Music Production is a vast subject, with plenty of rabbit holes to fall into and get stuck in. Whether you’re a professional, or a bedroom producer, the key to success is to keep learning and keep honing your skills. You’re never going to know everything, after all.
But with this in mind, it can often be difficult to know where to start. There are seemingly millions of videos out there, how many music production magazines can you name? There are even entire books dedicated to single subjects. It’s overwhelming for sure.
But today with Top Music Arts, we’re going to take you through 10 tips to make you a better producer, which should hopefully give you a good place to start in your quest to improve!
Compression is your best friend.
This may seem like an obvious place to start, and many of you will already be familiar with Compression. But, you’d be surprised how often it can get overlooked. Compression is the glue that holds a track together, it’s what separates a demo from a professional recording, and it should be one of the first tools you use when you’re creating your music.
The effect Compression has is best heard on drums, whether individual hits, or entire groups. To hear what I mean, let’s do a simple exercise.
Open up Ableton, and create 3 tracks; Kick, Clap or Snare, and Hi Hats. Draw or play in a drum pattern for 4 bars, and then set it looping.
Familiarise yourself with how it sounds without Compression applied.
Now, go through each part, and stick on a Compressor. Applying quite heavy compression can be a great way to get your drums sounding really punchy. Set a fast attack, and drag the threshold all the way down. Slowly bring it up until your desired impact is achieved, and take care to adjust the output gain accordingly.
Do this for your kick, snare and hats, and now play the loop again.
Notice how much more powerful that sounds? This is the effect of Compression heard most obviously. It can breathe life into the mix, and create powerful sounding music. It can often be the missing ingredient in your track.
Getting to know exactly how you can use Compression will take your production up to the next level.
2. Source your sounds well.
Samples play a huge part in electronic music production. Whether you’re using a Sampled instrument as your synth sound, or your drum hits are sampled from drum machines or real kits, if you’re relying heavily on samples, the importance of sourcing good sounds cannot be overstated.
There are a whole range of issues that can crop up when you’re using samples. Maybe the sample itself is a poor quality recording, containing artefacts or unwanted noises. These would just add messiness to your mix if you applied any sort of compression to them, and trying to EQ them out can make the sample sound dead or strange.
There’s a neat trick to help you find out if your samples are high quality or not. Listen to them!
Solo your samples and inspect them thoroughly. Is there any digital distortion? Does it sound like a Youtube to mp3 rip? Is there unwanted background noise contained in the sample?
All of these may seem like minor issues, but they aren’t. High quality samples are essential if you’re wanting to produce music in a professional capacity. Sure, there’s always room for that lo-fi sound, but if you’re using a sample of a piano recorded on an old phone, trust me, people will know.
3. Outside the box Arrangements
This is perhaps the most important thing to get right if you want your music to sound professional. There’s no right or wrong way or arranging a track, which is partly why this is so important. Sometimes it just works, other times it doesn’t.
To demonstrate what I mean about arrangement, let’s explore this classic anthem of Berlin Techno.
Ben Klock - Subzero is one of the classic tracks that paved the way for an entire genre of techno. But when you actually dive into it and listen, there isn’t that much happening. Or is there?
On first listen, it sounds like it’s the same repeating hypnotic melody, playing over and over again, accompanied by various drum lines that fade in and out. But there is so much more going on under the surface.
Right away, you can hear the cavernous side chained reverb ducking every time the kick hits, and if you listen closely, there are subtle melodic lines drifting far back in that void. The main synth line then enters, and there are subtle sounds and effects rolling around it. Delayed clicks; harmonies that roll in and out. This goes on for almost 6 and a half minutes.
The key point to take away here is that you can create a rich and lush arrangement using only a few elements. On the surface, this track sounds deceptively simple, but it isn’t boring, which is the point. Nailing a minimal arrangement while maintaining the listener’s interest is all about the stuff happening below the surface; in the background; just outside of the listener’s attention.
So, how can this apply to your arrangements?
What you need to be aware of, is that arrangement isn’t just how and where you place the elements in your track. It’s about how the effects work around them, how volume or panning changes. It’s taking your static elements and creating a living and breathing organism with them. Creating electronic music that sounds ‘human’ has been a challenge since day 1, and while some genres embrace the robotic sounds, others inject life and breath into their arrangements by using creative effects and subtle layers.
Experiment with effects, volume automation, panning, and EQ. All of these can subtly break up the repetition so common in electronic music, and helps you create an even more dynamic production.
4. Use your ears, not your eyes.
Seems obvious right?
One of the easiest traps to fall into when creating music in a DAW like Ableton is relying too heavily on the visual side of things. A visual interface adds a new consideration in your process, and how often do you find yourself balancing your levels visually?
As an example, let’s consider doing a mixdown. The faders and volume indicators are pretty to look at aren’t they? Watching the lights dance as your music plays is so much fun!
But don’t let this distract you. A good exercise when mixing is to bring the level of an instrument all the way down, close your eyes, and then gently bring it up until you hear it sitting in the mix how you want it to. This ensures you’re using your ears and not your eyes.
Sight actually has more sensory priority than hearing does, so closing your eyes can actually make you focus more on what you’re hearing, and even maybe identify issues you were conveniently ignoring previously.
Remind yourself to do this constantly!
5. Use reference tracks for all elements of production.
You may be familiar with using a reference track when you’re mixing your finished track, but this is only a small part of how you can use reference tracks in your productions.
Listening to a finished track by another producer on a critical level allows you to analyse and identify all the techniques they’ve used; you can compare how your synth sounds stack up against theirs; your mixing or compression/EQ, as well as other FX.
But it goes further, you can compare structure and arrangements too.
6. Take regular breaks!
This one is super important, and super simple. Taking breaks is crucial when you’re producing.
It helps you avoid ear fatigue; which is caused when you spend too long using your ears and they aren’t as sharp or attentive as when they’re fresh. You wouldn’t want to run a marathon when you’re tired, it’s the same with ear fatigue.
The other reason is concentration. Every 15 - 20 minutes you should take a short break, so your concentration doesn’t lapse. It will give you more perspective, and help to improve your output as well.
7. Seek constructive criticism
There are plenty of online forums where you can share your work and get detailed feedback on your productions. This can be especially useful if you’re a bedroom producer who is largely working solo.
The input of another producer can give you a fresh perspective on an idea, it can introduce you to techniques you may have previously been unaware of, and it can help with the point mentioned above. If you’re suffering from ear fatigue, or you’ve just spent way too long focusing on a beat without a break, feedback and constructive criticism from other producers can highlight issues or areas for improvement you may have missed!
This continues on from the previous point, because there really is no better way to get insight into your own productions, and music production in general, than to collaborate with other producers.
You might create some cool new music in the process, as well as getting a completely fresh perspective on the music you’re making. You’ll be stuck in your ways of using Ableton, but someone else may have other tricks up their sleeve.
Working with other musicians broadens your horizons and can deepen you understanding, so get collaborating!
9. Genre labels? No thanks!
Genre labels are fast becoming obsolete. The amount of hybrid styles and genre cross referencing is staggering, and when it comes to production, this is essential to bear in mind.
Don’t let a genre label limit your music making. If you find yourself saying things like ‘oh this technique wouldn’t work in my genre’ then stop, and do it anyway!
Some of the most successful break out musicians throughout history are the ones who weren’t afraid to bend the rules and experiment with what their style could be. So use any sound you want, mix styles, and keep it fresh!
10. Challenge yourself
Probably the most important tip here is to keep challenging yourself. Don’t settle, don’t stop when you could keep going.
There is always more you could know, and you could always be better. A guaranteed way to make yourself a better producer is to actively strive to be one!
Set yourself small term goals, check out youtube for production challenges and tutorials, learn your favourite synth inside out. There are plenty of ways you can keep pushing yourself to become the best possible producer you can be, and the only thing stopping you is your own limitations!
So there you go, 10 tips to make your music production skills better. Keep checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, as we’re always giving you essential tips and tricks to help with your productions. Check out our Ableton Templates and the rest of our blog posts for more production content!