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Producing Natural-Sounding MIDI Notes

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

When making electronically-produced music, you’ll find yourself often programming notes rather than playing them. People who don’t understand the medium will say that this makes the music cold, mechanical and lifeless, but they simply don’t understand the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes into manually arranging notes. A composer needs to take into account very precise attributes of every note of every measure of every part they program. This can be very daunting. When I write melodies that are more complex than I can feasibly play, I’ll use Cubase’s piano-roll style grid to place notes, and then I’ll let the computer play them. In the early days, this usually meant that the notes sounded harsh and machine-like. How do I fix this? How can I make MIDI-generated tones sound more natural to the listener?

Well, I thought, human hands are not machines. We don’t hit every note on precisely the right beat, right? After placing my notes, I would nudge them just slightly out of sync with the rhythm. Hopefully this would be the subtle change needed to make the music sound more organic. Right?

As it turns out, the hands of a trained musician actually have excellent rhythm; better than you would ever expect. Once I’d learned to play piano with some moderate skill I found that my own notes pretty much hit precisely on the beat when needed. My nudging of the MIDI tracks only served to make my melodies sound amateur and unrefined.

No, the key to lifelike melodies, I found, is in the velocity of the notes played. With some exceptions, almost all of your machine-played notes can be placed in perfect sync as long as they have heavily varied velocities. Velocity, in this case, means how hard the note is played. Think of the difference between a piano being played softly and a piano being played loudly and you’ll know what I mean.
I could spend several paragraphs describing the method to you, but I’ll let this picture do most of the talking:



As you can see in this very generic guide, the odd-numbered notes are louder, while the even ones are quieter. You can also see that there’s a more subtle pattern of general volume change: The smaller the note (8th, 16th, 32nd etc.) the more likely it will be relatively quiet when it is not on the main beats of a measure.

When making a melody, I will start with this pattern and then adjust it according to what I want it to sound like for that particular part. Following this pattern works particularly well for complex melodies with many notes.

If you simply follow that chart to the letter, your melody will still have a machine-like quality to it. It’s best to arrange your velocities in this pattern and then adjust everything a little afterward, putting emphasis on certain notes for dramatic effect. This particular chart, for example, is clearly skewed towards something that emphasizes beats on 1 and 3, which you don’t alway want. Try adding a little randomness too and see how it comes out. The beauty of MIDI-generated music is that if you don’t like it, you can endlessly tweak it until it sounds perfect.

Do you have any cool techniques for MIDI melodies?

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Microphones, Cables and Everything Else in Your Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is the final part of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

So, you’ve got your room for your studio, you’ve set up your computer, hooked up your audio interface and installed your recording software. What’s next? Actually, a lot of stuff.

Microphones

Unless you’re an all-software kind of musician, you need a microphone or two. Entire books have been written on the subject of microphones and how they are used in different situations; it’s a very large field. You can get specialized mics for any instrument you can think of for thousands of dollars and often they are purchased in pairs. If you’re like me, though, and I know I am, you don’t have those kinds of resources. I’ll try to point you to some general-purpose mics instead.

AKG Perception 120 – This is the one I use in my studio. It’s a good general purpose mic that has a very crisp sound. It comes in a nice case with a shock mount. It usually goes for around $120.

Shure SM57 – This is a classic mic that has been in use for something like 30 years. It generally goes for $70 to $100. It works great for guitar amps and drum kits, (just don’t put it too close to the kick drum; that’ll be too much for it) and if you get a decent preamp, it works pretty well for vocals too.

Wait, what is a preamp? What a great question! A good microphone needs power to sound good. Some microphones can work with very little power but they’re not very sensitive, i.e. your computer microphone that comes with your webcam. The more power your microphone has, the better your overall recording quality will be. A preamp’s job is to provide power to your microphone, which your mixer or audio interface may not be able to do. My M-Audio FireWire 1814 audio interface also acts as a preamp, but I’m thinking about picking up a separate one.

Don’t forget to check out my article How Microphones Work.

Cables

You should get cables for each device you have. Don’t scrimp here. A cable for each microphone you have, two 1/4 inch cables for each synthesizer or drum machine you have. Also, you may be tempted, as I was, to get shorter cables to save money. This really isn’t a good idea. 3-foot cables are almost useless unless your device sits right on top of your audio interface. Get at least 6-foot cables for everything. You might consider getting a particularly long mic cable, as you never know how you might set up a mic and you may need some extra length to accommodate.

Everything Else

There are lots of other items you’ll most likely want to round out your studio and make it more usable.

Mic stand – If you have a microphone, you want a mic stand as well. What, are you going to hire someone to hold the mic in front of the guitarist while he plays?

Stools/chairs – A musician needs to sit on something while they play, especially during long recording sessions. Simple, cheap stools or chairs do the trick.

Instrument stands – for putting guitars and such on between records. A rack could work pretty well also.

Vocal booth – If the room for your studio has a closet, this is a great opportunity to turn that into a vocal booth. You often want an intimate sound when recording vocals, and even in a padded studio room a voice can sound echoey in recordings. This is why professionals have separate recording booths. If you don’t have a closet, try to find some other way to isolate a singer as best you can. Always experiment!

Mini-fridge/food – Long studio sessions can lead to hunger. Always keep musicians happy and fed.

Couch – for lounging. ‘Nuff said.

Now get in there and start making some music. Let me know how it goes!

Go to part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

>>> Go back to the index

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Audio Recording Software for Your Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is Part 4 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

We’re now down to the last big component of your beast of a studio. To add this last piece, we need to dive into the prickly, sometimes confusing realm of software. Luckily for you, though, there are a lot of easy options to work with.

What does the software do? In the old days of recording, I’m talking, say, pre-Beatles era, audio-guys would just stick a microphone in front of a preforming band. The band would play, the mic would record onto a big reel of tape, and the audio-guy would call it a day and presumably get trashed afterward. Now, we’ve all listened to those old recordings and, well, they’ve got personality, but overall they sound pretty bad.

There’s a misconception among folks that modern stuff sounds great in comparison because our space-age microphones and recording media are simply better, but that’s actually only a very small part of the reason. Most engineers can’t even tell the difference between a well-built microphone from the 1930’s and a well built microphone just off the assembly-line.

The real reason modern recordings sound so good is because of the multitrack recording technique. Essentially multitracking allows you to record and synchronize multiple tracks at the same time, drums on one track, guitar on another and your vocals on a third, for example. You can add effects and edit each of these tracks without affecting the others or destroying or really even changing the original audio, allowing you free reign to tweak the sound until it’s perfect. Since the edits you make are on top of the audio in a separate layer instead ofintegrated into it, if you mess up you don’t need to rerecord — you just take off the edit and you still have your pristine file. For a more in-depth explanation of how it works, read my very first article: An Introduction to Multitrack Recording. Back yet? Okay, now we can delve into software.

There are several options at your disposal and in fact some of them happen to be free of charge. Lets take a look at the free ones first.

GarageBand – If you’re using an Apple computer for your studio, then, lucky you, you’ve already got software built-in. Professionals may scoff at it, but GarageBand is a true, honest-to-god multitrack system, that you can use to record real stuff. Like all Apple products, it’s easy to use. This would be a great place to start, and it won’t cost you a dime if you’ve already got a Mac.

Kristal – Another free bit of software, Kristal is so good they could charge $100 for it and people would be willing to pay it. 16 audio tracks, effects built in. VST support. This has everything. If you’re just starting out, get this first. You can’t beat free.

Those are the nice free ones, and are probably good enough for anything you might need. If you really want to go pro, however, then following is the studio software that’ll take big chunks out of your wallet. Keep in mind, all these are competing with each other for your business, but really, ask any professional and they’ll tell you they all do the same thing. The important thing is that you take the time to learn to use your software effectively.

DigiDesign ProTools – ProTools is usually the software choice for professionals. You can get the LE version for around $150. The high-end, HD version is much more, but seriously, you probably won’t need it. The nice thing about ProTools is that there’s a lot of specialized hardware, like mixing consoles and audio interfaces, that can accompany the software seamlessly. DigiDesign has built a whole, unified system around ProTools and supports it really well. I’ve used it some, and I believe it is geared more towards traditional studio recording, so it may have just slightly less support for purely electronic and MIDI setups.

Steinberg Cubase – This here is my software of choice. Steinberg invented the VST (Virtual Studio Technology) system, which is a platform, of sorts, for developers to create new systems that ‘plug in’ to Cubase, so you can add things like new effects processors or synthesizers. It has been so successful that other companies have added VST support to their systems. Anyway, Cubase is more geared towards electronic setups, but it can handle pure acoustic recording just fine, as I’ve used it for both. Cubase Studio 5, the current lower end version, goes for $299, which is pretty pricey.

Cakewalk Sonar – To be honest I don’t know a whole lot about Cakewalk, and their product line is a little convoluted, but I know there are some artists that swear by it. The Home Studio version goes for a paltry (by comparison) $100, so it may be the most cost-effective of the bunch.

Remember to approach your software as you would an instrument: This is something you need to practice with and learn the intricacies of before you can really be effective with it. Find tutorials online and record and experiment as much as you can.

You’ll most likely be overwhelmed by all the stuff onscreen when you boot up your software of choice for the first time. Here are some items to help get you oriented:

1. Find out how to get your Audio Interface talking to your Software. This is the first thing you need to do. You want to be able to hook up a microphone and start recording, so make sure it actually works when you do it. Go through the manuals for both products, and if all else fails ask the internet: search for both items in a single query on Google.

2. Figure out how to make new tracks. Also, each track has a ‘recording input.’ This is how it decides where it gets it’s sound, be it from the microphone or the synthesizer or the bass guitar. Find out how to set this.

3. Automation. It’s generally fairly simple to see how to change the volume of a track manually, but what you really want is to have the volume change throughout the song automatically, such as when an instrument fades out. This is usually called automation. Automation can cover other things too, like panning the sound left and right, or mixing effect levels.

4. Find the keyboard shortcuts. I can’t emphasize this enough. Learn the keyboard commands! They will make your life easier.

5. Learn how to use Equalization and Effects. Equalization (EQ) is your best friend. You can use it to cut or boost, with great precision, any range of frequencies in your individual audio tracks. You do this so that you can fit lots of different sounds together without it all sounding like mud. Fiddle around with EQ a lot to learn how it works. Also experiment with effects as much as you can.

Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or How to Get Sound into the Computer

>>> Go to Part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

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Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound into Your Computer

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is Part 3 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Now that you’ve got a computer, it’s entirely possible that you’re now standing in front of it with your guitar or piano or whatever, your eyes slowly moving back and forth between the two objects in a confused manner, wondering how to get sound into machine. At least, that’s what I did.

You see, computers don’t normally come with a usable audio interface. Sure, you’ve got a sound card, and it probably has a tiny microphone jack, but you’re not actually thinking of using that, are you? Are you??

So what is an audio interface? It’s a box that hooks up to your computer, usually through FireWire (you did remember to get a computer that has FireWire capability, right?) On this box is a number of inputs, for taking in sound, and outputs for, uh, outputting sound. I’ve made a little diagram to show you how it all works. This is to give you an idea of roughly how your studio should be set up:

Click on the image to see it full-size.
Now here are the different components that you want to look for in an audio interface:

Mic inputs

What can I say? These are for your microphones. If you do any acoustic stuff (guitars, drums, vocals, sound effects etc.) your audio interfac e should have at least two of these inputs on it. If you’re recording a whole band, you’ll want as many mic inputs as possible.

1/4-inch Line inputs
These are for bass guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, turntables or anything electronic. If you’ve got a rack full of synths, you’ll want more of these.

MIDI inputs

It’s hard to find an audio interface that doesn’t have MIDI inputs and outputs, but make sure yours has these anyway, especially if you’re planning an all-software electronic setup.

With all this in mind, here are a few interfaces I found with a little digging on Sweetwater.com:

PreSonus Inspire 1394 – This has two 1/4-inch inputs and two mic inputs for $200. No MIDI though.

Roland Edirol FA-66 – Now we’re talkin’. 2 mic inputs, 4 1/4-inch inputs, RCA inputs (you know, those red-and-white cables on your DVD player?) MIDI in and out, this one looks pretty sweet. Not bad for $280.

Alesis iO|26 – If you’ve got a larger studio setup, or you just want to get fancy, this has more inputs than you’ll ever need, plus you can use it to control your software. $430.

In my studio, I use an M-Audio FireWire 1814 , though these seem to be increasingly hard to find these days. It has eight 1/4-inch inputs, two mic inputs, MIDI and some other nice features. When it works, it works well, but it tends to crash a lot. Remember to do a lot of research before plunking down your cash for one of these devices. You can find reviews for just about any product by typing in the product name followed by the word ‘review’ on Google.

Hopefully, this can get you started with choosing an interface. What you get depends on your needs as a musician and recording artist. For example, I have more synths and workstations, so my interface has more 1/4-inch inputs. Some of you might have an all software setup, so you may only need midi inputs, in which case you’ll be spending very little on hardware and spending more on software.

Speaking of software, that’s our next issue to tackle. See you next week!

Go to Part 2: Get a Computer for Your Studio

>>> Go to Part 4: Audio Software

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The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

So you have a great band or you’re a composer and you really want to make a sweet album yourself, but you don’t know where to start? How does someone even record music? How does one go about putting together a studio? Don’t you need to go to school for that kind of thing?

Fear not, gentle reader. Like the majestic albatross, I swoop down from the heavens and bestow upon you the greatest tool you’ll ever receive, The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

My article Make Your Own Recording Studio is the most popular piece on this site. I’ve always felt like it was a bit short and lacking, so I really wanted to make something, well, more comprehensive and valuable. I hope this guide can help you make the whole process of home recording a little less daunting and mysterious and more fun.

Remember that there are roughly 5 million different ways to build a studio, and what I’m telling you covers just one way. The studio I’ve built for myself is a pretty good general purpose setup that is also highly portable and easily changeable, and that’s about what you’ll see in this guide.

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Get a Computer For Your Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is Part 2 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

The computer is the most important part of your studio. It is the brain, the place where all the audio and data crunching happens. You can make a studio without one, using a dedicated mixing console, but I find it more useful and intuitive to just use a computer. You can use it for not only recording, but also mastering and manipulating your files.
So what do you look for in a computer? The general rule of thumb is the more powerful, the better. You need RAM to manipulate multiple audio tracks at the same time; essential for multitrack studios. You need hard drive space to store all these recorded tracks. Again, that is essential. You need a speedy CPU so you can actually hear the audio while you’re editing it, without delays. Jeez, it’s starting to sound like you simply need the most expensive machine available, doesn’t it?
Here’s the thing though. If you have a computer that was built in the last few years, then it can probably work with multitrack software, and you can use it for your studio, just fine. You don’t absolutely need the most powerful system money can buy. Computer makers prey on people’s desire to own the best product and will release new systems every few months to maximize their profits. You don’t need to give in to their pressure. As long as you have a system that works fine for you, you have no need to upgrade. Wrap that thing in duct tape and write “NO UPGRADES EVER” on it . That’ll keep it working for years.
I’m reluctant to write down precisely what you should get since standards do change over time and will potentially make this article out of date. It is good to have a reference though, so I’ll put the minimum that you should have in order to have a seamless, trouble free experience. Hopefully, if you’re an advanced space-musician from the future, my writing will help you get the gist of what you should get for your Infini-core DNA Supercomputer even if the numbers I list seem laughably out of date.
  • CPU: Get something 1.5 Ghz or faster. This may sound a bit low to gamers or graphic designers but the fact is people have done multitracking on computers since the 1980’s with much, much slower CPU’s than that. I’ve personally recorded professional-level audio using Cubase on machines that were 700 Mhz and 1.5 Ghz and it’s always worked without a hitch. This is the one area where you can afford to cut costs a little. Right now my iMac is a 2.4 Ghz. Not the fastest but it’s respectable.
  • RAM: Simply get as much as you can afford. Again, I’ve recorded with as low as 512 megs and it worked out alright. Each track you record and mix into a song uses a chunk of your RAM while you’re working on it. As you can imagine, it really starts to add up as you go and there is undeniably an upper limit to how many tracks you can have going at once. To guarantee a high number of tracks and a good comfort level for you, don’t go below 1 gigabyte.
  • Hard Drive: You’re going to be recording lots of audio, probably more than you realize right now, and you need a place to store it all. Get a big hard drive. Hard drives are relatively cheap these days, and a hundred dollars can get you pretty high capacity. Get two and use one to back up the other.
  • FireWire Port: Make sure your computer has a FireWire port or two. This will be necessary if you use an external device to plug in all your audio equipment. It will also be good if you use an external hard drive to backup your data.
Now, I’m going to break from my already feeble grasp of professionalism and give you some unofficial, personal, man-to-person advice, based on my experience. Get a Mac. I’ve used Windows-based PC’s for lots of things, including recording. They generally work fine, but man, nothing is easier to use than a Mac. They’re built for this kind of thing. You plug stuff into it and it works. A Mac works so well, in fact, that it is invisible. I never even have to think about it when I’m writing music or recording or backing up files or whatever. It’s like using a reliable appliance: you turn it on and forget about it. Though I can’t give up Windows on my sweet gaming rig, I’ll probably never go back to PC for recording.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with using a PC for recording. In some cases it may be better because any given piece of software is more likely to be written for Windows rather than Mac. And of course, PCs are cheap, and Apple has never understood the meaning of ‘affordable’, so that’s not in their favor either.

What about a display? When working with software like ProTools or Cubase it’s nice to have a big display with high resolution. A lot of data is displayed at once and can things go quicker when you don’t have to keep closing some windows to make room for others. Many studios employ a dual-monitor setup (or duel-monitor setup, if they’re badass.) For me, this is a luxury that I simply can’t afford at the moment. It’s nice, but not really necessary. Again, the general rule of thumb is the bigger the better, but even if you can only afford a 15-inch monitor, you’ll still get by.
So, you’ve got your sweet computer, now how should you take care of it once you set it up for your studio?
The setup: The computer keyboard should always be placed in a way that makes it readily accessible. This may sound obvious, but it’s always tempting, when working with limited space, to have your musical keyboard in front of you and push the computer keyboard to the side. This isn’t going to be like web browsing where you only need your mouse, however. You will want to learn all the keyboard commands, or better yet, set them yourself, so that you can operate this beast with maximum efficiency. I’ve used a studio setup where the keyboard was mostly out of reach, and without having every function at the push of a button it can be almost crippling.

Backups: If you’re the tech-savvy type, then you probably can come up with some sort of fancy automated system for regularly backing up your data. Even if you’re like the rest of us, however, you can still backup your files pretty easily. Whatever kind of operating system you choose, Mac or Windows, learn the basics of how the filesystem works: know how to create folders, copy files and move them around. You bought two hard drives, right? On a regular basis, copy all your important music files over to this second drive.

Now that you’ve got your computer, it’s time to start making some music on it. Check out the rest of the articles in the series, including getting an audio interface and software for your machine.

This is part 2 of the Studio Guide

Go to part 1: Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

>>> Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound Into Your Computer

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Podcast: The Process of Making a Song

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This week I’m doing something a little different. You can now listen to me provide a running commentary on one of my own songs. I talk about the chords, working with MIDI, EQ, robots, and how stuff comes together to make a cohesive whole. It’s like having the Makeshift Musician come over to your house! In a non-creepy kind of way. You can download the original, non-commentizated track, Ashur, the Sky God here. Then,

download the podcast here.

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The Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a Musician

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

If you’re looking to learn about playing, writing or recording music in some way, any way, but don’t quite know where to start, this is for you

So you want to start making music? You want to be the next Bach? Have lots of ideas and want to make a CD? Perhaps you just have a serious deficiency of groupies in your life and you want to change that? Whatever brought you here, you want to make music in some way, and doing that may not be as hard as you think. This guide will act as your starting point on your new path. Regardless of what instrument you want to play, or what kind of music you want to get into, this guide will show you how to get started, from choosing an instrument and learning to play it to composing and eventually recording. 

Before you start

If you’re completely convinced of your own ineptitude, or you think it is too late for you to take up the difficult task of making music, then I’ve got something to say to you:

You Don’t Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Getting an instrument

The most popular instruments in Western society are the rock staples (guitar, bass guitar and drums) and piano. There are plenty of other instruments out there to choose from though, if you feel like doing something different. If you haven’t decided yet, take a look at this article for advice on choosing and buying an instrument:

Picking up an Instrument

If you’ve picked piano, here are couple of other articles that you should check out:

Starting out with Piano
Piano Playing Tips for Beginners – (note: while this article was technically written for pianists, the lessons generally apply to all instruments)

Becoming a better listener

As you start to play music, you’ll discover an interesting phenomenon: you’ll notice more about the musical world around you. After a while, you’ll gain the ability to de-construct all the different music that you’ve been listening to. This is a wonderful experience and will make you a more observant person in general. Now is a good time to take the initiative and start actively becoming a more deliberate listener. Try the techniques listed in these articles and discover new dimensions in music that you never understood before:

Introduce Yourself to New Musical Genres
Listening to Music Intelligently

Composing music


I have two things to say here about composing music, whether it’s a short rock song or a 20-minute symphony. 1. All music, and I mean all of it, is made of of the same basic components, which means that if you can write a bluegrass song, you can also make a disco song, a dirge, a traditional Japanese folk song or anything else you could imagine with the same basic techniques.2. There’s no special talent or magical skill needed to write music. If you have the ability to make pleasing sounds on your instrument of choice, then you also have the capability to compose your own songs. Once you’ve learned some music theory, even just a little, you’ll realize how simple it is. If you can take a pile of colored blocks and arrange them in an interesting pattern, then you’ll be pleased to know that while writing music is a bit more complicated, it’s still pretty much the same basic concept. If you’re still not convinced, this might change your mind:

Gain the Confidence to Compose Music

Then look over these once you’ve decided to take the plunge:

Don’t Find Inspiration: Create It
Daily Songwriting Exercise

Making a studio and recording music

This is possibly the most complicated part of being a musician, but it can also be the most fun overall. Recording is also most likely the most mysterious aspect of music creation for beginners. Years ago, the recording realm belonged solely to the professionals with expensive studios. Now that computers have changed literally everything in our society, anyone can make a studio of their own and even make their music sound fairly professional with minimal equipment.

There are a couple of things you need to know when delving into the recording world. First is the concept of multitracking. You need to understand how that works before you can understand how a studio works:

An Introduction to Multitrack Recording

Knowing and understanding the components of a studio and how they relate to each other make up the second important part of what you need to know. You can learn this and how to build your own studio on a minimal budget in the Makeshift Musician’s most popular article, short and snappy:

Make Your Own Recording Studio

or go in depth with the ultimate resource:

The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Read these too:

What Speakers Should I Get?
Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

Once you’ve got your studio up and running, this would be a good read:

How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth

Beyond

What is left to learn, now that you’ve become a prolific, multi-talented musician? Believe it or not, there’s still a lot we don’t know about music and how it affects us. There’s much to learn, and you could devote your whole life to music and still not learn everything there is to know about it. Here are a couple of articles that may help guide you towards a deeper understanding of the mysterious phenomenon that is ‘organized sound’:

The second most popular article on the site: The Importance of Music to Humankind
Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
The Origins of American Music

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How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Thanks to Jade from OffBeatLove for the article idea

I recently went to see a great funk band perform at a big event. I’ve been into funk music lately and I really liked their sound; enough that I decided to buy their CD after the show. I was pleased to learn that the album contained pretty much the same set that the band played at the show, and since their set was fantastic I was excited when I put it in the CD player in my car a few days later.

Well… It was clear that it was the same band. The talent showed through, but… it was just so dull! I kept skipping tracks, ready for the next one to blow me away with some badass funkiness. Instead I got that disappointing feeling of being underwhelmed. (Now you know why I don’t name the band itself!)

Why does this happen? How does a great band make such a stunningly mediocre album? The answer, good reader, is what I call conservative recording.

Let’s say you’re just learning how to record. You’ve learned all the rules of proper recording, like avoiding overloading and conventional EQ techniques. For example, you are supposed to record with a loudness threshold at just below the point of overloading (overloading causes distortion) and you are expected to keep the entire mix that way. When using EQ you are told to dampen tracks instead of boosting them whenever possible. Reverb is only for room ambiance. These and many other techniques make up what is considered ‘correct’ recording: methods for making music that is pleasing to listen to.

It is vitally important that you learn these rules and implement them. Understanding why these guidelines and practices have been established will make you a better recording artist. What I’m getting at though may involve a fundamental rethinking of the recording and mixing act itself.

In both the visual and musical arts, the great, respected masters have spent years learning the rules of their craft. A master painter has learned perspective, light and shadow, and anatomy techniques. A master musician and composer has a deep understanding of music theory, like chord progressions, rhythm and melody. Their status of ‘master’ however, was not achieved by their technical skill alone, but also from the skillful way that they bent and broke conventions in ways that surprise and move us and allow us to see the world from a new perspective. Yet they could not have achieved any of that without first learning the rules. One who has no technical skill and who simply breaks conventions will likely end up producing ugly art, and one who has great technical skill but doesn’t surprise us will end up boring us to tears. Both trained skill and the creative violation of expectations are necessary to make great art.

How does this all apply to recording? Instead of viewing recording as a means of getting your live performance on tape, you should instead be looking at your recorded music as a separate kind of performance, in a way unrelated to your live one. The recording act should be seen as an integral part of the performance, rather than a means to an end. How you mix your music will affect how people enjoy it, so it should be given just as much care and attention as your playing.

Let your drums overload a bit. Crank the midrange equalizer on your guitar track in a way you’ve never heard before. Use effects in unconventional ways. Never be afraid to break the rules of recording to see how it sounds. The beauty of digital recording is that you can simply change it back if you don’t like it.

Give your recordings some life! Do everything you can to make the recording as breathtaking as the live performance. You and I both know that this is possible, but as long as you keep viewing recording as an obstacle in the way of your music, then you’ll never be able to achieve true studio greatness. The problem with the funk band was that they recorded and mixed their music very well, with great technical proficiency, but they didn’t take advantage of the opportunities available to them with producing an album. 

The sound made by musical instruments and human voices are fundamentally altered and weakened when recorded and played back. You can easily tell the difference between a real guitar playing and one playing through a speaker. This is why we have studios in the first place; you can’t just put a microphone in front of a band and expect the recording to sound great. You need to use the recording and mixing tools at your disposal to make that band sound incredible.

So do it. Learn the essentials of good recording, and then add the same level of passion and creativity to your studio work as you would anything else that you love do. Don’t play it conservatively. Do it like you mean it, and your album will be something you’re proud about.

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Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is part 1 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Maybe if you’re just starting out with your studio you haven’t given it much thought, but do you realize what professionals do when they build a studio? They design the entire place from the ground up, making walls with crazy angles and covering them with different materials. Then they make a separate room for a drum kit and another separate room for vocalists. They cover the walls with either unusually-shaped wood or this unbelievably expensive foam padding with tons of little pyramids cut into it.

Obviously, we at home can’t recreate this stuff, but we can throw together our own acoustic dampening setup without giving up thousands of dollars and our first-born.

Most of us don’t really get to choose where our studio is, we just have to deal with whatever room we can fit the studio in. I’ve had, as a studio, my childhood bedroom, a college dorm room, the single-bedroom in a single-bedroom apartment, and the one-car garage of a much nicer apartment. If, however, by some stroke of good fortune you can choose where your studio is, try to choose a room that is somewhat isolated from everything else. You want to be loud and not have to worry about neighbors or roommates attempting to bludgeon you to death after you’ve played the same guitar solo eighty times just to get it right.

Once you’ve got your place, what can we do to make it less echo-y? Here are some of my suggestions:

Rugs: Go to Goodwill or Wal-Mart and get some big, ugly shaggy carpets like your Aunt has in her living room and nail them to your wall. The more hideous the color, the more fun you’ll have putting them up.

Pictures: Since they have flat, non-porous surfaces, pictures would seem like a bad choice for acoustic dampening. However, anyone who’s ever moved knows that a room sounds really obnoxious until you put some pictures up on the walls. Get some pictures that you know will inspire creativity. 

Egg-crate-style mattress pads: For the true faux-professional look, get some of these while you’re at Wal-Mart. Remember, the only difference between expensive acoustic foam and cheap mattress foam is pretentiousness. 

Furniture: You’d be surprised at how well furniture can not only scatter sound waves, but also make the studio more comfortable for everyone. Get an old couch or easy chair and see how it changes the feel of the place.

Just remember that the more angles you have in the studio, the more sound gets bounced away harmlessly from your microphones, which is what you want. You don’t want the place stark and hospital-like, but you don’t want it overly cluttered either. Try to make your studio into something cozy and comfortable and inspiring. I hang huge wall-hangings full of weird geometric patterns in my studio, which have the double-effect of dampening sound and looking awesome at the same time. Experiment a lot and you’ll likely find some combination of things that works perfect for you.

This is part 1 of the Studio Guide

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>>> Go to Part 2: Get a Computer For Your Studio

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