Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Introduction to Music Production Week #2 - Software Instrument, Recording MIDI, and Quantization in Ableton

Kevin here again with Week #2's Peer Review Assignment. Today we're going to work with software instruments and MIDI in Ableton Live. To demonstrate this we're going to look at recording a drum part using a MIDI controller. Recording MIDI in Ableton Live is really easy, and once you get the hang of it you'll be laying down dope beats in no time.

First thing's first, make sure your MIDI device is configured with your DAW.

For this demonstration I'm going to use an old Akai MPD, but you can use any MIDI controller you have lying around. If you don't have a MIDI controller, don't fret, you can use your computer keyboard to input MIDI data.

Once you've started up the DAW, create a new MIDI track.

- Shortcut - Command+Shift+T (Mac) Ctrl+Shift+T (PC)

Be sure to name your track something simple but useful.

Open up your browser on the left side of your screen (there should be a button) and navigate to your instruments folder. Ableton comes with plenty of preset instruments one of which is the Drum Rack. The Drum Rack is a fantastic MPC-style software instrument with an insane amount of flexibility. For the sake of simplicity I'm going to load a preset kit from the Kits folder by clicking on it and dragging it onto my MIDI track. It is also possible to just drag the instrument next to your track and have Ableton create a new track automatically.

Your track should now display a grid like instrument. Each cell in the grid contains a separate sample, which in this case are different pieces of a drum kit. When you play a MIDI note that corresponds to a given cell, the sample will play back. Make sure your track is armed to record so you can hear your performance.

In order to record in time you may want to use a click or metronome. Ableton keeps its tempo related setting in the upper left corner of the screen. On the right of the time signature there is a box with two small circles in it. Click on this box to activate and de-activate the click. The box will light up to let you know it's on.

This would also be good time to set your tempo if you haven't already. To the far left of the metronome you'll see your BPM counter and a Tap Tempo button. Type or tap in your desired tempo.

But wait… what if you want the click to play before you hit record? To enable to count-in right click or Ctrl+click the metronome button to bring up the count-in options. I'll set mine to 1 bar.

Now you're ready to record. There are several ways to record MIDI in Ableton but I like using the arrangement view because it's similar to recording audio.

- Shortcut - Hit Tab to switch between views in Ableton.

Press record on your transport and then play. Time to shine.

When you're finished hit stop or the space bar. You can see the data you recorded in on your MIDI track. I only want an eight bar loop so I'll trim the excess by hovering over the end of the region until I get the bracket. Click and drag the end until you get your desired length.

Double click the region name to expand the region in the lower pane. In this zoomed-in view you can adjust note placement and velocity.

You can select all the data and hit Command+U (Ctrl+U) to auto quantize. But I like a little more control so hit Command+Shift+U to bring up the quantization options. Adjust your setting however you like and hit Ok.

Now your MIDI should all be aligned with the grid. Yay!

From here you can enable loop recording and overdub mode and record more parts for our beat. If we move our loop brackets to be 8 bars then our drum loop will play continuously, allowing us to add layer after layer without having to stop the music.

It should be noted that you can set Ableton up to quantize right after you record so you don't have to start and stop every time you want to track something. This is great if you're playing live of want to track several parts with minimal interruption.

I hope this small tutorial can help one of you out there feel more comfortable with MIDI. Once you get the hang of working with software instruments and recording seamlessly, there's no telling what you'll come up with. Experiment with different drum kits and eventually build your own. Ableton has tons of options and you are truly only limited by your imagination. Have fun.

The finished drum beat

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Introduction to Music Production Week #1 - How to Record a Spoken Word or Vocal

Hi guys and girls, this is Kevin from HotBot Productions out in sunny Miami, FL. I've decided to help you guys learn how to record vocals as part of the Intro to Music Production course. Let's get started!

First off, here's a list of things you'll need to lay down some fat rhymes or sweet poetry:

  • singer/poet/talent
  • Microphone (with clip)
  • XLR cable
  • Audio Interface
  • USB cable
  • Computer with DAW software
  • Headphones

Most vocals are recorded using condensor mics because of their ability to pick up very nuanced transients. The human voice is a sonically rich instrument, so you want to use something that will get as clear a sound as possible. That said, we'll be using a dynamic mic for this demonstration as it's the only mic I have. :)

Before setting up your session make sure your interface is configured with your DAW. Nothing takes the wind out of the Creativity Ship like having to sift through manuals and dialogue boxes. This would also be a good time to verify that your inputs, outputs, sample rate, bit depth, audio file type, and buffer size are set up the way you want them to be. Ready? Let's do this.

Setting preferences in Ableton Live

Make sure the input knob on your interface is turned all the way down before moving on. This is to save your speakers, ears, and gear from the noisy clicks and pops you get when you plug and un-plug the various cables in your signal chain.

I find that setting up the mic stand where you want it to be, before plugging in the mic, is a lot safer than setting up the mic and then trying to move it around your room.

Once your mic stand is set up, attach your mic clip (these usually come with your mic) and then the microphone.

Plug the female end of your XLR cable into the end of the microphone. Remember that the microphone is sending the signal out into the cable so the end is always male.

Now plug the opposite end into your audio interface. The interface should already be plugged in to your computer via USB or Firewire.

If you're using a condenser mic you can turn on your phantom power now.

Assuming your DAW is already running, set up a new mono audio track. - Quick Tip - in Ableton you can hit Command+T on Mac (Ctrl+T on PC) to quickly add audio tracks.

Now for the fun part... the sound check. Record enable your audio track and have your talent perform the loudest section of their piece. You're looking for a nice solid level free of distortion. About 3/4 of the way up is generally a good place to keep your peaks, but use your ears before making any final calls.

Be careful as this is the point where you can get feedback if your not monitoring on headphones. Turn up your headphones slowly to a level that's comfortable for you and your talent. Depending on your hardware you can configure your outputs to work as separate monitor groups. But that's a lesson for another time.

My reluctant brother steps in front of the mic

Typically when you're doing a sound check the talent will be quieter than they will be during the actual performance. Something about getting caught up in the moment. Go figure. This is why you should err on the side of caution and turn your input down some even if you're not clipping. Weak signals can be boosted later in the mix but distortion lasts forever.

If you're happy with your levels then you're ready to record! Record enable your DAW and hit play. Now go out there and make some beautiful music.

Sweet, sweet sound

Thanks for taking the time to read through my tutorial. I hope this helps some of my fellow class mates. I'm looking forward to hearing your feedback. Don't forget to tear down after you've finished and have fun. Cheers!