How I Made "Sepia Tones" Using Cubase
I have a new track out, "Sepia Tones (ft Rebecca De La Torre)", so I thought I'd share how I made it.
In this video I show some of my production techniques, and hopefully give you a little bit of insight into my creative choices and how I think as an artist.
Production: Tony Fuel
Vocals: Rebecca De La Torre
Saxophone: Dave Shorland
Mixing: Carlos Ruiz
Mastering: Trevor Gordon
The structure of the original is fairly standard for a deep house track. Even when I'm doing tracks that are based around a sample, I still use a verse-prechorus-chorus song structure, with a bridge in the middle. And of course there is an extended drums-only intro and outro to make it DJ friendly.
2nd verse: sax solo
After the sax solo, I reprise the second half of the first verse, then double up on the chorus, and then transition into the DJ outro
I usually notate the chords AFTER I've played around with different chord structures. I use the chord track as a guide to document what I've landed on. The chord track also helps me to audition potential different sounds and can speed up writing MIDI to new tracks.
In most dance music the relationship between the kick and bass is crucial. That's not necessarily quite as true for jazzy deep house, but that relationship is still important. So... I typically will group the bass and kick in a Cubase folder so that I can quickly solo them together. With my kicks, you'll notice that I leave out the last beat of an 8-bar section, and that really helps give an audio clue to the listener that we're transitioning to a new section and to expect something different.
Like a lot of house music producers, my projects often have more drum tracks than anything else. No surprise there. For this project, all of my one-shot drum samples are triggered by the Groove Agent SE drum computer that comes stock with every version of Cubase.
One advantage of a sophisticated drum machine is that it's really easy to play around with different settings such as pitch as well as having different samples play depending on the velocity of the triggering MIDI event. However, on some projects I use a combination of a drum machine and audio samples placed directly on audio tracks. There aren't any hard and fast rules for which approach is best; it's whatever you're feeling for any given project.
For this track I'm using a lot of jazz chords, and I wanted to create a vibe of a small jazz combo throughout most of the song, so I kept the instrumentation pretty simple. I'll add that with vocal tracks I usually keep instrumentation simple so that I don't wash out the sound of the singer.
I'm using one or two basic comps: In this case - a piano and an electric guitar. I have a confession: Listening back on this now after a year or so of not having touched it, I would have mixed the guitar and piano better so that they didn't overlap with frequencies as much. I may have even chosen a different sound for the piano.
One instrument you'll hear peppered throughout Sepia Tones is a stemless Harmon muted trumpet sound. This kind of adds a bit of a smokey jazz club, Miles Davis feel. It's a really super simple part, but I think it adds just the right amount of spiciness to the track.
The next track is the tenor sax solo. I'll give another quick shout out to Dave Shorland. He did a phenomenal job on writing this solo. I absolutely love the sound of tenor sax!
Pads and Strings
You'll notice that the instrumentation of this project is mostly just rhythm section -- and then I use strings sparingly in the chorus only to the listener a nice payoff during their journey on the song. As I mentioned, the instrumentation is simple.
In a lot of cases when I'm using longer block chords on the main accompaniment I feel like I don't need a pad since the frequencies and textures that are normally covered by a pad are instead covered by the keyboard, guitar, or both. That holds true for this project; I really felt like a pad wasn't necessary, so I didn't use one.
Disclaimer: I struggle with engineering and mixing vocals more than any other element of my productions. For example, in this project I feel like I never got the reverb on the vocal quite right. It was either too much or not enough. Rebecca is such an amazing singer, and I really worried I'd add to many effects and damage her talent. So I kept the effects to a minimum.
I'm calling these sounds Efx, but they are different from FX Channels. These Efx tracks Include transitional elements, background elements at a very low (almost inaudible) volume, and sometimes vinyl or fuzzy sounds.
Most of the time I don't have very many effects channels. Part of the reason for that is that I don't feel confident in my ability to use effects plugins very skillfully. That is something I'm working on. I continue to study mixing techniques.
For mixing this track I mostly limited it to gain, EQ, and panning, with some reverb and delay. When I got the project as far as I could take it from a mixing perspective, I sent it off to a mixing engineer. That engineer's name is Carlos Ruiz out of NYC. He did a really great job with taking the mix to another level, and it's always a great experience working with him. I'll link to his contact information in the description below.
About the author
Tony Fuel Home
Tony Fuel is a Minnesota-based house music producer. He also helps house music artists with productivity and music entrepreneurship.