In this music production article, Dubspot’s Daniel Salvaggio shares six helpful approaches to staying on track with your music and overcoming common pitfalls of music production.
Sample Packs & Presets
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with sample packs and presets themselves, over-reliance on pre-made sounds can quickly become a crutch for a budding music maker, as well as prevent one from learning and growing as a producer. The ability to take an original idea and articulate it well within your software is an invaluable skill and something an artist should always be working to achieve. By primarily utilizing sounds others have made, you may be saving time and ‘winning’ in the short run, but in the long term you’re sacrificing the important training, practice, and experience required to quickly materialize your own concepts. Additionally, by improving this skill, you’ll likely see a higher overall success rate as you’re only limited by your imagination, not the content found within a pack of sounds.
One thing I’ve noticed producers do when collaborating is to apply a device and not edit any parameters. This shortcoming is quite prevalent in terms of EQ, where we are often taught to ‘cut’ or ‘roll-off’ low frequencies in tracks that may conflict with our kick drum and/or bass. In many cases, this may work out in your favor. However, it’s good practice to listen back to a track with the device on and off to see what you’re actually affecting. I must admit that I was guilty of this for quite a while, up until I started working with more vocalists and noticed that by removing too much low end, my vocals were sounding thin and powerless. So, disregard default values, learn your devices and tweak as needed! Each track is unique and should be treated as such.
Dynamics & Loudness
Ah, compression… Often misunderstood by new producers, this powerful tool can break a track just as easily as it can make it. Compressors are used to lower the dynamic range of an audio signal by lowering the volume of the loud sounds and/or amplifying the volume of the quiet ones. Understanding compression takes a fair amount of experience, as you must hear how it affects different sounds. Practice and a bit of ear training will help you in making the decision, ‘when’ and ‘how much’ to compress. In the beginning, it’s easy to get caught up in the joys of how loud, and perhaps punchy, throwing a hot compressor onto your lead synth may sound, but at what cost? Sacrificing dynamics for loudness isn’t always the answer as you may very well be sucking the life out of your track, rendering it a flat, loud, and even a lifeless mess.
Then there’s limiting, the dangerous cousin of compression. A limiter is much like a compressor in that it affects loudness and dynamic range. Where they differ is that a compressor gradually reduces the signal above a certain threshold, whereas a limiter prevents a signal from going over that threshold. What this means is that you can keep pushing and pushing your limiter to increase the loudness of your track, and it’ll never go above 0db (or whatever threshold you have set). However, once you hit that threshold, the more you push your limiter, the more distortion you will be introducing, resulting in your track’s dynamics becoming less and less apparent.
It should be noted that there are many types of compressors and limiters, each with a different sound and intended for different purposes. Here, we’re talking absolute basics. The point is, a light touch is all you need. In most cases, the need for dynamics will outweigh that of the need for loudness, especially when you consider the fact that you can always turn up the volume when listening back.
All, yes ALL of your instruments can, and should be tuned properly in your project. While this seems painfully obvious, it is highly common today to hear sounds out of tune or key from budding producers, especially when it comes to drums and vocals. When everything is in tune, you’re amplifying that feeling of harmony, and your track’s elements gel together infinitely better. A quick fix is to throw a spectrum analyzer onto a channel, play the sound back and see what note it’s hitting, then adjusting as needed via pitch transposition. This approach is much easier in the context of percussive sounds like drums then it is with vocals, but the extra effort is worth it in the long run. Out of tune sounds tend to create an unwanted dissonance that is easily avoided by tuning your sounds to fit with the melodic data you’ve created for your song.
Spoiled for Choice
I have mentioned this in a previous article but it’s worth repeating- Technology is too good and there’s just too much awesome software and hardware out there! It’s tremendously easy to get caught up in acquiring, and playing with new gear to the point where we lose that creative spark and, as a result, our output suffers. Beyond that, the more devices you’re using, the less likely you are to know any devices inside and out, which is crucial! I had made this mistake when I started producing, investing more time and effort in playing with new toys than actually learning anything and putting it to use. These devices, while fun, are a means to an end, and it is imperative that you do not lose sight of that end. My advice is to pick only a handful of devices and learn them like the back of your hand. If your arsenal needs something more down the road, cautiously add to it. For instance, there’s no use in buying four separate FM synths without a comprehensive understanding of FM synthesis. Choose wisely and keep your eyes on the prize!
Part of what makes a good producer successful is the ability to make confident decisions quickly in order to move on to the next idea and staying fixated on the goal of a completed product. This skill is invaluable and something that comes with experience. Any solid producer will tell you that hesitation is a dangerous and slippery slope. The longer you hesitate, the further you are from being able to explore and articulate new ideas, hurting your overall output in the long run. When we hit a wall with our projects, it’s tempting to stop working and listen back to the current iteration several times with hopes that an idea will present itself. But what if that idea doesn’t magically prevent itself? Here is where many producers often reach something called analysis paralysis, or ‘the state of overthinking a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome’. Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix here. The remedy comes with patience, practice, and experience, allowing yourself to reach a level of confidence that allows you to act upon ideas (and react to others) without breaking your flow or momentum. This idea is a goal absolutely worth working towards, and something to always keep in the back of your mind as you continue to write songs and move on to new, better songs!
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