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.


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.


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.


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.