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!