These are troubling times, but Chris Lyth has some ideas for making the best of a bad situation…
Strange days indeed are upon us, and the lesson that we are far from being the masters of our own destiny has never been more apparent. But one of the very few consolations of being in isolation is that there has never been a better time to immerse yourself in your music.
Making music, learning new techniques and generally mastering our craft is, after all, an incredibly time-consuming process – I’ve been doing it for over 20 years and definitely still have a lot more to learn! But time is the one thing many of us in the dance/electronic music community have an over-abudance of right now.
So, here are a few ideas on how to spend this time enjoyably and productively…
One thing that we are often guilty of is not taking the time to really sit down and listen to music. Often we are on the move or it’s playing in the background, so we're enjoying it, but not giving it 100% focus. There really could be no better time than this to immerse ourselves in music and focus on what makes it so good.
Find a track that's similar in genre to yours (or, conversely, a wildly different one) that you think has a compelling arrangement, then break it down – either by sketching with pencil and paper, or by making labelled coloured blocks and placing them at the top of your sequencer as an arrangement scaffolding. Do this regularly and notice the vastly different options that are available to you. Getting inquisitive about the tricks other producers use to create a certain mood is created will yield creative results for your own music.
Isolation field recording
Field recording is a great way of building up your own unique sound library: everyone has access to commercial sample packs, so using non-standard sounds will help your productions stand out.
Obviously none of us should be leaving the house just to wander around with handheld recorders right now, but there's nothing to stop you capturing sounds from around your house – I won’t insult your intelligence by making suggestions!. Then try reprocessing them with plug-ins such as bit crushers or reverbs, or re-recording them through an old tape deck or FX pedals. Catalogue them carefully by category (for example Percussion/ FX/ Melodic), then load them into a sampler of your choice.
Fun with LFOs
Try using this time to master techniques that you've yet to get to grips with. One of the most misunderstood and powerful tools in electronic music production are LFOs. LFOs are fantastic tools for adding motion to static parts, not to mention coming up with things we wouldn’t have thought of in our wildest dreams
What are LFOs? Well firstly, LFOs don’t actually make a sound: they move a sound around. Dependent upon your synth or sampler, an LFO can be set up to automatically alter a given parameter over a specified amount of time. A classic example is setting the LFO to modulate a cut-off filter of a resonant synth line. This will automatically move the filter up and down at the speed and depth you select, but LFOs can do much more than filter sweeps. They can control the volume, pan, pitch, length of a note or even modulate the start point of a long sample so that it jumps around, creating a glitchy textured rhythm. They can even be set up to modulate FX parameters like reverb time and delay feedback.
Most plug-in LFOs have a setting called LFO Sync that will lock them to the tempo of your track. This can be great for some things, but your modulations will be more predictable and structured-sounding as a result, which may or may not suit. So don’t be afraid to unlock from the grid!
There’s also no current legislation to suggest that you can only use one LFO per track, so play around with multiples to really get your sounds zipping around. Used with varying degrees of depth and creativity, they will take much of the pain out of writing in automation for every single part.
Reinvent yourself by developing a signature sound
Just as a graphic designer will use a recognisable palette of colours and fonts, it’s worth considering what musical fundamentals you want to colour your music with. For instance, are your arrangements long and winding, or short and to the point? Do you want your music to sound tight and quantised, or would you prefer a wonky, looser vibe? Is your sound dry or spacious?
Limiting your tonal palette to certain sounds, arrangement styles, FX and so on is a good way to retain consistency throughout a body of work and give yourself a recognisable sound. For example, you might always use the same vocal FX chain and bass synth, or the same drum machine that you’ve recorded through an old tape machine.
Sample and layer
There’s never been a better time to sample those records that you haven’t yet got around to. It’s amazing the amount of ammunition that can be accrued from sampling a break and cutting it up into its component parts (kick, snare, hats, etc).
If you find your sampled beats have great tone but are lacking a little meat, you can layer up other sounds to reinforce them: a low 808 kick layered underneath, for example, can make the most genteel hit sound like the Hammer Of Thor. The same goes with the snare and the clap: layering, for instance, a snare from a DMX drum machine with a clap sampled from a dusty old 70s record can give you lots of tonal options. One has plenty of grit and snap, and the other provides the crack.
Loading different samples and playing them together is a great way of creating new drum sounds. If you're having trouble fitting sounds together, try playing around with the ADSR envelopes: often just shaving a touch off the attack will blend the two nicely.
Set up working templates
Pre-organise your DAW, so that when inspiration strikes you can capture your creative impulses quickly. Searching through your hard drive for a particular sound or a plug-in can throw you off-track and dampen a promising idea, so the value of a highly customised template can't be underestimated.
My basic suggestion would be to have various sample banks of drums sending to a master drum bus with an EQ and compressor strapped across it. On Aux sends have three reverbs (a short, a medium and a long), two delays and two modulation FX (for instance, flanger and chorus). Have various banks of melodic and bass sounds pre-loaded and ready to go. Lastly place EQ on every channel and load up a selection of your favourite synths. Save it as a template and modify as you see fit. As always there are no rules, only suggestions.
While these are incredibly difficult times, music is a truly great way to distract ourselves mentally from the uncertainty of the outside world. Try to incorporate it into your daily routine while lockdown lasts, as this will give your days some structure and also help build your skills faster.
Until next time, take care… and wash your hands!
Words and pics: Chris Lyth