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Fast Tracks for Dynamite Demos

May 16, 2008
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Sometimes what matters the most about music is getting it done—starting with demos.

Maybe it’s a demo for your band, to give the players an idea of what you anticipate for a full arrangement. Or, maybe you’re pitching songs, or just want to get an idea down before it goes away—you can worry about the finished version later.

Demos can help get you gigs if they show what you do, whether it’s as a live performance act or a sound designer for videos. And thanks to today’s tools, it’s possible for even a solo performer or composer to create a decent—and sometimes even great—demo using a combination of loops, editing, and realtime playing.

We’ll assume that you don’t have a full band available, so while you can play whatever your main instrument may be, you’ll be relying on loops or samples for the remaining instruments. Let’s figure out how to do that in the best possible way.

ARRANGER KEYBOARDS

C’mon, stop laughing: These can do a pretty credible job of generating a background track. If you haven’t seen recent arranger keyboards (by Korg, Roland, Yamaha, etc.), you might be surprised. Some have sounds that rival dedicated samplers, and the “intelligence” needed to create more interesting arrangements has become refined over the years. You get a huge variety of styles, lots of instrument sounds, pre-programmed patterns to get you started, and the ability to play your own parts on top. Do the math: An arranger keyboard might be a better deal than sample libraries if you need to cover lots of different musical styles (e.g., audio-for-video work). And, using them is wicked fast—call up a style, tell it what you want, play your chords, and you’re on your way.

LOOP LIBRARIES

For many musicians, the answer to demo nirvana is loop libraries. Whether multitracked drum loops that add a firm foundation to a rock tune, cool TB-303 bass lines for dance mixes, or pads to fill in an arrangement’s cracks, there’s almost certainly a library with the sounds you want.

Loops can also help provide inspiration when songwriting. Sometimes when you have a hot idea for a song, it’s too time-consuming to build up the song piece by piece: It’s a lot easier to lay down a few loops while the vibe is strong, and replace them later as needed.

Loop libraries fall into four main categories:

  • Construction kits. These have groups of samples, usually with one or two dozen loops per group, that form the individual components of a multitrack arrangement. You rearrange these samples, or do “mix and match” with samples from other construction kits, to create an original arrangement.
  • Collections. These group samples by instrument or genre; for example, a collection of drum grooves, or a collection of dance loops. 
  • Construction/collections. In this case, there are lots of samples relating to a particular instrument (e.g., a collection of guitar sounds or loops, another of drum loops, another with synth lines, etc.), but these are intended to work together in a construction kit-like way.
  • Playback engine-based, plug-in libraries. Some would say this is a more limited concept than sampler-based libraries (see next), because it weds a sound library to a particular sound playback engine (like Kontakt Player 2, East-West Play, TASCAM GVI, etc.; see Figure 1). But unlike other libraries, which may work only with certain samplers or require translation to other formats (and sometimes nuances get lost in the translation), there are no format issues other than whether the plug-in will work with your DAW.

One instance where these types of libraries have really taken over is in providing orchestral backgrounds. These range from high-end libraries with extensive articulations like the VSL products, down to more budget-oriented options like IK Multimedia’s Miroslav Philharmonik and Gary Garritan’s outstanding GPO (Garritan Personal Orchestra).

SOUND LIBRARIES FOR SAMPLERS

If you can play keyboards, then samplers and keyboard workstations can provide the sounds needed to flesh out arrangements. These won’t be “canned” loops, but rather, parts you play yourself. The benefit is originality; the drawback is that if you’re not a keyboard player, you’re out of luck and also, it can take longer to come up with a part than just lifting one from a loop library.

Software examples include Native Instruments Kontakt, MOTU MachFive, Steinberg HALion, E-mu X2, Apple EXS24, Reason NN-XT, TASCAM GigaStudio, and the like (Figure 2). There’s also “workstation” software, such as IK Multimedia SampleTank, Sonivox Muse, Korg Legacy M1, and several others, that are pretty much plug-and-play—load the sounds, then go. And of course, there are hardware alternatives, like the Korg M3, Yamaha Motif series, and Roland’s Fantom keyboards. These often have arpeggiations or other sounds that can kick start the creative process, as well as sequencers that can capture ideas before they float off into the ether.

SORTING OUT FORMATS

Samples and loops are available in several formats, which may or may not be compatible with your favorite software. Here are some of the most common options.

Audio. In this case, each loop or sample is like a track on a Red Book CD. One advantage is that auditioning is easy—just plop the CD into a standard CD player. Also, prices tend to be lower than for files that had to be prepped for a particular program or sampler. However, to use a sample in a tune, you’re going to have to “rip” it and convert it into a file format your program can understand. 

  • AIFF. This is the standard Macintosh digital audio file format. All Mac programs read AIFF files, and many Windows ones do as well. However, it is slightly less common than . . .
  • WAV. The Windows standard file format is extremely commonplace. Most Mac programs can read or translate WAV files.
  • “Acidized” WAV (also called RIFF WAV). This loop format takes its name from the Sony program Acid, which originally popularized on-the-fly digital audio time-stretching so loops of varying tempos (and keys) could be used together without any offline processing. These files contain data for programs that can interpret Acid-style time-stretching, like Sonar and Digital Performer.
  • Apple Loops. These are becoming hugely popular as a loop format, as they snap right into Logic Pro as well as Apple’s ever-popular GarageBand. They include timing and key information to facilitate stretching.
  • REX2. This file format, invented by Propellerhead Software, “slices” a stereo rhythmic file into several pieces, which are triggered by MIDI for playback (Figure 3). Moving triggers further apart slows down the tempo, while moving them closer together speeds up the tempo.
  • Groove Control. This process is used with many of Ilio’s loop CDs. It works similarly to the REX process in that MIDI data can trigger slices of a digital audio file, and speed up or slow down within a reasonable tempo range.
  • Stylus RMX. This is another slice-based format, optimized for Spectrasonics’ Stylus RMX.

WHICH FORMAT IS FOR YOU?

Before loading up on sounds, find out which file formats are supported by your main recording or sequencing program. Importable file formats will usually be listed as one of the main specs; if possible, choose samples that are “native” formats or translate well.

With REX and Acidized WAV files, carefully edited files can cover a wide tempo range—for example, 80–160 BPM is doable with percussive material. (However, this assumes the sample was recorded at a relatively slow tempo, as all time-stretched files work more efficiently when speeding up tempo rather than slowing down.) Therefore, you don’t have to be too concerned about the original file tempo, as it can likely match the song tempo anyway.

If your program doesn’t support time-stretchable formats, then the availability of files in different tempos is important. This is because you’ll need to use offline time-stretching DSP, usually available within the program, to tweak the loop to the right tempo (e.g., time-compressing makes it faster, time-expanding slows things down). Unfortunately, the harder these algorithms have to work, the worse they sound—ideally you don’t want to have to stretch more than 5% or so. Some CDs offer the same loops at multiple tempos (and sometimes keys) to promote the best possible fidelity.

The type of music you plan to play makes a difference, too. For example, stretchable files can work well with movie soundtracks—you never know when frames are going to be cut or added, thus requiring the soundtrack to speed up or slow down as the movie gets closer to the final edit. Keeping the parts as malleable as possible can help reduce wasted time.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT STRETCHING ALGORITHM

Here are some guidelines for deciding what type of stretching to use with what type of sound.

REX: This is the ideal format for percussive signals with strong, defined transients. REX files perform very well when speeding up tempo; the samples just get a little shorter. When slowing down, it’s possible to “synthesize” a decay in ReCycle, the only program that can create true REX files. However, this synthesis is a hit-or-miss process: Sometimes the results are effective, sometimes not, and it’s not always easy to predict what the outcome will be until you try it.

Where REX files don’t do well is with sustained sounds, such as pads. The slices produce discontinuities in the sound because there are no obvious places to add splices where the percussive nature of the sound can “cover up” the splice point.

Acidized files and Apple Loops: Although these are also slice-based techniques, they include DSP to “cover up” the divisions between slices, mainly via crossfading. As a result, they work better with pads and sustained parts than REX files. They also do a very credible job with percussive parts, although the fidelity falls apart faster with significant amounts of stretching than with REX files.

DSP-based (fixed) stretching: Most DAWs offer time-stretching algorithms (Figure 4), with many licensing iZotope’s high-quality offline stretching algorithms. However, unlike Acidized, REX, or Apple Loops that can stretch dynamically in the face of tempo changes, stretching using DSP creates a loop that’s fixed to a specific tempo/length. This is not a problem if the tempo remains constant while the loop is playing; if there’s a tempo change later in the song, you can re-stretch to match the changed tempo. As with any stretching process, the further you stretch, the more likely the sound will suffer.

Program-specific stretching: Ableton Live is the primary example of a program that takes a “don’t worry, be happy!” approach to looping: Just bring in a file, and Live will take care of stretching it to the desired tempo. However, it offers several stretching algorithms (Figure 5); you’ll definitely want to use a different one for pads than for drum parts. The stretching quality varies from not being able to tell something is being stretched to a sound with some degree of artifacts, but overall, if you want stretching with the best compromise between sound quality and ease of use, it’s hard to beat Live.

USING AND AUDITIONING

The key to successful use of loops is to have lots of them—making music with loops is the musical equivalent of collage, and the more source materials you have, the wider your choices. If your budget is too tight, construction kit libraries are probably the best bet, thanks to typically having multiple parts (drums, bass, keyboards, etc.) that work well together. Construction kits are also a good starting point for working with loops.

Your next task is choosing the right loops, and the difficulty of this task increases exponentially with the number of libraries you own. Many libraries are “themed,” which can help narrow your search (although sometimes, it helps to BREAK the rules . . . for example, a lot of “world music” libraries have lines that work great with other types of music).

One way to speed up the auditioning process is to install an extra CD/DVD-ROM drive in your computer (or use an external USB/FireWire drive) so you can put in two sample CD/DVDs at once and extract potentially useful files from them. What works for me is to do very quick auditions of loops, and if something seems even remotely useful, it gets dragged into the project at hand. I’ll often end up with 40–60 files, even if I only expect to use a dozen of them.

Then comes the whittling-down process. Play loops against each other; some will fit well, some will clash. (Note: Sony has released several loop libraries in their Artist Integrated series, which are designed to work together across titles—sort of like a “meta-construction kit.”) Remove the weaker loops until you’re left with a really strong collection for your sonic palette.

EXPRESSIVE  DRUM LOOPS: AN OXYMORON?

If you think that the solo demo approach isn’t interactive, well, you’re right—that’s one of the biggest drawbacks when relying on loops. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to increase the level of interplay among instruments, as well as employ techniques that make loops more expressive. Here are some ideas on how to make drum loops—the foundation of most pop music tracks—as expressive as possible.

Add real elements. One way to make a loop sound real is to add elements that are: Overdubbing a tambourine or handclaps can help, as can using a drum loop without cymbals and overdubbing them. The real cymbals give you more timbral latitude, as well as more mixing options.

Take advantage of drum hits. Many drum loop libraries include individual drum hits from the drums used to create the loops. This is great, as you can drag in additional hits, add off-beats and accents, change the pitch slightly of some hits to add variations, double hits for a stronger sound, and the like.

Why multitrack drum libraries are cool. Multitrack drum libraries, such as those from Discrete Drums, Sony, East-West, etc., require a little more work to apply than standard drum libraries—but the results are worth it. One of the biggest advantages is that because individual drums are on separate tracks, it’s easy to add dynamics to just one sound. You can also add timbral changes, such as pulling back a bit on the snare’s treble during quiet parts, then increasing it a shade when you want the part to cut a little more.

Another option involves altering the room mic track levels to complement the song. To make the sound bigger, bring up the room mics a bit; reduce them for a more intimate sound.

Furthermore, you can use a program like Drumagog to replace particular drum sounds, such as the kick or snare. Drumagog works by detecting when a drum hit occurs, then generating a trigger to play a different drum sound. Assuming separate source tracks, replacing sounds is usually easy.

Finally, you can shift track timing—lag the snare track a bit behind the beat to create a more loose, laid-back vibe, or push the snare a bit for a more insistent “feel.”

Use frequency spectrum-based audio editing for drum loops. Programs like Adobe Audition and Wavelab can cut specific frequency and amplitude ranges. Use this function to remove the kick part from a loop while retaining the other drum sounds, then overdub a kick part with more variations and interest. I’ve also been able to remove some percussion sounds, like triangle and clave—you’d never know they were ever there.

This technique is not a panacea; it pretty much demands a dry loop, as reverb is such a diffuse sound it’s hard to pin down and remove. Otherwise, this type of editing can be extremely effective.

EXPRESSIVE MELODIC LOOPS

The biggest problems with loops is that they’re repetitive. That’s the first clue that you’re using something artificial; the second clue is people nodding off as they listen to your music.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, thanks to chopping and shifting loops (Figure 6). For example, cut a 16th note from the loop’s beginning, then paste it in for the two 16th notes that precede the loop. While you’re at it, draw in a level curve so they build up to the loop itself. The end result is a seductive lead-in.

You can also chop internally to the loop; for example, in one iteration of the loop, swap the 2nd and 3rd beats to add some variation. Or, “intensify” a part by chopping an eighth note hit in half, throwing away the second half, and repeating the first part twice.

Adding selective processing can also add variations. Suppose you have a pad loop; fade reverb in and out while the loop plays, and it will come alive. With percussive parts, throw on tempo-synced delay when you want to diffuse the sound more or give it more motion, then “dry it out” for a stark contrast. Making sounds brighter can also push them to the forefront, without having to change the part or level.

And if you’re using loops that can respond to tempo changes, take advantage of that fact. Real music “breathes,” with tempos that lead and lag slightly over time. Slowing down the tempo ever-so-slightly can help emphasize the vocals in a sensitive verse, while speeding up a little bit provides the rhythmic equivalent of modulating upward by a semitone.

FASTER AND BETTER: USE A CONTROL SURFACE

There’s often a tradeoff between doing something faster and doing something better, but using a hardware control surface for mixing can give you both. By manipulating multiple channels simultaneously, you can create a more organic, interesting mix than doing parameter-pushing with a mouse on one track at a time—while saving time. And don’t forget about automation: Using a control surface to program automation changes allows dynamically varying the drum loop levels and timbre, which can help restore some of the dynamics that are taken away by repeating a loop over and over again.

OTHER USEFUL ARTICLES

EQ has published many articles that can help you make better, more realistic demos; here are four faves.

ROMpler Rooms: Workstation Domination (02/08) discusses how to take advantage of the flexible, multi-timbral operation of today’s software workstations.

Virtual Drummer Roundup (07/07) covers the many ways you can use programs like Toontrack EZDrummer, Steinberg Groove Agent, Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, Submersible Drum Core, Fxpansion BFD, and others to create realistic drum parts.

Exploiting Virtual Instruments (02/07) helps you get the most out of soft synths—often a crucial part of creating full-sounding demos.

Keeping the Art in “State of the Art” (12/04) is all about flowing with technology rather than fighting it. This results in faster, smoother sessions that encourage creativity instead of stall it.

CAN LOOPS REPLACE MUSICIANS?

Well, who do you think created those loops—accountants? You are using musicians. To me, using a loop is like hiring a session musician. For example, I don’t play sax. When I did a tune that needed a few sax phrases for atmosphere, some sax loops came through when the deadline was down to the wire. I would have preferred a “real” musician, but try telling that to the twin gods of Time and Budget. No one noticed anyway. . . .

A more valid complaint is that loops may have the “look and feel” of music, but the lack of interaction with other musicians prevents the sort of magic you get with good players. While I generally agree, it’s possible to apply the sounds you use creatively, which personalizes your work and lets you interact in a sort of virtual way.

Loops and samples are just another tool. Tunes that are all loops and samples can be pretty deadly, but throw on some hot solos, some clever editing to keep the loops fresh, and a good mix, and you can end up with something very cool.

READ THE LICENSING AGREEMENT!

Because most loop libraries contain copyrighted sounds, there’s usually some sort of licensing agreement. The least restrictive type licenses the sounds to the disc’s purchaser for use in music production, period. On the other hand some allow unrestricted private, non-commercial use, but require compensation if you want to use the material in commercial productions. Others require clearance before usage in commercial projects, or stipulate that a particular credit be included in any accompanying printed material (such as a CD booklet or cover blurb).

In most cases, it violates the agreement to sell the physical media. This is because you are buying a license, not the sounds. It’s like having a driver’s license: Selling your car doesn’t transfer the license to the buyer; they have to get their own. Also, agreements vary about whether you can use loops as part of “needledrop” music libraries.

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