Music Production at home in the 90s

What is tracker music?

I’m not fully sure how to explain it, but it’s basically music that’s sequenced in a matrix-like in the video below. The first ones had 4 channels and 8 bit sound, with more channels, sample support and 16 bit sound later on. This is what bedroom music producers were using back in the ‘90s.

Below is Elwood’s 1995 classic “Dead Lock”, in which you can see the kind of interface used. As you can see, it’s very minimalist and doesn’t have a huge amount of features like modern sequencers.

File sizes and sharing

One of the coolest things I’ve discovered about tracker music is that people used to share their project files. In fact, the project file was the only thing needed to share. Everyone could play it, and the file size only depends on the samples used. This means that you’d get lossless music with 2 or 3 digit kb file sizes! Compare that to bad quality 128 kbps mp3 files, which are measured in megabytes. That’s pretty backward!

The fact that everyone could access the project file, means that people would get a look at what’s going on behind the scenes. Every note, every sound used, etc. Nowadays, I’ve yet to come across anyone who is sharing their project files, which I think is a pity. Just look at how good Open Source projects like Wikipedia and Firefox are, not to mention the free exchange of information in science. I think it’s the same way with music. Even with my mp3 files, anyone with basic music knowledge can plagiarise me, so why not make it easier for them? Seriously though, I’m certain that most people wouldn’t steal, but rather take the opportunity to have a look at how the tracks are made, and maybe learn something.

Also, I find it funny how newer programs take up so much more resources! In the screenshot below, I’m playing my soon-to-be-uploaded composition with ~40 tracks, along with the Scotchman tune (see the end of the post) in MilkyTracker. It’s on my laptop, so the processor usage would be far lower on my desktop computer. Still, the picture speaks for itself:

Limitations and their consequence

As the video above indicates, tracker interfaces are very basic. There’s not very many sound design and editing possibilities available, which means: more focus on making music! Nowadays there seems to be so much focus on mixing, EQing, sound design, etc. And fair enough, a lot of music is incredibly well done, unlike anything before. However, from my point of view, far too many forget that music is more than you hear.

With tracker interfaces, people had to make the best of mediocre sounds. Now, people have to make the best out of the best sounds. Huge amounts of bad tunes were made back then too, but I somehow think that poor music with poor sounds is better than poor music with professional sounds. It sounds less out of place, and those with poor sounds will have to focus more on actually making a good piece of music and communicating their idea.

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15 Things all Music Producers Must Do!

1. Make sure your track is clipping the master, busses, and at least three individual tracks. This will ensure that you always have a nice, warm, vintage sound. If you are still getting a bad result (too much clicking and popping), just turn the master fader down until that goes away. A little pop here and there sounds like a record and is considered cool. This is also the best way to ensure the highest resolution in your mixes. If anything’s still clipping too much, slap a limiter with a fast-attack on it. Using a limiter can also help alleviate issues related to improper tracking automation.

2. Normalize individual track wave files. This keeps you from having to raise volumes on faders. If your final output still has some headroom, make sure you normalize that, too. All tracks should be finished for mastering to at least -6db (please note no suffix such as FS or SPL is necessary as per point #14). This will enable you to compress it during the mastering process back up to beatport’s required format of +3db.

3. Always mix in mono. Most clubs only play out in mono, anyway. If you don’t, your panned tracks might cancel each other out. If your mix sounds flat, use a 3D FX plug-in. Even if you can’t hear the instant depth and nuance, your audience will still be able to.

4. Dr. Dre HP Beats Headphones are the best for mixing. These are very popular headphones so if you’re using them to mix, that’s how your music is going to sound to people who wear them.

5. Mastering can and should be used to correct any problems you can’t correct in your mix-down. Why not kill two birds with one stone? Mastering plug-ins should be used on the master channel when your mixing your track. Multiband compression should be used religiously and liberally.

6. You should only master your own tracks. Having someone else do it for you just means you don’t have good ears and you suck. You know how you want your shit to sound so BAM – make it happen.

7. Dada Life’s Sausage Fattener should be your go-to plug-in for master channel processing and mastering, in general.

8. Most good songs have at least 100 tracks running simultaneously. If you aren’t layering out your ass, you’re doing something wrong.

9. Quantize bass notes to 1/8ths. Everything else should be a static 1/16th.

10. If you’re having problems mixing in one DAW, those problems are sure to go away if you download a cracked copy of another sequencer.

11. There isn’t a single problem that can’t be solved by the religious use of ducking. Sidechain your kick drum to everything!

…including your kick.

12. For most tracks, the built-in sound-card on the motherboard will suffice for monitoring.

13. You should only have 5 dB’s between your loudest sound and your softest one. Compressors should be set accordingly with a fast attack and a slow release, with plenty of make-up gains to balance the difference. A low threshold is your friend.

14. There is no difference between dB SPL and dB FS. They mean EXACTLY the same thing. If a track is 96 dB Full Scale, it will be exactly 96 dB Sound Pressure Level, in the clubs.

15. With today’s music technology, you don’t need to be musically gifted or to have lots of practice just to whip out a tune. People who know about music through formal training are just keeping it in a box and lack creative insight.

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The Visual Aspect: Music is more than you hear

What are you talking about?

Bare with me, as I will be discussing an epiphany I had a couple of years ago. Back when I started out making music, I made tracks based either on humoristic purposes or what things sounded like. I would, for example, create a synth riff playing a really cool melody. With the way my mind works, this wasn’t a problem when composing, since I have a way of coming up with abstract associations for just about anything sound-related.

Ok, so what was the problem?

I was able to make music that I liked, but one period I got completely stuck. This was after creating an absolutely amazing track, and I had absolutely no idea where to go from that. The frustration followed me for months, and I really tried to come up with an idea that was equally amazing, but I had no luck. Perhaps I have reached the limits of my creative potential?

Big Bad Biker Bully Bugs

Then one day, I envisioned a bunch of Big Bad Biker Bully Bugs. Not only was it a highly respectable alliteration, but it served incredibly well as an idea for a track. 2-3 days passed, and I had made a complete track!

I was relieved and happy, and couldn’t understand how I had suddenly made a complete track again. Was it my relaxed state of mind? Was it the long time of musical ideas piling up in my mind?

Well, maybe that too, but the major realization was that music is visual. Because I saw an image/scene in my mind, I now had something to work with. Melodies and sounds don’t help much if they don’t mean anything.

Was it just a one-time success?

This was, of course, the question I was curious about, so, during the following months, I tried to always envision a scenario which the music was going to portray. Time after time, this approach yielded results. Of course, as with most people, I still made loads of 20 second unfinished sound bits, but my music, including those little ideas, now had substance to them!

When listening to what I had made, I would always envision these delightful scenarios I had come up with. The pre-bigbadbikerbullybugs music mostly seemed empty, since they didn’t give me any particular images in my head.

How has this changed my composing?

In short, it has become much more fun. The technical aspects haven’t changed that much. I still do sound design, melody composing and beat making as I have always done, and those by themselves are great fun too. With this additional visual dimension to it though, it becomes so much more interesting.

When making a song about marching mackerel, I would try to make the drums sound really wet by applying low-pass filtering with audible resonance and envelope manipulation. Remove the “wet-sounding marching mackerel” part of that, and it suddenly becomes way less interesting, reduced to technical sound design terms without any meaning.

The same thing with “Epic Robot”: Instead of just “aiming for a futuristic high-tech sound”, I envisioned an entire story of a huge robot unfolding and doing movements even the Japanese haven’t thought of yet.

Is this alone the key to making good music?

Let me put it this way: If you compare it to languages, you can say absolutely wonderful things with a very limited vocabulary. It is, however, necessary to have a thorough grasp of vocabulary and grammar to maximize your communication potential.

What a lot of people seemingly do in music production is to focus too much on the technical side of things: equalizing, mixing, mastering, sound design, etc. These are people with excellent grammar and vocabulary, but they’re not saying as nice and imaginative things as they could be doing.

I’d rather listen to someone telling something amazing with poor language, than someone talking about dreadfully boring things using advanced language. Of course, though, the best is to listen to someone who uses both great choices of words and has something amazing to tell (i.e. someone who is proficient with both music theory and mixing, as well as the visual aspect of music).

I do hope this is an important realization for beginners, who tend to bug themselves down about their lack of technical skills when they might in fact already at the beginner stage be able to say the right things.

Movement is also cool to visualize

Of course, painting an image with your mind is a very exciting thing to do. Painting a short movie is even more fun, I tell you! When making “Jovial” for example, not only did I envision a man with a mustache and a hat; I also made him whistle the tune as he was walking down the street, spinning his cane and twisting his mustache, and getting “you the man”-looks from people on the street.

Movement adds one more dimension to the visual aspect; not only are you trying to portray what something looks like, but also how it moves and behaves.

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are also an important part of this way of thinking since they help people relate to your vision. A song about a desert might have a heavy steel guitar with reverb since that’s often what’s playing in cowboy movies that take place in the desert. Harp strumming and choirs on a major scale are often associated with euphoric visions of heaven.

I’m not able to fully elaborate on this point yet since I’m not too familiar with many musical stereotypes, but I hope you’re getting the gist of what I’m trying to say.

What kind of music is this way of thinking suitable for?

I think this is mainly an approach that applies to instrumental music, particularly electronic music since you’re working with an unlimited range of sounds. When you’re working with vocals and a limited range of instruments, the vocals tend to convey the message in question.

I do however think that attention to the visual aspect when composing for such music is important as well. I can imagine a good sounding chord sequence without any further meaning being much more difficult to work with that if you give it a visual meaning.

What do you guys think?

I do realize that imagining crazy things don’t come as easily to everyone since it’s something that people tend to leave behind when growing up. You could alternatively try to compose something to images or video clips that you like. I actually think that’s a more common approach since I guess that’s how people make film music.

Either way, I hope you will give my approach a try. I know a few others who have had the same epiphany, who are also enjoying their music composing far more now. This is why I believe this is an excellent approach.

Please share your experience

Have you had any similar “eureka moments” when it comes to music composing? Do you have any further thoughts on the subject? Please tell me about it in the comments.

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