Archive for the ‘Music tech’ Category

I’ve recently been doing a spot of educational work and last February performed a guest lecture to music technology students at Confetti Studios in Nottingham. As a demonstration of shifts in the music making process I made a new version of 1996’s Heaven Is Oblivion single – here follows an explanation of how the chorus section was made with slides from the presentation. Should you have no interest in music technology, but would like to listen to the finished track click here.

Heaven Is Oblivion first appeared as the final track of the episodic Ultraviolence album Psycho Drama. Although, like most of the album, the subject matter was dark the track was upbeat and released as a single in the following year as it was believed by record label Earache, myself and several names in the music biz to have some mainstream crossover potential. (audio example)

All of the Psycho Drama album  was recorded at my home which I believe in retrospect to have resulted in some substandard vocal recording. However, around £9000 had been spent upgrading my home studio to a standard capable of producing the electronic sound I wanted and so there was no further money left for microphones and acoustic treatment or for hiring a commercial studio. There was however an additional budget for the single version and a recording was made during a day at Protocol Studios in London, with original vocalists Didi Goldhawk and D Quest. The Protocol mix was hurried on unfamiliar equipment and was rejected but the 24 track vocal recordings from the session were used for a new, shorter home version that would become the single, mixed on my Tascam M1600 desk. The 2011 version was recorded within a PC computer using Cubase 5. It is my opinion that mainstream DAWs are very similar to one another in nature and quality but differ in respect to interface, quirks and minor functions – in short I prefer Cubase 5 because I am used to it. I like to mix digitally although it took time to get used to after spending years with an analogue set up, where you would constantly ironing out imperfections and seeking complete separation and purity of sounds, where you might need to add “faults” or ” humanity” to a digital mix. Both domains have pluses and minuses and it would be folly to claim one to be “better” than the other.

The chorus section of Heaven Is Oblivion is loosely based on a triumphant four bar melody section from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with the more whimsical 4 bars, both appropriate to the subject matter. The simple backbone of the melody was originally created using an Emu Proteus 2 Orchestral module which was supplied with a bank of 128 sounds which were a mixture of synthesised and sample sounds suited to replicating classical music and cost around £800. Here it is replaced with the modern equivalent East West’s Symphonic Orchestra, one of many minorly different VST plug-ins on the marketplace  containing many gigabytes of orchestral samples.  It sells in various iterations, costing from around £100 for the budget “silver” version heard here – the multiple microphone placements and expressions are surplus to this kind of work. It is worth noting that although Heaven Is Oblivion may be heavily influenced by classical music it was not my intention to produce classical music cheaply by using electronics, but more to use electronics to create a new sound that would create the deep textures and resulting emotions possible with orchestral music. (audio example)

The biggest change  in creating music at home over the last 16 years has been, for me,  the physical size and monetary expense of the equipment, and no more extreme example of the latter can be found in this choir section. 16 years ago, in order to have usable choir samples, I had to buy an sampler with at least 8mb of RAM, in this case an Akai S2800 plus a 270MB hard drive all piling in at a whopping £3000. The actual choir sample CD, the decent Peter Sidilocheck’s Classical Choirs was a more reasonable £50. As I didn’t own a CD-ROM (noisy and unreliable) I had to play each sound into sampler from an external CD player.  For the remake I have used East West’s Symphonic Chiors, which weighs in at £300 and 40GB and will run on a modern domestic PC. Symphonic Choirs contains a “Wordbuilder” function whereby the virtual choir “sings” words entered into a text box by the user. Although the technology is still embryonic, sounding nothing like a real choir performing from a lyric sheet, I have used the function can garner some interesting hooks that hint at the message of the track, and the result is more interesting than the generic sampled choir of the 1996 mix. (audio example)

The original bland keyboard sound of the Roland JX1 is replaced by Camel Audio’s Alchemy VST synth, its morphing additive sounds are rather like saples that can be fully manipulated as synth sounds, lending itself well to distinct electronic orchestral sounds, as hear in this synth- wind preset. The arpeggiator sound of the finished track is also courtesy of Alchemy, with some automation of the morph control providing additional interest as well as a dramatic whoosh for the bridge sections. (audio example)

Some straight old skool synth to keep the sound pallet from straying into faux classical territory courtesy of Native Instrument’s Prophet 5 emulator, the Pro-53, replacing Oberheim’s ultra-phat but non-editable Matrix 1000. (audio example)

Plush layers and spot FX were provided by the S2800 which I have spiritually replicated using ReFx’s Nexus sample player. Nexus contains many expertly programmed, lush presets and I have been careful not to over-use it, as productions can quickly sound like a Nexus fest. Such temptations are not beyond the resistance of mainstream producers and you will hear Nexus recognisably in many chart productions. I have used Native Instruments Battery as a sample player, as I have no need for the extra functions (such as complex keyboard mapping) of their more extensive Kontact counterpart. Here it plays a short classical music sample with a little manipulation within Battery for an electronic feel. (audio example) Now we can hear all the chorus layers together, first raw (audio example) and then panned out with a little EQ and reverb. (audioexample)

I do not have the original vocal samples from Heaven Is Oblivion, so I decided to create something completely different using Image Line’s budget DAW Fruity Loops (now rebadged FL Studio) speech generator.  The sounds were manipulated within Battery and through Prosoniq’s classic (and discontinued) Orange Vocoder. I have lifted a single vocal sample from the original CD which adds a euphoric touch, used sparingly save for in the climax of the piece in the second bridge. I believe these vocals to be at least “as good” as those in the original track, so I have turned a limitation into an advantage – something essential when working within a limited budget.

Solid State Logics’s X-EQ is the only equaliser used in Heaven Is Oblivion S2. Firstly because using one type of EQ can gel the sound in the same way as an analogue mixing desk might, and also because X-EQ has a beautifully transparent sound that can also be automated and used for filter sweeps (as heard on the kick drum early in the finished track) – the filter sweep can also act as an EQ duck so you get a “two for the price of one” dramatic effect together with non-intrusive sound separation. The brilliant graphic interface thankfully makes no attempt to replicate traditional controls and also makes use of a spectrum analyser which can be seen in green behind the EQ curve. Careful to turn it off after use, though, as instances quickly gobble CPU power.

When mixing a traditional band  an aim would normally be to place the instruments into a convincing space. Reverb in electronic music is very different in that it is instead used to embellish and fatten sounds and to place them into a deliberately unworldly sound space. The artefacts associated with actual spaces are generally undesirable. The versatile sound of SSL X-Verb wins over convolution or plate emulations – again the modern GUI makes the usable presets easy to edit and wins out over old fashioned dials and pretend LED readouts. Most of the delays in the finished mix are also X-Verb.

The initial mix of Heaven Is Oblivion S2 runs at 2’40” and took around ten hours of programming to complete. It can be heard here. It is adequate in demonstrating the above points and was deliberately made in such a way as to allow for easy remixing – for instance a dubstep or hard trance version could be made by adding rhythms and only minimal changes to the core elements. However (as is often the case) I grew emotionally attached to the track as well as becoming curious as to what would be possible if it were extended to a full four minutes or so, so spent a further fifteen hours or so making what I consider to be a finished version – click here to listen to it. I feel it to be superior to the original from a technical point of view and possibly from an artistic one, as the increase in dynamics and sonic textures make for a more fulfilling listening experience. Of course, the new technology makes this much easier so on a level field I would say the new version is about “as good” as the ’96 version was fifteen years ago. It is unfortunate that the this music will not see a commercial release, but it was enjoyable to accomplish such a piece of music without feeling under pressure and I hope that Ultraviolence fans will appreciate hearing it free over the Internet. There are many more elements of the track that I haven’t had time to go into here – perhaps I will expand on this article at some point.

Links: Confetti StudiosSteinbergEast WestNative InstrumentsCamel AudioReFx, Image LineSSL, Earache Records

Click here to listen to my review of Rovee 1.0, an impressive vocal manipulation plug from G200KG software. which happens to be free.

The Rovee's concise interface uses just three simple controls

As you’ll gather I’m a fan, so I suggest you head over to G200KG and grab yourself a copy.


Ultraviolence HQ 2009

Despite a frightening episode of temporary blindness a couple of weeks ago, which was how you’d imagine it only more boring, I’ve been feeling loads better lately. My chest still bugs me but there have been no prolonged life stopping periods of pain so far this year, so the guys at the Pain Clinic decided its best not to stick any anaesthetic needles in there for now. I’ve been able to do regular short cycle rides and have built a new PC for my studio.
Personally, I think the headaches associated with owning a music PC are overplayed by some. I expect slightly less hassle than maintaining small to medium size analogue based MIDI studio from ten years ago, and on the whole it is. For every hour I’ve recently been spending messing around with software licences, I’d probably have had to spend two or three routing out suspect cables, power supplies, vicious Atari mice and so forth. The aforementioned licences have been much easier to handle with a broadband connection – I decided against an Internet connection for my last two music computers but this seems to have gone smoothly enough using Windows Defender for protection on known sites. Now it’ll remain safely unplugged apart from updates every month or so. Hardware wise, the more things you connect to a PC the more hassle can be – here’s a few units I’ve had extensive experience of…

RME 9632 Hammerfall PCI (soundcard)

rme-products_hdsp_9632_1I had been through several cheaper soundcards before biting the bullet and spending £300 on this, mostly due to compatibility issues with my Powercores (see below). I certainly wouldn’t look back – the card’s user interface seems simple but allows control of every possible function, along with extensive diagnostic system and level information with good value D/A converters. However, the single best thing about the unit is that it has absolutely never caused my PC to crash with any software or hardware configuration. The last thing you need when on a creative roll is error messages, and this is rock solid.

PC Electronic Powercore (DSP card)

powercore_hardwareAlthough clocking up the years this is a great sounding unit, and has a weight and depth that most native plug-ins lack. However, stability issues make it hard to recommend. Coupled with my original M-Audio 1010LT soundcard unexplained buzzes made for an untenable config, with neither TC or M-Audio admitting any responsibility for the common situation. I replaced the M-Audio with a Focusrite Sapphire – all was well until the introduction of a second PCI Powercore where instability issues, especially when using Access’s Virus synth plug, came about again. Even with the RME card the Virus plug is still unreliable, with timing issues when running more than one instance. Why? It’s still on version 1.0.0, as TC and Access can’t agree on whose responsibility an update is. Like all things Powercore, it’s great when it works but not worth the hassle. I’ve become something of an addict, but I’d recommend non-users to stay clear.

Universal Audio UAD-1 (DSP card)

uad-1-lgThis has the opposite problem to the Powercore – it is very easy to use but I find the plugs themselves to be very retro and that, for me, means dull. I’ve a friend who mixes band music and swears by it. He tested the Neve plugs and, summing aside, found them dead-on accurate compared with the real desk. But perhaps the thought of owning the world’s best studio in 1983, and having Phil Collins in for session doesn’t consume his mind with suicidal thoughts…There just aren’t many UAD plugs that work for me – unfortunate as the system is super user friendly, convenient and inexpensive. As my spare PCI slots get rarer, this might have to go. Maybe along with the Powercore as well…as PCs get more powerful do we really need accelerators? Possibly not unless they’re a…

SSL Duende (DSP card)


The future of user interfaces is now...draw and go

This is sublime – I have two firewire models that have effectively replaced my Tascam mixing desk, with 32 stereo channels of the giving the best EQ sound I’ve ever heard – including real SSL desks. The bundled plugs are great, but add the optional X-EQ for a frequency-busting 10 band filtered EQ using a graphic interface. I see no reasons for plugs, apart from emus, to stick to awkward virtual knobs – graphical interfaces are much quicker to edit, easier to see what’s going on, look nicer. In this case total control from floor to ceiling, bollock bashes to head splits, and the best thing for mixing ever.

Blue Monday: art over wealth and ego

When I was awarded my first recording contract in the early 90s I was shocked at how the music business still encouraged childish images of rebellion and pretentious attitudes from artists, because I thought that had all been killed off. Not by the then current rave culture but by New Order, surely the best band of their era. The most iconic image, for me was their Top of the Pops appearance for Blue Monday. Seemingly dragged from Manchester via the Co-op clothing department, they looked gaunt and uncomfortable as they shambled their way through their beautifully melancholy electronic symphony. They imsisted on playing live and, as though to prove it, even the synthesizers were out of tune. Such a world away from Miami Vice, big hair, big grins, big voices, big wallets, wanker DJs, the whole shebang.

Hearing recent pastiches of their work by The Ting Tings and Sugarbabes reminded me to restock my New Order CD collection, as when my old discs were either played to death or killed by trampling and oxidisation. All their 80s albums now come remastered in a collector’s edition with a second CD of remixes. The original album tracks still sound fresh, with Bernard Sumner’s little stories and/or streams of consciousness are always poignant and warming even when intending nonchalance and sarcasm. The backing is mostly inventive, and can fluctuate from charmingly naïve to toweringly statuesque in a brilliantly disarming fashion. The effect is heightened by the fact anybody with a modern PC could theoretically make this music, but nobody ever will. The remixes, however, from the likes of Shep Pettibone sound hideously dated and weren’t that great in the first place, overlong and literally laced with bells and whistles. Blue Monday ’88 sounded bad by 1989, its shameless commercialism standing in monotonic contrast to the accidental ethics of the original’s infamous loss making sleeve design. The pleasingly restrained remastering process whilst adding nothing to the recordings, doesn’t spoil anything, making it no worse than pointless. The Perfect Pit is a glaring omission from the Lowlife CD – a short deconstructed version of The Perfect Kiss which I beleive to be the precursor of 808 State’s Cubik – the track which defined early ‘90’s hardcore and remains influential.

New Order were so hardcore from a marketing perspective that many of their singles didn’t appear on the albums at all. But the remastering of the relatively recent singles compilations has fared much worse than the albums, with the sound compressed to all but eliminate dynamics in order to raise the volume – perhaps to appeal to the severely disabled listener incapable of adjusting his or her hi-fi controls. I don’t really see the point of remastering old material at all – the originals sounded fine and translated well to CD so what’s the point? Current music is mixed in the knowledge of what the modern mastering process involves, and therefore is well suited to the procedure. Take the aforementioned Sugarbabes’ About You Now, for example. Its titanium clad production thrives on the mechanical pummelling and squashing like a super-knight, but older recordings cannot survive the punishment that they were not designed for. There is no point in imposing these 2008 production values onto old recordings, any more than there is a point to applying 21st century moral values onto a 17th century witch-hunt.

So as well as recommending the old editions of the New Order albums, a real must-have is Substance 1987 – now widely available for well under a tenner. Over two hours of New Order single heaven with their own remixes, completely untouched by misguided tweaking. The one problem – you might have to turn the original masters up.

I was recently contemplating selling my Nord Rack synth – I rarely use hardware modules nowadays and have spent well into four figures on soft synths, including a Nord Lead emulator from Polish software company Discovery. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite an exact emulation (Discovery’s website is amusingly contrary on the subject, claiming the software is “not a reverse engineered Nord Lead” whilst allowing the import of Nord Lead data), in practical terms it simply lacks bass, so I’ve had to keep the Nord. But as I was trying to wring some sub-bass from the import of the dive bomb sound from Facilitator, my mind began to wander as to the moral, and not just the legal situation with such faux emulators.
As far as I’m concerned, the decision to use legal software is a moral one – I know where and how to obtain cracked software as do most people. And I know that were I to use illegal software I would be very unlikely to be prosecuted for doing so. So why is it OK to use (in this case) Nord’s work to create the software and then charge for it? I’ll stop picking on Discovery now as they’re a small and rather affable company, but look at TC Electronic and Native Instruments with the TC-01 synth and Pro-53 respectively. Both cloaked emulations from relatively large companies who have a fearsome attitude towards protecting their intellectual property. However, in the cases of these particular synths I would argue that it is at least in part not their property to protect, but rather that of original manufacturers, Roland and Prophet. The problem is more widespread than a few plugs – look how many 909 drum sounds are routinely included with dance music sample libraries. On what moral grounds can these sounds be sold and resold again and again for profit without their original creators being paid? Taken to its logical conclusion, shouldn’t Bob Moog be paid a small royalty on every soft synth sold? Looking at other media should THQ, makers of the videogame Saint’s Row, be kicking money upstairs to the Rockstar Games, makers of its vastly superior inspiration, Grand Theft Auto? Counterfeit music artists are also commonplace – ripping an MP3 by girl group The Saturdays may be illegal but I cannot see how that squares morally with their unpaid usage of an image and production sound based around that of Girls Aloud. Is their music data not, at least partially, stolen goods?
The idea of paying for pure data and no physical product is still in relative infancy, and there is much real as well as “convenient” confusion from consumers. But eventually perhaps we will see a situation of a fairer payment system, whereby the actual creators of data and its origins are financially compensated and not just those immediately involved.
Meantime, there will be many who profit from the direct or indirect ideas of others and taking a moral high ground on copyright issues whilst doing so.