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Entering the 11 dimensions of sound processing

Listened to the latest premium electronica sound productions like the new Röyksopp album oder the new Trentemoller album? Or the wonderful 2009 Simion Mobile Disco album? If the answer is no: Go for it, it’s really worth it. These and a lot more electronica producions show in a quite impressive way the state of the art in digital sound design and audio processing.

Audio Hüllkurve

For all of you who deal with sound processing, be it in a professional or semi-professional way, you know how hard and difficult it can be to achieve such cool, innovative, surprising sounds that are nevertheless vivid, full, warm and organic with the maximum amount of density and loudness. Sounds you want to dive in, sounds you want to wrap your baby in.

It’s really complex to get there, and it’s indeed a multidimensional process (hard to bear for single-tasking men like me :-) ):

First dimension:
The addiction – the innovation of sounds

First of all, when creating a song, your sounds have to be new, innovative and addictive. Like a colour people haven’t seen yet. Like a pretty face they all fall in love with. Don’t stop until you get there. Many sound presets sound really cool, but in the end they all lack of innovation and creativity. Bands like Depeche Mode never, never, never use sound presets – they create sounds from the very first beginning. They’ve always created their sounds.

There are various types of sound processing that result in very different ways of sound: sampling, analogue processing, digital processing, subtractive synthesis, additive synthesis, wavetable synths, physical modeling, granular synthesis and many more – each of them stands for specific moods and characters.

Second dimension:
The arrangement – number of instruments at a time

You have your perfect sounds for drums, bass, melodies and sequencing rythms? Good. Now, arrange them in your song. There are base instruments that provide the song’s fundament – like pad sounds or rhythmic patterns – and main instruments that provide melody, beat and song themes. Remember that people are one-dimensional: More than four main instruments at a time are a cacophony. Listen to Röyksopp’s Junior: The songs are full of sound elements, but it’s like a jonglage – you never hear more than four main instruments at a time.

Third dimension:
The timeline / the dramaturgy – the start, the end, the inbetween

Dramaturgy is everything. Imagine, the intro text of Star Wars II would contain “Darth Vader is Luke’s father” or in the beginning of “The Sixth Sense”, Haley Joel Osment tells Bruce Willis: “Hey, you’re dead, I can tell ’cause I can see dead people”. Keeping people’s attention during the whole of your song, whether it is 30 seconds long (“Sendepause”) or 22 minutes long (“Autobahn”), is the prerequisite of making the audience loving it in the end.

Start with a thunderclap to awake almost the dead ones, or start with a interesting intro, but avoid intro-of-an-intro-crap like classic intros, passing into sounds of roaring lions, passing into sequencer intros, passing into the song. Believe me, you don’t want to end in asking “ahem, anyone still awake?”.

End softly (Chemical Brothers “Dream On”), or end like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or end with a strange effect (Ultravox “Rage In Eden”), but keep in mind, it’s popular music you’re into. The end has to be precise, and it’s the final impression.

But the most important part is the inbetween: The main song structure. Want to keep it in a conventional pop-song structure with intro-verse-refrain-verse-refrain-refrain-end (Hot Chip “One Life Stand”)? Or want to keep it more unconventional (Faithless “Insomnia”)? Conventional means more intuitive for the hearer, but could also be more boring. Unconventional means more innovative and maybe more interesting, but could also be unfamiliar and irritating. Many electronic songs seem to have a very open, flowing structure with no verse and refrains. But in the end, they too do have very precice structures: Main themes, breaking points, dramaturgical bridges etc.

Fourth dimension:
The room – panning

Now, your song has got the perfect structure and arrangement. But when listening to the sounds altogether they sound flat and boring. The sounds alone are perfect, but together they are just like a sack of rats biting one another. The instruments must have their place in the auditive room. Means: a. in the stereo room from left to center to right, or b. in the surround room from left to right and from behind you to your front. We now regard the placement in the stereo room, called panning.

Place your instruments in the stereo room, for example like this: Deep instruments (the ear can’t locate exactly in the room) like bass or bass drum in the very center. Vocals are also mainly centered for we are used to being talked to from a front perspective – exceptions for vocal effects or backing vocals that can be placed in the far end of the left or/and right speaker. High and percussive sounds like hihats etc. can be placed far left or far right. Melodic and sequencing instruments should be placed individually in the stereo panorama. In the end, the arrangement should sound like an orchestra filling the whole room. Remember the four instruments playing at the same time? Watch that these play from different places in your room when they play at the same time. Your song aims for open mouths when listened to with earphones.

Fifth dimension:
The room – foreground and background

Placing your instruments in the stereo room is not just done by panning them. A room is not just flat from left to right, it also has a depth. Instrumens can sound like echoing from far away, or can be sitting right inside your pinna, like a little devil’s voice.

A reverb is an important tool for creating aural rooms: It decides whether the audience sit in a warm jazz cellar or in a spooky toilet. Using a reverb takes clarity from a sound, gives it more room and places it more in the background. The amount of how far away a sound seems to be, depends on the mix level of the reverb, from the high tone parts of the reverb effect return and from the delay offset when the reverb effect starts. Using a delay effect gives the sound more room, but keeps it more in the foreground than a reverb.

The more a sound is compressed, the more it seems to be directly in front of our face. So, use a compressor to place e.g. vocals more in the foreground. Beyond that, emphasising the transients of sounds (the percussive attack of instruments) also brings them to the foreground. Beats and basses in electronical productions can be focused on with this.

Sixth dimension:
The wave spectrum – EQ-ing

Every instrument has its characteristic range in the frequency spectrum. E.g. a bassdrum has a base frequency of about 50 Hz and overtones up to 5 kHz. Vocals have their main frequency between about 2 and 5 Khz. Lower this frequency in other instruments to give the vocals enough room to come through. Cut low frequencies in nearly all instruments other than bass or bass drum to give enough room and clarity in the lower part of the frequency band. Otherwise, your mix might sound like a deep dark foggy soup nobody likes to taste.

There are very complex ways of getting obstacles disturbing the sound out of the way: For example, use a compressor that is triggered by the low frequency of your bassdrum to lower the signal of the other instruments disturbing the bassdrum attack – resulting in a much more clearer bassdrum.

Seventh dimension:
The beat – melody versus rhythm

What’s your song about? Is it just about bumm-tchak-bumm-tchak (yeah, Kraftwerk did a hit out of it) or is it more moody and less rhythmic? Do you want the people to dance their asses off or do you want them to deep kiss in the dark corners of the club?

Eighth dimension:
The composition – the harmonics and chords

More than the mood – rhythmic or melodic – is the composition responsible for the song being catchy or not. Martin Gore’s song are so catchy because of the very special harmonics he uses, changing from major to minor chords and vice versa (“Halo”, “Shake The Disease” and many more). Many hit songs use mostly conventional harmonic structures, exceptions prove the rule: Scissor Sisters (“Laura”), Booka Shade (“Havanna Sex Dwarf”) and many more. Using a strange chord change can result in a overwhelming wow-effect (Depeche Mode “In Your Room”), or can be annoying and disturbing. It depends on the complete work and its context.

Ninth dimension:
The emotion – how to get their hearts involved

Emotions – that’s why we listen to music, and that’s why we’re making music, isn’t it? Creating a planned, structural work in such a rational way like going through the above dimensions from one to eight, or developing a song through tens or even hundreds of various production versions – all this means that it can be real hard to gain precisely that exact emotion in your song you had planned to create in the first place. There is not a single day in my life as a song writer and producer that I didn’t wish that I was capable of hearing my songs with some other pair of ears. What is the initial emotional impression of your song? Well, you will never know, unless you don’t have some very trustable and honest friends around you.

Tenth dimension:
The story – the content, the lyrics, the intuitive images

A song is more than just a couple of sounds. Listen to the lyrics of “Audacity Of Huge” by Simian Mobile Disco, and you will know what I mean:

“I got that Krink drippin’ baby shoe
I got that grape kool-aid filled swimming pool
I got those Roomba robots that clean the floor
I got that mother of pearl oyster fork for sure
I got that Tammy Faye milk money butterscotch
I got that Mama Cass you know I got that Peter Tosh
I got it all
Yes it’s true
So why don’t I get you”

Great words.

Don’t rely on the assumption that nobody, not even native speakers, listens to song lyrics. In the end, they do. And then, you don’t want to end with “oh baby” lyrics after all the work with the steps above.

Eleventh dimension:
The maker – you & yourself

Well, the simple but hard message is: It is all nothing when you, the maker, aren’t precisely at your highest creative and productive level. You got headache or a sinusitis? Forget about rating sound production details. If you are not in a creative mood, you will not be able to write the chords of the missing refrain or the lyrics of the song. Creativity can not be forced, we all know this. So, in the end, it all depends on you, the maker.

OK? And now – go for it. One, two, ready. Start.

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