Let me start by telling you a little story. When I was about 20 years old, I went to my first dance music concert. The artist was Porter Robinson, and he was performing the tour of his album "Worlds". I had never experienced anything like this in my life. The music was so moving, it felt so deep and visceral, I could not only feel the bass in my chest and my feet, but also the powerful emotions the music evoked as well. The visuals took me to a whole other world and it was perhaps the most incredible escape from reality and into a fantastical world that I had ever experienced. It blew me away that it all began with one person making sounds on a computer. I knew right then that I wanted to be the person making those sounds for a journey of my own.
So the very next day I downloaded a "free" version of FL studio and tried to make my own Porter Robinson inspired soundtrack. I had never developed an ear for music or any skill on a musical instrument, much less had the technical skills of an audio engineer. So when I opened up the DAW for the very first time, I was completely confounded, it took all day to figure out how to even get a beat going with some instruments playing a melody, and it was the worst thing I had ever heard. It was pretty discouraging, and I didn't really know where to turn to figure out how to get from point A to point B, from a nobody with no connections or experience to a producer capable of captivating listeners with music made on a computer.
After some googling around, I decided I would go to school for audio engineering and that there I would learn everything I needed to be the next Porter Robinson. I set down the DAW for another year until I got through my generals, classes like English, Math, Wiring, and so on. I did take an introduction to music theory class around this time which helped my understanding of music at least get to a very basic level. It wasn't until my second year when I got to take the music production course that I finally got to open the DAW up in class and try to get answers. I learned Logic Pro and would finally make my first song in this class. I bought a new computer with all the processing I thought I would need, and stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning every night obsessively trying to recreate sounds from my favorite songs. Everything I made was absolute trash at this point, but the crazy thing is, I was so excited that I thought my music was great and would show all my friends only to receive blank looks and dismissive replies.
Thus began my journey as a music producer, and over the many years that would follow I would discover over and over that I was terrible at this and everything I made sounded bad, I would learn one small thing that I thought would turn it all around, get excited, then discover all over again how terrible I was. To be honest, I'm still in this cycle to a degree! I think as a music producer or artist of any kind, this is just the name of the game to some extent. But over the years there are a ton of things that I had no idea about that were making my music sound bad, and I couldn't get over those roadblocks or often even see that they were blocking me until they were thoroughly explained to me by producers with more experience.
Today, I want to unveil some of these things and hopefully explain them in a way that will help newer producers rise above them much faster than I was able to, and also without unnecessary student loans (that I'm still repaying!)
Let's start with referencing other music. This is a big one, and can't be overstated enough. Referencing other music is when you literally take the audio file for your favorite songs in the genre you are producing, throw them in your DAW and study them, compare your track to them, listen for the arrangement, the way the song progresses, the samples used, the mix, the way everything is working musically and sonically, and anything else you can think of. This is one of the fastest ways to level up that I didn't really do for the first couple years I was producing, and even when I did start referencing I wasn't referencing enough, or getting the full value of the references I did use. I recommend using references each time you are producing a song to keep you grounded and familiar with what music sounds like. It may sound simple but producing and especially mixing music is a deep rabbit hole that once you're far enough in, it can be hard to come up for air and look at things objectively. This is a main advantage of using a reference track.
Try making sure that your song is evoking the feeling and vibe you want as effectively as your reference, and try to pinpoint what might be the issue if it's not. Using the tools at your disposal, you can sculpt your song like a statue, and get it to sit in the pocket where it needs to in order to resonate with the listener. If your sounds aren't working, don't be afraid to switch your samples as much as you need to, use your reference to decide what characteristics your sample should have.
This leads right into the next topic - sample selection. As I have mentioned above, using references can help you out a lot. The more you produce, you'll get a feel for what samples work for you and which don't. As you start collecting this data, it can be helpful to organize your samples more, start making folders of your top samples, which have been the best and why. Don't be afraid to try new samples, and compare them to the best of your current samples. But also don't be afraid to stick to your go - to's while you're in the midst of writing a song. That's the beauty of having these folders of your best samples, it takes a lot of the decision making and sample scrolling out of the creative process of writing a song. This lets you stay in the flow for longer and get more done. The more you can outsource the decisions you make while producing into automatic steps rather than having to sit and think and scroll through options, the better you'll be able to write music creatively and efficiently.
Know Your Tools
This goes hand in hand with the sample selection bit - Know your tools. Know what your compressors do, which EQ you want to grab, which VSTs sound like what and in what circumstances to use them. Know the controls of your synths and how to manipulate the sound, know all your favorite presets as well so you can quickly jump to a similar sound that you're looking for, maybe tweak a thing or two to get it just right, and keep going. This will vastly improve your workflow making music and it's worth having separate sessions even just to specifically explore these things and practice and learn your tools deeply. Watch youtube videos, play with the settings, try and make it sound bad, try and break your DAW with your plug ins by doing crazy stuff. It's all going to help you get more familiar with what you're working with!
Not only do you want separate sessions to learn your tools, but often times you will benefit from having separate sessions dedicated to making sounds as well. There are tons of ways to use your time in these sessions that may be valuable. One obvious one is trying to recreate sounds from your favorite music. Try to tweak your plug ins and add post processing (such as saturation, EQ, distortion, etc) to create a sound like what you hear on your favorite records. Another great use of these sessions is just to randomly tweak knobs and throw plug ins you are unfamiliar with on the track and see what comes out. Bonus points if you record these crazy sounds and save them for later, you might find some unexpected gems by doing something you would have never done intentionally.
I'm going to group together 4 concepts in this section that are all closely related. Let's start with muddiness. I think most of us have probably heard feedback in the past that has described something as muddy. What does that mean? Well, there's not really a science or very specific definitive solution to this. It's more of a broad term that describes how something sounds, and most often the problem lies somewhere in the low mid frequencies (150-600 hz ish) where you might have some different elements clashing or too much going on. Could also be a volume thing, a tonal balance issue, or something else. Similarly, harshness is often associated with too much in the 2k -5k range. You might also hear harshness in relation to anything with too much high end, so you'll have to use your ears.
This is another thing people say often when it comes to mixing that stumped me for a long time, because my ears were not giving me the answers no matter how hard I tried to listen. There are a few things to consider when using your ears to find mix problems. First, if you've been working on it for more than a couple hours, you are probably going to have some level of ear fatigue, meaning your ears won't reliably tell you what you need to know. You will want to take a break for maybe up to 24-48 hours before listening again to the same song to get an objective view. Another thing to consider is that your studio set up may not be the place you listen to music the most, this will cause you to have a harder time making objective decisions from your mix position. Even if you do listen to music casually from your mix position, you'll get more perspective from taking your mix and listening to it on anything else you often listen to music from, whether that be car speakers, air pods, or anything else. A great way to improve your ability to use your ears is to do some ear training. This is a website that will allow you to practice guessing different frequencies and level adjustments, and allows you to import your own audio to practice on, that could be your favorite songs or your own songs. I recommend practicing on both to learn where you may be falling short compared to your favorite artists and to get a feel for what different frequencies sound like.
The final thing in this section that kind of wraps it all up is tonal balance. This is a term used to describe the overall shape of your song in terms of frequency. Using a reference track and an EQ, you can visually see if the overall shape of the song looks right. I recommend Fabfilter Pro-Q 3 for the best visualization of this comparison. Even if you're just using a stock EQ or spectrum analyzer, you can get a good idea of where you're sitting in terms of tonal balance. One thing that this practice really helped me achieve was proper level of sub bass, which can be very difficult to listen for without a perfect monitoring environment, but using a visual representation you can just adjust it to match your reference and as long as it sounds good to you, it should be pretty solid.
The Singer and the Band
The final thing I'll talk about here is a concept known as the singer and the band. By this I mean, in any song and at any one section in the song you have an element that is acting as the singer, and everything else should be acting as the band, or in other words, supporting the singer. The easiest way to visualize this is to listen to any pop song, typically the singer is always literally the singer and everything else is background or support. In other genres, you may often have something else act as the "singer", or the lead role, such as a synth, a guitar, a bassline, etc. This is important because if you try to make multiple elements super loud and upfront all at once, you'll make a mess and listeners won't know what to pay attention to. Use things like volume, frequency, and reverb to place things further back in the mix if they are distracting from your "singer". Also, as the song progresses, you can change which element is the "singer". Maybe it's the guitar for the introduction, then you have an actual singer come in for a verse, then you drop into an instrumental beat that is driven by a bassline. All of this works, just make sure you're clear on what is in front and what is a supporting element.
There you have it, 9 of what I think are some of the most important practical lessons I've learned in 7 years of music production! Follow the blog to stay tuned for more insights like these, because there's more to come as well as more in the backlog of blog posts I've already written! As always, I encourage you to hear how I use these tips in my own productions by listening to my dance music at Ryahu and my Lo-Fi music at philip j loaf-eye.
Until Next Time!