Classic Techniques: The Timestretched Jungle Vocal
In this article from our ‘Classic Techniques’ series, we’re examining one of the most distinctive sample techniques to emerge in the 1990s – the time-stretched jungle vocal.
The frenetic beats and earth-quaking sub bass of drum and bass have become a global-dominating sound and the genre continues to develop in new and interesting ways. Drum and bass was born from Jungle, which first developed out of hardcore breakbeat rave music in the early to mid-90s. It was a hugely fertile and productive time for dance music, as the price of decent home equipment dropped and producers delved deep into the submenus of their kit to shape their sounds to their precise desires. This was particularly noticeable in the Jungle genre, as junglist producers embraced the idea of the studio as a lab and their role as that of sonic scientist, and it seemed that each new release raised the bar with the cut-up and fractured breaks manipulated to new levels of poly-rhythmic intensity.
One of the many studio innovations that Jungle bought was the introduction of a brand new sonic texture to the producer’s toolbox, that of the time-stretched vocal. It’s a very distinctive sound and instantly recognisable, where a vocal sample is stretched out and in the process gains a stuttering, metallic sheen which sounds futuristic and robotic.
Dead Dred’s ‘Dred Bass’ on Suburban Bass is usually acknowledged as the first Jungle record to feature the time-stretched vocal effect, and you can hear it in countless other Jungle tunes from the likes of Shy Fx, Origin Unknown, DJ Hype, Remarc and so on. It also became popular in house music and featured in many records, including Josh Wink’s acid banger ‘Higher State of Consciousness’. UK Garage was also happy to adopt it, notably on Armand Van Helden’s Remix of ‘Spin Spin Sugar’ and Double 99’s massive ‘RIP Groove’ from 2001.
Just like many other audio innovations in dance music, the Jungle time-stretch vocal was the result of a piece of studio equipment being stretched beyond its own capabilities. The technique was actually the sound of the time-stretch algorithm from the Akai S series samplers, being pushed way beyond its normal limits and producing audible ‘artefacts’. As the BPMs in Jungle steadily rose, so did the demands on the Akai’s time-stretching functions, and that distinctive robotic, shimmering sound was the lucky result.
Warp Factor 9
Audio technology has of course vastly improved since the birth of Jungle and all DAWs now come with time-stretching and warping abilities that allow users to change the pitch and tempo over a vast range, with little if any noticeable degradation to the original sound. Audio warping and time stretching software now aims to eliminate any audible artefacts to maintain sonic integrity and the original characteristics of the sound, particularly for vocals. But for us to get anything approaching this Jungle time stretch effect, we’re going to have to deliberately circumvent the innovations of the last 20 years, and try to achieve an un-natural vocal sound.
As with many sampling techniques, there are often several methods of achieving the same end, and it’s the same with this; so we’re going to supply some of the most straight-forward methods to get results quickly.
In Ableton Live, if you were going to warp a vocal sample, you would usually reach straight for the ‘Pro-Complex’ setting to ensure that it sounds as natural and unprocessed as possible. However for this technique, we’re not looking for pristine vocal processing that you don’t notice, we want to achieve the opposite, we want this to be all about the sound of the processing itself and not the sound of the vocal. To achieve this you will need to select the ‘Tones’ warp mode. Then you can simply change the length of the loop and click on a marker on the sample to stretch it out as long as you like. You’ll quickly hear all the aliasing and achieve the stuttering, metallic sound we’re talking about. LIVE allows you to alter the ‘grain size’ – you can think of grains as tiny snippets of audio used to create a larger waveform. Experimenting with the grain size will get you the effect you’re looking for here, generally, a higher grain size will create that particular stutter effect we’re looking for. Adjusting the grain size also contains the potential for all sorts of far-out vocal processing too.
In Cubase, you right click your sample, click process to enter the time-stretch menu and select the ‘Standard’ algorithm. Aside from the grain size, Cubase also allows you to adjust the ‘overlap’ and ‘variance’ which are controls to help the results to sound as natural as possible: in this case, low values of each will be appropriate. Again, try experimenting with high grain sizes to get the Jungle time-stretch effect.
Logic Pro’s Flex allows easy stretching and warping of vocals and again, here it’s about reducing the software’s ability to do the job seamlessly. So select ‘Tempophone’ mode and just by selecting and stretching an area you can easily get a sound that approaches the 90s Jungle feel. The default grain size of 45 ms is perfect for this but Logic also gives you control over the size, so again, you can experiment with this setting for more extreme vocal effects.
Reason’s slice markers allow for all sorts of stretching and warping, although abusing the software to affect the sound in this way is slightly more involved, as Reason’s automatic warping doesn’t seem to allow you to degrade it in the way you can in Logic or Ableton. Luckily there’s another neat trick you can do instead to approximate the Jungle time stretch effect – and this trick will work in any DAW you like: First, you load your sample up, then in your sequencer draw a long line of 32nd notes next to each other, each with zero attack and release. If you then press play on the sequencer and automate the sample start point, it will produce a fair approximation of the Jungle time-stretch sound as the sample continually re-starts from a slightly different point. Adding a little delay and reverb will help mesh the sound together. You may also find that a hint of flanger can also add an authentic metallic sheen to your sound.
As an additional option, there’s also a very good freeware plugin called Akaizer that’s available for all platforms (Windows, Linux and OS X) which can time stretch (and/or pitch shift) any WAVE or AIFF sound file in the style of the ‘cyclic’ time stretch which featured on old Akai sound samplers, like the S950 / S1000 / S2000 / S3000 series. It’s definitely worth checking out and in our tests yielded some pretty authentic sounding results.
The Jungle time-stretched vocal is a hugely evocative sound that can instantly transport you back to the mid to late-90s club scene. However, it is also a technique that still sounds unarguably futuristic and your DAW will allow you enough control over the various parameters to take this technique and develop it way further if you wish. Alternatively, you can easily achieve that classic sound and give your tunes that 90’s Jungle flavour with ease. Get up and get stretching!
Classic Techniques: The Filtered Disco Loop
We take a closer look at one of the simplest yet most effective sampling techniques to have emerged from dance music: the filtered disco loop.
Filters have long been revered by electronic music producers. Although they were originally designed as tone controls to address particular sonic problems, dance music producers came along and misused filters in ways that took them far from their intended purpose. It was Chicago producer DJ Pierre who first bought the squelchy delights of a decent filter to the attention of other beat makers. His tweaking of the filter cut off and resonance controls on his Roland 303 on 1987’s ‘Acid Trax’ by Phuture created the new genre of acid house and filters have been used extensively in dance music ever since. Although the very first samplers had no synthesis functions at all, it didn’t take long for manufacturers to begin making samplers with filters, envelopes and LFOs, bringing a whole new suite of sonic possibilities to working with samples.
Music Sounds Better With Filters
The filtered disco loop is a technique that has been used countless times in dance music and which never fails to work on a packed dance floor. You can hear it used in Pete Heller’s ‘Big Love’, Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ or Pepe Braddock’s sublime ‘Deep Burnt’. Essentially, this technique takes a sample loop and then puts it through a low pass filter. The audio then sounds muffled, with no top and very little mid-range, as though you’re listening to it through a wall while it’s being played at a house party next door. Then slowly the filter opens up to gradually reveal the rest of the frequencies. Careful manipulation of the filter on a track can tease and tantalise a crowd before delivering a knock-out blow. It’s a simple but brilliant technique that has destroyed dance floors for years, largely because it is a hugely effective way of building and then releasing tension in a song. The use of the filter to tease an audience with a disco loop was so popular, it became the basis of an entire genre, in the shape of French house.
To get this technique working in your tracks, you’ll need to understand what filters do. Although they perform a similar role to EQ in that both adjust the tone, filters work in a different way. EQ boosts or reduces a range of frequencies, filters let audio above a certain frequency pass whilst attenuating anything outside those limits. So a filter doesn’t just either boost or cut a particular frequency like an EQ, it entirely removes all the frequencies below or above a certain limit. It’s the changing of this limit – the moving of the cutoff frequency by the producer during a filter sweep – that provide the characteristic sound of this technique. There are a few different types of filters, but here we’re going to be looking at the low pass filter, which, as it name suggests, lets the low frequencies pass whilst attenuating the rest of the frequency spectrum.
“None Shall Pass!”
One of the key things to consider when using filters in your productions is the slope of the filter. The slope refers to how – either gently or sharply – the filter cuts off the frequencies and is measured in decibels per octave (‘dB octave’). The filter slope determines the reduction of signals outside the ‘pass’ frequency and gives a filter its particular sonic character. Generally, this slope will range from 12dB to 24dB per octave. If a 12dB filter is set to 100Hz, then any audio an octave below that at 50Hz will be reduced by 12dB, and any audio an octave below that at 25Hz would be reduced by 24dB and so on.
For the purposes of making a looped disco sample into a fat pumping dancefloor destroyer, all we really need to know is that the steeper the slope, the more pronounced the effect of the filter and, when used in tandem with higher resonance settings, the more intense the ‘squelch’ effect of the filter. Essentially you would use a lower slope for gentle tonal shaping, and a higher slope for performing an ‘in your face’ filter sweep.
Your DAW will have a number of filter types available and there are plenty of decent filter plug-ins on the market, but in Logic and Ableton the auto filter defaults to a 24db low pass and in Reason, the ECF-24 standard filter is a 12db low pass. In Ableton Live you can drag an Auto Filter from the effects onto the sample you want to filter. In Logic, you can select the track you want to filter, re-route the audio to an empty bus and add the AutoFilter to the track that Logic will create. In Reason, you can just right click on the instrument you want to filter and add a filter unit from the menu.
You may want to process the entire track, an individual sample, or a group of samples. Some producers leave a hat or a clap unfiltered to hold the rhythm together and some leave the kick outside the filter sweep so that all the low-end energy doesn’t get over-amplified during the sweep. Other tracks feature filter sweeps where every single part is filtered – it’s a creative decision, depending on how you want your tune to sound and what effect you’re aiming for.
If you’re going to filter the entire song rather than just individual samples, in LIVE you can simply drag a filter onto the main outputs, and in Reason you can right click on the hardware interface unit and drop a filter straight onto it. In Logic, you’d just select all the parts, re-route to an empty bus and add the filter there. Alternatively, you can use Logic’s ‘summing stack’ command. The auto filter in Logic allows you to adjust the level of dry and wet signal and for this technique you need to have the signal entirely wet. LIVE and Logic’s auto filters should default to 100% wet, and Reason’s ECF has no dry/wet controls at all.
Cut0ff And Resonance: A Deadly Duo
Once you’ve got your filter in place, you’re ready to get tweaking. Moving the cut off control anti-clockwise will slowly reduce more and more of the top and then middle frequencies until you’re just left with the lows and that characteristic muffled effect. Turn the control completely to the left and the sound will disappear entirely. Now you can start to increase the resonance whilst sweeping and you should start to hear some serious squelching as the filter moves through the frequencies. This is caused by the resonance control adding a little boost to the frequencies just above the cut off point. It might be tempting to simply turn the resonance up high but you have to beware – high levels of resonance can provoke extremely loud volume peaks as you perform your sweep.
This is a genuine health and safety issue if you’re working on headphones, and can also cause you to shred your monitors if you’re not careful, so we would strongly advise caution at this stage. We would also recommend using a compressor to reign in the inevitable peaks, and maybe also try adjusting the resonance up and down manually as you sweep the cut off to maintain a more even volume level. Depending on the audio material, you may also find that you need to turn the resonance down once the filter is fully open to avoid a drop in volume or an over-sizzled sample. In some cases it works well to automate the resonance along with the cutoff for maximum character and vibe.
The trick is to use the filter to give little glimpses of the sample and to hint at its existence to build tension. You can do this with smooth sweeps or experiment with more radical tweaks – experimentation is half the fun. The cutoff and resonance controls are a gateway into hours of filtering and squelching and can be key part of a live performance too. It’s such an effective technique that entire records have been built around nothing more than a filtered disco loop and a beat. However, while sampling chunks of old disco records might have been the route to filter-house success in the past, major record labels now have entire departments dedicated to tracking down copyright infringements. Luckily, there are now enough high-quality sample packs on the market for producers to be able to build their own disco loops from drum loops and individual instrument samples. All you need are some keys, a guitar lick, some bass, perhaps some strings, mix it down using some saturation, distortion and reverb to give it an older feel, then resample and filter it to your heart’s content. That way, you get to keep all the royalties and publishing when your filter-disco-house track goes global next summer.
Best Hardware Samplers Around £500
Continuing our look at the current boom in external hardware samplers, we review three of the best machines that come in around the £500 price point.
Akai MPC Touch First up we have a great sampling box courtesy of a company with some serious heritage in the world of sampling. The Touch is the newest addition to the MPC range and it is a beautiful machine. What sets it apart from its competitors is the large (seven inch!) colour display multi-touch screen, which allows tactile iPad-esque editing of samples, and allows the user to draw, edit and work with samples in a visually intuitive way. It’s a very well-spec’d controller rather than a stand-alone sampler, so you’ll be using it in conjunction with your computer.
Akai MPCs were always famed for their workflow and the MPC Touch doesn’t disappoint in this area. Aside from the smart screen, the Touch also comes with 16 full colour, extremely responsive pads, four small and one large encoder. You also get two sets of back-lit soft buttons, transport controls underneath the screen and bank selection controls above the pads.
The Touch allows sampling directly through the 1/4 inch jack audio inputs or through the USB, and it comes with 1/4 audio outs to allow you to further process your sounds with external gear. You also get MIDI in and out and a headphone socket. It’s slightly larger than the average laptop and there are no battery options with this beast, it will only run on mains through a wall socket.
As you might expect, it ships with 20 gig of samples (that’s over 20,000 sounds) from top sound designers and well-known sample packs and also comes with a decent set of FX, which can also be controlled via the screen through a Korg Kaoss-type ‘XYFX’ mode. Indeed, it is the touch screen which really sets the Touch apart from its rivals, providing an intuitive and tactile approach to working with sampling – using it in tandem with the machine’s onboard step sequencer can also be an extremely fruitful way of working if you enjoy the particular constraints of step sequencing.
The strengths of the MPC Touch are simple – the workflow is superb and the touch-screen brings a new element of intuitiveness that you just don’t get with a standard screen. Equally, there are multiple ways to do the same things, using the screen, the buttons, the encoders etc. It’s also a great looking piece of kit too and comes highly recommended: it’s good value for money and capable of providing a creative working environment away from your computer.
Roland call their latest incarnation of their SP404 series a ‘Linear Wave Sampler’, and is marketed primarily as a live module. Although its similar in price to the MPC Touch, it’s a smaller and more portable machine, and its a standalone box too, so you could easily use it in a DJ booth without having to have a laptop with you.
You get 16 backlit pads and a bunch of other buttons, with four encoders at the top of the machine. In terms of the screen, the SP404A provides a basic ‘calculator-type’ 3 digit display. Samples get in via smart card (up to 32 gig – that’s like a couple of days of sampling time), via your computer or through either the mic or line inputs. You get 16-bit sampling with 29 of Roland’s superb DSP effects to play with as well, all of which can be adjusted from the front panel, so instant extreme sample mangling is easily attainable.
Aside from the standard delays and reverbs you also get a voice transformer – good for spooky robot voices – an isolater, a looper, tape echo, chorus, flanger, phaser, distortion, ring modulator, pitch, wah and more, and you can resample with effects too. It even comes with a built-in microphone and comes bundled with a quality sound library too.
The pads, although small, are responsive and most of the main functions are easily accessible, despite the limits of the display screen. In terms of looks and intuitive creativity, both the Touch and the Maschine Mk. 3 (see below) edge ahead, but remember the SP404A can be used as a stand-alone sampler/sequencer which the other two can’t – and in terms of live sampling, looping and jamming, the 404A is very capable and enjoyable to use bit of kit.
NI Maschine originally hit the market in 2009 and was something of a game changer at the time. The MK3 is an update of the original and provides the user with 16 great big pads, 8 smaller backlit pads, a row of eight encoders, one larger push-encoder and two high-resolution screens as well as a touch strip controller too. It’s a very sleek design, and the high res screens, although not as instantly rewarding as the touchscreen on the Touch, are a classy feature.
The audio ins and outs are on 1/4 inch jacks and you also get mic in, MIDI in and out, USB and a pedal control input too. It can run on mains or be USB powered. Like the Touch, and unlike the SP404A, the Mk3 is used in conjunction with your computer. It’s a great looking piece of kit, and along with its pristine, ultra modern design, you get pristine 96kHz / 24-bit audio too.
It’s a good performance instrument as well as studio tool and one feature we were particularly impressed with is the ‘lock’ function which takes a snapshot of your production, enabling you to then tweak and twist to your heart’s desire before hitting lock again to return everything to where it was. Perfect for live jamming and for creating huge builds and breakdowns.
Maschine Mk3 comes bundled with an 8GB sound library, as well as the 25GB Komplete 11 library collection, all of which should keep you occupied for a while. Navigation around the menus and functions is smooth and the screens give you plenty of visual feedback too. The layout is well designed, providing plenty of opportunity for immediate improvisation and what NI call ‘classic groove box work flow’. The Mk3 has a particularly impressive build quality and overall its design is extremely sleek.
At this price point, it becomes more challenging to directly compare machines as apart from comparing functionality, each box also engenders a particular creative approach. Your choice of external sampler will be at least partly driven by how you like to work. If you need a standalone sampler that you can use independently, then the Roland SP404A is the one – it’s also the cheapest of the three samplers we looked at. If you want to work with a DAW and your computer, then both the Touch and Maschine 3 have a lot going for them. The Touch’s screen lends itself to creativity, and it’s a superb bit of kit for improvisation, Maschine is also a very capable and classy performance machine. In order to write this review, we went to our local gear shop and played around with the various samplers – we would advise you do the same to find which workflow works best for you, but whichever choice you make, we can firmly recommend any of these three machines.
If you’re looking to spend a little less, please check out our recommendations for hardware samplers below £300 here.
The Best Hardware Samplers Under £300
Digital sampling using your DAW is pretty standard these days but it was only a few years ago that every studio in the land had at least one or two hardware samplers in their equipment rack. Now though, the sampling capabilities offered by DAWs are only limited by their user’s imaginations (and copyright laws of course), so why would anyone want to buy an external sampling box with the inevitable compromises that small bits of gear bring?
The answer only becomes clear once you physically try out a piece of hardware. There is still nothing that compares to jamming on a step sequencer, away from a computer screen, with a couple of encoders to tweak the filter and effects. It’s still one of the very best ways to come up with fresh ideas and its way more fun than fiddling with your trackpad or mouse. Working with a dedicated piece of hardware allows you to move away from visually fixating on the screen and the arrangement in front of you, and instead can facilitate the kind of intuitive, creative workflow that all producers desire. Jamming on a dedicated box creates a direct connection to the dance floor experience because you can ‘play’ it and move to the music, rather than operate it, which brings a physicality to the task that is hard to capture when sitting at a laptop. Dedicated external bits of kit also allow electronic producers to perform their work live, to improvise and create on the fly.
With this in mind we present the first of our sampler reviews, looking at three of the best samplers on the market for under €300. Here are the Contenders:
First up is the popular addition to the expanding Korg Volca family, the Korg Volca Sample, which is currently retailing for around €160. The Volca Sample is a small (it’s only 193 × 115 × 46mm which is the size of a small book) but well specced sample player with emphasis on live performance. It has no inbuilt sampling ability of its own, instead you fill it with your own samples via either an iPhone or iPad. As with all the machines we’re looking at, the aim is to provide the user with as much tweakability from the front panel with minimum menu delving, to facilitate workflow. So you get a powerful 16 step sequencer, a bunch of tiny encoders to adjust various parameters and a basic ‘calculator’ LED screen to show parameter levels.
There are lots of decent sound manipulation possibilities, with accessible parameters for each of the Volca’s ten sample slots. You can instantly tweak the sample start point, playback speed, pitch envelope, level, pan, attack and decay, and samples can also be looped and reversed. This means that you can very quickly warp a sample beyond all recognition and opens up all sorts of creative avenues.
In terms of effects, you get a single perfectly usable reverb. In addition to the step programmer, squashy little pads and diminutive pots, there are two larger ‘analogue isolators’ for bass and treble, which provide an instant EQ boost or cut, and which are the only analogue part of the otherwise entirely digital Volca. Best of all in terms of creativity is that just like on their classic Electribe range, you can easily slip into motion sequence mode and record all your tweaks to the sequencer.
The sample rate is 32kHz / 16 bit and the output – a single 3.5 mm stereo mini jack – is a little noisy, which all adds up to a pleasingly slightly crusty sound.
Build quality is slight, but sturdy enough for live work. The Volca Sample can run on either six AA batteries or with an (un-supplied) mains adaptor. Samples are loaded in via an iPad or iPhone but of all the machines we’re looking at here, the Volca has the smallest memory with only 4MB. This, along with the fact that step sequencing doesn’t exactly lend itself to melodic composition, may mean that the Volca may be best suited to drum programming and abstract non-musical elements / FX.
Obviously, at this price point there are going to be compromises – the Volca comes with a tinny inbuilt speaker, but it doesn’t really do the machine justice. In terms of connectivity, it only comes with a MIDI in, no out or through which would have been useful. Likewise, a stereo 1/4 jack output would have been more desirable than the 3.5mm stereo out. Also, the knobs on the front panel are very small and feel a little flimsy.
Some may find the 4MB of sample memory limiting but this misses the point of a machine like this, which is all about instant performance, improvisation and the joy of creating. With the Volca Sample, Korg have managed to scale down a substantial amount of functions into a tiny, effective and fun package, with an impressive amount of audio manipulation and mangling possibilities.
Retailing at around €180 the Akai MPX16 is described by Akai as a ‘compact sampling powerhouse’. It’s a great looking bit of kit, with 16 brightly coloured illuminated pads dominating the front panel. Samples are loaded via an SD card and you can load up to 48MB of your favourite samples at a time. The MPX16 will only play WAV files, but comes with drop and drag conversion software. You can also record samples via the stereo input or through the onboard mic.
In terms of connectivity, the MPX16 connects via USB, has both MIDI in and out, and is powered by either USB or mains – and the mains adaptor is supplied too – meaning you can use it independently of a computer. It’s also nice to see full sized 1/4 inch jacks on the stereo ins and outs too, and there’s also a headphone socket. Regarding the MPX16’s MIDI implementation, unfortunately the encoders don’t send MIDI CCs so you can’t record live knob tweaks to your external sequencer.
When it comes to the all-important editing and mangling of your sounds, the MPX16 has four encoders on the front panel controls with a push-button matrix for selecting either tuning, pad groups, envelope control, panning, volume and of course filter cut off, resonance and envelope amount. Having four available knobs to tweak four available parameters means the MPX16 is particularly good for live jamming and improvisation.
Maximum polyphony is 64 voices; you can loop your samples and the MPX16 also features non-destructive editing, so you can chop up a loop into little pieces, keeping some parts and discarding others with ease. Akai samplers were always highly praised for their filters, and the MPX16 comes with resonant 24dB low pass filters on each of the 16 pads. There’s also a reverb that you can adjust for each individual sample. Sample tweaking is easy and accessible but if you do need to delve into the menu, the MPX16’s screen is a back lit LCD display rather than the ‘calculator’ screens that are prevalent at this price point.
The MPX16 also comes with a built-in stereo microphone for field recordings. This is a nice addition, but as ever with onboard mics, the one time that it might be really handy is if you’re out and about whereupon the mic’s sensitivity to physical movement and vibrations will be picked up and included in your recording.
The build quality feels durable and the MPX16 integrates with ease with DAWs. Drawbacks however, would have to include the slow sample loading time, which might be a problem for live performers. Overall, it’s a great looking little box, very well suited for live performance and jamming. Plenty of onboard tweakability and with those Akai filters, you can squelch up your sounds with ease.
Costing around €300, the Maschine Mikro is the priciest sampler we looked at. NI call it a ‘compact groove production studio’. It has substantially more functions than either the Volca or the MPX16, but can’t be used independently of your computer. What you get for your money is a cool looking little box with 16 enticing multicoloured lighted pads, a single encoder, lots of buttons and a decent back lit LCD screen. Best of all, it comes bundled with Maschine software and 6GB quality sounds, including 7000 one-shots, 400 loops, 300 drum kits and 388 sampled instruments. The Maschine software can run either under a DAW host or as a standalone, but you always need to use it in conjunction with a computer. An especially nice bonus is that the Mikro can host third-party plug-ins, which really opens up its potential.
Again, it’s a box that has been designed to withstand the rigours of live use and feels solid and sturdy. The number of onscreen buttons speeds up workflow and generally, the Mikro is intuitive and easy to use. There are no MIDI ports, all connections are through USB. Although the largest of the three samplers we’ve looked at, it’s still highly portable, is light and will slip into your laptop bag with ease.
The Mikro can claim to be a fully fledged sampler rather than a sample player. It has 32 note polyphony and can sample at up to 24 bit 192kHz. However, if you prefer a more gritty approach, it can easily emulate older samplers like the MPC60 or SP1200. Unlike the other two boxes reviewed, it can take Rex files with ease. Perhaps the biggest factor in its favour after the impressive bundled sounds and instruments, is the Mikro’s comprehensive effects section. It features 22 dedicated effects, including all the standard reverbs, delays and choruses, as well as more esoteric algorithms, and the potential for sound warping is huge.
The combination of pads, buttons, a decent LCD screen and a large single encoder mean that again, this machine has been designed with jamming and improvisation in mind. It’s also great at looping, and can split an audio loop by either transients, musical division or a number of equal parts and distribute it over the pads for instant remixing.
At this price point, the Mikro is a sleek looking and impressive option for live beat making and improvisation, as long as you don’t need a completely stand-alone device.
The availability of well specced, intuitive sample players at this price point has been a welcome addition to many studios and these three boxes are all strong contenders for your live or home set up. Whilst the consumer will always have to pay to get more functions, each box reviewed undoubtedly has it’s own strengths and charms. Your opinion on the Volca will probably depend on whether you like using a step sequencer or not, although the addition of a little analogue processing might sway you too. The Mashine Mikro has the most functionality and features but requires a computer. The Akai has more features and memory than the Volca, and those Akai filters, but has less audio manipulation options than the Mikro.
For generating new ideas, composition on the fly and fully fledged live performance, any of these three machines would provide you with plenty of opportunities to jam with your favourite samples and assist you in easily coming up with fresh ideas, and maybe even a chart-topping banger!
Classic Techniques: UK Garage Vocal Cuts
The Garage Cut-Up Vocal sample is one of the most well-known production techniques, and the skippy, pitched-up wordless refrains can be an extremely effective sound that can really revitalise a remix or an original project. We look into producing your own cut-up vocal, UK Garage style.
The Garage cut-up vocal is a technique where a producer takes a vocal sample, slices it up into tiny parts and then re-constructs it into a staccato vocal melody, often mutating it so there are no actual recognisable words. It’s a very distinctive sound which came to characterise UK Garage and has since been picked up and used in many other genres too.
A very early example of this technique is the vocal refrain in MK’s Dub of Doom of Nightcrawler’s ‘Push The Feeling On’ from 1992, a tune so successful that you can still hear it being played any weekend in clubs up and down the country. US producer Todd Edwards further developed the technique and productions like his 1996 release ‘Saved My Life’ feature a set of vocal samples that have been chopped up, filtered, panned, pitched and re-arranged, before being quantised in his distinctive skippy style.
There are two basic approaches to producing this effect – you either chop up your audio sample by hand, or you let your software analyse the audio and chop it up for you. If you’re doing it by hand take the time to get in close when trimming the samples so that you aren’t leaving tiny gaps at the beginning of the clips, as these may start to be noticeable and result in sloppy timing when you come to quantising. The flipside to this, however, is that any unintended gaps at the beginning of audio samples can lead to a swung, rough groove that lends itself well to the sensibilities of garage.
Sliced and Diced Vocals
If you prefer, your DAW will happily assist you and make the process much simpler and take less time: One quick method in Ableton LIVE is to right click an audio sample and select ‘Slice to New Midi Track’ – LIVE will analyse the audio and cut it up into slices (based on timing or on transients, you decide) giving you a pre-sliced set of vocals to jam with. In Logic you can use the transient detection engine by right-clicking on an audio sample and selecting ‘Convert Regions to New Sampler Track’, and again, you can specify to split the audio up by transients or by a specified note setting. Alternatively, you can convert your audio to a REX file and map the individual slices to particular notes.
This technique usually involves small snippets of sound rather than full sentences or even words – so the first task once you’ve chopped up your sample, is to listen through and see if you can identify any interesting sounds or textures you might want to use. And don’t ignore the parts between the words, the breaths and also the plosives (the ‘p’ sound at the beginning of a word) can be really punchy and form great little percussive details, especially when compressed. Use a combination of softer vowel sounds and consonants which tend to be a bit more percussive. Ad-libs tend to be very useful for this purpose, since ad-libs are generally sung in the most emotive and expressive way and so lend themselves well to creating new, soulful phrases.
Once you’ve selected a few sounds, map them across your keyboard or assign them to the pads of your controller and you can jam along to your track or move them around on the screen while the track is playing to find something that works. This is very much trial and error but the beauty and fun here is that once you abandon the original meaning of the words there are no ‘wrong’ ways to do it. Once you’ve got a basic pattern down, you can experiment with adding additional layers of vocals to fill in any gaps.
A little reverb or delay will help the vocal samples sit in the mix – but you might also want to consider processing each vocal part individually, applying different effects, panning, EQ or filtering to each clip. You could experiment with a long-tailed reverb on one part and a short gated verb on another, and then pan them opposite each other. A further step would then be to automate the effects so that the slices of vocal popping in and out of the mix mutate as the track plays – perhaps through a phaser with a slow envelope or an automated low pass filter.
Pitch shifting is another important big part of this technique. UK Garage was full of ‘chipmunk’ vocals, where the voice was artificially pitched-up to almost comical effect. But producers also began altering the pitch of individual vocal snippets. Applying individual pitch adjustments to your vocal slices changes the human voice into just another lead instrument that you can use to compose riffs or melodies with. Getting this to work in your productions will likely involve a little time – you’ll need to transpose individual sounds to change the melodic content and experiment in your piano roll window with moving the samples around to achieve a result you like. And remember you don’t just have to pitch vocals up, pitched down vocals can sound superb too, and the contrast between vocal clips that have been pitched up and down can sound particularly effective.
A lot of producers will compress their sampled vocals heavily, to ensure that all the sounds are punchy, clear and cut through the mix. The human voice is notorious for having a large dynamic range, so, depending on the source material of course, it’s likely that your sampled vocals parts will benefit from some compression to even out the dynamics.
Swings And Roundabouts
There is one more crucial element it achieving the Garage cut-up vocal sound, and that is quantisation. Once you warp the words so that they are no longer intelligible and turn the vocal sample into just another instrument, then you can quantise it to any setting you wish. Garage is characterised by its heavily swung rhythms and this swing is often applied to the cut-up vocals to give them that same skippy feel. When you’ve got your vocal snippets in place, try 16th note quantisation but with substantial swing – perhaps 60% – and see how it sounds. It’s really a question of personal preference and plenty of DAWs come with a number of different good quality quantise presets that are worth trying out too. To get the vocals sitting tight in the arrangement, use the same swing setting as you use for your drums, or lower the swing setting on the vocal samples for a looser feel.
The human voice provides a rich tapestry of textures and rhythms for the producer, especially once you can move away from recognisable words into using the voice as just another piece of audio to be manipulated. Just listen to producers like Sunship, Scott Diaz, Four Tet or Burial, who’ve finessed and developed the chopped up vocal template in new exciting and emotive directions.
Try chopping, pitching, panning, EQing and quantising some cut up vocals today, and see if you can get some of that UK Garage swagger and swing into your productions. Check out our selection of garage packs here.
A Beginners Guide To Bass (Part 2)
In this article, we’re going to look further at improving the sound of the low end in your productions. In particular, we are going to delve into EQ, one of the most important tools available to the producer, and look at basic mixing using parametric EQ. We recommend reading part 1 first if you haven’t yet done so – you can find it here.
EQ is the abbreviation of Equalisation and comes from the early 20th century when the tone of the human voice over a telegraph or telephone needed to be ‘equalised’. Now it refers to a control to change the tone of audio: specifically, it’s a filter that is able to cut or boost a particular section or frequency range of the audio spectrum. The bass and treble controls on a car stereo are a basic EQ (called a ‘shelving EQ) which allows you to boost at fixed frequencies either the ‘low end’ of the musical spectrum – the bass, or the ‘top end’ – the treble. The EQ available to producers however, splits the audio spectrum up into much smaller sections than simply bass and treble and allows for far more precision and control than simply boosting.
The full human auditory spectrum, from the very lowest sounds that you can only really ‘feel’ rather than hear and up to the highest sounds that a human can perceive, is in the range of around 20Hz up to around 20kHz. All the sounds and samples you’ll be using in your productions will sit somewhere within this spectrum. The producer’s job is to get all the sounds to work as they want it to – to either cut through the mix, or sit quietly in the background, and to work with all the other sounds. EQ will be one of the main tools in this job, and you will grow to love your trusty EQs once you learn what they can do.
Two Golden Rules
There are a number of different types of EQ but when you’re working in a DAW, it’s likely that you’ll be using a parametric EQ. Parametric EQ allows you to select the frequency, bandwidth and gain. It’s the producer’s go-to tool to fix all sorts of production challenges. Need a little more slap from the congas? Too much sizzle on the hi-hats? A bit too much boom but not enough thud in the kick drum? These are all things that can be tackled using your EQ. But! There are two golden rules to remember:
1 Always try to fix the problem at the source first – EQ is a wonderful tool, but before you reach for the gain control, it’s worth checking to see if you’ve chosen an appropriate sound.
2 If you’re happy with the sound choice then it’s almost always preferable, at least in the first instance, to cut the EQ rather than boost.
You can think of creating a well mixed track like creating a sonic jigsaw. Each sound – a beat, a loop, a bass line, a sample or a vocal – needs to fit neatly with all the others to create the whole. Putting a mix together should involve sculpting out spaces in the frequency spectrum for each part to sit in. You can do this by using EQ to remove parts of the audio spectrum that are un-needed, and that are getting in the way of other parts. It’s way too easy to give a few little boosts to some parts in isolation and suddenly find yourself with an overcooked, bright or harsh sounding mix. Far better to begin your mixdown by making cuts, cleaning up and decluttering.
For example, you might want to make your bassline really cut through the mix. Instead of just using the EQ to add extra bass, it would make more sense to check other parts in the track and experiment with making EQ cuts at low and lower-mid frequencies to declutter the sonic space in which the bass is sitting. The trick is to work out what are the essential / fundamental parts of the sonic spectrum that the bassline ‘lives in’ – what frequency makes it sing – and then to check the other individual non-bass parts of your mix and see if you can cut some or all of this particular frequency area away from them without affecting them adversely.
Finding the ‘Sweet Spot’
To do this, you need to find the ‘sweet spot’ – the point in the frequency spectrum where the ‘heart’ of a sound is, the part which gives it its own personal character. The standard method is to solo the part, in this example, we’re talking about a bassline, and use a Parametric EQ with a narrow bandwidth (or ‘Q’) setting and turn the boost right up. Then sweep the EQ all the way along the frequency spectrum and back again, until you find the part that you like and that contains the main character, the ‘sweet spot’, or the essence of that particular sound. Depending on our audio material, we might find that a boost at 100Hz gives our bassline some really nice fatness. So we then take the parametric EQ off the bass and listen to the other parts in the mix to see if any of them contain extraneous low-end information, particularly around 100Hz that you can cut without affecting their overall sound in the mix.
Things like pads and drones and percussion like toms can contain lots of bass information that you can remove without it affecting the sound and impact of these parts in the mix. This then clears out a nice big space for your bassline to sit in. But even sounds that you perceive as being in the top frequencies may have extra un-needed bass information too.
Once you’ve done this process, you may find that you don’t even need to boost the bass at all. However, if you still feel you want more from your bassline, you can start to boost instead of cut. A boost at the sweet spot might work well. You might also find that a little boost in the lower mid area, perhaps between 800Hz and 2kHz might bring out some of the other harmonics in the bassline and give it a little punch and clarity.
Which frequencies you choose to boost or cut will be at least partly down to personal taste and obviously, each production will bring its own challenges. Also, you will need to experiment with bandwidth or ‘Q’ – how wide or thin your EQ curve is going to be. This and the amount of gain or reduction will to a certain extent be affected by the particular sounds that you’re working on, and if these are samples, whether they’ve had any processing. So whilst there are no hard and fast rules, as the chart above shows, there are some generally acknowledged applications for applying EQ to sounds with lots of bass information like synth basslines, kick drums, toms, bass guitars, vocals and so on:
- 50Hz – Increase to add fullness to the lowest instruments or sounds in your mix like kick drums and basslines. Decrease in reduce ‘boominess’ in your basslines or kicks
- 100Hz – Increase to add more ‘punch’ or ‘hardness’ to bass sounds. Reduce to increase clarity.
- 200Hz – Increase to add fullness to snares, guitars, mid range synths etc., reduce to decrease ‘muddiness’ in vocals or other mid range sounds.
- 400Hz – A boost at 400Hz might add clarity to basslines, particularly at low volumes. A cut can reduce ‘boxiness’ of low-end sounds.
- 800Hz – Again, a boost around 800Hz can increase the clarity and punch of bass sounds.
So that’s our introduction to using EQ on your bass sounds to deal with certain problems. In summary, we would always recommend that you try to fix any issue at source first, and when you do use EQ, always try cutting some frequencies to deal with a problem before you boost.
A Beginners Guide To Bass (Part 1)
Working with samples brings its own particular challenges. In this 2 -part, beginners-guide article, we’re going to look at some of the bass-related problems that can arise when using samples in your productions, and how to fix them. Read Part 2 here.
The bass is perhaps the defining feature of any dance track – the low end of the frequency spectrum is where the majority of the energy is going to be coming from when your track gets played on a club sound system – so getting it right is essential. Whether you’re using analog synths, VST’s or samples in your work, regardless of the source you’ll need to pay close attention to the bass.
How Low Can You Go?
One of the great things about sampling is the instant mangling that you can do – just a couple of tweaks on a pitch shifter and a big dollop of reverb and you can turn a syrupy soul vocal into the dark satanic ghost of Barry White. Extreme pitch effects on vocals, making them either high-pitched ‘chipmunks’ or spooky rumbling monsters have been used for years in dance music, and to great effect – but any samples that have been substantially pitched down can be tricky for the home producer to handle. Human hearing generally only goes down to 20Hz and your home monitors – unless you have a subwoofer – are probably only going to respond down to about 50Hz. A club sound system, however, will respond to bass frequencies lower than the range of human hearing.
If it isn’t a bassline or a kick drum, then applying a high pass filter might be a wise move – a simple roll off of everything between (approx.) 80-120Hz might be effective as there are often unintended low-end frequencies hanging out in other elements of your track too. Our advice is to go as high as you can without noticeably impacting the sound. Whenever you’re making adjustments to EQ or levels, it’s how things sound in the context of the entire track that’s important, not how they sound in isolation. A part that you’ve filtered the low end out of may sound a little thin and weedy on its own but fit just right within the context of the overall mix.
If you’re having problems getting your kick and bassline to work together, it’s often really useful to work on the rest of the parts first. Placing an EQ on all of the channels in your DAW and rolling off unwanted low-frequencies with a high pass filter on every channel except the kick and the bass is a good habit to get into, ensuring that there is nothing at all in the mix to interfere with the low end.
The Single Most Important Tool
When it comes to getting that low end right in your mixes, experience and your ears are the best tools and it’s worth taking the time to ‘train’ your ears, by listening to your own productions and comparing them to those of your favourite producers. This can really shed light on the relative levels of the different parts in a track, and the balance and energy that’s needed – something that new producers often struggle with.
One the best pieces of advice that you’ll hear again and again throughout your production career is to check your mixes in as many places as you can: on small computer speakers, studio monitors, headphones, the cheap mp3 player in the kitchen and of course the classic ‘car test’. All of these locations will give you different feedback on how effective your low end is, not to mention the rest of your mix. If you get it sounding good in all those places, there’s a good chance it will translate well anywhere. The big test, of course, is a club system, so if you can, try and find someone who’ll let you road-test your stuff on a big rig; you may be amazed at how different it sounds to how it sounded in your studio.
What Does Your Room Sound Like?
Stepping away from the screen for a moment, room acoustics are essential to production and to accurate bass mixing too. Whilst you may not be able to professionally acoustically treat your room at home, you can at least always ensure that you and your monitors are all sitting at the corners of an equilateral triangle, which will assist substantially with hearing the ‘true’ sound coming out of the monitors. Soft furnishing and wall hangings can help dampen unhelpful sound reflections too, but it’s learning how your room actually behaves that is the most crucial thing here. If you have a good idea of how the shape and nature of your room affects what your music sounds like, then this will be a huge help when producing and making critical decisions. Again, this information is learned by listening and comparing in other environments, and then going back and adjusting your mix accordingly.
Another low-end issue that can affect samples is this: you scour your Dad’s old records and finally find a cool little snippet of audio – it’s got drums, it’s got bass but most importantly it’s got a superb groove. So you sample it, chop it, edit it and loop it and it’s sounding great – until you compare it to a contemporary song when you realise that older tracks often lack the power and impact of modern recordings: they simply don’t have the huge, precision engineered low end that we’re used to, and sound thin in comparison. You can encounter a similar issue if you pitch a sample up: you start to lose bass information and it starts to sound thin and weak. In this situation, before you start reaching for the bass EQ, you could try a couple of other things:
If it’s a bassline or full track groove that you’ve sampled, you could try playing a sub bass underneath it – this will increase the low-end impact without affecting the character of the sample – although you’ll need to play it very tightly to make it work. The second, and easier option might be to try using a bass-enhancer plug in – most DAWs come with bass enhancers and of course, there are plenty of external plugins available that will do the same job of generating lower end harmonics to beef up your bass.
There’s More To Bass Than Meets The Ear
Another thing that is useful to remember is that bass and kick drum samples don’t just contain bass frequencies, they are often rich in harmonics and aside from their fundamental frequency will often have lots of other sonic information present as well, including plenty of mid-range and sometimes even some top end too. Experiment with gentle, narrow mid-range EQ boosts to see if that gives your bass sounds that extra impact you’re looking for. Alternatively, you could apply some distortion, overdrive or saturation which can introduce some higher frequency content to help the sound cut through the mix.
Getting the low end right is essential if you want to make tunes that seriously bang in the club. There’s no one easy trick, it’s a combination of a number of small techniques that add up to great sounding bass. We have only briefly touched on EQ which we’ll delve deeper into in part 2. is covered in part 2. Meanwhile, if you’re just starting out in your production career, we recommend that you: start to train your ears, listen to your work on lots of different speakers, and compare your tracks to those by your favourite producers. Do these three things and you’ll definitely be on the right track.
A Guide To The Law & Sampling
Sampling is a part of the audio landscape now, but there was a time when it was utterly revolutionary and many argue that sampling is the most radical development in the history of 20th century recorded music. The ability to take a piece of someone else’s recorded audio and use it in your own composition completely revolutionised the process of making music and was a huge contributing factor in the development of various types of dance and electronic music. Many classic tunes are made from little more than a sample and a beat, and entire genres have been built from just a few samples – see jungle/drum & bass and the ‘Hot Pants’, ‘Apache’, ‘Funky Drummer’, and ‘Think’ breaks as well as the now ubiquitous ‘Amen’ break, about much has been written, including a couple of excellent documentaries which have been made on the break’s origins and importance.
Although artists like the Beatles and others had used tape loops on their records back in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that sampling technology caught up with the desires of producers and artists. However, in 1980 you’d need to pay around £20,000 to buy a Fairlight CMI, a digital synth which also contained a rudimentary sampler. But hardware samplers soon dropped in price and increased in functionality. The Akai S-Series of samplers arrived in 1986, just in time to assist Techno, Acid House, Hardcore and Jungle to bloom and develop into the countless sub-genres we have today and it was quickly followed by the iconic MPC, famously used by J-Dilla, Pete Rock and DJ Shadow and responsible for many a hip hop anthem. Whether you know it or not, no matter what type of dance or electronic music you enjoy, Hip Hop, Techno, Jungle, UK Garage or House – you can be almost certain it’s full of samples.
Now of course, software samplers are standard and it’s an oft-quoted statistic that the processing power we all carry round in our phones, let alone our computers, is way more powerful than the computers that got us to the moon and back. Modern software samplers are characterised by the ease by which we can sample any audio and incorporate it into our own work. Pitch, tempo, style – nothing is a barrier – the software will aid you in manipulating almost sample to fit in your track with the minimum of fuss.
Sample It, Chop It, Loop It!
The landscape of music has altered significantly in the last 30 years, with new technology enabling musicians, producers and consumers to create and interact in new, exciting ways. Nowhere is this more true than in electronic music, where the DJs’ role has now fully merged with that of the producer, with DJs often making use of sampling, looping and re-edits in their sets and many of them releasing music largely based on the grooves and loops of older tracks. This is where legal issues become relevant.
The major issue around sampling is that using another person’s original recordings without their permission constitutes a copyright infringement, for which there will likely be legal consequences. Court cases and claims may well prevent you from ever earning a penny from the work containing the infringing sample if it isn’t cleared in advance. The central issue is covered by the UK Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, and can be summed up succinctly as “If it’s not yours, you don’t have the right to use it without permission”. To understand exactly what we can and can’t legally sample, we need to look at this in a little more detail.
The Legal Bit…
The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 is a set of laws that dictate how creators can control the ways their material can be used (in the UK, under UK law). When a producer uses someone else’s sound recording without their prior permission – ie: when they sample a loop, vocal, instrument, drum beat or even just a single note from someone else’s work – in legal terms it is considered to be:
- A breach of copyright in the original sound recording,
- A breach of copyright in the music (and lyrics, if lyrics have been sampled),
- An unauthorised use of the performances in the original work.
This applies, in theory at least, in all of the following cases:
- Even if you only used a tiny snippet
- Even if you buried it under other lots of other programmed parts
- Even if you reversed it, pitched it down and put it through every single effect you could find on your DAW
- Even if you’re pretty sure no one will notice it
In UK law, we use the doctrine of “substantial similarity”, which means that a substantial part of the copyrighted piece of music has to have been used in order for there to be an infringement. In practice, this might mean that if you sample a single horn hit from someone else’s tune and use it in one of your productions, you might get away with it – but you should know that all major record companies have entire departments, peopled by professional researchers, musicologists and lawyers, whose job it is to find sample infractions and to collect money for them. And if that horn stab was from a famous song, made a substantial contribution to your track, and you’ve not asked for permission, then legally you’ll not have a leg to stand on. There are also the ethical and professional considerations too – we wouldn’t like it if someone profited from our work without crediting and remunerating us, so should surely show others the same professional respect too.
Read The Small Print!
As a general rule of thumb, it’s very likely that any record contract you sign will require you to indemnify (protect) the label against any potential claims arising from copyright infringement. This means that it’s your responsibility to ensure that any samples have been cleared. So you’ll need the permission of the record label and usually the publisher too before you release any sound recording containing the sample. It might be that if the copyright wasn’t assigned to a publisher then you’ll need to track down the original copyright owners – or even their heirs – and bear in mind that some songs have more than one writer, so this can be quite a lengthy process.
It’s common practice these days to employ a sample clearing company who can negotiate a usage rate for you with the record label or publisher – and this is far more sensible than waiting until your tune blows up big and then asking for permission as you will have already broken the law. If you didn’t ask for permission and your tune blows up, it’s entirely possible that the record company legal team will attempt to get a higher percentage, perhaps even 100% of the royalties, than if you’d sought permission. Also, another scenario might be that the original copyright owner demands that the release is recalled and you have to re-record it and re-release it with the sample removed, which is no easy feat in this digital age, and would ruin all the hard work and planning you put into promoting the record.
A sample clearing company will charge you a flat rate and attempt to get you the best deal available. Remember, record companies want to make money, so it’s usually in their interest to strike a deal with people who sample their catalogue. All these considerations shouldn’t deter you from sampling – the big companies are set up for this stuff – you just have to do things the right way. The deal you get will depend on how much of the copyrighted audio you used, how well known the original recording was, the prominence of the sample and the likelihood of your release being successful.
Of course, none of these restrictions apply to legally bought sample packs. When you pay for a sample pack you are paying for a licence to freely use the samples in your own compositions. You can build a track entirely from legally bought samples and if it’s a huge break out hit, you won’t have to pay anything to whoever you bought the samples from. This is the big advantage of using commercial sample packs over sampling others original published works – once you’ve paid for it, it’s yours. Click here to browse our full range of royalty-free collections.
There are some limits here though, and again, the law is very clear on this. Most sample retail sites will have some variation of the following guidelines about what you can and can’t do with the samples you buy: you can use the samples in your own compositions, but you can’t sell, loan, rent, lease, assign, or transfer samples to another user, or use them in any competitive product and potentially library music (although this varies between companies and products). So this means that the licence is non-transferrable and you are not allowed to share your sample pack with the rest of the internet or try to sell them as if they were your own.
So that’s our basic guide to the legalities of sampling. We hope you find it useful. If in doubt, you should always seek the advice of the Musicians Union or talk to any of the sample clearance companies online and if you do choose to release a record that contains a sample, our lawyers have advised us to advise you that this article does not constitute legal advice and does not take the place of a qualified music attorney.
10 Tips For Better Mixdowns
1. Start With The Most Important Elements
Decide what the most important elements of your track should be, and begin with those. This way you can start to build a hierarchy that will help you make decisions about what should have prominence – and how much of the ‘landscape’ it should take up. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how much we’re generally drawn to the drums as an automatic starting point. Whilst this works for drum & bass and most house or techno, drums are clearly not the focal point in pop, jazz or ambient records and so it really makes no sense to start your mixing process with those. If your song is a pop song, then almost all of the time the vocal will need to be the most prominent element of the mix – if it’s a jazz record, then it’s likely you’ll want to hear the keyboard or the piano as the most dominant instrument. Decide, and then mix accordingly, bringing in each element in order of importance.
2. Write Drunk, Mix Sober
We’ve all been there – you’re feeling inspired during a late one in the studio, perhaps after a great gig or life-changing night out, but I’d strongly caution against making critical mixing decisions during these sessions. As the old literary saying goes, “write drunk, edit sober”, and I think it’s sound advice for a few reasons:
Many drugs, especially alcohol, create a false sense of confidence in us, and this extends to our decision making. It’s also been found that (time for the science), alcohol actually changes our hearing response and the linked study notes that “that alcohol impairs the processing of tones, frequency change and novel sounds at different phases of auditory processing similarly in both hemispheres”. Beginning the writing process with the help of intoxicants can be beneficial as we tend to be less inhibited, more in the ‘flow’ state and initially this can help us to be more inventive, more child-like and creative, reducing the insecurity that often plagues us once we start to over-analyse what we’re doing.
So mixing when intoxicated might be fun, but in my experience, from a critical and technical perspective it rarely yields good results. Everybody is different, of course, and people react to intoxicants in different ways. You genuinely might do your best work under these conditions and I find it to be true that the more experienced you are, the better you’ll be whatever the conditions. Most of the great music of the 60’s and 70’s (and many other times) was recorded and/or mixed by musicians and engineers high on all sorts of substances. Music and drug culture are inextricably linked and there’s no getting away from that – so if you choose to indulge, please do it in a safe way that minimises the harm to yourself and others. That being said, my advice is always to do final mixes after a good night’s sleep, with fresh ears and a clear head, especially if it’s an area you’re still trying to master and understand.
3. Less Is More – Refine Your Arrangement.
The mixdown process is also a great opportunity to refine your arrangement. My first bit of advice here would be to try and avoid being strictly wedded to a certain arrangement if it hinders your ability to mix the record well. For instance, If you’re having trouble getting a fairly harsh sounding synth solo to sit with a lead vocal part, whilst you could try eq’ing some of the harshness or lowering the volume of one of the tracks, it might be a better solution to consider moving the synth solo so that in comes in once the lead vocal stops, and leaves a more natural space for it. Making these types of creative decisions can save you hours of frustration trying to get 2 parts to play together in a cohesive way. In addition, Once you start to add processing to channels or groups, you may notice that certain parts of the mix now have more energy, or an emphasised tonality and should take on a more (or less!) significant role in the overall musical idea. Very often I find that elements that I was set on at the start of the creation process and that I felt would be crucial and basically indispensable to the record can now be removed completely without negatively affecting the overall feel, energy and vibe of the track. If you’re making club-focused music, this is especially important since the more elements you have, the more information has to be translated (and is likely to get lost) over a loud club system. You’re far better off having the minimum number of excellently produced and mixed elements as you can get by with.
4. Take Breaks, And Rest Your Ears Often.
Taking regular breaks is important, especially when mixing. Not only does it prevent ear fatigue and reduce potential longer-term ear damage when listening at high volumes for long periods, but it acts as a kind of ‘ear reset’ so that once you go back to the mix, you should be able to hear different elements pop out at you. I’d recommend something like a 5 or 10 minute break after each hour of mixing. Keeping the volume at a reasonable level will assist you too. If your mix doesn’t sound right at a low volume, turning it up won’t help you. You might think it sounds better, but that’s a flaw in the way our brains process audio. I cannot stress the importance of keeping the volume at a comfortable level. It’s fine to kick it up at certain points to check for energy, or impact or clarity, but do this sparingly. Your ears, and neighbours, will thank you.
5. Reach For The Reference Tracks.
Reference tracks have become an integral part of my mixing process. I personally buy all my music as AIFF files so that these same tracks can double as high quality reference tracks, as well as being used in my DJ sets. Sometimes I’ll feel great when I’m A/B’ing a reference master that I really like, and I can hear that my track sounds pretty close to it, and sometimes it has the total opposite effect if I can hear that my mix isn’t sounding anything like it. It’s important to volume balance because of course a mastered track is always going to be louder than the one you’re currently working on (unless you’ve got processing on your master output). Sometimes I’ll use a compressor and a limiter to achieve a comparable volume while I’m mixing but for the most part I prefer to mix without these. Magic AB and Perception, although perhaps aimed more at the mastering stage than the mixing stage, are 2 useful pieces of software that I utilise – Magic AB is simpler to set up, but Perception has the benefit of level matching your audio first so that you can hear if you’re actually improving your track, rather than just making it louder.
6. Get To Know Your Room.
If you haven’t already realised, your mixing environment will lie to you. Unless you’re fortunate enough to be working in a purpose-built, perfectly treated and acoustically tuned space then your room will be interacting with and affecting the sound once it leaves the speakers. Simply put, sound waves travel from your monitors through the room, and then behave in a particular way depending on which surfaces they hit. Without getting deep into acoustics (a subject which is way beyond the scope of this article), this is something that you need to be aware of, because the decisions you make when mixing will be based on the (most likely skewed) frequency response and behaviour of your mixing environment. This can lead to all sorts of issues in relation to bass levels, stereo width, comb filtering and so on.
There are several ways that you can try to reduce the negative effects of the space you’re working in, and I’d recommend spending a little bit of time on this, especially as many people now are using spare bedrooms and basements, etc as project/home studios. If you’re starting out making music it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have given anywhere near as much thought to your mixing environment as you have to what monitors or interface you’d like to buy. You can get away with not having a perfect room as long as you understand what’s going on with your room. So here’s my advice:
- Reference tracks – whilst sitting in your mix position, listen to lots of music, preferably in WAV or AIFF format from the same or similar genres and start to get a feel for how they sound in your room.
- Consider purchasing a cheap measurement mic and running some sweeps using Fuzzmeasure or Sonarworks. The software is fairly pricey, but for both of these applications there’s a free trial that you can use to give you an idea of the issues your room might be hiding. Even if you choose not to purchase, the measurements you get can still be helpful in knowing exactly where you stand in terms of frequency response. Sonarworks also do headphone calibration too, which enables you to work on headphones much more confidently and achieve a result that’s much closer to what it would be if you were working on monitors.
- A Subpac is a great solution for judging the low-end of your track. Whilst they’re not perfect (you’ll need to get the volume right by using reference tracks) and can be a little rattly when pushed too hard, they are useful for honing in on how your kick and bass are interacting and for giving you an idea of just how much low-end is below the frequency range that your monitors can pick up. ‘Feeling’ the music more closely to how you’d experience it in a club can also help you in getting a vibe from what you’re working on.
7. Observe The landscape.
Landscape is a term which I love to use as an analogy to mixing audio, because in the same way that you view a photo or painting, when you listen to a sound recording you are hearing an audio landscape. Some parts of the recording might be close and upfront, and draw your focus (like vocals, or lead guitars), some may be panned left or right in the stereo field, and some may be way back in the distance (such as washed out vocals, or subtle sound fx), and many of the sounds you hear will likely have been processed with the specific intention of making them ‘sit’ in a particular space in that picture. When we talk about ‘presence’ or ‘clarity’ or ‘stereo field’ what we really mean is ‘the space this element should occupy in relation to other elements’. Not every element of our mix can be upfront and draw our focus. Not every instrument in our mix can occupy the same space, sonically. Creating a sense of space and depth can be achieved by thinking of your audio in this way and I personally find that it actually makes things easier when you accept that not everything can be the focus, and doesn’t need to occupy a dominant space in your mix.
8. Find The Sweet Spot.
I believe that every instrument/channel in your mix has a ‘sweet spot’. A sweet spot from a mixing perspective is defined as being neither too loud nor too quiet – in other words, the optimal volume as it relates to it’s place in your audio landscape. A good way to find this sweet spot is to come up with a range for each track in your mix. You can do this slowly turning the channel down in volume until it feels too quiet, and you’re struggling to hear it. Make a note of that volume, because you know it’s not going to be any lower than that. Then, reset the channel back to where you initially had it, and turn it up, 1db at a time. Pretty quickly you’ll reach a point where it’s very obviously too loud. Make a note of this volume, because you know it won’t be any higher than that. Your ‘sweet spot’ for each channel or instrument is somewhere between these 2 points. You may also benefit from some subtractive eq when trying to get 2 parts to work together.
9. Create A Separate ‘Mixdown’ Project File.
When starting the mixing process, I’d recommend creating a ‘Mixdown’ version of your project file as an alternative so that if you wish to go back to the original and start over, then you have that option. I have been guilty of the overzealous processing of channels more times than I’d like to admit, and this has led to the track sounding unnatural, lifeless and too far away from the original feel and sound that I intended for the record. Having the original version and being able to ‘go back to the drawing board’ as it were, has been a lifesaver on many occasions.
10. Perfect Doesn’t Exist, So Stop Chasing It.
Mixing, in it’s most simplistic form, is about actively listening to the audio coming from the speakers, and then making decisions based on what you’re hearing. It’s about balancing the individual elements in a way that maximises the potential and emotion that you (or the producer of the record) intended. Like anything else, the more of this you do, the better at it you’ll become. It’s very easy to get lured in by the belief that spending more time on something will make it better, and very often this isn’t the case. There’s a famous story that Bruce Swedien tells about mixing Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean 91 times, before eventually going back to mix 2, which was the version released on the ‘Thriller’ album and is the one that we all know and love.
My point here is that even a record which we think of as perfect, probably isn’t to the people that made it, and they likely went through the same process of self-doubt that you are. The longer you spend on something, and the more you tweak it, the more you run the risk of losing perspective (and your sanity). For every record I’ve ever made, I could pick out 2 or 3 things which I hate, or that I would have done differently, or that I feel could be improved. At some point, we have to commit to a mix being finished and let go of the fear of judgment that might come when we say “this is done. It’s finished.”