So you want to have a go at making your own dance track?
The more established producers out there will have dipped their toe in the production pond when things cost a little more to started; with even a basic set up costing thousands most producers slowly built up their collection and studio over many years. Thankfully, for the modern producer life is usually a lot quicker and many can be set up over night, with many joining the party as DJs wanting to add something unique to their set.
As a newbie the temptation can be to end up jumping from forum to forum in search of quick answers; how do I do this? Where do I get this? How much does it cost for..? etc. Of course forums are a great place to meet like minded people and learn some great tips, but they can also be a really good place to pick up bad advice, or be misinformed and/or mislead. Often this approach leads many to believe that the only way to produce good quality music is to be using high end plug-ins, and that the only way to do that cheap or free is to follow many others down the dark road of piracy. We are not going to advise you to avoid forums, far from it, but we will show you that creating a professional level studio can be done extremely cheap with out the need to break any laws.
The first thing we have to destroy is the myth behind freeware and licensed software; just because something is free doesn’t mean its lower quality, likewise, just because you paid for it doesn’t make it a great plug-in. Whether it costs nothing or £2000 these plug-ins are all programmed, and Programmers sometimes write and release plug-ins for free hoping to be noticed and be picked up by bigger companies. Releasing for free or donation only is a great way to get people talking about them and create a buzz, others simply have very little funding and as such will never be able to compete with the finically backed companies.
Ok we could argue about emulations where many of the bigger companies will be able to afford the R&D for the emulations so they will more than likely sound better but coding a “NEW” synth or processor holds no ground and there is no reason why a “FREE” plug-in can’t sound as good or even better than one you pay for.
So let’s take a look at what we may (or may not!) need:
Today many of the top commercial DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstation) like Apple Logic, Ableton Live, Cubase and Pro-tools come with all the tools you’ll ever need, and although this is great for those of us that can afford this software, they still cost hundreds of pounds meaning those on a tight budget may still be tempted walk the wrong path of piracy. Even though there will always be forum and music snobbery based around this subject it’s always going to be a better option to avoid the piracy route as this can lead to some really bad habits as well potentially land you in a lot of trouble.
With this article what we would like to achieve is the same level of “tool box” with as small an outlay as possible, without having to compromise on the quality of the tools.
You will need some of the following:
SUBTRACTIVE SYNTHESISER: also know as “Analogue Synthesis”, this is the most common method of synthesis where sounds are created by removing harmonics via the use of a filter and is used to create many of the sounds heard in dance music, it is also possibly the easiest method to learn.
You don’t need to shell our pro cash for pro sounds.
This is also a musical instrument like a synthesiser but instead of generating its own sounds, the sampler uses recordings or “sample’s” to play back using a keyboard. Most samplers will feature filters and some form of modulation similar to a synthesiser. Samplers can be great for creating your own drum patterns or messing with vocals. The sampler is entirely responsible for many great tracks and few people would argue that the sampler is possibly the most creative tool a producer has
This is analysis/synthesis system originally developed and used to code speech transmissions in the 1930′s. The vocoder started being used around the mid 1950′s for Electronic music and has since made it’s self part of the staple diet in many a dance producers tool box. From Stevie Wonder to Daft Punk, its distinctive sound is a dance music stalwart.
Intentional use of distortion is widely used in all fields of music, and although distortion in general is something to avoid in most cases, plug-ins like Overdrive, Saturation and Bit-crusher can all be used to alter the shape and characteristic of the original sound. Distortion makes sounds warmer, dirty and even richer by producing all kinds of additional harmonics and overtones.
This is used to simulate spaces like rooms and halls, and when used on samples and synthesisers can help give your mix and sounds a real sound of depth and space. Some sounds will become brighter with short reverb settings while others will give a more smudged and less defined sound.
Using reverb and delay you can create the sense of different spaces.
A somewhat natural occurrence where a sound bounces off objects at various distances causing repeats until finally they fade away. Delay can be used to help in many ways from subtle echo’s on a vocal to full overlapping delays that build to a wall of sound normally used in break downs to build tension.
Usually shortened to EQ, this is a type of filter but unlike the filter EQ can boost frequencies as well as cut them away; mostly commonly used to boost or cut frequencies to correct any tonal balance of sounds and mix. There are several types of EQ including shelving, graphic, linear and parametric as well as simple filters.
This is exactly what it says on the tin, It’s used to filter (remove) something that’s unwanted, letting through only that which is wanted. Much in the same way that a tea bag’s perforation holes only let through the flavoured water and not the tea leaves a filter is used to remove unwanted frequencies. Filters can be found in many forms Low Pass, High Pass, Band Pass, Band Cut (or Notch). although these are not always necessary as much of their job can be done with an EQ, Filter plug-ins are usually lighter on your systems CPU than the average EQ and during big projects you may need to save as many cycles as you can.
Keep the parts you want separate from the ones you don’t with filters.
Essentially used as a mix tool to help control dynamics, compression controls the volume range between the loudest and quietest parts of a sound as well as shaping the transients of the sound and will help keep your mix both clear and punchy if used correctly. Compression can also be used to create pumping effects in house music like Benny Benassi’s ‘Satisfaction’.
These are mainly used while recording material like vocals and such, the gate’s threshold is set to a level and once the sound drops bellow this level the gate is closed and the signal is silenced. Gates are also good for removing unwanted background noise on acappella’s when remixing or bootlegging.
This works by taking two of the same sounds and slowing one version down, the delay between the two sounds produces all kind of overtones that sometimes sound like a plane taking off as the sounds sweep up and down the frequencies. There are similarities between flanger and chorus, the main difference is the delay times used by each unit.
This is how a scientist would illustrate phasing. Probably.
Very similar to the flanger in effect, phaser works by taking part of the original signal, shifting the sound back or forth and mixing it back in with the original sound. with the sounds mixed together out of phase the sound is usually quite unique as the sounds cancel each other out causing the phasing effect.
When more than one person sings at the same time, all the singers voices will vary in pitch and timing creating a bigger ‘Chorus’ sound and the chorus plug in does exactly the same thing by mixing versions of the signal in with the original.
A limiter is a special type of compression with a super fast attack that stops the signal level going past the set limit as well as stopping transients dead and allows the over all volume of a sound to be raised with out clipping, a limiter is often last in any signal chain that it is used on.
Sampling and creative use of samples is an art form in itself, the use of samples has been the back bone of nearly every great dance track and although for legal reasons we can’t recommend you sample other people, we can say that dance music would have been a different world with out it. There are plenty of free samples littered all over the internet but we would recommend only downloading them from trusted sites, making sure you have the legal right to use them freely with in your music.
The internet is awash with royalty free samples to get you started.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
This is the music sequencer and centre of your studio, designed for recording, editing and playback of digital audio. Modern DAWs are software programs that run on your computer. Many of these can be multi platform but some are designed to run with only one OS (operating system. Windows / Mac OSX). Some of the more popular DAWs are Apple’s Logic Studio, Cubase, Ableton Live, Propellerheads Reason & Record, Cakewalk Sonar, Avid Pro-Tools and Cockos Reaper.
This is used to record edit and manipulating digital audio. Most modern DAWs have some kind of audio editor built in, some are great and some not so good. Most people will choose to use a separate audio editor as they tend to make working with samples less of a chore. The most popular commercial Audio Editors are Bias Peak, Sound Forge and WaveLab but often these are verging on the side of over kill for such small projects as sample editing.
Some things you don’t need!
What you don’t need is a countless number of the same type of effects and synthesisers. Just because there are hundreds available doesn’t mean you need them all, especially if you are just starting out in the world of production, keeping your set up simple is your biggest step forward to fast learning and eventual completion of your first record.
Whether you choose to go it cheap or ignore all of this and buy all the latest gear, you won’t progress if you don’t spend your time learning how to get the best out of your tools and sharpening your skills. Simply having a great set up won’t turn you into a great producer and no one synthesiser will make every sound you want unless you are putting in the hard work.
Ok so we are never going to be able to show you how to set up a totally FREE studio, but we’ll go for as cheap as we can possibly work it with little to no compromise and with out the use of illegal material is our target. Now we know what we do and don’t need, we can start to look at the huge amount of software on offer to us. Over the past months www.bangthedj.com have searched through hundreds and hundreds of Effects, Processors, synths, DAWs and Samples to find you what we feel is the best available to you, Of course this can change all the time but we feel that even with the constant evolution of music software industry our selected software will still be a great set up.
Assuming you already have either a Mac or PC, The following list will include details of websites that included enough software, samples and knowledge to get you started with producing your own music.
Most of the following can be downloaded and used for FREE although we do ask if you can please donate and support your programmers!
DAW for this we decided the best bang for your buck out there is Cockos’ Reaper http://www.reaper.fm/ This is free to try for a time period and although after the time period the software doesn’t shut down, you should really consider paying the discount licence of $40. Cockos do ask that if you are releasing your music and using Reaper to make money that you buy a full commercial licence for $150; by this time though if you have started releasing your music you will have decided that reaper is for you and have no problems with affording the asking price hopefully. Although Reaper comes with a bunch of plug-ins we have decided to show you some of the others available on the web so that you can make your own choice.
AUDIO EDITOR if you’re a DJ chances are that you’ve already heard of Audacity http://audacity.sourceforge.net/, many DJ’s talk about using Audacity to record their sets, but its uses range much wider. Although Audacity is free, the software provides you with everything that you need plus some extras that you may need in the future.
SUBTRACTIVE SYNTHESISER there are literally thousands of virtual subtractive synths available to you both free and commercial, including some cool FREE bits from big player’s in the industry such as Native Instruments’ own Kore-player http://www.native-instruments.com/#/en/products/producer/kore-player/. Another great choice from LinPlug is the FREE ALPHA 3 with the choice to upgrade to full Alpha3 at anytime, but the one that really stands out is this one from the creators of Zebra http://www.amazona.de/index.php?page=26&file=2&article_id=3372.
SAMPLE PLAYER some sample players will let you do all kinds of crazy things with samples and others simply let you play them back. As the sample player with Reaper is of a reasonable standard i though we could just give a mention to another free product for Native Instruments http://co.native-instruments.com/index.php?id=kontaktplayerdl
VOCODER although this is still beta software we really like the sound of this vocoder and in our opinion it will do just as great a job as any other vocoder, maybe even better: http://kunz.corrupt.ch/?Products:VST_TAL-Vocoder Built to emulate the vocoders used in many of those great 80′s electro pop tracks TAL have done another great job with this.
DISTORTION One of our favourite plug-ins for distortion is Camel Crusher http://www.camelaudio.com/camelcrusher.php This Free plug-in is great for fattening up almost any sound you decide to run through it and probably one of the best windows and mac compatible ‘colouring’ plug-ins available.
Adding distortion can bring a new perspective.
REVERBERATION Reverb is a bit of a delicate subject, many people feel that no software reverbs are as good as hardware units, no matter how much you spend, but despite this we’ve found some Free plug-ins that we think will do the job just fine. Even though our choice of DAW has reverbs included int he package, PSP have a great reverb called PianoVerb http://www.pspaudioware.com/plugins/reverbs/psp_pianoverb/ a very unique sounding plug-in that should help add a little flavour to your mix.
DELAY/ECHO as these tend to be one of the most used processors it’s best to find one thats flexible enough to be effective as and effect and mixing tool, we’ve opted for the Vexengo delay http://www.voxengo.com/product/sounddelay/ as it’s one of the best multi platform delays currently available.
EQUALISATION Unless you are looking for something really special, Like an emulation of a classic hardware EQ unit then almost any EQ will do. Fortunately though there are some great free EQs http://www.voxengo.com/product/marvelgeq/ couple this with your DAWs EQ and it should give you enough scope for just about any job.
FILTER One of our favourite plug-in producers is also responsible for one of our favourite free low cut filters. Frohmage has a very nice sound and is very simple to operate http://www.ohmforce.com/ViewProduct.do?p=Frohmage.
COMPRESSION There are many free compressors available on the web but two that really stand out are for being simple and effective. The first being BlockFish http://www.digitalfishphones.com/main.php?item=2&subItem=5 and the second from the best compressor company in the business SSL http://www.solid-state-logic.com/music/LMC-1/index.asp .
GATE most software DAWs will have some kind of gate and Reaper is no different, Reaper’s gate is better than many others we’ve used. Very flexible and easy to set up, it makes sense to use it http://www.reaper.fm/reaplugs/
FLANGER This effect was made very famous during the 70′s and 80′s many of the plug-ins are great job at replicating those from the hardware of that era, we’ve decided to go with Blue Cat’s as we feel its capable of a wider ranger of effects
PHASER similar to the flanger we decided to go with Blue Cat’s analogue modelled phaser based on a vintage units with the option to apply up to 32 stages of phasing http://www.bluecataudio.com/Products/Product_Phaser/
CHORUS almost every chorus effect we’ve ever heard sound slightly different to the next, all of them are still great to listen to and all work well and you can’t go wrong with Blue Cat’s Chorus http://www.bluecataudio.com/Products/Product_Chorus/
LIMITER waves L1-Ultramximizer is a limiter thats considered by many to be one of the best software limiters but it costs around $160 and is therefore way out of our budget, however we’ve tracked down this http://www.kvraudio.com/get/1510.html W1 limiter, a completely free clone of the L1.
SAMPLES These can come from anywhere, record your own, sample kicks from records and grab those music magazines for literally thousands of samples. Anything that doesn’t involved illegally downloading them is great, and there’s no need to do so, so why waste time and risk virus corruption when plenty of companies give away demos and free samples check out companies like http://www.loopmasters.com/ http://primeloops.com and http://www.timespace.com/ .
So we’ve just about finished setting up our studio, However there are a few of things that we would like to mention that can help you and make life a little easier. Apple’s very own iTunes http://www.apple.com/itunes/ is a great free application for both Mac and PC that can convert samples or full tracks from .Wav to .Mp3 and embed artwork into your .Mp3 and edit info for your ID3 tags. You may also want to set yourself up a soundcloud or myspace account for self promotion, sending out promos or just simply networking http://soundcloud.com/ or http://www.myspace.com/ . Last but not least we recommend http://www.getgobbler.com/ if you have any intention of working with other people over the internet, its a safe, fast way to share song files.
Even plain old iTunes has something to offer the bedroom producer.
Those that didn’t make the team…
Not every plug-in gets picked for every studio and people will have their own opinions and may not share the same views as we do, so we apologise if we have missed your favourite FREE plug-in. There are a few plugs that deserve a place in any article of this kind and also some that may not be everyday tools to some producers.
TRANSIENT DESIGNER http://www.fluxhome.com/products/freewares/bittersweet2
STEREO IMAGER http://www.fluxhome.com/products/freewares/stereotool
BUNDLE SOFTWARE http://www.audiodamage.com/downloads/
BUNDLE SOFTWARE http://www.voxengo.com/group/free-vst-plugins/
BUNDLE SOFTWARE http://www.bluecataudio.com/Products/Bundle_FreewarePack/
SOUND EFFECTS http://www.solid-state-logic.com/music/X-Orcism/index.asp
KEEP IT LEGAL !!!
Illegal software and samples damage not only you but also the industry and although some forum members will have you believe that these companies are big faceless corporations, it’s not true. Trust us when we tell you that many of the software developers and sample makers are no better off than you or me and at best only just scrape a living out of doing what they love. Illegal software also pushes you into bad habits of never learning your software, spending most of your time jumping from one plug-in to the next in an attempt to keep up with trends and never really developing any knowledge or real skills.
!!!!!! If you can’t stick within the law to help out developers and sample creators then do it for yourself !!!!!!
Words: Jon Fisher