Monthly Archives: January 2012

Let There Be Light (Part One)

This is sort of a user’s manual for myself so that I don’t forget how I made all of this work. Deep breath, kid.

Some time ago I decided that I needed a light show. I started looking into ways to control lights with MIDI and learned about a protocol called DMX512 that is sort of like MIDI for lights. It’s been around for a long time and pretty much every time you’re out shaking ass at a show and the lights are doing something cool, DMX is making it happen.

I bought a Chauvet 4bar as a starter; it’s a portable LED light rig that’s superlight, DMX-controllable and has some built-in sound-activated programs that bop along to music when that’s called for. (On display in the “It’s Christmas In This Bitch” and “Studio 2012” videos.) There are a lot of DMX controllers out there, but I didn’t want a faderbox. I wanted to be able to use MIDI note and velocity data as triggers. There are a few companies out there with computer-based MIDI-to-DMX control solutions, but I really liked the approach that Engineering Solutions took with their box, so I bought one. It responds to plain old MIDI note and CC data, no computer necessary.

There were some hurdles: The box has a 5-pin DMX out, while the 4bar has a 3-pin DMN in. Not a huge deal, but it required finding a cable that could do the conversion. I bought a Neutrik 5-pin plug from B&H (the only place in NYC, it seems, to carry them) and sacrificed an old XLR-to-1/4″ cable, cut off the 1/4″ end and soldered the pins up. Yeah, yeah, don’t use mic cables for DMX and all of that, but it’s a short cable, I’m not linking fixtures and it seems to work fine.

After a little research to wrap my head around DMX and a brief look at the implementation chart for the 4bar, I wired the thing up and, to my incredible surprise, it just sort of…worked. When does that ever happen? You have to divide the DMX channel number in half to get the appropriate MIDI note number to feed the ResponseBox. Starting at C -2, each MIDI note will trigger a different color for each can, with a few other modifiers for strobe, master brightness, etc.There were a few infuriating things about the 4bar’s implementation but with a couple of slick workarounds (tomorrow’s post!) everything seemed to respond like you’d expect. Note on/off = Light on/off, note velocity dictates brightness. Corresponding CCs function predictably as well, so I made a patch for my BCR2000 to create static programs. Useful stuff! I also made a TouchOSC template (iPad) for controlling the fixtures, which is neat because it does it wirelessly. There’s a little lag and I wouldn’t call the response flawless, but for my purposes it’s more than adequate.

Tomorrow: drum-controlled lights! And while I’m busy making this happen,

some really smart people are doing this:

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Mikey Likes It

I have some kinda cool stuff in the studio, but I’m not a gearhead by any stretch. I can usually take about two and a half minutes of gear talk before I start to throw up in my mouth. But in response to the various tech questions I’ve received about the NWJ record, here’s a quick rundown. It’s all totally nonmysterious, nonglamorous small-ticket stuff but that’s kind of the point. This is how we roll.


Shure SM58 (yup, seriously)

Shure SM7B

Rode NT1A

AKG AT4033


DBX 586 (Google this and bear witness to the hate)

Mackie CR1402vlz (I found this mixer in the garbage and it works fine. I spilled most of a can of Four Loko on it a while ago, so a couple of the faders are sticky, but the preamps sound pretty good.) I already route everything through this board so it was an easy solution. This is all I use these days.

Vocals go from the preamp to a pair of compressors (Alesis Nanocompressors, wired serial, they’re small and cheap and they do the job and I don’t think they make them any more, but the last one I bought was from an old Russian guy in Astoria and I think it was $25). The first one acts as more of a limiter, with a high threshold, steep ratio and fast attack, while the second one has a broader, gentler squash. By the time the vocals hit the DAW they’ve already got some healthy compression and I don’t have to worry about clipping. This cuts back on the amount of software compression I have to use later, and makes setting levels a breeze.

So, if my notes on the NWJ record are right:

Want It Back – SM58 + Mackie

Teardrops – NT1A + Mackie

Around the World – SM7B + Mackie

Let Me Show U – AKG + DBX

Nothing to Spare – SM7B + Mackie

Around the World (Cosmo Luxxx Arena Edit) – SM58 + DBX

Nothing to Spare (Wintry Mix Dub) – NT1A + DBX

So….yeah, I do get sand kicked in my face by the big guys at the beach on Gear Island, but I’ve learned to live with it. I pretty much just use the SM7B for everything these days because it sounds great and it’s not so sensitive to room reflections, it doesn’t need a pop shield and it’s rugged as hell. But I’ll still use a condenser on tracks like “Let Me Show U” for the extra sparkle and clarity.

Or you can do this:


Stupid name. Cool rack.

This thing is for playing arpeggios with a drum pad. It’s a cool live-show trick. I use an Alesis Control Pad, which is a bare-bones trigger thing that you can beat with sticks. Once you get the sensitivity dialed in for your playing style, you can get pretty easy access to the whole range of note velocities, which this rack translates into note data. There may be more graceful ways of acomplishing this. I haven’t given it a ton of thought, because this works for me, but if anyone’s got a good twist on it, let me know!

Create a Midi Effect Rack with three or more chains. Mine has four. This example uses a single drum trigger transmitting on C3, so the keyrange is limited to that note for all chains.

In the Velocity Chain tab, distribute the velocity ranges equally among all the chains.

My chord for this arpeggio is a C minor, so Chain 1 has no Pitch plugin, Chain 2 has a +3, Chain 3 has a +7 and, what the hell, let’s put a minor seventh on Chain 4 with a +10. Create a Velocity plugin with Out High and Out Low values set to 64. Copy and paste this to each chain, so that all your notes have the same volume.

So…now this thing works. Different velocity ranges produce different notes. Put a monophonic synth on the track with a long release time and bang away. Playing a song with multiple chords? Nest this rack in another Midi Effect rack and duplicate it a few times, adjusting settings to taste. Each drum pad will correspond to a different chord. There are actually a number of ways to do this, which is why I’m not going to get too deep into it–by the time you’re at that point, it’s really about your own workflow and what’s going to work best for the type of performance you do. I prefer to keep subracks as discrete units that can be hot-swapped–more of a modular approach–than building one giant rack with all the settings mapped out, but that won’t work for everyone.

There’s a lot of other cool stuff you can do with this rack. Here are a few ideas:

Random: Use this plug to randomly shift notes by an octave, or some more creative interval. A semitone up or down from your root note can yield interesting results if it’s not overused. Or, for a bigger leap, let’s say you make a nested rack with a randomizer that will only feed 1 of every 5 notes to a different pitch, which has a Chord device on it and another pitch device to tune it back down to the correct key ..if your synth is polyphonic, your otherwise-monophonic arpeggios will periodically have chorded bursts. Very cool stuff.

Velocity: Increase the Random amount on the Velocity plugs we created earlier, then map velocity to something on your synth other than volume. Envelope release times, filter cutoff, oscillator detuning, pitch envelope time, FX wet/dry control, noise osc level, etc….Ableton’s MIDI effects are great, and often overlooked. With a little forethought, the modulation possibilities they make available can turn a ho-hum synth patch into something with some real character. Take the time to learn what each of them do!

Arpeggiator: Put a note-length plug on a chain, set to something like 500ms. Follow it with an Arpeggiator with the Decay and Target values set to where you’ll notice their effect. This can quickly devolve into nonsense, so it’s best to use these things sparingly, but there’s a ton of good stuff here if you’re willing to dig.

In the meantime, here’s some light bedtime reading courtesy of international R&B superstar K-la Vie. For when the USPS fails us, as a hobby, as an institution, or both.

Adaptation of Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers for IPv6


The Bessssstest De-Essssser

At the end of this segment you will have a Damn Fine De-Esser. In lieu of filling gaps in your singer’s teeth with pieces of Silly Putty, this will yield consistently awesome results. Bear with me, because I’m sick as hell and my head feels like it’s underwater.

This thing will also net you a 3-band crossover, which is useful for all kinds of stuff. Let’s build it!

1. Grab a Multiband Dynamics device. Group it to a Rack. You can turn off dynamics processing on all three bands to save on CPU usage–we’re just using the filters here. Solo the High band. Map the Mid/High crossover frequency to Macro 2 of your Rack. It should look like this:

2. Name that chain something awesome like “High and Tight.” Duplicate it twice. Now you’ve got three chains in your rack and the rest should be pretty self-explanatory. The Mid band will have both the High/Mid and Mid/Low crossover points mapped to macros, the Low band will have only the Mid/Low freq mapped. Name everything well so that you don’t get confused. Solo the appropriate bands on each Multiband Dynamics device and try it out! When you solo a chain in this Rack, you should get only the signal from that frequency range, and the crossover-frequency macros should allow you to tune this to your liking. When all the chains are on, signal should pass through unaffected. Good? Let’s make it better.

3. Throw a Utility device on the Low band and map the “Width” parameter to another macro (0% – 100%). Now this is becoming a really useful tool! This is a really easy way to “mono-fy” the low frequencies of a sound without sacrificing any stereo imaging in the mids and highs. Hide the chains and save this Rack in your Library and you’ll find that it comes in handy quite often. You can start thinking in terms of applying effects only to certain frequency ranges, allowing you to do cool stuff like distorting the shit out of a synth bass without losing any clarity in the low end, or putting a gentle slap delay on the mids of a vocal without muddying up the highs or lows.

4. Now to the de-essing portion: Why bother with this rack? Because when you apply gain reduction with a broadband compressor, the entire signal is attenuated. Normally this is fine, but for this application, the type of response we want on sibilant peaks is way different than what we want for the rest of the signal. So if we tune the high band to include all of our ssssss’s and not much else, we can squish it as much as we want without compromising the rest of the vocal. Drop a compressor in the high band, activate the EQ sidechain key, flick the blue monitor switch on and tune the freq and Q until you’ve carved out an incredibly annoying notch. Now turn off monitor (flipmode yeeeah!) and start making your cuts…higher threshold with high ratio is good for brash pop vocals, a lower threshold with a gentler ratio for subtler, more dynamic sounds. You’ll find that you can get an incredible amount of very transparent gain reduction with this technique.

Have you ever done that thing where you use a broadband compressor to de-ess a vocal performance and you make the cuts so deep that it sounds like the performer has a mouthful of cottonballs? This works great for hip-hop. Make a “laff trax” b-side with a super-steep ratio and ride the threshold until it sounds like the vocalist is rapping with their tongue in a pair of doctors’ tongs and no matter how serious or tough the subject matter is, they will sound ridiculous and if they don’t laugh at it, you should ask yourself whether it’s worth working with them.

Roll Up Those Sleeves and Get the Pink Rubber Gloves

Because it’s time to get dirty. Here’s the template. This is a basic explanation; I’ll go into greater detail about specifics in future posts. Everything’s built to make common tasks easy.

Left to right: Drum subgroup, Piano, Audio 1+2, Submix and Rewire mixer. And here it is laid out on the operating room table:

So, in no particular order, we have:


Almost everything I do starts out as a piano track. Melodies and chord progressions are my starting point. I’ll play it live, quantize if necessary and then lay down bass and drums. The bass is usually either an instance of Strobe an audio track featuring my unkillable Electra 4-string. I write like a 3-piece band. If a track sounds good with a cheesy sampled drum kit, a dry piano and a buzzy saw bassline, it means the music is solid. I don’t start with any sound design until the song sounds good in this setup. If I have ideas that I know will take a long time to program or suss out (complicated rhythm parts, elusive samples, synth lines that are too complicated for me to play) I’ll just sing or beatbox or something on an audio channel as a placeholder, and figure it out later. Work fast and have fun!


Kick, snare, hats, cymbals. Enough to get something started. There’s a Drum Rack in each of these channels, set up with the basics. The kick channel:

has an instance of Operator (my “Whomp” preset) on C1 and three others on the notes below it. The Whomp is a basic thud. I’ll tune it and get the pitch, pitch envelope and decay settings right. Then I’ll group it into an Instrument Rack and start filling out the body, giving the sound character with more synths, fragments of samples, etc. But the fundamental is always Operator. The synth is amazingly flexible and it’s easy to dial in a sound for any kind of track without too much effort. That whole process is the subject of another post….

The three purple chains are sidechain triggers. Since compressors (in this context) are generally keyed by the kick, it’s very easy to copy and paste the kick part down a step or two and get things pumping. The triggers are simple Operator presets with enveloped noise blasts. I prefer to do it like this instead of directly using the kick as the sidechain key because I like to be able to shape the “duck curve” independently of the actual decay of the kick. It gives a lot more control over the pumping/breathing character of the track. Having a few of these set up makes it easy to very quickly shape a track’s rhythm section. But this is also a subject for another day!

The snare and hat channels have–you guessed it–Operator presets in the right places. I’ve got a punchy snare preset based on two grouped instances of Operator (one for body, one for fizz) and an electro hi-hat sound with a simple velocity->decay modulation so I can get the open/closed thing going with a single drum pad. In a minute or so, I can shape these from snappy 808 pops to big washy blasts to rough out the sound. Make it hit right and don’t sweat the details! This makes it easy to rough out the drums, and although I will usually sub in some samples for the hats, the kick and snare synths always make it to the finished track. Sort of a signature sound, if you will.

All the drum channels are routed to the Drum Sub group, which is then routed to Bus 1 in the…


The submix is a simple 4-bus mixer. Everything goes through here. Bus 1 is drums. Bus 2 is bass. Bus 3 is pretty much everything else. Bus 4 is vocals. Buses 2 and 3 have compressors that are keyed by the triggers living in the Kick rack. See how easy that was? So in general, Bus 2 will have a heavy, quick duck to really push the bass out of the way of the kick, and bus 3 will have a gentler ratio with a longer decay to make the rest of the mix breathe. Bus 4 has no ducking. I’ll usually wind up duplicating one or more of these channels in the course of a production, so I’ll have a Bus 3.1 with a different compressor curve that I’ll route something like crash cymbals, noise blasts or atmospherics to. I also do a lot of ducking on my hi-hat and percussion tracks, so I can grab one of these, duplicated it to a hat channel and set up a new trigger to key it, within a few seconds. If it’s gonna take ten minutes to even set something up to to FIND OUT if it’s going to sound good, are you really going to do it? Automating some of these common tricks makes producing way more fun. Since everything’s already set up in the template, duplicating and tweaking is very simple. Nothing has to be set up from scratch, which is a huge plus. It’s exhausting to do everything from scratch. It takes a bit of thinking to set up your workflow so that you’re not constantly reinventing the wheel, but when you do, it makes the whole process feel a lot more like music and a lot less like data entry. If a guitarist had to rebuild his amp from a kit every time he sat down to play, he wouldn’t have much time left to shred. So at the end of the day, I’ll have anywhere from a 4-bus to an 8-bus mixer, although very seldom more than 6. It’s collapsible and all the buses are mapped to hotkeys so I can access them easily, from anywhere in the set.

Also in the submix are Mon1 and Mon2 channels, which are simple input-monitoring channels for inputs 1 and 2 on my audio interface. They’re wired to a different set of outs on the soundcard. 1 is generally a vocal mic, 2 is generally a bass or guitar. I seldom record more than 1 track at a time. I’ll disable monitoring on any record-enabled track and monitor through these instead, which is nice for several reasons: I route them to different outputs on my interface and into separate channels on my hardware mixer. This allows for an easy, hands-on headphone mix when recording, it eliminates some of the nasty latency-compensation issues that Live has when you’re monitoring through a track while recording, and it allows for a separate set of effects for the performer and for the mix. So, the vocalist gets whatever the hell they want in the headphones (reverb, distortion, delays, etc.) and I don’t have to listen to it. Also, my Mackie 1402 has a cool secondary-bus thing, where muted channels can be run to a separate bus, and that bus can be assigned to the headphone output. Hit mute on the 1/2 channel, it disappears from the monitors and appears in the cans. Keep the soundcard’s 3/4 outs muted all the time so it’s always in the cans. Voila! Keeps nasty feedback loops from happening and makes for a nice quick setup.

1A and 2A: These are groups of audio tracks that are set to record from my audio interface’s 1 and 2 inputs. I’ve got three per group, which allows for basic multitracking. Making more is easy, but three gets it started. Any effects sit on the group channel, which is then routed to Bus 4. Later, as the parts split into lead, background, doubles, harmonies, etc, better routing decisions can be made, but this is a good starter setup. Any pitch correction, mutes or fades happen on the individual channel before it’s routed to the group.


This is a bunch of tracks set up with External Instrument devices that correspond to a template of 16 empty Combinators in a Reason rack. I don’t use Reason much, but sometimes it’s got something I want to use and this is a way to access its features quickly through Live. I don’t like Rewire, so generally I’ll get whatever I want out of Reason and then freeze the track. The RZN Group doesn’t have any audio going through it, it’s just a way to make the whole Reason thing tidy.


Everything’s got keys. All the drum channels are accessible through the top row (QWERTY) and can be record-enabled with an Opt+ key command. There’s a hotkey to stop all drum clips, which is handy in Arrangement mode as the thing progresses if you want to kill not only all the drums but the effect of the ducking compressors as well. ASDFGHJK are all transport controls, metronome, tap tempo, etc. Opt+ ZXCV accesses submix groups, Shift+ ZXCVBNM brings up the return channels, which is nice because I can keep them permanently hidden from view but get at them whenever I need them. All kinds of commands, including activating/deactivating clips, browser navigation, and info text editing, are done through the Mac’s custom keyboard shorcuts feature, where you can set up application-specific shortcuts.

So there’s a quick tour of the premises. We’ll be getting more specific in subsequent posts, probably in a random and infuriating order. Have a great weekend!



It began quietly on a cool Thursday in early 2012, through a stifling chest-cold headfog. Dun dun dun dun.

I’ve been producing for a loooong time and have learned a few things worth sharing. I’m gonna put up something new every weekday. Mostly tech stuff, mostly Ableton-specific but everything will translate to other platforms as well. I’ll be presupposing a fairly high level of knowledge going in–there are already plenty of how-tos out there for noobs. I’m going to try to keep it brief, entertaining and useful. Two things I’m going to avoid:

Videos. You gotta read. I’ve always hated watching instructional videos and I’m not going to subject anyone else to mine.

Downloads. I’ll offer downloadable audio examples when appropriate, but no presets, racks or Live packs. I’ll do step-by-step instructions for everything, with screenshots as necessary. If I need to illustrate something, I’ll draw it in sharpie on a napkin and take a picture of it (see this site’s banner.) I’m way more into sharing ideas than files. If there’s a tutorial on how to build a rack or create a sound, you have to build it yourself to see how it works. Give a man a fish, etc. I guarantee you’ll wind up accidentally discovering some really cool shit in the process of working through the examples. When you build it, you truly own it.

I was at the Walker in Minneapolis last week and saw this printed high up on a wall. I’d just smacked my head hard enough on a drinking fountain alcove to know that I wasn’t going to remember anything I saw that day, and since the museum guards were thick as flies and very aggressive, I had to get a hip shot of this quote:

“Instead of collectively agreeing to the same streamlined tools sold to us by large software companies, we need to reclaim the personal relationship we used to have with our tools. We need to reintroduce interesting points of friction in our highly optimized software. We must learn to create tools ourselves. After all, the computer is exactly that: a tool for creating tools.” – Jonathan Puckey

Dude’s website is here.

I’ve done a few of these how-tos in the past. Here’s the most recent one, a piece about making clip-automatable sends that live in individual channels.

Here’s one about the midibox I built. I still use it.

And this one, about funny panning tricks and TouchOSC control!

And I guess that’s it for the prologue. All the posts will be tagged “daily” so if you miss some, they’ll still be easy to find. Tomorrow’s post will be a bit on templates and workflow. Happy new year!


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