Interview: Andrew Huang - Multi-Talented Music Maker & MIDI Unicorns

Andrew Huang, the creator behind one of YouTube’s fastest growing music channels, sat down and answered some questions with Ask.Audio.

Andrew Huang is a man of many musical talents and, as it turns out, video talent as well. With a YouTube channel dedicated to the art, craft and love of making music quickly approaching 1 million subscribers it seems we are not the only ones that think so. 

Andrew, unless otherwise noted in his video descriptions, writes, produces and performs all the music and vocals for his videos. That’s impressive! Check out his videos here.

We recently shared his “Glorious MIDI Unicorn” video where he drew a picture of a unicorn in a MIDI piano roll inside Ableton Live that, when played back, actually sounded really good! However, that video is just one of many that have gone viral and surpassed the million-view mark. 

URL: https://ask.audio/articles/how-to-make-a-glorious-midi-unicorn-in-any-daw

Recent videos of note

“Rapping without the letter E”. An entire rap written and performed without the letter E; the most common letter in the English language. 

“99 Red Balloons - played with red balloons”, in which he recreated the 80s single 99 Luftballons by Nena with nothing but red balloons.

His collaboration with Dave from Boyinaband, where they play a single song in 26 genres which are arranged Alphabetically fittingly titled, “Alphabetical 26-Genre Song”. 

With his channel growing at an interstellar pace we figured now was a good time to sit down and get an interview if, between his two-videos-a-week schedule, he had could squeeze us in. We are happy to report he made time for us!

YouTube

AA: How, if at all, has the approaching 1 Million Subs milestone changed your approach to making videos? 

AH: I’ve been making two videos a week since last July and it feels sustainable enough. I think I’ve only missed three uploads in that span of time. I wouldn’t say that I’m ready to take on much more than that. It’s interesting - the way you asked the question - because there’s a part of it where the approach affects the impact that the work has, and the reach it has, and how the audience grows, and there’s the opposite way that it feeds back, where the larger the amount of people watching you or the more engaged they are, that then plays back into what you end up creating or how you create. So, yeah, it’s a weird, kind of, two-way street.

Two high quality videos a week is impressive. Some of them are multi-camera and music synced master pieces. I can’t imagine. Do you have someone working with you these days?

I have someone who is working as a multi tool. A great VFX shooter, editor…. Since January of this year he’s been coming in four days a week. It’s been great having help to take care of a lot. Not even just things on the production side, but captioning videos, handling some of the uploading, that kind of stuff. 

At the beginning of this year it felt like it was time to dive in and see if we could build this up more, but because I have no set format for my videos every day looks different. You know, some of the videos I shoot for half an hour and we can upload them in a couple of days and other times it’s like we’re piecing it together over a few weeks, that’s based on what the concept is. 

How do you stay motivated for a two-video-a-week schedule?

It’s been cool seeing that as I’ve been talking more about the weird things about music that interest me other people share those same interests. If I had known, I would have opened up that whole side of things much earlier. I would have started blogging about my creative process more, because that seems to be the main draw right now. I’m so interested in all these different approaches to music, and these different sounds and ideas. I just keep a huge running list of stuff I want to do and I want to make. So, whatever I feel like for the next week, we pick it and go with it. 

Are you really week-to-week, like South Park? Or do you plan ahead in your schedule where you are finishing videos a few weeks ahead of the release date? 

I’m trying to get ahead. It’s hard to stay ahead. Typically, I’m not more than a week ahead. Usually, the stuff I post on YouTube has been shot and edited in the last three days. Occasionally, with a bigger concept I do need the lead time to plan, you know, shooting at a location, or whatever it might be. So, those are the two extremes. Either it’s been days or it's been weeks, or even months. And in the case of a couple of projects, even like three or four years. I’d love to get to a place where I’m much more streamlined. We prioritize the upload schedule a lot. So that acts like a funnel of where I’m going to be putting my time

What comes first, music or video ideas?

It’s interesting. There are times when the video has come first and there are times when the music comes first and then there are times when there’s this weird symbiotic relationship where they build off each other. A lot of the music I make it’s like I make the music first and then I think about what’s an interesting angle I can bring people in with. You know, what am I going to talk about with the piece that’s more interesting than just this is what inspired me, or whatever. 

The stuff that I find is the most interesting is in that place where the video and the music are blending together. Like when making the decisions about which sound to include, or which shot to include are holding hands. Like you're making your decision both on the visual and the audio. At the end of the day, the majority of people that are following me are following me on YouTube. They are watching those videos more than they are streaming me on Spotify, for example so the primary experience of my music is actually these videos where you’re only getting half a song, maybe you’re not getting the final mix, but it’s the “as it’s happening” part of the creative process. 

How do you know when a musical idea is done and it’s time to move forward?

I guess I have a distinction between some of the music that I really am making for myself, or in service to music itself, or whatever you might want to say about that. Then there are things that I feel like the concept, or the idea, the musical principals that I’m talking about is what I want to get across. A lot of times in those cases, it’s like, well, a minute of this “raven dubstep” is all you need. To make that into a 3 – 4 minute track just feels like that would be overkill. Somewhere along the line I decide if it is something I really want to get into and polish up and turn into something epic. Then, other times, it’s like, this is for YouTube and specifically for talking about what the whatever the concept is. 

What type of content seems to be working best on YouTube at the moment?

I guess I could answer that in two ways. The vlogging stuff and the behind the scenes stuff, creative process stuff has really resonated with a lot of people. I think that just so many people out there now have the tools to create, you know, just because they already have a phone. Everyone can be a creator now so everyone is kind of interested in that stuff. The “found sound” stuff was always my biggest draw before that and is something where I probably have the biggest chance of the Huffington Post talking about it or Buzzfeed talking about it and getting a big spike. But as far as growing a consistent viewership it’s really been from when I started vlogging, from when I started pulling back the curtain a bit on how and why I do these musical things. 

Song Challenges

Were there any Song Challenges that were more difficult that you thought they might be?

I think that the “found sound”, I think that the first big one I did was the Jeans one, I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but using a thousand pairs of jeans and every sound I could find with them. That was the first time I said I want to make music with the sounds that are only coming from this restrictive set of items. The challenge there was actually a lot more in the video editing than the music, just figuring out how to get the clips lined up musically and how to do the split screen stuff and all that. That was a big challenge. Since then I feel like I’ve really gotten a handle on that and it’s pretty easy now to do those types of videos. 

The [other] videos that stand out to me are some of the lyrical challenges. Like, writing without the letter E or the five language one was just three days in Google translate and emailing with a few friends of mine who speak other languages and figuring that out. That was just like hitting my head against the wall kind of stuff.

So, you’re not fluent in those languages? 

I studied a little bit of French living in Canada. Mandarin was actually my first language, but by the time I got to school I wasn’t using it anymore, and I took a year of Spanish. That’s how I chose those languages. I had the tiniest foundation in them. Then Swedish I threw in because I was like, let’s just make it a round five. You know, that was one where I just happened to know someone who was into helping out. That fifth language could have been anything. I was looking for something a little more outside the Germanic based languages. It was a little more outside than if I had used Portuguese after already using English, Spanish and French. 

Was there ever a challenge that couldn’t be completed?

The one that I posted recently where every word in the rap starts with the next letter of the alphabet. I wrote the first ten words of that maybe four years ago and I was like, I don’t think I can do this. I was like, how can you even get through one pass of the alphabet. 

What was the letter you got stuck? Do you remember? 

So, it’s like, “A balanced challenge demands exact fashionings. Given here in just knocking looping mallets …” 

Oh, so to go back a couple of questions, this ties into if the music or the video come first. I was writing this thing and I came up with this line and thought I could incorporate mallets here and kind of make it make sense. So, let’s get a xylophone for the video; let’s incorporate that sound into the beat. I think that’s as far as I got. It took me so long to do that and then I don’t remember what happened, but I was reminded of it one morning. I just laid in bed with a thesaurus tab and my Evernote open on my phone and wrote the whole rest of the song. 

There’s a lot that I know I couldn’t do and I don’t even bother trying. There’s plenty of those. 

Professional Client Work

How do you choose which projects to take on outside of your YouTube channel and how do you manage your time between the two?

It’s been different over the years. Several years ago, the primary way that I was making my money was by doing really small-time commissions. Anyone that found me could get in touch. I’d write a song for their anniversary or write a theme song for their podcast that they were starting. From there, either just purely online or from a few contacts that I had made I would start getting commercial work. Those were good. I would do the music for a Domino’s Pizza commercial, or whatever, just like little 30 second things.

There was a point where I had grown my YouTube audience to maybe 50k subscribers and I felt like I that should be my main thing. This feels like a place with a great community. It’s a platform that’s growing and I was really enjoying making videos which was fairly new to me, because I had always just done music. So I put a halt on all commissions for several months and I was only making my own music and figuring out how to get that on YouTube. After that transition, there would still be the occasional project that would come my way. At that point I would just take outside stuff if I needed the money. In the last couple of years, it’s really shifted, because now I don’t really do much that’s not within the scope of my YouTube channel or my wider social media presence. 

Last year I did a Panda Express commercial, because the budget was gigantic and everything else I have done has been some sort of sponsored thing. You know, me doing a product placement or integrating the product in some way into my weird “found sound” stuff or Instagram photos occasionally. Some brands want that. That’s where things are at now.

Has a brand ever tried to restrict your process to the point where you had to decline the project?

Well, they are really all over the place and then there are projects I just have to say “No” to. The ones that do work out… It’s usually best when there’s not much of a creative prompt. I think, more and more, I’m seeing brands that already have an idea what they want and then they say, “OK, let’s find ten influencers and plug them into this.” Then there are ten pages of talking points. Those tend not to work well. 

Then there are brands that come and say, “we like what you’re doing. Let’s talk about something”. There are brands that have no idea how much money they want to spend. There are brands that know exactly how much. There are some that really just want to focus on one platform, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube. Then there are others that seem to not have the first idea of what social media is. So, yeah, it’s really all over the place and you have to have a couple of conversations to gauge where they are at, and even then, you can’t always be too confident. 

Can we talk about your hearing loss? How has the struggle been? How are things these days?

I’m fine to talk about this. I was unsure what kind of reception that information would have when I first put it out there, but people have been really supportive. Actually, the video that’s going up in a few hours today on my channel is about a device. I have a little device that does a hearing test on each ear. It sends a bunch of different sinewave frequencies to each ear and you let it know at what point each tone is just barely audible.  It builds a profile of your hearing and then does crazy equalization to whatever signal you feed through it to give you a more normal listening experience.

It works fairly well. It doesn’t quite go to the deep depths of the low end that I would like it to, but I was actually surprised at how well it worked. The hearing that I do have… the right ear is a lot worse than the left. Both are missing some low end and the right is missing a lot more. It’s still there. It’s just so faint compared to everything else that I’m hearing. Having this thing that can compensate in a lot of the right bands does make a difference. 

Where I’m at right now with that journey is thinking about, now that I can afford it, maybe hiring out some of the mixing that I need to do when time permits. I’ve also figured out what works for me in how I mix my stuff… and how to deal with the fact that there’s certain things I’m not picking up on. I’ve been living with this for over 10 years, so it’s kind of just part of life now.

Music Production, Gear, and more… 

Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 has been making a lot of appearances in your videos recently. Can you tell me about that? 

It’s a magical little toy. 

It has cows on it!

Yeah. That cow effect is a weird combination of a frequency shifter and a delay. I think… Hmmm. I was going to say the one thing, but there are just so many amazing things about it. The portability of it, the durability of it and the build quality are amazing. I’ve taken it everywhere with me. I’ve made tracks on the plane, on the beach…

On the beach? Living on the edge.

Yeah. I’ve had it on one of those trays above the bathtub too. It’s addictive. The amazing thing about it is that it’s so powerful for how small it is. It’s this perfect balance between giving you a lot of power and a lot of possibilities, while also making things fun and not entirely sure what every parameter is. So you’re forced to rely a bit more on your ears. Yeah, it’s just like an entire DAW, plus a drum machine, plus a bunch of synth engines, plus a sampler.

Can you tell me a bit about the sampler?

You can either load a bunch of samples through a USB cord, or you can record through a line in, it has a laptop type mic if you want to just record on it. Yeah. It does almost everything you want it to do in its own weird little way. 

I was wanting one for years before I actually took the plunge. It’s insanely expensive. It seems ridiculous. It’s about the same price as an Ableton Push or as the Native Instruments keyboard that I use, but it does so much more and I use it so much more. I think the fact that it’s kind of small and looks like a toy maybe people think, “Oh, it will be about $300 bucks and it’s just a think I can [play] around with”, but it’s actually one of the most inspiring and most powerful tools that I have. The fact that it’s tiny is actually another asset. You can throw it in your pocket almost. 

When did you learn the power of sampling?

I guess that’s kind of grown gradually since my teens. I was getting into hip hop when I was 14 / 15 and was just trying to figure out how they made that kind of stuff. My school had some recording equipment so I would experiment a little bit with that. I had a couple of different approaches right off the bat, because I was trying to copy what hip hop beats were doing. I was trying to figure out how to get a sound off a record or import a sound into whatever software I was using at the time. How you could chop it up. How you could manipulate it.

Maybe a couple of years after that, I started experimenting with the “found sound” kind of stuff. I think the first thing I did was incorporating a water bottle, like hitting it and shaking the water in it, in an acoustic song. Finding new sounds and textures that aren’t typically incorporated into music and playing with that. It was just one of many things I was trying out. Until a few videos blew up on YouTube, it never felt like it was going to become a huge focus. 

You mentioned Native Instruments. Do you have a favorite library?

I’m a big Reaktor fan for the user library. The user generated stuff that people have made in Reaktor is mind blowing. Some of them are just as good as any pro plug-in. In terms of Kontakt, it’s a good question, I guess it really depends on the project. I find myself reaching most for the organs and keys and some of the strings. I feel like those are a lot of their best emulations that I’ve explored. I’m not sure that I can pick just one really favorite. Maybe, you know, the Celesta is really good. If you need a gentle but present bell tone, get a good Celesta in there. 

Can you explain your Mixing and Mastering process?

Most of the time, if it’s a collaborative project, I’ll tend to encourage the other party to take that on, because of the hearing impairment. There was one album that I just decided, “let’s see how this goes” and got it entirely mastered by someone else, which I was happy with. 

I’m all about efficiency, because I’m cranking out a lot of stuff, so I’m always mixing as I go. I’ve rarely ever taken all the stems from a project with all the faders reset [to mix]. I’m always adding stuff and balancing it and at the end of the day I might make some tweaks. I have a mastering chain of all UAD plug-ins. I really like it. It’s basic. It’s just a maximizer, a flavor EQ, and maybe a precision EQ, and then a limiter. I just slap that on everything and I might make some adjustments. Then there’s an occasional track where I might want to throw on a vitalizer or a stereo expander. For the most part, it’s just like three to four UAD plug-ins. I actually have a blog post that goes into detail about that. 

Favorite DAW?

Ableton Live. 

Favorite instrument?

OP-1

Favorite acoustic instrument?

Drum Kit. I just love drumming.

Favorite rapper?

Kendrick 

Favorite singer?

Prince

Favorite band?

Beach Boys. 

Favorite YouTube channel? 

Simone Giertz. She’s working with Adam Savage now on Tested. She builds what she calls “shitty robots”. She’ll have a robotic arm that tries to pour her cereal and it just gets stuff everywhere. It’s this amazing intersection between hilarity and actual incredible technical knowhow. 

Advice for the Younglings

Are you a classically trained musician?

Yeah. I did piano up to grade six, I think, and I played double bass in a youth orchestra for a couple years. 

What instrument should people learn first? Piano?

Yeah. I was going to say piano, and it is where I started, but I think it’s really helpful when you can see all the notes in front of you. That lets you learn about the relationship between them. It’s not like a lot of other instruments, where there is more than one way to get to a certain pitch. I know a flute player that doesn’t get harmony as much, because she’s only been playing these monophonic lines her entire life. I think, yeah, piano is a great place to start for musicianship and just an understanding of theory. 

Do you have any suggestions for where people should go to learn outside of a traditional school?

A lot of the learning that I have done on my own, which has been more on the production side than the instrument side… most of what I know didn’t come from a school. It came from online. Articles. YouTube videos. Sitting through a 25-minute tutorial someone’s made about how to use FM-8. All the information is out there. It’s more starting with knowing what you want to learn. 

If you have one tip that you can pass on to people getting started, what would it be?

The main technique, and the one I use all the time, is just getting it done. If I have an idea and I’m really excited to do it, and the only microphone I have is the one on my camera, I’ll give it a shot. That’s how I did my 99 Red Balloons video, which is one of my most viewed videos… I did not properly record any of that balloon audio. It was just my Canon T3i audio.

 

 

Synthesis 101
The Filter
by Bob Moog Foundation

"Joshua Casper is an accomplished live performer, DJ, producer, and music educator. His specialties are centered in and around Ableton Live and Native Instruments. His educational material has been featured on Ableton.com and Maxforlive.com as well as a myriad of large music production websites. His music has been featured on Dubstep.ne..." Read More

Discussion

Want to join the discussion?

Create an account or login to get started!