Real Instruments In Electronic Music

Not specifically renoise, more a general thing…

It’s a bit quiet today so I thought, during the day I’ll write this guide to using live instruments in electronic music. After all, I use them a lot and people have asked before how i get them to mix without much bother, so here we go…

1: Recording

For a number of reasons including my neighbours I don’t mic up an amp and record it that way. The way I see it, if you record from an amp with a mic you are permanently striping that guitar track with the addition/removal of frequencies and harmonics that may, during mixdown not work that well in the end. In the box amp simulators are very good these days, especuially inside a complex mix.

In this case I’m not saying that is how you SHOULD do it, just that’s how I do it. Micing an amp may work for you, I just can’t really do it in my house and prefer the flexibility i get from doing the work inside my DAW. If you have an awesome hardware valve amp then, of course use the damn thing!

When it comes to acoustic instruments, obviously you have to use a mic and here there’s a few things you need to think about when using your mic aside from not sticking it up your ass.

background noise:
If you’re recording in the room with your comupter and it has a loud fan then make sure you’re the hell away from it and if you use a condenser mic then preferably you’ll want to use a gate in your DAW once it’s recorded because it WILL pick up stuff. And use headphones for gods sakes!

Input Level:
Basically make sure the input is as loud as it can be without distorting the signal (unless you want that) this will reduce the amount of background noise from cables, electrics, all the rubbish you don’t want.

If you’re close micing with a dynamic like a shure SM57/SM58 etc then resist that temptation to perform like you’re on stage. Every movement you make changes the mics position relative to your instrument which will result in changes in the frequency spectrum that you’d rather not spend half an hour automating EQ plugins to fix.

2: Performance.

Ok, this is the Duke of New York, A number One. If you’re an incredibly accomplished instrumentalist then you can probably skip this bit except for the “Don’t play above your ability” section, which, I’m afraid, applies even to YOU.

There are a few factors here, emotion, dynamics, note choices and timing. You could argue emotion ties all these together but unless you’ve been playing for years, you’ll need to put a bit of thought in first so…

As in “how hard do you hit stuff”
With this you need to think about the musical surroundings, is it a soft track? If so then battering the strings or drum is a likely to be a bad idea unless you’re doing it for a specific reason, conversely if it’s a powernoise track then fingerpicked soft acoustic guitar or soft harp might not work UNLESS that’s exactly what you’re going for.
Think of dynamics like keyboard velocity or if you don’t use velocity think about dynamics like raising or lowering the cutoff frequency of a synth, especially as live instruments make brighter sounds the harder you hit them because the high frequency content increases and travels better.

Note Choices:
The great thing about using real instruments is, partially, the ability to comfortably improvise, but as always, keep it appropriate. If the rest of your track is sludgey then a widdly widdly solo is unlikely to work. Think of using your instrument the way you would a synth part, as part of the whole rather than the focus because that’s how you want people to hear it. Sometimes playing one note where you want to put 20 is the better choice.

Big deal this one.
This is the main reason most peoples live instruments sound like they’ve been badly crowbarred in. You have a metronomic programmed background and in order to fit in with that you have to be accurate… Not pin accurate but accurate ENOUGH. Also the more metronomic your background the more accurate you have to be. If everything is loose timing wise it won’t sound out of place but if everything else is machine accurate and you’re not close enough it’ll stand out like a sore thumb up a badgers backside.

Don’t be afraid to record many times and cut out good bits and move them around. It’s not the 80s any more you don’t have to one take the whole song.

Your other options are humanise your midi tracks or use timestretching to pull your performance in time. Now these obviously affect either the whole track or the sound of your performance in some way. You might WANT the altered and odd sound you get from a timestretched instrument as it might work better for your track. Of course it might ruin it too, depends on the track.

If your best performance is still slightly off timewise you might be able to save it by cutting high frequencies. In my experience the human ear is more sensitive to timing errors at high frequencies. And talking of timing…

Don’t play above your ability:
The closer you get to the edge of your standard as an instrumentalist the more your timing goes out the window and the more it just… sounds… awful…
People are more impressed by something simple played well than badly played widdle. Even if it’s well played widdle, sorry, nobody cares.
That’s right.

Yhat complex lick you learned? Not bothered, sorry.

Remember Yngwie Malmsteen? Yeah, rubbish wasn’t he.

You don’t want to be Yngwie Malmsteen do you?

Get comfortable with your part and try and put some soul into it. Preferably get to the point when you “go blind” or are “in the zone”. Basically everything else in the world will disappear and you won’t even realize you’ve been playing if you get this perfect.
But don’t worry if you don’t. You can record a great part without going blind and your ears will tell you whether it sucks or not when you listen back.

3: Processing

Ok, listen to what you’ve recorded.
First thing you notice is it doesn’t sound as pristine as a sample library. Reason being is that sample libraries are already processed in a studio, mic’d up perfectly with hyper expensive mics and then compressed with really nice hardware compressors. Also your part has been played by a human, so the performance will be much more dynamic on your recording unless you have gods own sample library.

Now, one thing you DO need is some form of dynamics processing. Whether that be a compressor, overdrive, distortion or bitcrusher but when you use these bear in mind one thing…

If you’ve been used to doing everything in the box before you’ll suddenly discover this thing called “noise”.

If you’ve done your best to remove this at the recording stage it should be fairly minimal and a mix of using a gate and chopping out the audio when there is nothing should be enough to fix it. Make sure you put the gate before ANYTHING else otherwise any kind of processing will alter the signal and effect the noise too, possibly increasing it.

Now, we have audio we can work with…

So treat it like anything else, use the same reverbs, echos, fx, chopping. At this point stop thinking of it as a real instrument and just treat it like any other piece of source material. Want to filter sweep it? Go for it. Sidechain it to the bassdrum? Sure.

One way to make sure your instrument feels out of place is to treat it differently to the rest of your mix. Once it’s in it is simply source material. Tear it to pieces, saturate it, grain it, flange it, treat it the way you would a drum loop or bass part or synth part.

So there we go… a short but TL;DR guide to the basics of using real instruments in electronic tracks.

Now feel free to tell me how I’m doing it wrong, internet… after all… IT’S WHAT YOU’RE BEST AT!!!1!!!

If you also want to perform the song live, doing exactly that is the prefered way to get trained though :)

Yeah it is, but in essence that’s what practise is for. :)

Not sure I agree completely. Recording studio is not a place for practice IMO. Even if the studio is in your bedroom. By the time you start recording the track you should be able to play it at least well enough to get a proper recording. Unless of course you record specifically with the purpose of improving your playing skills.

Now that depends on how you look at it. If you’re in the middle of writing a track and you feel like you want, say a bass guitar part in there, I stick the thing on a loop and figure out what i want to do. then I record it enough times to get 2-3 good takes out of it and then chop and arrange. After all we’re talking about getting a good take while still allowing your creativity to flow so the whole recording process is just another stage rather than… Ok, now I have to sit here for 2 hours practising a riff before even thinking of recording it…

As to practising the arrangement, listening to your track while writing does that anyway and helps practise without practise.

Some good advice there, as you’re saying it’s not specific for Renoise but can be applied to just about any setup.

Shameless plug: I use the Recorder tool for this. It’s perfect when you are away from the keyboard/screen, and want to record a multitude of takes.

Ooh nice. Not seen that before.

Great post, +1. Thanks for your effort.

I’d like to quickly add into the list of issues for recording the following:

  1. ADC quality. Yup, some sound better than others.

  2. Pre-amp colour. Op-amp quality, tube selection, saturation level, transformer quality - all these things are factors to consider in going for that sound you are after. The range of choices is massive, and the debate still rages over what is good for what.

  3. In-line hardware compression. Up until recently I never ever dare think of putting a compressor in the recording line, but I heard some dbx compression on input material and realised that it was a wonderful sound that just couldn’t be done with DSPs. We’re talking very gentle, open and clean compression, but there nonetheless.

Other forums and websites go into this stuff in detail. We’re lucky these days that a lot of this information is public.

nice post! you might be interested in my band/duo…ZEROBEAT.

all the tunes are recorded in one take (with lots of practice prior) using a roland td-20 drums and a guitar with midi pickups. all played through renoise for effect and program changes. i posted our video in the songs forum on here.

Yes! I knew someone must’ve done this kind of tool. I don’t know how I missed this one. Got to try out. Judging by the Fact that it actually has a manual, I’d say it will be good… :)

Great thread start post also.

I tried to read this Recorder_0.97.pdf document. The server is offline or otherwise unreachable as a message of my browser tells me. Anyone please has a hint/link where to find this document elsewere in the net? Maybe just telling me the name of the mentioned recorder would help me out so i can search on my own then. Just searching for the filename didnt show any useful findings. And the comments on this recorder sounds interesting enough for me to ask, heh. :D