'In-The-Box' Production Vs 'Out-Of-The-Box' Production

In most cases music producers either produce their music in a professional recording studio or a home studio. The home studio can be referred to as ‘In-The-Box’ production, the ‘Box’ being the desktop or laptop computer. The professional studio is referred to as ‘Out-Of-The-Box’ production, because it relies less on your computer and more on your listening qualities. Here’s the disadvantages and disadvantages of both production types.

Advantages of ‘In-The-Box’ production

- Unlimited time to spend on your recordings and mixes

- Production software and hardware more affordable than ever, making it easier to set-up a home studio

- Modern production software easy to use and understand

- There are many free resources available online for budding producers, including samples, software and tuition

Disadvantages of ‘In-The-Box’ production

- Lots of bad advice and software circulating online, so be careful

- Lack of options regarding room acoustics, making recording and mixing problematic

- You might focus more attention at the computer screen rather than properly listening to the audio

- Lack of professional input in the home studio

Advantages of ‘Out-Of-The-Box’ production

- Controlled environments ideal for professional recording and mixing

- The best equipment and facilities are found in a professional studio

- More emphasis on hardware such as outboard gear, which reduces computer processing power

- You can listen to your music more clearly and loudly

Disadvantages of ‘Out-Of-The-Box’ production

- Expensive - a 3-hour studio session could cost you £500 or more

- Limited time - not making the most out of the time you have in a professional studio can cost you severely

- The availability of high-end equipment and facilities can be overwhelming

You may be fortunate to have access to a professional studio at home, in which case, make the most of it. If you have limited access, make sure your ideas are ready for main work in a professional studio.

Reference Tracks

If you’re making music then you’ve probably got at least a few musical influences. These are you’re reference tracks, which you use to model your own production techniques and musical ideas. Here are some things to take note of when listening to your reference tracks.


Panorama – Listen to where the instruments are place in the mix. Most likely the drums and bass will be placed in the centre (although this is not always the case). Often you’ll hear synths, guitars, piano and leads placed on the left or right of the mix. Vocals are generally placed in the middle, but again, if the vocals are double-tracked then they may be placed on both the left and right side.


Tone and Dynamics – There is no definitive tone or perfect sound for a piece of music. This is when you have to tune the music to its particular emotions, is it dark? atmospheric? punchy? mellow?  Intense? These factors are particularly important if you want to give your music a signature sound.


Volume – Average volume levels vary considerably depending on what kind of music you’re making. Ambient and classical music is generally the quietest, and on the other end of the scale rock and pop music has the highest average volume levels. This is something to listen out for.


Use Of Effects – Listen out for equalization, compression, reverb and delay. There are many, many other effects to consider but in most occasions it is those four that are prevalent in well-produced music.  Most music has EQ to cut away any unwanted noise, or to achieve a more desirable tone. All tracks will feature compression, which helps control the dynamics of each instrument, or the mix as a whole. Reverb is often used on a selection or all instruments of a well-produced track, in order to glue the mix together. Delay is often used on particular tracks to ‘beef up’ instruments, such as on synths and basses.


Improvements – Not many producers would tell you this, but when you listen back to your tracks, think how the mix could be improved. You might think the bass is too weak, or the drums are too loud, or that the vocals lack a bit of punch. This, of course, is entirely subjective. It may have been the artist and/or producers intention for the music to sound that way. This is not always an essential aspect to look out for but definitely worth bearing in mind.

These skills are essential for any budding producer if they want to make great mixes.

Why I Hate Autotune

Virtually every pop song made today features autotune, or autopitch on the vocals. What a lot of pop producers do is use the natural recorded vocal track and double-track that with the same vocal, with an autotune plugin added to second vocal track. What you are left with is a robotic alter-ego. Here’s the main problems with autotune.

- Vocals are possibly the most natural of any instrument or part that you hear in most genres, with the exception of dance and pop music. Autotune just makes vocals sound artificial, subtracting the vocal sound rather than adding to it. It is much more effective to use pre-delay or corrective EQ on the vocal track. At least then you’re working with a natural recording.

- Autotune can’t cope with key changes. If a singer was to go up a key during a chorus, autotune simply doesn’t know how to react, and you’re left with an awful, jumpy effect in the chorus.

- It’s use also displays a certain insecurity and uncertainty in a singer. They wouldn’t dare leave out autotune in case they hit a bum note. There are many pop singers who can sing perfectly in key yet they still use autotune. If some singers really can’t sing then they should get singing lessons, rather than rely on autotune.

The worrying thing about autotune is that it is universally accepted and mandatory in all commercial pop songs. It’s almost as if pop producers think they have to compete in the market. However, in my view, it’s just downright cheating.

Three Types of Music

As a producer or a composer it’s important to really know the appeal of certain music genres. Certain music genres can be put into three categories.

1. Popular Music

2. Niche Music

3. Academic Music

Popular Music needs little explanation, and can be defined as music that has had commercial success, and/or can be defined as music that adheres to a pop structure, such as verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. The fanbase for popular music artists is huge but also fickle.

Niche Music can be described as music that is popular within a particular circuit or genre, such as the many sub-genres of dance music, folk, blues, jazz, hip-hop, urban, world music, classical and metal. Whilst having popularity in their field, they usually have a loyal fanbase rather than a fickle, popular fanbase.

Academic Music can be described as music that is often discussed and praised within a research or academic field. There is almost no market for this kind of music. However, this type of music shows a greater depth and experimentation of musical ideas. Avant-garde, computer music and some classical music are examples of genres within academic music.

This categorization provides significance when making your own music. Different genres can crossover in these music types, but the success and appeal of your own music ultimately depends on the place where you want your music to be appreciated in. 

Using Reverb

If you’re mix has turned into a pile of slush then you’ve probably horrifically overdosed it reverb. In this post I will discuss the basics of how to use reverb, and what to avoid.

- Often reverb sounds much better when you bring it into the mix through automation, a good example being in dance builds and breaks.

- Avoid messing around with the reverb time or decay control during automation. It will make the reverb sound confused and stutter ineffectively. Use the mix control to bring the reverb in and out of the mix.

- Use reverb in moderation. Too much reverb in mixing and mastering could sabotage a clean mix.

- Try experimenting with different effects on the reverb send channel. A filter can work brilliantly to emphasize high or low frequencies in the reverb, and a delay can provide the very popular dub-delay effect.

- Send the reverb to a mixture of the audio tracks, not just the one. Using reverb on one audio track can make it sound out of place. With a mixture of audio tracks going to a reverb channel, it will provide a better balance in the mix.

There’s a few things to take note of. When used well it can make wonders, used badly and you’re left with an audio nightmare.

Working With Samples

Some composers and producers would argue that sample sounds have to be the highest quality, and should not be messed around with.

I think that’s total bullshit. The idea of working with samples is to manipulate them to give a unique and individual sound. If you don’t do that then they will sound boring and uninspiring, no matter how good the sample quality is.

There are many ways to approach creative sampling. Here’s a few.

1. Use plenty of effects plugins until you find the right balance. Experiment with inserts and sends.

2. Experiment with audio processes such as time stretching, noise gates and enveloping.

3. Double-track the samples for a greater stereo effect.

4. Cut ‘n paste the samples and move them around for glitching effects.

5. Listen to other sounds for inspiration, and then transfer that to your samples.

Creative sampling is a brilliant compositional tool that gets a lot of stick from music purists. Every composer should be as original as possible when working with samples.  

Using Pre-Delay To Create Textured Beats

This is a simple and effective way to add texture to your drums or beats. It can be achieved using pre-delay, an overlooked control on many reverb plugins.

Steps

1. Add 3 stereo tracks into your DAW project.

2. Add an 8-bar drum sample to your 1st track.

3. Have a listen to it. It might sound a bit dry and dull, lacking texture, like this example below.

Drums without pre-delay

Click to here music file

4. Add the same 8-bar sample to the 2nd and 3rd tracks. Lower the master volume so the overall audio doesn’t clip.

5. Add 2 fx or send tracks, with a reverb plugin on each one. For this example, I’m using Cubase’s Roomworks SE.

Cubase’s Roomworks SE plugin

6. Set the reverb time and diffusion to 0, or as close to 0 as you can, for both plugins, and put the mix setting to 100%. Ignore the lo and hi levels.

7. Set the pre-delay setting to 380 on the 1st reverb plugin, and the 2nd to 235. You might have to adjust the settings to keep the drums rhythmical.

8. On the send option of the audio tracks, set the 2nd and 3rd audio tracks to the 1st and 2nd reverb plugins, with volumes at -7.82.

Now when you play the track you can hear a greater depth in rhythm and texture. Here’s my example below.

Drums with pre-delay

Click to here music file


A Simple Gate Trick

A gate works by accepting any audio over a given threshold. For example, if you set a gate to -7 db, then you will only hear the audio that is at -7 db or more. Essentially, what you are doing is keeping the loud parts and removing the quiet parts of the audio. 

An Example of a gate plugin from Cubase

Because of this, gates are often used as a correction tool for drums and percussion to remove any background noise, but arguably they can be put to much better use as a creative effect.

This is my very simple gating technique. All you need is a DAW and a gate plugin. Just follow these steps:-

1. Add 3 stereo audio tracks in your DAW.

2. Import any drum or beat sample into the first audio track. Make it 6 bars in length.

3. Import the same sample into the second audio track, two bars after the first sample. Make it 4 bars in length.

4. Import the same sample into the third audio track two bars after the second sample. Make it 2 bars in length.

5. Insert a gate plugin to the 2nd and 3rd audio tracks.

6. Set the threshold to -8.6 db on the second audio track.

7. Set the threshold to -7.4 db on the third audio track.

What you have created is a simple double gating effect. You can hear the dynamics increase after every 2 bars because you are only allowing a certain loudness level to pass through the second and third audio tracks.

This creates an excellent punchy build effect that can be used in dance music for dramatic rises or in a pre-chorus in pop or rock music.

Listen to the audio examples below to hear my example tracks with and without the gates.

Beats Without Gates

Click to hear music file

Beats With Gates

Click to hear music file