Ep 023: Advanced Music Production Advice with Ben Runyan

Ben Runyan

Today’s episode features the first repeat guest in AudioSkills podcast history. Philadelphia-based music producer and educator Ben Runyan is back to share his top music production tips. In addition to teaching at Drexel University, Rowan University, and the University of the Arts, Ben is also an AudioSkills instructor.

He recently put together a music production crash course, which is available for download here. He also just released a new EP under his alias, J U S T P R O C E S S.

Needless to say, Ben has some serious audio skills, and he offers more of his wisdom in this episode. You’ll hear the lessons he learned producing his most recent EP, as well as his advice for programming drums, remixing, sampling, and more!

The audio tip of the week is about making sure your MIDI tracks sound real, interesting, and exciting. While it is possible to make everything perfect using production software, there is such a thing as too perfect. Try mixing things up by increasing and decreasing velocity, ensuring all the notes aren’t exact, and even including areas where instruments aren’t in perfect time. You want your music to sound like real musicians created it, not robots!

As the interview progresses, Ben shares his advice for becoming more instinctive with productions—even if you don’t have years of experience. His tips will help you empower yourself to make the best possible decisions with audio effects.

What You’ll Learn in This Episode:

  • Audio tip of the week: Make sure your MIDI tracks sound realistic.
  • How to hone your instincts for creating music in your DAW.
  • Tips for programming drum beats that sound authentic.
  • Production lessons Ben learned while working on his latest EP.
  • Tricks for vocal manipulation.
  • When to use compression (and how to avoid overdoing it).

Featured on the Show:

Don’t miss an episode – subscribe to the AudioSkills Podcast!

Subscribe to the AudioSkills Podcast on iTunes

Full Transcript of This Episode

Scott: Hey, everyone. Scott back with another episode of the AudioSkills Podcast. We have got an excellent show today, which is going to be diving a bit further into music production with our first ever repeat guest, Ben Runyan, who is a Philly-based producer, educator, and an AudioSkills instructor. Before all that, though, it’s your audio tip of the week. And no matter if you’re an Audio Skills member, an email subscriber, or a podcast listener, I want to give you actionable tips to make better music in your studio, and for this week, I want to talk about MIDI.

Now, I know a lot of folks out there, myself included, use virtual instruments in their music. No matter what genre you’re working in, there can always be a huge benefit to the extra possibilities opened up by making use of MIDI. Unfortunately, sometimes MIDI can be used poorly and result in a more amateur sounding project, which is obviously what you don’t want.

So here are just a few tips for using MIDI effectively and getting good results. Number one: treat MIDI tracks like real instruments. Sure, it may just be some string sample, but you should treat it like you would any other in your mix. For example, some people ask, “Should I EQ my virtual instruments?” And the answer is absolutely. Just because they are samples, doesn’t mean that a little EQ couldn’t help them fit together in the mix better or serve the mix another way. Treat them like real instruments.

Number two: treat MIDI tracks like they’re being played by real musicians. Sure, that horn part in your project isn’t being played by a real member of an orchestra live in your project, but that doesn’t mean that you should just throw out dynamics, you know, completely out the window. If you have a sustained horn part, and you’re keeping the same MIDI velocity the whole time, that’s just boring and unnatural. Make it become louder or softer, mix it up. You can randomize velocities, a lot of people do this, and that works wonders. This is definitely true if you’re programming drums as well. Varying up your MIDI velocities on drums can make things sound so much more natural and less robotic.

Number three: depending on your genre, don’t always play MIDI in perfect time. And, really, I might say, in most genres you shouldn’t. Quantizing tracks is a powerful tool, and yeah, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, maybe things might want to be closer to perfect, but it’s a mistake to always, 100% of the time, make sure your MIDI notes are completely perfect in time. That can feel robotic. That is not how the average person plays music. Even a little, slight variation can work wonders. Make those MIDI notes tight, but not too tight.

Number four, and this really just kinda sums it all up, keep things realistic. It bears mentioning. You know, MIDI is powerful, and you can play things that a real musician couldn’t necessarily play, but that doesn’t mean that you should do it. Musicians take breaks, they have rests, they make mistakes, they get excited at one point in the song. If people are playing the chorus, they always play just a little faster. And, in fact, if you’re mixing, speeding things up or making things just a little louder on the chorus, that can really be a benefit and that can introduce some energy to the song.

So my point is, is that when you’re working with MIDI, I think far too often people just think, “Oh, well I can make this whatever I want it to be, and I can make it just this perfect musical performance, and I don’t have to worry about dynamics and things like this.” And that’s the wrong way to think about it. Think about MIDI as just another instrument in your track. Whatever you’re doing, keep it real, keep in interesting, keep it exciting. And that is your audio tip of the week.

All right, so now we’re going to move on to our main interview for this week. And I’m happy to introduce our guest who is joining us for a second time, Ben Runyan. Ben is a Philly-based music producer and educator. He teaches at Drexel University, Rowan University, and University of the Arts, and has just released a new EP under his alias, J U S T P R O C E S S. He’s also an Audio Skills instructor, having most recently put together a music production crash course for us, which is available for download right now on our site.

So, Ben, welcome back, man, and thanks so much for joining me again.

Ben: Thanks for having me.

Scott: You know, you are officially the first repeat guest in Audio Skills Podcast history.

Ben: All right.

Scott: Yeah.

Ben: Sweet. It’s like Saturday Night Live. I’m the Bill Murray of this show.

Scott: An illustrious honor, to be sure. How’s Philly treating you these days, man?

Ben: What’s funny, I was actually just in Boston for the last week. I was freeloading off my fiancee’s work trip.

Scott: Oh, nice.

Ben: Which is great. And I’m gonna be doing the same next week in Chicago, so actually I’ll be near you.

Scott: Whoa. So, we should meet up and get a drink.

Ben: We absolutely should. That just occurred to me as I was saying it, I was like, “Wait. You know who else lives there? Scott Hawksworth.” Oops, should I have said your name?

Scott: Yeah, it’s okay.

Ben: Yeah, that’s right. You’re a public figure. But this week, I’m kinda spending by myself. I have a week to kind of work on a bunch of stuff. So I have a bunch of different production projects I’m working on, I’m getting ready for the school semester, and working on new tunes, actually. I’m recording some new songs.

Scott: Awesome, man. To start us off, I mentioned at the top that you’ve officially released a new EP. How has that been going, I mean how has the whole process of getting it out there been?

Ben: You know, it’s one of the most favorite parts of working on a record, but it’s also one of the least favorite in terms of where you set your expectations. But, I’ve been pretty kind to myself this time. I’ve released stuff that’s gotten hundreds of thousands of hits, and I’ve release stuff that haven’t gotten a lot of traction. You know, you kind of ride the peaks and waves of a music career if you want to call it that. And honestly, I just had to tell myself this time … I took a two, three month break from listening to my own record after it was finished, in between that and releasing it, and kinda came back on release day, I almost forgot it was release day on Friday, August the 11th, and I listened to it in the car while I was going to pick up my fiancée from the airport. I was like, “Man, this sounds awesome. This is really good. I’m 100% happy with everything I could hear.”

Scott: That’s awesome.

Ben: You know what I mean? Sometimes, based on expectations or feedback or whatever it is, you might listen to someone more than you might listen to another, or a critic, or a journalist, or whatever it is, and I just listen to it and I drowned out all that noise, and I thought, “This sounds freaking awesome, man.” Sorry, I’m super proud of the record. I’m super happy how it turned out and the feedback so far has been super positive, and really the biggest feedback I’ve got, which lends a lot to what we’re talking about today, is that just the record sounds super clean and well produced. And, you know, I was really going for the electro-pop kind of pop-EDM genre, and I’d never really forayed into that, and I think I hit the nail on the head. I did what I wanted to do and that’s all you can ever do.

Scott: Absolutely. And I think that’s such a great point, too, just all the people out there who are making music. Obviously, you want to get your music heard and everything, but not getting so wrapped up in what this person thinks or how many people have listened to it or all this kind of stuff. It’s like if you’re making your art, and you are working hard on it and you’re proud of what you’re doing, to me, that’s one of the most important things for sure.

Ben: That’s the biggest thing.

Scott: Yeah.

Ben: That’s the biggest thing. Much worse would be to have something be successful and then you actually hated it. Trust me. It’s much worse.

Scott: And there’s bands out there that … What’s that one song? You know the love me, love me, say that you love me? I forget that song, but it was this huge hit and apparently it was this band that it was different than anything else they’d done, and that was their one hit, and they hate that song. You know?

Ben: Yeah.

Scott: It’s like, what are you gonna do? But, to jump into, I guess sort of our main discussion here in music production, I’m curious, this EP was a little different for you because you were more producer than the front-facing artist.

Ben: Yeah.

Scott: And you had been working on this and then you put together the crash course for us. I’m curious, what’s one huge production lesson you learned while you were working on your EP that maybe you hadn’t really crystallized before or hadn’t really thought about?

Ben: I think I took away two things from it. The first would be gain structure. I think I, over the years, and even if you go back and listen to my old City Rain material, that I would say the mixing is pretty good. But I was just always kind of slamming faders, you know?

Scott: Yeah.

Ben: And you could really tell in some of the audio and how I recorded vocals. So gain structure, mic placement, especially with the female vocal and having such stripped back tracks in terms of really crisp, clean, electronic music, you would be able to hear all these faults. So I really made sure to get back to basics on this record and just record with clean signal paths and great gain structure.

And the other thing that I really, really, kinda went back to as someone with ADD who’s just, I’m super all over the place, and my attention really only can turn to music or my fiancée.

Scott: Sure.

Ben: Or she’ll kill me for not listening to her and I’ll feel the wrath. And that would be just organization, I have to be organized. I have to label my tracks. I have to use groups in tracks. I have to use colors for different types of track, whether it’s the base, or the high end, or the low end, or drums, or vocals, or however I’m organizing my material, and make sure I’m labeling the verses and the chorus and structure.

Scott: Absolutely.

Ben: Just caring about what you do and being diligent with how you organize things and how you treat a project you’re working on really does have an impact on the final product, and I think I really learned that this time.

Scott: Absolutely. And it’s interesting, too, because you did make a couple videos in the crash course kind of speaking to that and talking about the organization, and then I really want to emphasize what you were talking about, about going back to the basics. There are so many great techniques out there and great things that you can do, but the biggest gains you’ll have is, hey man, just go back to what’s the mic placement? It’s such a simple thing, and it’s like, yeah, dude, you could have all these compressors working and all this crazy stuff, EQ and all this stuff, but it’s like-

Ben: Garbage in, garbage out.

Scott: Exactly. Exactly. So, once again, that’s just another example right from the mouth of someone out there producing of the importance of that. So, my next question, though, and I want to really start with is programming drums because I know that this is something that people in a number of music genres are doing more and more now, especially because not everyone has access to a nice drum set, or a drummer to use it, right?

Ben: No.

Scott: What tips or advice do you have for programming drumbeats that sound good and realistic, I guess, in a way, and authentic?

Ben: Absolutely starts with your samples. I remember using Ableton from 2006 to about last year as my primary digital audio workstation. And if you listen to my City Rain tracks, the drums sound pretty good, but they don’t have that modern punch and pop that you hear. And the reason why is just kind of a certain level of ignorance, you don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s a really tough position to be in because when you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know what questions to ask. And what I mean by that is, with Ableton Live, the stock sounds that come with Ableton are all right, you know what I mean? They’re just okay. And so, in that sea of ignorance where I think that this is the only thing available to me, I can only be as good as the sample has allowed me to be.

So moving over into logic number one, I had Ultra Beat, the drum machine. Number two, I had Drummer, which I explain in one of my videos. But number three … another one of the things that I think I explained in one of the videos, or at least one of my interviews with you, is my usage of the service called Splice.

Scott: Yes. Splice, yes.

Ben: Right. An online database, cloud database, for your projects, but more importantly, an online database, almost kind of a streaming service of music samples, being able to download any sample you want with the certain amount of credits that you’re allotted per month with the $7.99 that you pay. And so, I’m at the forefront of having access to the most modern and most recent producer sample packs with sounds that are current. So, that takes the pressure off of you to feel like you have to sound design your drums instead of just programming the correct pattern. I know what a drum pattern’s supposed to sound like, I’ve listened to enough music, for God’s sakes, and I know what the sound of the drums I want to get, but that doesn’t necessarily make me an expert on synthesis.

But when I learn about the language of what kind of drum I’m supposed to be looking for, a dub drum, a dub subdrum, a house drum, 808 kick versus a 909 kick, or these types of electronic terms with these analog drum machines. If I know the language, if I know what to look for, then I can find the right sound instantly with almost a google search of sounds in Splice. That one thing of just educating myself on what these sounds are actually even called allowed me to go from, “Hm, I hear this sound in my head. How the heck do I find it,” instead of getting bogged down and trying to tame a sample that’s not really meant for that type of sound into submission with some sort of audio effect and trying to shape it. You know, in the same sense that you can’t fix it in the mix, well if you start with a drum sample that’s an acoustic kick drum, trying to make it sound like an 808’s probably not gonna do so great.

Scott: Absolutely. And that’s such a good point, too, you know. This is nothing against the value of going in there and really trying to shape your drums or do something with the sample, but depending on what you’re trying to do, certainly having access to more of them and knowing what you’re kind of looking for and just getting a better sample. I had frustration with some of the things I’ve done where it just sounds like I’m … I thought this before, I was like, “I’m just making ’80s video game music.” Which is fine.

Ben: Exactly. And that’s the default, this sounds like crap, thing is this just sounds really ’80s and really MIDI-sounding Yamaha DX-7, like corny video game music, like PC game music from the early 2000’s or something.

Scott: Yeah, that’s a really good point.

Ben: Like that generic, really lame sound, and you just want to avoid that at all possible because it immediately throws your credibility out the window.

Scott: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, two very good points. Now, the next thing I wanted to ask is I know a lot of people out there have an interest in remixing, and that’s really blown up in years. I know there’s been some issue with SoundCloud and things like that on remixes, but I know a lot of people-

Ben: I’m sorry. I hope nobody from SoundCloud listens to podcasts. SoundCloud is horrible. They have absolutely, brutally destroyed anything that was good about it, which it really was years ago.

Scott: Oh, yeah.

Ben: It’s a total nightmare.

Scott: They were gonna go bankrupt, I just read an article, they secured another 170 million to keep them going.

Ben: That’s too bad. That’s too bad.

Scott: That’s too bad. You were hoping to put that puppy to rest.

Ben: I kinda was. Somebody would have picking up the pieces of it because there’s a model in there somewhere. They clearly just don’t have the right people running it. Not that I know a ton about business, but it went from this place where I wanted to go share my music to a place that I desperately want to avoid having it posted on. And that’s not good, that’s not good, you know. No producer should feel that way.

Scott: Oh, absolutely not.

Ben: And if my friends are any measure of that out there, people that produce to, they feel the same way.

Scott: For sure.

Ben: Yeah.

Scott: Well, bottom line, the point is, is that people do upload remixes to SoundCloud still, even if it’s a pain in the butt, but in the crash course, you actually walk through remixing in a step by step way, and we get to see you sort of build this remix. It’s awesome. You use “I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight” and do some really cool stuff with it.

Ben: There’s a significance behind that song. It was the number one single the week I was born.

Scott: That’s right. I think you did mention that in the video. My question is, Ben, what tips or advice might you have for folks who, they want to remix, and they want to do it well. They want to get in there either for pleasure or to, what lots of people do, to try to get their name out there and things like that. What tips would you have for that?

Ben: I’d say the most fundamental tip of remixing is have you figured out what it is that your take on this song is? And that’s kind of an obvious question. Well, yeah, that’s obviously … What the hell is the remix? It’s your take on a song. Of course that’s the first question. But what I mean by that is that are you trying to outdo the track that did the thing good better? Or are you trying to do some sort of different take? And what I mean by that is if the track was full time, are you gonna do it in a half time beat? If the track was a metal track, are you gonna take those vocals that were recorded and isolated as a metal vocal, but outside of the context of the guitars and drums around it, could you put something electronic and stark and turn it into a completely different moody song instead of an aggressive song?

You really have to say, what did this person do with this intention with this song? And did they do a really good job at it? Okay, cool. Well, if my remix is similar, does that really stand out or is that really boring because you already did that with a song?

Scott: Right.

Ben: You want to do something pretty different to make it captivating as a remix. If it’s an up tempo rock song, well, making kind of a house remix of it kinda might already be in the same level of what it was going for, and it might not be that interesting. So just from a genre standpoint and from an originality standpoint, you want to make sure that you’re doing something different to the song.

The other thing I’ll say that’s really wild is if you ever get stems for something, walk away from the original song for a long time, and just don’t listen to the song at all, and just load the stems into your digital audio workstation. And treat it as though here’s a vocal, here’s a drumbeat, or here’s a guitar, and I’m just gonna make my version of it without any context of what the original song was.

Scott: I like that.

Ben: And sometimes that’ll just create really cool results because it’s just really your take. You’re almost the producer of the record in this case except you’re not.

Scott: You’re completely remaking it, though, with a fresh perspective.

Ben: Right. And then the third would be a technical thing, to offer a technical perspective, and that’s with a capellas. Even to this day for me, with all of the warping software that’s available within Ableton and Flex Time and Logic, trying to get a vocal to sit on the timeline correctly is very, very, very, very difficult. When you’re trying to find a downbeat without any context of the drums, if it’s just an isolated vocal, you want to make sure from the original artist that you know the exact tempo that the original song was in and how it was recorded. Is the region of the vocal that you have, did it really start on the one? Because that’s gonna really be important for warping your vocals.

And then, are you treating the vocals, assuming you’re warping them in some way, or flexing them in some way, do you have it at the highest setting of the way it reads the algorithm, so it would be kinda the warping mode, in Ableton would be complex, that would be the highest mode. Or in Logic and Flex Time, do you have it set for polyphonic or do you have it set for rhythmic? Is it a vocal? Is rhythmic really the best thing to do for a vocal in terms of analyzing it? No. It’s probably better for drumbeat.

So you want to make sure that you’re also not distorting the vocals, which are gonna be very naked outside of the context of the original track. You want to make sure that they have the fullest fidelity possible, assuming you’re warping the tempo in some way, because I would assume that your remix probably isn’t going to be in the exact tempo that the original song would be.

So that would be three tips. It would be the way I see things in terms of just the big picture, and it would be some technical perspectives as well.

Scott: For sure. Now, kind of maybe the cousin of remixing is sampling. And, obviously, knowing what copyright law is and all this kind of stuff, but you covered sampling in the course and you, quite amazingly, took an Enya sample and put a trap beat on it.

Ben: I already forget what it sounds like.

Scott: It sounds pretty cool. If you still have that project, please do. I remember I was editing the video, and my wife was walking by, and I was like, “Megan, listen to this. This is awesome.” This is Enya, trap style.

Ben: Enya’s awesome.

Scott: Yeah. Oh, she’s great. What tips or advice, again, knowing that there is copyright law out there, and we should say that, you can’t just sample whatever. It’s not the 1980’s. The Beastie Boys are long gone. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. But, what tips or advice would you have for sampling to really do what you can do these days, which is develop musical ideas?

Ben: Well, you know, this is probably terrible advice, but it’s what I do, and it’s what mama don’t know, don’t hurt her. If you’re sampling something, and it’s obviously derivative of some major record, well, you’re either a) dumb for releasing it, or b) you’re intentionally trying to get sued to get press, which maybe isn’t such a horrible idea after all. That could be not a bad idea depending on if you have lawyers, money, or the ability to wiggle out of things.

The other thing I would say is you can warp a sound enough to turn it into a different sound to which point no possible way would anyone know where it’s coming from. The other thing would say, which goes back to my first point about it, was that if you release it blatantly and there’s a sample in it, and eventually somebody asks you to take it down, well sometimes if it’s popular enough, they may not do that and say, “Hey, instead, you have to give me 50% writer’s share.”

So, there’s different ways around it. You obviously won’t straight up be able to rip it without any sort of monetary consequences, but you might get some weird publicity around it. But if that’s not what you’re going for, then you really need to manipulate it way out of whack. It’s not like there’s not a computer software out there that just detects stuff like that, especially if it’s out of pitch or out of time. Our computers aren’t that smart yet.

Scott: As much as YouTube might want to do that, no.

Ben: Yeah. No, yeah, you’re right, yeah. If it’s line for line, obviously a SoundCloud or a YouTube will pick that up. But yeah, you just gotta be really careful, but I wouldn’t ever stop the temptation to sample. And the other thing I would say, the final thing I would say, maybe the most important part of this as I’m meandering to get to this point, is that if you … And I’ve done this with a track called “What’s In Store” on the Songs For A High School Dance LP that I did with City Rain. Or, I am City Rain, what am I saying?

And it was called “What’s In Store”, and the original sample in the track was the Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love”. And it’s a great 80’s beat, and so I designed an entire song around it and then just thought, “God, I just can’t release this.” So, I took it out, and I just found some other guitar sounds, but the entire song was built around that Tom Tom Club sample, but by virtue of me taking it out, I had already built an entire song around it and it still stood on its own without that sample. So that just means you were influenced by it, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. So sampling can have that benefit as well, even independent of and in lieu of the original sample being in the final audio.

Scott: Absolutely. I really like that, especially there’s so many people out there that obviously love music and things like that. If you have a song that inspires you and you got a little sample, why not try to build something around it, and then if you ultimately want to release it and it’s just not different enough, or you’re conservative and don’t want to put your neck out there, take it out and try to put something else in instead, and you might still have a great result.

Ben: Yeah. Absolutely.

Scott: So, one thing, and this kind of speaks to this because we’ve just been sort of talking about finding the right sounds for programming drums and samples and all these things, one thing I noticed while watching the videos you made, and just from what I’ve seen from you, Ben, throughout the years, is how instinctive you are these days when creating music in your DAW, in your DAW. It’s just like I know how this sounds, let’s try it. And, obviously, so much of that just comes from experience.

Ben:  It’s the Bob Ross approach to life, get some happy little trees over here. It could be your happy tree.

Scott: Yeah. Happy little snare there, you know.

Ben: Let’s try this.

Scott: So, obviously, a lot of that comes from just experience and developing your ear, and there’s no substitute for that.

Ben: No.

Scott: But, do you have any advice for folks who want to be more instinctive with their production choices and they, unfortunately can’t fast forward with ten years of experience under their belt, but today, they want to say, “I want to be more instinctive and all that.”

Ben: Sure. It absolutely comes from one thing and that is actively, and not passively in the very technical term, actively listening to music. Listen to music in your car, listen to music in your headphones, listen to music stoned, can I say that?

Scott: Yeah.

Ben: Listen to music after you’ve had a few drinks.

Scott: If you live in Colorado.

Ben: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen to music after a hangover. Listen to music when you’re angry. Listen to music when you’re sad. All of those things will make you listen to music differently, whether from an auditory standpoint, whether from an emotional standpoint, whether from a critical standpoint, all of those things are gonna make you listen to why that song affected you in that way and what was it about it? Was it a musical element? Was it a sonic element? What made your hair stand on end? What was it about that? Can you describe it? Can you write it down in adjectives? Can you actually write it down in words? And when you break it down into those adjectives, okay, well, what kind of instruments have this quality, or what kind of audio effects, reverb delay, have this quality? Why did it make you feel that way? You really have to be able, and I stress this a lot, and I think I did in the last podcast, you really have to speak good language.

Like Trump said, “I have good words. I have the best words.” You really do have to have a good vocabulary, and you have to have a critical ear, and you have to understand your own mind and your own conscious and your own emotionality, and you have to understand why you feel the way you do. So there has to be a lot of introspection involved. And when you’re able to tap into that introspection responsibly, and not too critically of yourself, you will be able to understand what it is about the music that you like that you want to create. And, instinctively, you will go to certain plug ins, or certain effects, or certain types of sounds that always make you feel the way you do.

And my biggest hero, Brian Eno, said in this video that I watched, he said … You know Brian Eno, Coldplay, U2, Joshua Tree, you know everything ever, he’s one of the greatest ever producers. David Bowie, et cetera. He said, “I’ve really only ever had one good idea, and I’ve just been doing it in different ways over and over and over again in my entire career.” And I kinda feel the same way. I feel like my one good idea is atmosphere. I create really good atmosphere, but I’ve just learned how to be a better producer and a better songwriter out of that fundamental building block that is unique, I think, to me.

So you gotta find that one thing about yourself that you know that you’re kinda good at or that you always look for in music, and then you can build technical skills around that, which will enhance that.

Scott: Yeah. And you know, one thing I want to kinda add to this. I read something somewhere and it was talking about the difference between experts and beginners and things like this, and it was talking about art. And about kind of the critical nature, the self-critical nature of if you’re a beginner, you can be like, “Oh, this is terrible.” You like writing and you write something, you’re like, “This is an awful story.” Or you like painting, “This is an awful painting.” And the thing is, is that because you’re doing it, you obviously have some level of taste. So if you listen to all that music … And you and I, we like music, right?

Ben: Yeah.

Scott: So we have, probably, pretty good taste in music. We know what we like. And so if you create something and you are unhappy with it or you don’t know where to go, don’t despair because what that is, is that is you need to develop the skills to find the type of skills-

Ben: Right. Don’t looking for it.

Scott: Exactly. To get what you want because your taste hasn’t changed. You know what you just made, you’re not happy with it because you’re like, “No, I know what this can be.” And so it’s just a matter of developing those skills.

Ben: And don’t be too hard on yourself because I mean, I can still think of two songs that I have written and not released that I just know don’t sound right, but I don’t know why they don’t sound right, but I know that it’s a great song, and I know it could be this epic, Harry Styles “Sign of the Times” type song. But I just haven’t found the right vehicle for it. But even two, three years later, you can’t give up on those kinds of ideas, and you have to really search hard and critically of why doesn’t it sound the way I want it to sound, and what is it about this other track I really like that really gives it that magic sparkle? But don’t beat up on yourself too hard. Nine times out of ten, I do wrangle the idea into submission. But, one times out of ten, it just goes on for a while and then, eventually, I come back to it and somehow I figured it out.

Scott: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. So, kind of moving, I guess, to maybe more technical, but producing a vocal. That is something that there’s mixing vocals, you can do pitch shifting, and all these crazy, awesome things, chopping things up. What tips or advice would you have for someone who … Especially, Ben, you had vocalists who were not yourself on your latest EP. What tips or advice would you have for someone who wants to really work with vocals and do cool things like that and wants great results? How do you get that?

Ben: Well, there’s a few parts to that question, so I’ll take the part about working with other vocalists. So, let’s say you are working with other vocalists. Not everybody that’s a producer is gonna necessarily be producing their own voice, and kinda the ironic thing is that I started out that way and I’ve been producing my own voice for seven, eight years before I started working with other vocalists. And that would be, number one, do you have the right person for the job? And have you listened to their voice, have you listened to the tambour of their voice, does it fit the genre you’re in? I made sure to do that first, is get that right.

Number two, can you, assuming they come into the studio and sounded completely different, or nervous, or out of practice, or anxious, and just aren’t delivering the vocal right, can you make somebody comfortable enough to get them there?

Scott: Get them there.

Ben: Do you have the language to, can you sing yourself? Can you explain to them that they should be singing in their chest versus their throat versus their head? How they should be hitting that note, whether the song should be put two steps down or two steps up to fit the middle of their vocal range? Those are really important things and that goes back to the point I made about what I learned on this record is going back to the basics. Does this person know how to sing? Did you know how to sing? Can you explain to them how to sing so that you can coach the best possible performance about them? It’s the same thing in football. If somebody has those intangibles in football coming out of college and they come in the NFL and they’re this really raw product, do you have the people, can you put the support system around this person to get the best possible product out on the field? And that’s the same with the vocalists.

As per a technical perspective, are you using a great microphone? Now, I think one of the things that I explained in the last podcast was, I think, a bit of an obsession that’s put on gear in terms of having the best gear possible, in terms of media controllers or this or that or audio interfaces. Those are all important things, but the one situation that I can tell you in modern music production that is actually extremely important how much money you spend on, it would be a microphone. The difference between and amateur record and a pro record can often, assuming that you have the skills to produce, is that the microphone that Muse is using, or U2 is using, or Kings of Leon are using is $10,000 and your microphone is $500. You know, as sad as that is to say, that can make a huge difference.

So, what I would say to that is, are you using your bedroom studio to record? Okay. Is your microphone good enough? All right, great. Let’s assume it’s not good enough. Can you put together 150 bucks to pay $50 an hour for a studio nearby to get a great microphone?

Scott: Just get that vocal.

Ben: These things are so important and they cannot be … You cannot cut corners on things like that. There’s so much you can cut corners on these days in music production to get the pro sound on a budget level, but that’s one of those things that you really can’t circumvent.

Scott: Mm-hmm (affirmative). For sure. And then I guess my last question is, is so okay, once you get the vocal recorded, it’s sounding good, whatever, you’ve coached them up, you’ve done all that good stuff, and then you go to start chopping, or pitch shifting, or just really messing around in there. Do you have any advice on how to do that well?

Ben: Sure. I’ll just give some direct advice from my record. If you listen to the track “Daydreaming” with Caitlin Hoffert on my record, or if you listen to the single “I Already Know” with Joannie, you’ll hear these bridges that have this really cool vocal manipulation using Logic Flex Time. And I actually watched a tutorial video on how to do it, so what I did first was I found the sounds of the voice that I wanted first. Like a ah, or a oo, or a long aaah. And I cut those up and I worried about rhythm first, meaning I didn’t even worry about the melody. I just wanted to get a ah, ah, ah, ahh, ah, ah, ah, aah, whatever it was, right?

Scott: Right.

Ben: Then, once I had the rhythm, I consolidated that into one file using the J command, and then I put it back into Flex Time, and in Flex Time it gives each transient, or each part of the voice basically a MIDI note, just like you would in Melodyne. And then I used those MIDI notes to just draw out a melody that was in key with the song. So I worried about the rhythm first, then the melody, and then, in between the notes themselves, you could actually adjust the vibrato to how it would pitch into each note. And that’s how I got those really wild sounds that just sound otherworldly. And, you know, it’s stuff that you hear on modern pop tracks, it’s just really cool.

Scott: For sure. Yeah, no, that’s a cool step by step, because you’re building something.

Ben: Right, right. And just kind of a very, like you said, step by step way to do something that seems really kind of ethereal, but it’s actually really practical when you break it down into its parts.

Scott: Right on. So, we actually recently, here on the Audio Skills Podcast, had a whole episode about audio effects and how great they can be for a project. People are using effects often in music production, depending on the genre or whatever, but they can also … If they’re used to heavily, especially some people who are newer to this, it can make it an overly wet mess, for lack of a better term.

Ben: Sure.

Scott: So what tips or advice do you have for folks just with using effects. How do you approach effects, how do you use them and, I guess, preserve the integrity of the track and create this great atmosphere, which you’ve kinda mentioned as something that you feel is what you do best.

Ben: Right. Well, I mean, first of all … Wait, can you just say the last part of that question again. I didn’t get that last part.

Scott: Just tips and advice for using effects for getting good results and creating good atmosphere and all that.

Ben: I would say one of the most important things is not necessarily gain structure, but signal path. One of the biggest things that people never really think about is, should my compressor be before my EQ, or after my EQ, or should the reverb be before this or after this? Well, depending on how you have things set up, that signal path could wildly change how the sound is. So that’s one part.

The other part, I would say, is thinking about the dimension of a track. So it goes back to language again. What I mean by that is, when you think about forward and backwards, front to back, left to right, in a mix, you’re talking about two words. You’re talking panorama, left, right, center. And you’re talking dimension, front of the mix, middle of the mix, back of the mix. And so when you think about that, then you think about audio effects: delay, reverb, compression, distortion, panning. What are those doing to the panorama and the dimension of the mix?

And then, probably the most important thing you’re gonna wanna think in regards to all of those things is what is my primary, my secondary, my third, and my fourth element? I’m obviously thinking that my primary element’s gonna be a vocal. My secondary could be a synth line or drums. And then, that third and fourth thing could be a sound, or a pad, or a vocal chop, or some other extra thing happening in the background.

If I have more than those elements going on based on how I’ve either composed the song or how I’ve used audio effects to manipulate sounds, then you’re gonna get into the level of having a distracting mix that doesn’t have a lot of focus.

Scott: Right.

Ben: All the choices that you make with audio effects, you want to think, “Cool. That sounds cool, but does that sound cool in the context of the track, or does that just sound cool? And are we kind of carrying on a little bit with this, or is this actually adding something functional to the song that wasn’t there. That’s really important and breaking it down to the language of where is it in the mix, the panorama, the dimension, is this a primary limit, is it a secondary, is this third, is this fourth, and is this too distracting? Those are gonna empower you to make the best possible decisions with audio effects, independent of some sort of specific technical tip. I mean, I use reverb over everything. I’m obsessed with reverb. But, if I have something that’s drenched in reverb, well then I’ve gotta have two or three other things that are completely dry and at the front of the mix so that there’s context, and that’s what’s important, context.

Scott: That’s a really great point, and you know, Ben, I listen to your stuff, and it’s great, I love it. And it’s interesting kind of hearing, “Oh, wow. So he is using a lot of reverb, but it doesn’t sound like it’s all just drenched, it’s all just because you’re balancing it out, and you’re thinking critically, “Okay, how is everything spaced out? Does everything have a place?”

It’s funny, I just was thinking about this analogy about how it’s almost like cooking. Like if you were making a stew, you have your main ingredients of the stew, and of course you want to throw in some spices and some other things, but if you just start dumping all sorts of stuff in there, you’re gonna end up not tasting the beef, or whatever. And it’s like that with music, you want to keep those main elements, for sure.

Ben: Absolutely.

Scott: So, okay, we were just talking about, you mentioned compression and other facts and things. We, actually, also had a whole show on compression a bit ago. And, I’m curious, what’s your best tip or piece of advice for using compression when producing and not overdoing it?

Ben: Sure. Well, really, it’s kind of the inverse of that. I mean, here’s where compression should be on, in theory, I think. And this is different for everyone, and there’s obviously no hard and fast rules here.

Scott: Of course.

Ben: I think the drums deserve some reverb. I think the bass might not even need any reverb, but all, generally speaking, bass producing instruments have compression or gain of their own. I think that a vocal should have compression.

Scott: Yeah, just to kind of reign it in a little bit?

Ben: Yeah, and that’s about it. I mean, if you’re just putting compression on everything, you’re just kinda dicking around, and you’re just destroying the gain and the dynamic, or the dynamics of the track. I mean, that’s really it. That’s the only thing that compression should be on. Why would it be on anything else, unless you’re doing some crazy effect, like side chain compression or just some super weird thing that’s supposed to aurally confuse and then reign in listeners, which I’ve heard done really well in certain types of dance music like French House where they’ll just have ridiculous compression. You know, like Daft Punk’s records.

Scott: Sure.

Ben: That song “One More Time”. It’s got just some crazy compression on it where the side chain is so hard that the whole track almost feels side chained.

Scott: Yeah, oh yeah.

Ben: You know what I mean? Which is cool, and that’s an effect, and that’s a thing you can go for, but beyond that, there’s no reason to put compression on everything. The only thing compression is for is to reign in certain elements. It doesn’t make your mix louder, that’s not what it does. And then, obviously, the master track itself, of which I have a pretty intense chain, usually, on my master track.

Scott: Sure. And I think you made such a good point, especially people who are either newer, or they’re like, “I’m really trying to get better.” There’s this temptation that it’s like, “Oh, well, compression, that makes it good and I have to put compression on it now.” And it’s like, “Yeah, but what’s your goal?”

Ben: Yeah, yeah, why?

Scott: Does it really need compression? No, that’s a really good point, and actually, since you were just mentioning your master buss there, your mix buss, what kind of things would you normally put on your-

Ben: Sure, I can tell you exactly what’s on my master mix buss.

Scott: Yeah, please, please.

Ben: So I have, let’s see, the first thing I probably have is some sort of channel EQ or a FabFilter Pro-Q, and I’m cutting off completely with a high cut, like 16,500 kilohertz off the top because most humans just can’t hear past that, so there’s no reason to have any of that. So you can get a little gain back by taking that out. I delete more-

Scott: Your dog fans are gonna be disappointed, though.

Ben: Yeah, yeah, the dog … Yeah, exactly. I love that. The dog fans will be upset with the lack of shrill noise. Yeah, they’re like the whistle. But, the low end I take a low cut, under like 25 hertz, maybe 20 hertz, because I’ve often found that if I don’t do that and I put it in a car, that I’ve forgot about some stuff that I just couldn’t even hear on any other monitoring system.

Scott: Yeah, and that’s just kinda low end bleh.

Ben: Just bleh, yeah. It’s not really adding anything other than just a rumble. So then, I would have a compressor of some kind. These days I’m using a Slate Digital FG-X mastering limiter, which I got through Slate’s $15 a month bundle deal, which is freaking phenomenal.

Scott: Right on.

Ben: I might even throw a Slate Virtual Mix rack after that that has these awesome kind of emulations of digital analog gear, or it’s a digital replication of analog gear. And one of those is just this plugin called Earth and Air, and the Air gives air to the track, and the Earth gives bass to the track, which is basically it’s just really brings out this kind of cool sheen and crisp to the top end-

Scott: Does it give it that kinda analog warmth? I think so many people want that warmth.

Ben: Yeah, that’s exactly what it does is it kinda gives it that oomph and that warmth to it. Then, I’m using a FabFilter Pro-MB, which is multiband compression, and that’s often used to actually turn stuff down, not up. And what that is, is I’m usually turning down my upper mids with the multiband compression to reign those in because that’s often where you’re gonna be mixing a lot of stuff in vocals, guitars, et cetera, and it can get really shrill and really harsh, and sometimes you just need to pull that back.

And then, the last thing I’m probably using in the chain, or maybe that Slate Digital is last, and the second to last would be Ozone Elements, one of their mastering presets, it’s called Stereo Imaging Enhance. Basically, what that does is that kinda just gives a width to the track that you hear a lot in pop music, it’s just a stereo imaging plugin that just gives it this kind of wideness to it. Assuming I had all my gain structure correct in my mix and I’ve turned everything down so it’s spiking at around six decibels, three decibels, having that mastering chain on there is giving me enough room to turn stuff up without losing dynamics and get that overall sheen and clean punch that I really like.

Scott: Right on. Well, Ben, I wanted to thank you so, so much for coming on the show again today and sharing your knowledge.

Ben: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me, I always enjoy it.

Scott: Right on. Well, that’s gonna do it for our show today. If anyone would like to learn more about Ben’s work or listen to his music, you can head on over to his site BenRunyan.com. You can also search for his latest EP on Spotify under J U S T P R O C E S S. You can also, if you want to learn more from Ben and really dive in, you can check out on AudioSkills.com the music production crash course, which is just awesome and Ben kind of walks you through so many of his techniques, and you can really hear how he does things and see it in action.

Thank you so much for listening today and as a reminder for links and information about today’s show and our guest, please check out our show notes at AudioSkills.com/Podcast. No matter where you are, what your skill level is, what gear you have, just go out there and make some great music.

Not Sure The Best Way To Get Started?
Here are some of my best resources to help you get started FAST...

=== Watch & Listen ===

=== The Essentials (Everything You Need To Get Started) ===

Free Guides: 121 Mixing Tips 'n' Tricks | 47 EQ Tips 'n' Tricks | 47 Compression Tips 'n' Tricks | EQ Cheat Sheet | Compression Cheat Sheet | Home Recording Cheat Sheet | Mastering Cheat Sheet | Music Production Cheat Sheet | Top 20 DAWs

=== Go Even Deeper With Premium Video Courses ===

~~~ "Just Give Me Everything, Please!" ~~~

Get instant access to ALL of the video courses (plus a whole lot more) with a Free 14 Day Trial to AudioSkills. You'll be joining a private, friendly community of musicians and producers who are upping their game, just like you!

Click Here to Start a Free Trial

Personal Note: Thank you for being a member of the AudioSkills community! If there's anything you need, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me on Facebook. — Scott Hawksworth, Founder