Sunday, 31 July 2011

Production Process

Slurry by X-Amt

The mixing & production process

I thought it might be of some interest (especially to the musos and techies out there) to describe the way that X-Amount have been constructing the new album, as our process (we think) is somewhat unusual.

At first Andi & I thought it best that we keep our methods secret for fear of being ripped off, but there are a couple of reasons that changed our mind. Firstly, that even if other artists copied our methods completely, stole all our samples and tried to do the same thing entirely, it would still come out differently to our version and should be quite interesting to hear anyhow.

The second reason is that we have such a minimal audience, it probably wouldn't make any difference anyway. We have decided to give all our music away free, and have no illusions about becoming pop-stars any more (we used to think that was on the cards when we were young and pretty), so we really have nothing much to lose.

Personally, I have had plenty of attempts by people to steal what I do in the past, they never came out the same (and usually were poor imitations). These days we would welcome some skilled imitators, they could do gigs with us, or even pretend to be us for all we care (preferably wearing mustaches).

Anyhow.. after the Gits Encroaching EP, we decided that we would maintain momentum and go for more explorations in sound with a view to putting out another album. We seemed to be on a roll with our new working methods and, most importantly, we were really enjoying ourselves.

The Zoom H2

So... the first thing that happens is that Andi collects a group of sound recordings with his iPhone and I collect a group using my Zoom H2. The Zoom is an excellent portable recorder that has 4 condenser microphones built into its small frame that enable stereo and surround recording, and I am sure you all know the iPhone.

We have captured loads of stuff: drainpipes, building site noise, thunder, squeaky gates, pumps, engines, animals, gas, water, conversation and ambience of all kinds, subtle types as well as horrible rackets.

These sounds are then transferred into the free sound editor Audacity on the computer, and chopped into usable sections.

The other part of pre-production is done using Logic Express on the Mac. I record live bass guitar, acoustic and electric guitar and again these parts are eventually edited into usable loops using Audacity (I find it easier to convert to mono using Audacity and this saves on CPU later). I use Logic's amp simulators as well as some dynamic effects like compression, limiting and equalisation, but essentially the sounds are recorded dry so that we can process them later at the improvisation stage.

recording bass in Logic

The drums and percussion parts are done slightly differently. Some percussion parts have been recorded live (like tambourines and simple tapping) but most of the samples we have created so far have been programmed.

The Roland R8 MkII
We have built up a library in the last few months that involves drum patterns that come from either Ultrabeat in Logic or from our old faithful Roland R8 drum machine. Both devices are highly versatile with large degrees of change possible (such as ADSR, pitch and even filtering). The bass drum and hi-hat patterns are again recorded dry. The snare patterns are mostly recorded dry, but we have also found it useful to record variants with reverbs and other effects recorded on, as often the sounds get reversed or twisted, and having an effect already present in the sample can yield exciting results.

Ultrabeat in Logic

The percussion tracks are put together in the same way, sometimes with mad effects or edits. Logic has some impressive and unique effects, these are great with percussion (often create keyboard parts using them as well).

The keyboard loops are created either by recording live from my Waldorf Pulse or the Novation Bass Station (we have also considered sampling the old Roland D110 thats gathering dust after listening to some of the sounds created on it for "some previous"). Or they are recorded after I have programmed sounds using the synths inside Logic.

The Waldorf Pulse+ & Novation Bass Station

After all this preparation we then set up for a session at Andi's place. The last few times we have worked we have begun with 50 or 60 new loops.

We both listen to the new material quickly. Some loops have been created to work together, but this is rarely adhered to. We copy each others loops and field recordings onto each others laptops and we are ready to go.

Each Mac is running Ableton Live, and using the Mac's "Airport", we are able to synchronise the pair wirelessly. Initially we select loops and warp them out of shape using time-stretching, pitch-shifting, filtering and any of Live's effects which, like Logic's, often have their own unique sounds and sonic possibilities.

Effects in Ableton Live

Soon the layers of sound begin to gel and we reach a point when we feel we are ready to go and we hit record on each laptop at the same time as recording a reference live mix onto the Zoom via its line-in inputs.

We then attempt to build a groove or atmosphere improvising the arrangement and throwing effects at each other.

Things inevitably reach an agreed conclusion and we move on to the next jam.


We then end up with a recorded arrangement on each computer for each jam, which I later merge in to one for the mixdowns and edits.

This is done in my home studio where I have a set-up that I know well, acoustically. After getting the levels sounding roughly the same as the reference recordings I then edit the jams down as they are nearly always too long - some have been as long as 25 minutes.

As long as this is done as soon as possible after the initial jam, its fairly obvious which parts to chop out (Andi and I usually discuss the reference recordings before I do this as well).

Ableton Live arrangement page (click on it to see more detail). You can see the list of samples on the left and some in the arrangement itself.

Once edited down to a reasonable size, I am more than often sure about where the "tweaks" need to go. I rarely need to do much as we get pretty close to what we like at the jam stage, and I try my best to maintain the spirit of the initial jam and to avoid any over-working. We have found this sketch-like ethic to be to our advantage.

Editing notes

Errors are corrected (usually they will be minor timing mistakes or unexpected volume errors). Other tweaks will be about perfecting what the effects were supposed to be doing, because at the jam stage we don't want to waste time endlessly adjusting parameters, so we sometimes just get a near approximation of what we were trying to do. However, most of the time we do get it about right in the jam.

I then go about balancing the mix and fixing the dynamic range. Bass guitars have any necessary compression sorted out and I add subtle reverbs here and there to some things as well as moving things around in the stereo field to create a kind of sonic landscape of sound in 5 dimensions. Yes, 5: left, right, near, far and time (sometimes I think there are 7 as it may be possible to move sound up and down too (but that might be the effect of misbehaviour in the old days).

This mix is then exported from Live as an uncompressed stereo sound file. It is better not to compress at this stage (and I am talking about both dynamic compression and file compression) to retain the best possible quality. This is even important when putting together the most hideous racket!

The mixes are then imported into Logic for the final mastering stage.

Mastering in Logic Express

After listening to most (or all) of the tracks for the next release and trying various settings out, I end up with with a template containing combinations of effects, usually an equaliser, compressor, exciter and limiter (in that order). I try my best to get each track to sound as if it belongs with the others in terms of tonal and dynamic quality, so that you end up with a complete sounding finished record.

And thats it. The tracks are exported at full quality and normalised. The artwork and titles are decided upon and finally we upload them as mp3s for people to listen and download. I do also make a few copies on CD as these will have slightly higher quality than mp3, and the artwork looks better too.

I suppose none of this actually sounds that unusual, the unusual part is in our choices of sounds, they way that they are put together and the way that they are processed and manipulated. Both Andi and I see beauty in decay and distortion, feedback and noise. It follows that a squeaky gate can sound beautiful when "singing" over distorted drums and bass. Hopefully our audience hears that beauty too (do ya?).

The initial idea of this piece was to describe the mixing process, but I have already said enough, so I shall write more on that another time..


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