Making Music with Melissa

A few weeks ago, Melissa answered my ad and sent me a clip of something she was working on with another producer.

It was so good. Radio-ready pop music, with that huge sound.

Now she wanted to work with me. I told her I’d try, but I’d never made anything that big before.

Pop music, from a production standpoint, is some of the most complex music to arrange and compose. Listen to any current song on the radio and just freaking try to count the tracks. These guys have m-o-n-e-y, which means time to work on stuff and the best and newest gear available.

Melissa is not just a super talented singer and songwriter, she also knows her way around a DAW, which made my job a little easier. She uses Logic. For our first song, she gave me something she’d already put together on her own home computer. I was pretty impressed.

Now my job was to make it into something that took it from an out-of-the-box sketch to a demo-level song that could catch the ears of people used to the good stuff. Did I say was– I mean IS. I’m not done with this song by a long shot.

Melissa sent me the midi files of all the tracks, but the drum loops were just samples, so I needed to turn them into midi files so I could add fills, create dynamics, etc. So I took that on first. And boy did I learn a LOT.

There were three drum tracks, all basic breakbeat loops– hi hat, snare and kick. What I did was listen to the kick over and over again so I recognized the pattern. Then I found sounds from my great big drum library and played along. Of course, I didn’t get it completely right, but that’s what the quantize button is for.

Then I did the same thing with the snare. The hi hats were the easiest, of course, because they’re just every quarter note.

This took forever– and one of the tracks I just couldn’t get right. I worked and worked on it. One track, though, I finally nailed. I was so happy– I showed it to Jason right away. He said I did a great job. We were at the studio, and Brian Penny, the 3 egg head engineer, was there. He’s always super helpful and friendly to me, too.

He told me I should use this thing in Protools that allows me to tab to transients.

I had no idea what he was talking about. (This happens to me a fair amount of time when I talk to recording engineers.) I thought I’d ask Jason in detail about it later. But I don’t use Protools. I figured he was just using recording software language, like how “freeze” and “flatten” have different meanings when you’re talking about tracks.

So as I was listening to the MILLIONTH time to this one track that I couldn’t get quite right, I noticed something.

You could visually match up the waves on the drum sample to the midi notes.

God DAMN it, I thought, why didn’t I do that earlier????

Jason walked in from mixing Ken South Rock and asked how I was doing.

“Oh, pretty good,” I said, “but I just realized I could visually place these drums by looking at the wave forms.”

He reacted very strangely to this. “You didn’t know that?” he said.


“So how did you do that drum track???” he asked.

“Well, I TOLD you I was getting frustrated at how long it was taking,” I said.

He laughed and laughed. Apparently, that’s what Brian had been talking about. Transients are a fancy word for wave forms.

Here’s the thing– I’m a musician. I have a good ear. I’ve taken a few drum lessons from Adam. And I’ve been recording myself for four years. But all that first semester in recording engineer school knowledge– THAT’S the stuff I don’t know. I’m a freaking idiot savant.

The good news about that is it won’t take me too long to get up to speed. The bad news is that this is probably not the last time I’m going to do something the long, almost impossible way because I don’t know any better.

PS In Ableton 8, you can automatically generate a midi version of a drum sample. And that’s the punch line.


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