I’ve been busy the past few weeks composing, recording, and video-ing (is that a word?) two new compositions. One will be my set for SoundQuest Fest on March 27, and the other – which still needs to be edited – will be webcast later this year. Edited versions of the audio of one or both pieces will appear on a new album I am also working on (that’s this month’s project!).
A side effect of all this is that my head has been firmly in the “mixing” space lately: mixing multitrack recordings, and mixing my modular with other hardware and software synthesizers while I play. These are subjects I’ll expanding on over the next few months, starting with some notes about mixing and EQ in this newsletter:
- featured article: A few resources to get up to speed more quickly with mixing your modular (and other instruments), including some personal comments on the use of equalization.
- new videos & posts: A pair of my more popular private Patreon posts are now available to everyone.
- course updates: I just want to say “thank you.”.
- Patreon updates: I started a new series titled “Notes from the Studio”, plus shared some ways I’m using resonator modules to create hybrid sounds.
- upcoming events: In addition to performing as part SoundQuest Fest at the end of the month, I’ll also be sharing some of my sequencing tricks on a Five12 webcast on March 20.
- one more thing: Modulation Sound Lab is a wonderful, small, inclusive community of artists learning together as we combine modular synths, DAWs, and other tools.
Mixing & Equalizing Modulars
This past year, many modular musicians have spent more time recording and (virtually) performing. Which has led to many of us wanting to improve the quality of not just our playing, but how we’re recording and presenting our work.
Just like learning how to patch your modular, you can keep plugging away at recording and mixing, hoping you get better with practice…or you can shorten your learning curve by getting some advice from others.
For example, the Colorado Modular Synth Society’s first meeting of 2021 (streamed live & saved on YouTube) was devoted to mixing and mastering your music, with several artists sharing their own knowledge and experience.
I’ve personally gotten a lot out of online mixing courses from Bobby Owsinski. I’ve taken a couple of his free webinars (get on his email list to hear when the next one is coming up), including his Music Mixing Crash Course. He also has numerous books, including on the music business.
Probably the biggest area of help I’ve received is in the area of equalization. We normally focus on patching a sound until we get what we want, but a lot can be done to improve it – or just as important, make sure it doesn’t cause trouble – by then equalizing it.
One big problem area is resonance. Many of use love cranking up the resonance on our filters to create squelchy, vocal-ish, or other types of sounds; I’ve been experimenting a lot lately with patching sounds such as drum loops through resonator modules to change their character. However, when the note you’re playing lines up with the frequency the resonance is at, the result can be a sudden jump in volume for just that one note, causing it to clip or drown out other sounds in the mix.
To tame this, I like to use an equalizer plug-in with a frequency display so I can see where those peaks are occurring, and then use a notch filter to dampen them down as shown in the image above. This isn’t just a modular trick; I also have to do this with polysynths such as the Waldorf Iridium – the sound source in the image above.
Depending on the nature of the problem, sometimes I use a surgical narrow and deep notch (such as a “Q” of 2-6 and as much as 12dB or more of cut); sometimes I use a more gentle, broad adjustment such as a “Q” of around 1-3 and 3dB or less of cut. In the example above, I’m trying to tame that second harmonic spike which is causing a sudden jump in the overall audio level at that point in time.
Some other general EQ advice includes:
- Cut before you boost. First worry about cutting problem areas; then see if anything needs boosting to make it more prominent.
- The way to achieve clarity in your mixes is to give each sound its own frequency range to live in. If you boost one sound at a particular frequency, cut a similar sound at the same frequency to make sure they don’t compete with each other. (If needed, boost that second sound at a different frequency, so it sits in a different frequency range in the mix.)
- Use high and low pass filters to clean up any unwanted noise and other “aural junk” that might be contributing to a muddy low end, or hash and noise in the high end. In the image above, notice how the Iridium is creating audio energy over the entire frequency spectrum, even though the “sound” itself is only inside a specific range of frequencies. On the low end, use a high pass filter and increase its cutoff until you start to cut into the true character of the sound, and then back off a little. Same goes for the high end: Use a low pass filter and reduce its cutoff until you start to lose something you want to keep, then back off.
- Use the low and high pass EQ idea above to tame your effects, and help them sit in a mix. Reducing the bandwidth on your echo or reverb will make it a more distinct sound, instead of something that is competing with and possibly obscuring your main sounds.
- One of Owsinki’s tips is to not EQ a sound in isolation. You might be trying to “perfect” each sound, only to find it competes with other sounds. So he recommends listening to a sound in context, with at least one other main sound also playing (if not the entire mix), to make sure your EQ changes are actually having the desired effect.
Now, here’s the good news – you probably already have some equalizers you may not be using: They’re the filters in your modular that you’re not using for a particular patch. Low and high pass filters can be used to clean up unwanted high and low frequencies; I use filters on my effects all of the time. Notch filters can be used to tame those unwanted resonances.
Normally you want to turn the resonance down on your filters when you use them as equalizers. With a notch filter, the resonance setting can change the effect from narrow and deep (lots of resonance), or wide and shallow (no resonance).
One exception is if you’re trying to add a little boost at the same time: A high-pass filter with a bit of resonance tuned to the very bottom of the frequency range is a way to boost your subharmonics (a secret of the TB-303).
As a result, I’m finding that stereo filters are becoming increasingly useful in my modular. I’ve already been using the WMD Overseer and Bastl Ikarie in my effects chains, and the Rossum Linnaeus has proven to be particularly useful lately as it has equalizer-like “shelf” modes in addition to the traditional synthesizer filter modes.
New Videos & Blog Posts
In response to enquires from friends, I have made a couple of articles originally written for Patreon now available to everyone for free:
- The Monster Power Project, part 6: Heat & Ventilation where I show the steps I went through to make sure my large studio modular stayed cool inside – complete with measurements with and without fans over the period of a few hours.
- Why Do Vintage Synths Sound Better Than Eurorack? where I tackle the “conventional wisdom” that ±15v power supply systems sound noticeably better than ±12v systems, and uncover what I think is the real reason older synths may sound “bigger” and Eurorack systems can sound like they lack dynamic range: I believe it comes down to their audio signal levels versus their power supply rails.
Since I’ve been so busy lately, I’ve been trying out a different format for posts: Notes from the Studio, where I discuss issues and ideas that have come up while working on modular-based songs – without necessarily recording a whole training-based video on the subject. The first three that went up during February include:
- Patching a Meta Percussion Sequencer, where I combine Mutable Instruments Grids, the Five12 Vector sequencer, and the DivKid/SSF RND STEP to better imitate a “real” drummer.
- Attenuators & Bias Voltages, and my search for more finger-friendly modules to help me tweak a patch during a performance.
- Filters as EQ, where I dove deeper into the idea of using filter modules to equalize a patch during performance so it sounds better when broadcast (it also makes mixing easier later on).
I also wrote a post with audio examples of how I am using resonators (such as the Mutable Instruments Rings) to process drum and percussion patterns. When combined with a sequencer that is also stepped along by the same pattern or loop, those percussion patterns get converted into interesting melodic sequences with more character than using the default noise impulse of Rings or similar modules.
To give you an idea of the kind of month February was, I had also recorded for my Patrons a quick tour of the Strymon Nightsky pedal (which I love), only to find out during editing that I had recorded the wrong audio channels – so I’ll have to re-do that. I also recorded an example of patching a “hocketing” pattern where alternate notes trigger different synth voices; I’ll be finishing and uploading that soon, along with other posts I’m working on (including a Notes from the Studio about problems your modular can cause for mastering engineers).
In general, if you want the inside scoop on everything I do related to modular music, please consider subscribing to my Patreon channel as well (with many thanks to those who already have).
Electronic music legend Steve Roach plus Serena Gabriel are creating a new, three-day, online version of the original SoundQuest Fest Steve staged in Tucson back in 2010. As you can see from the image above, the lineup is simply amazing, with Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Michael Sterns, Erik Wøllo, Ian Boddy, and others – including yours truly. There will be studio tours, interviews, and other video vignettes along with the performances, scheduled from March 26 through 28. My set is scheduled for Saturday March 27 at 8:35 Eastern and 5:35 PM Pacific Daylight Time; it will also be available online after the premiere during the event.
I will also be the guest artist on the Five12 Vector Deep Dive Saturday, March 20, at 4 PM Eastern and 1 PM Pacific Daylight Time. I’ll be sharing some of my patching and programming techniques to bring a more human feel to my sequences, going beyond simple randomness. It will appear on the Five12 YouTube channel.
(Note that the US goes onto daylight savings time earlier than some other parts of the world, so double-check your local time conversion to make sure you don’t miss those events.)
One More Thing…
Although I am pretty comfortable using a modular synthesizer, I am just now getting back into using music software such as Ableton Live, after a very long break – so I am a newbie about many things in that realm.
And, although I am used to working alone, the ways we’ve adapted to online life during the coronavirus pandemic has made me even more interested in collaborating with and learning from others – and on a more personal level than online forums or webcasts.
One person I’ve been happily sharing problems and ideas with is the multi-talented, very generous Trovarsi. So, when I learned that she and Chantal deFelice had started a new kind of inclusive, collaborative space – Modulation Sound Lab – I immediately joined. In addition to a Patreon channel and private Discord conversation group, the main feature has been a series of Zoom meetings where members share their questions and collective experiences in a well-moderated, inclusive, nurturing, non-judgmental environment. At higher membership levels, you can also get one-on-one lessons from Trovarsi if you desire (and I can vouch that she’s a great person to work with).
If you wished you had a wider group of friends with experiences you may benefit from (and who you would be happy to share your own experiences with), this is a great way to find them. Please consider joining us, and supporting this great environment Trovarsi and Chantal have created.
Before I leave, I have a favor to ask: As part of reviving my musical persona Alias Zone, I have just started an Alias Zone YouTube channel that will be home to the music videos I create. YouTube gives content creators more powers if they have 100 subscribers or more, so if you would consider subscribing to the Alias Zone YouTube channel, I would greatly appreciate it.
with thanks –