Archive for the ‘Audio engineering’ Category
How to fail your way to success
To dispel any myths you might be thinking. Music production didn’t come naturally to me. It took years of making some pretty embarrassing mistakes & getting my ass handed to me to learn what works & what doesn’t.
I also was pretty financially unstable through much of my music life & made some pretty poor decisions just trying to keep a bit of money in my pocket. The reason for me sharing these stories is in hopes that you see that if I was able to pull my head out of my own ass & figure things out, you should have no problem reaching your goals.
My EQing nightmare
So I found myself on the other side of town dropping off a mixing job (the worst mixing job on the planet) to a hip hop act when I was living in Riverside, California. I was in the middle of a rough neighborhood with not enough gas or money to get me home. I needed to be paid for the job ($100).
You’ll want to file this under “don’t take on an impossible job because you are desperate to make rent”.
See, it wasn’t entirely my fault. I took on a job that would have been impossible for anyone. The idiot factor is thinking I could work with the files I got, regardless.
They had delivered me stems (mixes of all the separate instruments) that were actually not separated. every instrument, instead of being solo’d was the full stereo mixdown of the song (a bad mixdown at that). We didn’t have internet at the time, so if you get a project in the mail that isn’t right, you can’t just ask for an update to be delivered through dropbox.
I should have made a call & had them get me something proper to work with, but money being so tight, I opted to try to carve away EQ to somewhat attempt to have the fundamentals of each instrument for mixing purposes. I was almost proud of myself for being so “resourceful”. I know what you’re thinking. I’m the biggest idiot on the planet & deserve to die from 1000 spork wounds.
Needless to say, the mix I delivered sounded awful (did I think they wouldn’t notice?) and there I was stranded with a bunch of pissed off hip hop guys looking at me. I thought I might lose a kneecap that day. I had to beg for money to get me home. As I said before, I made it here on fumes. By the grace of the giant spaghetti monster in the sky, they took pity on me & gave me $5 to get home.
Never again would I make such a dumb mistake… or would I?
An idiot’s story part 2
Somehow, I was still getting work. I guess I had done some decent work as well. Mostly with electronic bands with guitars & word got around that my bedroom was a cheap place to get a song done. I think I had some ads out of Craigslist as well that were getting me phone calls ( I had dial up internet by this time).
So I get a call from Cracka. A cracked out white kid who wanted to be the next Eminem & who was I to say no? Sure, the friends he brought over were pretty sketchy, but I was getting paid in cash & they didn’t steal anything. It could be worse.
So, I was being hired to make the beats & everything. I think they had some samples on cd, but that’s about it. I was pretty good at programming drum machines & working my sampler, but I wasn’t very educated on proper hip hop tones.
When I sent this guy home with a rough mix, he called back particularly unhappy with the kick drum. He wanted it to be big, deep & punchy without too much boom & he questioned if I could give him a tone that would compete with bigger artists.
Never turning down a challenge that was paying, I told him I’d get him a wicked kick that would thump any car stereo…and I did, kinda.
Back in the studio I went through my kick samples, looking for the right sound, but it was eluding me. I’d have to make my own out of what I had. I had heard stories about other producers layering drum sounds to get a bigger sound. If that was the trick, I would layer a crapload of kicks together. 26 to be exact.
Yep, that’s right, I went with the more is better approach. If they wanted a kick, I would give them the biggest fuck off kick they’d ever heard.
Did I roll off any EQ on any of the layers? Oh, hell no.
Did I edit the length of any of the sounds? You kidding? Who needs that?
I strictly was using volume levels. A little of this one & a bit more of that one. It’s so embarrassing for me to recall being proud of myself. I even got a pat on the back when Cracka heard it by itself.
Little did he (or I) realize that this sound was taking up so many frequencies that were cancelling eachother out that kick would be all that you would hear in this mix. It sounded so big & aggressive, that nothing could compete with it. Vocals, bass, everything got drowned out.
Since everybody was so focused on the sound of the kick, nobody really noticed how bad the overall mix sounded. Not long after, I didn’t get calls from him anymore.
How am I still here?
Somehow by some small miracle, I got my head together over the next couple of years and went on to do some good work that I’m proud of, working with industrial bands, new age artists, pop, rap, electronica & R&B, I learned to adjust my skills & add much to my producer’s toolbox.
I think it’s really been about not saying no to anyone & trying to put my head into the space of the artist or band. With that much exposure, I was able to fail my way forward, picking up little bread crumbs of information with each new project.
These days I am much more selective about what I work on & who I work with. I also found myself better as a mixing engineer than I am with recording. Plus, it’s nice to not have to go through all the arguing that bands go through in that process. I get my stems & am left to myself until I have something to share.
If you can learn anything from this, I hope that it’s that anyone can learn to do this & that some people take longer than others. Luckily there are so many resources out there that were never available when I started, that can get you from point A to point Z much faster & with far fewer idiot mistakes.
Hopefully, as an electronic artist, my kicks & mixing techniques are noticeably better. I’m still always learning though.
happy music making,
Producing is mostly problem solving
Many new and old producers have a really difficult time looking at their own work and saying “This is done”. There is a huge paranoia that there is a gaping hole in our work that is immediately going to be spotted by our peers. This issue can lead to analysis paralysis and cause you to never finish anything you start.
Every track you show people will be a “work in progress”. You’ll never commit to saying “here it is, it’s done”. I hope this post will help you across the finish line with more confidence.
The truth is, if you haven’t written in a while, your songs may very likely have some unfinished business, but you really can’t look at things like that. Your job is not to create perfection, it’s to abandon your work when you’ve done all you can currently do.
See, your production improves in direct relationship with your experience and your listening skills. This means that unless you are willing to put yourself out there & possibly fail a few times, you will never truly begin to succeed. You’ll think that one more learned trick is going to save your song, but it’s really not the case.
You can’t improve your skills from studying somebody else’s skills unless you are also learning from doing. You also can never expect to develop your own style. Instead you’ll be chasing everybody else’s.
When is my song done?
So when is your song complete then?
The short answer is that it’s done when you say it’s done, but let me dive a bit deeper.
As you produce your own music, you start to develop a much better ear for things. You get much better at figuring out what makes other songs “tick” & learning to apply it to your own work.
Many of us go through a period where we realize our song is still missing something. The problem is that we don’t know what. Sometimes there truly is an element missings, other times the problem is in the mixing or EQing. Other times there is just too much happening and the song no longer sounds clean.
Once again, you learn this from doing. With any form of art, you can only be as good as your currently are.
So when is your song done? When you can no longer perceive any problems.
The problem solving approach
This year I have gained a decade of experience over the last 10 months by writing constantly. I’ve written, remixed or collaborated on more than 60 songs so far & still going strong. Surprisingly, I like 90% of my work quite a bit. The advantage you have when you are continuously writing is that you are building habits, skills and instincts. You can also always go back to a previous “finished” song & know immediately what you can do to make it better.
See, you don’t have to call a song done forever, you just have to abandon it when your current ear is satisfied. You can always come back. The trick is to get something as far as you can take it, then try to take it just a tad further, then let it go without getting too much emotion involved & start your next tune.
My approach as a producer now isn’t to reach some sort of perfection, but to construct something that sounds good to my ears and feels good in my body, then arrange it into a full song format & finally fix the problems.
Some of the issues I find I need to solve are:
* The song sounds muddy, what sound do I need to clean up? Do I need more high frequency content?
* This part has been going on too long without change, how can I retrigger some excitement?
* I seem to have lost the groove, what is taking away from the rhythm?
* Everything seems to be coming from the center, how can I add more movement?
* This sound isn’t cutting through, should I add EQ, compression or saturation?
* This new sound is overpowering another important sound, can I solve this with panning or EQ?
The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.
Getting out of the DAW
When I feel I am getting close to completing my song, I will mix it down and listen to the song outside of my DAW. Sometimes visual cues can trick you, so I like to be 100% using my ears.
While listening, I’ll make a note of issues with the mix & the time it is happening. This is extremely useful to me, because I know exactly what I need to do to call this song done. I no longer need to overthink, I just go through my checklist.
When there are no more issues I can perceive, I call the song done & move on to the next one.
Follow my songwriting process
If you would like to follow my (mostly) daily songwriting thread on facebook, you can check it out here. It’s totally free & you can also share your own daily process. It’s helped a lot of producers stay focused and productive. I invite the same for you.
Happy music making,
How Long Will it Take Me to Sound Like ______ ?
This is a question I get asked often from new aspiring producers. They often ask me this after they have purchased a training course from me or joined my Producer’s Playground, so given their current mindset, it’s a fair question, but it isn’t the best question. .
It’s VERY important that you start with a different attitude than “how long will it take me to sound like this pro?”
You can’t possibly go directly from A to Z, without moving through the whole alphabet. You can certainly skip some roadblocks that gets you through faster, but you still need to move through each of the micro steps before you make that giant leap.
The real question you may need to answer is:
“How many songs did this artist write to get to this level of production?”
Then your next question might be:
“How many songs will I need to finish to get the experience needed to write on that level?”
With a mentor or someone who helps you focus on the right things, you might be able to get to a professional level in your productions in less time than the original artist did, but I wouldn’t expect your first 5, 10 or even 20 songs to be on that level.
“Why even bother making making music I’m not 100% satisfied with?”
This is the attitude that keeps 95% of people out of the big leagues. It’s like asking “why even bother learning kung fu if I have to start as a white belt?”. It’s why most people quit before they have even begun. Most people are not able to sit with sucking at something until they don’t suck anymore. Instead they beat themselves up through the whole process.
Here’s why you make music, however bad you are at it right now:
1. Because you love music enough to fight for your ability to be great at it.
2. Because you already envision your success & you know these are the steps that get you there.
3. Because there is no other way to get there.
Your goal should be to get comfortable with finishing songs right now at whatever level you are at. Don’t make the mistake of spending a year on 1 song, thinking this is how you become an expert, because:
1. That isn’t the way to master songwriting
2. You’ll hate the song before you have even finished it
3. You might be inspired by something completely different by that time
When you go through the process of finishing songs, you aren’t only improving your writing skills, you are also improving your listening skills. The more your listening skills improve, the more you’ll realize that some of the first songs you wrote are missing certain details you never even thought of before.
This is why, as you are developing, it’s so important to call a song done when you’ve done the best you can for now & start something new. You won’t be able to develop your listening skills any other way, than to write songs & reference your music with other artists.
The writing and listening process will progress naturally, and when it does, you’ll be able to go back and improve your older songs. I do this ALL the time, as my process is always improving.
Does this mean that every song you make is going to be better than the last?
Not necessarily. You can’t really predict your hits and misses, but you are guaranteed to be a more experienced producer with every new song completed & your toolbox will be not only bigger, but much more organized.
You’ll be much better at sounding like yourself than anyone else
If you aren’t great at sounding like somebody else, that is a good thing. It means you have your own style that you are developing. As long as you improve at being the best you possible, you won’t be wasting your time chasing someone else’s art.
Chasing the dreams of others is the best way to kill your own art before you ever get off the ground. You will always borrow ideas for your art, but when you know who you are, the ideas you borrow will move your art forward, not somebody else’s.
So many artists die with their own art still in them because they never had the confidence to share themselves with the world. Don’t be another statistic.
I recall in the mid 90’s, I was trying to make the trance music that was popular at the time. The only thing epic about it, was what an epic failure I was at it. Everything I made sounded like house music. I felt like a loser, instead of realizing that my personality just happened to gravitate toward a different style of music. I now see my failure at making what wasn’t really me as a success.
Keep this in mind as genre’s change so you don’t get “shiny music syndrome” where you try to chase down every new popular style. If you want to sound like a pro, you’ll need to be consistent with your sound for long enough to get there.
“My song sounded great last night, but sounds like shit today”
This is incredibly common for new producer’s and even veteran producer’s and there is a reason why this happens. Let me try to explain.
If I were to play you a low quality mp3 dj mix, but not tell you… after about 10 minutes, your ears might adjust to it & suddenly it would sound just fine. Your brain has a way of adjusting to what you are listening to.
Since your song is all you are listening to for hours on end, compared to nothing but itself, it sounds great. Over the next day or 2, you will likely be listening to other music, refreshing your ears. Suddenly, when you return to you own production, you’ll hear the difference & notice that it sounds sub standard to how you originally thought is sounded.
This is part of you developing listening skills & it’s the reason you may look back on some of your work and go “what was I thinking?”.
Improving your listening skills
If you and I were to listen to the same song & then describe it in terms or production or arrangement, we would likely hear things differently, because our experience & listening skills are different.
You might say “Listen to that fat kick drum” while I might be hearing things on a different level and say “Sounds like a thumpy kick with short decay, layered with a clicky kick for presence & a subby sine wave underneath for the boom”.
We both heard the same thing, but our ability to break down what is happening in terms of production is proportional to our ability to really hear the details when we listen.
How to improve your listening skills
If you want to improve your listening skills, take 10 minutes before each music session to listen to a song & then write out in as much detail as you can, what you are hearing. Try to figure out what elements are making the groove happen, what is creating tension & what is releasing it.
Is there a sound that glues things together?
Can you hear what effects are being used to create dimension & space in the song?
Can you recognize what is happening with a filter?
What is happening in the song to keep it from sounding boring & loopy?
The more you can understand what really makes another song tick, the more you can apply that you your own productions & the faster you can expect to become the expert you so desperately want to sound like now.
With everything you do, there are shortcuts, but there is never a free pass. The faster you can accept where you are right now, the faster you can tackle each step necessary to becoming great.
Happy music making,
Kick or Bass getting buried? Try this..
A big mistake that is made by producers, especially new ones, is setting your levels too loud when you are mixing & having everything too close to the red to nudge anything up when you realize something is getting buried.
In this example, I realized too late that I wasn’t happy with how my kick & bass were coming through. Although I’m usually good with my levels, I must have gone a little overboard here. This left me with the painful task of having to turn down every other track in my song by a few db. This video shows an easier way to do that, as well as a very simple side chaining trick.
I hope you find this helpful.
Happy music making,