I was thinking today about how there are some pretty basic production tips that I wish I’d taken on board earlier with my music. If you’re anything like me, sometimes you have to hear the same tips and advice repeated a few times before you start thinking, “Hang on, if I actually did this, changed my approach a bit, rather than just keep writing tracks the way I’m used to, I might actually get better.”
So make the effort to try something new or different with how you approach your productions every now and again – it may make things more difficult at first, but it’s the best way to improve.
Here are 7 such things to try – pretty simple, but often remarkably challenging to remember when you’re caught up in that moment of creative inspiration:
1. Parallel compression
Using compression effectively is fairly easy once you get your head around the principles of what it does to your signals, and it’s the simplest way to give your sounds some of that elusive pro punch.
Moreover, getting punchy drums is really key in any genre these days, be it rock, techno, dubstep or drum & bass. Even in modern movie soundtracks, you really want those huge orchestral percussion hits pummeling the audience with the force of an explosion!
Parallel compression is one technique that can help here. It sounds complicated but it’s not – you simply duplicate your drum track (or any other type of track), and then heavily compress the duplicate, leaving the original uncompressed. When you play them back together, you get the powerful ‘breathing’ dynamic sound of the compressed version, whilst still retaining the detail, brightness and clarity of the uncompressed version. The best of both worlds…
Incidentally, another term for parallel compression is “Motown compression”, because part of the famous old 60’s Motown sound was created by using parallel compression with an EQ inserted right before the compressor, tweaked specifically to highlight the vocals. So whether you’re inspired by Marvin Gaye’s Motown classics, or other compression fans like Dutch drum & bass heroes Noisia (you should really be listening to both in my opinion), give parallel compression a try.
2. Sidechain compression
If you’ve listened to any electronic or dance music over the past few years, you’ll recognise sidechaining immediately – it’s that pumping, breathing sound where it seems like the drums are punching rhythmic holes in all the synths and pads. Sidechaining is guaranteed to give any track more groove, as generally the more dynamic interaction you can create between the elements of your track, the greater the sense of a really tight, driving whole.
It’s achieved basically by compressing one signal with another – so for example with my tech-house track, I set up a compressor to act on the synth pad channel, but the compressor is triggered not by the synth pad sound iteslf, but by the kick drum track. So when the kick drum sounds, the compressor squashes the level of the pad right down, creating the characteristic ‘sucking’ effect.
3. Correct and ‘incorrect’ uses of reverb
Generally speaking, you would normally set up maybe two or three different reverbs as send effects (FX Channels in Cubase, Aux Channels everywhere else) when you start a project, and as you create and mix, route some of your individual tracks to one or another of these. I believe it’s important to always leave at least one sound completely free of reverb though, to give a sense of where the ‘front’ of the mix is.
However, things can get much more interesting when you use reverb plugins as inserts on your However, things can get much more interesting when you use reverb plugins as inserts on your channels. My favourite trick for creating really haunting ambience pads and hit effects is to insert a reverb on a channel, bring up a huge ‘cathedral’ or ‘church’ preset and set the wet/dry balance within the reverb plugin to 100% wet. You’ll be surprised how you can turn really uninteresting source samples into cinematic gems.
Games composer Jesper Kyd is a master at combining traditional orchestral techniques with unconventional/modern sounds – have a listen to his recent score for Assassin’s Creed 2 for an idea of what a difference effective reverb can make.
4. Set up your speakers correctly
You can spend all the money you have on great sounding gear, but if it isn’t set up correctly in a half-decently prepared room you may as well not have bothered. This is because you can only operate your gear effectively based on what you can hear in your particular listening space – so if your speakers are bunched up in a corner of the room, you’ll probably find the bass is boosted quite significantly. This is great, until you come to mix your music based on this bass-enhanced sound – when you play your mix back somewhere else, you’ll probably find that there’s no bass at all because you compensated for the ‘colouration’ of your room sound/speaker setup.
Make an equilateral triangle between you and the speakers
I’ll be covering how best to set up your home studio in more detail in a future article very soon – but in the meantime, get your speakers as far away from the corners and walls as you can (within reason, even a few inches can make a big difference), and try to position them so that there is an exactly equal distance between the left speaker, right speaker, and where-ever your head is when you’re listening/mixing (making an equilateral triangle). You’ll find you can make more accurate decisions about panning and respective levels across the stereo field.
5. Get minimal – Less Is More
It’s easy to get carried away when you’re inspired, and it’s great to explore every idea you get for a particular track. However, the flip side of this is you then have to know how to edit your ideas and only incorporate the best ones into the final mix.
In the end this comes down partly to experience – knowing what will sound good because its worked for you before. But more fundamentally it comes down to having a clear idea of what you want the track to do, why you’re making it in the first place. Once you work this out, and it can be tough sometimes to realise what the real reason is, you’ll find it becomes obvious what should stay and what should be left on the virtual cutting room floor.
A good rule to work by if you’re not sure then, is “if in doubt, leave it out”. Always work towards creating more space in your mix, and make the few elements that are already there even better rather than piling on more stuff. Clutter and a lack of focus is a sure-fire sign of an amateur mix. If you don’t agree, listen to your favourite music and count how many different elements there are going on at any one time. See?
6. Variation and dynamics
Incorporate builds and drops, quiet and loud sections, even changes in tempo from slow to fast (most live bands naturally speed up very slightly in the chorus, for example, and this definitely has an effect on the soaring feel of some choruses). Maintain the listeners interest by making the track a living thing, constantly developing and morphing.
Also, the best way to make something seem really huge and loud is by contrasting it with something very quiet and intimate-sounding. This is the trick behind the best breakdowns in all forms of dance music: anticipation created by switching from hard and loud to quiet and sparse, and back again. Orchestral music and movie soundtracks are great sources of inspiration here. I mean, look how ahead of his time Mozart was.
7. Compare & contrast
You’re like me, you’re constantly comparing how your music sounds in relation to your favourite artists.
I’ve found the best way to set this up usefully is to have a couple of my favourite artist reference tracks actually running on their own ‘Reference’ track within my sequencer, that I can solo on and off with one click – that way, I can make super-quick A/B comparisons between my mix and the ball-park sound that I’m trying to stear it towards. Remember, always start with the goal in mind…