bit of audio into its own cohesive track.

Here we have Adoré from halt, a somewhat complex song with several programmed synthesizer parts, a few live synthesizer parts, programmed drums, live guitars, and all kinds of effects with a good bit of automation of various parameters throughout the piece. Along the bottom of the window you can see a set of ten yellow-colored tracks with audio data that spans the whole length of the track. This is the bounced audio from each of the tracks above, with all the effects, automation, panning, volume, and edits applied and pushed into a single contiguous piece of audio for each track.

Most audio workstations have a button that does this automatically, except of course for ProTools. Now why on earth the leading audio editing software would be missing this feature is beyond me, but at least it’s not impossible to do yourself. Here’s how it works:

First, figure out how many tracks you have to bounce and create that many new stereo audio tracks. You only need holder tracks for things that produce sound in your final mix — for instance, MIDI tracks themselves won’t count, but any instrument tracks that they’re attached to do count. For Adoré, there were ten distinct sound-making tracks, so I created ten new stereo audio tracks. For my own sanity’s sake, I color coded them bright yellow to distinguish them from the rest of the song and labeled all of them “Bounce [Trackname]” based on what source track they were going to hold.

Next, we need to route the audio using the ProTools bus from our source tracks into the new bounce tracks. This amounts to setting the audio out for each source track to a unique stereo pair on the bus, and then setting the input for each bounce track to the corresponding bus pair. So with Adoré (which I’m starting to regret naming with that accent mark in it), the drums are sent out to Bus 1-2 and the Bounce Drums track is set to input 1-2, and so on down the line. This is a real pain to set up each one by hand and make sure they line up, but there turns out to be a shortcut that I discovered about halfway through the process. First, select all of your source tracks (and only those). Then hold down Ctrl+Alt+Shift and click on the output bar of the first source track in the mix window and select Bus 1-2. All other selected tracks will automatically be assigned to Bus 3-4, Bus 5-6, and so on down the line. Repeat this process to set the inputs to your bounce tracks. So long as they’re in the same order, everything will line up automatically. It’s pretty awesome.

Next, we need to arm all of our bounce tracks to record. Again, there’s a nice shortcut here. Select all of the bounce tracks, then hold down Alt+Shift and click on the record button for any of them. This will arm all selected tracks at once, and you’re good.

Finally, make sure the song is rewound to the beginning and hit record and play. If everything’s set up correctly, the audio from all of your source tracks should now be emptying itself into the bounce tracks and you’ll have clean copies of all of your audio, effects and automation and all. After recording completes, don’t forget to set the output of your audio tracks back to the main interface output and mute all of your bounce tracks. You can use the same Alt+Shift trick here, too.

Now of course I do have the final mix of this song, and I obviously still have the project file, so why go through all this work? Especially considering that digital audio doesn’t degrade like old analogue tapes would, right?

Well, here’s the thing that I found out the hard way. Digital recordings can in fact degrade, but not in the same way. With digital systems, master tracks are no longer just straight recordings of what somebody played at some time. Take Mettle here, for instance. It was recorded entirely with software instruments, meaning I had no audio for any of the parts except for what was exported in the final mix. If any of these plugins had stopped working, I wouldn’t be able to go back and do anything interesting with Mettle again, like remixes or mashups or inclusion into a music game.

Software changes, computer upgrades, file system shuffles, and other things can all lead to difficulties. For example, I had sampled a software-modeled Roland TR-808 drum machine ages ago and had used those bits in lots of places. However, in the intervening years since I made those recordings I have no idea what happened to those files. I still had the drum machine sequence, but no sounds to put in it. This effectively meant that unless I found or replaced those sound files, the drum tracks to several songs would be lost forever. Several plugins that I used heavily on earlier albums under WinXP no longer run very nicely on Win7, which meant I was very close to losing the exact sound that I had carved out for each part of these songs. I spent a lot of time getting legacy software to run just to make this work. Since I’m looking to upgrade my whole setup this summer, I wanted to take some steps to make sure I had things taken care of first.

Bouncing out to individual tracks gives you a flexibility and a certain amount of future-proofing that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Thus far, I’ve managed to bounce out the three main Psycliq albums and am now working on the covers and Christmas tracks. Even though going back over some old music has made me cringe at every mistake and slip, it’s been well worth it.


Where do we go from here?

The last class of my degree is tomorrow night, followed by a few weeks of business travel, graduations, and family commitments. But I’ll tell you, even with being able to get the Rock Paper Armageddon soundtrack out the door, I am itching to get back into the studio and work on some new stuff. After not having the opportunity to get things out of my head for so long, I need to get things rolling.

I have a bunch of songs mostly-written that I want to bring to fruition for the next album. They have in-the-works titles like “Brushwork”, “It’s Meant To Be”, and “Winter’s Last Kiss”, and I’m hoping that I can do them the justice they deserve in final production. I think I’ve already got a title picked out for the album, too, but I don’t want to give away too much ahead of time, before things settle.

If I had the time and energy to get it all down, I’m guessing that I have enough music sitting around in various states of completion to make another two or three albums. I’d really like to let all of it see the light of day at some point.

I think that this summer may see a studio refresh for me, too. I’m looking to do some vocal tracks on the next album (scary, I know), so some vocal processing software would be very useful there. I also really need to update my drum machine software. With every reinstall, it gets harder to get things put back together. Before all of that, though, I need to take the time and bounce all of my software synths and programmed drums out to raw audio tracks. It’s something I should have been doing all along anyway, since you can never guarantee you’ll be able to get that bit of software working again, after all.

Sorry, lots of rambling in this post. My brain is fried and I’m not sure which way is up right now. But, oh, we’ll find it. And then we’ll fly.

Production, Uncategorized

I Have Kontrol

Update: For those wandering in looking how to use a nanoKontrol with ProTools 8, I’ve since updated to a nanoKontrol2 and ProTools 9, and the two work seamlessly out of the box with each other.  On the chance that you’re still shopping around for stuff, I highly recommend going with the nanoKontrol2. Original post below...

I hope that everyone had and/or is having a wonderful holiday season! Have you downloaded Light The Tree yet? It’s only going to be up for another week, and it’s completely free! My holiday has been filled with a lot of driving around to family events, but now I think we’re finally settled into the house for a bit.

Exhausting, yes, but lots of fun, with a brand new year that’s almost begun. And what did I find under the tree this year? Why, nothing short of a new piece of gear! OK, this rhyming has to stop. (Anybody got a mop?) Seriously.

What you’re looking at in the product shot (courtesy of a fine review from SKRATCHWORX) is a Korg NanoKontrol. This lovely (and tiny) piece of hardware is really just a USB MIDI controller with a bunch of sliders and knobs and buttons on it. Nothing fancy on its own, but when you pair it with the right software you’ve got a pretty powerful setup on your hands. The obvious use case for me is for a mixing board, controlling track volumes and plugin controls in ProTools. With nine independent sliders, each with a knob and pair of buttons, you’ve got some really nice physical control over the mixing process. Since ProTools is notoriously picky about non-Avid-owned hardware, it sadly didn’t work out of the box. However, there is hope! You see, with its included editor software, this little guy can spit out pretty much whatever MIDI control codes you want it to, thereby pretending to be basically any kind of control surface out there. I used a great little tutorial to wire it up into ProTools, and I was very quickly in business. The first eight sliders map to the volume control on the first eight channels, and the last slider maps to the volume control of the last master fader. In other words, it does exactly what you’d expect it to do. In fact, I was a bit amazed at how smoothly everything worked. I will likely be tweaking the control mappings going forward, but this is a fantastic starting point, and I’d like to thank the folks at Trikome for their setup.

One of the main reasons for loving it so much has got to be the hardware transport controls. The ability to start, stop, rewind, and record from dedicated buttons cannot be beat. This way, I don’t have to fumble over to my computer keyboard to mash the right arcane button combination just to get things to start and stop when I want them to.

Mind you, the NanoKontrol doesn’t do any recording or mixing on its own — it is nothing more than a simple MIDI device. But like all good tools, it’s in exactly the form factor it needs to be in to make it useful. I’m going to need to rearrange my desk a bit to accommodate it, but I really needed to rework the studio space anyway. Maybe that’s something we can look forward to in the new year.


Incoming Christmas Music

I know, I know — it’s still much too early to be thinking about the Christmas season for most people. But the truth is, if I don’t get to recording a Christmas song early, it just won’t happen before the holidays are upon us. Thus, I’ve been fighting with ProTools and Renoise today to begin tracking this year’s song, “In The Bleak Midwinter”. I’ve even got the sheet music printed out on my desk in front of me, both as a reference for when I’m recording and to remind me to finish the blasted thing. I’ve got a basic arrangement mapped out, with basic chords and drum beats, but I still have a very long way to go here. I’m hoping to be able to throw some time at it over the weekend.

Unfortunately, as implied above, my studio software has been giving me headaches over this, not wanting to sync up and throwing all kinds of cranky errors at me. I’m trying to update and patch everything that I can find, but so far I’ve only been able to get it to run in fits and starts. Funny how all of this starts happening just after the new version of Pro Tools is announced. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that there’s got to be some kind of out-of-warranty timer going on here, plotting against me.

My goal is to have it all wrapped up by December, at which point I’ll put the Christmas album back up on the music site for download. Members of the Electric Goodies Newsletter will be getting sneak peeks and will be the first to know when the album is available again, so if you want to be in on the latest word, that’s the place to be.