In Instrumentation (Part 1), we looked at adding drum instruments and samplers to our template project in order to speed up our workflow. In this post, we’ll continue to explore this process for additional instruments.
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Before I jump in, it’s useful to provide an overview of the instrumentation structure that I use for every project.
As a drummer myself, I prefer to build things from the ground up. However it should be noted that this is the other way around in a DAW, moving from the top of the screen to the bottom, which I appreciate could be confusing!
I start with the drums, and essentially move up through the frequencies:
- Drums and Percussion
- FX (including transitions)
This is a broad overview of how the project instrumentation will look from top to bottom, which will become clear once we’ve built all of our instrumentation. It’s useful to have an idea of the end goal in advance though, as this provides a useful map to bear in mind.
You can see in this image that I’ve created sub-mix groups and separated Kick, Drums and Percussion. Don’t worry too much about this for now, though, as I’ll explain my ‘logic’ in the next post!
I have a handful of go-to synths when generating bass sounds and, normally, the overall bass sound that I’m creating comprises 2-3 layers. Allow me to explain…
Generally in electronic music, it’s recommended to use a sub-bass for the lows and a top-bass for the highs. Having a layer in the higher register is particularly useful for enabling the bass to sound distinctive and add clarity when played on a system without much bass extension e.g. laptop speakers, smartphones, headphones etc.
Occasionally I’ll require a third layer of mids to glue the whole sound together. This depends on a number of variables, such as the pitch of the bass line, the type of sound generated and the frequencies of the instrumentation around it.
Subs in Logic
I often use a couple of Logic’s built-in synths, including the ES P, ES 1 and Retro Synth. This year I got a copy of Xfer’s Serum, however, and this is pretty incredible for crafting any sound you can think of, as well as featuring a separate oscillator for your sub.
For sub-bass, a classic tip for Logic users is to use the default patch within the EXS24 which is a straight sine wave, and it’s great for sitting under existing bass lines. I would add some subtle saturation though and also a top/mid layer to make it cut through the mix.
I also frequently use it for sub drops by automating a pitch bend within the MIDI region and adjusting the bend range to 12 semitones (1 octave) within the sampler.
I also recommend square and triangle waves for subs for some additional harmonics – don’t feel limited to sine waves alone. You can check out this video from Slynk where he reveals his technique for creating subs that cut through the mix.
Make it mono
I try, wherever possible, to ensure that the bass is as mono as possible.
If the bass line is the focus of the track (e.g. very little chords, synths, melodic content etc.), then the approach is often slightly different. Here there is a lot more room to manoeuvre and the goal is to provide focus for the bass, by defining it through a large range of the frequency spectrum.
However, the sub should always be mono.
If you want to be totally confident that a track is in mono, you can add Logic’s stock Utility Gain plugin to the first plugin slot on the track. If you’re not using Logic, you will most certainly have an equivalent plugin in your DAW of choice.
If you’re working with a stereo track, just open the Gain plugin and enable the mono button. With any additional plugins in the chain, you’ll then have the option of using the mono version if preferred (and available – many plugins only have a stereo option).
Top it off
As mentioned previously, I normally add an additional higher element to the bass to help it to cut through the mix and provide clarity. I’ll always add at least one higher layer, and often the track will call for more.
If the bass is the focal point of the track, particularly for drop sections, it’s a good idea to create more stereo width to provide more excitement and interest for the listener.
The sub takes care of the low end and, once again, this is mono.
However, the mid (around 150-500 Hz) could be slightly wider, and the top could have considerable stereo width in order to draw the attention of the listener. This could be anywhere from 500 Hz up depending on any other instrumentation and space in the mix. This is how you achieve power and energy in the low end without introducing muddiness and phasing issues.
If the top-bass is concentrated in frequencies above 500 Hz then there’s no issue with interference with the low end. For example, often it’s useful to add reverb and other spatial effects to the top-end to add interest. This won’t be an issue for the subs as long as the effects have been rolled off on the bottom end (by EQing the delays/reverb, for example).
Add whichever bass elements you use most commonly for mid and top. If you have any common sounds that you use on top of your sub, such as a modulated sawtooth, square, triangle etc., then it’s a good idea to create a preset and save it within the instrument.
So, to recap, you should have 3 bass tracks prepared in total:
You may not use all of these in every project, or you may even add more, but that’s ok! That’s what template building is all about. We’re creating an optimised blank project to get you started quickly and efficiently whenever you’re ready to start writing.
In the same way we did in the previous article, you may also want to add some MIDI data at this stage so that you’re ready to update these regions with new parts.
For example, if you’re making House, you may want to add a region with some offbeat sub notes in a go-to key. This could be E, F, F#, G, or whatever you use most commonly – that’s the main point here.
I purposely don’t go too crazy with synths in my templates, as this can vary greatly depending on what I’m trying to achieve in each project. However, there are a handful of commonalities that every project shares so, once again, it’s a good idea to put these in place in advance. This way, you’re ready to write when inspiration strikes.
Again it’s useful to analyse your previous work and your sound in order to break down what we’re likely to need. What do you use most commonly? For example, in most of my projects I tend to have at least one instance of:
Often I’ll have several of each, including variations that I can use during contrasting sections. For example, filtered parts for verses, wider for choruses and so on). But for our template, we’ll stick with the fundamentals.
I naturally gravitate towards harmony-based writing, probably from my piano days and the way I learned music as a kid. So, I normally include chords in my arrangements in some shape or form. I also tend to keep this pretty basic, often going with saws and supersaws.
Retro Synth is great for warm and (as the name suggests) retro-sounding chords. Many times I’ll simply tweak the default patch and experiment with the waveforms for different vibes. Sawtooth waves are always a great starting point for EDM tracks, so let’s start there.
It’s worth noting that I also love using Serum for chords and have some custom supersaw patches, but these aren’t essential by any means. Despite the fact that Retro Synth has an unfortunate name, it’s awesome! If you’re not using Logic, be sure to check out the stock synths that your DAW has on offer.
Pads are a useful form of instrumentation in any track, whether they’re prominently used as a drone-like bassline or featured subtly during a verse. I have a few go-to sounds that I’ll start with when writing, and then customise these to taste depending on the feel of the track.
The EXS24 is really handy for a host of pad presets, and it also features a plentiful list of synth sounds. As ‘basic’ as it sounds, I always come back to the ‘Basic Pad’ preset as it’s got plenty of bottom, plenty of top, and a handy built-in filter. It’s a versatile tool for virtually any mix.
I’ll normally reduce the filter slightly to cut the highs. I’ll then leave it sitting in my template in readiness for when it’s time to build background parts and textures.
Feel free to explore some of the many pad sounds in Logic, particularly in the EXS24, ES 2, Sculpture, Retro Synth and Alchemy. Again, if you’re using a different DAW, check out the presets that are included with your stock synths.
Arps are brilliant for adding movement and energy to a mix, and I’ll often add them in most tracks for some added interest, even if very subtle.
I prefer not to get too complicated here, often sticking with basic waveforms to sit in the mix. It’s important to avoid muddiness in the instrumentation caused by overlapping elements in the low end, or clashing with top end parts.
Logic features a built-in Arpeggiator in its MIDI Effects section, available for every software instrument.
Generally, I start with simple 8-note rhythms – in reality this is often all that’s needed, but it’s easy enough to tweak the patterns as and when required.
Most of the time I’ll use two arpeggiators and pan them either side. One to the left at around -20 to -40 degrees, and one on the right at around +20 to +40. Often these will harmonise, with one being on a higher note than the other (e.g. a fifth or octave apart). However, I keep one instance in the template as I’ll normally customise the sound to suit the track, and then double it later to save time.
Most of the instrumentation we’ve put in place so far has been in a supporting role. Except, arguably, for the bass of course, which can essentially become a lead in itself depending on your track and arrangement.
However, leads are an essential part of every producer’s arsenal. It’s important to include some options in our template project so that you’re ready to go when you sit down to write.
Lead sounds are so distinctive that I tend to change these up with each track, but these can often be tweaked and customised from some general go-to patches.
You’ll frequently hear producers using the same leads more than once, simply making subtle changes to the sounds. A great example is Deadmau5 and his use of saw leads – after all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
On that note, saw leads are a staple, so it’s worth putting one in place straight away. Retro Synth in Logic has some strong saw sounds – the ‘Super Lead’ preset is a great start, particularly for an 80s vibe. It would feel right at home in Blade Runner, Stranger Things or even the Mass Effect game trilogy.
Be aware of your image
The only thing to look out for here, and with most synth presets, is the stereo image. Naturally, we need our lead sound to cut through the mix, so we generally want to create a strong mono presence. We can add additional layers to create a sense of width, but the first layer should be predominantly mono to focus the listener.
To adjust the imaging in Retro Synth, go into the settings tab and reduce the number of voices and stereo spread to create a more mono sound, and vice versa for more width.
Presets often have a very wide image to make them stand out and sound even more exciting, so this is always one to watch out for!
Topping it off
Similar to bass, my leads normally comprise 2-4 layers depending on what I feel is needed. I often have a main element that’s based in a saw or square wave, and then a higher part in the octave above. This will feature higher frequency content to fill out the top end, add excitement and grab the listener’s attention.
Occasionally I’ll add white noise as an extra layer, triggered by simply copying the same MIDI data. I’ll then bring this down in the mix and cut all of the lows so that just the very top is adding some subtle excitement.
A similar approach is useful when working with plucks. In order to make them cut through, often some short white noise or a percussive sample can be used to create the feeling of more attack at the start of the sound.
Don’t by any means feel that you need to use Retro Synth (or Logic!) for everything. On the contrary, it’s often beneficial to contrast with alternative synths. Logic’s Alchemy is extremely powerful with some awesome built-in sounds, plus the quality is incredible.
The ES 1, ES 2, Sculpture and EXS24 are great sources for different sounds too, so go ahead and experiment to create your sound.
If you’re not using Logic, your DAW is likely to have a whole array of stock sounds that you can take advantage of.
Unless you’re sampling the same vocal sounds (for example, exploring variation on similar vocal themes throughout an album à la Björk), it’s likely that any vocals will be recorded or added will be bespoke for the track.
However, if you intend to feature vocals, it makes sense to create the audio tracks in preparation for dragging in samples or recording in later.
Another advantage here is that we can also add essential processing (e.g. EQ and compression), as well as set up the routing for effects, which I’ll explore in the next post. In addition, you also have the option of creating a sampler with your favourite vocal samples, as explained in my article on building a sampler with the EXS24.
At this point it makes sense to add any further channels of instrumentation that you use frequently in your projects to achieve your unique sound.
You may not use anything more than synths and electronics, but many producers like to add additional textures such as guitars or other outboard instruments. As with everything we’ve discussed so far, it makes sense to prepare for this in advance too!
I advise grouping these using the same convention. For example, I would place guitar tracks after synths, but before FX and vocals. It’s your template, though, so whatever you prefer is best!
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