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«How I made the track License To Groove»

by Greg Lemmenmeier, posted on 28. May 2023 at 11:01, 726 Views

Music is one of the most universal and expressive forms of art. It can convey emotions, tell stories, and connect people across cultures and generations. But how is modern music created with modern methods? What are the steps and skills involved in composing such music? In this essay, I will explore the process of creating music "in the box", from the initial inspiration to the final product.

I'm a band... well, of course not, but I can sound like one:

("License To Groove" by Greg Lemm, a tasty Funk track with an 80's style organ solo)

Actually, I'm a self-taught composer / multi-instrumentalist / mixing engineer. I began making my own music when I was 25. For me, it always was just a hobby and I never had any commercial aspirations. There were long phases, even many years, of not playing at all. Now that I'm 60, the drive to making music is slowly coming back. My methods are very unusual and the result of hundreds of experiments. I'm one of the few musicians who "paint music" with the mouse — I just put all the MIDI notes directly into the piano roll of my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). This method is time-consuming and somewhat complicated, but I want full control of the end result.

(it doesn't look exciting, but I can make exciting music this way ;-)

To make the tracks sound more organic, I use every trick in the book to "humanize" the MIDI tracks with tons of subtle variations, timing changes, track delays, a few percent of Swing/Shuffle, tiny intentional mistakes, pitch bends and lots of keyswitch articulations (mostly for sax and guitar tracks).

Nowadays, I only use virtual instruments (VSTs and Kontakt libraries) — you may know them as "samplers". With my job as a programmer, it's only natural for me to program stuff and I consider *realistic* MIDI programming to be an art form in itself. About 50% of my time goes into the composition, but the other 50% is spent on the arrangement i.e. choosing which instruments/presets work well together, and sound design i.e. tweaking the samplers to make each instrument sound more realistic.

(my session screenshot shows which VSTs I've used — click to enlarge)

A good habit is to color-code the tracks (always the same way for every song) and to insert time markers with labels such as "Bridge", "Chorus" etc. The result is that you can focus more on the composition than on the navigation. Lazy producers ignore these kinds of things, however, rules improve the creative process. In a way, music is organized chaos and if you know what you're doing and keep it all well-organized, you'll get good results that make sense. You don't have to be a genius to sound like one.

Samplers and the future

Good virtual instruments (there are many crappy ones) are made in expensive studios with top notch instruments and the best microphones. This means that what you hear are real instruments, carefully recorded by experts. For instance, to sample a sax they first record the lowest note, then the next higher note and so forth. The finished collection of single-note samples is then mapped/positioned for playing with a music keyboard. This makes it possible, for example, to play your own saxophone melodies on a music keyboard. Most instruments in existence have been sampled (even exotic ones) and most of today's pop songs are made with samplers. You can call that fake, which is true to some degree — but think of what the next few years will bring: Artificial Intelligence that composes worldwide chart hits including the singing! Google "Beatles AI" to hear brand new Beatles songs, composed and even sung by a computer. Everything will be made "in the box", and every year it will sound better. Sick.

The most expensive sample libraries are by Spitfire Audio and cost more than $10k. If you want your sampled strings (violins etc.) to sound like the ones of legendary movie composer Hans Zimmer, these sounds cost a lot. I mostly "work" with moderately priced samples. Composing band music is like cooking: it will only taste good if the ingredients go well together. However, there are problems with using sample libraries — they usually sound "too perfect", too clean, too sterile. When using them in a band context, they just don't sound real. The challenge is to tweak them until they come alive and sound realistic.

So how do I know what a band should sound like? Well, I was the drummer of three local bands: 'Fun Key' (Funk/Jazzrock), 'The Castaways' (Beat/Indie) and 'Van Garden' (Jazzrock). The drummer is "the motor" of the band, he/she is at the center of what's happening and must constantly listen to all the instruments — and how they interact.

Also, I was the bass player of the local band "Feedback" (Jazzrock). In addition, I've played guitar and keyboards for years, and for a while, I was giving paid percussion/conga lessons.

They say that the most important skill to learn when playing music is to listen, and I've listened very analytically.

Inspiration ;-)

Ladies and gentlemen, gather 'round and let me tell you a tale of inspiration like no other. Picture this: a dimly lit basement, a lone musician slumped over his keyboard, desperately seeking a musical spark. That musician, my friends, was none other than the legendary Funky McFunkface. Now, Funky McFunkface had seen it all. He had grooved with the best, rocked a few stages, and even made grown men weep with his funky solos. But on this fateful day, he was stuck in a rut, his grooves had gone into hibernation, and his rhythm was on vacation. It was a dark time for the Funkiverse.

One evening, as Funky McFunkface aimlessly shuffled through his vast collection of vinyl records, a peculiar document slipped out from between two James Brown albums. It was a license, a license to groove! Confused, Funky read the fine print and discovered it had been granted to him by the Funk Council, the highest authority in the land of funky beats. Filled with renewed energy and a funky sense of purpose, Funky McFunkface knew exactly what he had to do. He embarked on a mission to create the funkiest, grooviest tune the world had ever heard, all while wielding his newfound "License to Groove" like a musical samurai.

As his fingers danced across the keys, the funk began to flow like a river of rhythm. The bassline slapped like a mischievous octopus, the horns blared like an army of sassy elephants, and the drums pounded like a heartbeat on a dance floor. It was a funky masterpiece in the making!

And so, my friends, "License to Groove" was born. This infectious Funk anthem was a testament to the power of inspiration and the unwavering determination of a true groove warrior ;-)

Choosing the instruments

The process of finding "my sound" began with downloading and testing a whole lot of virtual instruments. I didn't care if they were free or paid ones, they just had to make me feel good.

As a drummer, my main focus was on finding the most realistic sounding drumkit. I tested "Superior Drummer 3", "BFD", "Addictive Drums 2", "GetGood Drums", "Steven Slate Drums", "Tony Coleman Drums", "MODO Drum", "Jamstix" etc. Even though Superior Drummer is generally considered to be the most realistic, it's too heavy for my taste. After many comparison tests to find out which drumkit VST would work best with my (mostly Jazzpop) genre, I settled on Addictive Drums. While most other composers use different drumkits for different songs, my approach was special: I was looking for a drumkit that could be used akin to a band concert where the drummer only has *one* drumkit for all songs — fast or slow, soft or hard songs. I thought it must be possible to copy this with a VST that sounds convincing at high and low volumes. Addictive Drums was the one, so I bought several "ADpaks" with additional drumkit components and assembled the (one and only) drumkit for "my band":

1.) Snare drum: "Ludwig Acrolite" which I tuned down 2.74 steps. This versatile snare works well in high-energy and also softer tracks. I believe the snare drum is the most important kit piece in any arrangement.

2.) Kick drum: "Ludwig Black Oyster" which I tuned down 4.67 steps. This kick translates well on the small smartphone/tablet speakers that people use nowadays.

3.) Hi-hat: "Paiste Heavy" which I tuned down 2.26 steps. In other virtual drumkits, the hi-hat is usually the weakest component because it's very hard to make it sound real. The Paiste Heavy has a good range of randomized "round-robin" samples so it sounds almost real.

4.) Tom-Toms: "Premier Gen-X". These toms sound well-defined and open. They match the rest of the drumkit.

5.) Cymbals: "Meinl Byzance" ride and crash cymbals because they can cut through the mix and don't sound too harsh on small smartphone/tablet speakers. Also, they sound rather dark. Nothing more annoying than listening to a track that suddenly hits your ears with a super-bright crash cymbal!

6.) Drum mix: Addictive Drums offers lots of settings and effects that you can change for each kit piece. For the hi-hat and snare, I increased the attack and shortened the sustain phase. Also, I completely cut the "room" mics of the drum mixer in order to have a more direct sound.

(the final drumkit selection for all my tracks — click to enlarge)

While other homerecording musicians use their music keyboard or an e-drum to play such drums, I'm at heart still a percussionist/conguero and sometimes play drums on my BopPad. Duke Ellington once said: "Great rhythm makes great music". And what exactly makes it "groove"? Well, it's the Swing or Shuffle, in most cases. That's why I always add a few percent of Swing to my programmed drum tracks. 20% should suffice. You can't hear it, but you can feel it.

For the congas in "License To Groove", I chose "D'Pinga Congas" which are a bit weak in the highs but sound realistic when played right. This VST gives me three drums (tumba / conga / quinto) and many playing techniques such as open, mute, heel stroke, open and closed slap etc. When I was the percussionist of a band, I played concerts on 6 (six!) hand drums.

(the congas I used — click to enlarge)

Next, the bass guitar. Since I was the bassist of a band, this is my territory and my expectations are high. A sampled bass should never sound too clean and it should run through an amp. I tested many virtual basses: "MODO Bass", "Trilian", "EZbass", "Amplesound" basses etc. until I found a little-known developer studio called Pettinhouse that makes a pretty realistic Funk bass. I've left the settings and effects unchanged — the basic sound was that good.

(the bass I used — click to enlarge)

For the Fender Rhodes, I tested "Lounge Lizard" (considered the best), "Keyscape", "EZkeys", "Addictive Keys", "AIR Velvet", "Sweetcase EP" etc. but I wanted a Rhodes sound that subtly changes when being played so I landed on "Pianoteq" which not only offers the most realistic grand piano sound (approved by the Steinway company) but also some decent Rhodes emulations.

(the Rhodes I used — click to enlarge)

For the guitar, I chose "Pettinhouse Guitar", a carefully sampled Fender Stratocaster guitar which doesn't sound too clean or sterile.

(the guitar I used — click to enlarge)

The horn section was made with the free "SINE Player Rotary". It only sounds realistic if you program keyswitch articulations such as marcato, staccato, short falls etc.

(the horn section I used — click to enlarge)

The saxophone might be my favorite instrument — it's the instrument closest to the human voice — but I can't play it. The sax is perhaps the most difficult to reproduce digitally. It hardly ever sounds real when played on a keyboard. I tested "SWAM Engine Sax", "VG Tenor Sax", "Saxophia", "SaxLab 2" etc. and arrived at "Bigga Giggas John Rekevics Tenor Sax", a VST that nobody seems to know or use. I found it perfect for the authentic band sound I tried to achieve. Rekevics is a world-class sax player who recorded his best vintage saxes note by note. With the built-in keyswitch articulations such as staccato, vibrato, slide down, swells etc., it can actually sound like a sax. Well, sax players would disagree ;-)

(the saxophone I used — click to enlarge)

My motto as a self-taught musician is "To whatever you do, give everything of yourself — your entire heart and soul — and never be content with what you've done."

Building the track

• My Funk track "License To Groove" started with the congas. While congas are mostly used in the Latin genres, not in Funk, I programmed a funky rhythm using my mouse:

(conga rhythm — not too fast, not too slow)

• Next, I programmed a pretty standard "Philly Groove" on the drums:

(drumkit rhythm — with an important hi-hat accent on the "four AND" beat)

Other composers seem to often forget that a virtual drumkit sounds different when played at high or low volume so I tested various velocity ranges. The result is that the drummer doesn't play too hard or too soft for this particular track.
First, I copy/paste the basic drum pattern over the entire length of the song, then I add drum fills and variations such as hi-hat accents, open hi-hats and syncopated hits. I apply the "humanize" function of the DAW, often twice, and usually add 20% to 40% Swing to the drum track in order to make it groove more.

• For the bass, which is usually important in Funk tracks, I played the "Pettinhouse Funky Bass" with only a few notes. Notice how the bass sounds dirty — which I wanted:

(bass line, only a few notes, lots of space/openness)

• This completed the rhythm section and it sounded like this:

(congas + bass + drums — it's actually the congas that "carry" the rhythm)

• On to the melodic section, I made the Fender Rhodes track:

(Rhodes with congas, the basic chord I played is Fadd9 — FACG)

• For the horn section (trumpets/trombones/saxes), I used the SINE Player Rotary VST, but didn't make it too clean:

(horn section with programmed keyswitch articulations such as staccato and short falls)

• For the sax, which was the most difficult, I used the Rekevics tenor sax:

(saxophone with programmed keyswitch articulations)

(MIDI notes for the saxophone solo — click to enlarge)

• Towards the end of the track, I included an organ solo and chose a sound that wasn't annoying:

(organ solo with occasional modwheel expression)

(MIDI notes for my oldschool organ solo — click to enlarge)

What helps me most with composing solos is to define a short loop in my DAW and letting it play repeatedly while adding notes with the mouse. When the looped area sounds okay, I set the next loop (usually 2 or 4 bars) and repeat the process until the whole solo is complete.


Before finishing a track, I always make a webpage with direct comparisons: slower or faster tempo, higher or lower key. A track can drag or rush depending on the chosen tempo, and every track has its own "perfect" tempo which I have to find out by directly comparing and switching repeatedly between the recordings:

(my comparison page — click to enlarge)

The final step is mixing and mastering. This is where it gets nerdy. Mixing music is all about formulating each individual track so that it fits with the rest of the mix. It's a process that requires careful attention to detail, careful listening, and an unerring ear. Producing music is a series of good and bad decisions, and sometimes, happy accidents. Many homerecording hobbyists use external services such as "eMastered" for the mastering process — I do everything alone (as usual).

Mixing and mastering audio makes it work together to create a specific emotion, feeling, or mood.

There are lots of "magic trick" mixing plugins in the market: iZotope Ozone, Gullfoss, Soothe2, Smooth Operator, Trackspacer, The God Particle, T-Racks, Lurssen Mastering Console, Master Plan, Xfer OTT, Spectralive etc. which I've all tested extensively. In the end, I settled on the built-in effects of my DAW (Studio One) for my mix bus: just a bit of equalizer (emphasizing the high frequencies), HPF (filter for cutting off the lowest sounds below 60 Hz), compressor (to "glue" everything together but only a 1.3:1 ratio instead of the normal 2.0:1), limiter (to make it loud with a 3 dB reduction), a bit of overall reverb and widening, and "Mixchecker Pro" — a handy tool to test how it'll sound on the tiny speakers of smartphones and tablets. I keep my mixes at around -10 LUFS. This sounds the best and I've applied the exact same "mastering chain" to all of my 80 published tracks. Keeping it simple. When gain staging and mixing audio, you should *only* care about how it sounds — never about how things look on the screen. I often close my eyes when mixing.

(screenshot of my simplistic mixing/mastering settings — click to enlarge)


(this is the result)

The commercial music you hear on the radio has been produced in multi-million dollar studios with tons of high-end gear and fancy effects. How can my low-budget bedroom productions even begin to compete with them? Well, that was never the goal. I just make music sometimes. For myself. But why make music when there's already an *ocean* of it out there?
Instinctively, intuitively, we know that creating music makes life better. No matter how it's produced.

• Posted on 28. May 2023 at 11:01     ▶ 726 Views     ≡ Category: Life and Hobbies

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