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Sounding Off: Paul Thomson

You've got to humanise!
Published May 2007

Sounding OffAbout The Author: Paul Thomson makes a living writing music for TV, but he has also produced records for a number of major labels. His musical misdemeanours can be examined in detail at www.synesthesia.net

People often say that music has a life of its own, but what does this mean for the music creator? I suppose, in one form, music spreads from person to person, organically under its own momentum (or so we hope), and it's the reaction of the listener that brings the music maker one of their most satisfying rewards. But if we look at the process of music making, and how it affects the character of the end product we create, are we destroying the 'life' of a piece of music with the ever-increasing 'virtualisation' of many of the tools we use to produce it?

Despite my use of sounds from a long list of virtual instruments, I always try to achieve human interaction in my music; interaction that I'm convinced is communicated in the end result, irrespective of the listener's musical knowledge or ability. But what do I mean by 'human interaction'? Well, there are several techniques I will always employ. I am a good keyboardist, so when recording performances on the keyboard, I'll rarely quantise; instead, I'll keep doing takes until I have the right feel. I'm not such a good guitarist, so I will often record my guitar parts concentrating solely on tone, and then cut those takes up into a tighter part. When it comes to drums and percussion, I will usually do some quantising of a basic programmed beat, but then I'll set up a mic and bang along on my various percussion toys to get some human feeling and studio 'air' into the groove. When sequencing string or other orchestral parts using one of my virtual instruments, I will always use the patch with the most control, and I look out for mod-wheel crossfade patches instead of velocity-sensitive ones, and round-robin phrases for drums and percussion, instead of straight loops. I typically ride the mod wheel and expression pedal on every pass for every instrument, the aim being to get as much human musical feel into the recording as possible. I am a pretty good clarinetist too so, however insignificant it is, the clarinet part is always recorded live, then 'sunk in' to the virtual orchestra.

When I have finished sequencing the virtual instruments, I will try more things to add to what Bruce Swedien (Quincy Jones' engineer) calls the 'sonic personality' of the recording. I'll try running parts out of Pro Tools and back in through my favourite hardware compressor, but I'll leave the threshold high enough so that it's not really compressing, just adding a new and very faint colour to the sound. Sometimes I play a part out through the studio monitors and record it back in through a few different mics to see what happens.

Finally, the biggest boost that can ever be added to a recording, in my opinion (and in some ways it's more important than anything I have mentioned so far), is the involvement of another human being. However small the budget is for the track, I will always get at least one musician to come in and play something. This has a number of benefits, the most obvious one being the synergy that occurs when you add someone else's musical personality to your recording. Sometimes the difference can be as stark as switching from mono to stereo!

Bearing in mind the relatively low basic session fee set by the MU, even one decent player can be the best possible investment you can make in your work: far more worthwhile than spending your money on the latest plug-in. The benefits multiply dramatically as you add players. On one TV drama I scored recently, I only had budget for four players. I got them to play solo parts, which I doubled in software. However good I thought my virtual orchestra was, the track sounded a hundred times better with the live parts over the top.

Even if you can't afford to employ some professional players (maybe you're recording your own projects for pleasure), the are plenty of young or amateur musicians out there who are happy to 'trade' their skills. Perhaps you can play on each other's recordings, or maybe you can offer to record a demo for a musician in return for some playing on your track. (If you are earning money from your music though, it goes without saying that it's only fair to pay the going rate to any musicians who work on your recordings.)

We all want to give our music a life of its own. I'd say the best way to do that is to humanise it as much as possible, bring more 'sonic personality' to your virtual instrument tracks, and work as much live performance into the recordings as you can. Remember: just one great musician is the best investment you can ever make in your track! 

Published May 2007