Thursday, April 24, 2008

All Music Guide Review of The Dino Soars

Here's a review from All Music Guide:

"The double-album-length debut by the Bay Area's Stegosaurus Rex is a sprawling wander through the last quarter-century of electronic pop music. Singer-songwriter-keyboardist Max Chen doesn't pledge allegiance to any particular subgenre, so these 18 songs skip merrily between Caribou-style indie pop ("Green"), mellow downtempo instrumentals (the soulful, slinky "East Bay Kickback"), hyper dancefloor fillers ("Polar"), hip-hop ("Sleep All Day"), experimental atmospheric soundscapes ("Blindness"), standard-issue electro-pop ("Frozen Promises") and any other idea that comes to mind. In lesser hands, this would come off as merely unfocused, and it's certainly true that many A&R representatives would have demanded this lengthy CD be broken up into several different EPs, perhaps under different project names for ease of niche marketing. But even aside from the bravery of refusing to limit himself to one particular musical persona, Chen reveals himself to be a talented producer and a fairly solid songwriter with a particular knack for cool, mellow grooves and low-key, jazz-tinged melodies. The Dino Soars is perhaps best heard in bits and pieces (or on shuffle play), but it's a fun listen that promises better still to come." (-Stewart Mason, allmusic)


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Engineering Ashi's Tracks (Sorta Technical)

This past week, I've been getting back to work, putting in a couple of hours each day, mixing and mastering. For those of you who don't know what it's like being a studio engineer, even a broke one like me, I'll give you a rundown.

When the vocals were first recorded, Ashi wanted to hear his takes on some parts just to make sure everything was good. The first thing I had to do was to make a template of plugins that brought out his voice and was close to what the finished product would sound like.

Future audio engineers, PAY ATTENTION!

First I added some compression to the voice in order to make sure that he could be clearly heard through the mix. For that, I set the compression threshold to about 10 dB under the peaks. I set the ratio to about 3:1 or 4:1. For those of you who don't speak audio, I set compression in order to make sure the voice volume sounds "smoother" instead of "spikier."

Next step was the EQ. When you first record using a new mic, you have to sort of feel around the EQ with it to find the sweet spot. Every mic can sound good, but of course, it can sound terrible too, if you don't know what you're doing. I know how to make my mic sound good, and I was able to bring Ashi's voice from out of the mix. It's usually good to cut everything out from under 200 Hz (cut out the unnecessary bass) and then add a little bit from 1 KHz to 5 KHz to make that voice enunciate properly. For the uninitiated, the EQ is used because the raw audio from the mic can oftentimes be harsh or muffled, and by tweaking a bit of EQ, you can make the voice sound a lot better (and noticeable) in comparison to the rest of the music.

Some people forget a de-esser. I never forget, because I have ssssenssssitive earssssss. Some people when saying words with lots of "s" sounds in them, are very "sibiliant." Their "s" sounds cut through everything, and it hurts my ears to hear something so high-pitched so loud. This is the same when we're talking about recording voices. Some people tend to be more sibilant than others. Ashi, however, wasn't too sibilant so it was easy to deal with. I always add a de-esser to the chain after the EQ. What this does is that it makes the "s" sounds a lot less harsh. It squashes them so your ears don't hurt (but won't make the signal muffled or kill the enunciation as if you tried to do this with EQ).

The last thing I do is put in some reverb. For Ashi, only one track required this. Usually for hip-hop, I like to leave the voice bone-dry with no reverb at all. However, for other types of music, engineers like to add in varying levels of reverb to different instruments. Remember that 80s Genesis sound that all the rock bands had? That big boomy snare and toms? The echoey voices? That's all reverb, and a bit for vocals for a lot of genres of music will sweeten up the sound just a little bit.

OK. So much for the effects that are required to produce a good sound for vocals.

The next step happened after Ashi went home and I got to play with all the audio like some sick doctor. Audio levels.

When you mix a bunch of audio track together, you have to gingerly adjust the levels on everything to make sure it sounds right. "Damn, I can't hear the voice, the guitar is too loud! The drums are too loud, but the bass isn't there!" Getting the levels right is pretty frustrating, because there isn't a right way of doing things. There is no magical formula for getting everything correct. It's all trial and error, and engineers get a feel for a rough settings after spendings tons of time in front of the audio, tweaking this and that. I've done a lot of audio mixing in the past, and I'm pretty anal about getting every single channel level just right, so I can usually get a rough sense of what everything needs just by looking at the meters. For Ashi's tracks, once I get a rough idea of what I need, I set all the levels relative to each other. This is no easy task, because some songs can have 10-20 tracks or even more. Getting them to balance each other out can be super frustrating.

Today, I started work with all the rough levels finished. I needed to tweak them to make sure they're all consistent and everything sounds good. I listened to some hip-hop and some club stuff to get my ears warmed up for the right sound. Then I just dove into Ashi's tracks and tweaked the hell out of everything! I probably spent at least half an hour just getting every track's levels correct.

Next step was effects. A flanger on this part here, some more reverb there, etc. This is usually not so tedious because you can be sort of creative and you get to mess with the audio in weird ways.

Once all the effects were set, guess what time it was? Back to fine-tuning levels! When you use an effect, it changes the sonic character of everything and you have to readjust the levels to make sure there are no problems, that no channel overpowers something else.

Getting closer!

Next step was rendering everything out and sending them to Ashi. It's always important to make sure that the client knows what direction you're taking, and whether or not he or she likes the direction. In the case with Ashi, he definitely liked what he heard, but of course made some artistic suggestions for some changes which I readily accepted.

I finally rendered them one last time and checked the meters to make sure they all sound the same in loudness with each other.

OK, a little note here on some history of audio.

As you probably know, CD audio is amazing. At 44.1 KHz, 16-bit, audio can sound reaaaaally good, reproducing very well the human ability to hear a range of frequencies from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. That 16-bit audio allows for a large dynamic range, from silent to whisper-soft to devastatingly loud.

Sony and Philips knew what they were doing when they developed the medium in the early 80s.

What people might not know is that audio engineers can do a lot to a 44.1 KHz, 16-bit track to make it sound louder. Because a digital CD is limited to 16 bits of dynamic range, there is a limit to how loud you can get a signal. What engineers like to do to make a signal louder is to compress the signal, clip it, brick-wall limit it, etc. Basically, it is possible to take shortcuts to make the audio louder, by staying within those 16 bits of dynamic range.

The problem with this is that too much compression or limiting can really make the sound dull. Clipping just makes the sound harsh. But hey, it makes the signal loud.

When CDs first came out, tracks came out with an average loudness of -15 dBfs to -17 dBfs. As the years wore on, they got louder and louder and a lot of pop tracks today come out to be -10 dBfs to -5 dBfs. I personally don't like to master my own Steg Rex material to be more than roughly -15 dBfs. However, I knew I couldn't do that with Ashi's material, so I tried to do the best I could to preserve some sort of dynamic range. I ended up mastering his stuff to around -11 dBfs or so. With his type of music, this made sense, because his stuff is really poppy.

I really hope that one day, engineers all over the world can come back down and maybe master to around -15 dBfs or so again, because it just sounds good. For those of you who listen to music, you are in control of the volume knob. Use it. If it isn't loud enough for you, just crank it. It makes the audio quality of a CD really annoying if it's mastered too loud. Why would any artist want people to turn DOWN their music? It also sucks for the mastering engineer because people actually request for music to be mastered louder because of "convention."

OK, enough of my rant on loud mastering, back to what I was working on.

When I was done with the 5 tracks, it was already night, so I burned a CD of the day's renders and brought it to my car. I usually listen to tracks through 3 or 4 audio sources to make sure everything sounds consistent. I know that my headphones tend to accentuate the vocal frequencies, while my desktop speakers hit the bass pretty hard (and muddy too, yechhh). The speakers in my car are in general pretty balanced, in between those two extremes.

So I walked out to my car.

Turned it to ACC.

Waited for the stupid seat belt warning beep to shut up.

Cracked open my beer in the back seat.

Cranked the stereo.



Did everything sound alright?



Finally fucking finished!

OK, shut up, time to back the files up.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

April 8, 2008 is HERE!

Buy it from

OK, so it's April 8, 2008, the release date of my very first album The Dino Soars. I've been wanting to release an album ever since middle school, but it has finally happened.

The 10 years' worth of expectations and predictions about the day has made today sort of...anticlimactic to be honest. I was expecting all sorts of crazy parties and such, but none of that has happened.

Instead, I had a shot of booze with my housemate before I went to bed.

When I learned how to play piano and guitar in middle school, I really wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to be cool and famous. I wanted to be rich. However, my skills were never very good, and I had no idea how to record any of this stuff and make it sound good. To me, making and recording music was like working magic; I would probably never figure out how to do it myself, so better let someone else do it for me.

In high school, I finally learned about programs like FruityLoops that could let me put together all sorts of musical patterns. I could never get a band together, so I started to make trance music, all throughout high school (under the moniker of MiXCHure).

I had a band with two of my classmates in senior year of high school, and we practiced a couple of times, and came up with a couple of songs. I think we were pretty good and we did end up recording stuff into a single tape track by a karaoke mic. Unfortunately, when we left for college and split up, we never had a chance to practice together again. (Still hoping we will, though.)

In college, I was a lazy bum that first year. I didn't go to class, I was very unmotivated to go study, and since my computer burned out during the summer, I was pretty depressed about my music and decided not to do any new material.

I certainly wish that I had, because making music might have kept me out of trouble with the school. But that's another story for another time.

When I got kicked out of the dorms and began living in apartments, I began to work on the music again, going back to FruityLoops. My friends Kelly Toledano and Quy Duc Doan encouraged me to keep working, because they liked my old stuff (what they saw in it, I don't know since they were pretty awful). Daft Punk was still popular in those years (2004-2006) and all I wanted to do was house music (I explained that it was "porn music" for those who didn't really know the genre).

I was pretty rusty with my composition skills, and I really didn't want to sample anything. All I wanted to use were synths, but I realized that I was limiting myself to the types of sound generation that were available to me.

The summer and fall of 2006 was when everything began to piece together into something coherent. I used samples, synths, live instruments in ways that I never used before. The tracks that came out sounded pretty fresh, and it was so much fun to put all sorts of stuff together. I branched out from house into different types of electro, into some ambient, into a sizeable chunk of West Coast hip-hop, as well as some indie rock. I was cranking out a track a week.

I'll never forget the day I mastered the track Penumbra, in mid-late 2007. I felt like I had achieved the pinnacle of what music recording and production was about. I had successfully recorded in a squeaky-clean guitar signal, paired with recordings of my drumset. I put everything together with some synths and it sounded oh-so-good! Tweaking EQ/levels and mastering it was a joy because I got to blast that baby on my nice speakers.

In November, I released the digital-single Nowhere To Run, but it was a small release, and really not very notable.

It wasn't until mid-January when I began finally talking to Unfun Records about releasing an honest-to-God album release, printed, and distributed. I worked with Kelly on a hip-hop track (Sleep All Day) and Quy was a real pal, producing the artwork on the album.

The Dino Soars.

I love dinosaurs. I have a dinosaur mug. I have a plastic glow-in-the-dark Stegosaurus on my table. I watch Jurassic Park when I get drunk. That's why I'm Stegosaurus Rex.

With this first release, the dino sure soars. It's a leap of faith for an animal that is so heavy, but it's a leap of faith that I have to take. I hope that The Dino Soars will survive through the test of time, just as the dinosoars have, in the minds of the young and the imaginative, the dreamers and the workers, between art and science.

I hope you enjoy my album as much as I did in producing it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Cutting Tracks

The past few days were pretty rough, but I did get to cut a whole bunch of tracks with Kelly Toledano (working along with me in the project Model Minority) and Ashi Toledano (Kelly's brother).

A shitload of tracks.

Kelly and Ashi Toledano came up to Berkeley from SoCal (Palmdale) early Thursday morning around 5 or 6 AM. I had been drinking from Wednesday night all the way up until then, so I had to crash for a little bit before we got to work.

I woke up Thursday at around 10 AM or so, and we decided to cut all of Ashi's tracks. I think Ashi might not have had much studio experience, but he was a real trooper. We set up all his tracks and he was ready to go! I can tell he practiced like crazy, since he cut most of the tracks in one take.

5 tracks: 4 hours.

After that, we decided to take a break and we cut maybe 2 or Kelly's tracks. The work went a bit slower since we just ate lunch and we were pretty tired.

2 tracks: 2 hours.

We decide to go with our friend David to SF to meet up with another buddy Anthony. We just ended up drinking a bit at Gordon Biersch and playing some pool at Anthony's place. Eventually, we got back home around 3, ready for some sleep and the next day.

0 tracks: 8 hours.

The next day, Kelly hit the tracks hard. We went from 11 AM to about 3 PM nonstop, and cut about 8 tracks in a row. We ended the day by having a nice drink. And as soon as we were done, the brothers decided to go and hang out in SF (and then leave for home immediately after).

8 tracks: 4 hours.

Total: 15 tracks: 10 hours (work) 36 hours (span).

I swear, people who have been practicing at home before they go to the studio to record is every audio engineer's wet dream, because there are no hassles, no silly retakes, no changing the lyrics here, forgetting the structure there.

So a note to all you musicians out there: practice before you go to the studio, and record tracks like that! Don't piss off your audio engineer/producer! Save some damn money!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Baby Let Me Write A Song

So now that I’ve gotten a whole bunch of stuff done with "The Dino Soars" (printing, promos, etc), I’ve gotten back to working on some new tracks.

Between all the hip-hop, electro, and metal that I’ve been doing (super-precise editing and sequencing), I haven’t had any time to just sit down and jam, that is, until last week. I began playing some drums because I haven’t worked on it in a long time.

Getting back to creative work after a long period of busy-work is pretty tough, because I usually have writer’s block for a little bit, and it feels pretty disconcerting because it feels like you no longer have control over the creative side of your brain. So far, I’ve always been able to get a spark of an idea before I really start panicking (knock on wood). Either that, or I pound out a small idea that I store for later.

So last week, I decided to record some of the drum stuff with an already existing bassline. I worked pretty slow, because it’s been a while since I’ve worked on my drumming skills. My sixteenths were a little sloppy and I was pissed that I hadn’t been practicing. However, I did manage to get a couple of really nice takes in a sea of pretty sloppy ones (just have to keep cranking them out until it’s right).

I let the track sit there for a few days so I could let my brain rest.

What words could I set to this thing? How long was this piece of shit going to take me?

It was a Saturday night and I was reading for a little while when it just hit me. I had some pre-existing lyrics: "baby let me write a song..."

Why don’t I just write a song about me writing a song? I tried to fight it because I knew that only some sappy shit could come out of it.

I didn’t care, I wanted to get a damn track out of the way.

I just gave myself up to the ideas that were firing up a storm in my head, and the melodies just rushed out from my brain. Certain words and phrases dripped from my consciousness so quickly that I began just listing them frantically on paper. Holy Moley, I knew I had to record this thing before I forgot it!

I fired up the coffee machine around 1 AM, tuned my damn guitar, and I prayed to God that my housemates wouldn’t wake up then and there and destroy me (because that’s what I would do if some fucking idiot began to record a track at that time).

That night, I spent about 6 hours just writing, recording, and singing. I worked like a madman, and burned through 2 pots of coffee to stay awake and a pot of tea to make sure my vocal cords were nice and loose.

Guess what? It was worth it.

When I mixed it all together at around 7 AM bleary eyed and hungry, I knew I had a hit in my hands, because such sappy pop music will not go unnoticed. I made one last render and I fell asleep knowing that some idiot out there would have to enjoy it, even if it is a stupid little ditty. If nothing else, I sure had fun producing it.

--Steg Rex

Stegosaurus Rex (An Intro)

Stegosaurus Rex is the moniker for me, Max Chen. I started this music project a few years ago in the summer of 2005 because I was bored and I really wanted to put together all my musical skills (I can play the piano, guitar, drums, and sing).

Fast forward roughly 3 years, 100 or so tracks later.

I just finished printing my first album "The Dino Soars" and I'll begin playing shows and doing all sorts of weird and crazy stuff with my music. I'm cutting about a track a week or faster these days, and I don't sleep very much. I've succumbed to MySpace, and learned how to tweak the intonation on a guitar, and record vocals, and do some light mastering, and play a live set, and schmooze with other musicians, and play while drunk and makehiphopandelectroandmetalandambientanddealwithirateneighbors

OK. So I've done a lot the past few years, and learned a lot about music and myself.

I've got an album coming out, finally! (It's been a dream of mine to release music since I was in middle school.)

I'm going to play some shows!

I'm going to collaborate with some awesome musicians!

And I still don't have a real job.

OK, so you want to hear my music.
^^^ That's my electro/hip-hop/indie-rock stuff. ^^^
^^^ That's my metal/rock stuff. ^^^

Go ahead and check those links out, and stay tuned for further postings. This is the beginning of the Stegosaurus Rex blog. Because I need to give you guys news. And I'm bored.