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Studio Slave cover the fundamental techniques to build a solid techno production

In this article we will be creating the basic techno rhythm below, which can be used as a platform on which to build a full techno production.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY

Techno is a relatively new genre which was first coined in the 1980’s and has only really started to bear its fruits with the general population in the last decade. As the name suggests, this genre is heavily influenced by advances in technology, equipment and production techniques. So its no surprise that the genre is evolving at such a rapid rate.

Techno stylises itself around a repetitive, almost hypnotic, rhythmical element. With a large majority of techno tracks consisting of nothing more than a drum machine and a bass-line.

Iconic pieces of equipment which have become a staple in techno productions are hardware drum machines such as Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909. It also goes without saying that the Roland TB-303 was the reason behind the whole acid sub-genre as well as countless techno records. These pieces of equipment have stood the test of time and many of the originals and their emulations are still widely used throughout the techno genre.

Many big names such as Sven Vath, Richie Hawtin, Carl Cox & Adam Beyer, are evidence of how longstanding DJs and producers have had to adapt their style from their early years to the present day, to stay at the forefront of the genre. To show new producers the ropes and give them a fighting chance at techno stardom, Ableton Bible explain how to make the beginnings of a hard hitting techno slammer!

 

TEMPO

The tempo of techno varies between sub-genres. A good place to start is between 120 – 130bpm. For this demonstration we will be using a tempo of 126bpm.

 

THE KICK

It makes a lot of sense to start a techno track with the kick drum because it is the single most important instrument that will be the driving force of our track, locking down the groove into the 4×4 tempo signature.

Sound design and mixing are an integral part of techno production because of the limited space in the low end. Picking the correct samples from the outset will make it much easier to fit them into the mix and gel with the bass at a later stage.

For the kick drum we have used the Tech Drums Lite Pack which can be be downloaded for free from our samples page.

We can use the racks macro controls to shape, EQ and compress the kick to our liking.

Below we can hear the raw kick sample.

Whilst these samples have been purpose built for techno in mind, we are still missing that cavernous warehouse sound, commonly heard on techno kick drums.

There are a number of techniques we can use to achieve this sound, for this demonstration we are going to use a combination of reverb, side-chain compression and EQ.

Here is the sound we aim to achieve

 

REVERB

This effect is going to add depth to the kick drum which will help to place the kick drum spatially. This technique requires quite a large amount of parameter tinkering which will need to be done in conjunction with EQing because the tonal results can be hard to predict.

Here’s some parameter tips:

  • Reverb and time based effects work best in a send/return configuration
  • using the reverb size and shape parameters will drastically alter the tone of the reverb
  • using the pre-delay can help to give more sustain to the sound, and eventually separate it from the original audio
  • try to keep the delay time fairly short to retain punch & avoid overlapping with consequent drum hits.

NI’s RC48 reverb used to create the reverberated kick sound

SIDE-CHAIN COMPRESSION

Because the reverb is being used in a send/return configuration, we need to be careful of muddy frequencies in the reverberated signal that could cause phasing with the kick drum channel.

By incorporating side-chain compression and EQ, we can give the impression that the kick and reverb appear to be one cohesive part. In actual fact, the side-chain pushes down on the reverb and prevents it from sounding at the same time as the kick. This reduces any masking & phasing issues. The compressors attack and release parameters will play a large part in the feel of the groove.

If we find that our reverberated signal is bleeding on for too long, we can make use of a gate to clamp down on the reverb tail to make it more abrupt. This gating technique along with some compression can help to gel the kick and reverb together into one cohesive sound.

Side-chaining the reverb to the kick drum to avoid conflicting frequencies

EQUALISATION

The EQ is used for two purposes:

  • Shaping the tone of the reverb
  • Reducing phase and masking problems when the reverb and kick signals are combined.

In this case we have used a parametric EQ to shape the reverb tone and remove a large amount of the high frequency content (right down to 1-200Hz).

If there are any unwanted phase issues, then use a linear phase EQ instead. The reason for this is because parallel send/return setups have a high chance of having phase issues when they are combined with similar signals, especially if extreme EQ settings have been used. Linear phase EQ’s are designed to keep the phase response intact, even at extreme settings.

An EQ8 being used to high-pass excess high frequencies out of the reverb

EFFECTS

All of our low-end samples are in mono, which keeps the sample central and powerful. If you are using your own samples, place a utility plugin on them and reduce the width to zero.

Kicks can be made more clear & prominent in the mix with the use of saturation and distortion plugins to give them more crunch and edge. Our kick drum sample has already had some bit-crushing applied to it, so instead we have decided to accentuate the punchiness of our kick drum by applying some parallel compression and saturation in a send/return configuration.

 

Below is a playlist to show all the separate stages of the kick drum production.

 

HATS

We have used the Tech Drums Lite sample pack for our hat sample, Below is the raw sample used.

Each of these sample sets have been built into a drum rack with macro controls for useful parameters. Check out the packs on our samples page for hard hitting, production ready, tech drum samples.

ADDING DEPTH TO THE HATS

The hat sample has the sound we are after, but lacks space and presence, so we are going to give it more of a three-dimensional feel by applying reverb in two separate layers.

  • The first layer will be aimed at beefing up the mid frequency density with a shorter decay time and slightly more dry signal.
 
 
  • The second layer will take control of the high frequency content and will add a greater sense of distance to the sound.
 

These two layers are then combined to give us a much stronger ‘front to back feeling’ within the mix.

So lets now have a talk about the signal path for each send/return reverb channel:

BAND-PASS EQ

The parametric EQ is used to band-pass the incoming signal before the reverb plugin so only a small band of selected frequencies are affected. This makes it easier to blend the mid and high reverberated signals together, as well as to find a suitable place in the mix for the reverb as a whole, with minimal interference to the main drums.

UTILITY PLUGIN

The utility plugin is used to increase the gain to compensate for the large amount of volume and energy lost due to the band-pass filtering.

COMPRESSOR

the compression settings are used to flatten the dynamics and reduce any transients.

The compressor can only work on the band-passed signal fed to it, this creates a dense mid/top range when combined back with the original signal.

Smoothing the transients makes the reverb become more of a background element without drawing too much unwanted attention to itself, whilst the denseness created by the compression will help to keep the hat sample more prominent in the mix by increasing its perceived mid range energy level.

In most cases, a reverb should be doing its job to add space and depth whilst staying relatively unnoticed.

REVERB

The settings of the two reverbs should be working in cohesion with one another to mimic the ‘front to back’ effect of a large room. This method essentially uses the two frequency bands as layers of distance.

 

The settings used depend on taste to some degree, for example: a realistic warm space will have high frequencies which are quickly dampened by unusual angles and soft materials, whereas a large hall with solid parallel walls will cause the frequencies to ring out a lot longer due to bouncing back and forth. For more information on reverb, space and depth, check out our mixing in Ableton Live eBook series.

Here is a breakdown of the hi-hat processing:

 

CLAP

The clap sample is not always a necessity in some harder techno tracks because it has a tendency to slow down the groove, so if a harder track is what you are after, then consider removing the clap and using 1/8 note open hi-hats instead.

In this demonstration we also ran the clap through a small amount of the reverb and parallel compression send/returns to make sure that it sounded like it was coming from the same space as the other parts. We can use the send parameter to control how close or distance we wish to place the claps in comparison with the hats.

 

SNARE

The snare drum can be used to add syncopated or poly-rhythms. this can help to make the track feel like it is constantly developing. In this case we chose a very simple syncopated pattern. To make this more interesting, try adding a TR-909 clap sample in a call & response type manner with the snare. Reverb can be applied to make the syncopated rhythm upfront and personal or distant and cavernous.

 

 

RIDE CYMBALS

Rides can be used at different sections to bring the energy level of the track up and down. These can also be used to increase the width of our mix and enhance the groove with the use of compression.

In this case we used a 909 ride cymbal with a high-pass filter applied. Higher frequency instruments benefit from width and panning so here we break down a number of different widening techniques.

  • DUPLICATING
  • FREQUENCY SHIFTING
  • HAAS EFFECT

DUPLICATING

We have duplicated our ride cymbals then panned both tracks hard left and right. This results in the parts occupying the outer edges of the mix as opposed to clogging up the central high frequencies of the mix which may interfere with the high frequency content of the clap and open hi-hat.

FREQUENCY SHIFTING

By pressing the WIDE button, the frequency shifter will tune the left channel of the signal up by a few hertz whilst simultaneously tuning the right channel down by a few hertz. The difference in pitch between the left and right channel creates a stereo widening effect.

THE HAAS EFFECT

The haas effect states that two similar signals which are delayed between 5-35ms of each other will still be perceived as the same signal.

This means that we can apply a small amount of delay to one channel of our ride cymbal to create a wide image due to a difference between the two channels. The simple delay is the perfect plugin for this as it allows us to set delay time in milliseconds. Make sure that the feedback is at 0% and the dry/wet parameter is set to 100% for this effect to work correctly. Also check the mix in mono to make sure you haven’t introduced any phasing when the left and right channels combine.

The link button in the image above can be used to set both the left and right channel to the same delay time. This is ideal for when we have already duplicated and panned one of the ride cymbals and simply need to add delay to one entire channel.

If we wish to add the stereo widening effect without duplicating the part, then do not use the link button. This will allow us to set the left and right delay times independently without having to duplicate or pan anything.

To create a pumping effect on the ride cymbals we have used a glue compressor which is side-chained to the kick drum. This can add to the energy of the track and also help to underpin the groove. Getting this technique wrong can also completely ruin the groove which we have worked so hard to achieve.

 

In this case we have around 5dB of gain reduction showing on the meter. This amount of compression will create our audible pumping effect on the volume of the rides which can then be carefully shaped using the attack and release parameters.

Below we have a breakdown of the ride cymbal processing used.

 

BASS

The bass part has been added to help enhance the groove.

Here is the bass groove enhancer we are going to add in this section

Bass parts are commonly made from tuned percussion,  Synthesisers, or a combination of the two.

Tuned percussion punches through a mix due to its strong sense of pitch, whereas synthesisers can be programmed to cater for specific needs and to really fill out the low end space. Sine and Triangle waveforms are commonly used in conjunction with saturation to help warm them up so they are more audible on smaller speakers.

In this case we have used a selection of tom drums which have been band pass filtered. We have scooped a lot of the sub frequencies out of these parts so that there is no interference with the reverberated kick drum.

A good technique when mixing kick and bass is to choose one instrument to dominate each frequency range. For example a toppy kick will sit well with a subby bass line. In our case our kick contains a lot of low end energy, so we have compromised the bass line by cutting frequencies in that area.

We have given our bass line some edge and presence by using an amplifier plugin. This makes the toms more detailed and prominent in the mix.

 

 

PARALLEL PROCESSING CHAIN

We have used a combination of parallel saturation and compression on a selection of instruments in our mix which require more attitude and punch. When sending these elements to the parallel send/return theres a few things we need to bear in mind:

  • Be aware of altering the balance and relative level as the send parameter is increased
  • When EQing a parallel return channel use a linear phase EQ
  • Use cuts before boots
  • Use shelving EQs before peak filters
  • Use shallow slopes to reduce the risk of altering the phase response
  • Compression and saturation can be very extreme because the compressed signal will not be heard in solo
 

 

 

MASTER PROCESSING

On our master channel we are applying some light saturation and moderate glue compression to the signal.

This compression is used to glue the elements together to form a sense of cohesion. Use longer attack times to keep the attack transients intact. Auto release is used so that the compressor can deal with short and long peaks independently. Use a low threshold to reduce the dynamic range without completely squashing the life out of the track. Anywhere between 1-4dBs of gain reduction is fairly common for the mix bus compressor.

 

Below is a complete playlist of the techno drums.

 

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