Marc 'MK' Kinchen's 10 essential studio lessons

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Lauded for his signature house sound, based on stylised piano melodies and cut-up vocals, Detroit-born Marc ‘MK’ Kinchen was nurtured by The Belleville Three - techno legends Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. By the early '90s MK had put that knowledge into practice, topping the US dance charts with hits such as Always and Love Changes, alongside classic house anthems including Burning. 

Today, MK is a prolific remixer and producer with a 500-strong discography and a hi-tech studio full of envy-inducing gear. Here, MK shares his wealth of knowledge to provide all you budding producers with ten essential studio, production and industry tips.

1. To find inspiration, imitate your idols

“Every producer has to find their own voice or speciality. It may be how you arrange drums or produce a bassline; for me, it was vocals. In a perfect world, I would tell every young producer to just go in, do your own thing and not think about anything else; but like a lot of people, I used to listen to my idols and try to imitate them. Back in the 80s, it was a bit harder, because when I was 14 I didn’t have an Emulator II like Depeche Mode did, so there was no way I could make those same noises. But I at least learned the notes and melodies and tried to reach that sound. When the technology caught up and I could afford it, it became much easier to dial in on the sound I wanted to make. 

“With house music, I always used to think, ‘How did they make this track?’. I asked myself questions like, ‘How did they create the drum sound or make the hi-hats swing?’. I knew it wasn’t a preset, so I wanted to know how they programmed the swing that way, and eventually I figured out it was two hi-hats swinging at different percentages. But the sounds you hear in songs now are much more easily attainable. I remember hearing a Deadmau5 song and everyone on YouTube was explaining how to get that exact same sound, which takes away the learning curve.”

2. If I was starting today, I’d take the software route

“I’d only recommend following my path if you’re trying to recreate the 90s house sound. My first keyboard was a Roland Juno-106 and I really had to mess around with it to get the sound I wanted. I was never able to get a good bass sound from it unless it was layered or I ran it through an EQ. Back in the day, if you had a Roland TR-909 drum machine, it was pretty easy to recreate a house track, but a lot of times when you’re starting out, you can’t afford that kind of stuff. It just so happens I worked with Kevin Saunderson in the studio and he had everything, so I was lucky. 

“Some producers don’t play, they draw the notes on the computer, which is fine, but you need to figure out whether you get a good vibe from doing that. I’d rather play the parts, but if you try to go back and use vintage gear, you have the problem of MIDI. It’s pretty basic, but when you start using MIDI with computers and software it can get buggy. I used to spend days trying to figure out why a particular drum machine wasn’t syncing up with another drum machine or my computer. Now you can just plug in a laptop, call up Maschine, load some drum sounds in from Sylenth or Massive and you’re good to go. So I’d say, take the software route, because it’s the easy road and software can actually help you learn how to analyse compression or EQ better.”

3. Use social media to find and reach your audience

“Before I started producing house music, I would listen to everything that came out - but I didn’t listen based on wanting to be a famous DJ or producer. I really focused on trying to make cool house music and impress the people I was around, like Kevin Saunderson or Carl Craig. Then I released Burning and it didn’t impress anybody, but I still liked it, so I ended up putting it out myself. That’s why I say to kids who ask me how to get started: ‘Dude, you have every platform at your fingertips. If you’re not so good at producing yet, do a cool one hour set and put it online. Tweet it, put it on Facebook, SoundCloud or YouTube, or ask your favourite artist to retweet it. If they like it, you never know. 

“The way dance music is now, DJs always want to play stuff that no one’s heard before, so new producers are in the best position ever. It’s really easy these days to make a song on a laptop and get in touch with your favourite DJ through social media - Jamie Jones broke a lot of new producers by doing that. Another way is to play your tracks live. Even if you’re a local DJ and only play to 30 people in a little bar or pub, play a couple of tracks you produced and watch their reaction, because you can tell if it’s dope. But I still think the internet is the best route, because you can read the comments, and if loads of people start asking for your track then you’re good to go.”

4. It doesn’t really matter whether you go digital or analogue

“Analogue tape sounds great, but nobody uses it anymore. I remember having an MCI 24-track 2" machine in my house. I would make tracks using software, play it back on tape and they sounded amazing. There’s nothing around now that really gives you the night and day difference that tape gives you. It compresses the sound a little and warms and fattens it up to fill all of the frequencies. Vintage analogue synthesisers also sound great, but they’re expensive and these days it’s hard to tell if a synth is analogue or digital anyway.

“I have a lot of Moogs, both old and new, and they all sound great, so I don’t think whether to use analogue or digital gear is a question that new producers should think about at all. You’ll hear today’s producers talking about it all the time because they think analogue is cool gear to use, but most people can’t hear the difference unless you’re using some super-cheesy digital synth.

“I have a lot of digital analysers. One’s called Clarity M by TC Electronics, and using that, I can compare the waveforms from a great-sounding track next to mine to see whether I’m way off just by the way it looks. So that’s a great digital tool.”

5. Don’t overuse compression, especially if your track is for radio

“A lot of times, compression will sound great on a track, but you can easily over-compress a song and ruin it. Compressors usually sound really good on piano, bass drums and basslines - if you do it right. When you parallel compress drum sounds without the kick, it can glue the hi-hats, claps and the snare together. But like I said, you can easily overproduce a track, especially one that gets played on the radio, because radio compresses anyway. Once radio gets it, you’ll often find the track’s compressed too much and sounds like crap. 

“That’s happened a few times to me, and because I’m not an engineer, I didn’t notice what a proper engineer would notice. So now I try not to compress the drums too much and tend to leave that to my mastering engineer. You can apply compression to each individual track, but you need to know what you’re aiming for, rather than just putting a compressor on everything for the sake of it.

“I have a lot of compressors and I’ll use them individually and on the mix buss, but I’ll only apply them a tad. I just got a Shadow Hills mastering compressor and it sounds great, but I don’t ever hit it hard. I also have an SSL AWS948 and I don’t hammer that either, because although it might sound good at the time, you don’t want the track to leave the studio like that.”

6. Use panning on vocal tracks; otherwise, keep it tight

“When I began making music, there was no mixing board involved. I had a drum machine, a synth and a sequencer, and wasn’t using a computer. I basically ran everything through either a stereo or DJ mixer, so panning wasn’t even on my radar. 

“Once I started going to Kevin Saunderson’s studio, I had that luxury, but there wasn’t too much to pan because my tracks only had a couple of sounds in them. I would maybe pan a crash, but would keep the hi-hats, claps, kick, bass and the main keyboard line in the middle.

“It’s only when I got better at recording vocals that I got into panning. I would do a song where the hook would have 16 tracks of background vocals and I’d have to spread them out, because you can make the track sound bigger by panning the harmonies in different positions. If you’re making house music, for example, you don’t want to spread your hi-hats to the left or right because it loosens the drum sound and makes everything sound wider. Dance music usually needs to be tight and right in your face, and the point of panning is to push the sound off into the distance a little. You may also want to pan a cool ambient synth sound or a background effect so it’s noticeable but not noticeable, if that makes sense.”

7. For dance music, I prefer using preamp plugins

“These days, preamps are not as important for dance music, but if you’re making rock music with live guitars then I’d say it’s necessary to use them. It’s a totally different way of producing, because you can’t recreate the electric guitar the way you can with a live player. I’m not sure which amps are popular right now, but with rock music you’re usually using live instruments such as guitar, bass and vocals, and they need preamplification.

“Sometimes you can run synths though an amp, but you could just as easily go through an amp plugin to get some distortion or a different sound. Occasionally, I’ll use distortion plugins to make stuff sound a little more dirty or on vocals, to get that screaming-through-a-megaphone effect. It can sound good on EDM stuff, though, especially hard dubstep, because it can give that genre a cool electronic rock sound. But these days preamps are the last thing on a producer’s list.”

You may also want to pan a cool ambient synth sound or a background effect so it’s noticeable but not noticeable, if that makes sense

8. EQ all the frequencies you can’t hear to give more space to your sound

“EQing is the most important part of production. Because I DJ so much, my ears aren’t as good at hearing the highs and lows, so I have to use a lot of visualising plugins to see stuff. But it’s so important to understand EQ, and my recommendation for any new producer is to learn all about it. Learn what EQ is, including all the different frequencies - not just the ones that can be heard, but those that can’t.

“For example, I always cut the lows down on sampled hi-hats, because they produce a muffle in the track. Even for sounds you’re using that don’t appear to have low frequencies, you want to EQ them out because you’re still getting that air. You may not notice it at the time, but when you have 20 tracks running, that low air starts getting in the way of your bass drum or bassline.

“For the same reason, when I’m working on my bass sounds, I’ll EQ out the high frequencies because they may have a little hiss. Basically, if you have a really cool Moog sound, you want people to actually be able to hear it and not have these blank frequencies getting in the way of everything, because that’s how your track will stand out in a club. Most producers tend to turn the bass frequencies up on the bass drum, but if you put in too much bottom end, you won’t hear anything else in the track.”

9. It’s better to mix through bad speakers than good ones

“Mixing is about taking every track and making sure each one sits right within that song. You have to EQ every sound, put effects on them and make sure all the levels are right, and it’s pretty tedious work. When it comes to mixing, the speakers you use are obviously important, but NS10s are so popular because they sound like shit. Basically, they’re so flat that if you can make something good on them, they’ll sound good on anything - and I’m still trying to find a pair for that purpose.

“I’ll reference on Genelecs, which I love, because they give the sound a bit of colouring; but once I leave the studio, the tracks never sound the same, so you don’t want to mix on Genelecs. On the other hand, I have a pair of KRKs with six-inch woofers that cost $600 and I made Storm Queen - Look Right Through, which made number one, on those speakers. That makes you wonder if speakers really matter. My friend told me about these speakers called Kii3s, and they’re the best speakers I’ve ever heard in my life, but they cost $13,000. So all in all, I’d highly recommend the KRKs for beginners.”

10. Mastering is all about the room - treat it as a blank piece of paper

“Mastering is about taking the overall project and making sure it looks right. When you’re mastering, you can’t lower a kick drum or raise the vocals, but you can put a limiter on a snare that’s peaking to push it down. If your mastering engineer feels your track isn’t bright enough, he can bring up the brightness of the overall track, including the low-end, or glue everything together if the sound’s too wide to help make the song fit in a certain space.

“But a lot of it has to do with the room you’re mastering in. You can’t master in a bedroom; it’s hard enough to mix in a small room. You need a proper studio, where the sound is dead, because if you’re mixing in a room that’s not acoustically treated, you’re going to hear echoes. It’s an extreme example, but imagine mastering a song in an empty gymnasium. That would be crazy, but you’ll get just as bad an effect mastering in a small room, because the music’s going to sound completely different somewhere else.

‘Mastering is like drawing a picture on a piece of paper. You want to draw on a blank canvas, not a piece of paper that’s been ripped, coloured on or has dust all over it. Your room is that blank piece of paper.”

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