Nearly all songs you create are going to start off sounding a bit bland. Most great songs have pretty humble beginnings. The challenge for newer producers is that they find it difficult to bring their music to the next level, so they are often stuck on bland. This isn’t a failure on your part, as you’ve actually taken your music further than a lot of beginning producers do, but now you are recognizing the big difference between your music & the music you love.
In this post I’m going to share with you things that you can look at to greatly improve the way your music comes across. Don’t try to cram every idea I share into your song. Just experiment with what works and put aside what doesn’t. Usually the changes needed are pretty subtle, so avoid going too over the top with any 1 technique.
Strip it down / Build it up – One thing you want to investigate if you song isn’t inspiring you is if your song is too simple or too cluttered. Simple grooves can be infectious but you’ve usually find if you listen closely there are added textures, minor variances or background ambience that helps to hold things together. Then again if there is too much going on in your song, the hook of your song will get lost in a mess of sounds that aren’t improving you song.
Find the groove and build everything around enhancing that – We a song of mine isn’t hitting the way I’d like it to, I will mute everything & build the song from the kick & bass all the way back up. Every new sound should add to the groove of the song. Everything should move together to enhance the beat & groove. If you add a sound that seems to clutter of diminish the groove, mute it and move to the next sound. Once you’ve got everything that assists the groove playing & for the most part mixed, start bringing in those problem tracks & see if they are really necessary. Maybe it’s just a matter of lowering the volume, or maybe sidechaining it to you kick to give it a bit more movement with the groove will help it fit your song better.
Ambience – Ambience & background sounds can make a dramatic impact on a song that sounds too clean. These background pads, or street noise or just a random sounds looped in a rhythmic way can be tucked way back in the mix and still help set a great mood for your track. I use this a lot of bring a clean & boring track to life.
Change the sound, move the sound – Sometimes those problem sounds are either in the wrong place or the sound itself is not working. Try moving your part forward or backward 1/16th note at a time & see if it creates a more pleasing groove. Also try raising of lowering a sound by an octave. Maybe it’s just that your sound is cluttering a certain frequency & will sound better at a higher or lower register.
Transients – This is huge. Transients give your track punch, definition & a sense of clarity. If you’re sounds aren’t cutting through the mix, enhancing the transient can often greatly improve your track. If you don’t know what a transient is, it’s the click at the beginning of a drum sound, bass sound, stab or lead sound. It doesn’t take much to give a sound a noticeable impact, so don’t overdo this. There are several approaches to improving a sound’s transients. You can use a transient shaper. There are some great free ones as well as paid ones. If you are an Ableton user, there is a transient shaper on the drum buss effect. You can also copy the midi of a track to a new midi track & use some white noise or a short hi hat or drum sample. Reduce the release, sustain & decay of the sample so it’s very short. Then turn the volume all the way down & slowly mix it in with the original sound until you notice an improvement in clarity.
Layering & Octaves – Sometimes the issue is that your song doesn’t quite sound full enough. The sounds are there & adding new parts take away from the overall track. In this case, there may be a part the you can duplicate & raise or lower by an octave. Roll off the highs or lows accordingly, so it doesn’t clash with the original part & then mix it in just loud enough to have an impact. You can also duplicate a synth track & change the sound to see if it give the sound more interest.
Sidechaining – Sidechaining is an excellent way to make sure your kick & snare/clap are cutting through. This can be subtle or more extreme, depending on your style of music. Often sidechainng your hi hats, pads & background sounds to the kick can give the whole song a bit more groove & movement. You can also use this as a mixing technique, sidechaining less important sounds to more important ones, so they get out of the way when the more important sound come in.
Reverse & stretched sounds – If your song doesn’t seem to have enough interest & spice to it, try duplicating a track & converting it to audio. From there you can try reversing sounds, doubling the speed, halving the speed or stretching a sounds to bits. But messing with some sounds & cutting up the good bits, you’ll have some interesting parts to add a bit of flavor to a part of your song that might be lacking.
Extra perc, impacts & non repeating sounds – Similar to the above tip, added little sounds that only play once or twice in your whole track can spark interest if your brain is getting a bit bored by a repeating groove.
Return tracks. saturation, distortion, dirt, reverb, delay – To give your song more movement & interest, try creating several return tracks with reverb, delay, saturation or something to add some grit to your track. These can be automated to enhance certain sounds or drum hits throughout the track, making things sound more organic & less static & loopy.
Defy expectations – Sometimes the best thing to do in a track to spice it up is something unexpected. Change a chord, or the rhythm of the groove & then find your way back. You can also try lengthening an 8 bar part to 10 or 12 bars. The goal is to inject something a bit unusual. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, you won’t be able to imagine the track without it.
8 bar rule, 2 bar rule – Keep in mind that the brain can listening to the same beat for about 8 bars, before it wants something new to reset interest for the next 8 bars. This can be as simple as a drum fill or crash cymbal, but you want to keep changing things up, while adding or removing parts. Also listen to 2 bars of your drum groove. Does this groove alone keep your interest, or do you need another subtle element to hold things together better? Make sure to add slight changes every 2-4 bars over an 8 bar pattern, this will keep your initial groove from getting to repetitive sounding (unless you are going for a more hypnotic vibe).
Reference tracks – I can’t say enough about the importance of reference tracks. They are like a guide to where you want to get to production wise. Just remember, listening to a reference track lowered by 15db so you aren’t tempted to crank the volume of your track. This can help you with mix levels & the number of elements your song needs, as well as inspire you for where your song might go next.
Automation, minute shifts & evolving sounds – If you want your song to remain interesting from start to finish, automation is everything. Just a tiny amount of filtering or slight changes in pitch & decay of your drum sounds can really bring a lifeless song to life as well as a bit of automated panning. By automating a couple parameters on a particular instrument, at different speeds, every time that sound is played, it will sound a bit different. A little goes a long way but the overall impact of doing this to several sounds in enormous.
Humanize – Last but absolutely not least, humanize your groove. Don’t lock your parts to the grid. Add some groove quantizing to give your song a bit of swing. It doesn’t take much for your whole track to sound more alive. Try grooves on your hi hats, to get an idea of how the groove is being affected. Once you find something that sounds good, apply it to all your drums, bass & percussive sounds so everything works together to support this more humanized groove.
Hopefully this inspires you with some fresh ideas to take into a song of yours that is feeling a bit flat or lackluster. I believe 85% of songs are salvageable, so have faith that there is a good chance you can turn your loser track into a winner with a few tweaks.
If you are benefiting from these posts, you will absolutely love my 2 bestselling books:
The Mental Game of Music Production
The Process for Electronic Music Producers
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If you are looking for personal guidance with your music production or Ableton, you can set up a free chat with me to go over exactly what your best next steps are to create the best music of your life. If it seems like a good fit, we can move forward from there. https://musicsoftwaretraining.com/private-coaching
Happy music making!