It is the entire lifecycle of a song. It includes:
- Composition and Songwriting
- Editing and Sound Design
What does a Music Producer do?
Traditionally the producer is the person who oversees the process and provides direction. Like the director of a film. They provide creative ideas and help the musicians to incorporate and execute these ideas. They also provide organization to the tracking and editing process.
Today, with so many people having their own home studio, the line between artist and producer is blurred and most times don’t exist. If you are a bedroom producer and you are creating your own music at home on your computer, you are a producer.
A really good practice in producing music is to break the whole process up into clearly defined sections. This will guard you against trying to do too much too soon and will give you a more cohesive product in the end. Let’s take a look at the stages.
Composition and Songwriting
There are as many ways of starting a song as there are artists. Each process is different. All processes contain the same elements in some sort. Finding the key and tempo of the song is vital for developing a mood.
Typically the artist will compose the idea on one instrument or instrument patch. Here the idea is fleshed out and a story can start to emerge. The choice of whether or not to include lyrics is done at this stage of the process. It might also be the case that the lyrics are already present and you are working on the music to convey the emotion and mood of the lyrics. Either way, you begin to craft the story using melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Here is where you create the chord progression that is going to be the foundation for the song and the main theme expressed in the melody. At this time you will develop the “hook”, the moment or moments that the listener is drawn into the message or story of the song. This video from Landr has some great tips on writing hooks.
In the composition stage, we will work out the various parts of the song, the intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. At this stage it is good to check and see if you played the song on just one instrument, is it still good. Does it stand on its own?
This is the stage where we assemble the complete structure of the song. We choose what instruments will play at a certain point and we determine how the different sections of the song will be arranged.
In arranging we need to look at how we are using space. Are there moments where the section feels too busy and cramped or is the section lacking something? Here we decide what instruments need to be occupying the space at the same time.
We also want to make sure that our song has clearly defined sections. Map out the sections and how many times each section is visited. It is essential that to create moments of tension and release. Arrange the song in a way that it has these moments of building up to a pay-off.
In arranging – variation is vital. You want to keep interest. Determine if there are parts that are repeating too often and give them a little change. A good rule of thumb to follow is to introduce some sort of variation every 8 or 16 bars. It doesn’t need to be drastic, just something that tricks the mind a bit. Our minds are hard-wired to pick up on repetition, and when we do hear it, we stop listening as intently.
Lastly, we want to make sure that the arrangement sounds cohesive. Make sure that the sections are joined together or are transitioning well. Make sure that the harmony makes sense, and see if the song conveys the message you are trying to achieve.
We separated this section from the top two because it is very crucial to think of tracking as performance time. It is not time to work out ideas. If you feel you need more time to work out ideas then revisit the composition or arrangement stage.
It is important to focus on a great performance that captures the emotional impact you want. With editing tools, you can enhance a great performance but it is very difficult to fix a poor performance.
We all recognize that different genres will have different instruments and ways of tracking but if you are using live instruments, here are a couple of things to remember.
- Tune your instrument (even the drums)
- Use new or newer strings for your guitars, they will sound brighter and have more depth
- Position your mics to get the best sound in your DAW. There are lots of mic techniques out there. They are useful but ultimately you should use your ears.
Music Radar put together a list of great tips from PROS to make your tracking times more productive.
Editing and Sound Design
This stage is all about taking those great performances and making them sound even better. We also want to deal with any of the clean-up issues like trimming the performance and fading in the start and end. We can fix small timing issues and tune some notes that are out of tune.
Use this stage to refine your sound for each instrument if you have opted to use virtual instruments. Take time to add some fills, transitions, sound samples and other ear candy to the song. Less is more here so use your judgement.
Once the song is edited it is a good idea to bounce (export) the midi files to audio for mixing. This allows your DAW to work a lot faster. We highly recommend you organize your tracks into stems. Then you can take your stems into a new project just for mixing. This will stop you from the temptation to over-edit while you mix.
Mixing simply is taking your multi-track recording and combining it into a 2 track stereo mix. It is the process of balancing the individual tracks to get a great sound within the proper use of space.
We do this by adding effects like reverb for space, EQ for tonal quality and compression for dynamic control. We also want to place the sounds in the stereo field using panning and stereo separation. With reverb, we can give a sense of depth in our mix. Drier sounds feel more forward and wet sounds feel like they are more to the back.
Equalization gives us the ability to sculpt the tonal quality of each sound. For example, most of the time we want to use EQ to remove the low end of sounds that aren’t necessarily bass sounds, so that the bass and drums have room.
Using compression gives us some control over the dynamics of the instrument or vocal track. Basically, if there is too much difference between the loud parts and the quiet parts, we can apply some compression to tame that difference. Compression can also be used creatively to make something more punchy. Every producer should learn about these 3 key effects, reverb, EQ, and compression. They are the foundation effects that you will use on every mix.
When you start a mixing session the first thing you should do is organize the tracks. Put the guitars together, the vocals, drums, etc. This will make mixing so much easier. After that, use gain staging to get all the tracks coming into their channels with a good level so that the plugins will work well and you don’t have any clipping. If you want to get technical about it, use a VU meter to make sure all the tracks are averaging at 0db.
Before you start applying effects you should balance your tracks. Take some time to get a good sounding mix with just the volume faders. Then make sure you have at least -6db of headroom on your master fader. Now you are ready to get creative and have fun mixing your song.
Make sure to use reference tracks all the way through the process. Use a track that is commercially produced and is close to the sound you are looking for and reference it periodically to see how your song measures up. Your track will be done when it is balanced, free of distractions and sounds the way you want it. Don’t move on thinking that mastering will get you there, finish it in the mix.
Mastering is the last 1-2% of fine-tuning and polishing the track. In the past, the mastering engineer was given an album of songs and the goal was to make a cohesive sound and volume level across the songs.
The main goal of mastering these days is just polishing up the EQ, compression, saturation and stereo field, and then using limiters to get the loudness to a point where the song matches other commercial songs. It also is focused on optimizing your song for playback on a wide range of devices and formats.
There are a variety of plugins to use if you want to learn to master yourself. Another option is to send out your mix to a mastering engineer. This will cost a little more but will be done professionally. In the last few years, there have been some companies online that provide mastering at a very low price. These sites use algorithms to master your song. This is a good option if you are low on cash.
The Bottom Line
Music Production has drastically changed over the years and will continue to evolve into the future. If you are an artist and you have put together a song and recorded it, mixed it and finished it. You are a music producer. Music Production in the home studio has brought together the artist and producer into one package. Keep learning, keep growing, and keep making music.
If you are an artist who is looking to get into the world of Music Production but you don’t know where to start. Read our article 9 Essential Home Studio Equipment Every Beginner Needs.