Latest Sonic State blog post; The Deep End back

Happy Saturday all! Just a quick note to let you know that my latest Sonic State blog post is up now. It offers some tips for automating external MIDI gear in Ableton Live.

In other news, my deep/downtempo night The Deep End is back in business as of August 30th. Head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “Like” if you’re in Halifax and interested in this sort of thing.

10 ways to work faster with Ableton Live

Sorry for the silence lately but the past couple months have been crazy! Several summer trips and out of town gigs, a new job, and unfortunately, basement flooding that’s led to me having to disassemble my studio and (temporarily) move it to a much smaller space 🙁

I realized I totally forgot to share my last blog post on this blog. It outlines some of my personal workflow tips for getting things done more quickly Ableton Live.
Anyhow, I’ll continue posting links here as I remember to! I typically blog for Sonic State once a month, and you can expect the next post within the next few days. Be sure to “Like” on Facebook, or watch their home page, as they post new blog posts to both.

SYNC your teeth into this

(Yeah, <groan>, another one of these. Whatever, I’ll try to keep it brief)

I press SYNC and I don’t care. I press play and I don’t care.

I see a lot of “old school” DJs complaining about this (SYNCing is cheating, laptop DJs aren’t DJs, blah blah blah). Honestly, this is so utterly, completely and mind-blowingly ignorant given that the umbrella genre is electronic music (I refuse to call it EDM as it’s not all “dance” music per se).

Last I checked, laptops, sync algorithms, DJ controllers, etc. had a hell of a lot more in common with the field of electronics than rotating platters, pressed wax discs, and synchronizing music by hand. Given that the music has it roots in technology why not embrace everything technology has to offer?

It’s akin to somebody riding around on a horse complaining that motorists are cheating. Or someone doing math by hand complaining that calculators kill the art of math. Seriously? Step off your high-horses and into the 21st century.

For the record (no pun intended) I started DJing on vinyl. I think vinyl is great and nothing compares in terms of feel/tactile response. But it’s heavy, expensive, it degrades, etc. Likewise, turntables are heavy, expensive, prone to skipping if not properly installed, and generally not really a standard commodity at shows nowadays.

Snug circa 1999. All vinyl, baby.

That said, I do have lots of respect for DJs who can scratch, do 3-4 deck mixes, etc. This takes skill. But so does rigging an Ableton Live set with synchronized lights, visuals, external synths, etc. So does a multi-deck mix on a controller with on-the-fly looping, live FX processing, overlaying synth and drum loops, etc.

Snug 2012. Vinyl + controller (SYNC button engaged!)

At the end of the day the end goal is to produce sound and/or entertain. If it sounds good and/or entertains then who the hell cares? So what if modern technological advancement means “everyone’s a DJ”? Honestly, when I was getting into it “everyone was a DJ” then, too. Same old story. As with anything, those with talent and drive will go much further than those without.

Closing thought: if “keeping things on time” is what you’re most concerned with then maybe you should consider a job as a railroad conductor or a dispatcher? You’d probably make a hell of a lot more money than you would DJing, anyway.


Musication update #2: post-mortem

Well it’s been a few days since tearing things down and heading back to the city. Overall it was a success: I finished 5 tracks, mixed 7 and started 4 collab ideas. I also completed my first guest post for Sonic State and spent a bit of time learning about/playing around with  iZotope Ozone’s “matching EQ“, which will come in handy for mastering dubs/demos.

Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to see what it would be like if music were my day job, assuming this becomes a possibility some day. Would I lose interest? Burn out? The answer, based on this experiment, is no. I was able to work a solid 40 hour “work week” and stay focused for pretty much the whole time.

Here are a few pics of the setup (the last couple art courtesy of my wife):

Musication update #1

So I’ve spent three days at the cottage so far and it’s working out really well — I’ve been able to focus to the point of being able to work on 5-10 tracks a day! (not from scratch, mind you, but a bit of mixing, a bit of writing, etc.) It’s a very inspirational location, too; on a bay overlooking several small islands.

I’ve posted several new mixes of WIP tunes (Swagger, Exoplanet, The Letter V), completed a new Beardsley tune, made some progress on my EP for Ambra and my forthcoming chiptune EP. I also have some new stuff in the works that I’ll be sharing at a later date.

I’m taking a “day off” today to spend some time with my wife but will be headed back for another couple days tomorrow. There’s still a lot I’m hoping to get done but so far this has been a really positive experience and definitely something I plan to do again. To any artists out there who sometimes feel like they’re stagnating: I would strongly recommend doing something like this!

Here’s a lofi pic of my setup at the cottage. Better quality pics to come:

P.S. as you can see I’ve had to put the 32″ display to use, and naturally this has led me to hook up our 32″ to my home computer for some evening gaming 😉

My musication

Some people take a vacation. Others take a staycation. Well, next month I’m taking a musication.

WTF is a musication, you ask? It means leaving behind the distractions of everyday life and hunkering down to really focus on music.

The impetus? At the core it’s the 5 day work week. By the time I’ve worked 8+ hours, gone grocery shopping, made dinner and gone for a run I have roughly 5% of my daily energy left — approximately enough to take a shower and plunk myself in front of a TV or video game

I am most motivated in the mornings which means that, at most, there are only 2 days a week where I can work on music at “full capacity”. That’s two days if I’m lucky. Between the inherent distractions of having a studio at home and the million obligations that come with being a “grown-up” (marriage, home ownership, car ownership, pet ownership!), music often loses out.

In the past, herbal therapy helped me tune everything else out, but this introduced a whole new level of complexity into the equation, i.e. it became a crutch for working on music, and often my grown-up responsibilities fell by the wayside.

So next month I’m packing up my studio and heading to a cottage for 5 days x 8 hours a day = 40 hours. That’s a full “workweek” to apply all of my motivation to music!

Should be an interesting experiment and I will post updates as the week progresses.

Disk speed and multi-tracking

A friend recently asked me about disk speed as it pertains to multi-tracking:

“I’m getting in a new laptop next week, and have a bit of extra cash to
spend as well. It comes with a 1TB 5400 RPM drive. Would it be worth
it, performance wise, to splash out on a 7200 or 10000 RPM drive and use
the 1TB as extra storage? In terms of multi tracking and sequencing,
would there be a noticeable difference between using the 5400 as a main
drive and using a faster one?”

I figured I would share my response here, as it may help others facing the same decision:

“It really depends how many tracks you’re tracking at once. If
you’re doing a couple at a time then it probably won’t make much of a
difference for recording, but if you’re doing like 8 or something then
you definitely want the fastest drive possible.

The other thing to
consider is how many tracks you’ll be playing back. The default
behaviour of most DAWs is to stream from disk, and of course the more
tracks you stream the more likely you are to hit the limitations of disk
I/O. If your DAW supports loading audio to RAM (Ableton Live does, for
example), then you can ignore this bit.

One trick to get better
(not necessarily faster, but more consistent) disk performance would be
to partition the disk and dedicate one partition solely for recording
and/or as a scratch disk (if your DAW supports it). This way you don’t
need to worry as much about fragmentation, since they will “fragment”

Finally, if you’re running Windows 7 you could get a large USB thumb drive and use it for ReadyBoost, which basically gives you solid-state caching of frequently
accessed files (system files and the like). This way the DAW can get more
“exclusivity” of the mechanical drive.”

Hope this helps somebody out there! If you’re wondering about my setup: I have a mechanical drive and a solid-state drive. I use the SSD for ReadyBoost and as a scratch drive (for Ableton and Photoshop). Plus I have a 16GB thumb drive that I use for ReadyBoost as well, when USB bandwidth permits.

Managing headroom in Ableton Live

Watch your head bro! Generally speaking you want to maintain 3-6 dB of headroom when you’re working on a track. This means the master should peak somewhere between -6 and -3 dB. Why? Well in short: the closer you get to 0 dB the easier it becomes to inadvertently cause clipping. And unlike analog clipping, which can be warm and musical, digital clipping sounds bad. Very bad, bro.

First thing’s first: if we’re going to be watching our levels we’ll need a little more insight. Live’s mixer offers some useful information that, by default, is hidden (although they’ve changed this in Live 9)

Increase the height of the mixer section to reveal two values: the value in the pill-shaped box is the peak level; the value in the rectangle is the fader level.

Scaling your levels

In the following example I have a single audio loop playing. As you can see, with just this one loop I’m already hitting -3.34 dB.

If I add anything else I’m likely going to cause some clipping:

Woops! I do like the mix between these two audio clips so rather than adjust the faders individually I’m going to bring them both down in one go. With the track still playing:

  1. Click on the track title for any of the tracks (in this case, “1 Audio”)
  2. Press CTRL+A to select all other tracks
  3. Adjust any of the faders – the faders for all other tracks will move by an equal amount
  4. Click on the master “Peak level” reading to reset it
  5. Rinse and repeat until you reach an ideal headroom

As you can see, by scaling my levels every time I add something to my track it’s easy to maintain a consistent 3-6 dB of headroom even before the track is completed.

Volume automation

A common problem with volume automations is that, traditionally, you’re forced to wait until you’ve fully mixed your track before adding them. Why? Because they work on an “absolute” basis and not a “relative” basis. That is, an automation from -8 to -5 dB will always do just that — even if you move the fader in an attempt to adjust your levels it will jump back to the automation levels as soon as you click “Back to Arrangement”.

There’s a very easy way to get around this in Live, though: instead of automating the mixer level, insert Live’s “Utility” device in your chain and automate the “Gain” knob:

Now your volume automation will work relative to the mixer, so in the example above it would be a “3 dB boost” instead of a “sweep from -8 dB to -5 dB”!

In Closing…

Some might say it’s best to not worry too much about headroom while writing, and to do a full mix-down at the very end (that is, bring all the faders down and mix from scratch). While I won’t argue with this approach, my philosophy on this differs. Obviously you don’t want to get side-tracked mixing your track before it’s written, but if you’re cognizant of your headroom while you’re writing it will be that much easier to mix in the end.

December mini-tour

Just a quick note to let ya’ll know that I’ll be making the trek from Halifax to Ottawa in December, stopping in Fredericton along the way:

I’m especially stoked on the Soulselecta show. For those who don’t know, Soulsecta was an “anything goes” (musically speaking) night that ran at Brixton’s for years. After a bit a hiatus they’re back again at their new home. This will be the second one since they’ve started back up, and I’m honoured to be a part of it (also really excited to see this “Mugshots” place)