“Bionic Chronic” Q&A
Gravitas Recordings label manager, John Burcham, a.k.a. Psymbionic recently released his newest single, “Bionic Chronic”. The song’s seething bass lines and pulsating rhythm make for quite the dank listening experience. After the release, he opened the floor to questions about his production techniques within the Gravitas Create Facebook group. We’ve compiled the complete Q and A for your reading pleasure! You can also click here to be redirected to the group and stay up to date on all things Gravitas!
Question [Q] / Answer [A]
Q: What do you do to make room for everything in the EQ?
A: It’s funny, I normally have the opposite issue where my mixes turn out TOO crisp and kinda thin haha. I’m usually left trying to figure out the best way to thicken them up.
Generally speaking, I think this starts at having a decent setup. If you can afford it, aim for getting some thick bass traps or make your own (avoid foam). Do a bit of research on how to arrange your room, speakers, etc — even if you don’t have any acoustic treatment. Obviously, some decent monitors or solid headphones are helpful too. A couple weeks ago I got this room calibration software from SonarWorks and it has made my room sound WAY better (and even works with a lot of studio headphones).
If none of that is feasible (or I guess even if it is), I’d also say it starts at your source sounds. This would be your drum samples or midi synthesis. If you start with high-quality drum samples, for example, it’s much easier to keep them clean as you are mixing. My goal is to try to clean a sound up as much as possible before I start processing it in a bus. So for example, I’d start at the synthesizer level and turn everything else off in the chain. If you can get it to sound “right” coming out the synth, that will make the rest of your life waaay easier down the chain. I know that the more complicated my chain is, the less likely the original sound is balanced to begin with. In a word, “simplification”.
I use a combination of EQ/compression/saturation to clean sounds up. I like to listen to a sound that I know is proper in an a/b comparison while I work so I have a clear target to shoot for. In EQ, look for resonant frequencies that might be creating mud or sharpness. Pro Q 2 is my go-to EQ, and I also use some things like Oeksound Smooth and Sound Radix Surfer EQ for more tricky sounds. Compression, I try to do very lightly. Saturation, I use NI Supercharger GT, Ozone Exciter, Creative Intent Tantrum, etc. Generally, if a sound is lacking higher/more aggressive harmonics I aim for tape saturation. If it needs more defined low/mid, I’ll aim for tube saturation (and there’s a bunch of types in between). The Fabfilter compressors are nice if you want a very clear digital sound, and I also like the compressor on Supercharger GT for a CamelPhat-like squash.
Another thing that is super important — make sure that your individual plugins aren’t clipping. For example, if your synthesizer is clipping internally at the sound source, then it’s likely that every single plugin after that will be clipping too. Watch the little meters beside every plugin (if you use Ableton) to ensure they aren’t clipping. Realizing this was a big upgrade to my sound when I figured it out years ago.
Hopefully this helps a bit 🙂
Q: Are there things you religiously hi-cut and are there things you religiously never hi-cut?
A: This is a super tricky thing and I have often wondered what other people choose for this as well. I don’t high cut everything. Mid basses, I always high cut. Subs obviously. Kick and snare usually. Cutting around 17khz usually sounds very sweet to my ear. Occasionally I’ll cut certain midbass sounds at 7-13khz if I want to feel more deep and weighty. I do a gentle high cut on my master as well if it’s a more aggressive song. Pro Q 2 can cut above 20khz which I have my default set at like 25khz that goes on almost every bus. The Neutron Tonal Balance control is nice to be able to visualize how other songs do this as well.
I pretty much high pass everything *somewhere*. For my sub, I cut at 18hz (which helps give a little definition I feel). On my masters, I have been cutting the sides with a gentle slope around 100hz that allows me to get a little more volume and prevent weird phasing in the sub-range. I can’t think of anything I would religiously NEVER cut, but I don’t always cut every single intro/bridge synth/fx
Q: How much of your writing process involves mixing? By this I mean: Do you write and mix straight into a limiter/mastering chain from the get-go? It helps a lot with Dynamics and finding loudness and punch but I get concerned that the mix won’t hold up under a different Mastering chain. Do you run kick and snare sidechains as their own bus? Grouping most elements of a track and sidechaining them to kick snare as a whole. I started doing this because it makes the kick and snare stand out WAY more. Finally, one tip for width in your mix that isn’t the Haas effect?
A: First off, I’d suggest NEVER put a mastering chain on your master until you are completely done with your track and the mixdown. It will basically only screw up your mix. This includes a limiter if you can help it. You’re 100% right that it’s highly possible your mix won’t hold up to a different mastering chain.
Generally speaking, I do some mixdown work as I write but I have been trying more and more to separate them. I know that mixing can distract me from the songwriting portion, so usually, I try not to get sidetracked when I have a specific idea I’m trying to get out.
I do some form of putting kick and snare sidechains on their own bus. Austin Au5 talks about this, where you turn off your output and only use the bus out to a sidechain bus for anything you want to sidechain. The same effect can be done with grouping. This is something to be careful with though, because sidechaining everything can get away from you, especially for example if you’re sidechaining a stereo midbass to a mono kick in the same amount that you’re sidechaining a mono sub to a mono kick.
My favorite method lately for width has been: utility set at 0% > dimension expander (size 0, wet 100%) > utility (on width mode, not mid/side mode — right click the knob) and percentage turned up to maybe 150%. *Don’t use Utility mid/side mode when doing this!* Mid/side mode separates the mono and stereo signals and will give you a wider sound that has tons of phase cancellation.
To be clear though, EVERY method of making something more stereo depends on the Haas effect. Different wideners use different methods but they all come down to the same idea. I believe Dimension Expander uses a very subtle reverb to create stereo width instead of using a tiny ms delay between left/right like most other wideners do.
Q: What are some cool new sound design tricks you have learned lately?
A: Hm, not sure if I can think of something super specific that I’ve recently learned. But I’ve been playing a lot lately with resampling and reese basses. One tip that I’ve been using a lot is creating a medium EQ cut similar to a notch filter (but not as deep) and sweeping until I find a spot in a bass that it sounds good to cut it at. This Can drastically change the sound of a bass if done before distortion/compression/etc. Kontakt default instrument is great for resampling. I really like the way it interpolates samples and the unison sounds really nice for basses too.
I’ve also been playing a lot with modulating tiny short delays recently to get good granular FX stuff. Little MS changes on things, sometimes with a ping-pong delay. You can right-click the delays in Ableton and change them from Fade to Repitch (or Jump) mode which can make some really far out noises.
A cool tip for Serum is using the Ring Mod filter – put the keyroll modulator from 0>100 on the cutoff of the RM filter and it will play in key with whatever note you have going. Can create some pretty unique basses that way.
Q: Yo John!! Wassup? In what instances do you like to use that funky phase distortion plugin you posted about yesterday? Like on basses, leads and such? Any other uses?
A: Yeah I’ve honestly been using Tantrum on damn near everything. For the most part, basses and sometimes instruments. Leads for sure. Anything you want to stand out and hit hard. It’s tricky on drums honestly but can be useful in certain situations.
Q: So it seems like you mix and master your own tracks. Is this becoming the norm in the industry? It seems like a lot of artists now days are doing their own finalizing on their tracks rather than sending it off to an engineer. Personally I love the mix/master stage because I really get to hear the tracks come through and the quality change. What’s your favorite part of the music making process?
A: I do mix and master my own tunes — but I’d honestly suggest against it for 99% of producers. I screwed up my own masters for years and have become so picky that it’s really tough to let other people (who are better than me) master my music now because of taste issues. I would say find a good mastering engineer that you trust and work with them long enough that they learn your tastes and preferences.
I’m not sure if I have a specific favorite part of the music making process. All of it together is like the best video game you could ever create IMO. Choose your own adventure. More and more lately, I’ve been focusing on songwriting that is separate from sound design etc, and I think that has been a big help in my music getting better.
Q: Do you have a “rule of thumb” when it comes to mixing your kick and bass? like a 3db difference, or is it different for every track?
A: Honestly I’m not a fan of those rules of thumb that some people preach. Every sample is different and every song is different. Also, peak meter readings are different than RMS or LUFS readings. In other words, peak loudness and perceived loudness are two different things. How your kick/snare stand out in a mastered song have a lot more to do with the mix than if the two are in some specific ratio to one another IMO. Furthermore, there are some rules of thumb that I read when I was just starting out and used for years before realizing “oh, there’s a WAY better way to do this if I just use my ears instead”. 😉
Q: How do you maintain strong sidechain after things are mastered, I find my drums get lost a bit after a master and it’s not that they are clipping but that the volume of the audio that makes it through the sidechain was brought up quite a bit.
A: Yeah, that’s super tricky. It partially depends on how aggressive the compression/limiting on the master is too. Some of what you’re hearing is most likely your drums being squashed during the mastering phase. Your engineer may have to push things hard to get to your target loudness and that might squish your drums a little too much. You can ask for him/her to compress in a way that your drums stand out a little more, as a compromise to other elements being more forward. I usually turn up my kick and snare a couple dB extra before sending to mastering.
You could also try some other techniques to get your drums to stand out against the other elements. I prefer to use sidechain gates instead of compressors, but really VolumeShaper is the best tool for the job. I’d also research complimentary EQ, where you boost a resonant frequency in your kick/snare and then dip that same frequency from your bass/Sub etc.
Q: These neuro basses in Bionic Chronic are suuuuper nasty yet still harmonic and full, are you using re-sampling or VST for that type of stuff generally speaking?
A: Well, technically both. Some of the cool strange movements are from resampling a wobble at a certain note then shifting the pitch around. The Kontant default sampler works really well for the neuro stuff, and I think the unison is especially nice. I’ve been getting into the habit of exporting single note bass samples lately so that I can cruise through and pick something I like. Choosing which note to export makes a pretty big difference – I think one of the best reasons to resample is that you can focus on making a single note sound really thick and full, then resample that one note which will make all the other playable notes sound full inside a sampler.
Q: Any interesting methods of making lead bass sounds that you like to use? Also any tips on creating evolving phrases? I love how your tracks change over time, and it’s something I struggle with; Also wanted to say, you were some of the first bass music I listened to. That time period set off a chain of musical learning for me, and I wanna thank you very much for doing your thing!! Love your music, and will always be listening
A: Ayyy cheers boss. I think sometimes my tracks change TOO much over time haha. But as far as phrasing, I can give you one huge tip that I think can spawn a million iterations. Lately, I like to write my bassline with just a super simple patch to just get the songwriting done. Maybe a slap a wobble on a saw wave and call it good for that initial writing. Maybe I will just write mostly 1 note basslines or maybe it has small doses of more melody. Maybe I leave gaps in the bass midi that I’ll fill in later with other stuff like some cool foley or a weird twisting pitch bend bass thing.
After I feel pretty happy about the way that the melody, drums, and all that plays together, I’ll go through and chop up that initial basic bassline that I wrote, then begin work on sound design. From here, maybe I grab some presets I’ve already made or maybe I feel like making something new. I try to chop so that it fits the rhythm of the song so that when I try various patches, there can be some interplay between the pieces. I normally run with 1 or 2 patches initially that give me a kind of palette for any others I might use so that they fit together sonically. Later on, in a song, I might edit a patch from an earlier section and change its modulations so that it feels both new and cohesive at the same time.
As for evolving sounds, I really like bandpass and notch filters doing random modulations and maybe even modulating a wet/dry. Can do the same thing with EQ peaks/dips. Works really well to get cool Reese sounds especially. I wrote a bit about resampling in another comment thread as well, that can be super fun for making sounds that evolve over time.