1. Germany’s ultra-cool sextuplet Jazzanova take their rhythmic influences from a variety of world music. If you’re looking for a bit of exotic inspiration, get yourself over to percussionist Alex Pertout’s website and check out the lessons page for some great examples of interesting percussion patterns from all over the world.
  2. Getting an organic feel is important for many types of down-tempo music, but achieving this can be tricky when composing with a computer. However, there are some nifty tricks you can use to add a more human feel to parts entered via your mouse. For example, adjusting the velocity levels of individual notes can help make a part sound more dynamic, and works especially well with percussion instruments.
  3. Another technique that you might find helpful for keeping your track sounding ‘natural’ is to make your parts’ timing less robotic. You can achieve this by adjusting the timing of each note slightly so that they’re not always perfectly on the beat. Just a few milliseconds early or late will create a noticeable effect that will make the part sound that much more human.
  4. If you’re finding all these humanisation techniques a bit too much like hard work, check out Tobybear’s wacky (and free!) Humanisator plug-in. This handy little device enables you to automatically adjust a MIDI part’s velocity, pitch, timing and modulation amounts. It’s part of Tobybear’s MidiBag collection. This pack includes a variety of other tools that can be used to process MIDI information in various unusual ways.
  5. Synth parts can be made to soundmore alive with the addition of filter, pitch or volume modulation. A classic synth programming technique is to tie pitch modulation to the mod wheel. Additionally you may find that adding a touch of glide to your lead sounds gives them a more lifelike, organic feel.
  6. Sounds can be made lighter with a bit of hi-pass filtering. For a less pronounced effect, a low-end EQ cut can be used instead.
  7. If you’d like some beautiful Absynth-style pads and effects on your track but can’t afford the moolah, try the fantastic free Cygnus plug-in. Even if you find the fully featured interface a bit intimidating, don’t panic, as it comes packed with chillout friendly patches.
  8. If you use a lot of sustained samples, such as pads or instrument phrases, you may find that standard looping won’t cut it – all too often it’s easy to hear where the sample loops. This can be avoided by using the crossfade-looping function available in sample editors such as Sound Forge.
  9. If you haven’t got access to a sample editor, you can achieve a similar effect to that discussed in tip 8 by doing it manually in an audio sequencer. Simply copy a section from the end of your sample, and place it on a separate track just before the original sample ends. Set up fade points so that as one sample fades out, the next fades in.
  10. If you’re using a lot of delays, panning them quite wide leaves the middle of the stereo field free for your main melody or hook.
  11. Nature is a great source of sounds for those ambient moments, and unless you live in the middle of a big city, chances are you can find a quiet spot to capture some of Mother Nature’s sonic bounty. Water and insect sounds are classics, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
  12. If you’d like to add some realistic instrument sounds to your productions without forking out for expensive ROMplers, you can get some great virtual instruments for free via the internet. MrRay73 and mda ePiano are two excellent electric piano instruments you can download without paying a penny.
    These instruments sound great straight, but for that authentic funk flavour you’ll need to add a few effects. Here we’re using Kjaerhus Audio’s fabulous Classic collection to add some mysterious, jazzy atmospherics. Load up an instance of MrRay73 in your sequencer, and start by adding the Classic Auto-Filter as an insert effect. We’ve using a variation on the wah-wah preset to smooth out the sound.
    That’s nice, and certainly chilled, but let’s get a bit more spaced out. Next in the effect chain, add the Classic Phaser. This variation on the Rhythm Guitar #2 preset adds a subtle Lonnie Liston Smith-esque swirl to the sound – notice how much more movement sustained notes have now.
    So far so good, but it’s more soulful than psychedelic, so let’s add a Classic Delay unit after the phaser to send us into the stratosphere. Here we’ve used the Clean Digital preset to add a basic, clear delay effect to our swirling electric piano. The final touch is a Classic Reverb after the delay set to the Empty Hall preset. There you have it – more vibes than you can shake a stick at!
  13. Processing is essential when attempting to create that chilled-out atmosphere. Reverb is particularly important – if the effect you’re using makes everything you put through it sound like it’s in a gigantic steel tank, you’re in trouble. Try the Black Water Music reverb – available for Mac and PC. Its simple controls make it extremely easy to use.
  14. Reverb can be used for more creative purposes than just putting your sound in a virtual space. By turning a reverb insert’s dry level all the way down you can use it to create ambient washes that are useful for creating lead sounds, effects and general atmospherics. Try running a short synth blip through a 100% wet reverb with a long reverb time to create a mellow, organic sound.
  15. Other handy tools for taking the edge off sounds include EQ and compression. A tight notch EQ can rid your sounds of unwanted harsh frequencies, and a bit of subtle compression can help level out any excessively loud volume peaks. Be careful with these effects, however, as over-zealous use can take away the energy and dynamism of your track.
  16. Downtempo tracks give you more leeway to play with the stereo field, and this can help give your tracks more depth and a bigger sense of space. Try playing a sound in one channel, with the delay or reverb panning over to the other.
  17. Contrary to popular belief, making chilled music doesn’t mean you have to keep everything dead minimal. Many great chilled tracks feature different lead sounds or instruments to create their melody or groove. Try applying delays with various delay times to lead parts in order to create interplay between different lead sounds.
  18. If you find your drum sounds are too hard-hitting, change to a different kit – eg, a jazz brush kit. Alternatively, try turning down the kick and snare sounds to make it a bit easier on the ear.
  19. If your digitally produced tracks are sounding far too clean, try out one of the many vinyl emulation plug-ins. KlangLabs have a rather good one that goes by the superb name of Milli Vinylli.
  20. The easiest way to get those lush, workstation-style pad sounds using virtual synths is to find nice pad presets and layer them up until the sound has enough depth. This enables individual elements of the sound to have a lot of movement (filter sweeps, for example) while maintaining a degree of solidity.
  21. If you find your delay effect is making your track sound too busy, try turning up the delay time, or reducing the feedback level. If you’re using a send channel, remember that you can add effects such as EQ or filters after the delay to shape the sound even more.
  22. Just because you’re making a more chilled track doesn’t mean you have to totally avoid any kind of extreme processing. Check out Ulrich Schnauss’ Passing By for a good example of hardcore distortion in a lounge environment.
  23. One of our favourite free plug-ins, and one that’s particularly useful for crafting a chilled vibe, is Coyote Wah. Running a pad or effect channel through this little beauty will add a mellifluous vibe to the proceedings.
  24. If all the soft sounds and smooth vibes get a little too much, try some juxtaposition. Ambient heroes The Orb are fond of this technique, and whether it’s a squealing guitar, devastating synth hit or ridiculous vocal sample, they’re not afraid to toss something a little unusual into the mix.
  25. Getting off-the-wall sounds doesn’t have to involve spending hundreds on sample downloads and libraries – there are plenty of interesting sounds happening all around us all the time. If you’ve got a mic and a laptop – or any portable recorder – take a field trip and record some of nature’s bounty. Running water’s always good for a laugh, but remember: your equipment should stay dry, even if you don’t…
  26. Second-hand record shops are great places to find sounds. You may even find that your local charity shop has an untapped collection of oddities just waiting to be snapped up by the enterprising samplist. From records featuring nothing but steam engine noises to children’s story albums, there’s an abundance of weirdness out there for the taking.
  27. Samples are a constant source of inspiration, but it’s easy to discount one because it doesn’t fit the feel of your track when you first try it. If you’re short on fresh ideas, try running short bursts of a sample through a delay effect. Using this method, it’s possible to come up with some great abstract noises that sound nothing like the original source material.
  28. If your tracks are jam-packed full of synthetic-sounding virtual instrument patches and everything’s starting to sound too ‘computery’, consider bringing in some natural sounds or using a few real instrument parts. Even if they’re from ROMplers, it should help take some of the unnatural edge off.
  29. Recordings of natural sounds such as rainfall, waves, wind and fire are great for filling out a mix because they’re basically noise, and as such, they have a wide range of frequencies. They shouldn’t be too loud or they’ll overpower the mix, but use them with care and they can be extremely useful.
  30. Noise is a useful synthesis tool – if your synth features a noise oscillator, you can use it with a fast-attack amplitude envelope to create your own percussion sounds. This sounds artificial, but in a lo-fi way, and works especially well when teamed with a high-quality reverb.
  31. If you’re using long, sustained sounds, such as pads, your mix can lack movement if these elements are too static. By subtly altering tuning, pulse width or filter cutoff over time, you can create more organic sounds that will enhance the mix rather than make it sound lifeless.
    “Recordings of natural sounds such as rainfall, waves, wind and fire are great for filling out a mix because they’re basically noise”
  32. If you’ve got a sample that you want to play for longer than its duration, you have two basic options: you could timestretch it, which will most likely introduce unwanted audio artifacts, or loop it. Crossfade looping is the best way to get seamless loops, but if this isn’t possible, you can recreate the effect yourself by fading between two audio tracks in your mixer.
  33. To make a pad sound particularly evocative, try modulating the filter cutoff with a shallow LFO as well as a big, sweeping envelope. This will give the sound a great deal of movement and works superbly when combined with a delay effect.
  34. When working with vocals, you can have a lot of fun with pitchshifting. When pitching vocals around, it helps to use a plug-in with a formant control – this helps vocals retain their characteristics or, conversely, can be used to alter them radically. Check out Smoky Joe, a lo-fi formant processor.
  35. With modern audio sequencers, it’s easier than ever to cut up vocals and other rhythmic sounds in order to fit them in with the groove of your track. When cutting sounds up in your sequencer, remember to zoom in to make sure you’re cutting the file at a point where the amplitude is zero – otherwise known as a ‘zero crossing’.
  36. When deploying your newly-sliced rhythmic samples, it’s not always best to have your sequencer’s snap control active. You might find that pulling samples forwards along the track a little makes them fit in better with the rest of the groove, and having the snap control turned off also makes programming human-sounding rhythms easier.
  37. Whether you’re composing in stereo or surround, it’s important to use the available panoramic space properly if you want to create a sense of size. If your track has drums, you’ll probably want to pan these around the centre, but with synths and effects you can afford to use the space more creatively, so try panning them around.
  38. To add a natural stereo panorama to mono samples, you could do a lot worse than give Voxengo Stereo Touch a try. This effect uses a delay algorithm to create a convincing stereo effect that’s guaranteed to revitalise any dodgy old mono sounds you might have lying around.
  39. Reverb is one of the most important tools you have for creating a sense of space, so if you’re making ambient music, it pays to take the time to get it as sweet as you can. A good start is to use a high quality reverb – Ambience isn’t just free, it’s one of the best reverb plug-ins out there.
  40. It can be tempting to just stick reverb on a few tracks and leave it at that, but that wouldn’t be using this powerful effect to its full potential. Using high damping values, large room sizes and long reverb times will create a big sound that, when combined with judicious EQ, can create a ‘far away’ kind of effect.
  41. When using reverbs, if you want to create a softer, more ethereal effect, use less of the dry signal in the output. You can do this by turning the wet/dry ratio up, or, if you’re using a send effect, by setting it to pre-fader and turning the source channel’s main volume level down.
  42. If you’d rather have a brighter, closer effect, then make the reverb’s damping less severe, reduce the room size and turn down the delay time. This works especially well in conjunction with stereo enhancer effects such as the Voxengo Stereo Touch plug-in.
  43. Many interesting effects can be created by rendering out reverb and delay tails minus the original dry sound, then applying creative processing to the tail. Filters work particularly well for this kind of thing and, once processed, the new sound can be played back alongside the original version, or replace it altogether.
  44. Finally, when programming synth patches, don’t discount the creative potential of your instrument’s reverb section. With a long, lush reverb, even the smallest synth squelches or blips can be turned into pleasingly tonal atmospheric effects. Of course, if your synth effects truly suck, you can always use a separate reverb or delay plug-in instead to create the same effects.
  45. Delay is a pretty common effect in atmospheric music like ambient, but for ambient dub, a full-on feedback delay, such as Ohm Force’s excellent OhmBoyz effect, is just the thing.
  46. Dynamic use of feedback delay is useful for creating long, evolving rhythmic effects. By automating the feedback control on a delay plug-in, you can build to a crescendo or create weird rhythmic effects.
  47. Getting that distinctive morphing dub delay effect can be done by adding either a filter or distortion component to the feedback loop – easily done in OhmBoyz, as it has both. If you’re using a delay effect in Reaktor or another modular environment, you can add these elements yourself, though it’s advisable to put a level limiter after them to ensure the feedback doesn’t get out of control.
  48. Delay effects work well before a reverb, though too much of either will swamp the mix. However, it’s possible to tame these effects with automation – set the reverb’s wet level to 0%, automating it so that it comes up as the end of the delay tail is playing. This way, you’ll be able to use both the delay and the reverb, without having too much of either going on at once. As an advanced alternative, you could use sidechain compression to duck the start of the reverb (using the source signal as the key input), and setting the release time appropriately, thus achieving the same effect automatically.

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