Tech Tuesday #1 – My Recording Rig

In this entry, I’m going to list what hardware and software I use for my studio. This might give a little insight for those who are planning on building a studio rig or improving upon one.

My Computer

Contrary to the norm of recording artist/producers’ purchasing of Mac computers for production, I chose to build a PC. It’s true that, in the past, Mac computers were more suitable for audio and video production, but I grew up using PC and vastly prefer the Windows interface over Mac OS. Before further explaining why I chose to build a PC, let’s see what I’m using:

Case: Corsair 550D
The 550D is a quiet case; the interior is lined with sound dampening foam, panels for fan and/or radiator mounting are removable, otherwise they are also lined with the foam and keep the case sealed. This plus a professional non-flashy look is what convinced me to buy this case as well as its price which was barely over $100.

CPU: Intel i7 3930k 3.2 gHz Six Core Processor, Corsair HD100 CPU cooler
This processor might be overkill, but I wanted to focus on future-proofing for as long as I can regarding the CPU as I’m sure newer programs will be more intensive and I don’t want to run out of resources. The HD100 CPU cooler allows me to overclock this CPU to over 4 gHz while keeping temperatures at a meager 60 degrees celsius.

Motherboard: ASUS Sabertooth X79
I had to make sure I found a motherboard with an LGA 2011 socket that also had a built in firewire port for my audio interface. This was my best option and has held up great.

RAM: Corsair Vengeance 32 GB DDR3 1600 MHz PC3 128000
I use a ton of sample libraries, many at the same time when I’m in the early stages of composing. With this much RAM, I don’t have to worry about hiccups while playing back MIDI performances.

Hard Disk: 2x Seagate Barracuda 3TB 7200 RPM, Seagate Constellation ES 500 GB 7200 RPM
These hard drives offer tons of storage for audio recordings and sample libraries, though one of my latest libraries, Eastwest’s Hollywood Strings Diamond, really demands SSD which I will have to acquire in the future when the prices are lower.

PSU: Corsair Professional Series Gold 850-watt 80 Plus Gold Certified
Provides plenty of power and is fully modular meaning better airflow.

Video: EVGA GeForce GTX 570 1280 MB
A few hundred dollars and I also have a gaming PC as well as an audio production PC? Sold!

OS: Windows 7 Professional
BIG TIP: If you plan on having more than 16 GB of RAM in your Windows machine, you MUST have the Professional version installed!

At the time I built this machine (Fall of 2012), it cost me a little bit over $3,000 including the dual monitor setup I have going as well as wireless peripherals. If I were to order a Mac Pro with similar settings, it would run me well over two times the cost to build this machine and there would still be compromises I would have to make. By building a PC, I know that every piece of hardware in the machine is exactly what I want and I have yet to encounter stability problems that I haven’t seen Mac users encounter as well. This machine runs like a beauty and is SUPER quiet, perfect for me since my control room is also the recording room!

Hardware

Interface
Starting with my audio interface, I use a PreSonus Firebox. It has two inputs, can record at 24 bit/96 kHz, and is a great unit. My home studio is hardly the best recording environment, so a lot of my production is done in the box aside from acoustic guitars, vocals, and strings. When I have a separate recording room that is suitable for things like recording drums or bands playing live, I plan on investing in PreSonus’ Firestudio interfaces.

Rackmount Gear
I use a PreSonus Studio Channel for all of my recording in the studio (microphones as well as DI). With this unit, I’m able to add tube warmth, compress the signal, and add EQ when needed before it goes into my interface. This unit vastly improved the quality of my recordings and I have no plans of leaving it behind if I were to get another channel strip.

Microphones
My first mic for my studio was the AKG Perception 220 large diaphragm condenser. It did its job well, but its sound was a little to cold for my taste. Can’t complain, though, given the price of the mic. I recorded vocals as well as cello with pleasing results. My next purchases were at the same time: Blue’s Bluebird large diaphragm condenser and AKG’s C214 large diaphragm condenser. I bought the Bluebird to act primarily as a vocal mic, but it also captured acoustic guitar and violin very well. It has a high end crisp, but still retains a lot of warmth, making it my go-to for any vocal work. The C214 was purchased as an alternate vocal mic for someone whose voice calls for a flatter response as well as for recording live instruments. I have used this mic to capture acoustic guitars, some male vocals (the Bluebird is too perfect for female vocals), cello, and shakuhachi.

Monitors
I was given brand new M-Audio BX8a monitors for Christmas in 2009 and they have been a dream to work with. The 8 inch woofers provide plenty of bass and the monitors don’t distort unless I really push the volume up, which I would never do anyway! These monitors together output 120 watts, plenty of power for mixing.

MIDI Controller
My MIDI controller is an M-Audio Axiom 61 that I picked up out-of-the-box at a Guitar Center in 2009. It was the best choice in my price range, though an 88 key controller would have been amazing, but not the weightless keys of the Keystation 88. So there was some compromise in buying this unit, but it has held up against my heavy playing for over four years without any problems. The faders make for good MIDI expression controllers and I also use this controller to DJ in Traktor.

Instruments
Guitars: Jackson DXMG, Fender Stratocaster, Takamine 6 string acoustic, Takamine 12 string electric acoustic, Ibanez Gio 6 string bass guitar
Other: custom-made shakuhachi

Effects Pedals
I run my electric guitars and bass guitar through a BOSS GT-10 guitar effects processor. Its amp modeling and copious amounts of effects are perfect for my needs as well as having TWO control pedals. This was the smartest pedal board design in my opinion because having those two control pedals allows for one to be assigned to activating effects as well as having a free control pedal to tap tempo or activate a tuner. Their later model, the GT-100 took away the second control pedal as well as the vivid blue LCD screen and has therefore lost my endorsement. When I track with this unit, it runs into my PreSonus Studio Channel before going into my DAW.

Software

DAW: Cubase 5
I started learning about audio production when I was given Cubase SX3 as a birthday gift in 2004. Having grown up with this DAW, it’s what I am most comfortable and fluent with. Later versions of Cubase changed the user interface and went in directions that I’m not open to warming up to, so I am very happy using Cubase 5 and can produce really great sounding tracks with it.

Virtual Instruments/Plugins
Eastwest – Hollywood Strings Diamond, Symphonic Orchestra Gold, Pianos Gold, RA, Symphonic Choirs, Voices of Passion, Stormdrum 2, Goliath, Silk, and Spaces
I’m a big supporter of Eastwest’s libraries as they provide great sounding samples as well as the PLAY engine, an interface that is very welcoming to me and is user friendly. For those looking to invest in these libraries, make sure you have plenty of hard disk space available!

Native Instruments – MASSIVE
I purchased this for use in action style film scoring as well as pop/electronic production.

Heavyocity – Damage
This percussion library was a wonderful find and compliments my already large library of percussion instruments with a new edge of distorted and more industrial percussive sounds as well as additional ethnic sounds.

That about wraps it up; I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into my studio setup as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you! If you would like to see pictures of what my studio looks like, I will be adding some to the gallery very soon.

Cheers!
- Jonathan

Music Monday #1 – Wrecking Ball

This Monday’s entry is all about Miley Cyrus’ song, Wrecking Ball. We will be dissecting this song and take a look at its inner workings; hopefully, we will see why, as of today, it’s at #7 on the iTunes charts.

As we’ve seen over the past decade (give or take), pop music has become increasingly infused with EDM (Electronic Dance Music) elements that are common in genres such as trance and dubstep. What we have now is a mixture of the older, I dare say traditional, pop elements mixed with big beats, lots of distorted synths, and anthemic melodies. “Wrecking Ball” is no different, so what makes it so popular among listeners?

Take a listen:

As of the moment I posted this video, this video has had 6,456,750 views since it was posted on August 25th, 2013. That’s 8 days! Of course, despite YouTube giving the big labels a harsh punishment for faking the amount of authentic views in late December of 2012, it’s still possible (and probable) that not all of these views were from a real audience. But that’s a whole other blog entry!

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF “WRECKING BALL”

First off, my reaction to the title was one of a bit of confusion. Pop song titles that I remember off the top of my head were very relevant to the song’s emotions (From the Bottom of My Broken Heart, Born to Make You Happy, Love Don’t Cost a Thing, etc.), so what does a wrecking ball have to do with this song? Obviously, it’s part of the hook of the chorus. Makes sense, and the mild awkwardness of the title will indeed help it stick out to the browsing listener.

The general motion of this song evolves from a smaller and more minimal verse into a big, thick, anthemic chorus with a middle section that is also stripped down in instrumentation. Kinda typical in dance music, though this song is interesting in that NONE of its verses have a beat under them. I expected some kind of beat to underscore the second verse, but its absence helps increase the power of the chorus.

The melodies of this song first struck me as an interesting mixture with the verses being in a more subdued and folky style, the prechoruses being more in a thicker dance vocal style, the choruses being typical big dance anthems, and the middle section being more akin to a break in a trance track. The bounciness of the verse melody didn’t hook me as hard as the prechorus melody, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the intentions of the songwriters and producers. While both sections have a repetitive structure, the prechorus’ melody grabs me more emotionally than the former. The vocals are in a lower register, making her vocal tone warmer, which I find to be more welcoming than the verse. The chorus was typical and expected, but it’s not unpleasant to listen to. The middle section, I feel, could have used a tiny bit of melodic variation on the second half to keep me interested. Instead, I found myself focusing more on the musical arrangement underneath the vocals.

LET’S DIG DEEPER

In most pop songs, if one listens superficially, there is a general level of enjoyment. However, if you really dig into the mix, you will find the magic and the reason for the producers and songwriters having such high prices.

Golden Rule
Firstly, before I dig in, I have to say that the producers came through in following an age old belief when it comes to the arrangement of commercial music: no two sections should be identical. If you are a songwriter on any level, this should be your number one rule when it comes to the music you put behind your vocals and lyrics. If you take a chorus and just copy and paste it every time it repeats, the track is pretty close to doomed until you fix it. Commercial music in general is all about retaining the interest of the listener on an auditory and emotional level.

First Verse

The song kicks off with a single synth and Miley’s voice. After her bouncy lines, you can hear Autotune kick in pretty heavily and I believe this was completely deliberate to increase its presence on those lines only. It changes things up, never keeps them the same! The tone and progression of the synth line in the beginning are very trancey, but when Miley repeats the bounciness in the second half of the verse, you can hear a deeper synth (or possibly the same synth, just a lower octave) kick in. It actually gives it a little bit of an 80s edge which, if you look at pop tunes nowadays, there is an increasing presence of that influence.

First Prechorus

This section introduces a higher synth melody that mostly follows what Miley is singing aside from little moments of counterpoint. Another interesting and recurring element first occurs in this section: record static. I’m still not entirely sure what the record static is supposed to represent, but it provides something to die off with before hitting into the chorus. Focusing on her lower register singing, I almost missed that they layered her vocal line subtly an octave higher. Now that I hear it, it’s quite apparent, but superficial listening first passed this off as a chorus effect or something like it.

First Chorus

This chorus comes in red hot with a second of only Miley’s powerful singing, definitely layered for extra power. The percussion of this includes a huge kick, a snare, and a noise burst to support the snare that has lots of reverb. There is also a higher frequency noise burst when everything comes in that acts like a crash cymbal. Synth-wise, there is tons of layering in this chorus. We have a general bass synth on the low end, it doesn’t sound like it has much mids or highs, probably to make room for the other synths. This could actually be a person playing a bass, but I’m not able to discern it. This bass line is supported an octave higher by a not-so-noticeable synth with some mild distortion. Next, we have a big orgran that plays throughout the whole chorus. Its low end is filtered out, giving it that kind of electro feel. Moving up higher, a piano is introduced that plays the main vocal line supported with a left hand playing chords with color tones. This chorus wraps itself up with a reverse sample, stripping the mix down to bass synths and piano ringing out that you can hear are made to sound a bit like a skipping record.

Second Verse

The original synth line is present, but it starts in the background and makes its way forward throughout the verse. As it comes to the foreground, it’s given a bit more gain for more punch. A new synth accents with a tonic note on the second beat of every other measure. A tambourine joins the mix by first supporting the accent synth. A cello also joins the mix and is supported by a bass in the second half of the verse. What sounds like the rest of a string quartet quietly starts to make its way into the mix in the second half along with a bass (synth or guitar, it could be either). Vocal-wise, the main vocal line sounds louder as it has more to cut through. Supporing “oh” vocals quietly move in a similar motion and on a similar level with the cello line. The song’s first bit of vocal harmonies not on the octave come in on the line “we’re ashes in the ground.”

Second Prechorus

Most of the elements from the second verse continue into this section, the higher synth line comes back in the same place as it did in the first prechorus. The second half of this prechorus also has accented vocal harmonies on “live a lie” and “for my life.” The record static doesn’t appear in this prechorus.

Second Chorus

This chorus doesn’t allow for a pause and just hammers in. The first half of this chorus is the same instrumentation as the first chorus, but the organ sound seems to be lower in the mix. The second half (repeat) of this chorus introduces a hi-hat as well as a string synth adding extra sonic flavor and drama. Vocals are the same in the first half of this chorus, but the main line is then harmonized on the repeat as well as being accented with background harmonized yeah’s and such. A great touch is her voice cracking on the last line and having a delay on it. Great segue into the middle section.

Middle Section

This section features the string quartet, a guitar, a piano, and a bass (definitely a real player) as well as our buddy, the record static! This section is wonderfully arranged and mixed in that different instruments or instrumental groups keep weaving in and out of the foreground. If you kept the faders static, it would sound pretty, but not alive as it sounds in this mix. Vocally, there aren’t any harmonies or background vocals, just Miley being alone and vulnerable. Very appropriate for the lyrical context and the fact that there is so much instrumentation going on in this section. The record static pulls us out of this section and into open space before…

Final Prechorus

This final prechorus is the ultimate moment of vulnerability in this song. We have an extremely quiet piano playing the chords…so quiet that, if you’re listening to this track in earbuds while walking in an urban setting, you’re not gonna hear it. Miley sings only what’s necessary which is that emotionally hooking first half. The record static plays in the background before dying out before the final chorus kicks in.

Final Chorus

Arrangement/mix-wise, the wall of synths sounds a bit hollowed out in the middle. It’s so thick to tell if it was completely taken out, but the mildly distorted synth playing the bass line at the octave seems to be missing from this chorus. Higher string synths are present throughout this entire chorus rather than coming in on the second half/repeat. Vocally, harmonies and accent vocals kick in with all of the instruments and continue throughout the entire final chorus. The main vocal line is interestingly accented with an extra layer on the same octave on the line “Left me crouching in a blazing fall” with no discernible harmony, just a contrapuntal accent vocal repeating “blazing fall.” The song strips down to just mid and high synths and Miley’s main vocal line. The synths have that same looping sound and are supported by amp buzzing and record static as well as a single ride cymbal hit on the final “me” in “wreck me.” A delay prolongs the echoing emotion and lyrical point of the song and the song dies out on that last note.

Harmonic Breakdown

Focusing less on the producing aspect of Wrecking Ball, what else makes it such a catchy tune for listeners? Let’s start with a bare bones harmonic breakdown of each section, this means excluding the color tones and just looking at the macro harmonic motion.

Verses: Dm F C Gm – i III VI iv
Prechorus: Bb Dm F Bb – VI i III VI
Chorus (Modulates to F): F C Dm Bb – I V vi IV with a repeated Dm to Bb which pivots the harmony back to Dm, making it i to VI
Middle Section: Bb Dm F A – VI i III v

What should be blaring out like a star going supernova is the progression of the chorus. We’ve seen countless parody videos and compilations of how many songs use the I V vi IV progression and this song is no exception. However, most of those songs that were included on those compilations are big and well-known tunes, and there’s something to be said for that. This chord progression is comfortable and well known sonic territory for listeners; it has a history of being a pleasing listening experience as well as something that people can anticipate when they begin to hear it. There are several chord progressions like this where, if you were to turn on the radio to a random pop station and you heard the first two chords of this progression, your mind will already fill out the rest of it before your ears even hear it. This helps people when they want to sing along to a song that they’re unfamiliar with and adds to the enjoyment of the tune in that they feel a connection to it. These songs are crafted with that in mind, but the danger of monotony is always taken into account, which is why many songs that share this progression have a wide variety of instrumental arrangement and mixing differences between them.

What else is there about Wrecking Ball’s harmonic structure that makes it a catchy song? If you compare the prechorus section with the middle section, you’ll see that they share three common chords in the same sequence with the final chords being different. The middle section, however, progresses at half the tempo of the prechorus. This gives the listener a sense of familiarity with the music, but throws a couple of curve balls at them that keeps them interested and entertained.

A final note on the harmony of this song is the scale it uses. If you study classical music, you will know that pieces in a minor key usually use the harmonic minor scale for its raised 7th degree. This makes the dominant (V) chord major and gives it a better function when moving to and from other chords. Wrecking Ball exclusively uses the D natural minor scale. You only hear the dominant chord in the middle section and, since it retains the flatted 7th degree in the scale, it is minor.

CONCLUSION

I could delve into the lyrics of this song and try breaking down the meter, but I think it’s a song to be taken more from an emotional point of view. When I listened to it while reading the lyrics, it had a much greater emotional impact on me and has since made it a song that I listen to often. I hope you enjoyed this and feel free to share it if you found it interesting! Happy writing!

- Jonathan

Welcome!

Welcome to my website! Here you will be able to find out about who I am and what I do as well as to watch or listen to examples of my work. This home page is where I will be posting information about my works in progress, tips for recording or mixing, tips for composing, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I feel is worth sharing with people. If you want to get in touch with me, feel free to do so by emailing me at admin@jonathan-padilla.com and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

- Jonathan