Everyone has a slightly different way to make music and it's usually this individual approach which helps define their signature sound. Having said this, I thought it would be useful to break down some common steps I go through when making music.
I have also noticed other electronic music producers & musicians using a similar process when they make music and that's why I wanted to share it with you today.
The steps mention here aren’t necessary linear and I often find myself jumping between or combining them but they typically tend to follow the flow outlined below.
Before we get into these steps I think it’s important to mention what actually happens before you sit down to write a track. I believe it’s important to consider where your head is at, ideally clear of distractions and primed for making music. Some people find it useful to practise focusing techniques to help them get into a sense of flow.
Another important consideration is to remove any potential distractions from your creative space. That means resisting the temptation to; look at Facebook to see what your mate Dave has been up to on his holiday, watching cute animal videos or being distracted by multiple Whatsapp group notifications.
You might also want to have your music files, samples and presets in an organised, easily accessible location. Also, consider having a saved project template to use when you start a new project in your DAW, so you aren't wasting time loading essentials you use for making music and are good to go when the creative vibe hits. This template could include: labeled channels, typical synths used, common virtual instruments used, routing combinations or samplers you tend to use.
Ok, now that you are prepared for a creating a song, what are the steps involved?
1) Ideas Stage
This is the birth of your song and tends to be the development of your initial musical idea which often establishes the main part of your song. The ideas stage usually involves creating a 4/8/16 bar loop allowing you to experiment, get a feel for your song, put different ideas into practise and even consider how different parts might sounds side by side, like a verse or chorus for example.
In this stage you should be letting the creative side of your brain take control, like experimenting with different chords, instruments, melodies, samples, sounds design etc. I find it useful to have an feeling for the type of track I want to make, experiment with ideas over a simple drum beat at a tempo & time signature I want the track to be in but also allowing myself to be flexible if my creativity leads me somewhere else.
4/8/16 bar loop of Ideas stage
Considerations of the idea stage
Restricting yourself can actually help you to be creative. Resist the temptation to include every type of virtual instrument, big sound or sample. Maybe try sticking to a making a song in one key or working with one sample - trying to process it (pitch up and down, distort etc) to experiment or provide inspiration.
2) Arrangement/song structure
Once you have spent enough time bopping your head back and forth to your song and convinced yourself you have a future banger on your hands, the next step is to build the arrangement of your track out into a whole song. To do this it’s important to have an idea of how you want your song arrangement to flow and what the purpose of the song is.
Are you making the song to be played by DJ’s? Are you making it to fit within a typical verse/chorus pop structure or are you making it for a rapper? All important considerations in how it will be structured.
Once this is decided, I find it useful to listen to couple of reference tracks and see how they are structured to make sure my song is on the right track, especially if I have started to mix parts of the track (which I tend to do as I go along).
I also find it very useful to import a reference track into the project I am working on and then create a ghost structure of this imported track, using labeled midi files - see the picture below. Not only does this give you a better understanding of how music is structured and flows it also provides you with a blueprint that you can use for your own song or save as a template for another song! What you will also notice form doing this is that most music tends to work in 8, 16 and 32 bar sections.
Ghost structure of existing track
Now that this structure in place it helps break down the music making process into easier more manageable chunks, enabling you to focus on making each section interesting. Once that you have created the main sections of a song (intro, verse, chorus etc) you can actually copy and paste these different sections when they appear later on in the song i.e second/third chorus. The picture below has labeled the Into, A section, B section and break down of the song that I would like to initially borrow the arrangement from.
After all sections of your song are in their desired place you might want to make slight changes to each sections, make drum edits or work on transition points that help the different sections flow into each other. These transitions could be removing sections of the song, drums fills, synth effects building up/down, white noise etc. You might even want to try moving around these section and testing how they would sounds with a completely new structure!
Using the ghost structure for your track
3) Mix down
The basic essence of a mix down is the process by which multiple sounds are individually processed and combined into one or more channels.
To do this the volume level, frequency content, dynamics and stereo position of individual tracks are affected so that they work together in a way that you want them to. Historically the process of mixing was done after a band/artist had been into the studio to record their music and would usually be overseen by a record producer & a mix engineer. However with the advancements in music technology this process been transformed and someone with a laptop can create a mix of music which is comparable to a professional mixed music which I think is great!
I like the fact I can mix as I go along (as in the two previous steps) but there is definitely something to be said to focus on the creative side first and approach the mix down after a break, with fresh ears and your analytical producing hat on. So you might find it advantageous to have a final mix down once the previous two steps are complete.
If you do decided to have a final mix down after the creative side of your track has been completed, it’s worth taking a break before you approach the mix down so that you have a fresh set of ears to spot any audio issues you might have missed.
I would also quick listen to a professionally released reference track, just to make sure you are aiming for the right levels and balancing. Bear in mind the track you are referencing would have been mastered, so take this into consideration if you are trying to compete with the volume of the reference track and make sure you leave enough head room in your own track, I recommend - 6dB.
Think about the different elements that make up a mix and start to ask yourself different production questions such as:
- Are the volume fader levels right?
- What individual sounds do I want to be louder/quieter in the mix?
- Does everything have its own space in the mix (if not use; faders, panning and EQ filters to create this separation)?
- Can I use the Pan Pot on individual sounds to make sure the song has a good stereo image?
- Are any instruments fighting over each other for space in the mix? If so should i remove one of them? Use an EQ or panning to help them fit together?
- Do I need to use reverb, delay or EQ on some sounds to make them appear closer of further away in the mix?
- Does the whole song have a good spread of frequencies (I sometimes like to use a spectrum analyser on the master channel to get a visual indication of this)?
- Are some individual sounds too quiet or too loud? if so, should I use an audio processor such as a compressor to adjust their dynamic range to make them sound louder or quieter.
Top tip: Have a limited on the master and occasionally turn it on/off so that you can get a feel for what the mix will sound like once mastered.
The above are just some of the questions that I think about when approaching a mix and you might have noticed that they tend to address the volume level, frequency content, dynamics and the stereo image. All key components, in my opinion, of creating a professional mix or rather a three dimensional sound to your track.
3.1) Automation & Get Another Opinion
I have included this as something that I like to address (if needed in the mix at all) at the end after the mix down. The reason being that once a mix has been done it’s a lot easier to do. I personally find trying to automate things before you have decided the other areas of your mix such as; levels, filtering panning etc can really cause issues. The reason being that automation will override any changes you have previously made in the mix.
It's valuable to have another person or ideally persons who’s music production skills you respect and trust, give honest feedback on the final track to see if I have missed anything or need to tweak small details.
You have just finished your song, spent a while on your mix down and have been listening to it on repeat for hours on end. You’re convinced it's going to be signed by your favourite label but when you compare it to other songs you love and hear online it doesn’t quite sound as polished or loud! What's going on? Has your whole life been a lie over the few hours or days making this track!?
Have no fear and don’t be demoralised, we all have had this feeling before and although it can be feel deflating don’t let it put you off. The main reason for this happening is usually due to the way the other songs have been mastered. The mastering process gives songs that loud professional sound and finishing touch you will probably be aiming for.
The single most important thing you can do is to make sure that you mix your music in a way that helps a mastering engineer (or yourself if you choose to master your own music) get the most from your track and requires the least corrective audio mastering treatment.
Each song has individual mixing and mastering requirements, so it’s almost impossible for me to say what you need to do for each track but as a rule of thumb if you; use reference tracks, make sure your mix down gives the desired volume/frequency/stereo balance, use spectrum analysers, test your song using a limiter on the mastering channel and most importantly make sure that you leave at least -6dB of head room (the loudest volume level peak on the master channel of your song) so that a mastering engineer can work their magic. I can’t stress this last point enough if you want you songs to be comparable to the production of professional releases, you must leave a workable amount of dB headroom and resist the temptation to have everything loud in your mix - turn the volume of speakers up if you want to hear how your song sounds louder!
Giving your songs to a professional mastering engineer is also a good way to get an impartial set of ears on your music and the easiest way to have things sound professional but I understand this isn’t always possible due to different reasons such as financial restraints etc and in this instance you might like to master your own music, this is something that I will cover in a later blog.
I mentioned at the start of the blog everyone has a slightly different approach to making music, I just wanted to outline the main stages that I follow when making music so that it might help give you an insight into my creative process and hopefully give you inspiration in the ways that you approach your own music.