Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How To Get Great Mixes Without Having To Mix

How To Get Great Mixes Without Having To Mix

First of all, before I begin writing this, I want to say that I do not consider myself a great mixer at all. I really only have basic knowledge, and I would never claim that I am anywhere near an expert on the topic. However, I still get a lot of people asking my how I mix my tracks and get all the sounds to sit well with each other.
The funny thing is, any mixing I do on my beats is really quite minimal. Today i’m not going to focus on my actual mixing process (that will be covered in a future post), but I will be talking about the MAIN technique I use to get everything sounding clear. And the thing is it’s really quite simple.

It All Comes Down To Choosing The Right Sounds 

Easier said than done, right?

Now obviously me telling you to choose the right sounds is worthless if you don’t know what the right sounds to begin with. And on top of that, there are no perfect sounds which will automatically make your mixes sound amazing.

But the main idea is to choose the right sounds that work WELL with the other sounds.

Over the years i’ve spent producing, sound choice is probably the number one factor that has contributed to getting me decent mixes. And the fact of the matter is, no matter how much technical knowledge you gain about EQ, compression, panning, and whatever else, if you’re a producer, the mixing process should really only enhance how your music sounds.

You shouldn’t expect the mix to make your poor tracks sound great.

They should really sound good before the mixing process begins, and if you’ve picked the right sounds then you won’t need to put in as much work in the mixing stage.

So, how do you find sounds that ‘fit’ right toegher?

Well, first of all, you have to understand the frequency spectrum. The frequency spectrum is basically the range of sounds that can be picked up by the human ear. You don’t really need to know specific numbers in this case, all you need to know that there is a range that goes from Low (think sub-woofer), to high (think a high-screetch, or that squeeky noise when you rub polystyrene)

Now the main cause of bad mixes is when one or more sounds are “clashing” with eachother, on this ‘frequency range’. ‘Clashing’ basically means that those sounds are fighting for the same ‘space’ in the spectrum, and because they’re both taking up the same space they cloud eachother and sound ‘cluttered’ as a result.

The idea is that you will want to choose sounds that all fill different ranges of the frequency, therefore each taking up their own seperate space, and so will all be able to be heard clearly.

I don’t remember where I read this, but someone said you should think of sounds as items in a closet or wardrobe.

You want to make sure everything is neatly packed into its own spot, so when you open the closet everything you want (shoes, jackets, hats) etc has its own space and is easy to find. If you have all your clothes messed up everywhere with your shoes all over the place, jackets pilled up rolled together with jeans and t-shirts, it’ll take you ages to find clothes when you need to. That’s basically the same with your mixes.

You have to place sounds that each take up their own distinct place so when you listen to your music, your ears can “see” each sound clearly.

First Off, The Kick

I consider the kick the most important part of the drum sounds. The kick provides the tempo and really gives the listener something to nod their head to. Kicks will almost always take up the lower frequencies. This means if you have to many other ‘bass heavy’ sounds, they will cloud your kick and make them harder to hear.

Really you should only have one other sound in the lower end of the spectrum, and that’s the bassline. However, you have to make sure that the bassline isn’t SO low that it takes away from the kick by fighting from the same space. If you listen to the beat below, you can hear how the bassline and the kick compliment each other.

The clap/snare is next, and getting your clap or snare to really ‘pop’ has a lot to do with the way you layer your drums. Because this article isn’t really focused on that, i’m not going to talk about the clap/snare too much. However, I will be writing a DETAILED article about the art of layering your drums, and I will have a video explaining my process on how I get my drums to really hit hard.

The most important part of this article is in the actual melodic sounds, as these are the ones that really have the most chance of clashing and fighting for “frequency space”. On average I have around 5 ‘melodic’ (non percussive) sounds in a track. Sometimes I have a bit more, sometimes I have a bit less. In this particular beat I had four.

So I’ve already covered the bassline. Once you’ve picked out a bassline you shouldn’t really have any other low-end sounds in your track. Most of the other sounds really will go from the mid-low to high frequencies.

Usually I ‘fill’ my mid frequencies with some kind of ‘chorded’ sound. This could be anything from a synth pad, to string chords. In this particular beat I actually created this sound using Massive VST, and it’s a sort of synth chord. If you look at how I played the chord, I am playing the the ‘root’ note on lower octaves to give the chords an extra thickness in the mid-low range.

This helps fill up some of the lower frequencies, but not so low that they compete with the bassline and kick.

Next ill pick some sounds to fill the mid-high and high ranges. In this beat you can hear the ‘verse lead’ and the ‘chorus lead’. They both were played at higher octaves to avoid clashing with the other sounds that were already present in the track. And even those two sounds were played at different octaves so they wouldn’t clash with each other.

If you listen you can hear that the ‘verse lead’ is played higher than the ‘chorus lead’, and because they are played at different octaves they sit in different spots frequency-wise, which means they both are easier to distinguish when played TOGETHER.

So that’s really the framework I use when choosing out sounds, and that’s how I get my mixes to sound clear before I even start the mixing process.

Now, after I finish my beat I do go in and apply EQ, panning, compression, and various other effects to the sounds in my track, but going through that process wasn’t the point of this article.

The reason I wrote this is to highlight the fact that one of the most important factors to getting a clear sounding mix is understand how sounds fit together in the frequency range, and learning how to choose sounds that COMPLIMENT each other rather than COMPETE with each other.

Obviously, this is a skill that has to be practiced, but you can start now by listening to some of your favorite music and identifying the sounds that were used, and how they sound against all the other sounds in the track.

I hope this helped some of you! I’m interested to hear your take on this so leave a comment below and tell me what you think, or if any thing wasn’t clear at all (I know this concept can be a little confusing for some).

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Guide to Creative Commons: Giving it Away

This post focuses on Creative Commons, a collection of licenses designed help give creators of intellectual property the ability to reduce the strength of their copyright.

Creative Commons was created in 2002 and has since shown a substantial amount of support from the community. Essentially, when a person creates something they receive a copyright for it automatically. This copyright gives the copyright holder exclusivity with respect to the rights to sub-license, duplicate, make derivative works, etc. But sometimes the creator wants to share their work and doesn’t want everyone to have to ask them permission to do so. This is where CC comes into play. CC is a collection of licenses that strip away varying degrees of your copyright. You just need to choose the right one for your application. All CC licenses give up the exclusivity of the right to duplicate the works. This is extremely helpful in the digital medium, particularly online.

There have been some high profile uses of Creative Commons lately, including Nine Inch Nail’s latest release, Ghosts, MIT’s OpenCourseware and much of Flickr’s content is CC licensed.

One benefit of using Creative Commons is that it increases your chances for exposure on the Internet because people can legally distribute it. If your market is particularly ethical or committed, you might even be able to earn some money by requesting donations. ala NIN.

The creative commons license wizard will help you select what license is best for your work and your application. Some places to distribute your CC content include the Internet Archive and Deviant Art. Or, you can create a Torrent. You can also post it anywhere you can include a quick blurb about the license.

Creative Commons isn’t for every project, but it has substantially increased the ease at which people can share and collaborate with material online. I’m all for that.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Beat-Block: Why We Get It And How To Overcome It

I’m sure we've all experienced it at one time or another, and I believe everyone who pursues creative endeavors experiences creative blocks regularly, whether that be weekly, monthly, or daily.

Now for me, I experience some form of ‘beat block’ at least once a week, sometimes once every two weeks if I’m already on a roll. In general I make around 10 – 20 beats every week, and no matter what eventually I will reach a point where I am (seemingly) out of ideas.

When I used to get creative blocks it would stress me out. Because I pride myself highly on being able to create music, and I consider myself a very creative person, when those ‘creative’ juices that bring me joy stop working, it’s a bit of a drainer to say the least. In the past I would sometimes try ‘force’ the music out of me (which doesn't really work, at least for me), or I'd listen to a bunch of music trying to force my brain to come up with the next genius track idea.

This didn’t seem to work either.

After a while I realised that my tactics for getting rid of these creative blocks didn’t seem to be working, and i’d have to try a different approach. I started looking into what was causing my lack of creativeness, by studying my mindset both in ‘creative mode’ and in my creative ‘slumps’, and trying to figure out what was the difference between the two.

Lets Get Into Causes Of Beat Block

Inspiration is psychological. It’s a mindset. No matter what you’re creating, physical, intellectual, musical, whatever, it comes from that thing between your ears. Now any form of art is highly creative, and relies heavily on ‘inspiration’. This means that no matter how much you try to logicalize your music, your ability to create is really going to depend on how ‘inspired’ you are at that particular time. It depends on your mindset and what you’re thinking when you’re looking for that perfect melody or chords progression to fit those drums.

So that being said, why can we be super-inspired one day, then the next it seems we have ZERO ideas. I’ve broken down some of the reasons i’ve identified when i’ve lost my inspiration, as well as ways i’ve tried to fix them.

First of all, look at your REASON for making music.

I’ve noticed a lot of the times when I seem to be lacking in ideas, it’s because the reason i’m sitting down to produce a track is far different from the reason that I’m making a track when i’m feeling inspired.

Specifically, when i’m feeling inspired i’m making music purely for the love and passion of creating. I want to make music because i’m in the moment, and i’m loving music at that particular point in time.

However, when i’m experiencing a ‘beat block’ ive noticed my focus to be considerably different. I might be making a track for money reasons. I might be making a track to reach a self-set beat-quota, which is putting pressure on me to create. Because of how largely I define myself as a creative musician, I put unecessary pressure on myself to create, and on top of that, create GREAT music. This puts me in a position where i’ll be comparing my music to others, or to my previous work, instead of just creating for enjoyment, which is what I should be doing.

So, i’ve found that everytime beat block occurs, i’m creating music for the wrong reasons. Music should be enjoyable, fun, and should be made from passion. Once we as musicians lose site of that and start making music for the wrong reasons, the inspiration stops coming.

So now that we’ve identified the REASON for beat block, how do we get rid of it?

Firstly, remember that you’re making music for enjoyment first! Even if you’re making a beat to ultimately sell for money, the cash should still be a secondary motivator.

The primary reason for producing music should be because you love it! Sometimes just reminding yourself of that fact will help take the pressure off yourself, and help you just enjoy the process.

Next, I like to listen to music that I haven’t heard before. This might mean exploring new artists and genres, and new styles of music that is unfamiliar to me. This often helps me with ideas that I may not of previously thought of.

You could also try listening back to your favourite albums. Albums that you love. This can help push you back into the mindset of ‘enjoying’ music, rather than focusing yourself to create or pushing your mind for ideas.

Note: Another great ‘inspiration generator’ are youtube videos. Watching videos of other inspiring musicians has helped me numerous times. Ryan Leslie is one of my favourites.

Another thing I like to do is try ‘practicing’ my music.

This means taking the focus off finishing an entire beat, and just focusing on ‘practicing’ and improvingspecific elements of my music.

For example I might create drum loops and practice creating more intricate patterns, improve my mixing skills and learn new plugins, practice my piano chords and progressions, pretty much anything related to my music production.

However the main point of this excersise is not only to improve your music, but to take the ‘pressure’ off of finishing a beat or track. A lot of the times I start off practicing I end up finishing a beat anyways, but I see that as a bonus.

Lastly, if nothings working and you’re still not getting any ideas, just stop. Focus on other things in your life. Go play some Xbox, or watch some The Office reruns (one of my favorite shows). Wait until you get the urge to create again (and trust me, it will come) until you decide to bang out a few more beats!

I hope that helped any of you who are going through beat blocks right now! As musicians these creative blocks will come up regularly, but the main thing is to remember that they always pass. If you just follow this article you should be able to get over them. The main idea is to take the pressure off yourself and gain sight of why you make music in the first place!

If any of you have your own techniques/ideas on battling beat block, i’d love to hear! Leave a comment below.