March 7, 2014

My Current Toolset...

by Chris Randall

Hey, hey, it's time for WORKFLOW talk! One thing that has been happening to me with alarming frequency lately (due in no small part to dipping my toe in the torpid waters of academia) is that Dude makes a declarative statement about Gear in the context of Task, then says "what do you use for Task?"

Now, I often point out that my way for Task, and the Gear I choose to accomplish it, is in no way the right way, or even the best way. It's my way. Sub-conversation: tools are just that, tools. You don't look at a beautiful house and say "gee, I wonder what hammers the carpenters used?" Same thing here. While it's nice to learn new techniques and move your craft forward, at the end of the day, figuring out a way to accomplish Task without knowing how Dude did it is far more satisfying than aping his technique. To that end, knowing how to produce is far more useful than knowing what to use to produce.

Anyhow, as a merciful return to the subject, it was recently pointed out to me (and the which is something I knew, but hadn't vocalised before) that when I'm doing an album project, I pick a palette of sound sources and tools, and use pretty much only that to create the end product, not straying from it too far. This conversation was started by way of inquiring what palette I had chosen for the album I'm working on now. It was further intimated that perhaps I could write this down as a conversation starter. Since this album is far more "produced" than my last few, and the first album to which I've applied significant production in some years, I agreed it merited some talk. Anyhow...

DAW: I'm actually splitting duties almost equally on this album between Ableton Live 9 and Bitwig Studio. The WORKFLOW is nearly identical in both DAWs, so it's not much trouble to flip back and forth between the two. There are things that Live does that Bitwig sucks at (M4L being chief among these, plus far more control over MIDI sync) and things that Bitwig does that Live sucks at (hosting 32-bit plug-ins and 64-bit plug-ins side by side, a much better arrange view), and I like keeping my brain nimble. I've mixed all the Live-based tracks and have moved on to the Bitwig-based ones. We'll see how things shake out.

Synths: For this project, I find myself using Monark for bass almost exclusively. I'll go out on a limb and say this is the best 3-osc subtractive mono-synth plug-in made currently. I wish it was a real plug-in and not Reaktor-hosted, but that's not a big deal. Most of the pads and FM-ish tones are coming from the DK Synergy II+. Bleeples and blorps are from the Euro, the Analog Four and Aalto. I just acquired a Novation Ultranova the other day, and it may make an appearance. A surprisingly handy little synth.

Drums: Here's where things get interesting. 99% of the rhythmic information on this album is location recording or real-time recording, to cassette or Nagra loops. I'll put up a detailed explanation of how I did this once the album is released, but I'm using a lot of ambient "open-mic" noise as rhythmic source material. This is very satisfying. Every track on this album has 10 to 20 tracks of ambient noise from tape loops that are gated, sliced, diced, Beat Tweaked™ (©2014 BT, All Rights Reserved), or otherwise coerced in to being drum-like. I'll put up a more detailed post of what I did once the record is released, but this is the unique aspect of this album and I'm fairly proud of what I came up with and how I pulled it off.

Effects Plug-Ins: I have, via either purchase or NFR trade, pretty much every native plug-in ever made. There's a strong temptation to go buck wild with the plugs, and thus, for this project, I made a separate plug-in folder, and only put the stuff in it that I'm "allowed" to use (circumstances permitting.) As a result, the only effects I'm using here are the Audio Damage plug-in suite (duh), Valhalla Vintage Verb (along with Eos, the main send 'verb on all tracks), Ozone 5 Advanced, DMG Compassion, and Trash 2. I am, aside from Rough Rider Pro, using the built-in compressors and EQ in Live and Bitwig exclusively.

Anyhow, that's my palette for this project, in its entirety. I personally find using everything to lead to non-finished tracks, which is why I do this sort of thing. Do you guys, when you're committing to a full project, similarly limit yourselves? Or do you just use everything you have all the time?


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Mar.07.2014 @ 12:31 PM
I get more productive the less software I use. I find I get really distracted by most software synthesizers.

Also, a note about the UltraNova: I have one, and there is definitely more to it than it is given credit for. I get a lot of sounds out of it that it has no business being able to make. Also, despite there not being oscillator to oscillator FM, the LFO's can be run into the audio range. I avoid using its internal FX (true on most synths) but aside from that, it's a far underrated synth.

Mar.07.2014 @ 12:32 PM
lost a sentence there... First paragraph should also say "But if it's hardware and I have it, I use it if it's what the track needs".

Mar.07.2014 @ 1:00 PM
Just last week I sold my copy of Komplete 8.... Goodbye endless choices, hello focus.

Mar.07.2014 @ 1:01 PM
Chris Randall
@Noisetheorem: Yeah, same here. The plug-in limiting thing is a good mental exercise, but as far as hardware goes, if the song is calling for something, I'll go grab it out of the garage and put it on there without a second thought.


Mar.07.2014 @ 1:45 PM
Too much choice doesn't trouble me, but I tend to view choice much like experimentation, as a preliminary to getting something interesting done. The choices are already made by the time I set to. I also find I generally set limitations just by setting objectives, so I never have to impose them explicitly. What I decide I want to do often informs what I'll need to do it. But then my objectives are often pretty focused.

I got an Ultranova last year for my son. We went around looking at a bunch of small synths w/ keyboards, it was my favourite of the current crop.

Mar.07.2014 @ 2:09 PM
Hi Chris,
Do you there is any difference in "the sound engine" between Bitwig and Live? There seems to be some sort of feeling of inferiority of the sound of live by some folks! Flying Lotus moans about it on Twitter from time to time. It seems fine to me BTW

Mar.07.2014 @ 2:56 PM
I had typed up a long and convoluted post. However, the point I was trying to make got lost in my rambling mess.

So, I'll heed my own advice and say "less is more".

Mar.07.2014 @ 3:09 PM
I limit my toolset not just for a particular project, but pretty much forever. But the "limited" toolset is Octatrack, ableton drum rack, ableton sampler, about 3 reaktor ensemble I like, and nord modular. Considering the myriad samples that I might put in the samplers (synths I own or have owned/borrowed, libraries, pedal/mixer feedback, field recordings. . .) and the openness of the synths I use, there aren't really any limits on sound, it's more about limiting the way I interact with controls to get to where I'm going. I know as many "deep" instruments as I need to, so the only thing I still hunt for is food for my samplers.

Mar.07.2014 @ 5:21 PM
I'm in the same mindset. I use mostly the built in stuff in Live, a modular synth plugin, and occasionally some of the effects in Komplete 8.

I got rid of about $15000 in legitimate software the last few years, and i couldn't happier.

Mar.07.2014 @ 6:39 PM
Chris Randall
@ChasM: I don't notice any inferiority, with the caveat that I haven't yet done a final mix on it. But there's so much potential for confirmation bias there, other peoples' opinions on sonic character is essentially useless. Including mine.


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