Whilst mastering music for a living will always be my priority I have been making my own music in evenings and weekends. I forewarn that for modern attention spans this is going to be a fairly extensive read of 8-10mins and will touch on a few important areas of electronic DAW music production. I hasten to add that whilst my personal preference for making music is trance music through 3 decades (including retro/vintage tracks), I have confidently mastered every musical genre for the last 13 years. The track in question :
The start of a new track:
I enjoyed making a retro 2000’s styled dance music track so much some months ago that I thought I would produce another one but with a different feel. I like a little bit of beauty in music and thought I would try and bring about a track that was a little softer in its presentation. I understand the word “fluffy” is used for such tracks that have a slightly more ambient sound selection. After listening to quite a few progressive sounding tracks from the early 2000’s I embarked on a little musical journey. There was a specific track that was made in 2004 that caught my ear and by a relatively lesser known artist. There are a couple of stylistic “nods”, however the track produced is very different.
Some of the sounds, textures, melodies and chords in these tracks left a strong impression on me and I realized they were part of a sub set of sounds in the progressive side of the trance genre that I had never managed to work out how to make. So I had to do various listening types both to the tracks of the time, making some notes, checking what synths of the era might be best suited and work out exactly how these sounds were made.
These progressive tracks may have found themselves played in the mornings at festivals with a more relaxed ambient feel with less edgy and harsh sounds. This track is inspired by various artists of that time in many respects. Which is exactly how it should be for a retro track (if we can extend that word to a mere 20 years ago) but I enjoyed the feel from these artists who seemed to make music that was a little softer and had lots of beautiful atmospheric sounds within.
I had a little bit of luck along the way by finding a soft synth that had a sound that was heading in the right direction of my references (not always the biggest artists in the scene at that time), this was helpful as it was timely. It had crossed my mind that it was not just sound design alone that gave the special feeling in the tracks I had been enjoying. Yet it took me a few sessions to understand what I needed to do to get the feel.
I suspect there were kick and possibly bass samples that might have been shared between producers even this far back as I can occasionally identify close similarities between the kicks and bass characters. Of course I am unable to obtain these samples today so I have had to create my own similar sounding kick (I like to synthesize my kicks) and synthesize a bass sound that I think both fits the time and also sounds good.
The synthesizers in use for this track :
I own a copy of Blue III which Rob Papen decided to name as “cross fusion” synthesis. I have always found Rob Papen to be a great developer and I enjoy using his synths. (I have had no prior connection with Rob Papen other than being a customer, though he is now aware of this blog article using Blue III) And Blue III had just the right sound I was aiming for. It is packed with great sounds and also very enjoyable to program yourself with everything being straight forwards and well laid out. It is capable of many types of sounds. I was especially interested in its chord section, it was this that had helped me in some ways understand how these ‘progressive’ sounds were made. (it is considerable work to reverse engineer sounds/textures and the context of how they are musically presented/played, albeit enjoyable.)
It goes without saying the Blue III was used a lot in this track as it has some relationship with Albino along with Predator 2 which I also own. (there is also a Predator 3 release available now). RP Blue was originally released in 2005 and Albino in 2002. I will just add that there has been a bit of news that “Albino-3 Legend” is going to be released by Rob Papen in the future (mid November) so keep an eye on his website.
Recreating the sonic textures of a time gone by
I chose these synths as they have some lineage with Albino which I know progressive trance and dance music producers loved very much. (I won’t get too bogged down in precise definitions of sub genres etc.) These synths were very good to me during this track. Blue III is a powerful synth and can create a lot of the sonic textures I wanted.
Blue III has various types of synthesis within, PCM samples, “analogue, additive and spectral” for oscillators, FM and also has subtractive contols like a virtual analogue synth. The synth has some spectacular presets though in this case I mainly programmed my own as I was of course after “the sounds of a time”. It also has an X-Y vector synthesis pad to create gentle movement within the sounds. Much like the ROM-pler keyboards of the 1990’s. It is a powerful and deep synth and of course it has a lovely Blue soothing interface to look at. It was precisely what I wanted for this new track.
I also used Z3TA+2 which has a VST3 version. Amazing that this synth still works and uses VST3. (all software developers take note if you have not released some of your expensive plug ins in VST3 yet.) It can be quite a hard sounding synth (nicely glassy at times though), and the filter can be a little harsh at high resonance settings. It has the sound of a time as well so it works very well for such millenial pursuits. Like most synths you can program fundamental sonic characters away if you need to.
I also used 2 other synths that had some specific sounds I wanted to use that were reminiscent of this time period, possibly a little earlier but nonetheless they suited the aesthetic (and I am sure producers were still using their favourite tools from years gone by even in the early 2000’s, so think late 90’s synths/romplers)
These synths can be picked up for very low prices if you keep your eyes open for the sales. Air Music tech Hybrid 3 and also Xpand!2. They were 2 synths I had actually not used since picking them up for around £20.00 each. The price was so good I thought they were worth picking up. And just at the right time such synths fit right in just as you want them to.
In addition I used REFx Vanguard 2 another great synth with early Millenium credentials. It is a little bit expensive at the time of writing but most software developers have a discount during summer time or on Black Friday or Christmas. This synth was chosen to perform bass duties amongst other sounds.
Adam Szabo’s superb Viper synth also features, this is a synth that would very much have been suited to the sounds of the early 2000’s given it is very similar to the Access Virus. I own an Access Virus Snow but did not use it this time round as Viper was doing a good job. I still love the Virus and still use it. This was used to make a filtered white noise sound, very basic but effective atmospherics (used in the breakdown sections).
Clearly I used some gates for the classic trance gated effect using a Vengeance trance gate and also Gatekeeper on some of the synths used.
Of kick and bass for this genre, is an article in itself (which I incidentally have written about on the blog) it could be easy to assume that kick and bass was less refined than in the modern times we see ourselves. However this is not so, people still did the best they could technically at the time. Even though we may not have the same transient punch, clarity and precision of 2023 people were still working hard to get the punch and groove right, even if the synths were not perfect at the time.
The bass line is 3 x 16th notes between each kick, the synthesis is deceptively simple, a saw wave with an envelope to close the filter for each note and a volume envelope, the oscillator must be set to ” retrigger” so there are no phase variations on the attacks. This gives the bass its hypnotic “wobble”. Note 1 of 3 has a lowered velocity to produce a galloping effect.
I was a little worried reFX Vanguard 2 was sounding a little loose/ flabby and not as tight as I wanted (I suspect the the envelope and filter coding/latency) but in the mixing stage it had some tweaks which got things into shape. Today people often use pre made single shot bass and kick samples as audio for timing precision which is fine. I like the engineering challenge so use self synthesized kicks and bass lines. More on this later.
To round off I also used u-He Repro for a repetitive and hypnotic analogue synth arp (MIDI programmed though) sound that adds atmospherics. It creeps in from 6 seconds into the track.
The sound of early, yet good softsynths
At this point 2004 softsynths were just starting to get good. They may not quite have matched the presence and quality of hardware like the Roland synths that would have been used a lot in the 90’s and up to 2,000 before softsynths became really good. As such the tracks are often not quite as shiny, they had a sound that could be described as a little more grainy, coarse, (Papery? If that makes any sense) less shiny and sparkly, slightly less glitzy at least in the progressive psy sub genre of the time.
An issue with the word “warm” is that it has been used to describe valves and tape and maybe worn vinyl, it carries such considerable baggage, I hesitate to use it. To me valves never sounded warm, they can thicken but tend to produce perceived brightness from their harmonics. Tape is arguably “warmer” as it rolls off the top end and tends to push forwards bass and lower mids a little and maybe thickens due to varying degrees of saturation. The early 2,000’s sound in my opinion is to do with going ITB and softsynths and reverbs not having quite the brightness that modern sounding productions have. 90’s romplers/ digital multitimbral workstation synths could be quite bright and a little harsh at times. (think JD-800/990/1080 which were used a lot in dance music of the 90’s)
Signal path emulations :
For this track I used previously outlined techniques (as per my other blog articles) which give a feel for the music of the time. I used Slate VCC SSL-E option on every channel, effects type were quite basic, reverb and delay and a little special effects for the vocal sample in the mid section break down.
At this time much of trance music was made at home and many producers were moving “in the box” as it was a time when some soft synths started to sound good. It was not necessary to use a desk emulation but this is something I enjoy doing so why not.
The stereo output bus
I am not a mix into a bus compressor person, I have 80 channels of control available before the stereo master out. When making music of some precision, compression and its time constants can sometimes cause unpredictable results. I aim for control and so there is no place for a compressor on the master stereo output for this music. I also suspect few at the time would be running a high quality stereo compressor across the master outputs.
In mastering I have plenty of quality compression when required, it is just not required at this stage.
The master bus section of this track was mixed with just VCC Master bus plug in, I usually have drive on that set quite low maybe around 1/3, to me that makes things a slightly more pillowy to mix into, it is likely it softens transients a little. It sounds good to me. Also a legendary mastering equalizer Sontec 432 (Burgess Macneal approved Metric Halo version), albeit with eq set flat. Interestingly for an emulation of a solid state EQ this produces a little second harmonic albeit 80dB down from a test tone. I use this in mastering but having 2 machines to activate on it’s on my hobby machine. This is present without any cut or boost, just there as an extra emulation of master output bus solid state electronics.
The Kick drum was synthesized using Bazzism and produced with less high frequency zap to give a nice round tone with more of the character found in the tracks of the 2000’s. When making older style kicks I prefer Bazzism over Kick 2. Bazzism uses a swept sine wave to produce its kick drums. A screenshot of the exact kick used is in the image. I get there quicker and they are a little more rounder and dare I say “analogue” sounding. Nothing out of the ordinary for the snare and hi hats. I did not over do the production values of this track (it has some dryer sounds, it is not swamped in delays and reverb which followed the reference track somewhat. I liked this tracks sonics, not being over the top with production glitz.) Though what is there was carefully considered to let the atmosphere do the talking.
My Cubase session was around an 80 tracks DAW project, of course not all synths playing at the same time, some drum samples and there were around 15 or so effects returns. This may sound excessive but I realized how important effects are in this music long ago. My aging PC some how manages to keep up with my practice of ever expanding effects processes and returns. Of note it allows me to automate effects (important for atmospheric tracks) without having to worry if I have messed up the specific effects used for another sound in the track. I can also adjust filters and delay/reverb times/decays.
For this type of music effects are almost instruments in their own right. There was a little automation on the effects and due to the atmospheric nature I needed to have multiple delays (with filters) and multiple reverb types and decays. Some very long.
I use compressors sparingly when mixing. I only use them when there is an actual problem that need to be resolved and I don’t slam things much, a couple of dB gain reduction with the time constants nicely set for the job depending on the source sound. I used one compressor (*see below) without gain reduction just for signal path pass through character.
(Compression is very useful even great at times used cautiously for vocals, electric bass guitars, drums etc. With electronic music other than for specific coloration I just don’t need to use it much, I can control velocity and level very well without it in electronic music. It is easy to overcompress instruments and rely on it as a crutch to hold things into place often with a stifling and sound quality reducing effect. Good compression in a mix is a skillful activity, something I believe might be a skill being lost to the total clamp down on musical dynamics. That’s another story.)
Slowing the attack and release settings down with slower sounds and faster for things that are more short term peaky. I am used to using superb compressors in mastering both analogue and digital however for this mix all I needed was a decent “workhorse” like compressor. It was not like people were using Fairchild 670’s, boutique opto compressors and all manner of solid state variants for this music. A simple “do the job asked of” clean compressor does fine. I think 3 to 4dB is the heaviest I compress when mixing electronic music, there is so much control available in DAW you can resolve much before you even need to think about a compressor, that’s what mixing is about. I used Klanghelm DC8C and also Fabfilters ProC2.
I have many compressors available, some incredible but in mixing this type of music the differences are rather small. A project studio of the era would likely be using something rather basic like a Drawmer, dBx, Alesis 3630 or an original Composer, if at all.
* One exception was using MJUC on a specific RP Blue III sound, I could have EQ’d it just as easily but it sprang to mind so I inserted it and liked the result. MJUC has a thick sounding pass through character and is a good comp to add colour (thickness) to anything, but in this case synths, even if there is zero gain reduction.
The track concept : Dislocation at the start and end of the day
The concept behind this track was a profound feeling that you can get if your look at a beautiful sunrise or sunset and imagine the opposite is happening. Look at a sunset and consider it as being a sunrise…..and a sunrise and imagine it is a sunset. This creates a special dislocation from time which I tried to capture sonically. It momentarily confuses you and brings attention to the very moment, a brief timeless feeling. I often start music based on a feeling inspired from actual imagery or something imagined.
The production of the track took around 15 to 20 x 2 hour sessions in my spare time over 5 weeks or so, at evenings and weekends. Despite having a lot of enjoyable evenings the usual production sticking points reared their head and needed to be worked through. When this happens I more often find myself simply closing the DAW and coming back to the challenging areas the next day or so. Typically, arrangement, transitions and musically sensible flow causing a few minor headaches. There is little point in becoming stressed when such tracks are meant to be meditative. So I just relax and turn the PC off and come back fresh another time. I found this is the best approach for me.
Should or can your music be perfect ?
Online you sometimes hear people mentioning or quoting “don’t aim for perfection”. Firstly, it is of course arguable what perfection is. I see (or hear) it as perfection in my own personal ears. In the eyes (ears!) of the beholder we can say. It becomes a game (though always remaining fun) of projecting what you hear in your own head, overlayed onto the track that is there and spending the time making it so.
Sonic perfection* is very much linked to good monitoring, speakers and room i.e. accuracy of presentation. Without accuracy you won’t hear what perfect is when it appears as you are presented with a false representation of what is really in your DAW mix. Musical perfection can be achieved with musical skill and creative DAW use.
I see “perfection” as basic refinement and quality control in the ears of an individual, nothing more or less. I am in no rush to release music and listen and refine a track to sound as I want to hear it. In this track it meant working through arrangement problems, creating new compatible musical sections, optimizing delays for better rhythmic presentation of what was already present, refining filter envelopes to give the right feel and fit. It took 1 hour to refine one specific filter sweep. (including tracking down some unwanted parameters) The filter was enveloped over a chord to give just the right feel, harmonic content and emotional presence that I wanted it to have. It was just not sounding right for a few reasons (a few rogue synth parameters were tracked down that were causing instability and lack of control.) and took some extra work…this track maybe listened to for many years, so why not get that right if it takes a mere 1 hour
* If you are a new producer with less than 3 years experience you will have so many aspects to learn about audio production that you should not overly concern about this. You can still strive to make your music as perfect as you can do for your current skill level for each track. You can do this with an intention of making progress track by track, each new completed track as a stepping stone.
Is ‘perfection’ to your own ears an important trait for the near future ?
There might be a new consideration for your music in 2023, let’s call it – counterfeit creativity maths – rather than its common name which is often abbreviated to 2 letters. I think you know what I mean. In the not too distant future you may need to make your music stand out above “Ccm” music to abbreviate the above. Perfection as you see it is to be your ally and an advantage. People will be seeking quality music to listen to and perfection in your own ears is going to become an advantage to you as a creative human being. It is going to be one way of standing out in an ever expanding sea of spirit-less ccm music.
Perfection in your own ears is a choice, that is a generous part of production and its aims. The producer decides what is important and what is not and what is to be conveyed, the details matter. No one has the right to suggest aiming for perfection is invalid, assuming it is not paralyzing your creativity and completion of tracks. As long as you are reasonably confident of making progress with the track, there are no right or wrong ways, just choices to make.
If you sometimes have difficulties in finishing your tracks, have a read of this article for good advice on how to finish your tracks, both from the perspective of organization and inspiration:
The final approaches:
When I make music, I rough mix as I go and I create in an untreated room. I need to remove myself from the mastering studio when creating as composing a track needs a slightly less technical / different approach, you are in music world, not technical world ! Once I take it into the mastering studio for final mixing any sonic ills appear, in no uncertain terms.
In this case I was quite concerned about the Vanguard 2 bass line. The octave notes were sticking out a bit and also whilst the bass line had a very nice punchy and dynamic feel ultimately it was a little too peaky. Changes needed to be made. I was a little anxious to change the bassline synthesis at this stage, but change it must. Fortunately my experience (and monitoring room accuracy) meant it was just 3-4 adjustments, to the synth itself, some MIDI velocity editing and some judicious EQ moves to get it sitting just right. These are the actual synth settings for my sawtooth bass sound, very simple synthesis but must be set with precision, note Osc 1 “retrig” is on so start phase is consistent for each note.
To balance the kick and bassline into the mix it was important to have their relative levels just right. For levelling it into the track I re-levelled it with eyes closed on the fader 3 times with my eyes close and then noted the mean fader level and that is where the kick and bass group sits in the mix. (bringing up the kick and bassline group fader with the track playing at around 80dB SPL). This way the kick and bass works in its own right and it also works by ear alone with the “rhythm section” and synths. This all helped the mastering stage.
Once again mastering was relatively gentle as I had mixed the track very carefully as it would have been for the time period. A very small amount of EQ was used and cautious compression and limiting to bring the volume up in the box. This track would not really benefit from being overly squashed due to its rather warm, fluffy and ambient pad based nature but being dance music it sits at a reasonable volume, fitting for the era (albeit volume normalized on Youtube). I wanted the sound to remain fairly open and smooth which suits the intended feel, it is not meant to be a heavy sound track.
Another enjoyable project completed and I hope you enjoyed the detailed walk through.
Please feel free to like and share wherever you wish to whom might be interested. Copyright 2023 – written by Barry Gardner from the heart with no online maths assistance.
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