OK, so now you’re advancing in your music-making. You have gotten your feet wet, and recorded a few basic tracks. You’ve worked with live instruments and virtual ones, with samples that you created and ones you’ve downloaded. You’ve learned the basics of making the music, but for whatever reason, it still doesn’t sound like the music you listen to when you go out to a club.
Aside from the fact that neither headphones nor the type of speakers you’re likely to have in your house could ever possibly sound like the sound systems in a club, the piece of the puzzle you’re missing is on the production end. Producing electronic music involves far more than merely making it. Production involves choices, knowledge, and using your knowledge to make choices that are pleasing to the ears, and which, most importantly, sound “like recordings are supposed to sound.”
Confused? Don’t be. Today, we’ll look into the basics of electronic music production. There are a few good basic online courses to get you started if that is your destination. One is “Learn Electronic Music Production” and another is simply “Electronic Music Production.”
Trust Your Ears
The only words more important than “trust your ears” are “don’t always trust your ears.” Have we got you all bollixed up yet? Well, this may not be such a contradiction as it may seem. Your ears, after all, don’t lie. You know what works right away in terms of composition and style just by listening, but you can’t ever know how something will sound coming out of different systems, different speakers, without trial and error. What sounds good in headphones may not work at all when you play it nice and loud through some big, fat, sub-woofers.
You will need, as you move from “Electronic Music Making” into “Electronic Music Production” to do some experimenting with all the different factors that influence how the music sounds, all the different steps of the production process that affect the final product AFTER the recordings are done.
As a music-maker, you no doubt understand the process of recording and overdubbing. But how much do you know about editing? Most music recorded fifty years ago was not edited much, if at all. When editing was done in the 1960s, it was with razor blade and sticky tape, literally cutting the audio master tape and splicing it. That was the analogue world.
Now, the editing of sound in post-production is something that might be done to every individual track in a mix. Of course, this can lead (and has often led) to over-editing, the finicky overworking that can make a recording sound sterile, or “too perfect,” lacking the organic wholeness that individual performance possesses naturally.
Most important is the basic premise of non-destructive editing when working with digital music. In the old days, as we said, editing was about cutting the tape. You couldn’t go back. At best, you could drop in a new recorded performance over a portion of the old one on that track, and hopefully you wouldn’t miss the cue or overshoot the window.
Now, with non-destructive editing, you can cut and paste to your heart’s content, adding effects and in general changing anything you like on an individual track while preserving the integrity of the original track. There is nothing that is permanent. In other words, you get infinite “do-overs” with non-destructive editing. Instead of a crutch, this is a remarkable tool to free you as a producer. You can try anything you can imagine, and should, because you can always get rid of it later if you don’t like it.
You can change the pitch or tempo, for example of a given recorded track. In the past, these were linked via tape speed, but in the digital realm these parameters are independent. When recording vocals, pitch correction is de rigeur in the modern world. Even when recording guitars, which sometimes can have tuning or intonation problems, Autotune and other pitch-correcting programs are a must for anyone working in music production.
You can also edit in terms of copying and pasting parts from one section of a performance to another. If one of the iterations of a riff is better than the others, you can simply copy it, and paste it where you like, over and over if needed, and then sync it up to your basic track.
Mixing is where things really come down to your ears. Simply put, mixing is the part of the process when you must decide what to include from your basic recordings, and how much of each element, relative to the others, that you want to hear in the finished track. You also determine stereo separation and equalization at this stage.
Let’s say you have 9 basic tracks: a basic beat, a track of drum fills and percussion effects, two tracks of synth bass parts, four sample tracks, and a vocal on top of it. You need to decide how loud each element should be relative to all the others. How much vocal relative to the bass? Where in the stereo picture should the drums be? In the center? If you’re making dance music of any kind, the answer would be “yes.” Should the vocals be in the center as well, or should they be panned slightly left or right? If dance music is your area, take a look at this blog entry by Carol Dzemhoya called “Dance Music Production,” and it might be worthwhile to check out this online class that covers the techno and house end of things, “Deep House.”
If these questions make your head hurt, consider this: we haven’t talked about EQ yet. EQ is equalization, or the method by which different frequency ranges are boosted or cut on individual tracks and on the final mix-down. If your drums sound flat, they may need some top end (to have the upper frequency ranges boosted) to bring them out. If your synth bass is too “boomy,” you may need to carefully sculpt the EQ curve to tame that without losing bottom end by zeroing in on the frequency range in question and applying a notch filter of some sort. There’s a great online course on mixing electronic music called, surprisingly enough, “Mixing Electronic Music.” Check it out.
Ultimately, mixing is where most of the decisions are made. What to leave in? What to take out? How should things actually SOUND? But the process still isn’t complete…
The last piece of the puzzle is mastering. Mastering is something that many people feel is not necessary, either because they don’t know how to do it, don’t have the needed equipment, don’t have the ears for it, or simply don’t want to pay a mastering engineer the going rate.
What is mastering, exactly? Well, once you’ve recorded a set of songs for a CD (if you’re old fashioned and still think in terms of CDs) or for a digital album release, you have worked on each song individually. That means that each song may be recorded at a different level, or have peak volumes at different levels. Mastering is the process by which the volume and EQ of each track that will be released together is regularized, resulting in an “album” (to use the old-fashioned term) that sounds cohesive. Mastering uses software that applies compression and equalization to the tracks in a consistent way to achieve a consistent sound. You are limited only by your ears at this step.
Mastering also determines the lengths of the spaces in between tracks and can clean up extraneous noise. Don’t believe it? Listen to any track in its mastered form next to its un-mastered form. If you can’t do it yourself or don’t have the equipment, pay a mastering engineer to do it for you. The difference is surprising. Mastering turns “a good bunch of songs” into “a great record.” And isn’t that what everyone wants?