Sequencing Tips and Tricks: Stop, Look, and Listen

Last updated on 3/31/2016

By Dr John Bartelt

You know that poster reminding us how important what we learned in kindergarten was? Well, one of the most important things we learned was to "Stop, Look, and Listen" before we crossed the street, and believe it or not, that applies to the art of music sequencing too. The "Stop" section is all about preparation (ironically, the people who skip that section will probably need it the most). "Look" pertains to tweaking your software to best suit your needs. Finally, "Listen" offers a few concrete ideas to give your creations more sonic "life".

1. STOP! (The importance of preparation—or—How to be "a musician who uses technology" rather than "a technician who sequences music".)

The most important aspect of creating a productive studio environment involves doing things that free up your right hemisphere to be creative. This can be done largely by minimizing the need to use your left hemisphere. Learning instinctively how to evoke the sounds and tweaks that you hear in your head, without "switching gears" and losing that roll you were on, simply requires the investment of a few hours of time. There is no way around this. So quit whining and just DO IT. You’ll be very thankful later, when you’re in the thick of recording that new song and you want to stay focused on your art rather than on how to make all this @#%&ing equipment work the way you want it to.

(a) Read the manual so you know your tools!

No, don’t skip over this section; we KNOW you haven’t REALLY read the whole manual. But if you don’t ever use functions like "interpolate", you’re missing out on some VERY powerful tools that can hand you back a lot of the musicianship that you traded in when you left the analog world in exchange for more control over each stage of your project.

(b) Set up your workspace ergonomically.

This may sound simplistic, but how far are you reaching between your music keyboard and your computer keyboard? Is your mixer in easy reach? Figure out what gear you use the most, and put everything in proximity to you in order of frequency of use. This is your workspace. You spend a lot of creative time here. You will be more productive if you have things literally at arm’s reach as much as possible.

(c) Pre-plan the technical aspects of your work.

If you’ll be creating a fully orchestrated work with a real choir on digital audio, you’ll approach it differently than you would a techno-pop all-MIDI piece. Don’t restrict your approach, but ponder approximately how many of what type of tracks you are imagining, and how you might go about them. How many MIDI channels do you have at your disposal? Do you have the disk space for a large digital audio project? Will you be storing the digital audio from each song in Cakewalk’s default wave file directory, or saving the work as a bundle file on another drive somewhere? What will you ultimately mix down onto? What sample rate will you use for your projects? How many of your tracks can you afford to record in full stereo? The time to answer these questions is not when you’re in the middle of a creative epiphany; rather, it’s before you start recording at all.

Calculating a rough technical approach now will save you from breaking artistic focus later to figure these things out.

2. LOOK! (Tweaking your software to best suit your needs.)

We are all different people, with different preferences. Cakewalk Pro Audio is incredibly complex software that was written to accommodate people with varying needs and equipment. It does countless things, and it does them very well. Your job is, over time, to ascertain what you need it to do for you, and then set Cakewalk up to do that easily. Not much software can be this highly customized. Take advantage of it!

(a) Create a custom template.

Templates allow you to design a familiar and consistent "look" and "feel", and will put the toolbars that you use the most in the most convenient places. Templates can also give you access to your favorite patches immediately. Set up your views and toolbars exactly the way you want them. Flesh out that template; if you have three useable 12-channel ports, make a template with 36 of your favorite patches. You can always change them on the fly, but it’ll save time to have the ones you use the most already dialed up when you’re being creative in the middle of a song. If you create vastly different styles of music, make a vastly different template for each style.

To create a template in Pro Audio, Professional, or Home Studio:

  1. Create a new file using the File-New command.
  2. Set one or more parameters to be the way you want. You can set track configuration and parameters, timebase, Sysx banks, tempo settings, meter and key, clock and synchronization information, MIDI data, metronome settings. In fact, you can set any parameter that can be saved in a project file.
  3. Choose File-Save As to display the Save As dialog box.
  4. Choose Template from the Save as Type list.
  5. Enter a template file name and click Save.

Now whenever you choose File-New, your custom template will appear alongside Cakewalk’s default templates.

(b) Customize your key bindings.

If you do a lot of transposition, let "Ctrl-T" take the place of opening the file menu "Edit" / "Transpose". If you quantize a lot, let "Ctrl-Q" take the place of playing with that stupid mouse when you don’t need to.

You’re not just restricted to your computer keyboard, you can also set Key Bindings to MIDI notes. Some Key Bindings I’ve found useful to map to MIDI notes are Play, Stop, Rewind and Record. That way, I don’t have to go back and forth from the keyboard to the Computer during a recording session. I’d suggest mapping those commands to notes you don’t commonly play like C-0 or C-10 so you don’t inadvertently hit them while recording.

Set a key binding for everything you use frequently. All those wasted seconds not only add up, but they also detract from your music. Key bindings are just one of the many very powerful tools that allow you to concentrate on your music rather than on your technology.

To Create a Key Binding in Pro Audio or Professional:

  1. Choose Tools-Key Bindings to display the Key Bindings dialog box.
  2. Check Computer in the Type of Keys list if you want to create a Key Binding from your computer keyboard. Check MIDI if you want to trigger Key Bindings from your MIDI keyboard. Also make sure you check the Enable box for MIDI Key Bindings.
  3. Highlight the key combination or note you want to bind from the Key list.
  4. Highlight the command you want to assign from the Function list
  5. Click Bind to bind the key combination to the command
  6. Click OK 

(c) Play with your edit functions.

Does the slow attack time of your strings make them start late? Slide them over a few ticks. Transpose a couple of instruments up or down an octave, and listen to the result in relation to the whole song, not just on its own. Try quantizing things in triplets for a few measures. Scale those velocities section by section to give the piece variety in dynamics.

3. LISTEN! (Concrete ideas to give your creations more life—or—Ideas worth toying around with during the mix.)

Nothing beats creativity. Some of the best sounds have come from experimentation (also known as "controlled mistakes"). This is all non-destructive stuff. Play!

(a) Try using different modules or EQ combinations to thicken your EQ palette.

If all of your sound cards or external modules are made by the same manufacturer, you may notice that the sounds are all equalized in a similar manner. If you have the luxury, try mixing instruments from different modules within the same song. No matter how nice your ABC-brand strings sound, they may sound nicer and thicker if you add in some strings from your crappier XYZ-brand module, because they’re probably EQd differently. If you’re routing your instruments through a mixer, try notching them differently.

NEVER decide on a final EQ while soloing an instrument! Each instrument’s EQ should be finalized only in relation to everything else. We’ve all dialed in "a perfect" EQ on every instrument individually, only to find that they sound mushy all together. There are no specific rules here, but instruments do tend to stand out better, and a song takes on a "fuller" sound, when each instrument has a slightly different pervasive EQ. And remember that, for several good reasons, things tend to sound better in general if you subtract frequencies, NOT if you add them.

(b) Search for new combinations of instruments.

We all tend to lean toward what has worked for us in the past, which is good, but it can also work against us. You probably have a few unlikely combinations of instruments, which if subtly added together, might enhance the sound in some way. Try copying that horn part to a low-volume timpani track, or that keyboard lick to a faint glockenspiel track. Play around with your instrument combinations. Whenever you have a couple of channels to spare, try experimenting with sound combinations—even ones that you can only imagine will sound horrible. (True, most of them probably will—but sometimes...)

(c) Play with your stereo field.

This is not only to get a good stereo sound, but because the stereo field also affects EQ. Two instruments which clash in frequency might jump out nicely if they’re panned to opposite sides. As long as most things are happening relatively equally on both sides, it’ll sound more balanced than you think. Traditionally, the bassier instruments have been mixed toward the center, and the higher-frequency instruments on the sides, mostly because in the old days of records, the needle tended to stay in the groove better if the low end was mixed equally between horizontal and vertical needle movement (left and right). We still tend to follow that standard even today, if only because lower frequencies tend to be less directional anyway. Sometimes you can make tracks sparkle and/or take out the "mushiness" (if it’s caused by clashing frequencies) with creative use of panning.

In summary:

If you really want to use technology to make music (rather than the other way around), you must take the time to know your tools, plan your work ahead, customize your tools to best fit you, and explore ways to be creative. Cakewalk is really great software right out of the box. But if you invest the time to learn its subtleties and really understand its full capabilities, it becomes an absolutely awesome, vital, and personal tool.

Your goal is presumably to create good music. Technology is the means to that end. If you spend the time, you’ll end up being able to focus more on your music than on the technology.

Dr. John Bartelt, a university psychology professor who holds a Ph.D. in Human Behavior, has designed, composed, and recorded full sound scores for numerous computer games, theatrical productions, and clients ranging from ballet companies to NASA. He has also performed and recorded on two albums with, and directed a six-song music video for, Jon Anderson (of the rock group "Yes"). John is a long-time Cakewalk fanatic/zealot.

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