Space Is The Place

Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of people asking how to create space and depth in their mixes, so I figured it was a good time to write down my thoughts on the subject.  When I talk about depth and space, I’m referring to that 3 dimensional aspect of a song, where some instruments sound like they are farther away from you the listener. It can also refer to the times when it sounds like the music you’re hearing was performed or recorded in a very specific location, such as a performance hall.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s usually not as simple as just putting a reverb on certain sounds.  While that can be a part of the solution, more often than not it often ends up making things worse in the wrong hands.  Don’t get me wrong, for many people a single reverb might be all they need to add space to a mix, but there’s certain things you need to keep in mind if you go this route.

For starters, not all reverbs are created equal, and the better a reverb you use, usually it will make your job a lot easier.  With cheaper and less CPU intensive reverbs, often you end up just washing the sound out, versus actually adding any depth to it.  It does the opposite of your intent, and makes sounds harder to place sonically. I personally find convolution reverbs the most realistic, but they’re certainly not the only options.  So tip number one would be to use the best reverb at your disposal if you want depth, and you’re not trying to create a special effect.

One of the most important aspects of reverb is the pre-delay, which (in simple terms) controls how long after a sound is heard that the reverb starts.  Think about clapping your hands in a room, and the reverb tail that sound makes.  You don’t instantly hear the reverb when you clap your hands, it takes time for the sound to reach the walls, then bounce off and interact with the other reflections to create the reverb.  A good rule of thumb is that sound travels 1 foot per millisecond in air (at room temperature).  So if you are 15 feet from the nearest wall, that means that it will take approximately 15ms for the reverb to start.

You can use this to your advantage when setting up your reverb, since you can use the pre-delay to help determine not only how big a room is, but also where your instrument is in the room.  Keep in mind that this is only a general guideline though, with most reverbs the pre-delay parameter often controls a much more complex set of interactions, so as always, use your ears and do what sounds best.  Generally I find 15-30ms is a good range to start with, rarely do I use more than that though.

The last reverb tip I’ll offer is to use less than you really think you need.  Often I hear people really soaking sounds in reverb to create depth, when in real life, our ears only need a tiny bit of this sound to accurately place the location of a sound.  Using too much ends up sounding more unnatural than not using any at all.  Same with the size of the reverb, you don’t need to use really long reverb decay settings to create the sense of a large space.

Having written all that, I have to admit that I pretty much never use reverb anymore to create depth.  I’ll usually use a delay instead, as I find having a slowly decaying delay can often create more space than a reverb will, without cluttering up the mix or washing things out too much.  Coming up with a delay setting that conveys depth usually requires more experimentation than reverb, so unfortunately I have less concrete advice to offer here.  After all, delay is only mimicking the sense of space true reverberation offers, in real life we rarely if ever hear things as only discrete delays.

Stereo and ping pong delays work well as they let the effect fill the sides of your stereo imaging, while the core sounds can remain centered.  Likewise using a delay that low pass filters each successive repeat can simulate the sound of the delays being absorbed by items in the “room” you’re creating, much like what happens in real life (I.E. furniture will over time absorb the reverb reflections in a room).  Again, if you’re after a sense of realism, use less than you think you need, the point is to HINT at space with delays, not drop the listener into a huge pool of them.

Regardless of which method you prefer, reverb or delays, if you want to place multiple instruments in a space, you need to set each of these to varying amounts of the effect.  Or use different reverbs for close instruments, and different reverbs for instruments further away.  The key to this technique is to make the reverbs or delays as close as possible to each other tone wise, varying only the controls that convey the actual space or distance the listener is from the sound source.  And of course, you don’t want to add the effect to all your instruments, as that will make everything feel far away, and your song might lack any impact or contrast.

Space and depth are not just created with effects alone though, there’s two other aspects of your mixdown you need to to pay attention to.

The first is panning.  Having every sound in your song panned dead center might ensure the greatest compatibility on a club sound system, but when it comes to realism, it doesn’t work very well.  It’s like going to a concert where every musician in the band is standing single-file in a line with you in front of them.  In addition to making it harder to mixdown and combine multiple instruments, it doesn’t add much stereo interest.  So move things around left to right in the sound stage.  This helps convey a lot of information about where instruments are in relation to each other, and honestly is just more exciting to listen to most of the time.

Two pitfalls I often see people fall into with panning though, are putting too many instruments to the sides, or putting them too far out to the sides.    You don’t want every single sound in your song to be coming from only the left or the right speakers (usually, maybe that’s what you DO want, weirdo!).  Maybe it worked for the Beatles, but they didn’t have much choice and you do.  So be selective about what you pan, and how far to each side you pan it.  I get a lot of songs sent to me for mastering where the artist went crazy with their panning, and as result, there’s nothing in the center of sound stage. EVERYTHING is panned somewhat left or right, and it creates a dead spot right where you want things to be front and center.

In general, I try and keep the most important instruments in the song closer to the center of my sound stage.  If not dead center, then at least not panned very far out to the sides.  Things like pads, effects, strings, etc are usually filling more of a supporting role, so they can afford to be out to the sides.  When panning instruments further to the sides, pay attention to the overall balance of the mix too.  You don’t want more instruments in the left side of the mix than in the right, or vice versa.  It makes things sound unbalanced, and gives the impression that one speaker is louder than the other. If you have something loud panned left, pan something equally loud to the right.  Simple.

The last thing I want to bring up is the issue of dynamics.  No, not going to talk about the loudness wars (this time!), but dynamics do a lot to create depth in a song.  Think of it this way, when you compress something in your song, it’s often to make it more prominent and in your face, right?  Well if everything is loud and in your face, then what is further back in the mix creating depth?  Compress what you will, just keep in mind that some dynamics in the song will really help you create depth in your mixdown.  Balance the loud stuff with quieter, more dynamic sounds and you win on both fronts.

As sort of a subset of dynamics, is the issue of how busy a song is.  Depth and space are conveyed by the way sounds decay and fade away over time.  So if your mixdown is so busy that nothing ever really has time to decay (or it does so masked by other sounds), then it’s that much harder to put that feeling of space in your song.  You don’t need to be firing 1/16th notes all the time on all tracks, at least not if you want your song to have any sort of 3-dimensional aspects.  It’s often said that the notes you don’t play are as important as the notes you do play, and this is especially true when it comes to creating depth in a mixdown.  Keep that in mind when writing and arranging your track, and your job will be so much easier when you want to address this later on.

Hope you found this useful as always, please leave any questions or other ideas you might want to offer in the comments of the blog, and I’ll be happy to address them.

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Finally, I want to take a quick second to talk about the Donate button off to the right side of the screen.  Some of you have seen this added a few days ago, and emailed me with your… concerns.  🙂  I want to be upfront and state that I will ALWAYS offer my guides and production tips on the blog for free.  I’m a big fan of helping people out, and I don’t think people should always have to pay for advice and tips, as long as I have the time to offer them.  I truly enjoy doing it, and it seems enough people enjoy reading them, so nothing will change on that front.  In fact, it’s one reason I switched to the blog format, as I had so many people who wanted a better way to stay informed of when I released new guides and tips.

In the past when I wrote my production guides, I’d include the Donate button at the bottom of the the html pages, and I’ll be honest in saying it helped bring in a little money (very little) each month for my family.  Since I’ve switched to the blog format, I haven’t had that option anymore, and a few people have asked how they can continue to Donate when they’ve read something useful that helped in their own productions.  In addition, traffic has increased dramatically since the site relaunched, so I’m hoping a couple donations each month will help offset those costs.  It also keeps me from having to put annoying banner ads on the site (and I’ve had plenty of offers), which is good as I hate those things as much as you do.

I don’t expect anyone to donate, but since more than a few of you asked, there you go.  Thanks for reading, stayed tuned for a lot more articles in the coming weeks.

Oh, and email notifications are working now too, so you can sign up to be notified of new posts via email if you want.

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

Finish What You Start

Recently a discussion on the Ableton forums about what daily routines people should do in order to become a better producer got me thinking.  What sort of things could you practice if you wanted to become better at writing songs?  Especially if you’re always getting disappointed when comparing your songs to those of your favorite artists?

It almost seems like too vague of a question, since the role of “producer” these days can encompass so many different skills (musicians, mixing, mastering, arranging, etc).  I’m a firm believer in practice and repetition as a means to perfecting one’s skills, regardless of what those skills are.  Do something often enough, and no matter what you’re going to get better at it.  Of course how quickly this comes will be different for everyone, and that’s the difficult thing.  Some people learn certain skill sets really quickly, almost as if they were naturals at it.  While other people struggle for years with even the basic concepts and techniques.

I think however that there’s one thing that everyone needs to do in order to write better songs, and that’s to actually finish songs (tracks, whatever you want to call a completed piece).  Sounds obvious I know, but I think a lot of people get discouraged and quit way too soon in the production process.  Sure starting with a really solid hook or idea is important, but so is how you take that idea to completion.  Vastly different skills here.  For instance, a lot of people get stuck in the “loop mode”, where they have a good idea for a groove, but can’t turn it into a song, something I addressed previously in this tutorial:

http://tarekith.com/assets/arranging.html

Or worse, they get discouraged when comparing what they’ve labored so hard on to their favorite CD or album, and it just doesn’t sound as good.  I mean, you have to be realistic, you’re just starting out and you’re comparing the work of a beginner to that of a pro.  If things like that discourage you from actually finishing one of your songs, then you need to fix that situation.  A lot of people will disagree, but I actually find that I do my best work when I take breaks from listening to other people’s music while working on my own.

Sure listening to your favorite music can be inspiring at times, but creating art in a vacuum can also help you to find your own voice, your own style, and remove a lot of distractions or feelings of failure.  It helps prevent you from copying another producer’s sound, melodies, beats, whatever, even if at a subconscious level.  Most of all, it helps keep the process fun and exciting for you, and you’re going to be more inclined to actually finish your songs if you’re having fun.  This is very important, because you’re never going to be really good at writing tracks, unless you keep practicing writing tracks.  And that means all aspects of what goes into making a track these days, where one person is wearing so many different hats in the studio.

But more than that, it’s not until you finish a song that you’ll gain any form of objectivity back about it.  When you’re in the middle of the creative process, you’re deeply in tune with what it is you’re trying to convey.  This means all the nitty gritty details that go into making a song, each and every little sound.  But when you’re finished with a song, and have gotten out of that headspace after a couple of weeks, it’s often very easy to hear the areas that need improvement. Or recognize what things you did worked very well.  You’re able to listen to it as a completed piece, and see the overall big picture.  This is important, because this is how everyone else will hear your song too.  It’s never going to be the same as listening to a piece of music for the first time, but as musicians and producers, it’s the closest we can come to that level of objectivity.

When you get to this point though, avoid the temptation to endlessly revisit and tweak your song if you hear things that need fixing.  Sure, if there’s some glaring obvious issue, then by all means correct it.  But you have to move on and accept that this song is done, and use what you have learned in the next song.  Because no two songs you write will be exactly the same (I hope!) and it’s the process of applying your observations to a new track where the real skill comes out.

Anyway, the crux of the matter is simple:  if you want to write better songs, you need to finish as many songs as you can.  Be honest with yourself.  If you’re a beginner, you’re just starting out and have to accept that you have a lot to learn still.  There’s no magic tip that will instantly make it easier or better sounding, that comes with practice (sorry, side-chaining won’t solve everything, hehe).  So put distractions and negative thoughts out of your mind, and just focus on having fun and creating as many songs as you can.  I guarantee if you do this enough, you WILL achieve the professional sound you’re after.

How does it sound?

It’s easy in today’s online marketing driven world to think that one’s tools are inferior, and that the latest and greatest new THING will help us all become better producers.  It seems like not a week goes by that there’s not some new “leak” of a revolutionary new product just around the corner.  (and on that note, the trend of companies purposely leaking info or some hard to see picture of their forthcoming wares is getting REALLY old).  Naturally many of us will start to feel like the tools we currently use will be lacking in comparison in some way, and we start to think about upgrading or trading in to have the latest and greatest toy that will completely change our workflow and make us better musicians.  Or we read other producers commenting how their rare musical instrument revolutionized the way they work and their output.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another post about G.A.S.

What I really want to talk about, is the need to remember that at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how it sounds coming out of your listeners’ speakers.  What’s the end result, and does it sound good?  While there’s certainly a lot to be said for having tools on hand that allow us to work efficiently or rethink the production process now and then, these things do not matter at all to the people who actually listen to your music (all three of them).  All the end listener cares about, is “how interesting is this?”  “Is this something I really want to listen to?”  The tools you use to create your work don’t matter at all to the listener, many of whom will never know anyway.

Case in point. I remember years ago reading a story about Steve Vai, who was looking to buy a new Strat to use on one of his albums.  Armed with thousands in cash, he set out looking for the best sounding Strat he could find, hitting up all the boutique guitar shops.  Obviously a professional guitar player of his fame is going to be concerned that he has the best guitar tone possible on his latest album.  The funny thing is, at the end of this weeks long search, the guitar that sounded the best to his ears was an entry level Squire Strat that cost about $300, and not a rare decades old axe that cost more than a car.

The point is this, when you take the hype or other people’s opinions out of the equation and just LISTEN, often times the simplest and cheapest tools can be the best for the task at hand.  Other examples:

– It might be fun to get the latest and greatest, most complex synth available to expand your music making arsenal.  Often times you can get something equally as interesting sounding use the built in voice recorder in your phone to make field recordings, or layering multiple synths you already own to do the same thing.

– Do you really need a new piece of percussion made from some rare exotic wood imported from the Swilish people of Brazil on the backs of fresh water dolphins, or will a cheap mic and some household items give you results that are just as sonically interesting?

– Or how about the most common question I see, what did artist x,y,z use to make that famous bassline that spawned an entire new genre of music?  Was it some outrageously expensive and rare synth, or did they use the humble SH101 or a plug in that came with the DAW you already have?  You’d be surprised.

So before you fall into the trap of thinking that newer and more expensive is better, take a step back and really listen to the tools you already have.  Remove the sound of what you hear, from the context of how it was created, and then decide if the latest and greatest is really the best way to solve your problem.  History is full of examples of some of the most famous artists creating works of art that are known as enduring masterpieces using the simplest and most basic tools they had on hand.  If they can do it, you can too.

Common Track Issues

One of the most common emails I get from people, generally goes along the lines of “hey man, can you listen to my song and let me know what you think it needs?”. I always freely offer mixdown advice to my clients before they come to me for a mastering job, but it’s just not something I can do for everyone. I certainly enjoy helping people out with advice when I can, but the fact remains that I’ll get 10-20 of these a day some weeks, and I just can’t take the time to listen and comment on them all while still trying to run a business. Or while trying to find the time to make my own music, something that has definitely gotten harder and harder to do lately!

Still, I want to help in whatever way I can, so I thought it might be a good idea to compile a list of some of the more common issues I hear in people’s tracks over and over again. Often it’s not that a producer doesn’t have the skill or ability to hear these problems, but they’re just too close to the song and too used to it’s sonics to have that objectivity to do so (a good case for why people use mastering engineers still in the first place I might add). So, here’s some of the more frequent problems I run into when listening to other people’s work. Not saying all tracks have this problem, but it’s some of the common areas where you can focus on when listening and critiquing your own music.

1. High hats too loud. They add a lot of feel and groove to your drum parts, so a lot of people focus on these and as a result have them turned up a little bit too much while working on them. Usually it’s just a case of people getting used to them at that volume inadvertently, and once you compare the song with something else they really stand out then. Especially problematic as once the song is mastered, they can be almost annoyingly loud if it’s a club tune, and the only fix for this in mastering is largely just to EQ them down. This of course affects a lot else on the top end, so it’s not ideal. Just A/B with another song now and then to see how loud your high hats are compared to other material in the same sort of genre, often this is a pretty obvious issue once you do that.

2. Bass and Kick relationship off, too loud or too quiet. The low end is without a doubt the one area more people struggle with than anything else, as it’s the most susceptible to acoustic issues, or monitors that just don’t go low enough in a producers studio. A lot of people think adding a subwoofer will help, but 9 times out of 10 in my experience it just makes things even worse as they are not set up properly. The easiest way to check for issues here is to try other playback systems when you think the mixdown is done, especially car stereos as that seems to make the issue stand out more.

The other common problem on the low end is what I call the single tone deepness. It sounds cool to say that you tuned your drums to match the key of the song, but be careful that you’re not making the kick and bassline so close together that they just run together and create a mush of one single frequency. If you have a higher bassline with some bite to it, use a deeper kick. If you have a super deep dubby bassline, use a kick that’s got some high frequency content to help it stand out more.

3. Too much stereo, where’d the middle go? These days it seems that everyone is getting more and more fond of spatializers, stereo enhancers, and really wide ping pong delays/reverbs. Nothing wrong with spreading things out some, but be careful that you’re not pulling everything away from the center of the stereo field at the same time. I get some songs where it sounds like every single sound is coming discretely from one speaker or the other, and no instruments are holding down the center. Use your stereo tools sparingly, maybe on only a few tracks and not the whole song. Super important for anything meant for a club as well.

4. The reverb is going, going, go. Long fade outs seem to be making a come back, and as long as they’re not overused on every track on your album, can be an effective tool to slowly bring a listener down. If you do have a long fade out, say with a reverb or delay tail, make sure that the tail has really ended before you lop off the end of the song. You don’t want to have someone really into your song and enjoying the ending as it blissfully fades away, only to have it suddenly stop before the sound has really stopped decaying. Using headphones and turning the volume up is the best way to check for this.

5. Too many synths in the midrange. Remember that everything in your song has to have a place, both spatially and in terms of frequency spread. I get a lot of tracks sent to me where the producer has 3-4 different synth lines all fighting to be heard at the same time. Pick the most important one or two, and ditch the rest. Complexity in a song can be good, but not if it’s really masking your underlying message and the core of the song. Panning can help to some extent, but having wildly different synth lines in each speaker can be disconcerting and throw the whole balance of a mix off. Useful as a special effect perhaps, but do so sparingly if you must.

6. One-dimensional sounding, flat due too much individual track compression. Often in an attempt to beef things up and make them sound fuller, producers will start putting compressors on all tracks and reducing dynamic range of the individual sounds. Be careful if this is the style of music you like, it’s very easy to remove so much dynamic range that the song not only lacks punch, but there’s no sense of depth either. Everything sounds sort of flat and 1-dimensional. One of the main side-effects of this is that there’s very little you can do in the mastering stage either. We can make it louder, but it’s not going to be punchier as we have nothing to work with when shaping the transients and release stage of all the dynamics. Use compression on the core sounds if you must, but try and leave at least a few things really dynamic to offset that one dimensional feel. Percussion and cymbals, as well as backing synths are prime candidates for this.

7. Low-pass filtering the whole song. I have no idea who started the myth that low-passing your song around 16kHz or so can help make it louder, but it’s not true 99.99% of the time. If anything, you’ve just taken out all the frequencies that give a song a sense of space and depth, that lovely air on the top end that almost puts the track in a physical location you can really feel.

The same is largely true about high-pass filtering the song too, many times it doesn’t solve anything and can introduce weird phase-shifts where you don’t want them. If you do hear a problem with something less than 40Hz (congrats on having great monitors!), then sometimes a little bit of high-pass filtering can help, but don’t do it as a matter of course. Make sure there’s a real need for it. If you’re sending your track out to be mastered, then don’t even do it at all, let the mastering engineer handle it. They have more accurate monitoring and a properly treated acoustic space, and will be able to remove only that which is truly problematic.

Anyway, I hope that gives some people an idea of some of the more common issues I see when working on other people’s tracks. I want to reiterate one final time, that before you go and implement any of these solutions, make sure there’s a problem in the first place that needs to be addressed.

In many cases people are just so excited to finish a song, that they often don’t live with the mixdown for a couple days and play it back on multiple systems before mastering it themselves or sending it out to be mastered. Giving your ears a break and getting some fresh perspective on the overall sonics of the track can solve so many issues. Have some patience, and your track will sound the better for it in the end.

Know Your Limitations

One of my favorite ways of coming up with new ideas for songs, is to limit the options or tools I use during the composition process. I’m sure a lot of this is born from earlier times when I first got into music making, as I just didn’t have the money to spend on a lot of gear (and back then gear was expensive!). So I’d have no choice but to plumb the depths of whatever I was using, doing my best to write complete songs and not get bummed out by my lack of gear.

I used to get so frustrated with that too, not being able to follow through with an idea because I was already using my one EQ, or didn’t have another free input on my tiny Mackie 1202 mixer, whatever. Of course the flip side of that lack of gear, was that I was unknowingly learning the gear I did have really, really well.

Fast forward a few years and the whole concept of limitations was foreign to me, as DAWs with the unlimited choices they offer will do that. As many effects as I wanted, tons of free synths, plenty of free tracks, you name it and it was largely possible. I’d even go so far as to try and write songs using as many tracks and effects as I possibly could, just because I had that option open to me.

Like any new idea though, eventually this concept of throwing as much as I could at a project slowly began to fade as a source of inspiration, and I once again found myself struggling to think of ideas for new songs. It was around this time that I started playing with the idea of imposed limitations as a source of inspiration. By limiting my tools, I was forced to use what I had at my disposal in new ways. More importantly, it made me re-look at my working methods, and come up with new ways to do things.

You see, I firmly believe that we do our best work when confronted with a challenge. When taken out of our comfort zone and the creative repetitiveness that tends to breed, we begin to come up with new ideas we would not have arrived at earlier. So I began to look at each song as a chance to solve a new problem, and these problems were always self-imposed. Sometimes the challenges I set myself were not too difficult and affected only part of the writing process, other times I made myself work to achieve a task I knew could be extremely hard to complete.

For instance, here some of the things I would do to limit my options:

– Try and write a complete song using only a drum machine and nothing else. Double points for using only drum synthesis to create the sounds, and not samples.

– Use the song mode on a piece of hardware instead of my DAW, even though the DAW was much easier and faster to use.

– Try and mix a song using only one type of each effect. IE, pretend I still only had one EQ, one compressor, one delay, etc. Trying to figure out where to best use those effects can be very challenging.

– Create a song using nothing but a guitar, including the drum sounds.

– Create a song using only a short 4-5 second snippet of audio. Could be a field recording, or a sample of a record, whatever. The point was to deconstruct that one sample and use it to create a whole palette of sounds for the song.

– Record a solo for one of my tracks using a MIDI drum pad instead of a keyboard.

– Create the drum sounds in a song using only a single monophonic synth. The simpler the synth, the better.

– Use a pair of headphones to record all the sounds for a track. No going direct or using a real microphone.

– Let my room mate or girlfriend chose all the sounds for my song, no matter what I had to make it work with whatever they picked. At the very least this can lead to some pretty funny results.

– Play all the piano parts in a song using only my toes. (Ok, that’s a bit extreme, never really did that).

You get the idea.

Like I said, almost all of my songs these days start as some form of limitation I’m trying to make myself overcome. It forces me to learn the gear I have in new ways, and really opens up possibilities I never would have thought of otherwise. Of course the key is to set yourself a challenge that you can likely actually achieve, and not set yourself up for failure and endless frustration. I recommend starting with limiting yourself during small tasks at first, during small parts of your writing process.

Try choosing just one synth for all your sounds, or work only with midi instead of audio like you usually do. Eventually you’ll get better and realizing what kinds of limitations will help spur new ideas and working methods, and what limitations just lead to banging your head against the wall. Like everything, the more you do it, the better you get.

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Just a reminder that you can now sign up for email notifications of new blog posts if you’re not into RSS or Twitter. The subscribe buttons are to the right of the blog postings now.

Just Because

Before I get started with the topic this week, it appears I need to make a clarification on the purpose of this blog.  As with my Production Guides, this blog’s only purpose is give me somewhere to voice my thoughts on different topics.  I’m not trying to say my ideas or working methods are the “right” or only way to do things.  No need to send me a bunch of emails telling me I’m wrong, or you’re successful using some other method or style of music making.

Experimenting and coming up with your own conclusions and working methods is the only “right” way to do things.  If you have something about how you work that you think others would benefit from, by all means post it in the blog comments for everyone to discuss!  And so…

As most people reading this know, I run a studio dedicated to mastering and mixdowns.  I also offer a consulting service, where I listen to people’s tracks or look at their projects and offer suggestions.  One of the things I see a lot when people send me project files is how many effects they’re using in the project, and typically we’re talking about dynamic processors and compressors.  I’d say that 90% of the time things sound better when the effects are off.  The material never really needed that effect in the first place, and ends up sounding a lot better when we get rid of it.  Trying to fix something that wasn’t broken ends up actually breaking it.

When I ask the producers WHY they put the processors on there, they say “because I thought I was supposed to”.  They didn’t hear a need for the effect, they probably weren’t even listening to hear if there even was a need.  Instead they read an interview with producer x,y,z who used a bunch of compressors on their latest song, so they thing they have to do the same.  Certainly nothing wrong with giving it a go and seeing if it helps, but make sure it really IS helping.

A lot of times I see the make up gain on a compressor turned up a lot, but the threshold isn’t even set in the audible band.  In this case, the compressor is just another volume knob, and since it’s making the track louder, it tends to sound better.  This is a good reason to check your changes by A/Bing with an uneffected track at the same volume, especially when you’re first learning a new effect.  Most DAWs let you quickly duplicate a selected track with a CMD+D (Ctrl+D) keystroke, so it’s really simple to set up a quick comparison.  Make sure that you’re actually making things better, and not just louder.

Another example I see a lot in the mastering phase that reflects this sort of mindset, is people high- and low-passing their entire track with an EQ.  They read online that this is how someone did it, so now they want to do it too.  There definitely are some reasons to high-pass a track, but again, make sure you actually have signal down there that’s a problem, before you just do it as a matter of course.  Some of these high-pass filters are very steep, and you could actually be making things worse with phase-shift or pre-ringing.

Also, a common myth is that low-passing a track will allow it to be mastered louder. This is not true at all, and more often than not just makes the track sound a lot duller and more closed in (not open) than it should be.  If your high’s are so loud that you’re hitting the mastering limiter and can’t go louder, than your track is probably all sorts of messed up already.  The kick, bass, or vocals will 99% be the thing that determines how loud a track can be.  High hats or cymbals this loud would just be so obviously painful, there’s no way anyone would mix the track like that (I hope).  Still, if you have a real need for low-passing, then by all means do what you need to.

Remember, don’t do things “just because”.

Timeless tips

I was going through some old archives of mine, and I ran across a list of my top ten pieces of production advice, something I had written years ago.  Struck me that I probably wouldn’t change anything even after all this time.

1. Less is almost always more.  Turn down the effects, back off the compression, use less EQ and reverb, get rid of tracks that don’t really add anything important to the song.

2. Don’t force yourself to write only in one genre (blasphemy, I know).  Variety is the spice of life, so experiment with other genres/styles, it’ll only make you a better musician/producer.

3. Learn at least basic music theory.  You may never, ever use it, but it’ll help you understand how we got to where we are, and might just help you out in the future.

4. Don’t force yourself to write if you’re not feeling it.  Go outside, take care of your errands and BS, and come back to it when it’s fun again.  Even if that means a month long hiatus (or longer).

5. Do it for the right reasons.  Make music because you love the process, not the hopeful outcome.  Never make music thinking you’ll make money, cause you won’t 99.999% of the time.

6. Understand it takes years and years to get that polished and professional sound.  It’s not down any magic plug ins or settings.  An experienced producer can make a pro-sounding tune no matter what the gear.  It’s the ears, not the gears. (trademarked)  The only way to get to this point is practice, plain and simple.

7. Learn to calibrate people’s comments about your tunes.  There’s a fine line between solid, unbiased production advice, and personal preferences.  Listen to what people say, and then judge if their comments are expressing their own personal preferences, or if it’s a genuine advice from an experience producer.  Listen either way though, both kinds of advice can be helpful if taken in the right context.  On that note, your friends will always tell you they like your tunes.

8. Learn to play a real instrument.

9. Interviews with other producers are the best source of production advice.  Especially if they produce a completely different genre than you.

10. Slim down your studio.  Kinda ties into #1 above, but the less gear you have, the easier it is to learn it, and the farther you can take it.  Especially with plug ins.