Yellowgold

The official website showcasing the music of Yellowgold, produced by Jason Howell.

Radio silence

Hey everyone. I realize how quiet this blog has become over the past month if not more. I knew once I started this beast that there was a good chance of that happening once our new baby came along, and sure enough, my attention and time has been zapped ever since. (in a good way, of course!) So, apologies that I haven't fed the beast that is this blog with new content. What can I say. I only have so much time!

But I do have some good news. I'm entering what I can see as the final stages of the production of my new album, Ever One. And, in true "me" style, I now have a new idea as to how to make the project even better (which means more work.) I'm not ready to unveil it quite yet, but I plan on making an announcement sometime in the next few weeks. I think it will be an interesting way to broaden the scope fo the project and bring fans into the process a bit more.

Stay tuned to this blog for details coming soon. If you live in the Facebook world, you are welcome to Like my page there as well. I will keep it updated also.

Adding a drum track to un-timed guitar

In an earlier post, I told you about how I wrote Heavy Bones thanks to a dream I had. After everything that I wrote about in that post, I opened up Pro Tools a few days later and hit record. I simple played the guitar part start to finish, no click track guidance at all. My thought was that I'd have the bare bones scratch guitar part to play around with vocal harmonies over the top. All of this was in an effort to find out how I wanted to approach "the real project."

Only, after a few days, I was really attached to that guitar part. Most of the vocals as well. I liked it and considered keeping the song as a simply Guitar/Vocal affair. But over the course of the next few weeks, drum tracks started to appear in my head, a dramatic reveal of the bass and drums being a key part of that idea. I couldn't shake it.

So. I decided, what the heck. How hard could it be to create a drum track around the freestyle guitar? I could tell that, for the most part, though I wasn't playing to a click track, I had kept myself more or less pretty steady tempo-wise. So I felt confident that I could get it sounding nice if I had the time to focus on it.

I'm sure there are a number of ways to approach this. And I'll be completely honest in saying I've never needed to do this before, so I saw it as a way to discover how I might do such a thing and learn in the process. Here's what I did.

1. I played the track from the beginning and on every perceived beat, I dropped a marker on my timeline. When I was done, I had a four minute track with a shit-ton of markers, all signifying a roughly defined downbeat (after all I wasn't perfect on these.)

Dropping markers to the beat

2. I zoomed in at the top of the song to analyze where each marker was dropped, comparing it to the waveform for of the guitar (rectified view gives, imo, an easier way to see when those sounds begin.) I shifted each marker so it hit close to each strum on the guitar, if it lined up with an obvious strum. It didn't need to be dead perfect, but close enough so that, once the drums were programmed and matched to the marker locations, the downbeat of a kick or a snare would hit at nearly the same time as the strum.

3. I recorded a MIDI track from the beginning  and performed a basic Kick/Snare/Hi-hat combo track using my MIDI keyboard. I knew it wouldn't be perfect, but it gave me a starting point to mold the beat around. I kept my playing simple enough to get it right, but added a little variation depending on what each section called for.

3. Here's where it gets tedious and time consuming. Starting at the top of the song, taking the first bar of four beats, I first shifted each drum hit that is supposed to land on the beat to its appropriate place on the down beat, leaving me with the other drum hits that land between those hits to place almost ENTIRELY by feel. I set the playback to loop between the two bars and shifted until they sounded right. Remember, there is no grid to go by. So you are shifting them around to try and keep it all sounding as human and normal as possible.

4. Repeat this on every bar throughout the song.

5. Once I had everything placed, i played through a number of times and the second something jumped out at me, I stopped, zoomed in on the bar in question, and tweaked. 

I spent a few days getting that drum track to sound right, and in the end, it totally worked. There are only one or two times in the track where I can tell that the guitar playing slowed or sped up slightly, and at one point in the track, the guitar slowed down too far for my liking so I actually edited the guitar to make it time correctly and shifted everything down to compensate. I have to say, after all that work, it sounds pretty solid and I'm SO happy I spent that time. I notice in playback that it isn't to a rigid tempo and it almost sounds MORE organic because of it.

Balancing between listening environments

The Neverending to-do list!

I had my Evernote to-do list down to one measely item on one single track before listening to the entire album this morning at the gym. And now, it looks like this!

I listen to these songs in a number of different ways. And each environment offers a different take on what I have to do. The tricky part is balancing these tasks between those environments. It's a challenge for sure.

  • I listen through my studio Mackie HR824's (but quite honestly, my current studio setup isn't the best for mixing situations, so I tend to do this less than I'd like.)
  • I listen through my AKG K-240 MKII (which tend to be a bit soft on the high end.)
  • I listen through my Sony MDR-7509's (which tend to reveal upper mid harshness VERY well. If it's harsh while wearing these, trust me, it's harsh. These are great for determining vocal parts that require De-Essing attention.)
  • I listen in my Prius stock stereo (exaggerated low end, flat on the highs.)
  • I listen in my Subaru Outback stock stereo (pretty decent imaging, actually, plus I've listened to SO MUCH MUSIC in this environment that it's second nature to know how it might translate.)
  • And today, I listened through my Bose MIE2i in-ear headphones at the gym, a noisy environment.

Each different location is a new opportunity to see what might need adjusting. In a perfect world, I'd be mixing and mastering in a perfectly tuned studio with adequately treated walls, sound paneling, while sitting in the perfect position centered between the speakers and out away from the desk, with no reflections yadda yadda yadda. But let's face it. I don't have the time nor the dough to throw at doing all of that to my little office space that acts as my studio. So what I'm left with is a number of different listening environments. And if I can strike a balance between the things that need to change within a track, and how those changes will sound in each environment, then I'm on to something. After a long enough time, I can get to a point where a track simply sounds good in all locations. THAT'S what I want.

So yeah. That list will likely empty and fill quite a few times over the next phase of the project, as I'm really trying to get to the finish line of production, and dive head first into the official mastering stage. Each adjustment takes time, too. Hell, just loading each project takes time, making the adjustments, bouncing the tracks, moving them over to dropbox, etc.

Also, think of it this way. At this point, I'm also really searching for the proper sequence of the tracks. Something that flows and doesn't jump around, both stylistically and harmonically. That's another entry in and of itself, but playing with the sequence gives me many opportunities to continue to find things to fix and add to the list.

Now, next I PROMISE to deliver on my promise from yesterday's post to talk about programming drums to source material that never had a click track to begin with. Look for that on Monday (unless a baby comes. Any day!!!)

Refining the drum track

Let's say I have a project, built by a template that follows my work flow, a tempo for my project, a timeline with markers indicating the various points and movements of my song, a scratch guitar track, and scratch vocals. 

Often, it's easier for me to get a good run through on guitars if the click track I am playing to isn't actually a click track at all. Instead of a lifeless robotic click noise denoting the downbeat, I'll replace it with a Battery drum track that drops a kick drum on the down beat. It gives my playing a nice little backbeat to play along with.

Battery

Sometimes I already have a good indication in my head as to the basic beat of the song. At this early stage it's about getting the general idea down enough to allow me to continue forward, but not getting bogged down in the details. And I almost always find programming drums to be easier done with live performance as opposed to straight up MIDI note editing.

...which is kind of odd when I consider the years I spent programming house music under the Raygun moniker. Almost every note in that project is created manually editing MIDI piano rolls as opposed to live rhythm performance. It's simply a different approach lending itself to a different sound. House music is by nature electronic and very robotic, so having a human feel can actually be frowned upon. Not in every case, but non-quantized beats can be tough for a DJ to manage during a live set, so it's definitely a consideration that is followed rather closely.

The music I produce as Yellowgold is always far more organic... at least it is in my head. The problem is always the simple fact that A, I am not a drummer.... and B, I don't have a drum set to try to become one. I'd certainly love to be able to do it, but from a space and noise perspective, it's simply not that possible.

So my approach with MIDI drum programming usually follows like so:

1. Click track or very basic 2-4 bar loop of programmed drums. As simple as a kick snare combo with some super light hi hats. I don't want the drums to be too detailed at this early stage, I merely want a backbeat that I can groove to while I play. If I create something too creative, I might end up accenting certain parts of the beat that might clash with the other elements I have in mind that hit the track at a later stage.

2. Once I have this, lay down my scratch tracks that give the track a beginning-to-end structure, the skeleton for my entire song.

3. Once I have a sense of the twists and turns, some fills and a more detailed drum sound start to take shape in my mind. Certain parts seem ripe for a particular tom fill. Suddenly crashes on particular downbeats feel appropriate. Once I have an idea for all of these things, I'll create an entirely new region for Battery and start to perform the foundation, live, with the Keystation Pro-88. I've gotten pretty used to the key mapping for drums on the keyboard, so its become much easier for me to play the kit freestyle.

The thing to realize here is I don't expect this pass to be 100% perfect through to the end of the song. I am hoping to nail, with little need for quantization if possible, the feel of the song for around 16 bars, 32 would be great. I want a long enough block of solid drums  that I can feel comfortable copying that throughout the rest of the track as need be, once I've done what's next.

4. When I have that solid block, I treat the notes, sometimes on an individual basis, with select quantization. I don't blanket quantize unless I'm lazy. (Hey, sometimes it happens.) And quite honestly, the material doesn't always NEED that kind of attention. But I find that it feels alive if you treat it with more precise attention than it does if you throw a straight up 8th or 16th note quantize onto the whole block of drums.  I almost always quantize the downbeat kicks strictly, so the downbeat is always dead on. I usually quantize the hi-hats with a light randomization (somewhere in the 6-8% range) so they don't sound too robotic. Snares usually hit very close to down beat, though I might randomize those around 2-4%. I also take a lot of time refining the velocity of these hits... particularly in the hi-hat line. When hi-hats hit as frequently as they can during a drum session, having them all hitting at the same or nearly the same velocity is a surefire way to spot MIDI drums, so I really try to take some time getting those sounding as natural as possible.

I'm exhausted typing this cause I realize how much time I spend on these things and yes, it's tiring. It's by no means my favorite part of the process, but I feel its essential to producing the kind of sound that I'm looking for. It would be way easier to just do blanket quantization and be done with it, but I'd hear the robotic nature of those drums every time I heard that track and it would eat me up inside.

Up next: What do you do when you've recorded an acoustic guitar as your very first track in a project, to no click track, then later decided you want to make that un-timed track the foundation of a production complete with drums and everything else? I did that for Heavy Bones, and I'll share with you what I did.

Keeping track of to-do items

When you are planning out time to write your music to jive with your busy schedule, sometimes its important to know exactly what you wish to accomplish during that small chunk of time you have.

Evernote is my friend yet again in this regard, but really any way of taking notes will work. I have a note right now that contains every song I anticipate for the upcoming release. Under each song is a checkbox list that I add to anytime I'm out and about, listening to my rough copy bounces of those tracks. The second something pops in my mind in regards to a change or addition that might need attention, I get into Evernote, and add a line item next to that song describing the action, as well some rough estimation as to when in the song this correction needs to occur (if necessary.)

This sets me up beautifully for those times when I have studio time in my calendar, and I'm not sure where to begin. I scan through the list, pick out an item that works for that moment, and do it. There's nothing like enhancing that track with a new element, AND also removing it from the to-do list. I don't know about you, but removing anything from a to-do list is always gratifying.

To Do list in Evernote

I use Evernote in this way every day. Its how I make sure that those spur of the moment thoughts actually find themselves into the finished product. I get a ton of random ideas, and in reality, some of them don't end up working out. But a lot of them do. And when I go back and listen to the songs later, often its those line-item elements that make them even more detailed and structured.

In the mastering stage, I continue this process. "Oooh, that track is just a tad too harsh on upper-mid frequencies." That gives me something specific to address the next time I sit down with the song to work on it next time, instead of stabbing in the dark TRYING to find some busy work to do.

I'm not finished with the album until those lists are clean. Period. If I have a correction that needs to be made on a track, it goes in the list and doesn't get removed from that list until I've either tried it and passed on it after executing it, or I've instilled it into the finished song. For me, this all goes back to the fact that I will hear that idea every time I listen to that track, if I don't at least test it out.

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So Cold, the first track on The Mellower, is one case where I rushed it and have forever regretted it. And I admit, it's likely something that only I will ever notice, but its a thought in my mind EVERY SINGLE TIME I hear that track. The main guitar chug that starts at the very top and lasts all the way through the song has a slight reverb tail on it that never quite sat well for me. Sounded a bit too digital, not organic enough, and definitely mixed too high. I couldn't tell you at this point why I never corrected that before mastering, but I didn't, and I KNOW it was on a list or corrections.

Don't make that mistake. Trust your gut. If you listen to something and say to yourself "Man, that word was a little harsh on the ears", chances are, it actually was, and will continue to be, until you address it. BOOM. Put that sucker in the list. Then follow through with action when the time is right.

One more source of inspiration!

I'm not sure how I forgot to list this, but it donned on me halfway through yesterday and I had to give myself a big headslap as a result. I've gleaned SO MUCH valuable insight from the following source. And if you are a regular listener/viewer of podcasts, this should fit nicely into your weekly playlist:

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Pensado's Place: Grammy Award winning mixing engineer Dave Pensado KILLS IT each and every week with a 1+ hour podcast dedicated to the art of mixing music. Dave brings on guests from all over the music industry, and asks specific questions about how each and every one of them approaches the art of recording, mixing, mastering and song writing. It's not your typical "who are your influences" kind of Q&A but specifically geared towards the questions an up and coming engineer might ask about the tools they use, the technical approaches they execute, and the theory the hold that enhances their work.

On top of this, Dave devotes time each week so a segment called Into the Lair, where he focuses on a single piece of the engineering puzzle. In recent weeks, he's focused on topics like How to Use Reference Mixes, Sidechain Compression Techniques, and Mixing Background Vocals. This segment is also a wondering reference library as each one is posted as its own video, along with being included in the full Pensado's Place episode each week.

Finally, Dave dedicates a portion of each show to what he calls Batter's Box. He asks the guest to answer a stream of questions with the first plugin or process that pops in their head. Things like "Kick drum", "Mic for recording vocals", and "compression settings for acoustic guitar." It is INCREDIBLY insightful to know how the industry vets approach these topics in their own productions, and gives the amateur producer a good idea of places to start on their own.

I can't recommend Pensado's Place enough. If you are passionate about these topics, this is a weekly FREE podcast that is guaranteed to pique your interest and motivate you to make better mixes.

Sources of inspiration

These are the sources I check when I'm looking to open my eyes to new things to focus on when producing music:

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Tape Op: Probably my all-time favorite magazine, it's emphasis is entirely focused on music production, with an indie slant. Filled to the brim with interviews with Producers, musicians, engineers, designers of plug-ins and hardware, and a TON of reader feedback that's actually incredibly valuable. Let me put it this way: This magazine beats every magazine on the market when it comes to finding inspiration and insight in the experience and stories of other folks equally passionate about this industry as you might be. Oh, did I bury the lede? It's completely free. Go subscribe and get this sent to your door bi-monthly for nothing. DO IT.

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Sound on Sound: The only audio magazine I'd ever pay any money for (well, unless Tape Op went pay-only). SOS is a UK publication dedicated to *serious* in-depth hardware reviews, great interviews with some big names in music production, EXCELLENT how-to's broken out by software, and so much more. Plus its huge so you get a lot every month. Their online database covers the entire history of their publication and is filled with a treasure chest of information that is searchable on a whim. Subscription is pricey at $60 per year ($99 for 2 years up from, so there's that) but it's an incredible publication with little to no fluff compared to the competition. Just straight up awesome content and smart writers.

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Audible: I'm a HUGE fan of Audible, and since signing up more than two years ago, I've enjoyed a never-ending list of awesome rock/producer/songwriter bios and autobiographies. Looking for a few picks?

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Reddit: Say what you will about Reddit, one thing it's REALLY good at is mobilizing like-minded people into sharing their thoughts freely. A few subreddits that are DAILY visits for me are WeAreTheMusicMakers and AudioEngineering. In both of these subreddits, you'll find a ton of people sharing knowledge about every step involved in producing music. There are ways to get your mixes evaluated by strangers with an ear for improvement. (don't expect those you love to EVER give you truly unbiased reviews of your music. It will always sound great to them.)

Other Music: No one source to point you to here, but there is a lot to learn from the artists you love. Listening to your favorite music in times of frustration can be a great way to break out of a creative block, Hell, emulate what you hear! As long as you aren't copying an artists second by second, what you *are* doing is learning how other people write and there is much to learn in that process. You might not even up with a song to release to others, and the song you do end up with might sound a bit to reminiscent of some famous song, but its what you learn along that way that can ultimately be applied to your own music later on. It becomes a tool in your belt.

DID I MISS YOUR FAVORITE SOURCES OF INSPIRATION? Likely. Post it in the comments!