Layering Sounds – The Basics To Writing Your Own Music
(Guest post by Mark Spacey)
When it comes to great song-writing, what you don’t hear is as important as what you do. A hit song stays in the mind not just because of a catchy main melody, but also because of all the nuanced performances that lie underneath.
A memorable bass line, a hypnotic synth sample, or a subtle string section can push a tune from ‘mediocre’ to ‘chart-topper,’ even if it goes virtually unnoticed by the audience. Every instrument plays a vital role in the overall sound of your composition; therefore, it’s crucial to get every sound just right.
Start with the Kick
So how do you make sure you get the right formula for a successful mix? The most logical place to start, of course, is with the main drum track. This is where you’ll determine the basic tempo and overall rhythm of your song, so it’s important to take your time and make sure you get the exact feel you want. If you’re going for a gritty, ‘harder’ sound to your music, consider adding some noise to the kick drums in your rhythm track, as well as some reverb and flange effects. Another useful technique is to increase the gain in the snare and pull up the low end in the kick to create a fuller, richer sound.
For a more ambient sound, try a heavy reverb effect on the kick, coupled with an 808 for emphasis on particular beats. Keep the frequency low, but make sure the sound doesn’t become too muffled. A syncopated hi-hat can add new and interesting textures to the rhythm as well.
Once the drum section has been perfected, it’s time to tackle the bass line. This component is especially tricky to mix: the bass should ideally be warm and deep; yet at the same time, it should be clearly audible and not sound muddy or dull. It should sit comfortably with the drums without overwhelming them, nor should it fade into oblivion. Ideally, the bass line should either sit right on top of, or directly underneath, the drums. Experimenting with the high-shelf and low-shelf frequencies will help to keep the two instruments from ‘fighting for space’ in your song.
If there’s a synthesizer and/or string section in your mix, you’ll most likely want to make that the next instrument in your hierarchy. Again, the amount of reverb you apply to the strings will help determine if they blend into the background or play a bigger role in your song. Make sure they sit on a frequency separate from the vocals, though, as the two tracks can easily fight each other for dominance.
(More here on Fighting Frequencies)
When mixing lead vocals, avoid the pitfalls of over-processing the vocals, natural and quality vocal tones are important for most songs success. Too much reverb will distort the sound and ruin the quality of the original recording, and improper EQ-ing will lose it among the other instruments. Too much or too little gain will either muddy the sound or make the vocals disproportionately loud. In short, be conservative with your effects, and reduce processing the vocals to an absolute minimum.
Panning and space
Once you’ve finessed all the elements in your song, it’s time to place them all in their proper space. That is to say, where you decide to pan each individual track will largely determine how your finished song will be heard by the individual listener. For example, most producers like to reproduce the sound of the instruments as they would appear on a live stage — strings, guitars pan left, keyboards pan right, and drums are straight down the middle. Background vocals are either slightly to the left or to the right, or in some cases, on both the extreme left and right. Vocals often take centre stage.
Experimentation & breaking rules
Now that the basics of successful song mixing have been covered, remember that rules were made to be broken. Playing and experimenting with different techniques is not only a fun way to learn and become familiar with the many tools of the trade; it’s also a great way to discover new tips and tricks of your own. Just as a good producer knows when to let go of a project that just isn’t working, a truly great producer knows never to be afraid of making mistakes, to try new things, and basically just ask ‘what if.’
Mark works as a music sample producer at Dance Midi Samples, After producing many music sample packs, Mark now shares is years of experience with others through guides and tutorials while offering free midi samplesfor the next generation of producers.