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CLICKS AND VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS

Resolume Arena 4  running on a MacBook Pro atop a piano by a metronome

Resolume Arena 4 running on a MacBook Pro atop a piano by a metronome – old technology meets new technology

 

Today I’m writing about clicks and virtual instruments.

A click is a steady beat pulse played by any short percussive and hopefully musical sound, at a fixed tempo chosen by the user.

A click instrument is a virtual instrument specifically designed to provide a click.  It offers a small selection of sounds suitable for the purpose, ranging from the short computer bleeps of yesteryear to (more or less) pitched percussion instruments like agogo or conga or woodblock.

This is about the only time you are allowed to ask for more cowbell.

The idea is that you play along to it, staying as close to in time with it as you can manage.   After you have finished recording your first track or tracks alongside the fixed tempo click, there will be a map of your song that already fits a specified timing grid known and understood by the DAW.  Now you can use the many benefits of the DAW, such as overdubbing virtual instrumentation, creating cool loops from some or all of what you’ve just recorded, or performing tricky timing or pitch edits, all matching the DAW’s tempo map for that particular session.

This can happen immediately alongside the freshly recorded tracks, since you are working in a known tempo relationship with the music you just recorded.

Keeping good time with a click is not easy at first, but very soon becomes much simpler to do.  It’s a skill that gets better with time, like anything else, and you’ll want to develop great timing skills if you want great results in most recording situations.   Practice makes perfect.  You’ll find you can swing and manage most time feels against a click with ease if you practice playing to clicks for whole songs at a time.

Originally, a click was a metronome but then it became an electronic metronome, a box the engineer would run during the session with it’s output fed to a tape track and often even printed to tape for the duration of the session if a blank track was available.

Nowadays it typically resides in your DAW.  You can simply select Create Click Track in a menu in most DAWs to generate a track containing a click instrument.  Keep practicing until you are comfortable with it.  It makes all the tasks the DAW is so good at so much easier to do once you’ve captured your audio alongside the tempo.

If you need to change tempo mid-song, or program a slowing or speeding up part to get to a new tempo or finish the song’s ending, you will be able to do so using the DAW sequencer’s tempo edit controls.  Check your DAW manual, it’s not hard to deal with these tempo changes.  You can even draw them in on the fly with an editing tool like the Edit Pencil and it’s like, as seen in all DAWs.

Do try to keep the click at a moderate level in your headphones,  so you don’t record it into open microphones any more than necessary.  It’s very good at getting into open mics.   You will probably need to have it pretty loud in your headphones so you can hear it at all times, but when you’ve used a click a lot it becomes easier to keep it quieter during recording and still stay comfortably in tempo while maintaining a musical feel to your playing.

You will also want to watch your hearing – it can be earwax-provoking if you use a really sharp percussive sound for a number of takes to help you stay in time!  Maybe aim for smoother, rounder sounds like woodblock or cowbell.

Finally, watch out for the click continuing to play at high levels through very quiet musical passages – for instance, the fading last note of a song, where a click spilling into a mic can be particularly harmful because nobody is playing any more but everyone is listening intently to that last note die away.

You can automate the mute or level controls of your DAW to control this aspect if you have previously decided upon your song’s structure.  You will know when the bars appear that will be a problem, and you simply prep the DAW click track’s automation data in advance of your recording session, so it mutes or simply turns down the click at the right moments.  If you find you still need the click in a quiet breakdown section to come in at the right place yourself, you just turn it much lower during only that section so you hear it but it doesn’t cause spill issues, and turn it back up for when you are in again, all via automation.

If automation is confusing you, you can simply record the click to an audio track and then edit the recorded click itself.

Have fun learning to play with and use clicks, because they are amazingly useful and really unlock the power of the DAW in the fastest way.

VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS

Far more sophisticated virtual instruments than “click tracks” come already built into your DAW these days, included at time of purchase and updated, hopefully fairly regularly, via your internet connection.

A virtual instrument is a plug-in or standalone instrument that exists only in software and runs on a computer, either on it’s own as a discrete application or as a plug-in inside a so-called “host”, your DAW application.   It can generate audio and is controlled by MIDI.  MIDI will be the subject of my next few blogposts.

Virtual instruments are bundled with host DAW applications, of course, but you can also find a seemingly endless variety of instruments available to add to your collection.

When choosing new instruments for your DAW, remember they are software products.  Check that their technical specs and system requirements such as processor and platform do permit you to use it in your DAW software and on all the specific computer(s) you intend to run it on.

Often, they are protected by a USB dongle (a small USB drive that stores validation data), for example the iLok, or by an online  validation process.  In both cases, it is possible to use the instrument on other systems than your own provided you use the dongle or validate the software for the time you are using the other system, for instance in another studio than your own.

Typically, they are inserted as a plug-in on appropriate track types – those which can record or playback MIDI information programmed in, or played in at the track’s input.   The types of tracks that can be used for virtual instruments are known as either MIDI tracks or Instrument tracks in most DAWs.

The simplest workflow is to create an Instrument track and insert your virtual instrument plug-in in an available slot in the Inserts part of your Instrument track’s channel strip in the mixer window of your DAW.  Route the output of the track (if it isn’t already so routed) so you can hear the output when you play back some MIDI note data on the track or when you play your attached MIDI keyboard.  Hearing sound, given MIDI getting to the track, usually means selecting the MAIN or PROGRAM or MASTER fader as your output choice on the appropriate drop-down menu.

You will need the MIDI keyboard recognized by the system for this to work, and I’ll discuss MIDI at length over the next five days or so.

THE COOLNESS OF VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS

What sort of instruments can you get?  Well, you name it, they’ve almost certainly made it into a plug-in.  I don’t care how exotic the instrument is, it’s been released in plug-in form.  This means you have plenty of variety, in fact an enormous range of tonal options for your song productions.

You can use everything from one instrument to whole production factories in a single plug-in.

A single instrument might be a superb rendering in VI (Virtual Instrument) form of a single venerable acoustic upright piano such as the Abbey Road and Native Instruments software version of the “Mrs. Mills” piano in the iconic UK studio.  That piano was used on The Beatle’s “Lady Madonna” and countless other great records in pop and rock history.  Mrs. Mills was a piano-playing icon of popular music in simpler times when folks gathered round the upright in the pub to sing songs together, and she had many hit albums of her singalong piano style.

A step up, complexity-wise and tonal options-wise, are the plug-ins that give you a selection of related instruments, such as various versions of electric pianos or organs.  There are many fine products out there doing these traditional instruments in virtual form.

At the other end of the complexity scale, there are companies like Spectrasonics making immensely powerful and sophisticated programs that run as VI plug-ins.  They are relatively simple to operate, with basic interface controls on multiple pages and multiple views of the controls, together allowing all kinds of things to be done.   They are extremely deep when explored fully, giving you endless variations of all manner of sounds and rhythms.   Often, from only one instance of the plug-in on a single Instrument track, an entire production can be generated with nothing to add but your voice.  Go to your local music store’s website and look around at what virtual instruments they are selling.  It’s truly amazing.

I can recommend anything by Digidesign, provided you run ProTools, since all their instruments are excellent.   Whatever DAW you are using, you will get fantastic results from products by Spectrasonics, Izotope, Arturia, Waves, and many, many others.

Enjoy exploring the world of virtual instruments by making the most of free trial downloads, and read the online help or manual to see what the product is capable of.  Scroll through the vast libraries of sounds and grooves, and learn how to trigger the instruments.  Perhaps write or play in a few bars of MIDI data, then loop the section and try different sounds each time the loop goes around.  Most of all, have fun!

I will blog about MIDI programming for the next five days, with tomorrow’s blog being “MIDI PROGRAMMING – MIDI = Musical Instrument Digital Interface”.  See you then!

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