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Ermz' Production Tips Compendium (for the newer guys)

Discussion in 'F.O.H.' started by Ermz, Sep 10, 2009.

  1. Ermz

    Ermz ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    Hey guys,

    Think of this as an article on the power of knowing where to look and what mindset to be in when engineering. Bear in mind that the approaches listed here are ones that work for me, and there is naturally no guarantee that they may work for you, nor even be considered 'correct' on a wider scale. They are merely my pointers to the newer members of the engineering community regarding where to look, what to ask, and what to focus on.

    Without a doubt, the single largest issue I tend to see on these forums is that newcomers don't ask the 'right' questions. In that light I will list a few things I would suggest you do, or avoid doing if you would like to grow in your trade.


    1. Avoid putting too much stock in presets.


    The largest fascination we seem to have as a forum is to pester someone that rolls along with a good tone or mix with: 'woah, screenshots? presets? pictures? plz!'.

    Whilst serving as a good document of what worked for that particular session, these are of little direct use to the wider community, who will undoubtedly have differing source tones and starting points. Read and understand that:

    PRESETS ARE ONLY EVER ENTIRELY USEFUL ON THE ORIGINAL SOURCE.

    Now, don't misinterpret this to mean that you have to disregard presets altogether. On the contrary, presets can be very useful if you know how to draw from them.

    When you load up a preset, whether it be an amp sim tone, an EQ, or an entire channel strip preset you need to ask yourself one fundamental question:

    Which of these settings can work for me, as a matter of standard procedure?

    Don't look at the notch at 7kHz, the wide scoop around 300Hz or the high pass at 80hz as definite, discrete information. Don't write these down and use them yourself. What you need to do is look at each of these processes and ask yourself WHY it was done and how it altered the source tone. The important thing to draw from is not exactly, to every last detail, what these settings are, but why the processes were done, and how you can implement those same approaches in your own work.

    That notch at 7kHz may have been done to tame the 'fizz' of a guitar cab. That fizz and the cab may be specific to the user and not you, but the idea you have to draw from is that if you run into a 4kHz fizz spike on your cab, you could try a similar notch to tame it.

    The wide scoop at 300Hz may have been due to the user's room being small and having uncontrolled low mid frequencies. That may not apply to you, but what does apply is the idea that a wide scoop in those frequencies will provide an audibly 'clearer' sound, if you were to ever need it.

    The high pass at 80hz may have been done to get rid of useless information below the tone. The important thing to draw from there is that a high pass was done, NOT what it was set to. In your case, and your mix, you may benefit from setting one at 150 or 170hz. What you need to take from the process is that there is information that could be hurtful to your mix below or above your usable frequency content, and that you should filter it on a case by case basis.

    These are just some examples of how you can alter the way you perceive this information in order to help you grow as an engineer, and enhance your arsenal of tools with new approaches, and not just predefined settings.


    2. Avoid relying on any single element to carry your mix.


    We frequently get 'rate my tone' threads around these parts where people put an intense amount of work and scrutiny into creating the best guitar tones they are capable of. It's a big fascination amongst guitarists, because as musicians we seem inherently ego-centric, consequently overlooking one of the most important tenets of engineering:

    EVERY ELEMENT IN A MIX AFFECTS THE PERCEPTION OF ANOTHER.

    How many of those 'rate my tone' folks take the time to craft a large drum or bass sound to augment their guitar tone? That tone which sounds so large and amazing by itself, or with weak, placeholder drums. How does it sound in a large, dense production with layers of vocals, leads, and intricate drum work?

    In most cases these 'huge' guitar tones will cloud the vocals, cloud the bass, and essentially lead that person to a horribly cloudy mix.

    If you have ever analyzed a professional production, you would have very likely been taken back by how thin and focused everything sounded when soloed. The idea behind mixing is to focus each element of that mix into its dominant zone, and subdue or entirely eliminate everything else.

    A good metal kick consists largely of a solid, tight low-end peak, and a thin high-end 'slap'. This leaves a good deal of space for everything in between, allowing the bass drums to be played as quickly as practical without destroying the clarity of the overall mix.

    A rhythm guitar tone normally has its subs and 'air' frequencies filtered out. It also commonly has audibly unpleasant frequency peaks reduced, lows controlled and high mids in-check. This is all for the purpose of leaving room for the vocals that sit on top, and the bass guitar that sits below. There is more low-end definition when a bass guitar is allowed to do its thing unobstructed, just as a vocal is clearer when it doesn't fight for dominance with the guitars.

    Every move you make is a sacrifice. A sacrifice of energy in one element to enhance clarity in another.

    As mix engineers, our world is much more complex than 'vocals up and guitars down'. We need to constantly have an ear that hears frequency interactions between all the elements in our mix, and how they hurt or aid each other. This way both our vocals and guitars can be 'up' at the same time and not hurt each other.


    3. NEVER give bands the benefit of the doubt. (Avoid is not a strong enough word for this)



    It is in our nature to give the benefit of the doubt to others. We want to believe that they are capable of performing and as a result reducing the workload we take upon ourselves. Unfortunately, in this business 99% of artists and performers don't fit that description.

    The key to a successful production is to take charge very early on. You must be diplomatic, yet staunch. You must seem flexible, yet be entirely resolute. Your clients will respect someone who is willing to see things from their perspective, as well as the perspective of an outsider, and have a strong guiding hand that will obviously aid them along the process.

    If you are going in to do a CD with a band and mention that guide tracks need to be done as part of pre-production, many bands will opt to create those guide tracks themselves. Do not, under any circumstances, allow them to do this unattended. I have never - NOT ONCE - had a good result allowing this to happen. They will inevitably fumble some fundamental aspect of either the performance, or the technical aspect of exporting a file that is expected to line up, in time, and be the basis of their professionally produced CD. This will cost both you and them time, which ultimately results in money - money which could have been used to book you to have supervised the creation of the guide tracks in the first place.

    Do NOT give bands the benefit of the doubt when it comes to crucial aspects of their CD. In spite of initial protest, they will thank you for it down the track.


    4. Measure twice, cut once.


    This is a realization that only came to me recently, despite several years in the recording industry. Preparation is more than half the battle. You always hear this, but you rarely ever take it to heart, nor understand its importance. Taking the time to get things right before they are put 'to tape' will ease your job immensely down the track. The very best projects seem to mix themselves. So if you have the fortune of being able to oversee a project from beginning to end, make sure you under stand point #3 and take control - making sure all the aspects of pre-production are done to a satisfactory standard.

    It is your job, as producer, to ensure that the performances and sounds you put 'to tape' are adequate for the final production. You need the imagination and clarity to visualize how it will sound as part of your final production. If renting a world-class mic and preamp for a few days is what it takes to make that happen for you easier in the mix, do you not think it worthwhile?

    Likewise in the editing process, your job will be made easier if you take the time to tighten poor performances, trigger drums & edit silences. You allow yourself to focus almost wholly on creative things come mix time. This leads us to another very important point.

    Workflow. It is very important that you create an environment for yourself that facilitates your workflow. You need to make your working process seem effortless and conducive to channeling your creativity and ideas at every possible turn. Demo many DAWs and find which work for you. Demo many plug-ins and find which aid your working methods the best. Many plug-ins sound indistinguishable from each other, but what truly separates them is how they facilitate your ability to execute.

    Many of the regular posters here would know me as a staunch ProTools supporter. The reason for this is that I believe ProTools is the unquestioned king of facilitating good, fluid workflow. When I use ProTools, I feel in control of every aspect of the digital session, and I fly around as if through some extension of myself. This gives me supreme dominance over the session, which ultimately increases the confidence my clients have in me, which ultimately leads to more control over the production of a record, which ultimately leads to a better end product. Find the DAW that does this for you.

    Everything in the process of engineering relates to the source. We are only ever molding what we capture. The less molding we have to do, the better the end result. Every electric process you put your tracks through inherently degrades them, despite giving illusions to the contrary. You need to make sure that the benefits out weight the negatives, and if possible, aim to do as little processing as you can to still execute the end product that you want.


    5. Avoid getting sucked in by the hype.


    There will always be some tool or other that is the 'hot new thing'. Whether it be the PODxt, Superior Drummer, Slate Samples, Revalver, Impulses or whatever else, it is worth noting the one truth that:

    NONE OF THESE WILL MAKE YOU A BETTER ENGINEER.

    They may make your job easier, and allow you to attain better results quicker, but they don't give you the ability to walk into a studio and hold your own when it comes to putting a mic in front of a cab and expecting to get a broadcast ready tone from it. It doesn't mean you'll be able to get a drummer in, tune his kit, and use the room to your advantage when pulling a large, raw drum sound.

    Convenient does not equal 'better'.

    The strongest engineers are the ones who have consolidated the fundamentals and know them by heart. If you KNOW how to get a great raw sound from a kit, you will KNOW how to use the Slate samples to their fullest extent to augment your sounds. If you KNOW how to mic a real amp and get a solid tone from it, you will KNOW both the usefulness and limitations of modelers and impulses.

    It is never helpful to run before you can walk, so at every possible turn look to consolidate your knowledge working with real instruments, and look at improving your ability to capture the source. These tools take the source out of the equation to some degree, and leave you blindsided in the process, with a large gap in your core repository of knowledge. Always look to improve yourself, and do not take the easy way out for convenience's sake.


    6. Avoid acting unprofessionally.


    This was inspired after a chat with a prominent metal producer/engineer. It may seem like a no-brainer, but many people sadly overlook it - and not just the beginners. The importance of this cannot be understated, as it forms a large basis of your employment prospects, and more importantly: how you are perceived by your competition and potential clients.

    Avoid getting a big head. The likelihood is that the last project, or clip you did which made you feel on top of the world will likely cause you to cringe in a year's time. In more likelihood it will make you cringe in a month or two. As engineers we tend to be our own worst critics, and at times our own worst enemies. Posturing never helps, as there is always something new to learn, and you never know how somebody else is hearing your work. Perhaps it sounds wonderful to you in the car, but horrid at the mastering studio. Maybe it sounds great through the monitors but horrible through the PC speakers. Maybe you were digging a lot of subs that week, but to everyone else the mix craps out at 50hz. We are slaves to our own inherently human lack of consistency, so never put your full weight behind something you aren't sure will handle hard scrutiny. If you are new, chances are that you will not have developed the ear to hear everything that you will a year from now. Be mindful, be ambitious, but know that humility is your best friend.

    Avoid paying out the competition. Some of the unfortunate events that go on even at the top-tier of audio production are gossiping, bitching, backstabbing and backdoor politicking. Avoid such things when you can, as word inevitably gets around and the industry learns what sort of person you truly are. There is no point in being a fantastic producer or engineer if your clients can't stand to work with you. Do not spread negative rumors about your direct competition. As well as making you prone to legal prosecution this is a highly unprofessional and immature tactic that will eventually come back around.

    I know that I'm starting to preach life lessons 101 here, and it's an unfortunate situation when I have to, as many people seem to not have taken these basic lessons of courtesy and kindness to heart as they grew up. It all comes back to treating others as you would like to be treated yourself. Sometimes we all forget this and let our pettyness get the better of us, but if we actively work at it - work at being better human beings, then we will ultimately cultivate more fruitful experiences in our lives.


    7. LISTEN and LEARN.


    One thing you commonly see in this industry, and perhaps on online forums in particular is 'the blind leading the blind'. Certainly, I've noticed it growing increasingly prevalent on this forum in particular. It was one of the biggest inspirations for creating this thread, despite that it took a few points to build towards it. It is most definitely one of the most important points shared here.

    Many preach before they have learned (something I could perhaps be accused of with this thread). In fact you will commonly see newcomers engaging in arguments, usually entirely baseless, with engineers that have many years of seniority over them. Now this isn't a 'respect your elders' argument, as there are certainly quite a few engineers that have been in the professional industry for some time that have their own share of character flaws and misconceptions. What this point addresses is that these newcomers will argue on entirely baseless grounds, against points they cannot possibly have the insight to understand. They will discard the wisdom being handed to them freely, and attack the giver simply because that wisdom is at odds with their currently established conceptions. This relates back to the above point: Humility.

    If you are given advice by a veteran engineer that doesn't sit well with you, hold it for a second. Sit with it and chew it over a few times. Consider the situation, review whether you revere their work, or just plainly respect their work ethic. Not all veteran engineers need to command your respect, but if they are doing better work than you are then pause for a moment. If you cannot gain anything beneficial from it immediately then ask follow-up questions, and DON'T be confrontational about it. Ask so that you may gain the insight needed to understand the wisdom.

    Certainly if I had appeared to myself 5 years ago and outlined my current working methods, I wouldn't have understood a thing. Sometimes age and experience are needed to accept and understand certain truths. So before reacting brashly and perpetuating the nimrodic cyber-culture created by hormone imbalanced teens, think about what you are doing. Think about whether you are attempting to prove a point to satisfy your own ego, or whether you are throwing away helpful advice given to you in kind spirit.

    Bear in mind that the veteran engineers don't gain anything from helping you. They are, in effect, training their own competition. For it to be thrown back in their faces is about as close to an ultimate insult as it gets. Respect the amounts of knowledge and experience freely available to you on the internet, and don't develop an immature sense of entitlement and pride if you can avoid it.


    8. The Full Circle


    You will know this one when it happens to you.

    This is my perception of the stages a person goes through when venturing into an audio engineering career.

    -You start as either a musician or music lover who has a great appreciation of music, and a desire to understand it further.

    -As you learn the core engineering principles you start to become aware of a sonic world you've never known about, right in front of your eyes all along (or ears, as it may be).
    -You start to get intently fixated on little sonic details, like the interaction of mix elements, and perhaps how certain tracks 'sit' in relation to each other.
    -You develop a strong knowledge of frequency content and its relationship between different instruments.
    -As you start to gain a greater understanding of these sonics, you find that your musical enjoyment, or writing ability has started to deteriorate.
    -Your priority now lies in finding the best sounds, and as a result your ability to either enjoy music or create it is notably impacted.
    -You consolidate your engineering knowledge enough to relax, take a breather, and be able to revisit the music again.
    -You find you have an inherent interest in how arrangements are done, and how those can be altered to enhance the quality of a mix.
    -You start to understand that music, production and engineering are all inextricably linked and now search to find a perfect synergy of the 3, rather than fixating on microcosmic details.

    -You are now a musician, music lover, producer & engineer who has a great appreciation of music, and a desire to understand it further.


    9. Always be better than your last project.


    In the world of body building it's always important to make every new workout more intense than the last. All-important to pull greater numbers, and increase overload with each progressive session. Doing this avoids stagnation and the all-dreaded 'plateaus'. Likewise in the world of engineering, and most aspects of life, you need to strive to always improve with successive attempts.

    Many engineers look upon their recent work a few weeks later and cringe. This is a natural reaction, and is one of those reactions that keeps us improving at our craft. Just because the client, or your peers were not able to hear too many issues with your last work, does not mean you shouldn't. Over-scrutinizing and obsessing are parts of the game, and need to be embraced in ways that are beneficial to one's long term development.

    Many people conversely get bogged down and crippled by these very same things. It is always important to identify which processes are leading to long term benefits and which aren't, then subsequently cutting all the negatives out from one's process. If you find that obsessing over your drum sound perpetually is crippling your ability to function as a mix engineer, then eliminate the drums from the equation. Take it back to the basics and re-learn all the drum techniques from the ground up, and look to your 'idols' and their advice at how to approach them. Strip the drums away from your process entirely and re-learn them. Modularize your thought patterns so that you can remove and 'upgrade' certain elements of your process without affecting others.

    The way we approach this profession mentally is as of as much significance as the gear we use, and the manner in which we use it.


    10. Don't be afraid to commit.


    One thing you see a lot of is people bragging about how their session backups are reaching sizes in the realm of several dozen gigabytes, as it's all been done incrementally. My only response to that is 'why?'. Keeping backups of all pivotal 'snapshots' of a session is important, but one cannot understate how important the ability to commit is. Do not be afraid to just grab your balls and go head first into a project. This is the sort of 'risky' approach that has made engineers like Chris Lord-Alge so great and popular at their craft. There is a lot to be said about someone that isn't afraid to commit and stand behind their ideas.

    Not too long ago engineers were forced to commit in ways that we would not even consider these days. With our ability to store near limitless amounts of audio data, we can keep essentially every instrument discretely on its own track, and keep our options open. This has been both immensely liberating and crippling at the same time.

    While the new technology allows us to expand our sonic arsenal with even more layers and sounds, it forces us to re-think our decisions, leaving them all to be done half-heartedly 'down the track'.

    It's very important that I make this clear, so that we reduce the incidence of some very poor form occurring.

    -It is NOT the mix engineer's job to pull your guitar sound.
    -It is NOT the mix engineer's job to tune your vocals.
    -It is NOT the mix engineer's job to create your drum sound from scratch based off a MIDI file.

    That is sheer LAZYNESS on behalf of the artist/producer/tracking engineer. There is a reason that the tracking and mixing processes are isolated from each other. They require different approaches, which should be intentionally separated. A mixing engineer's job is to make the whole project come together. The core 'sounds' are the tracking engineer's realm. You cannot expect for one person to take care of both and come off the better for it if they are only being paid for the time it takes to adequately address one. This is another instance of people wanting it both ways, and in the long run it simply does not lead to better results.

    If you are expecting your mix engineer to reamp your guitars, as well as craft your drums, and tune your sloppy vocals you had better be planning on paying them their tracking, editing AND mixing fee. One of the most insulting things I see on here are artists that come on and offer up their tracks for mixing, with barely any actual audio content. They provide a MIDI track, some raw guitars, a DI'd bass, and if we're REALLY lucky, some half-decently tracked vocals. To top this off, they offer the equivalent of the half of any civilized country's minimum wage in compensation for all the time spent to essentially engineer the project from the ground up.

    Once again this is sheer LAZYNESS, and it's the fault of the expansion of digital recording that has allowed people to become so complacent with their commitments.

    Just because reamping is an option doesn't mean that EVERY project needs to be reamped. Remember those days when guitar players plugged into an amp and played music? They haven't reached obsolescence. There is nothing wrong with committing to a guitar sound as well as a performance. A clean DI track can be kept as a last case resort, but all too often is it used as a first.

    Consolidation is our friend. It allows us to keep our headspaces clear, and not worry about 18 different iterations of a session, all containing non-discrete audio clips which could be in any state imaginable. If we do our edits, refine them, and then COMMIT to them, we can be sure that when we open our ONE existing session that everything is sequenced, faded and ready to roll.

    It wasn't only the non-linear characteristics of analogue that led to richer mixes - it was also the work flow they forced us to employ. When you work on the edge, your end product reflects it.


    11. Be mindful of your limitations.


    One of the greatest dangers we face as mix engineers in the new digital era is the possibility and incentive to over-process our projects. As our digital tool set has expanded, the quality of plug-ins increased, and the general power of native systems skyrocketed, we can now process our mixes to a degree that engineers in past decades could have only dreamed of. As always, however, with such great power comes the need to use it responsibly.

    There is only so far that our mix tools can take us. The incentive should always be on tracking the utmost quality performances. No amount of mixing will ever change the inherent character of a track. There are too many intricate harmonic, phase and level related intricacies for us to dissect and alter. One should be able to pull their faders up with no processing and say to oneself 'okay, this mix is already well on its way'. The best projects, as it's said, mix themselves.

    So it's wise to take a minute or two after every few hours of mixing and ask yourself 'am I trying to push shit up a hill?'. Is your mixing enhancing the overall vibe of an already good recording and performance, or is it trying to overcompensate for a poor one? The distinction is very important.


    12. Referencing is your friend.


    There are several issues which tend to divide audio engineers. One of the minor ones is the act of referencing to other records whilst mixing. Some prefer to wing it, relying solely on their knowledge of their own sound system in order to create a unique product. Others like to reference their more beloved productions throughout the process in order to ensure that their mix is competitive and not out of balance.

    I've always found a predisposition for the latter, and here is why:

    -Your ears are not always going to respond the same from day to day. Some days you may be more inclined to mix bass-heavy than others, or perhaps more wet rather than dry. No matter how familiar you are with your system, there is always the human deviance within your own process. Referencing helps account for that.

    -It's exceedingly difficult to get it all right 'blindly'. A mixer may be capable of getting the mix 80% to its destination alone, but once those final few, and arguably hardest, percent creep in it becomes more of a different journey. One where 0.5dB moves in the right places can make or break the record. At this point it's wise to have all one's bases covered, and ensure that the mix, in its final stage, matches or exceeds the depth, width & energy of its competitors.

    -The ability to reference is a gift, and an added advantage, no matter how one chooses to look at the situation. To neglect the advantage is to do so at one's own peril. Even engineers at the very top of the game still reference. There is nothing amateur or shameful about doing so whatsoever. Remember, the important thing is the end product, not one's own ego.


    13. A good night's rest is worth more than any tool.


    The more and more work I get, the less and less time I have for rest. As a result, a very important lesson has presented itself.

    One crucial element to your ability to make judgments accurately and stay productive is something you likely take for granted - a fresh, rested body & mind.

    It's become somewhat of an industry cliche to hear about people doing all day, all night sessions, just powering through, sucking the last ounce of sugary sustenance from energy drinks simply to stay conscious.

    What you don't hear about is that this will eventually backfire. It's inevitable. Our bodies are only built to handle so much, and if you're riding into overdrive too often, a time will come where you will fall apart and have to pay back that loan.

    The longer the hours you put in, the more burned out you get. The more burned out you get, the less efficient the use of your time becomes. So if you take a step back and think about the situation you will realize that ultimately having normal, sustainable working hours with regular periods of rest will lead to greater productivity in the long term than trying to cram a week's worth of sessions back to back. We are not made to handle it. We get cranky, agitated, lethargic, start to make poor judgments & not to mention hallucinate!

    So cut it out! It's not trendy to mistreat yourself. Have respect for your body and you will find that with a clearer mind over a longer period of time you will achieve better results, quicker.


    Hit the word limit. This may be the last entry.
     
  2. xMannequiNx

    xMannequiNx Member

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    nice job dude def some good tips for the newbies

    sticky! This is definitely something everyone should read when they first join
     
  3. slayercannibalsuffohead

    slayercannibalsuffohead Get a dog up ya!

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    Mate, thankyou very much for your time and effoet. When people with experience go to this length and trouble to help others out, that is what makes this forum a great place. Keep up the great work Ermz, thanks again. :kickass:
     
  4. TMXXX

    TMXXX Member

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    Thanks mate. Looking forward to more of this!
     
  5. GuitarHack

    GuitarHack Krank it UP!

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    Nicely written Ermz. It's a good read.

    "If you have ever analyzed a professional production, you would have very likely been taken back by how thin and focused everything sounded when soloed"

    Definitely. I was quite shocked at how all the seemingly "small" tones could add up to a great SOLID mix. Multitracks are a great learning tool.
     
  6. mrbean667

    mrbean667 Member

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    Bloody oath, this is fantastic. I will learn more from this one thread than one hundred threads put together. :kickass:
     
  7. dan weapon

    dan weapon Planet Smasher

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    great stuff ermz.
     
  8. Dylan S

    Dylan S Celephai

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    Thank you for doing this Ermz! I enjoyed reading that and I'll definitely enjoy reading more of it I'll bet. :)
     
  9. digitaldeath

    digitaldeath Member

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    Nice post Ermin! Lasse, can you make this a sticky and Ermin can just edit the initial post to add more info later on?! Cheers!
     
  10. xturbox

    xturbox Member

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    short, basic, clear and convincing. Great points! thank you.
     
  11. FIXXXER

    FIXXXER ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    thanks man!
     
  12. Williamn

    Williamn Member

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    Great post and interesting read.. looking forward to updates! :).
    ..and impressive that you managed to misplace the post even with the words "production tips" in title hehe :p
     
  13. JMarz

    JMarz New Metal Member

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    You really should write a book, man.

    I'd buy it.
     
  14. Lionwing

    Lionwing Lurker

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    I'll bear all this in mind. Cheers!
     
  15. akarawd

    akarawd Member

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    Thankssssss, keep it coming !
     
  16. jeid

    jeid Terribad

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    A great helpful post, i'm looking forward to the next part
     
  17. Ermz

    Ermz ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    Glad you're liking it so far, guys.

    I was hoping that Lasse would allow this thread to linger on the front page some more before resigning it to being lost in plain sight up amongst a bunch of stickies, haha. Wanted to get it a bit more noticed by the crew that roll in here, but is all good.

    When I get some more time I'll keep on rolling with it. It's more of a brainstorm, so as soon as the ideas come in, I'll put them down.

    Cheers.
     
  18. Demonstealer

    Demonstealer Member

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    ^^^ Great article! :)
     
  19. Ermz

    Ermz ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    Added more!
     
  20. Harry Hughes

    Harry Hughes   ‬‬

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    Absolutely excellent stuff man. I'm pretty much a newbie myself and there was some stuff I learnt really this, so big thank you bro.
     

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