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Using Reverb to enhance your productions

Using Reverb to enhance your productions

by John Radford

Reverb in productions is probably for most composers the first ‘go to’ plug in and after effect, yet just as reverb can add a great professional quality and depth to your music, and can just as quickly ruin the production and make it sound ‘over produced’ and unprofessional. Reverb can often make or break a song, too much fills it with too much space and you can’t hear what it’s all about and too little just kills the emotion of it. So you have to take particular care in your appliance of reverb, and also be open to a lot of experimentation. In this article, we are going to look at some great tips for when using reverb and also take a look at some great reverb plug ins.

What is reverb?

Reverb, short for reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is removed. Unlike a delay, the original sound is not replicated, rather it is created when the sound is echoed in a confined space and the reflections are absorbed by the walls and air. In real terms, this is defined by the sounds being produced bouncing of nearby objects and refracting to cause the reverb. This is why in plug ins, there are many factory settings that allow the recreation of certain situations and places such as a church, or a cave or a small room. So in effect, a reverb used in productions is essentially a room simulator. What this does when added in a skilful way is enhance your production and give a more real sound to your music. There are quite a few different types of reverb. You can call them reverb modes, or room types. Some of the more common types include; Room, Hall, Chamber, Spring, Plate, and Convolution. In our age, we have access to digital reverb simulators which can simulate, quite realistically, all of these programmed room or reverb modes. Compositions that sound flat and one dimensional can often be lifted and given more depth just by the use of reverb. We are now going to look into differing types of reverb and how you can use these to enhance your production music.

Adding reverb: Tips and Tricks

Adding reverb properly takes a delicate touch and caution must be used not to get too carried away when using it.

Know your instruments: Reverb when applied to certain instruments can have a great effect, however when applied to others, can ruin the sound. Some instruments sound better with little or no reverb. For instance, I always think it best to use a short room ambience to dry electric signals such as synths and guitars. This to an effect can simulate the effect or recording a room. Usually, bass and reverb don’t mix too well, unless you’re specifically after a warehouse sound. Unfortunately, this effect results in a loss of definition among the bass regions. Run your reverb returns into a couple of spare channels in your mixer and back off the bass EQ, or add a high-pass plug-in EQ.

What kind of track: Obviously the overall kind of track you are going for will indeed play a part in what kind of reverb you are going to use. Ambient music is a popular format for composers of production music. Often in this type of production, composers like to make the piece of music sound ‘bigger’ and more ethereal. Using a large reverb with a long tail can be a very effective way of creating this effect. It can be particularly effective when used on the drums in a way similar to that of Sigur Ros. This leads onto another point about getting the balance and level right. An often asked question when referring to reverb is ‘how much?’ A simple answer to this would be to turn it up till you hear it and then turn it down again. This method however, only works if the decay time is right in the first place. If for instance the decay time is too short in the first place, then simply turning it up won’t help. The length of the reverb and its amount needs to be balanced against each other and needs to vary for each element of the mix. A nice simple way around this is to run 2 reverbs over separate buses both with varying decays. You can then adjust the amount you want to add for each one.

Reverse: Continuing on the electronic music theme, a classic technique used with reverb is the reverse reverb technique. This is employed particularly regularly in trance music, often in vocals where it sounds like the main vocal is ‘coming in’ when beginning a phrase. Trance music and vocals is not the only use for reverse reverb and it can work equally well on pads or a string section. To create the reverse reverb effect, reverse your sample, add reverb, then reverse your sample complete with reverb back around the right way again. This way, the reverb trail leads up into the sample, instead of trailing away from it. If you want to get really creative with your reverse reverb, follow these instructions: Have the reverb trail panned left on a separate track, then the original sample centre-stage (i.e. mono), followed by a regular reverb trail on another track panned right. The result is a reverb that leads up into the sample and trails away afterwards, while panning across the stage, left to right.

Less is sometimes more: Don’t use any reverb. Sometimes in a mix, there may be no need for reverb. If for instance you are recording instruments live and already have a great room with great acoustics then it may not be necessary to add reverb to that element of the track. Simply add a couple of extra mics to the recording and try to capture the natural reverb. Similarly, some things just sound better dry. Vocals are a good example of an element of the mix that can often work better with a delay rather than a reverb.

In summary, it’s important to recognize the power of reverb and its ability to make or break a mix. Next time you are mixing a track or adding an effect, maybe don’t just go for the factory preset on your favourite plug in and spend some time trying different things and experimenting with the amount, attack and decay time and types of reverb. You may just surprise yourself. We are now going to look at a couple of the leading software reverb plug ins.

Lexicon PCM Native Reverb

Lexicon hardware units take pride of place in many pro studios, and over the company’s 39-year history it’s become the gold standard in digital reverberation.

The PCM Bundle utilises the algorithms and presets from the Lexicon PCM96 hardware reverb. Buying one of these units will set you back over $2000, so thinking logically, the PCM Bundle offers better value for money at around half that. The reverb plug in comes as part of a bundle of plug ins.

The PCM Bundle plug-ins are easy to get a handle on, taking a direct and professional approach to the controls, with functionality being the key.

From times gone by, plug in reverbs used to be very poor conversions from their hardware counterparts, however recently vast improvements have been made and the PCM bundles and no exception to this rule. In fact, they are a superb conversion and fully justify their price tag. Admittedly this is right at the high end of plug ins, however what you are paying for with the PCM Bundle is the fact that it’s unarguably the ‘real thing’ rather than merely an attempt at a Lexicon-style reverb – it goes without saying, then, that it sounds incredible.

Logic Space Designer

Space designer is a high end reverb now shipping with Apples Logic sequencer software. Personally this is my plug in of choice and it has excellent presets available to get you started and begin tweaking from.

The principle behind the convolution process – the key to achieving the most realistic reverbs – is that an impulse response is captured by recording the total reflections that occur after an initial signal spike in a given acoustic space, be it cathedral or cave. This recording can then be merged with your song’s audio files, so effectively the audio sounds like it was actually recorded within the selected space.

Space Designer comes with 1000 professional-quality impulse responses (IRs), covering all manner of indoor and outdoor spaces (everything from bathrooms and large halls to pine forests), as well as hundreds of responses from legendary hardware reverb and delay units that would otherwise cost thousands of pounds.

Criticisms are that the plug in can only be used with Logic and that it can be a drain of CPU resources. However in my experience this is a small sacrifice to make for such an excellent plug in.

Whatever plug in you choose, be sure to experiment all the time and don’t just settle for the first preset you come across. You may just surprise yourself.

About the author: John is the founder and primary writer for 1underproductions. John studied music technology at Rose Bruford College (London). After graduating, John persued the traditional route, making tea at Ascent Media and then Grand Central Recording studios. Once his tea-making skills were honed, John went to work for the Boiler House boys in Chelsea. There he worked with several artists, including Shazney Lewis, Harmar Superstar and Joss Stone. John also worked on films including the Calcium Kid (Orlando Bloom) and Trauma (Colin Firth). Since leaving the Boiler House, John set up 1underproductions. John is able to compose in many different styles and can write to specific briefs.

Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 2

Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 2

By Piotr Koczewski

< Back to Part 1

Hardware continued

Selection of monitors (video) – First of all, you have to pay attention to the same contrast of a monitor, when purchasing a few HD monitors. Once I worked at two different monitors of the same company and I had to set contrast manually, which didn’t solve the problem in 100% and I had to get used to two different colours of the same workspace. The larger the screen resolution on a monitor, the more tracks are visible, and the more time can be spent on composing and listening, not on scrolling windows. In 2011 Spectrasonics released one of the first music applications Omni TR for an iPad. Although the application is used only to control the creation of Dubstep sounds, it can be used instead of modulation controller in steering keyboards. If you have problems with delays during your work on music for a video, you can use the method from the 90s, i.e. playing the video on a separate TV, laptop of smartphone screen. As far as the best multi-screen display division is concerned, the correct order is as follows: the first screen is the main display; the second is for piano roll, the third for VST, the fourth for a mixer, the fifth for a video (it can be also substituted with a projector or a TV). If we have more than 3 screens, we can make one big display instead of 4 separate ones; however, to do so, we will need screen outriggers (a trick, which will enhance the visibility of the screen, is auto-hiding the taskbar). Probably the only disadvantage of working on many screens is moving the cursor using a mouse – it is both very tiring and time consuming. The solution to this problem is purchasing a tablet, commonly used by many kinds of graphic artists. The next opportunity is LCD touch screens, which can turn into music paper or even a mixer thanks to a pointing device (a special pen). If we have an ordinary LCD screen and an LCD touch screen, we can clone the image of the main screen, and we can place or lay the touch screen close to us in order to correct notes with a pen.

Choosing a steering keyboard – It is best to choose a keyboard with 88 fully weighted keys, with a mini mixer and CC (Continuous Controller) keys and pans. Cutting a long story short, we can assign CC controllers for changing the instrument key switches without searching and hitting the keyboard notes, turning the effects on and off, and many more. Keyboards differ from steering keys with the number of inbuilt sounds (there are certain external versions of some of the keyboards, e.g. sound banks, such as Yamaha Motif and Korg Triton). In addition you can purchase steering pedals (expression and sustain) to the keyboard, which simulate playing on a real piano. In contrary to most of the steering keys, keyboards give an opportunity to choose the midi channel without using a mouse, which proves helpful when you are behind the schedule. A keyboard with a small number of keys, but with an octave switch is helpful when you work on a laptop.

Now time has come for some curiosities. If we need a larger mixer, than the one on a steering keyboard, then the External Mixer has to be MIDI USB compatible (optionally we may need a phantom power amplifier or a microphone input, if we record sound apart from music). USB mixers can be combined into one mixer, if we don’t have enough cash for a large mixer. If our loudspeakers don’t have any knobs, then we may need a loudspeaker amplifier with a remote control (instead of an amplifier, we can use special keys on a wireless keyboard). A wireless mouse, wireless keyboard and trackball can facilitate the creation of music as well.

Another thing is SSD external hard drives with installed VST, which can be used as means of quick access to data or as a backup. However, before instrument files reach RAM, they have to be entered and uploaded from a drive, which takes some time, depending on their number. However, when we work on something important, every minute matters.

If we don’t have a powerful computer, it gets overloaded when we check the real time panorama using an iZotope Ozone plug. We can save this problem by checking the panorama during breaks, using e.g. the Wavelab program, after saving the work in progress version as mp3.

Plugins for MAC’s

Recent studies have revealed that the more efficient employees work on Macintosh computers. It is nothing new, because Apple has always been producing the least fallible computers in the world.

However, as far as the cooperation of a few Apple computers is concerned, they operate on the basis of the Midi Network Setup. In order to connect a few computers, they should be joined with Firewire cables (which transmit CPU clock and audio) and ethernet cables (which transmit Midi). It works in the same way as FX Teleport, and the only difference is that you need more cables. In addition Teleport programme could be useful, which is used to control the mouse and keyboard when working on a few Macs simultaneously.

The Native Instruments Kontakt Memory Server is an opposite of the FX Teleport program. The former was issued only for MAC computers and is built in the Kontact Player. The Kontakt Memory Server loads instruments to RAM memory for a longer time and enables to ‘freeze’ the free memory resources to an unused instrument. A similar method is purge samples, but it is more time-consuming and requires switching instruments off manually. Purge samples acts in the same way as mono function on every instrument, except for the fact that it switches off sounds from memory for good, releasing its resources (it doesn’t mean that we cannot upload data back quickly in the same way). We can do it in a state of emergency, when we know that these elements are ready in the current project and we won’t have to correct them.

Working on a laptop could be an option for people creating Dance or Dubstep music, because they do not need a very “powerful” working station. Working on a laptop is advantageous in all kinds of ways.

Don’t fear the Windows system

Virtual memory acts in the same way as ‘freezing’ notes in .wav files, but it is not so perfect. A disadvantage of using virtual memory is the fact that we have to have a plugged-in hard drive, where we arranged some capacity for virtual memory. We also have to take into consideration the fact that our computer will work slower, because virtual memory is not as fast as RAM (with the exception of SSD hard drives, where virtual memory was set up).

The program for Windows system – FX Teleport – which I wrote about in the previous part is divided into a few versions serving one host computer and one, two, three, four or even more servers. It is worth remembering that you have to install such virtual instruments on the server computer, not to put the load on the host computer. In my opinion, it is worth investing in this program and a few computers, in order to develop your own scheme for quick work, even, if you work on an antique equipment. In addition, the Giga Teleport program works similarly, but only for the Giga Sampler plugin.

The only errors I encountered when working with Windows 7 operating system were related to the music software, such as Kontakt (in order to avoid the errors, you should purchase Kontakt sampler update from time to time) and notifications about the graphic card overload due to keeping the computer in a locked cabinet without ventilation. It is worth remembering that a graphic card which is plug into many displays consumes more electric energy and hence heats to a higher extent. Hans Zimmer was the one who implemented the idea for “cooling” the equipment a long time ago, but it was Brian Tyler who was the first composer to speak about it during an interview in a studio.

Below you will find a summary of all computer working stations.

Hardware Summary



  • Main Boards with 16 AMD Processor and Up to 130 GB of RAM
  • Subassemblies development price


  • Only 6-core processor on Intel Main Boards
  • Potential problems with the system



  • 12-core processor
  • The least fallible operating system in history


  • Only 32 GB of RAM the maximum
  • Computer development is not cheap
  • In case of a breakdown, the whole computer is taken to the service (refers to the iMac)




  • You can create music anywhere and anytime.
  • Easy and quick configuration


  • No possibility to change sub assemblies (may not refer to RAM in certain models)
  • Only RAM memory may be developed but not very much.Very hard to repair or roll back

Hardware Summary Addendum

My IT knowledge gained during computer studies combined with musical knowledge allowed me to save time by not searching for answers about errors on software manufacturers’ websites and not spending too much money on employing helpdesk to choose equipment and install software.

Such things, as cold solders and equipment failures are symptoms of workstation overheating, since a computer works on its top capacity, when it records a file with several dozen layers and saves to .mp3 or .wav formats. Therefore it is extremely important to cool the computer and keep it in a cupboard (if possible, a glass one, since it gives heat away the quickest) and placing two fans inside of it – one for letting hot air out and the other for blowing cold air in. The equipment has to be cooled down in order to function longer; it doesn’t matter, whether it is cooled using liquid nitrogen, mineral oil or cooled air. The more screens are plugged to an internal graphic card, the faster it will heat up. Some graphic cards are equipped with temperature indicator, which is very helpful. Many devices, e.g. hard drives, can switch off due to a feeder’s low power supply. Therefore, before we purchase a few drives and a triple head graphic card, we have to remember about choosing the right feeder to our computer.

There are times when notes are playing in our heads and we have to make use of a piece of paper, which is however more and more often substituted with Garage Band software on an iPhone.

What’s funny, we still use the old, small, high-tone Genius loudspeakers from the 90s, which have a ‘3D sound’ button; when I press it, I don’t need headphones to ‘discover’ all high-tone sounds.

Another curiosity is a parody of the song ‘I’m on a boat’, entitled ‘I’m on a Mac’, sung by comedians Pantless Knights. They show in a satirical way the differences between PC and Mac computer. The funny thing is that after the release of Windows 7, jokes about the Windows system started to be meaningless.

About the author: Piotr Koczewski started
working in game development in 2006 as a Musician and Sound Designer. In
2008 he released an ambient music album inspired by post-nuclear SF, called
“Wasteland Theme”. He co-organized in 2009 the Video Games Live
concert in Poland. You can listen Piotr`s music at his website
Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 1

Music Production hardware and software tips, Part 1

By Piotr Koczewski

Many composers talk about creating music, but few discuss the tools required to do it. What I mean is the IT side of music creation. I will do my best to explore this broad topic providing the most concrete information.

The choice of displays (audio) – the more displays with a different bandwidth, the better, because the entire bandwidth consists of a low (bass), medium (female voice) and high (drums) band. Therefore if we want to hear all bands clearly, we have to gather as many displays or HI FI loudspeakers, as possible.

Photo from the Green Street Studios 2011. In 2006 the photo of the Green
Street Studios presented two working stations and a wide cabinet with a
lot of external devices filling the entire room (at that time there was
the Matrix film code as the computer wallpaper).

The choice of headphones. – Headphones are a very useful thing, especially when creating music at night. They might serve as an additional tool when checking the bandwidth in ready songs. It is worth paying attention to the softness of membrane surroundings and the comfort of wearing the bow, because listening for a few hours and working on uncomfortable headphones might result in earache.

The choice of sound card. – It is worth remembering that external sound cards have to possess a processor in order to serve well when working on music (it is similar to the difference experienced when using a processor without additional cores). Sound cards without a processor enable only recording the sound from the outside, because they do not have a large ASIO latency, and therefore i.e. one cannot record sounds from a microphone and sounds being played simultaneously. It refers to recording vocal for background music (modern computers allow creating music using integrated sound cards without ASIO support. In such case you should choose the ASIO Full Duplex option in the music creation programme audio settings). The power input is very significant, because we may lose time on setting appropriate volume and changing it from quiet to loud. In 2010 the AVID sound cards producer presented the cheapest and most efficient external sound cards, which cooperate with every music programme. One of the technically advanced devices intercepting audio channels in real time is MOTU, which was the most popular equipment used in studios, before the external Pro Tools HD set appeared. A lot of external devices may be plugged in to it (e.g. the effects) without being concerned about the processor overload.

I have been asking myself one question for a very long time: why do we need compressors, sound processors, effects, sound banks and other external devices at all? The answer is: because they do not occupy the memory and processor in the real time.

The choice of the graphic card. – In order to plug in more than two HD displays, one has to possess a PCI dual/triple head graphic card (graphic cards manufactured by Zotac are for those who want to play and simultaneously create music on a few screens, or for those who only want to work on their PC) or an external graphic card manufactured by Matrox. Some composers use HD TVs apart from ordinary displays, alongside a laptop screen and more and more frequently touchscreens manufactured by Apple. Apple computers are equipped with ATI Radeon cards, which enable to plug in many displays (and provide the opportunity of plugging in a few graphic cards).


More Power Capitan !

Let`s count power for Macs with 1-core, 2-core, 4-core, 8-core and 12-core processors (the maximum 12-core processor is available only on Mac Pro 2 computers). PC computers may handle a 16-core processor manufactured by AMD, which has already been put on sales (Intel has produced so far only a 6-core processor). When choosing a processor, pay attention to the cache memory.


In 2009 there was a breakthrough in the computer development. The largest obstacle in their expansion was the high price of the RAM memory. Now the average amount of the RAM memory in the computers owned by composers is 8 – 12 GB RAM, and the cutting edge PC mainboards operate with as much as 130 GB RAM. When purchasing the RAM memory, bear in mind not only the amount of memory, but also its speed (MHz frequency). I can tell from my own experience about a situation when the servicing agent put the wrong RAM memory into a computer I ordered – it was too slow as for the given mainboard. In consequence I had to cope with the system errors called “Blue Screen of Death” for a couple of days (when the computer was freezing, it was making similar sounds as during the “Neo awakening” in the Matrix movie). It was especially annoying during a few-hour work on music. Of course the memory was exchanged, which came as a huge surprise for the computer shop owner. Therefore for the future I recommend choosing a more expensive mainboard, which will “survive” a couple of years, because it will be possible to purchase more and more RAM memory to it and change the processor without the necessity to install a new PC operating system and music software.

However, if you have two left hands or don’t know, which computer parts could be exchanged for the more modern ones, I recommend purchasing ready computers of the “all in one” kind, e.g. manufactured by HP, Asus or MSI, which are very similar to the Macintosh sets (some models have a touchscreen, which will have a significant impact on the quality of work when writing in the note processor).

If you have little RAM memory and constantly complain about the “buzzing” of the computer not coping with a large number of switched on virtual instruments, then I have a remedy for you. The Cubase programme has the option of recoding ready notes from a virtual instrument onto WAV tracks “on the run” (the process takes literally a few minutes and can lighten the RAM memory’s load up to 90%). This function is called Freeze VST and can also lighten your computer’s load in terms of the effects switched on in a Mixer. Unfortunately, after “freezing” the virtual instrument track it cannot be edited later (only notes may be copied), unless it is “unfrozen” – this action takes less than 5 seconds. You can also save and import ready WAV tracks manually in other programmes not having this function, but it is very time-consuming.

Having a large amount of the RAM memory and a few-core processor makes the work of every musician problem-free, which is related to the improvement in the music quality and the performance speed.

Pc versus Mac versus Laptops

Windows 7 takes up 1 GB of RAM memory, which is related to the loss of huge space otherwise used for recording virtual instruments (you can also choose the 64 version of Windows XP, which takes up a smaller amount of RAM – 500 MB. However, it is not supported by drivers and may operate at 16 GB RAM memory the maximum. Windows 7 operating system does not have as many mistakes as its previous versions and differs in terms of automated installation of devices drivers in the online mode.

The Mac computer is more expensive than the PC computer, not mentioning its sub-assemblies. The Leopard operating system update is expensive itself, not mentioning the additional update of programmes for Mac. If we wanted to install the same programmes on the newly purchased super computer MAC OS, we would have to record everything from the scratch. Meanwhile on the computer with the Windows operating system there are two ways of installing the whole software and data as file images, using Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image programmes, or as system settings backup (using Windows 7 main board – this refers to systems older than Windows 7).

The best way to minimize the loading time of the Windows system is to buy a few discs and assign different functions to them – office, creative, entertainment, diagnostic or backup. Nobody clever will do a few things simultaneously relying on the system operating speed and his own efficiency during one day.

I was surprised to discover that there is an opportunity to work on many PC computers at one time while creating music. Such an option existed once only in Macintosh computers (until 2003). FX Teleport enables the cooperation between computers via TCP/IP LAN (even remotely). It works on the basis of a Host computer or Server computers. Another programme which is similar to FX Teleport, but more advanced than it, is Jbridge.

Up next…

Writing the first part of the article I decided to refute the thesis (PC computer stereotype) about the proportional relation between the computing power used in music production and the thickness of the composer’s wallet. In the second part of the article I presented more informations about Hardware and the efficiency and capabilities of different programmes used to create music and sounds.

Continue to Part 2 >

About the author: Piotr Koczewski started
working in game development in 2006 as a Musician and Sound Designer. In
2008 he released an ambient music album inspired by post-nuclear SF, called
“Wasteland Theme”. He co-organized in 2009 the Video Games Live
concert in Poland. You can listen Piotr`s music at his website
Mixing as part of the music composing process, Part 1

Mixing as part of the music composing process, Part 1

By Kole Hicks**In this article I refer to Mixing as if it includes all aspects of track production before mastering.

Mixing is typically considered by the majority of people as the thing you do to “sweeten” the music after it has been written and recorded. Furthermore, the “Mixing” definition tends to only refer to what we think of as “modern mixing” with balancing volume levels, EQ, Ducking, etc. via a Pro Tools (or other) session.

However as I see it, what we think of as modern “Mixing” existed before the time of computers or electronics and has been well known by many of the greatest musical minds throughout history. It is certain that these composers cared deeply for the way their music would be heard by others and I bet that a large majority of them would be right there in the mixing booth tweaking knobs if they had the tech available to them. In fact, many composers wrote very detailed notes on the score about how each instrument should be performed (Tone/EQ), where it’s physical location to everyone else is (Panning), etc. In this article, I would like to challenge the notion and will supply arguments against the idea that Mixing & Composing have to be two separate processes.

*I always have the “philosophy” that if it ends up influencing the way the music will sound, then it’s important enough to think of while I’m composing the piece.

The role and importance of a mixing engineer has become ever more apparent in newer styles of music (Pop, Electronica, Hip-Hop, etc.) where the professional is not only “fixing” up the vocal/instrumental parts and placing them in their appropriate “pockets,” but adding unique filters, FX, EQs, etc. that directly influence the arrangement and are absolutely essential to the composition. It is my belief that these engineers don’t get nearly the credit they deserve… listen to anything in the Top 40 on the radio and I can guarantee you’ll hear how important Production is to many of those songs.

Also, if you’ve ever attended a Composer’s convention/conference of some kind, then it’s not a secret that many of the musicians there hold the belief that they should never mix their own music and that it is better left to a professional. While this can be true in some situations (Ex: Orchestral Music that is supposed to sound as “Classic” as possible) and I always advocate the use of or collaboration with other professionals, there are fantastic benefits of not only mixing your own music, but becoming aware of all the mixing tools available at your disposal.

So what happens when we no longer use Equalizers, Compressors, etc. in the way they were “intended,” but instead think of and use them as creative tools? Something that you’re not aware of and thinking about after the music has been recorded, but BEFORE… My main intention with this article is to help you become aware of this possibility and guide you through one of my examples. There are way to many available directions you can go in with this new approach (and I’m sure many of you are already starting to generate ideas), so I’d just like to show you an example of one of my projects.

(All of the following has been written BEFORE composing a single note.)

To introduce this project, it would probably be best to start by explaining the overall goal of the music. As a specific challenge for myself to come up with new and creative stylistic combinations (which I recommend every Composer do as often as possible), I asked the question…

If I were playing a fictitious/high-fantasy game as the great explorer “Marco Polo” while he wondered through the borderlands of Mongolia/Northern China on a foggy night… what would that sound like?

The use of certain “ethnic” instruments indigenous to these areas would be an obvious choice for the instrumentation of the piece, but we must remember that Marco Polo has yet to visit these areas and wouldn’t really know what any of those instruments would look or sound like. Furthermore, (adding to the tension) we’re not only in a foreign (possibly hostile) land, but it is a foggy night with only the moon’s light enhancing the lack of true visibility. There are a million different directions you can go in and none of them are necessarily “good or bad,” merely different and more effective depending on the situation and audience. I’ll explain some of my choices below…

Let’s say in this game that the developers feel it is important to aurally depict each character, place, and the time in history. However, they also would like to keep the score rather modern so that people can still connect to it (nothing overly abstract). In the “scene” described in the question above, it has been decided that the following should be included in the piece of music: Marco Polo’s Origins/Theme, The Foreign Lands (Mongolia/Northern China), and the Fear/Tension/Excitement of being an explorer in a new land on a foggy night.


I’m a huge fan of Mongolian Folk Music (part of the reason I created this challenge) and more specifically throat/overtone singing. Also, one of my good friends is from China and she brought back a Hulusi (flute) for me that I’ve always wanted to use. Along with the overtone vocals and Hulusi (representing the foreign lands), I’ll use a Taiko drum to control the momentum/pulse of the piece. Furthermore, I need to introduce Marco Polo to the piece. To represent him, I’ll use a string section and nylon string guitar. The specific way I will be using them aren’t exactly “historically accurate” to the time Marco Polo was around, but sound familiar to the player and can easily be used to give a sense of “Home” rather than Italy specifically (especially to most Westerners… assuming this is the main demographic of the game).

Now that we have our instrumentation chosen for this “zone/scene,” we have to think of how we can bring in the Fear/Tension/Excitement… this is when “Pre-Meditated Mixing” is useful. To further enhance the “creepy” atmosphere (and add to the “unknown” sound quality of the instruments used in the foreign lands), I’ll place an EQ on the overtone vocals so that I cut most (if not all) of the fundamental and instead focus on the overtone. Furthermore, I’ll add massive delay to the Hulusi part and change the panning at random intervals (not drastic enough to draw the players attention away from the game… just enhance the unpredictability of the piece/zone). The Taiko’s part will develop over time and the volume/panning would be interactive based off the player’s proximity to danger (something we could control via Wwise/FMOD if the Taiko part was it’s own separate layer).

As mentioned above, chances are high that we’re dealing with a western audience and while you can get away with a lot aurally when there is a picture in front of someone, its wise to know when you’re writing bizarre because something calls for it rather than “out for out’s sake.” With that in mind, I’ll keep the harmony intact and this will NOT be an atonal piece. It will be tonal, although with it’s slightly “out” instrumentation, mixing, and other elements the piece will still sound “foreign” without actually being completely foreign to the gamer.

The guitar will play a consistent “pulse” of tones and fade in/out while gradually panning around the “aural environment.” The string section will act as the “western foundation,” establishing something more traditional that the listener’s ear can cling on to while concurrently representing Marco Polo himself. While there will only be 1 underlying harmonic progression, the progression (in it’s entirety) will be developed over time. Because this is purely an example (and not exactly a cue from an actual game) I will attempt to move through different game states within a few minutes. However, if this music was to be absolutely interactive, then each section would be a few minutes long, comprised of multiple layers, and fade in/out from one another depending on the player’s predicament.

All of this I have thought of before I’ve even written a note down and while it may not be practical in every situation, I recommend you try something like this at least once (if only to learn that it doesn’t work with your writing process). It would be cruel for me to list off everything, show pictures, and not provide you with a link to what I created… so click on this link to listen to the piece.

This article continues in Part 2

Make sure to read through Part 2 of this article RIGHT HERE to find out what changes the piece went through and why certain decisions were made. Thanks for reading and keep composing fellow artists!

Enhancing creative workflow with Sonar, Part 1

Enhancing creative workflow with Sonar, Part 1

By Johan Hynynen


Making music with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) involves knowing both hardware and software very well — you just can’t escape music technology. This can be a show stopper for our creativity when we need to write music. Many times we’re also working to match short deadlines, so with that in mind I will try to give you a few tips on how you easily can enhance your workflow and creative output working with Sonar. Even though this article is written with a regular song kind of project in mind, most ideas, tips or tricks can be implemented while working with voice talents making jingles and audio books, or even sound design for computer games. As other DAWs have similar functions as Sonar’s you might be able in applying some tips in other applications as well. The tips described in this article are straight forward to get around and can easily help you sorting things out so that you can spend more time making music and less time dabbling around your software.

Project Templates

Most of us come back to a certain frame work where we like to start making music. It could be a few channels loaded with guitar amp plug-ins or a sampler loaded with a good sounding grand piano. Instead of recreating all of these instances of soft synths, channels and effects you can make a template that will automatically recreate favorite your setup.


To create a project template, simply open up an empty project and start creating the channels, buses, effects and soft synths you want to include. Then go to the file menu and select “Save As” and then choose “Template” in the menu labeled “Save as type”. In order for your templates to appear in the dialogue window at start up, you also need to save them down to the right folder. Which folder holds your templates can be set by going to the “Options” menu, then “Global” and finally, click the “Folders” tab. Your project templates are stored in the folder selected in the “Templates” menu.

Make a template for all the different kinds of music you usually record or produce. You may want to create one for rock band, another for ambient music and so on. Also create a template that uses smaller sample libraries and less CPU demanding soft synths. Depending on your computer’s specifications you could choose a setup that you can work with without freezing or bouncing tracks. While writing, an economy setup usually works well and you can always replace the temporary sounds with your best samples and soft synths during the mixdown of the song.

Track Templates

You may have been trying to figure out how you managed get that particular sound on a previous recording of yours? Of course, going back to that project and write down the settings and which plug-ins that where used does the trick, but with track templates you have access to all your favorite sounds in seconds. By saving a particular channel which includes, let’s say, a guitar amp plug-in, compressor, equalizer settings and sends as a track template, you can easily recall all the settings.


To save a track as a track template right click on any track in the track pane and choose “Save As Track Template”. To load a template, simply right click in the tracks pane and choose “Insert From Track Template”. Select your track template and it opens up all plug-ins together with parameters associated to the track including sends and all effects.

Of course, as you move along saving more and more of your golden settings you build quite a library of track templates. Listen back to your recordings and take notes on elements you find particularly appealing – then open up those projects and locate and save your channels as track templates. Your favorite sound is now only a couple of mouse clicks away.

Track Manager

When your track count gets high you might find it hard to navigate through them all. In most cases you aren’t working on all tracks at the same time and therefore, you can use the track manager to temporarily clean things up a little. What the track manager really does is to help you select the tracks you want to be visible and deselect the ones you want to hide. Once your selection has been made the track view in Sonar will only show the selected tracks.

If you arrange your tracks with the track manager you’ll want to check back to it time to time, otherwise you might start thinking there are tracks missing (which isn’t the case of course as they’ve only been hidden). Naming your tracks well is also crucial if you want to keep things tidy. Bring up the track manager by pressing “M”.

Track Folders

Using track folders is a clever way in handling many tracks of the same sort. If, for example, the vocal arrangement of your song includes more than a few tracks (lead, harmonies, overdubs etc) then placing them in a track folder is an easy way in making them take up less screen space. Sometimes the vocals alone on a song can extend up to ten, and even more channels, and while you work on other elements of the same song you really don’t need to see the vocal tracks. To create a track folder, right click in the tracks pane to the right of the inspector field, and choose “Create Track Folder”. Then drag the tracks you want to organize to the track folder. By clicking the plus sign you open the folder so that it reveals its contents, and by clicking the minus sign while the folder is open, it hides the tracks inside it.

Track folders that seem fairly obvious to create could be drum tracks, guitars or vocals but you can of course set up track folders as you like.


Use markers to point out certain sections in your arrangement that are particularly important. You may want to have a marker placed for each verse, chorus and bridge, but you can also use markers to point out a particular section you want to rework or change but have decided to do later. In order to add a marker, right click the time ruler and then choose “Insert Marker” (or press F11).



You can use colors to separate tracks and sections from each other. One idea is to give the choruses, let’s say, color blue and the verses color red. Or, you could make certain instrument groups have a specific color.

Last Words

Getting things sorted out in your DAW is means a lot for your workflow — but not everything. Try to keep things organized on your physical desk as well. Don’t leave things in mess, make sure you have note pads and working pens so that you’re always ready to take some notes or write down ideas. Some people like to use regular sketch pads for keeping track of thoughts and to do lists, some use a Wordpad document or similar, some use a white board while some prefer to use a PDA. Other things such as a good armchair can definitely make you feel more comfortable while working.

Deadlines can be extremely pressing if we can’t organize are daily work. Make sure you plan your day well and that you get things done. Losing work due to a failing disk can be disastrous but also unnecessary. There are plenty of backup tools out there and extra storage is cheap, so there is little excuse for not doing backups frequently. I’m using Acronis True Image which is scheduled to do a backup every day. Deadlines must be met, and losing a client due to a failing disk would be quite awkward – not to mention all the love and effort put in each piece of work. Therefore do your backups well, you will feel much safer knowing that you can’t lose too many hours of work no matter what.

Some of the tips above might seem obvious, but they’re very often overlooked, so I thought that a little reminder could be well in use.

About the author: Johan Hynynen, aka
Giannis, is a composer, producer and instrumentalist who is producing music
in a wide variety of different genres for TV, computer games, corporate
films, films and other productions. Look out for his label Akoume Music
Productions which not only will produce high quality scores for film, TV
and computer games, but will also produce Giannis’ chill-out solo project.
His website is at