Friday, February 15, 2008


Music writing itself

I'm sure there are a lot of artists out there that can relate to this idea of music writing itself. It's like there is a creative snowballing effect. First you push the piece forward by applying some technique. But after a while, in a session of working on the song, something happens and its like the tables have turned and song is using you to work on itself. Once you get in the zone, it becomes more and more apparent what needs to happen next; how the song should evolve, how loud a sound needs to be, what new sounds need to be heard. In every song that we have finished, this has been the case to some degree.

There needs to be some prep work involved in a track. I heard somewhere that musicians make decent cooks and vice versa. Perhaps some of the process is the same. We prepare each track for being written before we actually get to the 'writing' part, to create a palette of "ingredients" to work with. If you think about it, a good cook won’t just start cooking without first laying out the ingredients, cutting up vegetables and doing a little prep work.

We just did a remix for Jesus Jackson on Physical Graffiti Recordings. Before we did this mix we came up with a plan of attack. We decided we were going to squash as many cuts from as many top 100 songs from the late 80s as possible into the remix, and they all were going to be in key with each other (and the vocal) but not recognizable. Hopefully the end result would be unique, but extremely familiar at the same time. The setup for this mix was a fairly involved process.

1. Get everything in key: We used a tool called Mixed In Key to match the Jesus Jackson Vocal to some 300 songs (various billboard top 100s from the 80s). This program is intended for dj's to use to mix their songs in key and will label your music with a scale that you can use to decide how "in key" the songs are. Once we ran this process we were left with a sortable database of music, and we were able to select our songs based on how "in key" they were with the vocal.

2. Match the tempos: Once we had our songs selected, we brought them into Prosoniq Time Factory to be time-stretched based on their original BPM to 131 BPM. Time Factory is a stand alone program that uses a very high end process to adjust the speed of a wave file without affecting the pitch.

3. Cut the WAV samples up: We used Soundforge to chop the samples down to just the instrumental parts of the songs. For this mix we wanted to stay away from having vocals in our samples to keep them from being too recognizable.

4. Bring them into the sampler: We used Native Instruments Battery 3 to organize the samples to the keyboard. Battery 3 can automatically map each sample to a key on a keyboard by default and provides some very simple options for adjusting the parameters of each sample.

Once the samples are in battery, we have another process for cutting the sample up even more. First we create a one bar loop. While the sample is playing in the loop, we slowly move the sample start forward until you hear the sample catch a groove that you like, then copy that sample to the next cell.

Go back to the cell that contains the sample that is looping, and move the sample start forward again until you hear another groove you like, and copy the sample to the next available cell. Repeat.

We did this for each sample until we had filled up a couple battery kits – over 200 cuts from various top 100 song from the 80 – all in key with our vocal.

This might sound like a lot of prep work (and it was), but once we got started on this remix, the song almost immediately began to write itself. We didn't need to stop to find new samples, or look for further inspiration, every sound we threw into this mix was one that we knew worked with the song. All we needed to do was get creative with the overall production and arrangement.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post! totally forgot how much fun mixedinkey can be! all power to the machine ;-)

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, thats sure's a lot of work. gotta listen :)

and check out that mixed in key program.. and do some sampling :)

3:04 PM  
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