What made you want to start making music and get into production? How have things changed since then?
There's been a couple of reasons why I started writing my own stuff. This was somewhere between 2013 to 2014. I've always been a musician with a wide variety of influences and because of that, I found it hard to find bands to play with. Many musicians seemed fixed on a genre and that's fine, but the people I associated myself with back then seemed really bent on pursuing a strict direction of music without having an open mind to other genres.
I started fiddling around with Cubase between 2012 to 2013, but only got round to seriously producing/recording/composing later on. A main catalyst for this was due to the passing of a dear friend of mine sometime in December 2013. That incident kind of made me more introspective. I felt that words were insufficient in expressing myself so I channeled my thoughts into music. This is also why I write instrumental music alone and shy away from lyrical content.
Ironically, it was that particular experience with writing music that made me decide that this would be something I would love to do for the rest of my life. I became a composer thereafter for multimedia and have not looked back since.
Is there a technique or two that you consistently use when producing tracks? If so, what are they?
Personally, the biggest things for me when it comes to writing/composing/producing music would be arrangement and melody. As a classically trained violinist and guitarist, I still find it relatively hard to appreciate a song when there's no discerning melody or deliberate arrangement. So I write my tracks, I make sure the melody is not only pleasing to the ear, but the melody coupled with the arrangement of each passage/instrumental element tells a story. This is especially important in the Cinematic genre that I write in, because I am trying to convey something without words.
What are some of your favorite plugins at the moment and how do you use them in your tracks?
My go to EQs include the Fab Filter Q2 and Waves SSL EQ. The Q2 does a brilliant job in tone sculpting while retaining the transparency of the original sound at hand, while the SSL EQ adds coloration. These two tend to work brilliantly together when it comes to enhancing a particular audio element.
I am also a big fan of iZotope's Multiband Compressor. Multiband compressor used to confuse the heck out of me, but after realising how to use it, it kind of opened a whole new world for me. It is something I use on most of my tracks, especially the Hybrid Orchestral work, since the frequencies to compress and lift are very specific.
When starting a new track, at what part of the arrangement do you start at? Also, how much of each section in the arrangement do you complete before you move onto the next section? (Until you the main theme across, until you are inspired enough? Do you bounce from section to section just building small parts of it?)
I think one of my strengths lies in improvisation, so the main theme of my track would have to be largely based on the foundation set before it. This foundation would consist of the intro and pre-chorus. I would say I start off with the intro because that would be the first thing to reach the ears of listeners. If the intro does not draw them in, it wouldn't matter how amazing your chorus is. I like to map out my song entirely before bouncing anything. This allows me to make any changes to any part of the track that's necessary.
Electronic producers have a hard time with music theory. Either they don’t know what to learn or how exactly to apply the theory. If you use theory when writing your tracks, what specific parts do you use and what would you topics do you feel producers should know?
I think it is imperative that producers know some form of basic theory, mainly - keys and their corresponding key signatures, the 1,4,5 major progressions and the 2,3,6 minor progressions. It is also important to know when these progressions can be switched up. When it comes to electronic music, I would honestly like to see more producers invoke classical elements - not just instrumentation wise, but also in terms of theoretical changes such as modulation . I tend to use everything mentioned here 🙂
"If the intro does not draw them in, it wouldn't matter how amazing your chorus is."
Many producers draw in midi notes with their mouse. This can lead to a stale sound that lacks those small little intricacies that real instrumentation and live playing provide. Do you have any tips for getting a real sounding instrument if you are just programming in your musical parts?
I think it would be cool if producers could either learn an instrument and record it, or work with musicians who are at the level to record :). Collaboration is really easy these days. A guitarist halfway around the world could easily send guitar tracks of a specific genre (depending on the song) to a producer and the producer could add his own twist to it! I've done this before, and have collaborated with studios in the UK and even a pianist in Iran!
What advice can you give to electronic producers looking to get more emotion and build stronger musical passages in their tracks?
I feel that there's no substitute for writing from the heart. For some reason, humans have a connection to each other and listeners can tell if a track lacks emotional substance. Give yourself a reason to write and produce. If it's about the money, fame, or lifestyle, you're probably in the wrong industry. I think producers should also work with real musicians from time to time to create a nice blend of electronic and acoustic elements in their tracks. This will definitely enhance the emotional aspect of things.
To build stronger musical passages, producers would also need to learn arranging/layering of sounds to separate what the listener feels between each segment of the song. If your track starts out loud and pumping, where does it go from there? There has to be a "drop" before another loud portion. Many producers today place emphasis on loudness. I think it is important for songs to have some kind of dynamic. If your track has to be loud all the way, at least use automation to play around and give the song some kind of "lift" when necessary.
Your tracks are full of beautiful progressions and track defining leads. Are there any specific techniques that you use to get the emotion that you want out of these two musical parts?
Thank you so much. I think that if a progression is beautiful, chances are it would be memorable. To place emphasis on the progression that defines the track, I think repetition of what is known as a "motif" is significantly important. This boils down to arrangement once again. Some producers choose a short lick that defines the song and repeat it throughout the entire track but with different instruments, at different octaves, at different times. I myself adopt this quite a fair bit.
"I’m thankful that people keep listening to my music, but I’m not following a recipe. I’m following my inspiration."
If you could give an aspiring artist one production tip, what would it be?
Be original and be yourself. Everyone is made differently and everyone is made up of different experiences. So therefore everyone's creativity is different. Learn to carve your own sound, not just in terms of writing music, but making music. There is a difference. Say you have a great snare drum sample you always turn to. Why not try getting a mic and recording your cupboard door slamming and turning that into your snare? Experiment and experiment and experiment. Don't take shortcuts just because you can.
Many producers that start out today just want to get their track as loud as possible and to write the next big hit with a larger than life “drop.” Your music shows that you don’t need to have a “drop” to write a compelling track. What are some techniques that you use to keep your tracks interesting? Also, do you have any advice for the producers that are fixated on having loud tracks with “big drops?”
An aspect of arranging I love is actually known as layering. Knowing how many instruments are contributing at once and to be aware of what each one is playing. Keeping the original melody of say a synth line and adding piano keys or guitar strums beneath that melody at various points would naturally make that melody sound fuller. It is the rhythm or backing section that adds life to a song as opposed to the lead that so many of us focus on. However, the inverse is also true. Too many things sometimes clutter a mix without adding value to it. This makes the mixing phase not just more difficult, but it wouldn't necessarily help your song as a whole.
Loud tracks without any form of dynamics do nothing. I don't refer to dynamics as that particular drop that the track is building towards, but rather the ebb and flow of the song as a whole. Although I write more cinematic and orchestral content, I do enjoy listening to a wide variety of genres and a track that had a huge impression on me was Alesso Ft. Tove Lo's "Heroes". The guitar line at the start is so melodic and simple. That melody is the motif repeated throughout the song and defines it. Instead of focusing on volume alone, I would suggest to producers to expand their repertoire to include other stand out musical elements.
What is next for Gregory Tan in his musical journey?
I intend to write for the big screen one day. I've always seen myself as a storyteller of sorts as opposed to an artist. It has always been my dream for my music to serve a bigger purpose that goes far beyond myself. I suppose its about wanting to leave a legacy, but its a legacy of service through my passion. I hope the next time we get in touch I'll be closer to achieving that goal! 🙂