Now, you are probably wondering why I used the term “songwriter” when it is much more commonplace to see the word “producer” when referring to someone who creates electronic beats, loops, etc. So, here’s why:
If I were to use a piano and my voice write a song and then record the instrument and vocal melody I would be a songwriter. At one point or another, someone got it in their head that the moment they use midi to write a song they are immediately crowned “producer” and the term was thrown around all willy-nilly like.
A producer is someone who, with creative vision, oversees a project (in this case a recording) and determines the course and direction through to completion. It’s commonplace for an artist to choose to work with a producer who develops a quality recordings and draws the best characteristics of the artist to the forefront. Or you might choose a producer who has experience working within specific genres. You might choose a producer you know can connect your recordings with a specific record label, or some other advantageous method of releasing, distributing, and promoting said project. This person might handle every aspect of the project, including selecting studios and musicians, setting a budget, and often must have some live or recorded sound engineering experience and songwriting skills themselves. Many songwriters indeed do act as their own producers, especially in home or small studio applications. However, these unique terms, like many others in the music industry, help to define roles. Understanding how these roles are divided will help you identify more professionals who are capable of helping you meet your goals as well as help you set reasonable expectations.
In this particular case study, I’ve been hired by Electronic music artist Data Recovery Project, DRP for short, to produce an upcoming album that contains thirteen tracks. One of the things I enjoy about working with DRP is that there is more of a traditional song structure with verses and choruses, rather than what you might usually experience with “house” music. According to some listeners, the result is a little something like Depeche Mode meets Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Data Recovery Project has some really interesting stories to tell about tragedy and robots, yet the music is upbeat and optimistic. The rhythms and melodies are created by programming software Maschine with the assistance of some additional plug-ins and the quality is exceptional. DRP’s songwriting provides plenty of character and tons of ear candy. There is something to enjoy for every listening preference from headphones, to cell phone speakers, to high-end studio monitors.
We’ve achieved this great sound mostly due to that really imaginative and creative songwriting, but we’ve also by means of some really simple and sound (pun intended) mixing practices that anyone can do from home.
If you haven’t already done so, I’d suggest purchasing some studio reference monitors. There are plenty of choices out there, but do your homework and buy something that makes sense for you. If you already own another set of speakers that is a perk because you might want to switch back and forth between one set of speakers and another to hear the difference. In any event, it is important to know that you are not doing your music any favors by listening to your mix through headphones only. Though I believe a good mix or master is the result of balancing between the two.
Less really is more. As much as I believe that, I also believe that “loud” is a relative term, and you should believe that too. We can measure decibels and compare specs all day long, but at the end of the day your brain is responsible for interpreting how soft or loud a source is, and that interpretation is affected by your environment and the frequencies of ambient noise that are vying for your attention.
We all want our music to be loud…enough to sound pleasant and enjoyable, but not loud enough to cause us physical pain.
Whether you have just started using a program or have been using a program for a while, when you start a new project it is important to set a baseline for how loud something feels as well as for how loud it actually is. For starters, find a relatively quiet place to listen. There may be a number of methods for a signal to be boosted unintentionally. If there are controls on your monitors set them to zero dB. Within your DAW software, there should be an output level and you will want to set that to zero dB as well. You will most likely have something resembling a mixing board and you will want to start with your faders at zero dB. I would also suggest that you check the individual groups and instrument inputs, and you guessed it…set them to 0db.
Start with your computer system volume as low as you can go and then slowly bring it in until you can just barely hear it. Do any instruments in particular stand out? For Electronic, EDM, and Hip-Hop or Rap, it’s fairly common for drums and bass instruments to take priority in a mix. What changes as you turn up the volume? Do any instruments seem to become clearer or more distinct while other instruments seem to get muddy?
You’ve probably guessed that this is related to EQ, but it has just as much to do with our perception of certain frequencies because some frequencies can feel louder than others without actually being louder. As discussed in previous articles, there are common ranges for certain instruments to fall into. Discussing drums can be a little like going down the rabbit hole when it comes to EQ because kicks are supposed to feel bass-y, boom-y, and punchy and cymbals are supposed to sound treble-y, shiny, and smooth. Toms and snare are typically occupying frequency that are somewhere in between these very scientific terms and their frequency ranges also overlap each other to a certain degree. A bass instrument is typically going to occupy a frequency range as low as the kick and probably no higher than the brightest tom.
Adding too much compression or limiting can also be a culprit of less than exceptional tone, and trying to put any amount of compression or limiting early on can potentially restrict some of your options later on. One of the most effective ways to bring up the volume of one effect is to reduce the volume of other effects, especially if they’re occupying similar frequencies.
The amount of digital samples and effects you have to choose from is truly infinite. When you are looking for a pleasing sound you probably find yourself scrolling through your choices and listening only to the default setting. Go more in depth with your settings and understand the nuances of what those controls allow you to do, and how those controls affect the frequency or frequencies of the sound. Also keep in mind any additional effects such as chorus, delay, or reverb, and how wet or dry they are. Very wet effects (especially time based effects) can severely alter the clarity of a sound.
These few tips will greatly increase the quality of what you’re doing. I would like to stress that working from home and working within a professional studio environment like Blue Room Productions is drastically different. There is no substitution for the experience of the engineers and producers or for the quality of the equipment and the proven history of the body of work that a studio has been involved in. Asking for professional help will not only increase the quality of your releases but will also increase your knowledge base as well. With the capabilities you have at home and the community you can build with your local recording studio, you truly are limited only by your imagination.
Daniel Warren Hill is known mostly for his contributions as singer-songwriter and guitar player for Alt-Rock band YellowTieGuy. He is also the owner of Alchemical Records, Sales Manager of VVT Amplifiers, and an independent Producer and Engineer with over seventeen years of personal experience in the music industry. For more information on Data Recovery Project, please visit www.datarecoveryproject.com