Music is made to tell a story, to paint a picture through sound. Your story may be about your last girlfriend, your amazing summer or simply that its time to fucking party. I truly believe that all stories ( music ) have there time and place to be enjoyed. However, there is one thing standing in the way of telling your tale..
What makes great music great? Often times, the message is clear, powerful and in your face. It hits you as soon as you listen to a clip of the track, this is the power of a great song. In order to harness that power however you NEED to have the cleanest message ( mix ) possible. I'm not saying that that a clean mix will make an awesome song, it won't , however without a clean mix the message will sadly get lost in translation.
Awhile back I passed the " 500th track " mastered mark, ( Thank you to all my amazing clients ) Along with the 1000's of tracks I've given feedback on over the years, I've seen some common issues over and over again. Luckily, most of these issues are easily fixed with a few simple tweaks. Here are five things that can help your current track get its message across.
1. Learn to love ADSR
First, what is ADSR
- Attack time is the time taken for initial run-up of level from nil to peak, beginning when the key is first pressed.
- Decay time is the time taken for the subsequent run down from the attack level to the designated sustain level.
- Sustain level is the level during the main sequence of the sound's duration, until the key is released.
- Release time is the time taken for the level to decay from the sustain level to zero after the key is released.
Now you may be reading that and having your eyes glaze over due to wording, but have no fear, the bulk of the benefit from knowing and using this is simple.
Often times, it seems producers will look for the fancy effect, the mega fattener of glory or just sidechain and hope for the best. In reality a few simple adjustments of the above would improve the mix tenfold.
This isn't going to be an in depth article on ADSR and what it does, as there are a ton of tech articles on the web that can explain it better then me, however I simply want you to tweak these things.
Next time you get a dope sounding synth line, check out this section on your vst and see how much it can drastically change the mix. It won't be an in your face, wow type of deal at first, but when you have a full track with tons of elements interacting, it will make a huge difference to the end product.
*Tip - Release times play a HUGE role in the groove of the bottom of the tune, to much release will be a mud bath and too little can leave the track weak and lacking power.
2. Stacking Compressors ( for no obvious reason )
Compressors, ohh the ever so popular meme topic. I'm not sure when compressors became so big in the production world ( meme wise ) but they did and that seems to carry over to the tracks as well. Listen, I'm not going to say compressors are bad ( they are awesome ) however, I feel people use them way to much, mainly due to the fact that they are going for " beatport loudness" and think mega stacks of these things is the ticket.
I don't want to seem anti compressor, I use them all the time. However, I've been told more times then I can count that someone is " stacking a compressor, a sausage fattner and a limiter on a bass line but its still not loud enough " . Situations like this puzzle me, until I remember I used to do that when I started as well. Your best bet more often then not is to use compression WHEN NEEDED, other wise as deadmau5 would say " you have a fucking volume knob" .
The problem lies when you start over compressing every element of the mix, you have this " wall of space" that just kinda hangs in the air. I don't even know what to properly call it, but it just has this, I used way to much compression sound.
Lastly, compressors are funny, because you may compress a single element, and when its solo'd it sounds better compressed, however always remember that its the sum of the parts and you can't have every single element, huge / loud / In your face , some things need to be tiny, thin and in the back of the mix.
*Tip - Listen carefully how compressors, esp the EQ Boost/ Compressor combos effect reverb. Reverb can make elements hang back in the mix some what and the boosting can bring it forward which sometimes is less then ideal and can cause fighting.
3. Do you NEED that layer, Quick listen/Loop Theory
Layers of elements, the key to making a beautiful track. The question always pops up how do I layer synths ? Well, there are many ways to go about it most involve EQing, proper sound selection and spacing within the mix. This isn't going to be a article on how to layer, this is going to ask a simple question...
Why do I have this layer ?
I often will find myself producing a track for a vocalist, or mixing for a client and find that my " newly added layer of awesome " just sounds cool because I heard it loop 500 times .
We've all had this problem, we listened to the track SO MUCH that whatever we add seems to make the track better. The problem is we keep adding and adding assuming we are making the track sweet. Most of the time, this is not only making the track more complicated ( in a bad way ) to the listener, its also hurting the over all loudness and impact of the track.
Simply put, having to many useless layers will only harm the punch , clarity and loudness of the mix, it makes your story hard to follow.
* Tip- Remember, there is a LOT of music out there, people will often listen to 5 seconds of your track if your lucky. In those 5 seconds you want to cleanly convey your message the best you can. If you have 10 layers of synths going all over the place, most likely your message won't be clean. There is a reason that " popular " main stream music is so catchy, its often simple and cutler free. You don't need to design your song to be simple or popular, but whatever message you want to get across try to do it as cleanly as possible.
4. Fully open Cut Off's
This is a rather simple concept, but HUGE. For years, I'd just max out all the cut offs, fully open them to get " more sound " my lack of ear training couldn't hear that I was just harming the mix and mixing textures that shouldn't/ didn't need to be crossing.
Often times, you will hear a sound that sounds ok, you open the cut off and BAM power. Awesome, now you do this 5 more times with all the synths because, power right ? Wrong, having all these cut off's fully open is most likely just causing un wanted ranges cross and blend. This leads to a mix not being coherent and the sounds not having any space to breath.
You want your sounds to breath, they need to sit in their own pocket. Having fully open cut off's on everything is blending the pockets into each other and the infamous wall o sound is born.
Now some of you may be saying, duh everyone knows this ! Production 101, well I didn't learn it at first and I hear it time and time again.
*Tip - This cut off problem, plus lack of proper eq will REALLY make your sounds blend, in a bad I have no idea wtf is going on in this mix type of way.
5. Sick Sub Bass Preset ?
This is something I wish someone told me on day one, I used to try to make these odd, crazy osc stacks of sub basses. I would layer sub basses, to get that sick commercial loudness. All I did was get this rumble of doom that took me a year to figure out what was causing it.
This may seem like a dumb point to bring up if you've been in the game for a long time, but simple sine waves, triangles, squares and even saws are usually the way to go for sub basses. I prefer to have a dedicated sub bass, if the track needs it. I don't like to have my main bass, carry the sub line 9 times out of 10.
By using these simple, single oscillator synths for sub basses, its much much easier to get the sub range clean , loud and punchy. If you haven't been doing this, it will be a HUGE help to your tunes.
*Tip- Obv, not every genre will have a sub bass line as the tail of kick drum may often carry the sub of the tune.
Hopefully with these tips, you can get your story across a bit cleaner . I know some of them are basic, but for those unaware they will be a massive help.
Like this article ? Let me know ! Drop a comment with what you'd like me to talk about in more depth in the future.