I can’t count the number of times when I’ve told someone that I make electronic music, and they say that they have no idea how I do it. I thought then, that it would be interesting to explain, in a nutshell, how it is done. Obviously I will not be able to go over every detail in a blog post or two, but my hope is that I can give the common person a decent idea of how this sort of thing is done. In this series of articles, I will talk about the software and hardware I use, as well as the ways in which I use it.
First things first, I head to the studio. My work desk looks like this:
Let me explain what these things are. The keyboard on the bottom left is a Novation ReMote 37SL, a MIDI controller. It makes no sound by itself – it simply sends timing, note and control information to the computer. In the middle is my laptop with a cooling fan stand, as some of the projects I so cause the laptop to get quite hot, and it will last longer if I can keep it cool while I work. To the right my computer is an external blu-ray burner with two sound cards on top of it, an Apogee Duet and an M-Audio Fast Track Pro. I have two cards because although the Duet sounds great, it is not PC compatible and sometimes my students come in to my studio to work on their PCs, and they need a compatible card to plug into. On top of the laptop is a secondary monitor which allows me to have an extended workspace (very important for productivity). To the left and right of the monitor are my Adam A3X monitors. These are special speakers that have a very accurate frequency response, making it easier to create a good mix. They are connected to a Fostex PM0.5 subwoofer so that I can hear the deep bass frequencies.
Once I’ve fired up the laptop, I launch Ableton Suite 8, my digital audio workstation (a.k.a. DAW) of choice. People often ask me why I use Ableton Live instead of one of the many DAWs available. The answer is that Ableton Live has a feature called the “session view” which not only allows me to compose in a non-linear, brainstorming kind of way, but also allows me to remix my songs on-the-fly and perform live sets, which no other DAW is very good at yet. I find it helps me save a lot of time in the early parts of the composition process, and you will see why. This is what the session view in Ableton Live looks like:
I begin by creating a MIDI track and loading the Native Instruments Kontakt 4 plugin into the track. The Kontakt plugin looks like this:
A plugin is a special kind of program that runs within a DAW, functioning either as a virtual instrument, effect or meter. They allow you to expand the capabilities of the DAW to include additional functionality. You’ll sometimes hear plugins referred to as VSTs, but this is not always correct. There are three common audio plugin formats: VST, audio units and DXi. They all serve the same purpose, but have different levels of compatibility. VST is dual-platform, so plugins written as VSTs can be used on both PCs and Macs. Audio units are Mac-only. DXi plugins are PC-only. Moreover, not all DAWs support all plugin formats. Ableton Live supports VSTs and audio units, and since I generally find audio units to be a bit more stable than VSTs on the Mac, I tend to use them whenever possible.
Kontakt is a sampler plugin, or software sampler. A sampler plays a sound when it receives a MIDI message from a MIDI controller. You can assign any sound to any key, allowing you to turn the keyboard into virtually any sort of instrument you want. Kontakt is a monster of a sampler, and is able to load very large and complex sets of samples, allowing for extremely realistic instruments to be recreated virtually within the DAW. In this case, I’ll be using Kontakt to load a piano multisample from Native Instruments Akoustik Piano. Once the sound is loaded, I can play it. So the end result is that now I am playing what sounds very much like a concert grand piano on a little three-octave plastic keyboard.
At this point, I close my eyes and imagine a piano melody, then try to figure out how to play it on the keyboard. Once I’ve figured it out, I click the record button in one of clips in the session view, and begin recording the melody, hitting the button again when I am done. This creates a MIDI clip, which I can then loop and listen to repeatedly as I edit the notes and make them sound a little tighter than the way I played them. It eventually sounds like this:
[mp3t track="wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Freeze-Piano-1.mp3" title="Akoustik Piano Melody"]
Once I’m happy, it’s time to load up another plugin and choose another sound to layer on top of the piano. I can do this as many times as I want, with as many sounds as I like. The only limitation is my computer’s capability to process the complex calculations required to generate the sound using the plugin. My computer is pretty capable, so it’s generally not an issue.
In the next part of this article, I will continue explaining the process.