I’ve always made a thing out of doing all my production work from scratch. Sure, I’ve got a small sample library, some acoustic drums, cymbals, classic machine sounds, random noises, handclaps and stuff, but all the meat n potato stuff gets built from scratch every time. Which is cool, but after a few years there’s that sinking feeling like when you wake up on time to go to work but you have a crippling hangover and are not prepared for the amount of effort that needs to go into your morning commute. Whee, it’s a new digital world with unlimited possibilities, yeah, but that makes it fucking confusing sometimes so let’s limit ourselves a bit and be happier for it.
I read a few books on evolution a while back and I’m going to draw a crude comparison here: speciation is something that we can only see in hindsight. For example, we can look back at our own species’ history and say yeeeah, it looks like we sort of drifted away from the apes around (insert date range here) but at the time that it was happening no one could know that it was happening. And not just because we were still dumb apes…no matter what the zealots and the freaks say, we really can’t see the future. So, to apply this to sound design: I try to work backwards and find that critical point in a sound’s evolution where it’s just evolved enough to be recognizable as the seed of what it will become, without being too specialized or distinctive. Let’s use a snare drum as an example. There’s a certain sort of punchy, synthetic snare blast that I love dearly. It’s energizing, it’s fierce. It’s all over dubstep, it’s in electro and disco to some extent. It’s a hallmark of pretty much everything Le Castle Vania does. So over the years I’ve gone in and dissected this sound and made a bunch of variations on it for different productions. Some are based on layered samples, most are heavily processed synth patches. It gets old trying to recreate something every time I want to use it, and I start to cut corners. And if I go into an old track and sample my own snare and try to use it on something new, it never fits right. The routing, the compression, the interplay between the elements is really what brings tracks to life and there’s no way to bottle or automate that, you just have to use your ears and figure it out for each situation. Great! So let’s spend more time on that and less time on the shit work of reinventing the wheel. So…after years of dreading the process of creating this snare thing from scratch every time, I finally got busy making a template. A nice, dynamic one. All the different velocity settings are applied to each oscillator to make it really playable at different levels. And not only volume but envelope times, decays, pitch envelope mod amount and saturator gain. Out of the box, this patch sounds good but unremarkable. Which is perfect. I can drop it into a track and it’s an excellent placeholder, all the dynamics are behaving appropriately (in ways that samples could not) and it’s very easy to modify in a hurry to fit the track at hand. So there’s easily an hour’s worth of programming that I save every time I drop this rack in place. Less bullshit, more blast beats.
Take notes when you work. What mindless, boring or aggravating tasks are you repeating over and over again? Here are a few of mine:
-Setting up modulation sources in synths like Strobe (has assigned slots for 8 modulators). I pretty much always use the same ones (LFOs, velocity, modwheel, envelopes, unison, random). Life got a lot easier when I made a few presets with the mapping pre-done. This way I can open up Fusor or something with my boring wobbler preset and I’ve already got three stacked synths, all of which are set up to use the LFOs of Synth 1 as mod sources. Polyphony, portamento and other behaviors are predefined. The speed of both LFOs are synced and tied to a macro knob. So yeah, it’s just a buzzy wobbling saw wave but I can get in there and make some huge sounds quickly, without getting bored or frustrated. Less time is wasted on monkey tasks so there’s more time to spend on the important stuff.
-Compressor/sidechain routing. At this point, I’ve got a special Trigger instrument that sits in the same rack as my kick drum. Actually, there are three of them, triggered by different MIDI notes just beneath my main kick, that are routed to the key inputs of three different compressors that are sitting inactive on one of my busses. It’s inevitable that I’m wanting to use some ducking in a track, so instead of having to deal with this task every time, I spent a while building this cool system where all I’ve got to do is turn on a compressor, drop in some MIDI notes and turn a few knobs and the thing works exactly how I want it to. If I want to modify the behavior or exaggerate it on a certain track, I can duplicate the compressor and drop it anywhere and the routing is intact.
-Slicing bits of audio. I usually do this with vocal parts, but occasionally with drums too. Take your time to build some solid Slicer presets for your library. Sometime’s it’s really nice to have global transpose mapped to a macro, or filter envelopes or whatever other weird thing you have in mind. If you think you’ll use it again, spend the extra ten minutes and polish it a bit. Save it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised next time you go to chop up a sample. I don’t mind having some clunkers in there because nine times out of ten I’ll get whatever I want out of a sliced sample and then bounce it back to audio immediately. It’s about making the tools for manipulation immediately available, so you can make the bits dance when you wave the wand, so you can bring some improvisational mojo to what is often a very dry art.
-Setting default device parameters. This is easy. How do you want it to look and sound when you drop it on a track? Collapsed or expanded? Wet or dry? Extreme or subtle? What gives you the immediate satisfaction? If you’re always annoyed by a device’s default state, change it.
Sort of in this vein, check out this dude Ill Gates. Chances are, if you’re reading this, that you already have. He’s been around for a while and his name is out there. I’m not a huge fan of his music but I think he’s a good sound designer and he has some great ideas about production and workflow. Plus he seems to have a genuine interest in the community aspect of music and technology, he’s always doing these workshops and posting on message boards and helping people out and I have a lot of respect for that. This video in particular addresses so many of the actual problems faced by producers: workflow, psychology, deadlines, organization. Highly, highly recommended.
I’m outta here! Off to Boston and Portland for a few days with my awesome crew to drink in the lobsters and bathe in tubs of Allagash.