Introspective's Zen of Tracking

MusicTheory101|Chords | Bass | Leads | Drums

Mehran Khalili's "BASIC LEVEL TRACKING PITFALLS"

Hi. This is a list of common pitfalls that I have noticed in modules over my time in the scene. Hopefully this article will go some way to ironing these out for those who are just starting out. They are only basic tips, and it's pretty easy to avoid getting caught out once you get the hang of them.

i) Doubling up. There's no need to copy tracks identically and play them together just because it's louder. I've seen lots of this with bassdrums in techno tunes, for example. Doing this increases the processor load and makes things messy, not to mention clogging up channels that could be better used for other things. The answer? Cut back the volume of your other instruments to compensate.

Of course, this is not to say that copying channels is totally useless. For flanging and stereo separation (eg. offsetting one note on the left speaker ever so slightly and playing the original note on the right) it is essential (more on this to come). Playing EXACTLY the same notes across two or more channels however, with identical effects and panning, is pointless.

If you must double up channels for whatever reason, always pan one hard left and the other hard right. Never pan both to the centre, as with a GUS or an AWE32 the player will phase like hell if the replay routines aren't fast enough to keep consecutive channels in phase. Other than this, hard pans should only be used for stereo separation purposes.

ii) Overuse of effects. Many trackers seem to overestimate the influence of effects in their tunes. Put simply, effects are used for mostly subtle alterations to the piece, not for changing the way it sounds altogether. Example: retrigging or note-cutting at high speed (pointless in most cases). Overuse of vibrato on chord samples (how about using instrument vibrato instead? Does vibrato really make THAT much of a difference to the chord anyway?).

The idea is that you only use as many effects as are necessary for the sound you want to achieve. Just because Lizardking uses lots of effects doesn't make his tunes complex and thus GOOD. Overusing effects doesn't show attention to detail either; it makes your tunes look sloppy in the tracker to the trained eye and, more importantly, will make them sound muddied and unclean. So be careful with effects; they are your friends, but don't go crazy with them.

Incidentally, the same thing applies to envelopes. Some people get great satisfaction out of using crazy panning envelopes that cause the instrument to fly back and forth between your speakers. In reality this is annoying to the listener and will cause your tune to sound unprofessional at the very least.

iii) Cluttering. The more channels you use, the greater the challenge of mixing your sounds will become. A 32-channel tune is no better than a 4-channel tune if it is mixed badly. Do you really need that extra background riff? Does the echo for the lead really need to span four channels? Remember that instruments at lower volume just won't be heard, subsconsciously or otherwise, if they are drowned out by the other instuments in the song. So get rid of them and use the channels for something more useful. Listen over and over to that one channel that you are thinking about canning; unmute another channel and play them together, then unmute another and do the same until you are playing all channels simultaneously. THEN decide whether or not the channel is worth keeping.

iv) Off notes. This may seem like an obvious point, but it's easy to get your ear confused when you're tracking hurriedly and add notes that are completely off and out of musical context with the song. This often happens with basslines. Simply transposing basslines to cover key changes in your song is a recipe for disaster. That's not what the transpose function is there for. Provided your instruments are tuned to the same notes, a bass note of A#3 will sound dreadful with a long lead note of B-5. As always, listen over and over to the parts of your tune that you think could be at fault. If you can't HEAR the clash, think long and hard about whether tracking is really for you.

These are some of the basic mistakes that I've come across among trackers who are starting out. More advanced tips, through Introspective, will follow soon.

If you have any comments or questions, or disagree with something I've said here, speak up and mail me at scrm@cri.lu and I'll get back to you.

Thanks for watching,

Mehran Khalili [Screamager/KFMF]

Here are some thoughts on finishing up by JRice:

There are two prevailing attitudes on how to handle your new tune: listen to it, and ignore it. Each has it's merit. See which works best for you...

Listen to it: Make a tape of your song. Listen to it in the car. Before going to sleep. Play it for friends. E-mail copies to everyone you know (ASK them first, of course!). Eat, breathe and sleep your song. Listen to each channel by itself. Listen to each instrument by itself. Listen to combinations. Nit-pick. Grab each little nuance of the song and improve it. Do that for at least a week, if not two or three.

Ignore it: Back up your new tune, and leave it alone for at least a week. Work on another song if you must. But don't listen to it. Try to forget it existed. When the week is up, pull out your song and work on it for another week, picking out all those things you thought were cool, but just don't work. You might want to proceed to the "Listen to it" stage at this point.

Here are some tips taken from the realm of literature (which is closely related to music, it seems):

This has two parts:

There are always a few easy paths to follow in a song, and they vary from style to style, but always involve a move towards something more "generic". It's too easy to drop that techno boom-a-chicka-boom-a-chicka beat into your song and call it finished. But you're really detracting from your song and your reputation by doing so.

"No free rides" also means you should stay original in your orderlist. Try never repeating a pattern. Your song will sound MUCH better when you do so. If you double just one pattern, you may be halving the time that your listener is willing to pay attention to it. In other words, don't give away your goods for free. And never base an entire song on one pattern.

Okay, now here's something I stole (permission pending?) from Piano on the Net: (lesseon I-33)


A word about Copyrights (as of 5/1/96).

When your song is done, you now own this song. Your song is in "Fixed Form" which means that it is written down or tape recorded somewhere in a completed and fixed form. You should give your song a name (though song names do not get copyrights-- there are many songs with the same name that are not the same song if you hear them played). You do not need to file for a copyright 'registration number' unless you intend to sell or publish your song. However it is fun to obtain your own registration number and it can add some sense of security, but it is not needed in order to legally be the owner and 'Author' of your song. You became these things when the song was in a Fixed Form. If you want to know more about your legal rights as the author of a song and how to apply for a registration number (cost $20.00 ) you can contact the Library of Congress at:

U.S. Copyright Office

Additional Readings:

BMI
ASCAP
Music Publishers' Association


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