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Getting Started, Part 2

Frequently Asked Questions By Mike Senior
Published April 2001

The SOS web site contains the answers to many music technology questions within its database of past articles, and if you need even more info, you could try an advanced search engine, such as that provided by Google or Altavista.The SOS web site contains the answers to many music technology questions within its database of past articles, and if you need even more info, you could try an advanced search engine, such as that provided by Google or Altavista.

Mike Senior answers more of those beginners' questions which prove to be not quite as basic as they seem.

<h3>Q. I'm doing a course assignment about synthesizers. Can you tell me what a VCA is, and how is it used (a) in a basic monosynth, (b) in a tremolo pedal, and (c) in a vocoder?</h3>

At SOS, we're forever getting emails such as this from students asking us, in effect, to answer their most recent essay question for them. We simply don't have the time to do this — and, in any case, it's pretty pointless to ask someone else to do your homework for you! However, the information required for course essay questions is usually not at all difficult to find. By mastering a few basic research techniques, you can almost always find what you need, no matter what the question is. So here are some methods that you can use to gather material if you're facing an essay question on a new topic.

If you have access to the Internet, as it appears almost all students now do, then SOS's web site will almost certainly provide a great starting‑point, with hundreds of past articles available free of charge within a searchable database. To take the example of the question above, entering the acronym 'VCA' into the SOS search engine (" target="_top ) brings up dozens of entries, including a directly relevant Synth Secrets article. Searching for 'vocoder' or 'tremolo' likewise turns up whole lists of other useful online articles.

The SOS web site may offer you all the information you feel you need on a subject, particularly in the case of the above question, but if you need more, then you'll have to look further afield on the Internet. The difficulty here is that the web is huge, so the only way to really get what you need is by using the most powerful search techniques. Just typing your question into the box at isn't really very likely to deliver what you're looking for...

The first thing to realise is that there are different types of search engine out there, each providing a particular balance of ease of use and searching muscle. For example, the Yahoo search site ( and a number of others like it simplify the task of searching by allowing you to mouse through hierarchical subject categories until you reach one relevant to you — a relatively painless affair. However, such databases have to be intelligently and subjectively assembled by salaried humans and, given the scale of the Internet, practicality therefore requires that the range of information provided be limited. Inevitably, the areas compromised are those that are concerned with less mainstream interests, such as pages on synthesiser theory.

On the other hand, there is search technology which can scan through web sites automatically, and which can therefore amass incredible amounts of search data. Though these search engines are much more powerful research tools, the downside is that they are more difficult to use — you have to decide what characterises the type of web page you wish to see. Good examples of such search engines can be found at the Altavista and Google web sites. However, you won't get the best out of them if you simply type 'VCA' into the first field you come across — I turned up almost 131000 sites for 'VCA' at (including the sites of the Virtual Community Association, the Video Corporation of America and the Victorian Canine Association), very few of which were at all relevant. To get the best from a search engine, you need to get your hands dirty and wrestle with its advanced search options.

Google's advanced search engine, at, is probably more immediately accessible than Altavista's, providing a series of boxes into which you can enter text for narrowing things down. Altavista's advanced search option has a much simpler interface, on the other hand, but requires you to learn a specific logical syntax. To show how using an advanced search facility can pay off, I managed to find around 30 pages relevant to the VCA question above in less time than it probably took to write the original question! The screenshots show the search terms I used for both Google and Altavista.

Obviously, if you don't have web access then the best places to find research material are libraries and book shops. A good strategy here is to use the catalogues to find the sections to look in, and then to browse along the shelves for useful related items. Don't forget to check the reference sections as well, as the dictionaries and encyclopaedias often have most of what you need, and already in a concise form — what's more, they'll often point you towards authoritative books on the subject. And bear in mind that, even if you do have web access, it's still worth using books and periodicals for your research, because books are usually vetted and edited by professionals, whereas web pages often aren't.

Q. What's the best synth to use for techno music?

Getting Started, Part 2Getting Started, Part 2If you want a keyboard synth for techno, there are many to choose from — so how exactly do you set about identifying the best one for your needs?If you want a keyboard synth for techno, there are many to choose from — so how exactly do you set about identifying the best one for your needs?Getting Started, Part 2

This is an example of possibly the most common type of question we receive here at SOS, and yet it is also a question that is unanswerable in any direct or definitive way. What might be a complete waste of cash to one musician could be an absolute essential to a million others. For example, some techno musicians won't use anything but authentic vintage analogue synths on their records, while other equally successful techno artists wouldn't touch the vagaries of analogue circuitry and interfacing with a 10‑foot pole! Choosing the right synth — or, while we're at it, the right sampler, mixer, sequencer, microphone, monitor... — is not something that can be done for you. The only person with first‑hand knowledge of what you want from a purchase is you.

Fortunately, obtaining an answer to such a question for yourself is, in principle, straightforward: you decide what you need this techno synth to do and then you find a synth that does these things. However, actually following this advice can involve a fair amount of research, and this is best tackled in a methodical manner.

To tackle the first issue (what you're going to require of a piece of equipment) you need to have a clear idea of the tasks it will face. Many prospective buyers can't necessarily make a balanced assessment of this — after all, many people buy new equipment to help them break into a new area of music production, and therefore have not had the chance to accumulate experience of the new arena they're entering. If our techno musician were new to this style of music production, then a good way of ascertaining its demands would be to find out about the recording habits of leading techno artists — how do they make their tracks and what kit are they using? The world is awash with information pertaining to this: for a start, artists' equipment and working‑methods are often discussed in biographies, and in newspaper and magazine articles. SOS is, of course, a particularly good source for such information, particularly as" target="_top not only contains seven years' worth of back issues and a search engine for finding relevant features, but also features a busy web forum specialising in music recording and production.

Useful information isn't restricted to the SOS site, however, and the Net in general is littered with potentially useful stuff, not least because of the thousands of mailing lists, web forums and newsgroups full of like‑minded people swapping tips — most forums will usually have at least one person willing to regale a prospective buyer with their opinions. For example,, www.the‑gas‑ and provide access to a large number of on‑line mailing lists and forums.

You should also be sure to not overlook the wealth of valuable free advice that can be gained simply by actually speaking to people: not just your friends and collegues, but also the performers at your local venue, anyone you know working at a local studio, music teachers and, of course, the staff at your local music shops.

As you amass advice, it's a good idea to make yourself a list of what facilities you think you need, and to update this list as and when you reassess these requirements. If you are working to a budget, then it will be extremely important to prioritise these needs so that you can make sure you at least cover your essential requirements at the price point you have selected. Make sure to keep very clearly in mind what it is you don't need, as sales people may sometimes attempt to convince you that the presence of a host of facilities you don't need will in some way be able to make up for the lack of something you really want.

Once you have made yourself a list of tasks that need to be accomplished by your new acquisition, you are in a strong position to start looking at specific units. If you've done the leg work researching your needs, then you're likely to already have a shortlist of kit which might fulfil them. If you still feel there might be something you've missed, then try scanning the different dealer's and reader's ads in SOS — these can often alert you to new possibilities. Music shops are also a good place to start when researching the available equipment, as they're likely to know about a range of products and will often be able to give you useful brochures. Once again, there are a variety of sites on the Internet dealing with the range of a particular type of equipment — for example the hardware sequencer round‑up at‑3/sequencer/sequencer.cfm or the list of DirectX plug‑ins at

With your list clasped tightly in your hand, you should then begin finding out as much detailed information as you can about each unit. Usually it won't take long to eliminate most contenders on basic issues — too expensive, not enough tracks, no TR808 sounds, or whatever — and you may already have been able to do this just from asking at your music shop. But then the crunch comes: you have to decide between a handful of units which all have pretty similar specifications, which have all been recommended from one source or another, and which all have equally glossy brochures.

Reviews can really help out here, giving an expert opinion on many aspects of a unit's operation and useability, so try to read as many different ones as you can. In addition to expert reviews such as those in SOS, you can also find a host of more or less detailed opinions from individual users all over the web — check out and for starters. While some people find the hype on manufacturers' web sites a little distracting, it's worth remembering that they aren't necessarily just full of press releases and HTML brochures. Some manufacturers host active public discussion forums, and others provide PDF‑format manuals on line — these can be read (and searched!) using the freeware Acrobat Reader downloadable from, and will usually give you as much information as you need in terms of the features a unit provides. What, read the manual?! Before I buy the kit?! Yes, really do read the manual — you need never be unpleasantly surprised by a missing feature again. You might not realise how detailed and specific your own requirements are until you read the odd manual and find out how few pieces of equipment actually fulfil them.

But, of course, music gear is usually about sounds, and the only real test of how good something is comes from trying it out. If your local (or not so local) music shop has the gear, they'll usually be happy to let you try it out if they think you might make a purchase, and the same usually applies to second‑hand vendors. Also, if you can make it to one of the large music fairs, you can usually get your hands on the ranges of new equipment at the different manufacturers' stalls. If it's software you're looking at, a lot of companies provide free demo versions which you can try out in the comfort of your own home, and these can be invaluable in making a purchasing decision. For those buying synths, sound modules or sample CDs, you can often download MP3 demo tracks from the web, allowing you to compare sonic characteristics — try, and If your purchase is likely to cost a large amount and you are unable to judge between two pieces of equipment after extensive fact‑finding, then a last resort in the decision‑making process may be to rent a unit for a day in order to preview it within your studio.

Choosing the correct piece of new gear to add to your setup may take a while, with all the introspection and research involved, but it is vitally important to take the time if you want to get true value for your money. It may seem tedious having to thoroughly research the market before you buy, but it's much less hassle, believe me, than finding that the unit for which you've just handed over your cash is unsuitable for you.

Q. How can I tell when my recordings are of 'release quality'?

Getting Started, Part 2You're going to want to know how a prospective synth will sound, but what if you live in the Outer Hebrides? You'll be glad to know that MP3 demos of many sound modules are available on the web for home auditioning.You're going to want to know how a prospective synth will sound, but what if you live in the Outer Hebrides? You'll be glad to know that MP3 demos of many sound modules are available on the web for home auditioning.Getting Started, Part 2Getting Started, Part 2

I'm afraid there are no easy rules here. Though many home‑recordists wish there were a 'Release Quality Bylaw' which gave them something concrete to go on, no such ruling is ever likely to be put into place — the charts would be decimated, for a start... It is a fallacy to suggest, for example, that release‑quality masters always have to have been recorded at a particularly high resolution, for example. How does this account for Norman Cook using old S950 samplers and Jyoti Mishra recording a number one hit on a cassette multitracker? It isn't a bad thing, though — the very fact that 'release quality' is not a fixed standard allows many home recordists to make a mark with their music. If a track of yours is well‑written, hooky, and well‑produced, even working on cassette oughtn't to stop you!

Despite this, however, there are some basic things to bear in mind if you are wanting to create tracks for general release. Firstly, try to tackle all problems at source, throughout the production, even if that means going right back to the drawing board by rewriting the song. A second thing to remember is to do everything possible to remain objective about your work — listen to it at different times of day and on different monitors at different levels, gather opinions about it from other musicians and non‑musicians, and limit the time you spend on any one song or part.

You should also constantly reference your track's sound against other music to which it has some stylistic resemblance. If you're writing garage music, then compare some well‑known garage tracks against your mix, flipping quickly between your work and the commercial CDs. The ear becomes very quickly accustomed to any particular tonal balance, even if it's quite unnatural, so it is vital to keep putting your tracks into a wider context whenever you can. If you're going to make any judgement about whether the sound quality of your music is up to scratch then that is the time to make it. Though there are no universal definitions of release quality, within any specific style there may be certain expectations made about the sound. For example, while listeners accept that industrial techno may be extremely lo‑fi, there is little room for grunge in classical releases!

The final thing I would recommend is that you don't attempt to master your own music unless you really know what you're doing. Mastering requires precision monitoring and an experienced engineer, and you're more likely to mess something up than make an improvement. However, if you decide to do your own mastering, then use as little processing (compression, in particular) as possible to get the effect you wish to achieve. What's more, be sure to keep an unprocessed copy of any home‑mastered tracks in case you need to remaster any of them at a later date. To hazard a generalisation: if you feel your track really needs mastering, then there's something wrong with it which mastering won't be able to resolve! Remix, rerecord or rewrite elements of your track until it's exciting enough that you feel it could be released without mastering — then mastering can be a polishing operation, rather than a salvage job.

Getting Started, Part 2Software synths provide immense flexibility, which can be great for dance music of all kinds, but is your computer up to the task?Software synths provide immense flexibility, which can be great for dance music of all kinds, but is your computer up to the task?Even if they don't need a keyboard on their synth, techno musicians still have a wide range of sound modules to choose from.Even if they don't need a keyboard on their synth, techno musicians still have a wide range of sound modules to choose from.Getting Started, Part 2