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You can never have enough tips and tutorials when dealing with music production, so I put together a list of 5 tips you can start using right now.
1. Master Your DAW
With all of the software options available today, it can be difficult to choose which digital audio workstation you should use. Sonar, Cubase, Ableton Live, Bitwig, Reason, Pro Tools - the choices seem endless but also complicated.
I have been a faithful Cakewalk Sonar user, all the way back to when it was called "Cakewalk Pro Audio". The reason why I have stuck with Sonar over the years is because it's simple to use and has a straightforward workflow. When Ableton Live grew in popularity, I briefly checked it out but didn't like the way it was set up. I have nothing against Ableton, but I just prefer the workflow of Sonar.
But having all these DAWs to choose from is actually a bad thing too because it can cause you to spend too much time playing around with software and bouncing back and forth between DAWs, instead of working in one DAW and mastering it. It's like anything that you spend a lot of time on - after a while you end up being a master at it, and soon you start to show other people how to use it.
By mastering your DAW, you won't be spending so much time tinkering with the settings and trying things out, or testing certain features. Instead, you will know exactly how to do XYZ, which will greatly speed up your workflow, and you can get your beats recorded and mixed much quicker.
2. Always Subtract, Never Add
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received when it comes to music production was way back in 1994 when an audio engineer spoke to me about mixing. "Always subtract, never add", is what he said.
At first I didn't know what he was talking about, but then I realized that in mixing, it's always best to take something out of the mix rather than add something in. This is because if you continually add sounds, effects, gain, etc. to your mix, what do you think will happen? That's right; your mix will be too loud, "muddy", or just too noisy.
One of the issues I have with today's mixes is that everything today seems to be recorded very "hot". When you have many loud tracks and you try to mix them together, the last thing you want to do is make them louder.
But that's exactly what audio engineers are doing today.
When mixing, you want to keep all your levels at the zero point or below, and your master channel just slightly into the red. The problem today is that engineers, beatmakers, and producers are just trying to get the loudest of everything, using gain and lots of compression. The result? A very "hot" mix that is way different than mixes from years ago.
Having a loud mix is not the only issue of course, because when it comes to Hip Hop production, we all tend to over-do it with the low-end. 808 kicks, sub bass, and everything in between is what we're after, and if you are constantly adding to your mix, that low-end will end up "muddy", which is sort of like the reverse of having a loud mix. Except in this case, your low-end will be "hot", which can easily lead to distortion.
So when you're mixing and trying to get all the levels right, don't keep bringing up the levels or add more effects. Scale it back and keep it simple.
3. Use Your Ears
I have been using Maschine since 2011, and I must say that it has changed everything about how I make beats. Before Maschine, I would go through a lengthy process to set up my drum loop, then import samples, chop them up and arrange them until I had a decent-sounding beat.
The problem? I was always looking at my computer screen.
Not only was my beatmaking process lengthy, I wasn't using my ears to make beats. This is why Maschine and other controllers or standalone hardware units are so good for beatmaking, because you don't have to stare at a big computer screen. By using your ears, you can literally turn off the screen and just make music, allowing your ears to guide you. Sure, Maschine has two small screens on it, but that's nothing compared to a computer monitor.
When I was making beats just with my computer keyboard and mouse, it almost felt like my beats were robotic, predicted, and routine. I would line up my drums at pretty much the same points each time, and my samples would be lined up at the same spot in my loop. My beats sounded okay, but it was the process that I hated.
Now I'm able to make beats and not have to look at a big screen. My ears are what guide me and it takes me back to the 1990's when I started making beats with just a drum machine and sampler. No computer, no screens, just hardware and my ears.
4. Garbage In, Garbage Out
Sometimes when you're mixing, you can do everything right and still have a subpar-sounding mix. Why? Because the sounds you're using to begin with are no good.
This mainly happens when you use samples because like a lot of Hip Hop producers, you might be getting your samples from vinyl records, or any source for that matter (as long as it sounds dope!), which can be a problem later on because you can't really fix it no matter how many effects you have in your DAW.
I had this problem years ago when I found a really nice piano sample. I chopped it up and the beat sounded so smooth, but when I went to mix it, I just couldn't fix the lo-fi, "tinny" sound of the piano.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Now in a lot of instances, Hip Hop producers will actually WANT to use samples that don't sound good and have a really gutter sound. But whether you intend it or not, you have to remember that there's not much you can do in the mix.
To solve this issue, your only choice is to make sure you always sample from a good source. Avoid anything that is lo-fi or has lots of hiss and crackle. Even if you have an effect that can clean up dirty audio, the sample still won't sound 100% because it's been processed.
Stick with clean audio sources.
5. Save the Effects for When You Mix
During my production phase, I lay down loops and ideas, even including effects in my beat. However, when it's time to move my beat into the mixing phase, I strip out any effects that I have because I want to add them in the mix itself, from my DAW.
It's directly related to point #4 that I just made about using a clean audio source. For example, if you use a sample that you lifted from a vinyl record, audio CD, etc., then you're getting everything that's included in that audio. Don't forget that it's a stereo sound that's been mixed, so if you grab a snare drum, it could have reverb on it, which means that it will be in your beat now. So in that example, I would suggest you not use that snare drum since it's been processed already.
The same can be said for your own beat, even if all you're using is clean sounds from a synthesizer. Save the effects for when you mix. The biggest reason why you should do this is that if you don't like the effect, you can always just remove it! You can also change it, alter it, or do whatever you want, and all of it is non-destructive, so your audio won't actually be affected at all. It's like you're just playing with an invisible layer on top of your track.
There is nothing wrong with using effects during your beatmaking phase, but always remember that when it comes time to mix, strip out the effects and re-introduce them inside of your DAW.
Further Reading About Music Production