Friday, November 25, 2011

Virtual Instruments vs. Classic Hardware Synthesizers

Virtual Studio Technology (VST) instruments, or simply "virtual instruments", are software based sound generators. Many of which are emulators of classic hardware synthesizers.

Many electronic musicians that I know or have read about attest to the sonic superiority of hardware based synthesizers compared to their software based counterparts. Some people think that hardware oscillators and amps sound “warmer” or “fatter”.  I tend to agree with this analysis based on my own experience. There are, however, a number of VST instruments on the market that simply sound fantastic. One of my personal favorites is Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere. It is computer resource intensive but you can’t beat the diversity and capability of the sounds it has built in.

I started to record electronic music during the early 1990s and I have owned and currently own several hardware synths produced in that era that were made by Roland, E-mu, Ensoniq, and Korg. I’ve recently begun to integrate them back into my electronic music productions. My motivation in doing so is three fold. First, I like the way that they sound (it’s that “warm” “fat” thing). Second, some of them have really great sounding patches that I’ve rediscovered and that I want to tweak and use again. Third, it is geeky fun!

I control my hardware synth with a midi keyboard controller through Steinberg Cubase and a MOTU MIDI interface. I simply run the analog stereo outs of each synth through a Mackie mixer and then to my sound card. I typically record the audio in stereo 16bit wav format in Cubase, and will sometimes process the audio within the software (such as adding software based effects, etc).

I’m currently working on a new ambient album called “Singularity in Sound”. I’m using a variety of sound generation techniques to include VST instruments, hardware synths, acoustic instruments (processed guitar), and field recordings/audio samples. My goal is to create the best ambient music album that I can that balances excellent musical composition with interesting sound design. Lately, I’ve been snatching up used hardware synths to add to my collection and for use specifically with this project.

It strikes me that the youngest generation of electronic musicians may have very little if any exposure to classic hardware synths. I encourage you to explore the world of them, or to rediscover them. If you are really courageous, you might consider delving into the world of hardware modular synthesizers. These will enable you to build from the basic elements of sound synthesis.

Ultimately, there is no real turning back to the days of MIDI controlled hardware synths. Software based sound generation is way more flexible and easy for the musician and less expensive for the manufacturer to make and sell. Nonetheless, classic hardware synths are another tool to have in the electronic musician’s studio. Call me nostalgic but I, like Mr. Numan, still “dream of wires”.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Electronic Music Collaboration Via The Internet

One of the greatest things to arise from the advancement of the Internet in recent years is the ability to compose and produce music with collaborators no matter where they are located in the world. Musical collaborators can be found via the Internet and digital audio files can be instantaneously exchanged between composers and producers with ease.  With this blog, I hope to provide you with some inspiration for doing Internet collaboration by sharing some of my experiences with it.

I’m currently producing an album with my Electronic band called EchoHALO. Our vocalist, Tresza, lives in the Midwest while I live in the Pacific Northwest.  We each have our own project studios and digital work stations (DAWs). Tresza and I have adopted a simple process for producing an album together. The steps of our process are as follows:
  1.  I compose and record instrumental tracks in my studio on my DAW (Steinberg Cubase 5 for PC).
  2.  I mix down a given song to 16 bit (44.1khz) stereo and then send the file to Tresza via a file transfer service (we use either or
  3.  Tresza imports the stereo file into her Apple Mac based DAW, she then writes lyrics and records individual vocals tracks on her DAW.
  4. Tresza then creates stem files (individual audio tracks with the same beginning at a zero starting point) so that I can open them all up in my DAW in the correct arrangement in time. She records the stem files in .wav format (typically stereo 16 bit 44.1khz) so that the audio is cross compatible with my PC based DAW software. Tresza also creates a stereo mix down version with effects (such as reverb, stereo delay, etc.) so that I can get an understanding of what she has in mind for vocal effects.
  5.  I then mix and master with her dry no effect version stem files and add desired signal processing effects such as compression and EQ. Tresza will also send me alternate takes (stem files and stereo mixdown versions) so that I can compare (comp) and select the best performance.
  6.  I’ll send Tresza a premastered mixdown version for her approval.
The process works great! The only drawback that I have experienced is that, as a producer, I’d prefer to be in the room with her to discuss the actual vocal performance. That is, how we might take alternate takes on the spot or decide together on a particular style for the musical performance.

Another way to collaborate is to send DAW project files to collaborators who are using the same DAW software. Audio, midi, plug-in effects parameters, fades, arrangements and other information can be embedded in DAW project files so if compatible software is used, the files can be opened within each collaborator’s DAW software. 

I have also done a similar process when doing remix work. For example, I produced a remix for the band Halo Effect a couple years ago. The band sent me the stem files for each track and I then reassembled them, added new sections of synthesizers that I recorded in my studio, replaced the snare drum track, kicked up the kick drum, and re-arranged the entire track to make it a bit longer. This was a lot of fun to do!
As a producer and audio engineer for Wayfarer Records, I receive unmastered audio files from our signed artists around the world. We typically master with 16bit 44.1khz wav format. Sometimes I will ask the artists to send me stem files so that I can EQ or add compression to particular tracks before mastering as a stereo file.

You might be interested in a number of services out there to help facilitate Internet based sharing of music composition/production. Some of these include the longstanding acidplanet ( and the popular soundcloud (  These are great sites to make your tracks available for immediate download, editing, and then upload to share.

If you are looking for other musicians to collaborate with, I invite you to check out the Facebook page Ambient Hub . The intent of Ambient Hub is to foster an international community of Ambient music composers, musicians, producers, record labels, and fans. Artists are encouraged to post links to their music (i.e. Sound Cloud, YouTube, etc.) to share with the group.

I’d like to learn more about what processes you have found useful for collaborating with other artists via the Internet. I hope that you will share!

Keep up with my latest musical updates on my Facebook page.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Creativity and the Electronic Musician

The possibilities for creating interesting music are almost endless with all of the technological tools that are available today. Nonetheless, all musicians know what it is like to have “composers block” – that state of being “stuck” during the creation process. I know this state from my own experience as a composer and producer.

The experience of composer’s block for the electronic musician typically presents itself in one of the following forms: 1) spending hours looking for the appropriate sound patch that if found would enable you to compose the track. 2). playing the same sequence over and over but can’t seem to add anything substantial to the track as a whole. 3). or, relatedly, you have composed twenty intros to songs but have no idea how to finish any of them. 4). on average, you spend more time looking at gear online than actually composing and recording anything with the gear you have. 5) Worst of all, you have a plan to compose, you are focused but nothing, absolutely nothing gets tracked. Any of these situations can be quite frustrating, especially if you are a professional musician who must finish a project to get paid.

Much of the experience of composer’s block comes from the lack of inspiration and musical ideas. However, a lack of focus, distractions, and technical problems with gear can also hamper the creative process. I hope to provide you, the electronic musician and producer, with some useful tips for overcoming barriers to the creative process and “finding your muse”. Although much of this blog will be universal to all types of composers, there are creative aspects of electronic music composition and production that are unique to this art form. In particular, electronic musicians must rely on high technology to do what we do. The virtual instruments (e.g., software synthesizers, plug-ins, etc.) available on the market today, provide a plethora of built-in sounds and sound generating capabilities. Thus, whether you are hobbyist or professional, you must consider how technology influences your creative process as well as your ability to work efficiently. I hope that after reading this you will not only be inspired, but will also share your thoughts and experiences as they relate to this topic.

Here are a few of the primary ways that I find inspiration as well improve my focus that I recommend you try.

1. Listen to other people’s music. You probably do this already; however, do you pay close attention to what is going on in the compositions/productions of other artists’ music? Try listening to music from different genres. Listen carefully to how the composers use particular chord progressions or melodies to communicate something in their music. Also, try to focus on one instrument or part, such as the bass line. Be careful not to copy what you hear. Sometimes this can happen subconsciously though (which can be good or bad).

2. Expose yourself to other forms of art. Visit an art gallery or look at an art book. Perhaps read a novel or some poetry. I have been inspired by some of Salvador Dali art books – strange stuff but perfect for the electronic musician! Also, I often find inspiration from the titles of pieces of art or literature. Sometime I will compose a piece of music with a title as the starting point!

3. Pay attention to your own emotional states. Sometimes our ability to be creative will be driven from our inner states. Our emotions can both hamper our ability to be creative but can also drive us to new creative heights. Learn to work with your emotions. For example, sometimes beautiful and powerful musical compositions can come naturally after intense emotional experiences. In other words, capitalize on this when these states occur.

4. Travel. Exposure to novel things can inspire creativity. Maybe this is a walk in the woods, a mountain climb, or trip overseas, or simply a stroll in the big city.

5. Doodle in the studio. One of the most common recommendations for writers who are experiencing writer’s block is “to write, write anything”. Sometimes a great composition will rise like a phoenix out of a little doodling.

6. If doodling does not help, take a break! If you find yourself experiencing “composers block” deliberately take a break from the studio! That’s right, take a few hours or even a week or two off from it. Don’t panic – it will come back to you!

7. Try playing other instruments or manipulating the sound they make. This follows from my recommendation to try novel things. For example, I am a guitarist by training and occasionally work the instrument into my synth-based ambient compositions. One technique that I have done in the past is to play a basic chord progression or long sustained notes on the guitar and record direct without effects. I will then chop up the audio files based on each chord or note and then subject the audio files to a lot of signal processing to completely abstract the sound. I will then reassemble the “parts” into a progression. You can hear this technique on the track “Ascension” on my album The Divided Line and on “The Sands of Time” on the album When the World Was Young.

Also, get creative with synthesizers and effects signal processing. I challenge you to try to customize patches to make them unique. I will often play around with filters, attack and decay to customize the sounds. Effects are also a great way to make your own sounds. Try adding in a flanger, chorus or long reverb delays, or even a step filter. For example, you can hear my use of the step filter on the track “Walking in the White Light” from the album The Divided Line.

8. Remove the distractions. One of the most significant distractions for the electronic musician is the Internet. Ever find yourself surfing the Web on monitor #2 to read up on a piece of studio gear or scanning EBay for that one piece of equipment you “need”? Unplug your network connection for an hour and compose!

9. A little competition won’t hurt you. Enter a music composition or remix contest. This will give you a reason to compose and with a little time pressure, can motivate you to get something done. Uploading your tracks to sites such as sound cloud for others to comment on can help too. Knowing that others will be listening to what you create, you might be motivated to stretch to new heights. This phenomenon is called the “social facilitation effect” in the world of social psychology.

10. If your studio is not broke, don’t fix it. In other words, get your production studio in basic operating mode to facilitate the production process and keep it that way! If you have to rewire a bunch of gear every time you sit down to compose, or feel compelled to constantly tweek hard drive performance, you will likely hamper your creative process.

I hope that these recommendations will be helpful in your creative process. Again, I look forward to hearing what works (or does not work) for you. Happy composing!

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