The Dead Rock: Hollywood Undead on Cakewalk SONAR

In 2005, six musicians from Los Angeles started dissecting life as they knew it in a torrent of hip-hop, metal and industrial soul. Drawn together by their love of music and determination to have fun, the members of Hollywood Undead hunkered down in their bedrooms and started recording.

“For the first six months, we were just doing it for fun,” says J-Dog, who, like the other members of Hollywood Undead, plays multiple instruments and contributes vocals onstage and in the studio. “We put our music on the Internet and next thing, people were buying it. It shocked us.”

Making Music on the Road

The band’s debut album, Swan Song, was released in 2008. It sold more than 800,000 copies. Since then, the band has toured the world and released their second album, American Tragedy. They have just wrapped up a two-month U.S. tour and have started recording another album, bringing ideas they started recording on the road into the studio.

“We’re always coming up with songs,” says J-Dog. “During days off, we’ll bring our gear up to the hotel room to write, but we’re usually working in back of the tour bus.”

To accomplish that, J-Dog leans heavily on Cakewalk’s SONAR digital audio workstation (DAW) software. “We use all of our road gear when we’re writing — recording stems and bouncing them down to tracks to bring into the studio with us when we come off the road,” he says.

SONAR acts as the hub of their digital audio production work, both on and off the road. “All of the software synthesizers, the on-the-road recording interfaces and keyboards run off it,” explains J-Dog. “Rapture, Dimension … We love the sounds of those soft synths. I use a Korg Triton at home, but I don’t want to lug that around. With SONAR soft synths, I don’t have to.”

To control his software synths, J-Dog uses a Cakewalk keyboard. “I forget the model number, but it’s got the ACT button on it,” says J-Dog, describing Cakewalk’s Active Controller Technology, which automatically remaps parameters to the knobs, sliders and dials on the keyboard, saving him hours of tedious work. “The ACT button works for any Cakewalk plug-in. It’s really cool. It lets me automate things on the fly and makes automating stuff 10 times faster.”

The Tech Behind the Music

Hollywood Undead runs SONAR on PCAudioLabs Music Computers (MCs). “They’re workhorses; we’ve been using them for years, and they’ve always run perfectly. They’re really important to the show,” says J-Dog. “Most of our first album was recorded exclusively with SONAR and a PCAudioLabs computer. When it came time to do stems live, we decided to bring PCAudioLabs computers on the road with us. We’ve used them ever since.”

Hollywood Undead carries two PCAudioLabs MCs with them on the road. They’re linked, so if one were to cut out, the other would kick in without missing a beat. But as J-Dog puts it, “we’ve never had a problem.”

The band recently added a new MC from PCAudioLabs. “It’s a quarter of the size and a quarter of the weight of the older machines,” says J-Dog, “but I was shocked by how fast the new machine is. It’s the fastest computer I’ve ever used.”

What other benefits does he see from the new machine? “It lets me run more tracks and instruments. I can have way more stems — I might have 36 running at the same time. With the older machine, I had to freeze a few of them.” (“Freezing” is the process of rendering effects into a track to free up processor power to handle other tasks.) “Before, when I’d be writing, I’d have to stop and freeze tracks so I could record vocals. Now I can just go and go. It’s a luxury,” says J-Dog.

“PCAudioLabs MCs are built for this stuff,” he continues. “They know what kinds of problems you’d encounter with a typical PC and work the kinks out ahead of time. I don’t have to worry about incompatible drivers and stuff. It’s a dream come true.”

Getting the Right Sounds

Fitting keyboard and synth sounds into heavy metal–laced hip-hop is no easy feat. “That’s why I’m really into Dimension Pro and Rapture,” explains J-Dog. “Their strings and piano really stood out. They have a good flavor that fits our band. I spent a lot of time looking for the right sounds and finally found them in SONAR.”

Another reason J-Dog turned to SONAR is that its soft synths integrated seamlessly with his keyboard controller. “It’s really user-friendly,” says J-Dog. “It lets me turn different sections of the synth on and off, which makes it easy to customize a preset to quickly build the sound I want. With other synths, you have to spend hours loading presets until you find one you like or sit and fiddle with oscillators and filters.”

That immediacy fits right into Hollywood Undead’s writing and recording workflow. “When you’re recording on a bus, looking for a synth sound and someone says they don’t like what you’ve done, you can’t sit there for half an hour reworking it,” says J-Dog. You’ve got to be able to stay in the creative flow.”