A compilation of The M Machine AMA
emulate others when you're merely attempting to elevate your production chops... but understand tehat you'll never turn heads until you create your own sound.
In what order do you produce your tracks?
no order to speak of. sometimes inspiration hits in the form of chords... sometimes percussion. I would try not to get stuck in too specific of a workflow. Might put a limit on your creativity.
How long does each song take?
I would say from concept to final master it's usually about 60-100 hours of solid studio work [per song?].
After years of producing, would you say there was a definitive moment where all of a sudden, everything just clicked; where you didn't have to consciously recall all the things you had learned before, and everything just flowed naturally?
no no no. even going on tour for a month sets me back in terms of my production confidence. its incredibly clear to me at this point why REALLY successful artists tend to fall off in terms of production prowess. Becoming busy and spending less time in the studio WILL WITHOUT QUESTION separate you from the lessons and skills you have been mastering. That natural flow you speak of comes early in your career when you are gettin good... but aren't gettin booked...
just wanted to ask you how you guys keep yourselves motivated to finish a song.
Andy: If a song is cool, and you have confidence in it, I feel like it HAS to get finished. Even finishing songs that aren't the best is very important, since arrangement and creating variety are really important parts of music, so getting practice at building song structures can be very rewarding, even if the finished product isn't the best.
It also DEFINITELY helps to have other people listening and helping you out with new ideas.
Eric: I think motivation comes from knowing we'll have something we're stoked on when we finish it. It's difficult to be super into a track that's unfinished and unmastered, but finishing a song and being super proud of the outcome is such a good feeling. Finish more tracks man!
Your Take A Walk remix is fucking genius. How'd you go about completely changing the key and mood around the vocal?
Reharmonizing leads/vocal leads is one of our very favorite things to do. This is the part of production that REALLY requires an experienced and seasoned ear. The new chord progression we laid down for "take A Walk" was actually the very first thing we wrote when we were first commissioned the remix.
Razor? Silenth? we use SO MANY native logic inserts... seems like the most important 3rd party plugs we have are just synths. That said... probably couldn't live without ohmicide or camelphat.
How do you guys go about sound design? I have the constant problem that I have this awesome sound in my head but can't get it into my computer. Any advice on that?
Synthesis is tough because often times you hit your best sounds and most creative synths by accident. Certainly a lot of artists have their go-to noises and soundscapes. But when you are really trying to create something new I think it’s more important to experiment and knob-twist than to reserve satisfaction for nailing a VERY specific sound in your head. Just my POV.
Do you find experimentation of the sounds and gear to be a big part of production and composition?
oh absolutely... I often say that the best producers/synthesists/songwriters.. aren't the most technical or educated, but the ones who can recognize when they've stumbled upon something brilliant.
We'll typically start with a preset, tweak it a bunch until it sounds cool, and then add what's necessary for the overall flavor of the song. Really, it's all about what NEEDS to be done to the sound. If the frequency balance isn't right, EQ it! If it needs some more punch, compress it! If it needs to sound airy and washed out, soak it in reverb! It's all about the aesthetic you're trying to create, there really isn't a right way to do something, just a good way in the context of the music you're trying to create.
how did you develop the ambience in the beginning of tracks like Immigrants, Faces, and Black?
Immigrants has a vocal sample nicked from a certain 80's cartoon show - if anybody can guess what it is I'll be really stoked! Faces and Black use a lot of sound design, particularly Black. I found a ton of robot/machine noises from Freesound.org, plus a bunch of fire/earthquake/crashing noises and designed a soundscape of what I imagined a massive dinosaur robot walking around and destroying everything would sound like.
We love to be cinematic in our work, and straight sound design with very atmospheric/amusical noises can be a really awesome way to build atmosphere and set a mood.
How do you create such organic soundscapes? Crazy resampling or or or..?
We use a lot of samples when creating our soundscapes. Thunder, rain, cars, factory sounds, bass booms, big reverbs are all good ways to create an ominous mood that we usually like to put forward.
The orchestral sections, do you use a VST or are the parts sampled?
We use vienna symphony orchestra sample pack for all of our big orchestra sections.
Do you tune your drums?
Sub kicks always. Serious pet peeve of mine to hear out of tune sub kicks. Much less important (possible) with an electro or sampled kick.
Do you guys tend to use samples or sine waves for the sub kicks?
Swardy: we've done both. much prefer samples. better results. something Porter always preached was spending waaay more time sample hunting. always preferable to trying to milk a good sound from a bad sample.
Can you give any tips on selecting the right drum samples, and tips on processing them?
Andy: Drum samples are a tough one, because it's the backbone of any dance song. Vengeance samples, of course are great, but it's mostly important to make them do the job they have to do than picking a perfect one right from the start. Kick drums for instance, can be as simple as a sine wave and a white noise click on top. It's much more important to have an idea of what you're trying to accomplish with a sound, and then processing it subtly to make the sound do what it needs to do. SO - if your kick is too wimpy and not bassy enough, something as simple as filtering out all of the low-end (sub-100Hz) and adding a sine wave with an appropriate envelope underneath can make some good sounds. But there's no such thing as a magic formula, unless you have a very specific sound you've made many times before.
Eric: drum samples are absolutely crucial. Make sure your kick drum has a nice low and high end. I usually eq and compress any kick sample just to make it as punchy as possible. Adding a sine wave under your kick sample is pretty clutch too, especially if writing techno stuff. Putting your snare or clap in a short reverb and sample delaying them can give it a nice spread. Make sure to cut your snare below 100hz. And to cut any bass out of the reverb on the snare.
how often do you use loops/breaks from sample packs when creating drums?
it depends. A lot of times, a loop will have something really nice in it, but it won't fit the rhythm that the song needs, so we chop it and move individual sounds to do the job they have to do. We do a lot of individual percussion stuff too, though... it's really all about making something interesting out of what you have to work with.
when/if working with single hits, do you guys ever turn the grid off and move things about, or is everything quantized?
Everything is usually quantized. Sometimes, sounds just don't sound right where they land on the grid, especially while working without a 4/4 kick drum, for intance in breakdowns, or more freeflow sections like orchestral builds - Then, it's all about moving things around until they sound just right. Remember - there is no "right" but what sounds good.
on white noise:
you should always cut your white noise below 500hz. All of the sudden all of our tracks seemed to breathe and not feel bogged down by unnecessary frequencies.
I consider white noise to be the equivalent to the constant crash cymbal in the chorus of a rock song. Both serve basically the same purpose of keeping the energy at peak during the chorus/drop of a song.
how much compression/limiting/clipping/distortion is being used by artists like you, mat zo, porter robinson etc. during your production process?
So Porter LOVES to crush things, but he has an astonishingly good ear and understanding of sound. Without that, you're liable to make things that sound very harsh and NOT powerful. I'll probably sound like a broken record, but it's all about the job a sound needs to do. For instance, if you only have a kick drum and a gnarly bass - you'd better make sure the bass is smushed to the loudest it can be without making the kick small. UNLESS, of course, you wan't a small, in the background bass, when you can let it be small on purpose.
Your reverbs. So lush and delicious always. tips for reverb processing?
We just use space designer which is a logic native reverb. all about context i suppose.
OK, so I think that the whole stereo width thing is a very common "producer tip" that you learn before you really "learn" how to make things sound cool - Honestly, we VERY rarely pan sonic elements too much. A much more effective way to think about stereo is as an effect, rather than a mixing tool. Every element in a song should have enough room to live in the frequency spectrum as is - your kicks, bass, leads, and percussion should be fine in mono. Panning elements left and right doesn't really make any mix sound better, but it will give you a nice movement effect or make things stand out by themselves if you want them to.
A much better way to think about stereo's functionality is "wideness". By panning oscillators in a synth, or spreading sounds by applying a short (20-40 ms) stereo delay to one side gives sounds a very wide feeling to them.
Otherwise, don't worry about it! Mix sounds together properly, use stereo as an effect, and things will sound full if they work well together.
Since the low mids usually have the most things fighting for space, what do you do in specific to help clean it up? Eq for certain, but what about multi-band compression?
Well, at one point, I was a huge fan of multi-band compression. I think, though, that it can become a bit of a crutch for making smart mix decisions to begin with. In other words, if you have a lot of sounds fighting for the same space, you can batch process them but they're still all going to be fighting when they get to the compressor. The better solution is to make good sounds that all live comfortably together, and if they don't, subtract away parts from each that fight with other sounds.
The key is making strong sounds to begin with - a much more difficult thing to do than I might make it seem by just saying it!
You have a very discrete amount of digital headroom with which to fill before you begin to clip/distort, right? So as you begin to layer layer layer layer sounds, essentially you are necessarily bringing the volume of each individual noise DOWN to make room. This has a significant effect on "perceived loudness." The easiest example to see this in action is to listen to an artist like Afrojack -- dude often writes tracks that are simply drums and a lead synth. As a result his music is often noticeably "louder" than someone like ours (for example) even tho we are both filling up the same amount of digital space. The rule of thumb then... Is simpler is often louder.
I like to group process much more than Swardy and Eric. I think it's a mixed bag as far as how many people submix, and a mixed bag between individual tracks. It's all about what you're trying to accomplish. For instance, compressing all of the drums together can be a really nice way to even things out - but compressing them individually can give you the same effect, with a bit more freedom. Obviously, if you want everything to filter or get sidechained together as an effect, then bus mixing is the best way to do it.
We master everything ourselves - the final sound of a song is so related to mixing, and mastering is really almost an extension of that process, so we'd be really uncomforatble giving our music to someone who doesn't really know what we're going for with our sound. We use Ozone 5 almost exclusively now - it's a really awesome plugin.
For the most part, if a song is mixed right, mastering is mainly a loudness maximizing process. We've found that it's better to fix "mix issues", too much bass, too sharp drums, etc. in the mix when they present a problem during mastering, rather than attack the whole track with EQ or other processing. Oftentimes it's one element of the track - sub bass, or a high hat that's too loud, that prevents a master job from working right.
[question deleted- i think it was about multiband compression? something to do with mixing/mastering, anyways?]
Swardy: oh we rely almost exclusively on the presets. We'll tame the high end when it gets harsh but that's about it.
What's the biggest hurdle or problem that you have encountered while producing music and how did you handle it?
Swardy: Lyyyyyrics. Most recent endeavor and biggest challenge all the way up and down.
In your opinion, what's the hardest part of writing a track?
Eric: It really depends...i would say percussion.
We put a lot of emphasis on melody and harmony, and basically writing a song, not just another club track that will be forgotten in 3 months. I know it sounds cliche, but it's absolutely true. We definitely listen to a lot of the top producers and learn as much as possible in terms of sound design, but when it comes to writing songs, we just write what feels good at the moment. Sometimes a 128 banger track comes out, sometimes a 85 bpm vocal journey like faces comes out. I think being able to create a lot of different styles musically and to be accepted and appreciated for it is one of our main goals as artists.
Music theory is much less important that music hearing... meaning, it doesn't really matter how much you know about why the music works so long as you have a great sense of rhythm, harmony, and melody.
However, music theory is a very valuable tool for composers of any genre, it let's you understand the nuts and bolts and be quicker with writing, as long as it's not the only tool you use.
I think one of the most important things to come to grips with is that when YOU make music, of course you're going to think it's awesome! You made it, so it sounds great to YOU, but is it actually any good? Keep an open mind to criticism - don't react to rejection with "they just don't get me" and try to understand the differences between what you're doing and what the best producers do. That's the only way you'll grow as a producer. And remember - production is only half the game. MUSIC is the most important part - listen to and study music of all genres, try to understand rhythm, melody, and harmony, and more importantly, try to understand how they make you feel the things they make you feel, and WORK HARD at getting better at making things that are unique!
Honestly, I was always pretty excited about the music I wrote and produced - one of the most important lessons that I learned over the years is that just because YOU made it doesn't make it THAT special. As long as you're critical of yourself and striving to improve, then you will continue to progress as an artist.
Working as a group:
Eric: Usually we all work on tunes by ourselves until we think we have something worthy of some serious studio love. Then we'll bring it to the other dudes, figure out where to go with it, and spend the next 40-60 hours finishing the tune.
Usually we are all working on individual tracks, and when one of us has something started that we think has some substance to it, we show it to the other guys...if they agree, then we dive in and put in the work to get it done and make it perfect. So I don't know the number, but I know there's a significant amount of music we pretty much throw away, or at least keep on the back burner...
Swarthy: Work individual on tracks generally at least 50% of the way. Soon as we decide something is worth finishing we start in with group sessions.
there are some serious upsides to working with others creatively. Presents some challenges from a business standpoint, but as long as you are working with level headed, like minded people I'd say the benefits out weigh the costs. Strongly feel its important NOT to use others as a production crutch tho... Wanna be sure you can do it all.
On music as a career:
It would be completely irresponsible for me to suggest that you should keep pushin and sacrifice a more lucrative career by focusing on music... BUT i also call bogus that you can't develop a backup plan/career while you put REAL time and effort into writing music.
Where did you learn about production? Experimentation? Internet? Classes?
We learned about production from all three, but I think the most important part of improving as a producer is feedback from your peers - We're really lucky to have worked with each other for so long, constantly analyzing sound together and trying to figure out how other producers do what they do - musically, and production-wise. It's really an experimentation process, trying everything out until you find something that works.
So - I'm going to go with an answer very similar to my thoughts on music theory. Music training can be an important thing but it's not essential to be a good musician. Just because you know how something works doesn't mean that you can use it well.
Pyramind was a great thing for the three of us, but mostly because we met each other the first day and then worked our asses off. Honestly, from the first day to the last we were in the studio every day, and having great resources coupled with a lot of ears to bounce ideas off of all the time is an unbelievably awesome thing.
But the most important thing, as in almost everything, isn't where you went to school, or where you worked, but what you did when you were there. Work hard, understand that just because YOU made it doesn't make it special in and of itself, and ALWAYS challenge yourself as both a producer and an artist, and you'll progress. Slowly, but surely.