Cheeky house producer Mike Monday isn’t the type of guy who just pops on Ableton Live and pumps out a rigid club banger. “We are now in an age where literally anyone with a computer can write and produce music,” he offers, criticizing the ease with which producers can churn out a track. So how does one subvert the dominant sound of quick-take choons stuck to the grid while still keeping their studio set-up on the cheap? If Mr. Monday’s recent full-length, Songs Without Words (OM), or collaboration with Will Saul offer any clues, it’s got as much to do with the pre-production stage as it does clicking and dragging. Below, the London-based producer throws a few keep-it-real ideas our way to make computer-made tracks sound more human.
1. Think outside the box
At least a few parts on every piece I write don't originate from the computer. I record sounds extensively with a microphone and use as many analog synths and drum machines as I can in order to get a broad a sonic palette. I have two mics permanently set up and I often record my voice, instruments, and pretty much anything I can lay my hands on. For instance, all of the hums, grunts, and groans on "Through the Keyhole" are by yours truly, and I played and recorded the saxophone and bassoon parts on "Bad Wind."
2. Sample creatively
I'm not talking about wholesale theft, but a more creative, judicious way of sampling. This makes the chances of anyone else having done the same thing in the same way virtually nil. For instance, the main melody in "I Am Plankton" is a percussive bass sound tuned much higher and doubled a 16th later up the octave, creating a unique aquatic effect. This would never have occurred if I'd tried to do the same thing with a plug-in. In fact, I think it was the aquatic nature of that sound that provided one of the initial inspirations for that track.
3. Use different programs
One of my biggest bugbears is when you can hear exactly what program a whole tune was written in. I want my music to sound like me, not Logic, Ableton, or Reason. So I've started running Ableton as a slave to Logic via Rewire. On my new track, "Mr. Gone," I used Ableton to write the parts and do the basic arrangement, and then mixed down and added extra parts and effects in Logic. My next task is to learn Cubase and Reason so I can pick and choose what I use for different tasks when I'm writing.
4. Don't quantize everything
I have a competition with myself every day to see how few things I can quantize in a track and still make the groove sit tight. I'm instantly turned off when I hear a track with all the parts locked to a particular groove, as it sounds so cold. If you can leave in a human element, the music will instantly have more soul and warmth.
5. Don't over-process
For every calculation you ask the computer to make—no matter how good the software or powerful the computer—there will always be a slight reduction in the sound quality. There's no need to compress much in electronic music. In fact, I rarely compress anything, instead preferring to ride the volume automation if there's a problem, and I only use EQ very sparingly. As long as your music is going to be professionally mastered (preferably with you in attendance) by a good engineer with high-end compressors and EQs, then I have found that this "less is more" approach always ends in a warmer, wider, and more powerful result.