5 Production Ideas For When You’re “Done”
You’ve been developing a song for weeks or months (sometimes even years) and as a diligent producer you’ve slaved away over little tweaks, countless demos, and failed sonic experiments; you have scribbles everywhere about vocal automation, bass volume, panning, and reference mixes; your Gmail has reached capacity from of all the demos you’ve sent around; you desperately want to just be done, and let the song fly free.
Today I’d like to suggest you take a deep breath, put your “done” song on hold, and trek into a nearby wilderness to live off the land and meditate. Ok, you probably don’t have the luxury to opt for the latter, but you can definitely disconnect from the mayhem of song production, even at the stage of “done.” Put simply: take a break.
I’ve developed the following 5 ideas for when I return to a song after that break. They help me reboot productively and with intention, and ultimately save me time. You’ll notice that they’re interconnected, revolving around the basic theme of putting your music first (your ego second). Be forewarned that I can’t guarantee these ideas won’t send you back to the torture chamber of seemingly endless production. But, they might save you from releasing music you thought was “done” simply because of the number of logged production hours. Enter IBG’s First Law of Music Production: total production time does not equate to song quality.
Idea 1: Less is more
I often get hired to do final production on songs or albums, and a common problem I see/hear when I open the session is way too much stuff. I get it, I’m 100% guilty of having done this in my own music. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re improving our song by adding a synth layer, a pad at -39 dB, some trendy sound design, a drum fill, a tuba solo, and so on. More often than not, we should be subtracting.
The solution: most good music is simple. Now, you may be thinking “what a putz, I’m a maximalist, and my favorite album averaged 493 tracks per song….” That may be, and maybe you really are that good. But for most mere mortals, producing or listening to a couple things that are awesome trumps dozens of things that are good—or at best, difficult to pick out because the production is so dense.
I should also note that there’s a difference between the number of tracks in a session and the number of ideas. For example, it may be that it took 15 microphones to correctly capture your horn section. But, if they were all playing the same horn stab at the top of every measure, it counts as one idea, not fifteen.
The Muting Technique
I’m not a dictator, so try it yourself. Open up your session and save a copy! Then, play your song back while muting “non-essential” tracks or even group/buss tracks. Of course, “non-essential” is subjective, but you can probably skip muting the vocal, kick, snare, bass and rhythmic synths/guitars. Certainly fair game are your miscellaneous percussion tracks, subtle synth layers, backing vocals, secondary guitars, pads, delays and reverbs (see idea 4). Ask yourself, what could be removed without destroying the tune? What is unnecessary? If I had to, what could I live without?
Over the years I’ve found that muting even just one or two elements can “open up” the song. Sometimes this means that suddenly I imagine a listener easily hearing what I was trying to convey (finally!). Or, sometimes my beat instantly becomes much more danceable, and the vocals cut through. It’s nice to assume that someone doesn’t have to listen with expensive hi-fi headphones to feel my music.
Of course I have to be honest that one person’s “too much” might be another person’s “statement.” The difference lies in intention. This is where you have to be honest with yourself, and maybe face some hard truths.
I’ve seen producers (again including myself) pile stuff onto their mix for a variety of subconscious reasons. The most common being that, at its core, the song just isn’t that good, and you’re covering up a lack of quality with smoke and mirrors. Sure, maybe your track isn’t terrible, but let’s face it, when your friends hear the demo you can tell they’re being polite. So, an internal voice creeps in that says, “if only I slid those vocal harmonies back by 16 milliseconds it would be a hit!”
Don’t get me wrong: details do matter. Those inner voices could be pointing out legit things to address, but most likely they won’t matter much if the overall picture is uninspiring. Unfortunately, a truism for us producers is that we pour a lot of time into micro edits that nobody will hear. Most people listen to a song for 10 seconds and if it doesn’t grab them they move on.
In other words, if you suspect you’re spending too much time/energy cramming in more and more elements in an attempt to save your track, you may be better off writing a new one, or identifying skills that need improving. You might have to face some bitter possibilities: maybe you’re not ready to be a producer and a singer/rapper; maybe you need a course or two on songwriting; maybe your understanding of arrangement is weak. Maybe your song or performance just sucks. Don’t worry: all those possibilities have solutions.
Another phenomenon is the artist/singer/producer hiding behind their sounds. This can be for various psychological reasons (and I’m no psychologist). Personally, I’ve often felt that the more I simplify my music the more “exposed” I feel. I get a bizarre feeling that if people heard my drums clearly (with no bells and whistles to hide behind) they’d realize I was a fraud. This is nonsense, but that’s the human mind. Making bold, uncluttered musical statements takes confidence, and sometimes producers need to work on that.
To summarize, put your ego aside, be confident, and put the music’s well-being first. The next time you find yourself in never-ending production mode, make sure you’re doing it for the right reason.
Idea 2: What Stands out?
Let’s go one step further, and find that one element that makes your song unique. A great tune usually has something that is memorable and “pops.” This is sometimes an element that would be considered a little risky; at other times it’s just an expertly programed or performed part. Furthermore, this can range from subtle to obvious—it might be a vintage ‘80s orchestral hit, a beautifully recorded mandolin, a wickedly grooving bass line, or a sound effect. Of course, you want everything in your mix to be top notch and purposeful (see Idea 1), but focusing on a singular “wow factor” element in your song can help you finish a song the right way.
This idea explains the importance of vocals in so much music. No human voice is the same, and when a singer has the right attitude, emotion, and performance skills it can be magical. Think about this: how many Youtube tutorials are on “How to sing like [insert iconic singer]”? Even if there were tons of them, they would benefit very few viewers.
Let’s get into some examples. Go ahead and listen to “The Hills” by The Weeknd and decide for yourself which element, part, or moment defines the song.
Of course, The Weeknd is an amazing vocalist (we already knew that), the lyrics are provocative, and all elements of the production are tight. But, to me it’s the “scream,” first appearing at 0:42, that defines this track. It not only builds epic tension that is released with the start of the chorus, but it’s an uncommon trope for the genre. It would have been a cool song without it, but the scream puts all the other elements (especially the haunting lyrics) in a new context, and a dark R&B/trap song goes from good to great.
Now let’s look at a throwback, “It Feels So Good” by Sonique. You may not know this one if you weren’t clubbing in 2001:
Good sounds, but nothing spectacular—pretty standard electronic production for the era. Lyrically, I was never blown away. What’s amazing is the vocal performance, which effortlessly weaves in and out of different timbres. Of course, the vocals work in conjunction with the writing, especially on the chorus where the harmonies perform a call and response. I’m sure it had been done before, but the effect of multiple voices in counterpoint with a lead vocalist really piqued my ears in 2001, and it still does today.
A more subtle example is “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell Williams. Take a listen on headphones.
The issue of ripping off Marvin Gaye aside, there’s no denying the danceable groove (tight percussion and in-the-pocket bass), and convincing falsetto male vocals (not easy pull off!). However, what strikes me is the breaking glass sound that occurs on beat 10 of each 16 bar phrase. Because it occurs predictably, I would argue that it is not a “sound effect” per se, and more part of the percussion (especially given its volume). Ok, it’s slightly stupid and arguably unnecessary (see Idea 1) but it lends the song levity, while evoking a party so good that glass is regularly breaking. Plus, it updates the production from sample-interpolation status to recognizably modern. Percussion that’s not percussion? Bold and memorable!
Long story short: when you come back to your song after the prescribed one-week break, think about what element, if any, in your song is totally unique, awesome, or risky. If you come up with nothing, that’s ok—there’s always tomorrow—or experiment with Idea 1 to see if anything badass is waiting to be uncovered.
Idea 3: Could A Preset Work Better?
This is a tricky one that can hurt egos. I know—as someone who teaches sound design privately, and loves dialing in my own synths and/or effects, the idea that I could have gotten a better result with a preset is hard to admit. “What, I spent 14 hours on these compressor settings!”
Of course, maybe you already use lots of presets, in which case you can probably skip this section. Personally, however, my musical ego doesn’t want me to ever use presets, and I know I’m not alone, especially since in some spaces presets are definitely considered wack. But, in my opinion there’s nothing wrong with using a straight-up preset, modifying one slightly, or making your own sounds from the init.
Why use presets?
The thing is, as you near the “done” stage of production, songs commonly suffer from overproduction (it happens to us all). Things can start to sound murky from the EQ phasing; parts that once sounded crisp are now stale; reverbs and delays are fighting each other like a baseball brawl. At this point, you can clear the aural cobwebs by saving a copy of your song, and experimenting (again) with simplifying, this time with presets that might more precisely capture the sound in your head.
How to best use presets
Mute select MIDI tracks and on new tracks audition instrument presets. You’ll probably be deep in “demo-itis” at this stage, so it might be next to impossible for any new patch to make sense. Here you will have to muster some willpower to clear your head and move to the stance of “objective listener”—this is a production muscle that takes time to develop. At this stage I try to remind myself of a desert island mind-set—“if nobody else ever heard this song, which sound would I honestly choose?”
Another practice that will aid you in quickly auditioning presets is regularly reviewing your preset library. This might seem obvious, but it’s harder than it seems. Many times I’ve known that somewhere in one of my soft synths there is a sound which would work—the trouble is I have no idea where it is. So, I recommend occasionally flipping through your presets, intently listening, and jotting down your favorites and how they could be used in your music. If your DAW or instrument allows creating a “Favorites” list then that is even better!
For me it helps to imagine that no-one is ever going to hear my song, so I just need to find the best sound for my own enjoyment. Again, this boils down to putting the ego in check, and song quality first. If someone else nailed the sound, go with it! There’s very little chance anyone will call you out on it.
Idea 4: Less Reverb?
This one could definitely have been included in Idea 1, but I thought it deserved its own discussion given that reverb is so ubiquitous. As you’ll see, it also could have been in Idea 2. Keep in mind that the issue of reverb is subjective, and controversial depending on what genre you’re producing: reverb is inextricable from the sound of certain genres.
In any case, the basic principle here is that you’re probably over using reverb. Like many effects in our toolbox, once we learn that they can help a song we subconsciously assume that the more we use them the better. Unfortunately, we need to keep an eye on this tendency.
There’s no denying that reverb is fun, sounds cool, and gives depth/dimension to an otherwise flat sonic image. I think of reverb as a “story teller” effect, since it puts sounds in imagined places, whether small tin rooms or large stone halls. A whisper directly in your ear evokes a very different feeling than a whisper floating through a cave.
The problem is that reverb can easily cloud our production and/or mixing process. There are a myriad ways this can happen, and an equal number of ways to fix it. Consider the following tips in order avoid drenching your song in undue reverb.
- Mute your reverb returns tracks and consider the result. Does your mix actually have more impact and clarity? Or is the vibe gone?
- If muting your reverb returns was overall positive, but a little drastic, lower their faders all the way down, and slowly bring them up during playback. Stop bringing up the return faders right when you notice a difference (however small).
- A la Idea 2, if reverb needs to be prominent, consider how you can most effectively make it one of the central elements. This might involve trimming away other elements so listeners can clearly hear your reverb in all its glory.
- Regardless of how steps 1, 2 and 3 went consider placing an EQ after your reverb plug-in. High pass the muddy frequencies (you might not have been hearing that area anyway), and perhaps low pass the super high treble range. Most reverbs have a built-in equalizer, but I find that a dedicated post-EQ is usually more accurate.
- Finally, consider side-chain compressing your reverb returns to any number of elements in your mix. This will commonly be your kick, but vocals, snare or synths are also great candidates. This will let you use plenty of reverb, while letting key elements loudly pop through.
Again, the overall idea here is to use reverb for the right reason—if a ton of reverb serves your song and makes it better then that’s the way to go. If you are just used to hearing a swamp of reverb, and/or you’re hiding behind it, then it might be time to turn it down.
Idea 5: Trendy/cheap sounds that you’ll regret?
Have you ever gone back to your old tunes and winced? Maybe your track had a gratuitous lyric, a trendy sound (remember how everything in 2012 had a bass wobble?), or just a crappy kick drums that you should have nixed. To a certain extent this is unavoidable, but it’s always nice to minimize what we will later regret.
Now, I’m actually overall pro “trendy.” Without trends musical styles don’t get put on the map; they’re just one person’s musical experiment, however intriguing. At one point, rock n roll was “trendy.” This opened up a musical conversation where people (inadvertently or consciously) created new variations, and the sound morphed in ways few would have dreamed. Could Chuck Berry have ever imagined death metal?
That said, I’ll reiterate a point: put your music first, and do things for the right reason. For example, as of right now in 2018 it’s still common in electronic music to have a big, loud instrumental “drop” as the climax of the song. If you’re honestly inspired by that trope (i.e., the fist-pumping drop), especially if you think you have something new to say with it, then by all means go for it. However, if you’re putting drops in your song because you think you have to, or you just want to fit in, then I’d rethink your approach.
So here’s a short list of things to watch out for as you approach the finish line:
- Cheap, low quality samples. I’m hardly the first person to say this, but it’s worth saying again that music production is “garbage in, garbage out.” Find the best samples you can from the start, and only proceed if they don’t need a mountain of processing. This means if you’re almost done with your song but you notice that your hihat has 18 effects on it, replacing it with a new sound might be worth a try (see Idea 3).
- Trendy musical ideas: again, this isn’t always a bad thing, but just make sure it’s for the right reason, and you do it well. Don’t be the rapping 58-year old guy trying to be cool (although, A for effort).
- Are you trying to compensate the lack of quality sounds with loud-as-hell mastering? I’ve noticed this tendency in both my own music and others I’ve assisted. Keep in mind that as of 2018 there have recently been big to moderate hits that are fairly low on the LUFS meter. “Mask Off” by Future, “Panda” by Desiigner are two that jump to mind as putting vibe, quality sounds, and performance ahead of hyper-compressed, LOUD mastering. (This should probably be its own article.)
And with that dear readers I leave you to get back to music making… or take that one-week break I recommended at the outset. I hope these ideas will help you clean up your tracks efficiently and professionally, with your art’s best results in mind.