Not a Minute to Spare

Back to the normal studio, huzzah! But also a travel day. I’m normally a bit drained mentally when I get home. Then there are all of the small things that follow a trip: unpack, empty the dishwasher, decide if you actually need to eat or if that airport dinner in St. Louis is going to be enough….

Mary and I sat and chatted for a bit, and before I knew it, it was “late.” It was actually only about 10:00, but it’s the final stretch of Song-A-Day, I’m grasping for ideas, and I was fairly sleepy. For the first time, I seriously flirted with the idea of skipping a day. But it’s too close to the end to do that!

I decided instead to set myself a mini-challenge. If you read the last two entries, you’ll know how much I missed my normal studio while using a mobile rig on the road. Even simple things seemed to take a long time. Clearly, I’d be able to work much more quickly in familiar surroundings.

So this was a combination of “I’m sleepy” and “put up or shut up.” Could I produce a reasonably non-embarrassing track in less than 30 minutes. The full conditions I gave myself were:

  • Drum loops are ok, but no more than two.
  • Everything else has to be played by hand.
  • No sounds that I’ve used before (or at least that I remember using).
  • 30 minutes from creating the new project to final 2-track bounce.

My use of Reason over the last two days had me thinking about all of the rap and hip-hop production work I’d been doing in the early 2000s, so I decided to go in that direction. I was using Digital Performer this time, but my process was very similar to my old one.

  1. Not a Minute to Spare Ray Toler 1:49

Elapsed time: 00:00

I typically start with either the beat or the hook. One of those will drive everything else. Finding the opening drum loop was probably the longest single step in the entire production. There were plenty I could have (and for the sake of time, should have) gone with. When I got to the end of the time period, I was wishing I had a few minutes back. It’s a good beat, though, so on we go.

Elapsed time: 07:15

It was basically a coin toss as to whether I was going to use Omnisphere or my hardware synths on this one. Had I gone with hardware, I would have headed straight for the JV-2080 and E-Mu X-Lead, as I’m really familiar with them. Except I had given myself that condition about not using a patch I’ve used before. With 14,000 patches, Omnisphere was the better choice.

My patch selection process for the main hook was pretty scientific. I dragged the slider on the complete patch list and stopped at some random point, then picked one that sounded interesting from what was shown on screen. So now we’re dialed in on a Mellotron flute. Actually, that works pretty well, it’s not exactly a 70s record, but it gets pretty close to that vibe. I tried several chord progressions before settling on what you hear. They were all fine, but I was trying to find one that also inspired a bass line in my head. Once again, I probably spent too much time on this step. More than half the time was gone.

Elapsed time: 16:45

For the chorus hook, I wanted something in that same sonic space, so I entered “mello” into the search bar and got a fairly large list of patches. I opted for an Orchestron sample. This has a slightly different feel to it, but still gets that retro thing across. I was also starting to move more quickly, becoming increasingly aware of the deadline zooming up.

Elapsed time: 18:10

I’m not completely happy with this bass patch, but it does the job well enough. This was probably the third take, as I wasn’t happy with what I’d come up with on the first two. The “main” loop is now done. I quickly arranged a ~2:00 demo sequence with verse and chorus sections, did a couple of beat drops, then moved on to some minor polishing.

The hardest part was the up-down glissando break at 1:20. Weighted piano-type keyboards are not well suited for that, but I didn’t think I had time to fire up one of the synths and get it connected in. In hindsight, it would probably have been faster (and far less painful) than my repeated attempts on the K2600.

Elapsed time: 22:30

The chorus seemed a little flat. New drum loop needed. I went with the first one that didn’t have a swing in it. I had originally used some fills on a couple of places, but they took away from the drops. I ended up just using the single main loop. The mix was being set continuously throughout recording, but adding this loop required some additional re-leveling to keep everything balanced.

Elapsed time: 24:56

Time for seasoning. Given the retro feel of the patches, I went with iZotope Vinyl  on the Mellotron patch. I would normally have spent a lot more time getting a better setting dialed in. What I ended up with sounds more like glitch edits than record pops and crackles.

The Orchestron got a couple of effects thrown on it, but I immediately deleted each one. It sounded pretty good on its own, so I ended up leaving it alone.

The main loop sounded good, so I went after the secondary loop, opting for iZotope Trash 2 to put some moderate crunch on it and help it fill out the chorus and second verse sections. Ok… running out of time, so we’ll have to call it done. Time for final levels.

Elapsed time: 27:45

At this point, I didn’t have enough time to “master” anything and listen back to the final, so I went with Ozone 8. Ozone does a decent job of picking a starting point, so I looped the chorus and let it do its thing. After random sampling a couple of places, it sounded good to me. Time’s up.

Elapsed time: 29:30

Bounced to disk and made sure all of the parts got included in the final. I barely made it, but I made it! And it doesn’t suck.

Time Management

There’s a decided benefit to forcing yourself into a speed run from time to time. When I do productivity consulting, one extremely powerful technique is time boxing. While this is more traditionally a project-management tool, it can be incredibly effective on the personal level as well. It’s a mechanical way of enforcing the 80/20 rule, especially for perfectionists like me.

A related approach is the Pomodoro Technique. I’m not sure if having hard intervals would be as useful for composition or production. Would enforcing 5 minute intervals have helped this production? Possibly. It would have evened out some of the places where I took too much time, but it would also have resulted in some compromises that might not have been worth it. Having the timer running definitely helps sharpen your focus, though.

It was a fun experiment, and I’m not unhappy with the result. As an added bonus, I went to bed at a reasonable hour!


  • Drum loops: Spitfire Phobos, Spectrasonics Stylus RMX
  • Instruments: Spectrasonics Omnisphere

Next up: What If Everything You Know Is Wrong

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