By far, the question I get asked the most often is “how do I get that professional sound in my tracks?” It’s interesting, because while I definitely know exactly what people are referring to, and remember wondering the same thing with my own tracks at one time, and I can’t think of the moment when I thought “aha, I’ve done it!”.
Barring any sudden insights or learning some hidden secret, that means it was a more gradual process. Anyone who’s been writing music for some length of time likely realizes this, but what exactly is it that we have to learn? Obvious answers are usually that you need to learn your tools better, or study different production techniques so you know how (and when) to apply them to improve your music.
I suppose there’s also the need to improve the tools you use as well, from the instruments used to create the music, to the monitors we use to listen to it. Certainly the tools we use don’t necessarily define the quality of music we make, but better tools do tend to lend themselves to better results much easier.
Still, I’ve met a lot of producers who managed to hit all of those marks fairly early on in their production careers, and yet they still struggle with getting that “sound” that they’re after. It’s easy to say the rest comes down to practice (and I’ve done so many times in this blog), but practicing what?
It’s sort of strange considering it’s music we’re talking about, but you really don’t find a lot of people talking about how they trained their ears over time. And I don’t mean with specific ear training exercises like being able to identify fixed frequencies or EQ points (though that’s definitely good to do!). Rather I’m talking about the skill of learning to step back from your music and really HEAR what the overall picture sounds like.
It sounds like a simple thing, but if you’ve ever tried to teach someone how to do it, you realize it’s not as easy as it sounds. Learning to not focus on specific parts of a song we like, or perhaps a section that gave us a lot of trouble while writing it doesn’t come naturally to our ears. We tend to focus on what we know, or what we were working on most recently rather than the big picture.
But it’s not just the big picture of our own songs we need to listen to, but also how our song works in other environments. Everyone I know realizes how important it is to listen to your music on other speakers to see how well it translates, but doing so efficiently and accurately takes a long time to learn. I know early on I would often find myself burning multiple CDs to listen to mix revisions over and over in the same listening environments. So it’s not just the act of referencing your song elsewhere that’s important, but how easily you can hear flaws this exposes and correct them too.
All of this is a rather long winded way of stating that one of the most useful skills you need to learn as a musician is just the ability to hear things as they really are. I know that sounds rather nebulous, but I think it’s one of the most important skills successful musicians and producers have learned over the years. It’s not just learning YOUR speakers in YOUR studio, but learning how things sound elsewhere. And most importantly, then being able to make the correct correlations that allow you tweak and tune your music to sound even better.
To me, that’s what defines that “professional sound” more than anything else. It’s not about the tools or techniques per se, but that knowledge of how music works in different environments and becoming good at minimizing any issues that might compromise your message as a result. We’re attracted to songs that just sound good no matter where you hear them, and that skill more than any other is what tends to separate the “professionals” from those still learning.
While there may not be an easy way to learn that skill other than repetition, it’s definitely something everyone can work towards improving. It takes practice to learn to stop focusing on one part of a song and step back to hear how everything works together. Take a few minutes every day that you’re working on a song and try to do it. Stop for 5 minutes and just listen to the song pretending it’s the first time you heard it. What sticks out, what works, what doesn’t?
Likewise learning to identify problems in your tracks when you hear them for the first time on a new set of speakers somewhere else takes time too. Try setting a goal of listening to a song you know well on a new set of speakers or headphones once a week. How quickly can you spot known problems, what sounds best in your song on the new set up, what sounds worst?
Little games like this are things I find successful musicians do all the time without really realizing it. Getting into the habit of always being aware of how things sound in your environment, and how you can use that to adjust your own productions is one of the best skills you can learn if you want to get better at getting a nice, polished sound in your tracks. When you spend the time learning to hear what doesn’t work well, you’re going to be left with only things that do work, and that’s ultimately the sign of a quality production!
Hope you enjoyed the article this week. Now that my hand is healing and I can type much easier, I’m hoping to start getting these blog posts out more frequently once again.
I don’t often ask for help, but this is one of those times I’m turning to my readers to help me out if they can. This month has been slower than normal for the mastering business, and with medical bills from my recent broken hand coming in, the timing couldn’t be worse. It would be a big help if you could pass on my contact information to anyone you know who might be looking to get something mastered. Referrals like this are truly the only way I get new customers, so just quick 1 minute email or Facebook post to a friend can help me out more than you know.
Thanks everyone, I appreciate all your help and support over the years, and especially in difficult times like this!