I’ve been making music for quite a while now. I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert producer by any means, but there are 7 things that I’ve learned along the way that I wish someone had told me when I first started that would’ve saved me a lot of time and effort. A lot of this stuff might be common knowledge to you, but hopefully there’s some tips here that will be of some use to you. I might make some more posts that will go into more detail, but as a first post I’m going to keep this very general.
1. Start with your kick drum at about -10dB
In electronic music, the loudest thing in your mix is normally going to be your kick drum. By setting your kick drum at -10dB your not going to run into the problem that most amateurs face – clipping on your master channel. Most amateurs will leave their kick at 0dB and then they’ll run out of headroom in their mix. Don’t worry if it sounds soft to begin with, because with the use of a limiter, you can bring the volume of your song up to commercial loudness at a later stage.
2. Put everything into Busses
Busses used to scare me, but they’re actually really easy to use and help you organise everything a lot better. I normally have 5 main busses – Kick, bass, percussion and synths and vocals. Lets say I have 5 vocal tracks, instead of EQing and compressing each track I send them all through one bus and I have a single EQ and compressor to control all of them. When it comes to compressing percussion i.e. snares, hihats etc.. they always sound better when you compress them all together (opposed to individually) for some reason.
In this particular mix, the kick drum was sounding a bit loud (see right). The kick was 3 layered kick drums, so instead of fiddling with the volumes of each kick drum, I could just drop the volume of the bus by the appropriate amount.
3. Tune the kick and percussion to the key of the song
I recently discovered that in Logic’s Ultrabeat plugin, you can tune the drums to any given key. When your drums are in the key of the song, you will hear a MASSIVE difference in the sound of the song, because the harmonics work much better when everything is in tune.
If you look at the right hand side, there’s a pitch slider which allows you to pitch the drum up or down into any given key. Remember you can tune everything, including your Hihats. If you don’t use Logic, most other drumming plugins will give you the option of tuning your drums.
4. Side chain everything to a muted kick drum
People often tell me that my tunes are very bouncy and have great rhythm. That bouncy feel comes from side chaining my percussion, bass, and synths to a muted kick. Side chaining also helps in making the kick drum come through nice and strongly. If you don’t know what side chaining is there are plenty of YouTube tutorials that will show you how to do it. What’s also common is side chained white noise which you always hear in electronic music, and I use it quite a lot in my dancy tracks.
When I start a song I create a track (muted) that has a 4 on the floor kick drum on it that runs throughout the track. I then side chain my bass, perch and synths and white noise busses through a compressor. Try and make sure you use quite a punchy kick to ensure optimal effect of the side chain. Set a high ratio and a low threshold, otherwise the side chain will be ineffective. Logic has a kick sample called ‘Tight Kick’ that I normally use as my muted kick.
5. Rather Cut than boost in EQ wherever possible
Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I wouldn’t be able to hear my kick drum coming through properly, so I’d boost the low end of the EQ until I could hear it, but then my master channel would start to clip and everything would start to sound muddy. I found that all I had to do was cut some frequencies in the bass line which would allow the kick to come through. With practice you’ll begin to understand what needs to be cut where. Kiff
In this case, my synths were covering the vocals. All I needed to do was cut some of the frequencies and suddenly the vocals became very clear. This is a much better solution than having to try and boost the vocals.
I never used to understand why other songs sounded so fat, and mine were so thin. That’s because professional productions have many many layers. Sometimes I use up to 100 tracks on my productions! For example, I sometimes layer my kick drums with a soft hihat, just to give it more presence. Or I’ll layer a clap with a snare drum. For my synths, I often copy and paste a synth line to another track and then just pitch it up an octave, and maybe change the tone of the synth a bit to give it more variation – with a bit of EQ and level adjustment you will get much bigger synth sounds. These are very basic examples, but you can start to experiment yourself with layering different sounds together.
7. Practice making music – a lot
No one wakes up and is suddenly good at making music. Like a fine wine, it’s a skill that matures and becomes better over time. But you have to keep practicing. I studied sound engineering at Cape Audio College which stood me in very good stead, but at the end of the day the knowledge I gained would be useless unless I actually experimented with different effects and plugins.
I also think that at the end of the day, the song should be good before you even think of the production side. There’s a saying that ‘you can’t polish a piece of crap’ – if your song sucks, no ammount of production is going to make it a good song. Some of the kiffest songs I ever made where the ones I made in standard 8 and I had no idea what I was doing from a production side.
Paris Hilton’s ‘Drunk Text’ song is an example of an attempt to polish a turd.
One of the things that keeps me motivated is the fact that the more I produce music, the better my production skills become, and also my song writing skills improve. Even if a song is sounding more KAK than Paris Hilton, I’ll finish it because I know that through producing it, I’ll learn something new in the process.
If this was helpful, please drop a comment below or if there’s something you want to talk to me or ask about please email me at thekiffness (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll try get back to you!