In this article, I’ll talk about music production tips for beginners from the point of view of a professional sound engineer. These hacks will work for every genre: hip-hop, pop, rock, and others. I’ll highlight the errors that I see often, talk about music production techniques, and after reading this, I believe, you’ll see something that can be improved in your music production right now.
1.Analyze the music
Listen to different genres, analyze different music, watch artists perform, watch their videos − this is an important part of your education. Because not everyone has the opportunity to graduate from Berkeley, not everyone is lucky enough to have a good mentor. But remember, that the best mentor in our life will always be the music itself. By analyzing music even at home, you’ll learn music production arrangement tips, you’ll see how to write harmonies, melodies, and how good material should sound. This will instill a good music taste in you and greatly help in your further work. If you are an expert in analyzing music, you will be good at writing music as well.
Talented producers are experts. They have huge libraries of different music styles and rich vinyl collections. They know old and new music equally well. Understanding how music is made, how it sounds, what is good and what is bad, what has gained popularity and what hasn’t, will greatly help you in creating your own compositions.
Becoming an expert is a very long process, it takes years, and will always continue to develop. This is a kind of education that never ends. You will graduate from the university, but music will continue to teach you constantly throughout your life. If you are up to this never-ending education, your products will never lose relevance, you will always follow trends and create high-quality music pieces.
Now let’s talk about the mistakes producers make during the production stage. These mistakes are quite common and even famous people make them sometimes. However, should such a mistake be made in a big project, teams of mixing engineers, producers, or assistants would most probably fix it while preparing the music piece for release. But ideally, it’s best to avoid these problems in the first place. Follow my tips on music production and create a habit for yourself to do things correctly from the very beginning. This will simplify your work tremendously, and save you money as well. And it will also help you create better-sounding products.
Using low-quality sounds. This is the most common mistake, and every sound engineer has seen it. Low-quality sound can kill your song, no one will be able to fix it. There is a rule in music production, that mistakes always migrate to the next step of sound editing. And so, they all end up in the finished product, layered on top of each other.
If you made a mistake at the stage of recording a song, the arrangement won’t fix it. If you used bad sounds in the arrangement, the mixing engineer won’t be able to correct them, and the mastering engineer won’t fix the bad mix, no experts will be able to help. As a result, the song is spoiled from the beginning.
Always choose only high-quality sounds. For example, subscribe to Splice, it’s a great library, you’ll find there hundreds of sounds made by professional producers. It also doesn’t hurt to get some good synthesizer (analog or software). The latter include Omnisphere, Spire, and others. Which one you choose is not so important, but it must be a good synthesizer that will cover all your needs.
Don’t stop at one library, though, it’s better to always be in a creative search mode. Take your favorite artists, for example. You can find information, even on YouTube, about which libraries and sounds they use. People don’t usually hide this information. With time, you can create a pool of good sounds for yourself, and it will greatly help you to shape your own music.
Completing your sound library will take time, it’s a rather long process. But in the end, like any producer, you’ll have collected all the sounds you need, and you’ll be able to make exceptionally good products.
Using plugins in the sound selection process is the second common mistake. For example, a person takes a kick, adds it to the arrangement, then puts an equalizer and a compressor on it, does something else with it, and in the end, it seems to sound good. It’s a mistake. By doing this, you are limiting the potential of the sound, making it harder for the mixing engineer to create a good mix and master. The sound has to be good without plugins.
Try to work under the reference. Choose a commercial release as a reference, then take a sound, and compare it with the reference. If you see that it doesn’t sound quite as good, don’t compromise, look for another one. This could take time at first, but it will build a good foundation for your music from the very beginning.
Another recommendation is to try using the analyzer when selecting sounds. Put an analyzer on the master bus: this way you will see the frequency component, and you’ll be able to compare your sound or arrangement with your references. Do it because sometimes the monitoring cannot reproduce frequencies below 50 Hz. For example, you choose a kick that sounds good. But when you open the analyzer, you see a huge drop in low frequencies below 50 Hz, which you couldn’t hear. Therefore, it’s always better to check a sound with the analyzer.
Another very common mistake that we encounter often is the mess in the session. People are using too many sounds, putting them on top of each other, making their songs crazy overloaded. Here are my music production arrangement tips for different instruments.
We often see that people use two or three kicks. In theory, this can be done, but often joining unfiltered kicks leads to an unpredictable result. A person with little experience or weak monitoring will not be able to cope with the issues that will rise, and will achieve a bad result.
Of course, layering is acceptable. But you can use it according to the rule: there must be two layers for one sound. For example, in the case of a kick, there can be one low-frequency sound and one high-frequency sound, it is necessary to cut off the top of one and the bottom of the other. This way you can pick up a kick with a good low and then a kick with a good high, combine them, and get the sound you want.
However, I do not recommend playing with layering for beginners. Selection of low and high sounds, and filtering will take a lot of time. And for beginners it will create too many technical problems that will steer their attention away from the music itself and sabotage the creative process.
The same is true for the snare. We often see sessions with a lot of snares, which make the sound muddy. The best approach in snare layering is to use one snare and add some kind of overtones to it, like clap or snap, whatever you choose, in order to emphasize the drum itself. But snare layering shouldn’t turn into a never-ending adding-up of sounds in search of a good result. My advice is that you select one good snare, one good clap, and that will be enough.
You can use 3 hats, and this is logical regarding the stereo field (we have a right speaker, center, and left speaker) and thus they can fit into the mix, not interfering with each other. On top you can layer accent cymbals, for example, crashes, reverses, splashes, rides, any of them. But there shouldn’t be many. The hack here again is to try to stick to minimalism in the arrangement, since the fewer sounds you use and the better they are, the greater the song will sound in the end.
We often see producers using multiple basses, and that’s a big mistake. One of the best production techniques is that there should be one bass. If you add another one, they should be in different octaves (one in the bass in one octave, and the other in another bass octave). This is also a rather complex topic. The fact is that low-frequency sounds are more susceptible to interference.
Let me explain interference. For example, we have one wave that goes up and down, and so on. If we use two frequencies, and those waves go in the opposite directions to each other (when one goes up, the other goes down), then they reduce each other. Such waves can even delete each other and add up to zero. This is theory, but let’s see how it applies in practice. Let’s say we have a speaker, an ordinary one, it’s membrane goes forward-backward, producing a sound. If two waves are fed into this one speaker, and they go in the opposite directions, then the speaker will simply stop because it cannot go backward and forward at the same time.
Similarly, when you add up multiple basses, a good chance is that their frequencies will be opposite waves and reduce each other. And it can not only be just static, only reducing the sound, it can be dynamic. That is, in one moment of the track, the frequencies will amplify each other, and in some places, on certain notes, they will reduce each other making the bass quieter. It’s possible, the sound of the bass may disappear altogether. Therefore, it is better to avoid these problems, because such instability harms the song, is very difficult to mix, and will take a lot of headroom during mastering − you will have a pretty quiet track because of this.
The same situation can appear with kick and bass. It’s impossible for kick and bass to sound simultaneously on one note. Because in this case, the kick will subtract or supplement some bass frequencies. It will result in a loud bass for one kick, or a loud kick, or the bass will take the bottom of the kick. This instability will bring no good to the music.
A subwoofer is one speaker, and many sounds cannot fit into it. The bottom waves are long, they take up a lot of space, ideally, one bottom wave at a time. That is, when the kick hits, you shouldn’t have a bass sound at that moment, or it should be far from the kick regarding frequencies so that the frequencies don’t add up. The rule of thumb is – first kick and then bass. Use any tricks but try not to have several elements at once in low frequencies. There are times when the tone of the kick matches the tone of the bass, and they complement each other strongly, and then a certain note will sound louder than the rest, you need to avoid that.
There are many ways to avoid this situation, but since we are talking about the arrangement stage, the best way is to separate instruments in time (so that no bass sounds when the kick is hit). This can be done in several ways: you can cut off the bass at the moment the kick sounds, or you can play around with the parts so that the bass doesn’t play at the moment the kick is hit. This will provide you with a smooth and stable bass, and a lot of headroom in total.
In the accompaniment, as in everything else, try to use a minimum of sounds, this is one of the best music production tips for beginners. You should have two or three main elements, let’s say a piano (synthesizer) and a guitar. And everything else should be built around it, to complement the melody. The main insight that I can give on the accompaniment: don’t write it in the same notes as the vocals. Because the same situation as we discussed earlier about the bass, will occur, only on a smaller level. The whole accompaniment will interfere with the vocals, and in the end, there will be a big fight for space.
If you analyze large commercial projects, you may have noticed that usually the accompaniment is placed in one octave and the vocals are placed in the other. That is, if your accompaniment (synthesizer, guitar, piano) is at the bottom, then the vocals, ideally, should be at the top. This is not a 100% rule, but it will greatly simplify your work. Because in this case, you will not need to play with time, play some tricks with pauses, spend a lot of time on mixing and automation. It’s the simplest option. Using this rule makes it much easier to create an arrangement in which the elements won’t compete for a place in the song. That is, the accompaniment won’t fight for a place with the vocals, and the vocals won’t be drawn behind the accompaniment. And again, try to stick to the minimalistic rule − use one main element and several additional ones. You shouldn’t put, for example, several synthesizers layering on each other, it will all mix into one big mess and in the end will just ruin the track.
After you’ve recorded the accompaniment, most often it comes to Fx − all sorts of uplifters, downlifters, sup sweeps, etc. The most important rule here is not to use too many of these elements, make sure that the Fx don’t intersect at the bottom with the kick and bass. That is, if you are using a sup sweep, make sure that there is no bass sound at that moment.
- Backing vocals
It can be used in different ways, in fact, this element is quite experimental, but a couple of nuances should be taken into account.
When you build vocal harmonies, make sure that notes in backing vocals are not dissociated with the notes in accompaniment.
Well, in general, the most common mistake that we encounter with backing vocals is that the arrangement is made very large, filled with different instruments, and there are still a lot of backing vocals put on top. And in the end, it also mixes into one mess, since large packs of backing vocals are the same as another instrument. A large orchestra and a large choir – all this is extremely difficult to unite without having a huge experience and a lot of skills. Such projects have been created, and quite a few of them, to be honest, but you need to understand that in order to do such large projects, you need to be very well versed in the arrangement in general. However, if you have been listening to academic music with a lot of backing vocals for many years, you may be able to intuitively compose such an arrangement in the right way, where each element has the correct timing.
These were the most common problems that a mixing engineer faces and my tips on music production. Once again, I want to repeat the main rule – every song creation, be it rock, pop, hip-hop, or other, must start from the highest quality sounds possible. I hope this article was useful and you will be able to create more songs easier and with even better quality now.