So first of all I am just going to list what I would personally consider the top ten mistakes I would consider the most common to electronic music producers. After the list is a wee write up offering a solution to each mistake. Its an in depth post but I wanted to make this a valuable experience. So here are my top ten mistakes…..
1) Never finishing a song
2) Trying to copy other artists too much
3) Not eq’ing properly
4) Bad volume levels
5) Not sticking to a groove
6) Over using sample packs and presets
7) Neglecting music theory and composition
8) Lack of faith
9) Worrying about mastering and compression rather than creating a solid mix in the first place
10) Relying on millions of external VST’s
I have been producing music a long while and have been through a long process in making all of these mistakes over and over again and I will discuss all of these problems and what can be done to prevent them. As an Ableton private tutor I teach many students of different experiences and witness first hand many young producers making these same mistakes repeatedly and it has been my job to identify these mistakes and bring and end to them through positive progression.
Never finishing a song
So i’m pretty sure that this is the number one most common issue for a lot of producers. This is a problem for most of my students and also I have noticed some fellow producer friends even with fantastic knowledge in sound design and expensive studios still aren’t yet finishing tracks.
So how do you fix this…
Understanding the structure of whatever music you are making is very important. So for example, in Pop music the songs are usually only 3 minutes or so and have a very traditional format: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus, outro. There are exceptions always, of course. With electronic music each style can vary in its structure. So depending on what music you are writing I recommend to listen to your aspiring producers and analyse the structure to many different songs. If you don’t have an idea of how to create a start, middle and end then you will remain in the hyperspace purgatory of not being able to finish a track.
One other tip I would like to suggest for making it easier to finish your tracks is to not get stuck on details. From your first hour as an electronic music producer you will very quickly realise how easy it is to get stuck for hours on the silliest thing. The computer puts oneself into a trance like state where you can be processing a kick drum for seven hours and realised you haven’t really got anywhere. In my personal experience, when I make music the expression of that song hasn’t much of a lifespan. What I mean is that my unique emotional expression in that moment I am making a piece of music wont be the same for weeks to come. Therefore to not get stuck on details I like to try and finish a basic skeleton of a track before going back on details. So the theory is that the main emotional expression is on the page, safe and unmoving. Then you can spend as many hours as you like on details without worrying you still have a whole track to write. This is also a much faster way to finish tracks because if you get stuck on details the chances are you will never finish it because your too focused on a small area and will lose perspective of the track as a whole. This method can also mean that you can move forward to a new section of a track without totally finishing whats behind you. So as soon as your happy with the basic groove you can leave the details until you have moved forward enough until you have finished the entire skeleton of the track. This makes workflow super fast and you can have the bones of the track finished so you can work on the details knowing the finished product will have emotional consistency.
Trying to copy other artists too much
So this is something that is seriously going to be a massive danger to your success if you don’t take time to think about it properly. To begin I would like to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with having influences and without meaning too, all our music can be described through terms of genre. There are a few producers for example I am heavily influenced by, yet I am still making an enormous effort to make music that is unique. This is not for unique’s sake but I believe that when your not completely copying someone your music will reflect your own personal uniqueness which will consequently make you stand out and your productions will actually have a more profound influence upon the world. Therefore in my opinion if you are not doing this then you are actually doing yourself a disservice and you will pay the price of that disservice to yourself. I cant quite remember the actual quote word for word but I will never forget something “Mr Bill” said in an interview for something, was what happens when someone try’s copying another artist too much is that you end up making a crappier version of something that exists already. Although this quote is amusing it is a serious danger with production that you waste your own unique difference and dispose of your own potential. Its that potential that can create personal success and also help the world in its never ending journey of creation. For me this is quite a profound idea that actually I am only really starting to really understand. In the past I have been very genre focused and now I am really trying to not let anything get in the way of me and the creative process. In doing so I think now I am making the most refined productions I have made in my journey so far.
A huge influence for me and many other producers is Aphex Twin. This is something he said that reflects his absolute mastery of the notion put forward above.
“I only make music for myself. Its a relation between me and making music and there’s no other factor that interrupts it at all, so press and what anybody else says is irrelevant.”
Not eq’ing properly
When i first started out as a producer a common mistake I was making was in not removing bass frequencies from anything other than the bass and kick drum. In not doing so my mixes were burdened with muddyness. So to understand this further I will explain what Eq is. Eq stands for equalisation and is the process of tone control through filters. This is an extremely important factor in you getting your track mixed well. So the human hears can hear roughly from 20hz-20000hz. Sub bass ranges from 20hz to 60hz, bass ranges from 60hz-250hz and then you have your midrange and high frequency bands 250hz -20000hz. So the first important mistake is to not cut out the low frequencies of all tracks other than the bass and kick drum. One thing to add here is there the bass and kick drum also need to have there own place in the bass spectrum. For example you wouldn’t have a really subby kick working parallel with a subby bass, just like you wouldn’t have a subby bass working with a subby kick. Both elements need to make space for the other. In addition to this everything in the spectrum that covers the kick and bass should be cut out in all other tracks. So far example lets say my kick drum and bass are covering the bandwidths from 20hz to 200hz, then I would make sure that all other tracks in my song will have an eq that cut all frequencies in the spectrum. You do that with a low cut (high pass) filter on the EQ and it looks like this. It is cutting everything up to 200hz.
This would be considered corrective eq’ing. When you make sure to apply this you will find your mixes will sound less muddy. Be sure you are to check all your sounds because even though you might not expect it even something as simple as a hi-hat might have a full spectrum of sub and bass frequencies ruining your mix and all you to do is make a low cut and suddenly your mix will open up. Another useful method of corrective eq’ing is notch filtering. This basically means you can cut out problematic frequency in a particular sound by notching out that particular frequency with the corresponding band. It might be an irritating hum or an unwanted harmonic. I commonly use this method to notch out some low mids of my kick drums to create space for other elements in the track and I find can really smarten up a kick drum. That looks a little like this.
Another method of equalisation is called creative EQ. This is the process of using the eq to enhance or subdue the tone of any sound. So you may want to boost some bass in your kick drum, brighten up your hi-hats, create more midrange crunchiness in your guitar track and so on and so forth. Don’t be afraid to use your eq to craft the tonal character of your sound but be sure to use in moderation. Do not force tone upon a sound.
Bad volume levels
When you finish a mix your track needs to sit at -6db before sending for mastering. This headroom allows for the mastering engineer to make you track sound professionally “loud” without distorting or ruining the dynamics of your music. A lot of beginners and even more experienced producers I see trying to get the loudest mix possible as if this were the aim. This is a common and terrible mistake. When you get to the point when you are playing your music on big rigs at a festival you will realise the speakers are making it loud not the fact you made it really loud when you were mixing. Actually when you have a mix that sits at -6db with lots of head room and once a decent mastering engineer is finished your music will sound brilliant really loud and ironically the guy who made his track loud in the first place and now has a rubbish master, his music will be unlistenable on a big system and you wont be able to turn it up without hurting everyones ears. So important lesson here is make sure once your track sits at -6db.
So now I want to elaborate on this. So to get your track at -6b you cant just make your track and even though its all in the red you turn the master down to -6b. That is still going to give you a bad quality mix because all the source volumes are too loud and will be creating distortion and general rubbishness in sound quality. First thing i recommend with getting great levels of volumes is to start with the kick. Depending on what music your making of course but certainly with a lot of EDM the loudest track in the song is the kick drum. I start by having the volume of my kick drum at around -12db. Although this seems quite a low volume, by the time I have all the other elements of the track playing it lifts the overall volume to -6db. The next loudest things after the kick drum should be the bass. The bass for me always sits a little under the level of the kick drum. Not by much by just enough to be considered underneath. After the bass everything works its way down in level and not up. Something I like to do is by organising the tracks in my DAW (Ableton) in order of volume. So track number one at the top is the kick, below it is the bass, below that usually percussion or drums, followed by melody and chords and then below that lastly effects and foley or whatever details are left. By doing this my tracks always look really neat and tidy and improves workflow. I hope by following these simple but extremely effective volume instructions you are able to improve your mixes.
Not sticking to a groove
So this made my list just because of how common I see this with students showing me their work. Is something of course I had a problem with in the beginning also. So what I mean by “not sticking to a groove” is that the theme or memorability of the track is non consistent. The worst case example would be a track with 14 different melodic themes, 5 breakdowns and a million different drops of totally different emotional feel and timbre. This is bad because it makes your track totally unmemorable and also is usually structurally retarded and therefore can be an almost annoying listening experience. To learn how to stick to a groove start by listening to music and consciously analysing the structure and use of themes. Notice how there is a consistency in professionally made electronic music. Regarding structure there isn’t a right a wrong really but there needs to be some form to make it palatable, some memorable theme or idea. You will have an enormous understanding of this if you are someone who has studied classical music. The use of themes and structure has been an art form that has developed as far back as the use of wooly mammoth ivory flutes 45000 years ago so I would say the best way to develop yourself regarding this subject is through musical analysis. Don’t just listen but study the music of others to become aware of the structures, use of melody. Every genre has its own unique way of using motifs or melodies and to become a master yourself you should study the already existing work of other masters in the field. Just remember less is more and just try to stick to a groove, don’t change into a new section every five seconds.
Jon Hopkin’s, Open Eye Signal. This track is a great example of a producer holding a memorable groove with familiar chords and rhythms being used. The only changes in the song are subtle builds and slight dynamic changes. Nothing too crazy, very minimal but extremely effective.
Over using sample packs and presets
A friend of mine showed me a Deep House track on Beatport many years ago and told me this producer had used just loops from a sample pack he had recently bought. We opened the sample pack in Ableton and to our confirmation we were able to recreate that track in less than five minutes just putting loops together. I mean the exact same loops, not a recreation with similar sounds. This was a sad realization and in my opinion the producer missed the fun of making music. This is an extreme example but overuse can also mean to take a complicated sound or preset and using it in your song. If you are serious about music and want to eventually create your own original music it is best to rather rely on sample packs and presets to actually learn music production to the point where you can create the sounds appearing in your minds eye. One thing that can be useful about presets is that you can study them and learn how to recreate the patches yourself. By doing this you will build an ever growing knowledge of how to create sounds with synthesizers. What I see and hear a lot with my students showing me there projects is that because they are obviously beginners the track reflects that but then there will be this really cool sound out of know where and badly placed. So even if you want to use intelligent sounds from sample packs it will sound really obvious because all of the other music you have made reflects your little experience and the sample will stick out like a sore thumb. The same applies when using presets for the same reasons. This is why I recommend to start from the beginning trying to make your own drum beats, and synth patches and using sound design to create your own interesting sounds.
Neglecting music theory and composition
Some lucky people have wonderful ears and can without any music theory whatsoever pick up a chosen DAW and become super epic producers. This is an exceptional situation and will not apply to everyone. Without a doubt in most cases learning a little bit about music theory and composition is going to give you a serious leg up in the world of sound. Some of my students have had breakthroughs with just learning something as simple as the structure of a minor chord and in learning so able to express themselves better musically. I personally came from a musical background and for me my experience studying music has been infinitely useful in giving me the most tools possible in expressing myself musically. A good way to look at it is that music is the expressions within us made external and made able to share with others. As we become better musicians/producers we need to develop the tools we need to do this. The more I understand about harmony, the better I can create chord structures that reflect the complex emotion inside of me. It is very useful for example to of been an instrumentalist before becoming a producer because you already familiar with melody, harmony and rhythm. A lot of music producers I know and know of had either a classical or jazz background or used to play in bands or something. This gives people a great foundation when producing electronic music. This is because its still music and even though electronic still uses conventional rhythm and tonal techniques. Learning an instrument can be a brilliant way to learn more about music that can directly translate to usable techniques in electronic music production. The internet is a perfect tool to start yourself now learning basic chords, harmony and interesting rhythms.
Here are some examples of electronic music producers that obviously know there music and listen how beautifully it reflects in there music.
Anomalie – Velours (You can see his using Ableton to power the live show :–)… )
Mr Bill & Hypnagog – Swish (Mr Bill had experience playing guitar in bands and Hypnagog had classical and jazz up bringing)
Jon Hopkins – Emerald Rush – Classical Background,
Lack of Faith
One thing I have noticed with a lot of people is that a conflicting factors of their own progress is their lack of faith in themselves. Whether it be to a lack of confidence or a fear of failure this a legitimate concern for them. The danger here is that if you don’t believe in yourself your actual actions will reflect that and in doing so you will not achieve your potential. The trick here is to work hard and never give up. Its cheesy and cliche but should never been taken for granted. One thing to not let happen here is to compare yourself to others and get depressed about how good your competition is and then give up before you even try. I am sure everyone at some point has felt like this but we must remember that it takes our musical role models decades of true passionate voyage and endless suffering through failure to get there and achieve there potential, have you done that yet to justify your giving up? If the answer is no then maybe you can be a bit more motivated. Another thing that can inhibit your faith in yourself is fear of failure. This applies to human achievement in general but to succeed in this lifetime you will have to fail, multiple times. In fact you need to expect a complete thrashing. It is harsh but there is only success through failure, just like there is no life without death. It is literally directly through failure in which we learn the perfect custom deigned lessons to guide us to succeed in our chosen fields.
Worrying about compression and mastering too much
So I see a lot of people complicating the situation when it comes to finishing a song. I am member of some Ableton groups and reading a lot in forums about music production and after a decade and more in doing so observed a lot of people who are literally beginners obsessing over compressor settings on the master or what to put in there “master chain” Something I would like to put out there is that mastering is literally a completely separate field of studies to music production. Obviously there is common ground but I would recommend unless you want to learn mastering to leave mastering to the mastering engineer. If you are a beginner you don’t have to worry about mastering. Your job is to get a song with a nice mix and sitting at -6db. I personally don’t put anything on my master channel, not even a limiter because if there is a track that possibly peaks I put the limiter on just that channel. The idea is to make a clean as possible mix as possible. Less is more, and simplicity is key. The most simple way you can fix a problem is usually the best. If you follow my advice above on volume management and correct eq’ing you cant really go wrong. I recommend of course to learn about compression, limiting and other all other aspects of music production but use in moderation. Simplicity is key always and don’t burden yourself with an excess of worry on technical details. But also remember technical details are important but just use in moderation.
Relying on millions of external third party VSTS
When I first started making music I was kind of obsessed with gathering as many plugins as possible as if the more I had the more possibility of diverse sound I had. But more than ten years afterwards I find myself with the exact opposite belief. I now am trying to master the Ableton stock plugins plus Serum and Native Instrument’s Massive. I am now extremely familiar with the these plugins and rather than being extremely average with millions of different VSTS I am becoming extremely proficient in my chosen few. I think that maybe a lot of people also rely on the effect of a plugin rather than just learning how to make that sound using straight forward production methods. The reason why this can be unprogressive is that you will not learn as much and be reliant on external fancy plugins that make the desired sound for you.
I hope you enjoyed my list and solutions for the problems. If you want to learn more about music production then why not head over to my Ableton Education page and learn a bit about my private tutoring program :–) Click Here