Okay, this isn’t your standard tip of the week...but it’s particularly important for musicians who have to fly somewhere and need to be at the top of their game.

I used to have a terrible time with jet lag. If I had a gig in Europe, I either had to arrive a couple days beforehand, or just try to tough it out at a sub-optimal level. Over a period of years, I tried different techniques and eventually found what worked. Although every person is different and has different reactions to jet lag (for example, it’s documented that some people have a harder time traveling from east to west or west to east), several other people have tried my recommendations and reported success. So…here’s the scoop.

1.Reset your watch to destination time as soon as you step on the plane. Even better, start thinking in “destination time” before you leave. For example, if you’re having breakfast in California and traveling to New York (3 hours ahead), eat lunch-type food and think “lunch.” As you travel, don’t think about the time back home—some jet lag is “all in the mind.”

2. If your flight occurs during destination sleep hours, learn to sleep on the plane. Here’s how:

  • Try for a reclinable window seat. Some exit row seats, and seats in front of the exit row, do not recline. The reason for a window seat is so you can lean against the cabin wall, which provides better support than a chair back.
  • Some commercial neck pillows work and some don’t. I suggest grabbing two standard airplane pillows. Fold one into a U and wedge it between your shoulder and head. Set the other pillow against the cabin wall and lean against it.
  • Use a sleep mask to cut out light (this is very important, as light is a cue that regulates waking and sleeping).
  • Use ear plugs to reduce noise, but make sure they don’t fit too tightly. If there’s a sudden change in air cabin pressure, tight ear plugs could damage your ear drums.
  • Avoid too much alcohol, which metabolizes into sugar and prevents sound sleep. However, a glass of wine or two can help increase drowsiness.
  • For some people, melatonin (a chemical that fools the brain into thinking it’s sleep time) is effective in inducing sleep without “sleeping pill hangover.” I take 6 mg on the plane an hour before it’s time to go to sleep at the destination. Caution: Long-term effects are not known; use only if necessary.


3.Traveling west extends your day. Consider staying up later than usual and sleeping in as late as possible the day of the flight.

4. Diet greatly affects how your body copes with jet lag. Even if you can’t sleep on planes, following the right diet will cut the effects of jet lag. Eat high-protein breakfasts and lunches for long-lasting energy during the day, and high-carbohydrate dinners, which give a quick burst of energy, after which you get drowsy (e.g., if you get on the plane and need to sleep, eat the pasta instead of the chicken). Carry this regimen through the first several days of your trip. The worst thing you can do when you arrive at your destination is have a steak for dinner; it will make you drowsy initially, but within a few hours, wake you up as it metabolizes.

5. Caffeine can both reset and screw up your body clock, depending on how you use it. I find that after arriving at my destination, if it’s before noon I’ll drink a couple cups of coffee to make step 6 (see next) easier. Don’t have coffee (or tea) past noon, unless you’re heading west and want to extend your day.

6. Don’t take naps, as these can really disrupt your body clock.
For example, I usually arrive in Europe between 9AM and noon, after getting 6 or so hours of sleep on the plane. I force myself to stay awake until an early dinner, then it’s off to sleep around 8 or 9 PM. 10 hours of sleep, and I’m at 100% the next day. Afternoon naps can promote waking up in the middle of the night and not getting back to sleep but if you must have a nap (e.g., you have an important dinner meeting or evening gig and don’t want to fall over), set your alarm and sleep for no more than 20-30 minutes.

I used to be wiped out for almost a week when going to Europe from the US. Now I can land in the morning and play a gig that night, or cover a trade show the next day with no problems. I still get a bit of jet lag when going west, but overall, it’s a big improvement.

When mixing, the usual way to make an instrument stand out is to raise its level. But there are other ways to make an instrument leap out at you, or settle demurely into the background, that don’t involve level in the usual sense. These options give you additional control over a mix that can be very helpful.

CHANGING START TIMES CHANGES PERCEIVED LOUDNESS

The ear is most interested in the first few hundred milliseconds of a sound, then moves on to the next sound. This may have roots that go way back into our history, when it was important to know if a new sound was leaves rustling in the wind—or a saber-tooth tiger looking for fast food.

What happens during those first few hundred milliseconds affects the perception of how “loud” that signal is. Given two sounds that play at almost the same time, the one that started first will appear to be more prominent. For example, suppose kick drum and bass hit at the same time. Move the bass a tiny bit ahead of the kick for a more melodic feel, and behind the kick to emphasize the rhythm.

When your computer isn’t working properly, it’s pretty annoying. Fortunately, many times keeping a cool head will get you out of trouble and back to work again in minutes instead of hours—particularly if you panic and go down the wrong path, which could even make matters worse.

One of my less favorite Windows “features” is when it won’t let you write to a hard drive because it says the drive is write-protected, or gives some other error message like not letting you drag a file from the desktop to the disk. This happens mostly with USB drives, and I suspect is has to do with not ejecting it properly (or the computer thinking you didn’t eject it properly).

I can’t tell you how many hours I rummaged through the drive’s “Security” tab trying to figure out what permissions weren’t being granted before finding out that there’s an easy fix. Note that to do this, you need to have administrator privileges. (Note: Although this tip assumes Windows 10, it works with previous versions.)


I don’t know why DAWs equate humanizing with randomness. Sure, humans don’t have the same metronomic precision as quantized MIDI data, but avoiding that metronomic precision is only a small part of what makes playing “humanized.” Really good musicians have great control over timing, and use that talent to move timing around the beat, either consciously or subconsciously, which indeed adds a more human quality. (On the other hand, if the goal is to emulate musicians who've had too much to drink, then randomization does a superb job!)

You can alter note timings manually (e.g., draw a marquee around the notes you want to move, then move them) or use a “slide” editing function; note that snap needs to be turned off, and these changes should be subtle. For example:

  • Jazz drummers often hit a ride cymbal’s bell ahead of the beat (earlier) to “push” a song. You can do the same thing with a hi-hat for EDM.
  • Rock drummers frequently hit the snare behind the beat (later) for a “big” sound. John Bonham was a master of this. Our ears associate delay with distance, and thus a bigger space
  • For dance music, move double-time percussion parts (shaker, tambourine, etc.) slightly ahead of the beat for a “faster” feel.
  • With tom fills, delay each subsequent note of the fill a tiny bit more. This can make a tom fill sound gigantic.
  • If two percussion sounds or staccato harmony lines hit often on the same beat, try sliding one part ahead of or behind the beat (or one very slightly ahead and on very slightly behind) to keep the parts from interfering with each other.
  • Move a crash cymbal ahead of the beat to highlight it, or behind the beat to have it mesh more with the track.
  • If a bass note and kick hit on the same beat, delay the bass slightly to emphasize the drum (hence the rhythm), or advance the bass to emphasize melody. Our ears are most interested in the first few milliseconds of a sound, and this trick takes advantage of that.
  • Don't always believe the grid. Some of the most celebrated guitar solos of all time move all around the beat.

Admit it: You’re dependent on your computer, and don’t want downtime. So follow these tips, and keep it happy! Most of this applies to desktop computers, but there are some laptop tips as well.


  • Ventilation. Excess heat shortens the life of components. Check that all vents are always unblocked, and leave plenty of room for air to circulate around the computer.
  • Fan and filter. Check cooling fan filters (some hard drives have fans as well) for dirt. Run water through the filter and make sure it’s thoroughly dry before replacing. Also, the fan itself is often a dust magnet because it’s pulling air over those blades. Wipe the blades periodically with a damp cloth to keep dust from getting into the machine.
  • Dust and debris. Dust interferes with proper contact between moving parts, and forms a layer of thermal insulation that prevents heat from dissipating. Once a year, take the computer’s cover off, go outside, and carefully blow out the dust with a can of compressed air.
  • Connector jiggling. While the cover’s off, jiggle any connectors by gently rocking the male part of the connector. This helps prevent oxidation from building up on the contacts, and sometimes can even solve intermittent problems. If you have a computer with card slots, lift up any cards slightly, then re-seat them in the motherboard to clean the contacts.
  • Support your cables. With desktop computers, internal cables (e.g. to video cards) can weigh quite a bit, and pull downward on delicate connectors. Support your cables so that as little weight as possible pulls on the connectors.
  • Use a USB cable extender for dongles and USB memory sticks. With laptops, having a long object poking out of your computer’s motherboard is asking for trouble. But also remember that USB connectors are typically rated for 1,500 insertion/removal cycles. It’s better to wear out the extender cable’s connector than the one on your motherboard.
  • Use an uninterruptible power supply. These provide a clean voltage source that lets you power down elegantly in the event of power problems. This modest investment could end up saving you data and dollars.
  • Add a surge suppressor to your cable modem/T1/DSL line. Even if you use an uninterruptible power supply and turn off the computer when there’s a thunderstorm in the area, any line going from the outside world into your computer can provide a “back door” to electricity from nearby lightning strikes.
  • Quickie keyboard maintenance. Disconnect the keyboard, take it outside, hold it upside down, and shake gently. Then blow into the spaces between the keys. This will remove at least some of the dust.
  • If you put your laptop inside a computer bag, power it down first—standby isn’t good enough. If the computer gets turned on by accident, it will be sitting in a space with no ventilation.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoke does not make computers happy.
  • Make a special AC cord before working on your computer. You don’t want to leave your computer plugged in if you take the cover off, but you do want to keep the case grounded. Buy an IEC-type AC cord and cut off the two AC prongs flush with the plug (file them if necessary to make sure they don’t stick out)—but leave the ground plug.
  • Wear a grounding strap if you open up your computer. A grounding strap discharges any static electricity from your body. No grounding strap? At least touch something metal before doing anything inside your computer.
  • Battery problems. Most computers use batteries to back up functions such as date and time settings. Check the battery periodically for leakage, and replace it when it starts to reach the end of its useful life.
  • Never touch cable pins. Always handle a cable by the casing. Some pins might connect to sensitive parts of a device that could be damaged by static electricity charges. Also, turn off power before connecting or disconnecting cables.


Follow these tips, and your computer will thank you for it. May your machine never go down in the middle of a crucial session!

There are standard ways to arrange the order of effects—like compressor before distortion. But you already know that, so let’s look at how to improve your amp sim sound by doing what we’re not supposed to do.

Cabinet > Crunchy/Distorted Amp > Cabinet.
You still want a cabinet after the amp, but putting a cabinet before the amp can “focus” the guitar’s sound by taking off some of the highs and beefing up the mids and lows. Bypass the amp and post-amp cabinet, then try different pre-amp cabs until you find one that “fattens” the guitar sound by itself. Enable the amp and post-amp speaker, and you’ll likely hear a more focused sound.


Distortion Stomp Box > Cab. No law says you must include an amp. Use a fuzz, like a Muff Pi or Rat emulation, and try different cabs. You’ll hear a different, and sometimes sweeter, distortion sound compared to distortion > amp > cabinet.


Amp > Cab > Cab. It’s tough to design a cab to sound right, and you’ll often hear a sort of plastic, “filtered” tone. Try two different cabs, like a 1 x 12 followed by a 4 x 12. With the right cabs, you can end up with a fatter, smoother, and more even-sounding tone. However, the two cabs in series will tend to boost the bass and diminish highs, so add EQ afterward. Try a broad boost in the 2-8 kHz range, and and then roll off gently in the bass range. Tweak the EQ as needed until the resulting sound sits better in a mix.

The big 1 and 2 are measure starts. The little numbers are beats within the measures. (By the way, Reason doesn’t look like this; I’ve colorized it to show up certain beats.)

The green note at the beginning is an extra, deep-sounding kick to give that satisfying downbeat “plop.” The middle pretty much floats, with kicks occurring on every beat (shown in yellow), although there are also a few semi-tease accents just to keep things interesting around measure 1, beat 3 and measure 2, beat 3.

The “tease” part starts just before measure 2, beat 4. The gray snare hit comes just before the beat—a big element of surprise. The kick that would normally occur at measure 2, beat 4 isn’t there; instead, it’s been shifted to the last beat to lead into the downbeat better. Finally, an extra hi-hat hit (blue) adds even more interest.


THE SWING THING

Swing lengthens the first note of an equal-valued pair of notes, and shortens the second one to compensate. Especially for hip-hop type tempos that are 100 BPM or less, injecting swing is like taking Vitamin Beat. Even a little, like 55%, will make a difference.

LOSE THE CYMBALS

Cymbals are musical one-night stands: you want them to show up, party, and leave. So make loops without cymbals, then add one-shot (single event, non-looped) cymbals on a separate track.

PERCUSSION TIPS

Don’t get fancy with the kick, snare, and hats. You need a rock-solid foundation so dancers can feel the groove. But you also need some ear candy on the top, which is percussion’s job description. But behave yourself: keep the levels sane (you want them to complement, not dominate), and use velocity a lot to vary dynamics.

AND NOW, A WORD FROM "BIG AL"

Albert Einstein once said that E = MC2, which means if you get enough mass moving fast enough, it becomes energy. That’s the whole point of beats. Get those butts moving, and you’ll create a lot of energy. More energy = more dancing = more sweating = more people going to the bar for drinks = more money for the club owner = job security for you.

180216  How to Beat Jet Lag

180316 Why It's a Good Idea to Render Instrument Tracks

171215 How to Coddle Your Computer

I’m often surprised by how many people don’t use MIDI effects. Hopefully, they’ll read this tip, and realize how beneficial they can be for any type of MIDI project.

MIDI effects work not by processing audio, but by processing the MIDI data itself. These effects run the gamut from the utilitarian (isolate note ranges or velocities, change duration or velocity, and the like) to more “artistic” effects like delays, arpeggiatiors, and step sequencers. Although there was somewhat of a “standard” for MIDI effects early on, unfortunately that’s no longer the case. However, search the internet for MIDI plug-ins, and you may be able to find ones that are compatible with your host.


MIDI plug-ins work in real time, so you can apply them to a track temporarily, but later make them permanent. For example, suppose you lay down a quick drum part but the timing is a little shaky. Rather than edit it, or apply permanent quantization, you may be able to apply a 

Maybe you’ve listened to the bright, glassy sound of out-of-phase pickup sounds and wish you could get that sound, too. Yeah, I know...rewiring guitars can be a hassle, and besides, you don’t want to void your warranty or nuke the resale value. But if your guitar doesn’t have an out-of-phase switch, or you’re a keyboard player and want to get this sound out of a sampled guitar, you can come close with a studio-type EQ that offers a high and low shelving response along with a parametric stage.

1. Select both pickups on the guitar.
2. For the EQ, dial in a notch filter around 1,200Hz with a fairly broad Q (0.6 or so) and severe cut—around -15 to -18dB.
3. Use a high shelf to boost about 8dB starting at 2kHz, and a low shelf to cut by -18dB starting at 140Hz. If you have a choice for the rolloff slope, 12 dB/octave seems like a good choice .
4. Tweak as needed for your particular guitar and pickups.
5. Boost the level—like a real out-of-phase switch, this thins out the sound.

The screen shot shows these settings translated to Studio One’s ProEQ and Cakewalk’s Sonitus EQ, but the principle is the same for other EQs in other DAWs. And you don’t even need a soldering iron!

I don’t really feel secure about MIDI-driven instrument tracks until they’re rendered (although that doesn’t mean I’ll delete the MIDI track). There are several advantages to rendering...

  • Future-proof. The odds are pretty good whatever program you use in the future will be able to read audio files—not so much an instrument plug-in, which can fall victim to operating system changes, not being updated, or the company going out of business.
  • Bake in the effects. You probably have your instrument going through some effects...right? When you render them along with the instrument, you’ve eliminated even more variables.
  • Preserve randomness. Some synths produce random modulations. So, render the file and preserve those random changes. If you don’t like them, undo and try again until they’re what you want.
  • Lower latency. Having a lot of virtual instruments can stress out your computer. If you archive or otherwise disconnect the virtual instruments from your CPU, the audio files will use a lot less power.
  • Ease of mixing. An audio track is simple. A virtual instrument will have either a MIDI track feeding it and an associated audio track, or a track that’s MIDI with an audio output, or maybe multiple outputs and you’re not using all of them...maybe it’s nostalgia for the days of tape, but audio tracks are simple and obvious.

I used Cakewalk Sonar’s QuadCurve EQ to create the cabinet. Of course other EQs will work, but this one has built-in high- and lowpass filters with sharp cutoffs that are well-suited to virtual cabinet-making. The main modifications are a high-frequency rolloff to shave off the top end and amp sim harmonics, cutting the mids around 1.3 kHz to reduce the upper mids and make the 200-500 Hz range more prominent, and a steep, deep notch to minimize a buzzy resonance at 2.9 kHz. A mild bass rolloff with the highpass filter provided the open back effect, while adding a high frequency boost with a shelving EQ regained the perceived loss of highs from the notch. With my cabinet complete (fortunately virtual glue dries immediately!), I was ready to record.

180302 5 Ways to Save Time in the Studio

180406 Why You Need a Keyboard Controller with More Octaves

In a probably not unexpected trend, fewer audio interfaces are including the five-pin DIN connectors that were part of the original MIDI protocol (your trivia for today: DIN stands for Deutsche Institut für Normung, a German standards organization). These transfer data into the computer via the MIDI in, and transmit computer data to a MIDI-savvy sound generator or other MIDI gear via the MIDI output.


These days, it’s more likely that MIDI data will be carried over USB, so many newer MIDI devices connect to computers with USB rather than 5-pin DIN-compatible cables. Fortunately some controllers have both options, but the handwriting’s on the wall: MIDI’s future is not 5-pin DIN connectors.


But MIDI’s past is, and fortunately, the MIDI spec has always paid attention to making sure older MIDI gear doesn’t become obsolete. If your audio interface doesn’t have 5-pin DIN connectors but you need them, it’s not a problem. MIDI interfaces are available that connect with a computer’s USB port and provide MIDI in and out with 5-pin DIN connectors. Some of these interfaces are simply cables, which makes them very convenient if you have an instrument or two that you need to connect to your computer via USB. The photo shows ESI’s MIDIMATE eX, which provides DIN-to-USB and USB-to-DIN conversion. What impresses me the most about this particular converter is being able to take the output from an Ensoniq TS-10 with polyphonic aftertouch, turn off local control, echo the data through the computer, and feed it back to the TS-10’s sound generators—without any loss of data. Pretty cool. 

quantization MIDI effect. The data remains as you played it, but you hear it play back quantized. Later on, when you start editing, you can remove the effect and make any desired changes permanent.

AVAILABLE EFFECTS

Options vary from program to program, although certain effects are common. The screen shot shows the roster for MOTU’s Digital Performer, with the Humanize effect window in the background. One of the more unusual options is DeFlam, which moves the start times of a bunch of out-of-sync notes to the average start time. This can be very handy with older MIDI hardware, where there may be a slight “spread” among notes hit simultaneously.

Ableton Live’s collection of MIDI effects includes one that generates chords from incoming MIDI data; if you’re looking for inspiration, follow the Random MIDI effect with the Scale effect. The Random effects applies weirdness to the data, while constraining to a Scale effect pulls it back into reality again. The late, great Cakewalk Sonar has real-time versions of standard functions too, but also includes a chord analyzer and a MIDI Event Filter as a plug-in, not just a menu items. This lets you filter out various notes, velocities, and other attributes, can create the equivalent of splits and layers from a master keyboard controller, and constrain notes to particular scales.

Cubase has a very comprehensive collection of MIDI effects—I call their Density plug-in the “Mozart” plug-in, as it removes or adds notes (remember in the movie where Mozart was told his composition had too many notes? This plug-in would have been the ticket). There’s also a microtuning plug-in that can alter the tuning of individual notes, and a MIDI control panel that lets you create and vary up to eight continuous controller signals. Studio One added MIDI Note FX in version 3, and Apple added a suite of MIDI FX plug-ins to Logic Pro X...but this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, just a wake-up call in case you haven’t taken the time to find out what the MIDI effects in your host sequencer can offer. Personally, I love ’em and wish there was a standard!

If you have the right amp sim for your needs, but can’t find the right cabinet...then make your own! For example, I like the Gratifier Amp’s “Modern” setting in Guitar Rig, but the standard cab sounded more brittle than I wanted. Their “Citrus” amp cab often does what I need, but I needed a beefier lower midrange, and more of an open back sound to give the bass more space.

If you use Cakewalk SONAR, the Midtown guitar patches for Rapture Pro/Rapture Session in the 2017.08 update include artificial feedback, so just follow your Rapture variant with the CA-X “Hard Rock” amp (assuming you don’t run into TH3/TH2 related issues...that’s another topic), or use something like a Marshall emulation from the Line 6 Helix, Native Instruments Guitar Rig, IK AmpliTube, etc. But also remember that you need to think like a guitar player—the pitch wheel becomes your virtual whammy bar, and use the pitch wheel for vibrato—not the mechanical mod wheel vibrato, because that’s not how guitars roll.


Happy feedback...and don’t forget the ‘60s light show!

180105 Regain Control of Your Locked Hard Drive

So was my custom cabinet better than the stock one? You can judge for yourself from the audio example; the first four measures use the constructed cab, the second four measures are the stock Gratifier cab, and both guitar parts are normalized to the same peak levels. But “better” or “worse” isn’t the point: the real point is that you can create something that’s ideal for your needs, rather than settling on something that was ideal for someone else’s needs.

171222 Laptop Travel Survival Tips

180420 What Do Those Spectrum Response Parameters Mean, Anyway?

In the above screen shot, the gray notes are a kick that lands right on the beat. The dark blue bass notes hit at the same time as the drums, and are behind the beat just a little bit to make sure the kick gets the spotlight - this way the music feels more rhythmic than melodic. With MIDI sequencers, a track shift function will take care of moving the start time for selected notes. With hard disk recorders, you can simply grab a part on-screen and shift it, or use a “nudge” function (if available). Even a few milliseconds of shift can make a big difference.


CREATIVE DISTORTION

If you want to bring just a couple instruments out from a mix, patch a distortion plug-in set for very little distortion into an aux bus during mixdown. Now you can turn up the aux send for individual channels to make them jump out from a mix.

PITCH CHANGES IN SYNTH ENVELOPES


This involves a little synth programming, but the effect can be worth it. As one example, take a choir patch with two layers (the dual layering is essential). If you want this sound to draw more attention to itself, use a pitch envelope to add a slight downward pitch bend to concert pitch on one layer, and a slight upward pitch bend to concert pitch on the other layer. The pitch difference doesn’t have to be very much to create a more animated sound—remove the pitch change, and notice how the choir sits further back in the track.


MIXING VIA EQ


EQ is a very underutilized resource for mixing. Turning the treble down instead of the volume can bring a track more into the background without having it get “smaller,” just less “present.” A lot of engineers go for really bright sounds for instruments like acoustic guitars, then turn down the volume when the vocals come in (or some other solo happens). Try turning the brightness down a tad instead. And of course, being able to automate EQ changes makes the process go a lot more easily.


Overall, when it comes to mixing you have a lot of options other than just changing levels, and implementing changes in this way can make a big difference to a mix’s “character.” Try adding some of the above tricks—or similar ones of your own making—to your mix, and you’ll add yet another dimension to your sound.

2  Mic placement “flight simulator.” Most amp sims lets you move “virtual mics” around in relation to the virtual amp. The results parallel what you’d hear in the “real world,” and you can learn a lot about how mic placement affects the overall sound; IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube (above) is particularly good in this respect.

3  Pads matter. Many mics have switchable attenuator switches (called “pads”) to lower the sound level, for example by -10dB. With loud amps, engage this to avoid distortion.

Mic Placement. Start off with the mic an inch or two back from the cone, perpendicular to the speaker, and about half to two-thirds of the way toward the speaker’s edge. To capture more of the cabinet’s influence on the sound (as well as some room sound), try moving the mic a few inches further back from the speaker.

Moving the mic closer to the speaker’s center tends to give a brighter sound, while angling the mic toward the speaker or moving it further away provides a tighter, warmer sound. Also, the amp interacts with the room: Placing the amp in a corner or against a wall increases bass. Raising it off the floor also changes the sound. Also note that each speaker in a cab should sound the same, but that’s not always true; mic each one and listen for any significant differences.

  • When going through the airport security line, put the laptop itself on the x-ray belt last — after any other carry-on bags, shoes, etc., and especially, after the person in front of you has cleared security. This way, your other items will be examined while you’re being sprayed with radition from the millimeter wave scanner. If the laptop comes off the belt first, it may be stolen while you’re going through the metal detector, or being “wanded."
  • If you’re not in a hurry and want maximum protection against theft in a crowded airport, ask security for a manual search. It’s more time-consuming, but you’ll always know where your laptop is.
  • If you can’t find an AC outlet at an airport, ask the custodial staff about AC outlet locations, as they're mostly for plugging in vacuum cleaners. Other guidelines: Look on posts, under hinged covers in floors near walls, and near ledges located next to windows. Don’t assume the outlet is live; check your computer to make sure it really is charging.
  • Pack a compact barrier strip or cube tap in your laptop bag, specially if you want to be very popular: you can plug into the terminal’s one working outlet, and supply power for multiple desperate and stressed-out holiday travelers. They’ll love you!
  • Place your computer bag under the seat in front of you, rather than the overhead bin. Heavy objects in a bin can damage your computer if they slam into it. If you’re sitting in a bulkhead row and don’t have a choice, place the bag at the front of the overhead bin before takeoff, and at the rear of the bin prior to landing.
  • Some airline passengers have found that they can plug a laptop computer AC adapter into 110V/400 Hz airframe sockets, usually located under covers near the floor next to an exit door. Don’t do this. Aside from the issue of running your adapter on 400 Hz, these outlets are intended for medical devices during flight. If there’s something wrong with your adapter and it trips the circuit breaker, someone could literally die before the problem is corrected — the breaker is difficult to access because it’s usually located below the main passenger deck. If you see someone using any outlets on a plane other than the approved laptop charging outlets, alert a flight attendant.
  • Most airplane power outlets offer only 75W of power—not enough to power some computers, and often not enough to both power a computer and charge the batter. Remove the battery before plugging in for best results.​
  • Some hotels have in-room safes although they often aren’t big enough to accommodate a laptop. However, angling the laptop (place the end on some socks, coffee cup, or whatever) may allow it to fit. If you must leave the laptop in your room, place it somewhere inconvenient and not readily visible (like on top of a free-standing clothes closet, where you would need to step on a chair to see it). I know one road warrior who places his laptop on the bottom of his suitcase, with dirty underwear on top. No one has yet had the courage to venture past the Great Underwear Barrier.

180119 Killer EDM Kicks

This is a follow-up to the previous tip, because people who listened to the song (see above, click, and of course, like!) wanted to know how I got that delicious feedback guitar sound. Well...it wasn’t feedback guitar, it was synthesizer—and you can get the same kind of effect. It’s really quite simple; there are three elements:


  • Use unprocessed guitar samples. The base program I used was a sampled Gibson Midtown guitar, with no effects or other goodies.
  • Process it through an amp sim. I used the CA-X “Hard Rock” amp sim in SONAR, but any amp that floats your boat all work. Distortion, baby!
  • Add artificial feedback.


The latter is the key to this technique. Simply layer two sine wave to produce the “faux feedback.” I transpose one 19 semitones (octave+fifth) above the fundamental, and the other 31 semitones (2 octaves+fifth). The low-pitched one has an envelope that builds up to a peak in about two seconds (see the screen shot), and then decays while the higher-pitched feedback appears over about 3 seconds. It’s important to set these envelopes for a believable attack time—long enough to that the feedback shows up with a long, sustained note; not so long that it never shows up; and not so short that it shows up all the time. Having done a lot feedback guitar in my time (ahem), it doesn’t happen instantly—you have to coax it into happening. The attack time represents the time needed to coax it into happening, and to jump from one harmonic to a higher-pitched one.

  • Plop-Float-Tease.mp30:04

  • Cab Comparison.mp30:27

I've been spoiled by using acoustic drum loops (by Chris McHugh) for my mostly rockish music. Even drummers think someone's actually playing drums to the music.

So for my latest EDM-oriented project, I needed electronic drums. I'd forgotten just how boring they can sound. What to do? Well, Here are a few tricks that made a huge difference.

The Snare

The snare is the giveaway that you’re in robo-land because it’s going to get hit a lot. Render the snare audio to its own track, then try the following.

Vibrato plug-in.
This is a fast, simple solution that adds just enough difference not to have every hit sound the same. Finding a true vibrato effect is not that easy; most of the time you'll need a chorus or flanger that can be set to one voice, with a mix for only delayed sound.
Volume shifts. This takes longer to edit, but remember that each hit on a snare will play at a slightly different level and at a different place on the drum. Alternating slight volume variations helps considerably in creating realism, even with individual hits—not just rolls.
Minor pitch shifts on different hits. We’re not talking transposition in semitones, but shifts that are more on the order of 20-40 cents.
Very short attack times. In addition to lowering the overall level, adding only a few milliseconds creates an effect that's somewhat like ghost notes.
Layer a sidestick sample with the snare for emphasis. This increases the level, and helps give the snare a more percussive feel.

It seems it's not so important that these changes duplicate what happens with a real snare, but rather, that they just keep the electronic ones from sounding all the same. That seems to satisfy the ear-brain combination.

Cymbals


Back when memory was expensive, cymbal samples...well...let’s just say they weren’t very good. So I got into the habit of playing real cymbals over electronic drum parts, and they added an undeniable air of authenticity. Even if you’re not a drummer, you can probably hit cymbals at the right time.

Quantization

Pro drummers are able to control their timing extremely accurately to lag and lead the beat in strategic ways. While those who play drums from keyboards or controller pads often have the right intention for timing, they just don’t pull it off with the required accuracy. Try 85% quantization, which should tighten up your drum parts without strangling them. (However, I do make sure the kick is right on the beat—see if that works better for you as well.) I also like even just a little bit of swing, because it’s amazing how even a little bit of swing can make all the difference in the world when you want a drum part that grooves just a little bit better. ​

But Wait—There’s More!


To humanize hi-hats, check out the tip for Week 141 in the original 
Friday’s Tip of the Week thread in the Cakewalk SONAR forum. Also check out the tip in Week 145, “No More Boring MIDI Drum Parts.” It’s SONAR-specific, but the concept translates to many other DAWs.




Spectrum analyzers can definitely help during the mixdown process by either providing visual confirmation for what you think you hear, or providing a visual “early warning system” for issues you haven’t heard yet. Spectrum analyzers range from simple eye candy toys to sophisticated test equipment, but even some of the more modest ones have adjustable parameters so you can customer their response. However, it’s not always obvious what these parameters do. So, here are the most common parameters, and what they mean.

CUSTOMIZING SPECTRUM ANALYSIS RESPONSE

Spectrum analyzers vary greatly in terms of their adjustable parameters, from simple – you can’t adjust anything – to multiple parameters that let you customize the analysis and display process. Here are some of the most common parameters.

  • FFT size determines the number of samples per band. Higher numbers give better frequency resolution, but require more time to compute the display. When you’re looking for frequency anomalies, use a high value, like 16K or 32K. This catches very narrow peaks that might not be seen with smaller FFT sizes.
  • FFT overlap sets the amount by which the analysis bands overlap. Higher values (50% and above) provide a more accurate analysis, but increase display computation time.
  • Smoothingwindow determines the analysis algorithm. Different algorithms trade off sharpness of peaks and leakage between neighboring bands (i.e., data in one band influences the ones next to it). Triangular is a compromise between peak sharpness and leakage, Rectangular provides accurate drawing of peaks but high leakage, while Blackman-Harris has little leakage, but the peaks look more rounded.
  • 3D vs. 2D shows the information in different ways. 2D shows amplitude vs. frequency, while 3D displays a series of “slices” within the selected region to relate time to frequency and amplitude.
  • Range, reference, etc. are parameters that let you adjust the scale, zoom in on specific areas of the graph, change the 0dB reference, etc.
  • Linear vs. log response is best set to Log for audio work, as the curve more closely approximates how your hearing works.
  • Maximum retains the highest levels reached in each band – like the “peak hold” function found on some VU meters.

How much difference does 2 millimeters makes? A lot, actually. When I compared the output from a pickup 2 mm away from the strings to 4 mm away, the peak level went down about 8 dB. However, in the close position, the level drops off rapidly after the initial transient. In the far position, the transient is lower, and there’s a more consistent average level that leads to more sustain.

In the above image, look what happens when you normalize the two signals. In the second waveform, which is from the pickup in the far position, look past the transient: the average level is higher,and the sustain is stronger.

Even better, the reduced transient response with the pickups further away from the strings is helpful when feeding compressors, because the gain control action is smoother; large transients tend to “grab” the compressor’s gain control mechanism, which can create a “pop” as the compression kicks in. Also, amp sims generally don’t like transients as they consist more of “noise” than “tone,” so they don’t distort elegantly. Reducing transients can give a less harsh sound with a note’s attack.

So what about the lower overall level? Just turn up the input control on your interface, or the drive control in your amp or amp sim to compensate.

If you’ve set your pickups up close to your strings for more level, try moving them further away and applying more gain. You’ll like the extra sustttaaaiiinnn.

180209  Baking Better Beats

171110 Tempo Change "Time Traps" for Extra Drama

The reason compressors produce pumping, breathing, and other artifacts is because they have to work too hard. If the compressor is seesawing back and forth between no signal, too much signal, applying gain control, releasing gain control, figuring out which part of the knew to track...well, I’m getting tired just thinking about it.


If you want truly transparent compression, parallel compression can help but the most effective method I’ve found, particularly for vocals, is placing two compressors in series, with both set for light compression. When adjusted properly, the result is a significant amount of compression but the sound will be less obvious than using a single compressor to give the same amount of compression. The first stage doesn’t have to work too hard, and it “pre-conditions” the signal so that the second compressor doesn’t have to work too hard, either.


The main drawback is that unlike standard compression, where you need adjust only one set of controls, the à la carte approach requires adjusting two sets of compressor. While this might seem like a disadvantage, most of the time you’ll set them to similar settings anyway. You may even find that you can save the first compressor’s settings as a preset, and just load the same preset into the second compressor.


You might also think there would be added noise, but in practice, that doesn’t seem to be the case; because of the division of labor between the two compressors, they also divide the amount of noise they generate.


So next time you want really transparent compression on vocals, try the dual compressor approach—and it works on other signals, too.

180112 How to Build Your Ideal Amp Sim Cabinet

180223 5 "Wrong" FX Orders

It’s that time of the year when many of you will be flying somewhere to be with family and friends. But if you’re taking a laptop, there are some special considerations you need to consider before calling Lyft to take you to the airport—so here’s a follow up to last week’s set of tips. We’ll get back to music next week!

171103 Better MIDI Bass Parts

180413 Instant Open-Back Amp to Closed-Back Amp Conversion in the Studio

To mic a cab, you just point a mic in its general direction, right? Yes...and to get to the moon, just jump real high. Actually, there’s much more to miking than meets the ear, as you’ll find out from these tips.


Choose the right mic. For dynamic mics, the inexpensive Shure SM57 is the classic guitar cabinet mic—many engineers choose it even when cost is no object. The Electrovoice RE20 and Sennheiser MD421 are more upscale. Condenser mics, though often too sensitive for close miking loud amps, make good “secondary” mics—placing one further back from the amp adds definition to the primary dynamic mic. AKG’s C414B-ULS is a great, but pricey, choice; their C214 gives similar performance for much less. Neumann’s U87 is beyond most budgets, but the more affordable Audio-Technica AT 4051 has a similar character (it’s great for vocals, too). And don’t forget ribbon mics: they have a “warm” personality, and a polar pattern that picks up sounds from the front and back—but not the sides. In multi-cab guitar setups, ribbon mics let you do cool tricks by choosing which sounds to accept and which to reject based on mic placement. Among newer mics, Royer’s R-121 and R-101 are popular for miking cabs.

Some tips will be about production, some about playing, some about music...it all depends on what seems like fun that week. Come back every Friday to see what’s new!

PLEASE NOTE: Tips are arranged with the oldest first, and newest last. Please scroll down to see the latest.

171117 Synthesizer Meets Feedback Guitar

171201 Out-of-Phase Pickup Tone Emulation with EQ

  1. Click in the Search field button, and type CMD.EXE in the search box. When “Command Prompt desktop app” appears, right-click on it and choose “Run as administrator.”
  2. Type diskpart then press enter (note: what you need to type is bolded for clarity).
  3. After the DISKPART> prompt appears, type list volume and then press enter.
  4. You’ll see a list of your drives, each with a number. Type select volume # where # is the number of the drive giving you problems, and then press enter.
  5. After the DISKPART> prompt appears, type attributes disk clear readonly and then press enter.


When you see “Disk attributes cleared successfully,” you’re done! Close the command prompt box, and now your formerly locked drive will be ready to accept your precious data.

Although this signal chain in Overloud’s TH3 isn’t normal, who cares? The tone sounds great. The additional post-cabs EQ compensates for the loss of highs and increased lows caused by using two cabs.

Reverb > Chorus. Conventional wisdom says time-based effects follow modulation effects, but chorusing already diffuses the sound, and putting reverb afterward creates even more diffusion because the chorus effect now extends in time. Chorusing the reverb sounds tighter, because there’s nothing after the chorus to diffuse it further.

Tremolo > Overdrive. Tremolo after overdrive gives the most dramatic “slicing” effect. But I prefer placing it before overdrive causes the higher levels from the tremolo to distort more, and the lower levels to distort less, giving a subtler, more nuanced sound. The only drawback is you can’t use a lot of distortion, because that nukes the tremolo effect.  

Try these tips for better beats.

ALWAYS PROGRAM YOUR BEATS WHILE OTHER INSTRUMENTS ARE PLAYING


You don’t need much: a bassline, a percussive synth part, and maybe a pad. Playing along with other instruments keeps your beats from getting off on some mutant tangent, and lets them play well with others.


The bass part is especially important. Program the bass first, and if it’s a line that makes you want to move, the drums will fall together perfectly. And when creating beats, be honest with yourself. If you don’t start moving around like a gerbil in heat when your drum loop plays back, the people on the dance floor won’t either. Don’t waste time fixing something that doesn’t work: start over from scratch, and remember you’re there to have fun.


PLOP-FLOAT-TEASE

Most loops are either one, two, or four measures. Each kind has a different personality, so get to know your beats, and use them for what they do best.

One measure: Aside from daytime television, there are few things more boring than a one-measure loop repeated by itself over and over and over again. So, a one-measure loop’s mission in life is to provide a background for other beats, percussion parts, or goofy sounds, so you can put together layers that work together. The best one-measure loops are plain and normal. Clever syncopations, if played over and over, are like a house guest who just won’t leave. For one-measure beats, simple = good.

Two measures: Two-measure loops are cool because they’re like aerobics – one measure breathes in, the next breathes out. The structure I use for two-measure beats is “plop-float-tease.”

Plop means a heavy downbeat. Make the velocity on the kick drum a little higher, increase the kick treble a bit so it hits harder, layer a low tom hit with the kick...anything that makes the sound plop. You want people to feel, not just hear, the downbeat.


Float is the middle section. This is more like the one-measure concept, you want something that’s fairly neutral and keeps the beat progressing, without calling a lot of attention to itself.


Tease disrupts that normal flow and sets you up for the next plop. This can be some tom hits, removing the kick and hats for a couple of beats while you slip in something else, a breakbeat, whatever. If you apply beatus interruptus, when the beginning of the loop hits again, you have a strong downbeat that “re-syncs” the dancer’s butts/brains.

Check out the screen shot and listen to the audio example. 

Several people have commented that the keyboard bass parts in my music sound like “real” bass. Although I do play bass, most of the time I prefer keyboard bass because I’ve sampled so many basses it’s always possible to find a suitable bass sound.

Part of the realism is due to playing parts that a bassist would (and could!) play, which means including credible slides. Slides are an important bass technique—not just slides up or down a string, but over a semitone or more when transitioning between notes. For example, when going from A to C, you can extend the A MIDI note and use pitch bend to slide it up to C (remember to add a pitch bend of 0 after the note ends).

Unless you’re emulating a fretless bass, you want a stepped, not continuous, slide to emulate sliding over frets. Quantizing pitch bend slide messages so they’re stepped is one solution. In the screen shot below, the first slide goes in half-steps from tonic to an octave higher. The second one slides from G to E and steps down over three semitones. The pitch bend then returns to 0 before the next E plays.

180126 “Humanize” MIDI Parts with Timing Tweaks

Recording music is supposed to be a joyful experience, not a stress-inducing one. So, here are some tips on how to save both time and stress in the studio.


1. Use the plug-ins and virtual instruments bundled with your host as much as possible. Most hosts now include a decent assortment of instruments and processors, which has several advantages:


  • No incompatibility issues
  • Instrument upgrades usually happen in tandem with host upgrades
  • Easy file exchanges with others who use the same host
  • Should you re-visit a file in a few years, odds are the instruments will open up if you’re using the same host


Granted, bundled instruments won’t do everything. But keep your collection of instruments manageable: avoid the temptation to download a zillion shareware plug-ins “just because you can.” It’s more to learn, more to maintain, and more that can go wrong.


2. Choose an audio interface with lots of inputs. The more inputs you have, the more instruments and mics you can keep patched in permanently: mics, guitars, keyboards, etc. You don’t want to re-patch; it’s great to have everything ready to go, so all you need to do is record-enable a track to make music.

3. Manage your updates. Schedule a time for updates (e.g., once every month or so), then check for updates to your plug-ins, host, operating system, graphics card, etc. Mass upgrading can be more efficient than doing one update at a time.


4. Print a list of keyboard shortcuts. Refer to it often; after a few weeks, you’ll have the list memorized—and keyboard shortcuts save serious amounts of time.

5. Learn to cut your losses. Sometimes a performance or a song just isn’t happening. You try some EQ, some effects, some mix changes, maybe an overdub or two...nope. You’ve written music before, and you’ll write music again. If something isn’t flowing right, don’t complicate your life: Cut your losses and move on!

171229 Why MIDI Effects Are Totally Cool

We all know that open back amps have less bass response than closed-back amps. In the studio, it's not too hard to convert a closed-based amp sound to an open-back sound - just use some EQ to thin out the bass end a bit. It's a little harder to do the reverse, because a closed-back amp sort of "compresses" the speaker so the sound is tighter, not just bassier. So here's a simple solution: place the open back amp so the back faces down on a rug, and point a mic down at it. There's only one caution: if the amp has tubes in it, you don't want to block the ventilation any more than needed.

180323 Optimizing Pickup Height for Sustain 

Friday's Tip of the Week

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who like to divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t. Okay, I’m just kidding, but there are some people who gravitate toward sampled sounds and some who gravitate toward analog-type waveforms. But why not enjoy the best of both worlds?

Why Sine and Triangle Waves Deserve Respect










Sine and triangle waves may seem like the most boring waveforms in the world, but they actually have many uses. For a fuller acoustic guitar or piano sound with a more authoritative low end, layer a sine wave along with the lower notes. To attenuate the sine wave at higher notes, modulate the wave’s amplitude negatively according to keyboard note position (i.e., the higher you play on the keyboard, the lower the level). Also keep the overall level low—just enough to provide a subtle psycho-acoustic boost.

But that’s not all; sine and triangle waves can add more depth to almost any sample because digitally-generated waveforms can have more presence than digitally-recorded sounds. For example, harp samples may lack a bit of “you are there” presence due to mic limitations, room acoustics, etc. Layer a triangle wave with the harp (adjust the triangle’s amplitude envelope so that it mimics the harp’s natural envelope); the triangle wave provides presence, while the sample provides detail and realism. Initially set the triangle wave level to 0, and then bring it up slowly to taste. Keep it subtle—we’re talking background reinforcement, not something obvious.

Here’s another triangle trick: To add some male voices to an ethereal female choir, layer a triangle wave tuned an octave lower. This gives a powerful bottom end that sounds like guys singing along. To maintain the ethereal quality in the upper registers, consider modulating the triangle wave amplitude according to keyboard position so that the triangle wave isn’t apparent on higher notes.

Better Strings Through Layering

String synthesizers of the 70s, based on sawtooth or pulse waves, created rich, syrupy string sounds that weren’t super-lifelike, but nonetheless sounded pretty cool. Sampled strings may sound more realistic, but often lack the smoothness of analog simulations. For the best of both worlds, dial up a sawtooth or pulse wave, and adjust its envelope for as realistic a string sound as possible. Now layer it behind a string section sample, and the synthesized waveform will “fill in the cracks” in the digital waveform.

Pitched Percussive Transients

To close out, let’s do the reverse—layer a sample with typical synthesizer waveforms. Percussion instruments, when played across a keyboard, acquire a sense of pitch. Adding a short amplitude decay, and layering these with interesting waveforms, can yield hybrid sounds that are synth-like but have complex and interesting transients. Cowbell is one candidate for this application. Claves, triangle dropped down an octave, struck metal, and just about any other pitchable percussion can also give good results. 

171027 More Expressive Electronic Drums

So let’s make your life easier—a much better way to introduce that pause is to drop the tempo waaaaaaaay down for just a fraction of a second in a beat (different note values can work too), which will create a pause before the music returns to the beat again.

It’s of course best if the section over the pause sustains—something like a pad, held note, and the like. Delay with feedback works well, and with MIDI, if you choose a math-friendly tempo change (e.g., drop it to half-speed), you can compensate mentally and add MIDI notes where they make musical sense.

And since you’re probably curious as to what this sounds like, my latest song showcases it. Listen to the following song—a dance remix of “To Say 'No' Would be a Crime” from my “Simplicity” album (click on the Music tab)—and listen carefully around 1:48 and 3:03, where I’ve inserted "time traps" to draw things out a bit. Fun stuff!​

Sometimes doing just a little bit of a pause before a section of a song comes crashing in can add a major element of drama...the listener expects the section to start on the beat, but even a tiny pause can add significant tension before the release.

Most programs let you insert measures to “open up” the project via ripple editing, but you can also insert something a lot shorter to add the needed dramatic pause. However, there’s a major downside because this will throw off your timeline timings.

5  Direct + miked issues. Some amps offer direct feeds (sometimes with cab simulation); combining this with the miked sound can give a “big” sound. However, the miked sound will be delayed compared to the direct sound—about 1ms per foot away from the speaker. The top waveform is the direct feed, and the second one down is the miked audio. Nudging the miked sound earlier in your recording program lines up the miked and direct sounds so they are in-phase.

  • Killer EDM Kicks0:24

If you think a keyboard is only for playing notes, four or five octaves may be sufficient. However, many virtual instruments (e.g., FXpansion Geist, Native Instruments Kontakt, IK Multimedia SampleTank, EastWest’s Play engine, etc.) use MIDI keys not only to play specific notes but also to trigger articulations or variations on a basic sound.


If your main USB MIDI controller doesn’t have enough notes, no worries—trade it in for that deluxe 88-note weighted keyboard you’ve always wanted (hey, you only live once). But if you lack the space or finances, add a second USB MIDI controller for doing switching—even if it’s just something like a little Korg plastic keyboard designed for mobile applications. Your sequencer probably won’t be able to merge incoming MIDI streams, but no worries there either: MIDI Solutions’s Merger, which costs about $70, will merge two data streams to a single output. There are also several DIY circuits for MIDI mergers on the web.

180309 The Key to Transparent Compression

Even if they’re not exact half-steps, they go by fast enough to be perceived as non-continuous. For example, with a virtual instrument’s pitch bend set to +/-12 semitones, quantizing the bend to 1/32nd triplets will give exactly 12 steps in a one-beat octave slide up, while a 1/16th note triplet gives 12 steps over a two-beat octave slide. Make sure there’s no smoothing enabled for the pitch bend function.

For precise slides, the following table shows the amount of pitch bend change per semitone. For example if an octave is a pitch bend value of 8191, and you want to start a slide three semitones above the note where you want to “land,” start at a pitch bend value of +2048 and add equally-spaced events at +1366, +683, and just before the final note, 0. This assumes your virtual instrument has a +/-12 semitone pitch bend range, which is what I use for bass to make these kinds of slides possible.

180330 How to Adapt 5-Pin DIN Connectors to USB

Sometimes I like big, nasty kicks...and sometimes I like everything about an analog drum kit except the kick, so let’s take a wimpy analog kick and turn it into a powerhouse. The secret to this technique is sending the kick to a bus or other track, then in that bus or track, inserting saturation-based processing followed by a sharp low pass filter (48 dB/octave is good), set to a very low frequency. This particular example uses Sonar’s Tube processor and QuadCurve EQ (set to compact mode), but similar processors in other host programs work just as well. Mix this distorted/lowpass-filtered sound behind the main kick.

The audio demo plays two measures of a “stock” TR-808 drum loop, then two measures of the same loop with the killer kick processing, then repeats the same four measures for comparison. Of course, you need to hear this on a system that can reproduce bass adequately—airplane earbuds are definitely not recommended! (Come to think of it, they should probably never be recommended for anything...but I digress.)

You might wonder if the main reason for the increase in bass is the lowpass filtering, but after the initial set of 8 measures, there are two measures of the kick through lowpass filtering and then two measures of the kick with the Tube distortion added in—you’ll hear that the distortion is definitely the “secret ingredient.” And now, you can really get your...uh...kicks.

171208 Beyond Level Changes with Mixing

171124 Cooler Sampler Presets by Augmenting Samples with Waveforms

180202  5 Cabinet Miking Tips