March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
If you happened to miss Donnacha Costello’s ‘Color Series‘ from 2003, here’s your perfect recap. And if you know the series you’ll probably find Ryan Elliott’s take on the vibe as appealing as I do. Dark, moody, prolific, wonderful. Also check out Elliott’s thoughtful letter that accompanies this mix to get a sense of the depth that Costello reached with this series.
March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Wow. A lot can happen in one year. It’s been about that long since I’ve updated Sounds Defy Gravity.. and while I’m inclined to apologize for the delay, I can’t really. It’s been an incredible year. It’s been a crazy year. For starters, 2011 saw the birth of my first child, Oliver, by way of my amazing and beautiful Karen. Then I started work as Editor of Dubspot.com‘s blog over the past year.. which led to writing some course curriculum, teaching an online course, and enjoying every moment of my work with the Dubspot team.
Today the child can feed himself and I’ve found time to dedicate to SoundsDefyGravity once again. I’ve recently added a few articles that have been published on other sites and I’m aiming to get back on track with music selections, gear reviews, tutorials, tips, and general music nerd-out moments. Psyched to be back.. hope you’ll continue to read!
March 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
Sometimes it’s writer’s block. And sometimes it’s simply procrastination. But some days in the studio don’t seem to flow like others. Often we feel inspired to start (or continue) a project but feel that something’s not working. Maybe the sounds don’t come like they did last time. Maybe you just can’t get in the groove. To help we’ve got some tips that can get you back on track the next time you’re feeling the lack of mojo in the studio.
10. Clean your workspace. A clean physical space creates a clear slate in your mind for creation. I find that when I clean the house, sweep the floors, dust off my equipment and delete a lot of junk from my computer desktop I feel much more enticed to work. I also gain a lot of ideas through the process and my mind feels clear as a result. You can apply the Chinese art of Feng Shui to your studio layout, which is said to bring harmony, balance and a better flow of energy. On a smaller scale, I take a moment once a week to clean down all my gear, using a horse-hair paintbrush to get dust out of the smaller spots.
9. Disconnect yourself from the internet. Close Explorer, Firefox, Safari, iChat and any other apps on your studio computer that are online. Facebook and instant messages confuse your workflow and will get you off-track. Make your studio time streamlined and productive and you are less likely to lose your inspiration in the process.
8. Listen to something very different. This tip comes from Oliver Chesler who runs the very insightful Wire to the Ear blog. Oliver adds,“Four hours into any mixing section and your brain starts to believe it’s being exposed to a torture test of some sort. Stop and click iTunes open and then play the cheesiest, happiest song you can find. Besides realizing how much better any song you choose is better than the one your working on your brain will reward you with some new ideas.”
7. Take a break. Your ears are doing a lot of work when you sit between the monitors and scrutinize each sound. Eventually your perception of the sounds changes and it’s important to take breaks to let your ears rest. 5-10 minutes after 45 minutes of working (at lower volumes) should be adequate to let your ears bounce back.
6. Write your ideas in a notebook (with a pen.) I was working at an Ad Agency a few years back when my boss gave me a really good tip. She suggested that when I come to work in the morning I should grab my coffee and a notebook and “sit on the couch and write for an hour.” It turned out to be a habit I kept long after that job. Most of us turn to the computer for our first move with just about everything these days. But the computer offers too many choices and too many chances for mis-direction. I found that writing my ideas on paper helped me to refine ideas and workflow before I got started. With a clear direction of where you want to go before you begin, the process becomes much quicker and enjoyable. If you keep these ideas in a notebook they can become a reference for more ideas when you read over them again. I continue to find new inspiration in things that I wrote and forgot about.
5. Try your hand at a new genre. Most of us get stuck in one or two modes of beat creation when we start, leaning on a certain tempo and kick pattern to begin the session. To inspire creativity when you’re in a rut – change it up. If you usually make house, make hip hop or dubstep. If you usually make drum and bass, make techno. By attempting a new beat pattern you will conjure new ideas while learning how to produce outside your own box.
4. Apply time-compression. This idea comes from Dubspot’s Matt Shadetek who wrote a great piece on his blog entitled: “Creativity: How To Turn Lack Of Time & Resources Into An Asset.” The basic idea is that when we are very busy (working a full-time job, going to school, etc) we are the most productive. This is because we are constantly at a fast pace, trying to get the most out of all the time we have. When we are not working or not so busy we are less productive because we are moving at a slower pace. To get the most out of our time it’s best to apply deadlines to things that we do in order to be more efficient. Matt explains further:
The basic idea is how when we are forced to do something in a tight frame we suddenly become very focused and fast and get it done. The example is when you were in high school and had six months to write a report and then wrote it in five hours the night before it was due, and still wrote it really well. I think more people do this than not. By working constantly under time pressure and deadlines you can actually majorly improve your productivity. I find I work REALLY well this way and get a ton done. I don’t fuck around and check my email or twitter in the middle of working, or stare into space or allow myself to get distracted. Instead I WORK LIKE CRAZY and get things done. As I mentioned in my Zen Calligraphy post I like to sometimes use the site e.ggtimer.com and set tight artificial time limits during my work day to push myself into this race against the clock mind state. It’s awesome.
3. Apply Oblique Strategies. In 1975 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created the Oblique Strategies card set. Subtitled “Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas,” the cards offer new perspectives in our approach to creating art. The idea is that when you are stuck you can pick a card and then use the message to move forward in your work. For an example of how it works you can check out an online version of the card set, download the iPhone application or pick up your own deck directly from Brian Eno.
2. Give yourself some limits (and make a manifesto). Some of the best artwork created is made using minimal materials. Dabrye and Prefuse 73 have created albums made entirely on an MPC, for instance. One of my favorite house 12’s was made with (just) a Roland MC-505. You don’t need a lot of gear to make music. Furthermore a lot of us are overwhelmed by the choice of VSTs, presets or even DAWs to choose from. By setting some limits on what you are using you can save time and get down to the business at hand. One way to do this is to create template files that have your presets and plug-ins loaded and ready to go. Another way to approach this refinement is to make a manifesto. This idea comes from Matthew Herbert who has a personal contract for the composition of music which includes rules such as:
The use of sounds that exist already is not allowed, In particular: No drum machines. All keyboard sounds must be edited in some way: no factory presets or pre-programmed patches are allowed. Only sounds that are generated at the start of the compositional process or taken from the artist’s own previously unused archive are available for sampling. The sampling of other people’s music is strictly forbidden. – Matthew Herbert
1. Stop Complaining. My favorite tip is directed at procrastination. It comes from the insightful and musically prolific Mike Monday, who writes some great pieces on music production, motivation and productivity on his site. He also makes some killer dance music. The advices continues as follows:
You’ve wasted too much time complaining. The game has changed and you can either sit on the sidelines or start playing. This is as big a revolution in the way we consume and distribute music as there’s ever been in history. As big as sheet music. As big as recorded music. As big as radio. If not bigger than the lot. And you’ve spent way too long whining about it instead of getting your head around it. You’re missing a golden opportunity. Or more accurately – lots of them. Because the writing’s on the wall for selling recorded music it doesn’t mean the same is true for music as a whole. Our new currency isn’t vinyl, cds or even mp3s. It’s attention. So how are you going to get mine? – Mike Monday
(Originally published on Dubspot.com)
March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
What is a Digital Audio Interface?
If you use your computer for music, DJing or audio creation, you’ve probably encountered digital audio interfaces. The digital audio interface translates binary information into audible information so you can hear it. And it can take audible information and translate that into binary information for the computer to process. Most computers come with a digital audio interface built-in (this is what allows you to hear iTunes play music instead of noise.) But the quality of those devices are limited as most consumers are more interested in the screen size rather than the sound quality. At some point most sound enthusiasts find themselves on a path to finding a Digital Audio Interface for their computer to raise the quality level of the sound playback, to record outside sources, or to expand routing options for their studio.
A good audio interface is essential to producers for reference and for recording because most stock sound cards will not give you professional sound. Audio interfaces can also greatly expand the possibilities of your recording setup with multiple inputs and outputs, MIDI connection and monitoring options. The options available are sometimes overwhelming so earlier this year on our blog we explored some of the devices available on the market by Apogee, Focurrite and Native Instruments. That article can be helpful if you’re looking for details on specific devices. In this article we want to address some of the variables involved in converting sound to digital information so that you can be informed for your studio’s development and educated for your future audio interface purchases.
Analog vs Digital Audio
You’ve most likely encountered conversations regarding analog vs digital sound (vinyl vs MP3, for instance) – it’s a widely debated topic online and amongst music and audio enthusiasts. But just what is the difference between these signal paths and what makes the sound different? You probably understand that your CD player, iPod and computer are digital audio devices and record players are analog audio devices. But it’s important to understand how digital audio works on the inside of these devices so that you can make a proper choice on your digital audio equipment.
An analog signal, by definition, is A nominally continuous electrical signal that varies in amplitude or frequency in response to changes in sound, light, heat, position, or pressure. Analog can be electrical or mechanical but the key word here is “continuous.” An analog signal path implies a continuous signal in contrast to a digital signal path, which breaks everything into numbers. This is the primary difference between analog and digital sound.
Until the mid 1980’s almost all audio recording devices were analog. That is to say they all used a mechanical or electrical recording methods to capture a continuous waveform. Around this time digital recording started to become affordable and eventually it became the most cost effective way to create music – which is why so many of us use digital devices to create sound today.
DAC – Digital to Analog Converter
A Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) is something that most of us take for granted. There’s one in your satellite TV box, one in your CD Player and one in your computer. This device is the heart of your hearing experience with all forms of digital audio. When it comes to professional audio we want to use a high quality DAC to create a better, cleaner and sometimes more enjoyable experience. When recording audio into your computer the Ananlog to Digital Converter (ADC) is the soul of your recording experience. This is what turns your guitar or voice into binary data to be used by the computer.
Digital to Analog converters are manufactured almost exclusively on integrated circuits (microchips) and the best ones are created by a few companies who specialize in this type of chip architecture. Therefore many audio interfaces share the same DAC circuits (Cirrus Logic chips show up in many devices.) There are many kinds of DAC circuits, however, and the industry is constantly trying to create better chips.
Bit Depth / Resolution
The waveform above represents an analog signal/sample (grey) and a digital signal/sample (red.) Notice that the analog signal is a smooth curve, whereas the digital signal is broken into a grid-like shape. While this grid is not entirely accurate (it’s more for the sake of example), it helps to illustrate the idea of “bit depth.” Bit depth describes the number of bits of information recorded for each sample. When you read “16 bit” or “24 bit,” the bits represent the resolution – how many dots will help create that nice curve of the waveform. The less dots, or bits, the more grid-like your wave will be and the more “grainy” the reproduction of sound will be. The more bits, the more accurate the curve and therefore more accurate sound. 16 bit is the standard resolution for CDs and is generally acceptable for analog to digital recording. 24 bit will give you a cleaner sound and more accurate representation of the curve. Some systems go even higher than this but understand that with more bit depth you will be pushing your processor to work harder.
Bit depth and sampling rate determine the quality or accuracy of a digital recording. While bit depth is sort of easy to explain, Sampling Rate is a bit more tricky. Sampling rate defines the number of samples per unit of time (usually seconds) taken from a continuous signal to make a discrete signal. For time related signals the unit for sampling rate is Hertz. Perfect reconstruction of a signal is possible when the sampling frequency is greater than twice the maximum frequency of the signal being sampled, or equivalently, when the Nyquist frequency (half the sample rate) exceeds the highest frequency of the signal being sampled. In practice this means that the a minimum sampling rate of 40kHz should allow for accurate reproduction of 20Hz – 20,000kHz – the range of human hearing. This was initially the standard for digital audio recording until it was realized that human beings can actually perceive sounds above and below that range. For this reason you now find interfaces that record at 48kHz and higher. (Read more)
March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
A few months back Allen & Heath announced a new controller, The Xone K2, “an elegant, compact controller for any DJ software with no fewer than 52 hardware controls providing up to 171 MIDI commands across 3 layers – plus the ability to link multiple units. Xone: K2 has the power and flexibility to put you in touch with everything from the essential functions to the fine nuances of your chosen software.”
Allen & Heath have enjoyed incredible success amongst pro jocks with their Xone: 1D and 2D performance controllers. They have a reputation for being able to take a beating at the club and still work the next day with great sound output. The K2 takes some of the form factor (layout, spacing) from the 1D/2D and applies it to a new lower profile design. The K2 looks very enticing, indeed. Small footprint, four faders, and assignable controls that could be used for DJ performance as well as DAW control. While the Traktor X1 does offer custom mapping (and I’m a fan of the mixer control template in particular), this new Allen & Heath device offers faders – a staple of may performers / producers’ needs. In addition the K2 boasts an audio interface and headphone output – making this this smallest dj controller with sound capabilities I’ve seen so far. If the sound quality lives up to the A&H legacy this should be a product worth checking out when it releases this spring.
More details on the Xone: K2 from Allen & Heath:
Xone: K2 has a high quality internal, four channel (2 stereo) soundcard.
Universal controller and is perfect for use with all leading DJ software, such as Traktor Pro, Ableton, Virtual DJ, PCDJ and M ixVibes. Xone:K2 can even be used to control lights or VJ software – if it can receive MIDI data it can take commands from K2.
52 physical controls – including 12 analogue and 6 endless rotary encoders with push switch, 4 linear faders, and 30 backlit performance switches – providing up to 171 MIDI control commands across 3 layers. What each control does is entirely up to you – with a little thought you can create a completely customised layout that perfectly fits the way you want to work. We also provide some sample maps and information on how to set up your own.
Latching Layers – By assigning controls to multiple layers you can give a single physical control up to 3 functions. You can configure all, some or none of K2’s controls to be linked to the latching layers system. As a quick visual reminder, when toggling through layers all switches assigned to a particular layer will illuminate in the appropriate colour.
X-Link – Two K2s can be linked via Allen & Heath’s X:LINK protocol, giving twice as much control capability. X:LINK uses a standard RJ45 connector and distributes power and data, which means two K2s can be connected to your software using only one USB port. X:LINK also allows connection to Xone:DB4 and Xone:DB2 mixers.
Case / Stand – Xone:K2 comes packed in a robust black padded case as standard. As well as keeping it safe on the road, the case doubles as a stand, bringing the K2 up to the same height as most pro DJ mixers.
(Originally published on Dubspot.com)
March 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
A couple weeks back we explored the basics of audio effects on our blog in an effort to help our readers who are just getting into the world of music production. Audio effects can add depth and dimension to your sounds and they are really one of the essential building blocks of electronic music. This week we will explore some options for expanding your sonic palette with external hardware effects routed through the aux send and return channels in Ableton Live. Most music production software such as Logic, Reason and Ableton Live come with built-in audio effects which can sound fantastic. But a problem you may run into is that tracks coming out of these programs can end up sounding very similar. This is advice that Moby offered in a recent interview that we did with him:
Today it’s all software based so it’s much more accessible. But the danger is that it all sort of sounds the same.. It’s very easy to stay purely in the digital realm because it does everything. – Moby
Using Hardware Effects for a Unique Sound
One of the easiest ways to incorporate an outside element into your Ableton Live workflow is to route sounds out of Ableton and into a hardware effects processor, then back into Ableton Live. If you happened to catch DJ Kiva’s APC40 dub performance in May, he used this technique extensively to create his dubbed out sound. In the video above you’ll find Kiva using a Korg Kaoss pad that has been routed out of Ableton and back in again to create effects that you can’t find inside the program alone. After seeing this video I asked Kiva to go over the basics of how to set this up. It wound up being easier than I thought it would be and it’s brought a lot of new ideas to my workflow.
Routing External Hardware Effects into Ableton Live
Below is DJ Kiva’s setup for routing external effects into ableton Live. I’ve replaced his Kaoss pad with a Roland SP-404 sampler, which offers audio-through and effects processing on that audio. You may find that hardware gear that you own such as Korg Electribes, Monotrons, synthesizers or drum machines can process audio. Guitar or bass pedals can also create unique sounds that can help create your sonic identity.
Make Sure You Have Two Sets of Outputs from your Audio Interface
You can use any sort of effects processor for the following setup as long as you have an audio interface that can handle the inputs and outputs. To make this work you’ll need an audio interface with at least two outputs and one input. They can be mono (and your effects will also be mono) but optimally you’ll want two stereo outs and at least one stereo input. One output is your master sound output and the second output will be routed to the effects device. The input will be used for the effected signal. In the following example I’m using a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 (channels 3 and 4 for input and output) that is connected to the Sp-404’s ins and outs. The master output is set to 1/2 volume.
1. Go to your preferences and go to the audio tab. make sure you have your interface selected as the input & output device..
2. Under input & output tabs, activate the additional ins & outs you will use.
3. Open Ableton’s i/o tab by the master track.
4. Select the “Return A” track.
5. Under the “Audio To” tab, select “Ext out” and then output pair 3/4.
6. create a new audio track in session view and set i/o to Ext. 3/4 and monitor mode to IN.
7. Connect a set of cables output 3/4 on your interface to the inputs on your effects device. In this case we have connected to the inputs on our SP-404.
8. Connect a set of cables from outputs of your effects device to inputs 3/4 on your audio interface.
9. Enable your effects processor..
10. Now back in your Ableton session view you’ll find Send levels for channels A and B above the volume faders on each track. Try playing a loop of some kind on audio track 1 and turn up the Send A knob to route effects to your hardware processor..
11. Make sure that the level on your audio track (“Aux Signal” in the examples) is turned up when you hit send A knob on any music channel, it will now send signal to your device and come back into the session. You can now easily record the incoming signal and have it on a separate track in your session.
12. One thing to note about this setup: there can often be a small delay when routing these sorts of effects. When I asked Kiva about this he mentioned that this can sometimes add to the character of a reverb or delay. If you want to fix this timing offset you can adjust the start point of the sample in Ableton.
(Originally published on Dubspot.com)
March 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
An Overview of Audio Effects
This week we’re taking a step back to the basics in order to give our beginner readers an overview on audio effects and how they work. If you’re just starting out on your audio production journey, you’ve most likely come across effects in your gear or software. These might be delay, reverb, distortion, compression, phase, flange, pitch-shift, ring modulators or filters. This article aims to get you familiar with these terms and what these devices do. In future installments of this series we will get a bit deeper on specific types of effects (as some subjects such as reverb require an article of their own.) For now we begin at the beginning…
What are Audio Effects?
Audio effects are devices (analog or digital) that are used to intentionally alter how a musical instrument or other audio source sounds. Effects can be subtle or extreme and they can be used in live or recording situations. A good example of audio effects are the “stomp-boxes” that many electric guitarists use to realize their desired sound. By chaining together many different types of effects units a musician can sculpt a unique tone. Almost all popular music benefits from creative use of effects, the only exception being an all-acoustic show (and even then there are usually effects involved). All commercial music is enhanced with effects and electronic music makes liberal use of these devices. With proper use they can really enhance your sound and take the listener to new sonic spaces.
A Brief History of Audio Effects
Modern day effects are all a result of the evolution of technology and the advent of recorded sound. Around the Mid 1940’s recording engineers started to use reel to reel tape machines to create delays, echos and sound effects. In addition to tape, microphone placement and movement were found to create sounds that had not previously been recorded. In 1948 Harry DeArmond, creator of the first guitar pickup, created the first stand-alone effects processor called the Trem-Trol by running the electric current of the signal through liquid to create a tremolo sound. This device was used by Bo Diddley and led to more development in the guitar industry of the 1940’s and 50’s where guitar amplifiers started to introduce vibrato and reverb effects. Reverb was initially created by driving an electrical signal into a metal plate or spring to create multiple echos or reflections of a sound.
Back in the studio, recording engineers started to use echo chambers to create echo effects or a unique tone to their recordings. Echo chambers were usually long, low rectangular spaces made from sound-reflective materials such as concrete. They were fitted with a loudspeaker at one end and a microphone at the other to create an echo effect that was used on many recordings to enhance vocals. As they were often custom-made, these echo chambers became the sound signature of a given studio at that time. As technology developed, many reverb devices allowed for electronic re-creation of the echo chamber effect. Equalizers and compressors arrived in the studio in the 1950’s and 60’s with the Pultec equalizer which defined the sound of many recordings of that era.
Hardware and Software Effects
Today audio effects devices come in both physical and digital form. Audio signals in electrical format are processed with physical (analog) hardware whereas audio signals in binary format (digital) are processed mathematically by software. Both methods can achieve similar results. In the physical world, effects are usually rack-mounted devices that have cables running to and from a mixing board or they can be something like guitar effect pedals which receive signal from the instrument and alter the signal as it flows to a mixer. On the digital side you can find effects in most music recording software packages. DAWs such as Ableton, Logic, Cubase and ProTools all come with audio effects built-in. Other software packages likeReason, Maschine, Traktor, Audacity, Peak, and Soundforge also come with audio effects. Audio effects are often simple devices that do one specific thing to a sound, although multi-effects processors are also popular for those who want many different effects in one package. It is also worth noting that many instruments (especially synthesizers) come with effects built-in to the machine. (read more)