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 @ 7:24 PM
I make simple sample based hip hop so my workflow was never complicated. I think maschine is great and would recommend it to anyone doing similar stuff but for the next project the goal was to challenge myself. So I've limited myself to a 6u eurorack sampling setup and no sequencers. It's definitely the most fun I've had making music.

In case anyone is curious, I have a demo of the setup and a live beat. I took the brains sequencer out after the setup video.

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Mar.08.2014 @ 7:34 AM
I have no strict limitations when it comes to plug-in use. It is whatever gets me from point A (brain) to point B (manifested sound) most efficiently at that particular moment. That being said, I tend to use Massive more than any other soft synth simply based on its intuitiveness and all round workhorse potential. Hell, with enough time and effort, I can design some great sounds with synths that are commonly regarded as pretty sucky. But again that is time and effort, so I'll admit there are plenty of plug-ins in my arsenal that are collecting much digital dust.

Then again, sometimes I use a plug-in in a project simply because I want to learn it better. It's one thing to sit and learn a synth while designing presets, but I find it 10 times more useful to learn a plug-in in the context of a project. To be honest, I originally regretted my purchase of Bitcom because I couldn't figure out how to tame that beast in any useful way. Then I forced myself to really LEARN it inside and out in an actual project; regrets gone. Sometimes creative potential becomes more apparent in real world use. A little off topic, but, Chris, if you guys are ever thinking of updating that one, one thing I'd love to see is a lock option similar to Bit Seq for the 8 bit rows. Then if a random bit step is activated one could omit certain bit rows from being randomized.

Back on topic, my workflow has become more and more refined. I'm working from templates a lot more than I used to where my fav plugs are pre-loaded, ordered, coloured, and routed the way I like them. It has helped with efficiency 1000-fold. That being said, I swap out plugs in this template all the time if I want to shake up staleness in my workflow.

That is the whole crux of workflow for me: the balance between efficiency and novel experimentation. No matter how quickly something can be achieved, things still need to surprise me. It's a child-like sense of play that I find helps with the creative process the most.

Mar.08.2014 @ 7:50 AM
I always start with a concept or idea about the album. "What KIND of record is this?" "What is it about?"

This drives everything else.

I pick a palette of sounds based on the main concept, and to stretch myself. Sometimes I force myself to only use a few things I haven't used much before to learn them, sometimes I use only things I know very well so I can work faster.

I have a small selection of hardware synths the DSI Poly Evolver Keyboard and Prophet 12, Alesis Ion, Roland JX-3P with KiwiTechnics mod. I find myself using those more than software lately. But the software is so damn EASY, what with the not having to print tracks, etc. Drums are usually BFD or Battery or Kontakt (loaded up with SonicCouture stuff or something similar). I have a Tempest, but I'm still learning how to get around it.

A few guitars, a few basses. I sing, so I have 2 decent mics I swap between depending on how I'm feeling.

DAW remains Cubase after years and years. I have friends who change frequently, because they feel it keeps their brain limber. Maybe I'm old and inflexible, or just lazy, but I KNOW Cubase well, I know its metaphors, and I can get around it pretty fast. It's hard for me to believe the switching cost of moving to a different DAW is worth it (not the expense, the time to actually learn how to use it).

From there, I think about how many songs/tracks I want to have, and what the spectrum is (mostly slow, mostly fast, mix, etc.).

Once I get a few initial bits down, I start mapping out tempos and keys, so I don't end up with a record that's all 123 BPM and in D Dorian.

Mar.08.2014 @ 11:14 AM
I'm kind of the opposite. I try to use different sound sources all the time. I also end up with every sound being a combination of at least 2 or 3 sources. But I have this aesthetic where I hate for things to sound easily identifiable.

I switch DAW's, not totally out of creative choice, but frustration. I use DP most of the time for the last few years, but would use PT if it would host AU's or VST's. I've used Live to make pieces and then export them. I could never get comfortable with making a whole track. I always found myself not doing things I wanted to do because it was too much trouble, mostly editing. I'm also going to give Tracktion a shot again since it's back. It's amazing how much I got done with such a limited program, and I don't even love all the workflow. There's something inexplicable about it.

Mar.08.2014 @ 12:32 PM
"The Enemy of Art is the Absence of Limitations" - Orson Welles.

Sums it up. Though in some situations it's better to have a lot of options, I think great ideas and focus are way more important the quantity of tools.

Mar.09.2014 @ 4:08 AM
Had no hardware for over a decade and then went for a mininova (because small). It likes to make burbles that sound a bit like a modem slowed down 100x. OK cool.

Slowly started to get more hardware, found what each liked to do, and saved it. Tape likes to wear out, Roland things like to eat lots of cake and get sick.

And then after a year or so, instead of thinking about what made the noise, thought about the noises that I had to work with.

Arranged the noises together, according to how they wanted to combine. Once everything seemed to be happy together it was finished. Not so much a production as an introduction agency.

Mar.09.2014 @ 5:18 AM
What are you using compassion for?
"aside from Rough Rider Pro, using the built-in compressors and EQ in Live and Bitwig exclusively"

Mar.09.2014 @ 7:40 AM
Chris Randall
*almost* exclusively. Obviously the built-in compressors aren't gonna get you there with something that needs a more scientific touch; that's where Compassion comes in.

But yeah, what Mr. Ellard said. I had decided, some time ago, that instead of getting new things I should concentrate on the things I had, and using them to their fullest potential.


Mar.09.2014 @ 8:30 AM
I've limited myself for a number of reasons. My current setup is pretty much Ableton 9 and plug-ins. With the exception of a external field recording setup (iPhone) for sample fodder. My issues today are lack of time and space. I'm not of the opinion that less is more or that working in a more constrained space is a more optimal setup. Without sounding like a hippy I really don't care if I have a didgeridoo and a wire recorder or I've got six months at Electric Lady. I'm more about the vibe and feeling inspired enough to get something out of my head and into someone elses.

I'm kind of jumping to conclusions here and not in anyway implying that this was Chris's sentiment. However I feel like the less is more movement is something that came about because in the past you would often have worked in a constrained manner on a machine with limited abilities. Atari 1040, Emulator II, SR-16, fostex multitrack track etc.. whatever your suffrage of choice. I don't miss those days as quaint as they were.

I remember having to leave faders set in place and flakey synths on over night (not to loose the custom patch) to continue working the next day. Also I remember having to make sure I was in the studio before certain people arrived. For fear that they would start tinkering with mic+amp setup or whatever before we capture our ideas to DAT. Sidenote: at one point I spent more money on patchbays and wiring than my current computer+software setup x3 -- I digress.. I believe getting projects going in the past required more sweat equity, thus you were more inclined to turn something out. Studio time cost money and it sometimes required multiple people to get the studio up and going. Some instruments required TLC and you anticipated all this ahead of time. On top of various people asking or understanding that you were making something there was a bit more pressure. You were going to work and in the end you would have a product completed at this set date.

It always blew my mind when the band/artist of a particular record I really enjoyed revealed the method in which it came about. Nearly all were created within chaos and serendipity. "Oh yea we got that sound because so-and-so got pissed and spilt a beer all over the amps and we said fuck it keep it!". "Yea we actually hated that track and we ran out of studio time and ended up keeping it, now its our biggest hit!". The kind of revelations that make you think okay they didn't actually try to get that, it just came about on its own organically. The other interesting reveals are when you consider a song sounding really basic and it was this insane 128k tracks on the SSL. Then you think really? Sounds like a fucking drum machine over shit reverb and screechy vocals, 4 tracks tops!

I think the flexibility we're now afforded with basic equipment which nearly everyone posses, that being a modern computer is amazing. I can do the most minimal cut and paste job and re-live my reel splicing days or run some complicated setup out onto 64+ live channels. I guess my point is what does it matter in the end. Garbage in garbage out.

Mar.09.2014 @ 9:33 AM
I've tried to limit myself in my setup and the results were always the same: I learn a lot but the tracks would have easily been better by using all my gear.

So most of the time, I sit in front a piece of hardware I have (Mopho keyboard, Korg Poly-800, Ensoniq Mirage, Roland MC-307, yes I know, I'm old school) and try to learn everything I can do with it. Then, I go back to my DAW (FL Studio) and use the techniques I've learned with my modern VSTs and sample banks.

Limiting myself has never been good for me creatively except for the reason mentioned above, even if intellectually it's said to be better. What's important is the end result, and the end result is better when I allow myself to use anything that is needed to create the tune I have in my head.

There's already too much limitations in life, I don't want to be limited in my creative endeavor! ;)

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