Ever hit that point where all of your melodies and chords sound a little sterile and lifeless? Or maybe you feel like you just keep making the same track over and over again, or that your music doesn't sound unique enough? Either way, I think we have all been there, and while It's no quite writers block, it's still an inspirational dip. Well, this post is all about how to supercharge your music production with a few creative post production audio techniques that can help inject new life and movement into your next track. What's so powerful about these methods is that they can work across every element of your track, whether that be drums, basslines, melodies, or even vocals. We will dive into the power of chopping things up, automating parameters, and even making your software come up with creative ideas for you. It's going to be a post packed with information so lets get this thing moving!
So before we get into this, I want to go over a couple concepts, the first being MIDI paralysis. This is something that I have fallen victim to for a while now, and a concept that stems from something I call, "fearing the print". If you are anything like me you like to keep your arrangements in MIDI so that you can alter notes down the line, or change parameters at some point in the writing or mixing process. Now don't get me wrong, creating this way is TOTALLY FINE! I am always changing things around when creating a B section or want to come up with some variation for a bridge or hook. This can become problematic however. While keeping things in MIDI does allow me to do a lot with note placement and chord formation, you still miss out on one of the most powerful forms of sound sculpting, which is post production audio manipulation..
What is post production audio manipulation you may ask?
Well we will get into that in a bit! For now, the important take away from this section is to understand that you can only do so much with MIDI. Sometimes you have to depart from its safety net and print it to audio so that you can really start bringing it to life and taking your musical idea to another level.
Create Your Own Vibe
I mentioned this in my last article and I will say it again, it is an AMAZING time to be a music producer. We have so much access to incredibly powerful and professionally sounding tools and all at a relatively low price point. This means that there are more people getting into music production every day. with VSTs like Omnisphere, Nexus, or Outputs Signal, you can create impactful music with just a laptop and basic music theory knowledge. With more access means more people have the same tools, and same tools means the same sounds.
So if you are using that Omnisphere preset that you heard on another track, then you are walking a dangerous line of not fully embracing your style. Now I'm not saying leave omnisphere, in fact I believe the opposite. Instead, keep that preset you like (because it inspired you!), and keep the chords that you played. What's more important is figuring out a way to make that same preset and those same chords become unique. You can start by altering chord voicings and melody timing which will bring a lot of personality into your production, but not all of us have the music theory vocabulary to fully flex and represent what we hear in our heads. This is ok! And something that you build over time, but even then it can be difficult.
Where does that leave us? Manipulating audio in post production! And believe me, it's not nearly as complicated as you think. Lets dive in!
One More Thing!
You can follow along with your own music, or you can download this free midi progression from my latest sample library, Lightfoot's Wave Pack vol 1.
1. Reverb Throws
This might be my favorite technique when it comes to creative post production. Reverb throws was one of the first techniques that I learned and something that I utilize all the time in my productions. It adds movement and impact to whatever you add it to, and the best part is it's so simple to utilize. Essentially all you are doing is automating the reverb to "throw" it's signal in the next note or bar or beat.
Lets get hands on and start by using some reverb throws in a chord progression. Import the MIDI clip that you downloaded into your DAW. If you are using your own chord progression even better! (you can also skip this MIDI step if you have a chord progression that is already audio)
Now that our MIDI is in our DAW we want to add a vst instrument to that track so that we can hear the notes when we hit playback. In my case, I'm adding my favorite synth, Serum, but you can add whatever you'd like. The next step is to convert this MIDI into audio. In the context of making a song, you will probably want to make sure you are settled on your progression or your sound, but for now any old preset will do. This process will differ across softwares, but below is one way to do it in Ableton. You can preview the audio below as well.
This is where we can really start getting hands on with our progression. Because these are short chords, we have a lot of spacing in between them. This is an excellent opportunity to utilizing reverb throws. Lets set up a reverb on the audio track that we just printed on to. I labeled it "print" but you can call it whatever you'd like. I'm using the factory reverb plug in for Ableton, but any reverb will do.
For now lets just worry about the decay time and dry/wet knobs. With these two knobs we can create some really powerful movement with reverb throws. The principle behind this process is that you set a relatively high decay time and run signal throw your reverb, you then automate the dry/wet knob to move from completely dry, to completely wet.
Are you scratching your head at decay time and/or dry/ wet?
Well here's the quickest of explanations... think of decay time as how long your reverb will ring out. If you put reverb on a clap and have the decay time set to 1.2 seconds then it will take that amount of time for your reverb to fully fade away. the higher the time the longer the decay and vice versa. Dry/ wet, which is something that you will see quite often on various effects, is a knob that controls the mix of dry signal and processed signal. So if you have the dry wet knob set to 100% then you will only be hearing the processed signal and if you have it set to 0% you will only be hearing the sound with no processing. I'll leave it at that, because I could dedicate a whole article to using a dry wet knob, but this should suffice for a basic definition. Another quick rule of thumb, is if you are putting reverb on a send you usually want that dry wet knob at fully wet. When you place it directly on a track as what we call and insert effect, you usually want a mix of dry and wet.
Sorry for that tangent, back to the reverb throws... For the purpose of this example I am going to raise the decay time to 5.45 seconds (you may have to play around with this depending on how defined you want this effect) and drop the dry wet knob to 0%. So if i played this back you will hear no reverb on the chords, it will be a totally dry signal. So how are we going to use this reverb if the dry wet is on 0? Automation!
Lets start by cleaning up the first chord. If we really want these reverb throws to be impactful we have to clear the way for them to do their work.
Because we are working with audio, chopping off that release tail is easy. If we were still using our MIDI we would have to go into the plug-in and find the ADSR settings and tweak until it was just right, and sometimes it's not that easy. With instruments adding on board reverb and delay it can get tricky. Also what if you wanted that tail for the third chord? then you have to automate the pararmeters, and thats assuming you can get it to the right spot to begin with... It becomes a head ache. Instead, you can just print and manipulate the audio.
We now have a clean chord that stops right at the second beat of the bar. Lets automate a reverb throw so that it pulls the end of that chord and sweeps it into the beginning of the second chord.
All you need to do to create a reverb throw is set an appropriate decay time and then automate your dry wet to sweep up into the next chord or section. If you look at the picture above you can see I started my automation point a little before the chord ended and had it sweep up into the second chord. So it went from 0% to 100% in that spacing. This creates a sweeping effect that caries the end of the last notes and brings it into the next. If you listen to the audio example above, you can hear this section without and with the reverb throw respectively. The difference is obvious. It adds great movement and momentum and almost swings you from chord 1 to chord 2. If you want a more pronounced throw, then turn up your decay time, if you want a more subtle effect, then try using a smaller decay time.
Why not get creative and add a bunch of throws with multiple peaks and valleys. This is a great way to add even more movement and momentum. Above is a quick example of how just adding one more peak in between notes can do a lot. You can preview this example above as well. Notice how i didn't remove the entire tail from the third chord? Thats why i love working with audio so much. I don't have to labor over how to remove a tail from my plug in, I can just stay creative and keep things moving with audio. Obviously this depends on the scenario, but in the case of reverb throws this works!
Now this is just a basic concept, but you can really take this to another level. Add some multiband compression on it and hear how much those reverb throws start coming through
The specific compressor I was using was Abletons OTT multiband which is a lesson for another day, but i highly suggest you check it out if you own Ableton. If you don't own ableton go check out the good people over at Xfer. They have a free plug in version of OTT that works amazingly well.
And thats that! Pretty easy right? There are also many other elements to reverb so why not play with all of them when automating your reverb throw. You can automate things like reverb size, or whatever parameter your plug-in has available to make even more abstract and unique throws. BE CREATIVE!
2. Reverse Swells
Now that we have reverb throws under out belt, lets think in the opposite direction. Sometimes its just as powerful to lead in a new chord or sound than it is to carry something into another. The best way to do this is by utilizing reverse reverb. This is an incredibly easy trick, and something that you will hear a lot.
Working with the same audio from the reverb throw section, lets start by taking the beginning of the second chord in the 3rd bar and splitting it from the rest of the wave form.
Because I'm still working off the same files form the reverb throw section, I left in the automation points so that you could see where i left off at. I took the first chunk of the second chord in the 3rd bar and selected it. I then hit command E which in Ableton splits your audio at selection. My selection is now it's own audio region. The next step is process this chunk so that we can turn it into a reverse tail.
There are many ways to do this, but because I have ableton I like to "freeze" my audio and work that way. I create a new audio track, and I copy and paste that chord chunk onto it.
On that new audio track with the chord chunk, add a reverb with a high decay time and a high dry wet value. You really want it swamped in reverb and you want it to last long so that you have more to work with.
If you hit play and soloed your chord chunk, and you had similar reverb settings as mine, you will get something that sounds similar to the audio example. Now we need to print this reverb signal so that we can create this reverse sweep. This will be DAW specific but since I'm using Ableton I have access to a great feature called track freeze and flatten. This essentially renders your audio so that you don't have to print it in real time or bounce it. I could have also used this process to convert those MIDI notes to audio just FYI.
For my ableton users, all you need to do is right click on the title of your track and hit freeze, right click again and hit flatten. You will end up with something that looks like this
If you aren't using Ableton you may have to render the audio down by recording it to a new track. Same idea, just a different process. I actually compiled a few videos explaining how to create reverse reverbs with a some of the main DAWs, which you can check out here.
See how there are two section of that rendered audio in the picture above? Well the first little section is the chunk that we took from the chord, and the bigger section is the reverb tail that came off of it. We want to use the reverb tail. If you aren't using ableton, this wont be seperatted, so you just want to remove the initial attack of the audio so all you are left with is the washey tail of the reverb.
Now we are almost done... All you have to do now is reverse that reverb section that you just moved and fade it in. With Ableton 10 (I love this new feature) you can just select the clip and press R. For everyone else, refer to your manual. It's usually pretty simple though. You should now have something that sounds like this!
While this effect is similar to the reverb throw, it gives a different feeling since it is a reversed reverb swell from the incoming chord. It isn't pushing this note to the next but instead sucking you into the chord. If you use this with reverb throws you will create a nice feeling of push and pull. You can listen to an example below
Now you would obviously want to tweak these swells and throws a bit so that are smoother (or less smooth depending on your preference!) than this example but hopefully you get the idea.
This technique is used a lot in the pop world when producers and engineers want to lead in a vocal. It's a great tool for starting a song or entering a new section. But creativity is your best friend. There is nothing stopping you from printing these throws and swells and chopping them up and placing them in different spaces etc.
Now onto our last section! Get up and stretch, grab some water and when you are ready lets jump into it!
3. Chop It Up And Make Your Computer Work For You
One of my favorite things to do in the face of a creative slump or to simply just boost creative inspiration, is to let my computer do some of my work for me. With Ableton we have this amazing tool called the LFO effect (Click here if you aren't sure what an LFO is). Other DAWs have similar tools, and there are countless plug ins on the market that can do this as well, but what makes Ableton LFO tool so awesome is that you can map it to any parameter you want with the click of a button. Do you want your volume to pump in and out? Map your LFO to the volume of the device. What the reverb to increase and decrease over and over again? Map your LFO to it's dry wet or reverb time knob. Really the sky is the limit, but my favorite way to implement them is in conjunction with an arpeggiator.
Why do I like to do this? Well because it can add some randomness to my music. Does this mean that I just record the randomness and be done with it and call it a day? Naaaa. What it does mean is that I have some interesting ideas for me to play around with, chop up and add into my existing project to bring it to life even more. But of course the first step is always to render this down to audio and start getting creative. Post production!
Lets go back to step one and take that original MIDI file and add it to another instrument track with an instrument with a short release. Maybe some type of pluck or piano. Anything that doesn't have a long sustain and release will work well. Now add an arpeggiator to that track (don't convert it into audio just yet!). The next step is to add an LFO.
Map that LFO tool to the arpeggiator. With the LFO tool in Ableton it is as simple as pressing that "Map" button and clicking the parameter you want to manipulate. I want the the LFO to alter the rate of the arpeggiator so it repeats notes faster and slower all depending on how the LFO is moving. It will look something like this after you map it (notice the rate knob):
Now that we added an LFO to the rate, lets add even more chaos by creating another LFO and routing that to the rate of our already existing LFO. We now have an arpeggiator whose rate is being changed over time by our first LFO, whose rate is being changed in time by our second LFO. If you scroll up to that first gif in this section you can get a visual for whats going on.
If i played this back with the arpeggiator and two LFOs it will sound something like this:
Now it's important to note that this is for the most part random. So if i rendered this audio down three more times, I would have a different sequence each rendering. If you want something more consistent, automating the arpeggiator by hand would be the way to do that, but the goal here is to have our DAW do some work for us and clean it up on the back end.
The picture above show the rendered audio. Now here comes the fun part. This is when you want to start chopping all of these little bleeps and bloops and arranging them into something dope.
Above is a quick example of how you can turn that rendered arpeggiated audio into something cohesive and cool. I spent all of 5 minutes chopping, reverb throwing and reverse swelling and was able to come away with something pretty cool and unique, and something that would have taken a while to simply automate.
Let take this one more step further so we can really hammer home how far you can take ideas with creative post production. I'm going to throw a delay on this arpeggiated audio. and I'm going to set the rate to 1/8th notes and move the Dry/Wet knob all the way to wet.
Make another audio track and have it's input be the arpeggiated audio with delay. Now hit record. You should be left with something like this:
Now delete that delay pug in we added to the chopped arps so it's back to how it was and start messing with the new audio we just rendered.
With five or so minuets of editing I ended up coming away with the example above. Normally I would spend more time tweaking and cleaning it up, but you get the idea. And you don't have to stop there. You can render this whole thing down again and tweak that, or utilize all sorts of other effects to make it even more vibrant and wild.
As music producers we have to build up our techniques, tricks and tools. The more we know the better we get at delivering our ideas. Think of it as a vocabulary. The more words you know the better you share whats on your mind. Start implementing more grammatical knowledge and then you are really off to the races. This hold true with music production. Playing chords and melodies and selecting sounds is only part of creating great and unique music. Creative audio post production is an excellent addition to our music vocab because it allows you to explore ideas that you couldn't with MIDI, and also ideas that you would never think of to begin with. We should all be embracing happy accidents and going down the rabbit hole of creativity.
Hopefully these three techniques helped open your eyes to the power and flexibility of audio. This is really just the tip of the Ice berg, and I didn't realize how big of a bite I took when I started writing this post. With that said, I will be releasing a part two with slightly more advanced techniques to really bring this concept to another level. Not sure when that will be, but definitely soon.
So go have fun. Render some audio and manipulate and be creative. These examples were done quickly but i assure you the more time you spend tweaking, the crazier your results will be.
If you are itching for a some more knowledge, I highly encourage you to check out Mr. Bills youtube channel. Hope you guys enjoyed this post! If you have any comments, suggestions, or topics you would like for me to cover in the future please please please hit me up. I'm on twitter, instagram and facebook, and you can also reach me via email.
Thank you for reading! Catch you next week.