Saturday, February 28, 2009

Five Tips for increasing your Creativity

Creativity flourishes under arduous conditions

It's no secret that some of the most amazing ideas come out at the most stressful or restrictive times and places. History is full of amazing art and writings that came from the most desperate and depressing times.

Even the most procrastinistic (is that even a word?) amongst us has probably found inspiration when having to do a dull or dreary task. "I can't carry on washing these dishes - I have a great melody for a song in my head!"

Lets face it, some of the greatest innovations have come from simple beginnings as a solution to a specific problem, whether it be in war, survival or even space travel.
One of the key concepts to all this is in the amount of parameters that surround a given problem. Tighter, fewer and more defined parameters make it easier to zoom in and locate a solution. This all sounds a bit left-brain, but it works almost exactly the same in the more right-brain creative environment as well.

There are two similar and overlapping concepts in action here - the first is that an environment not apparently conducive to creativity somehow seems to generate ideas. The second is that there needs to be a restriction in options to enable a better flow or focus of ideas.

In regards to creativity, the environment issue might be simply that we desire to do anything other than what we are currently doing. The more distressing or boring the task, the more our minds try to find an escape or some form of internal freedom, especially if our bodies are trapped somewhere. (eg in a meeting at work, on a production line, or even just stuck on a bus or train)

1) Capture the ideas when they flow

One of the key things we can take from this is that we need to have a handy system for capturing those ideas for later use. Some people carry notebooks, some carry voice recorders, some, like me, use their cellphone. Having voicemail on your own phone number can be a handy thing! The cellphone is useful in that nobody can tell who you're talking to - even if it's to yourself ;o)

2) Store ideas for later use and retrieval

This is kind of obvious, really. No point in having all those good ideas if you can't retrieve them later on. This part is a little left-brain again - sorting, storing and keeping an index of some sort. There are apps out there for the computer that can help in this regard. For songwriting I recommend Masterwriter, but there are numerous apps and techniques out there that may suit your own style.

3) Work to a fixed idea.

One example of this is when I was having trouble finding new ideas for writing songs when I was writing a song every week - I canvassed my friends for ideas. One idea I was given was "what if Winter was a woman?" This is a great way to focus your writing, and there's no rules about changing direction once you're going. Use "what if" as much as possible, and remember people love stories.

4) Keep the equipment basic

There are so many people out there who feel that they need to have the latest gear or equipment to get the best sounds or compositions happening. The advent of the internet downloading culture has turned people into software collectors rather than music makers. Some of the most prolific and successful producers of music are not even using the latest technology - they're using vintage equipment that they know intimately and are able to overcome its limitations. Don't keep postponing your real writing until you get the right technology. It's YOU that creates, NOT the technology. (Although occasionally a new sound can trigger off an idea, of course)

5) Limit your creative options to find direction

There are some big traps for composers on modern computer systems - the main one being way too many options. It's hard to find direction when you have the entire compass at your disposal.
When writing a song, it's easy to get bogged down on paltry things like hunting for the perfect patch on a synthesizer, or just the right reverb chamber - and sometimes there are thousands.
It's better to make a call beforehand about the creative palette that you will use - choose the instrumentation or style in advance so you can stay focused.

There you go - this is just a simplistic set of ideas that may help you get past your writer's block. These are not hard and fast rules - in fact there are no rules, apart from rule-of-thumb, and there's exceptions to everything.

I was just now wondering whether it's the reduction in hardship that impacts on bands and artists who have trouble with their later efforts in music - the first album is born of struggle and turmoil, but later efforts have more funding, more time, better studios etc - maximising their quality but reducing their creativity. Just thinking out loud really.

Monday, February 9, 2009

No bass out of your home stereo?

I don't know how many times I visit friends' places or go to parties and their stereo speakers are out of phase. Even worse - they don't even seem notice how horrible they sound.
They're probably so used to it that they think that's what the system's MEANT to sound like.

As an audio engineer, I can usually tell straight away and it drives me crazy. Usually so crazy I can't even even pay attention to what people are saying or even enjoy my drink until I fix it.

How can you tell the speakers are out of phase?
There's a distinct lack of bass frequencies (that's the low rumbly ones), unless you're close to one speaker only.
When you walk across from one speaker to the other, parts of the song seem to follow you, or "swim".
It feels like there's a "hole" in the sound in between the two speakers.

Here's the easy test.
Move both of the speakers together, side by side. Is there more or less bass?

If there's more bottom-end, then it's usually all good.*

If the sound gets thin and harsh, then your speakers are out of phase.

How to fix it? Easy.
1) Turn OFF your stereo.
2) On the back of ONE of the speakers swap the two wires.
3) Power up and enjoy a better sound!

*Sometimes, on a Friday at five minutes before the end of work, an apprentice speaker assembler can solder the wires around the wrong way on only ONE of the speakers in your speaker box. This makes it a nightmare to figure out what's wrong, and takes some higher-tech equipment to analyse.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

My Top 5 Essential Plugins

Everybody has their own favourites, and here's mine right at the moment. (It may change next week!)

Melodyne Plug-In

Because I write and produce completed demos so fast (up to a song a week for a quite a while), I'm often generating vocals from one pass. Or starting my song idea from a sung vocal.
So Melodyne is awesome for tweaking what I already have, or changing to a different key. Or generating harmony ideas. Or fixing poor bass playing and intonation (most basses have poor intonation on certain frets).
Unlike Autotune, it preserves vibrato and pitch slides, is fantastic for stretching notes or fixing phrasings, and doesn't create that odd phasing sound when it's inserted.
People have the wrong idea about apps like Autotune and Melodyne - sure they can be, and are, abused by talentless losers, but they are also essential tools when it comes down to a choice between a perfect emotive delivery marred by a wrong note, or a technically pitch-perfect and soul-less performance. Give me the first option anytime.

Izotope Ozone 4

Long considered as the perfect all-in-one mastering tool for the semi-pro or lower-budget mastering engineer, this version has taken another step in the pro direction with the addition of mid-side processing options and a slew of other cool features. One of the highlights for me is the ability to solo a frequency by option-clicking in the EQ window. It's seldom I have to pull in other plugins or external processing to complete a mastering job.

Logic's Compressor

Wow - with the advent of Logic 8, they have really upgraded this plugin significantly. It now models five new types of compressor, including two class-A types (including Urei), VCA, FET, and Opto. My favourites are the Urei and the FET. It has some cool extra features - overload clip type, EQ on the sidechain (for frequency-selective reduction), and a "mix" slider. This last is way more powerful than you can imagine - with just a tweak of this you can easily recreate parallel compression within the channel signal path - set the compressor to "smash" settings and then mix it back a bit.

Arts Acoustic Reverb

This is a digitally generated reverb effect rather than one of the currently popular impulse-based units, but somehow it it just sounds great. It has plenty of parameters to tweak and almost every patch has that beautiful analogue quality to it. Low on the computer resources too. Try it - you'll like it.

Logic's Tape Delay

Okay, now Logic has the new Delay Designer - it's flashy and cool. But I still love the ol' Tape Delay. It does the most awesome dub effects, and is just made for tweaking as the mix progresses. It has filters that work on the feeback section so that each echo progressivley grunges out more and more, and an authentically perfect feedback that goes crazy in a sweet analogue way when you wind up the feedback slider.

So what are YOUR favourites?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Basics for a home songwriting studio

In it's purest sense, you can write a song with nothing but your own brain. If you can hear the music in your head and craft the lyrics, you're away laughing.

The tricky bit is getting those ideas into a form that other people can appreciate.

So I've built up a basic recording system at home, refined over the years, so I can get my ideas down as quickly and easily as possible, and with enough quality that I can do commercial work, including mastering jobs.

The core of it is my Apple MacBook Pro.

There's a bunch of good reasons for having a laptop, not the least of which it's almost always with you so if you suddenly have a great idea you can act on it, or if you're stuck in the airport or on a plane, you can be editing or mixing. I upped my RAM to 4GB so everything would run smoothly - you want at least 3GB nowadays for audio really. It wasn't long ago that the humble laptop wasn't powerful enough for recording and mixing, but with the new generation of Intel multi-core Macs, they compare well to tower systems.

I originally chose Apple because I prefer to use Logic Pro as my writing and recording application (since I've been using the product since it was Emagic Creator on Atari), and you HAVE to run it on a Mac. With an Intel Mac you can run Windows as well, so I have the best of both worlds.

Logic has a Caps-Lock keyboard which is really handy for playing in notes from the computer keyboard when you're out and about, and is really aimed at song writing and production, so it has heaps of software instruments and loops built-in.

Since you don't really want to be using the built-in sound on your computer for recording, and you may need multiple inputs or phantom power for condenser microphones, in my studio I have a Presonus Firestudio which I have everything plugged into, ready to record at a moment's notice. The Fireport also has a MIDI in/out port built in, which is handy.

For recording, I have one decent microphone which I use for pretty much everything - it's an Avantone CV-12 valve large-diaphragm condenser. It's a beauty. It cost me about $700. It's 9-position multi-pattern and comes with a spare valve (for tweaking the sound of the microphone) and a suspension cradle. For the price, it sounds awesome.

Although it's not an essential, I have a Drawmer 1960 dual valve preamp/compressor which I have the Mic permanently plugged into. It's a fantastic preamp for vocals and mastering.

For listening, I have a few different sets of headphones and a pair of Mackie HR824 monitors. I used to have some small Genelecs and a sub, but getting the position accurate for a sub is a real nightmare, so I changed to the Mackies which have really good low-end response without using a sub. I do a fair bit of mastering through these and they're relatively flat.

I also have an old Yamaha CS1x synthesiser, which I mainly use for sending MIDI to Logic Pro so I can record and play the built-in software instruments. It's got some great sounds of it's own though, which I probably don't use enough.

With this setup, I can get sounds down really fast while I'm inspired or just suddenly have a great idea. The most I usually have to do is quickly plug the laptop into the Presonus via a handy firewire cable, and it's all go.


I've been so busy writing songs in the last couple of years that I haven't had time to update my blog - in fact I closed down my last blog since I wasn't using it and it got ridiculously out of date.
I was writing a song a week for quite a while, and although I had quite a few hiccups due to my "real" job cropping up and demanding my time, I've managed to average out to between two or three weeks per demoed song.

Now I feel like it's time to share some of my skills in getting song sketches and demoes down really fast while the ideas are flowing.

Most songwriters seem to write on their instrument of choice - might be guitar or might be piano. I'm pretty average on guitar and piano - well let's not even talk about that.
Anyway I tend to use them in a supporting rather than major role in my songwriting.

I also tend to veer into the electronica on occasion, but I'm most interested in the song itself, and it might take any style that suits.

So welcome along to my blog about some ways to create and demo songs.