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Inside The Producer's Studio (Part 1): On using the computer

by +FE on April 7, 2009 at 8:32 AM · Comments
In this first part Nicolay explains why he uses a computer and which software he uses for what purpose.

Photo by Stevie Mack | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

It doesn't really matter what you use, as long as you use it well.

That has been my motto throughout the years that I have been into making music. I have never been a purist or even a "gearslut", and I really don't believe that it matters much whether you use an MPC, an ASR10 or Fruity Loops to make your beats, or at this point, whether you run a laptop or a $100,000 studio. What matters only are the results, and you generally get the best results by using something that you are very familiar with.

My main reason for choosing the computer as a beatmaking machine was that I already owned one, and the music program that I knew how to use on it, called Modplug, was (and still is) free. Besides that I had a turntable, a CD player and a bass and some keyboards and at the time, it was all that I needed to get going. Over the years I have been able to slowly but steadily upgrade my setup, but at the center of it all there's still a computer running the same free program that I started out with.

The machine that I currently use as my main studio computer is a Dell Precision 690 running Windows XP Service Pack 3 (Don't come near me with Vista!). I chose it for the simple reason that I wanted a computer that would be optimized for running Pro Tools (see below) and Digidesign, the maker of Pro Tools, recommended this specific model. When I got it three years ago it was fairly expensive, but you can now get one for under $1000, apparently. For those interested in the specificatons: It has 2 GB of RAM memory, which really is the bare minimum if you want to use a lot of virtual instruments and/or plug-ins. The processors are dual Intel Xeon running at 1.60 Ghz. I use the internal hard drive for installing operating and music software only, after suffering one hard drive crash too many. All audio files and Pro Tools sessions are stored on two 500 GB Lacie external hard drives, one the main audio drive and the other a backup of the first that gets updated automatically on a daily basis using a program called EMC Retrospect. That way, I no longer have to worry about losing anything important in a crash, and I can also very easily bring along the backup drive when I travel so that I have all of my work with me at all times.

Up until and including the "Here" album, I used Cool Edit Pro (now: Adobe Audition) for multi-track recording, mixing and sequencing (as in: finalizing the track order) of projects. While I had no real qualms with Cool Edit Pro, the large majority of professional studios runs Pro Tools and I wanted my setup to be compatible so that I could take an entire studio session back home for further work and vice versa without any time-consuming conversion. It took me about a year to really get comfortable with Pro Tools and there definitely was some frustration here and there along the way, but I can now say that I wouldn't want to go back. In fact, as soon as I get a bit of a break I am going to upgrade to the very latest version, 8. I'll keep you posted on how that turns out. A significant limitation of Pro Tools in my eyes is that it only supports audio interfaces that are either manufactured or approved by Digidesign, so if you want to start using it, chances are that you will have to make a purchase. However, even if you are on a tight budget, Pro Tools can be within your reach if you choose something like the Mbox or the M-Audio line of products designed for use with Pro Tools M-Powered. I have never used the latter so I can't say anything for or against those, but the Mbox should be more than sufficient for beatmakers and producers that generally don't use more than two inputs at the same time. Its size makes it ideal for use on the road. Because I tend to use a lot of instruments I needed a lot more than two inputs, and the 003 Factory gives me a total of eight inputs, four of which have Focusrite pre-amps built in, and a console-like controller including eight motorized faders.

Modplug

If I would consider anything my "secret weapon", Modplug would be it. Secret, because hardly anyone has heard of it and because its mathematical appearance has been known to scare people off. Weapon, because its versatility and flexability when it comes to timing and triggering of sounds is unlike any other software music sequencer that I have ever tried.


A screenshot of Modplug with "Daykeeper" open | Uploaded by Nicolay Music.

I got into music production relatively late and almost by accident. By the mid '90s, I had experience playing in bands, but even the more succesful ones rarely got the chance to record in a professional environment. We did at some point collectively own a 6-track tape recorder that we used to put down simple demos, which is how I got exposed to basic multi-track recording and overdubbing and started to enjoy thinking up different parts and arrangements. Simultaneously, my younger and much more computer-savvy brother started messing around with this music sequencer for the PC called a "tracker". A "tracker" is a step-sequencer and significantly different from other software music sequencers primarily because the timeline of a pattern moves from top to bottom instead of, more common, from left to right. The early generations of this program could only play four monophonic tracks of 8-bit samples at one time, but you could manipulate the sounds and the timing in ways that you couldn't with tape. As the programs were updated, the mixing engines were improved and more features were added. The latest incarnation of the program that I use, OpenMPT, even supports VST plug-ins. Its complexity can initially be overwhelming and you'll be tempted to put it down and perhaps even give up on it, but if you can get past that stage you'll hopefully see what I mean. One of the major flaws left is that the program still only has the most basic Midi functionality, so if you prefer to make beats banging away on some pads, Modplug probably isn't the thing for you.

Over time I have tried out many alternative software music sequencers like Cubase, Logic, Reason and Fruity Loops, but it never had "that sound" that I was looking for nor the surgical precision in timing that I was used to, so I have always come back to Modplug. I use it for most of my drum programming and for sample triggering. I'll use it to program basslines using something like the Arturia Minimoog, unless I end up playing the bassline on the keys or on the bass guitar, and I'll put in some basic chords or pads. Once I have the sketch set up in a way that I like, I export all of the separate tracks as 16 and increasingly 24 bit wav files to import into Pro Tools. From there on, I'll add the rest of the instruments, programming and other layers in Pro Tools and so I only go back into the Modplug file if I need to fix something specific.

In Part 2, coming up next week, I'll explain in more detail how I get from the initial idea to the final mix and all of the stages in between. Thank you all very much for the positive feedback and for your suggestions of tracks that you'd like to find out more about! I will most definitely consider any and all requests. Check back in tomorrow as I kick things off by breaking down "Daykeeper" by The Foreign Exchange. Find out what inspired it, why it took well over a year to mix and what sounds, settings and plug-ins were used. If you have any questions so far you are more than welcome to include them in your comment on this post, or to get them to me via Twitter, Facebook or MySpace. You know where to find me.

Thank you for listening,

Nicolay
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