Developing a functional workflow is THE most underrated part of the music production process in my opinion.
A good workflow gives us the frame work to let our creativity run wild, while allowing us to move confidently forward by making decision that build on one another, and not questioning their validity unnecessarily later down the line.
As such, a good work flow also means knowing when to make which decisions. For example, because mixing builds on the process of arrangement, a piece of music should ideally be arranged, before it is mixed.
In business, “time is money” as they say, which I would rephrase as “time is creative capital”, in the creative process. The more time we spend questioning decisions, the more subjective we become, and the more subjective we become, the less we will be sure to have made the right decision. A good work flow allows us to work fast, maintaining a quasi objective state of mind as long as possible.
Furthermore, a well placed decision early on gives direction to the process, thus making all follow up decisions much easier to make. As a consequence we work faster, are more confident about our decisions, and we will make better music.
On the other hand it also means that, if we are indeed unhappy with a decision later down the line, figuring out when this decision was made, and why we are not happy with the result, will be very clear, making it much more straight forward to avoid the same unproductive decision in the future.
I would even go as far as saying that a good workflow is more important than using certain tools. If a tool makes the process more difficult, no matter how expensive it is and how good it sounds, we should get rid of it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every decision we make needs to be set in stone. If we get a burst of inspiration about the arrangement after the track is already mixed, the idea needs to be tried out. It is simply important to keep in mind that this might require the track to be mixed again, as the presentation of the material may need to be portrayed differently.
So let’s look at a few examples, why they are good to adopt, and when they could feature in the creative process.
Prep work: getting rid of distractions for a relaxed state of mind, allowing uninterrupted creative flow:
There are hundreds of these workflow tricks out there. Depending on which part of the process you focus on and what your strengths and weaknesses are, some may be more useful than others. Sonicscoop has a great article on some more work flow tricks, that my peers use.
Ultimately though, the more of these we discover for ourselves and the better they are integrated into a full process, the faster and more effectively we will work and the better our music will sound and feel. I guarantee it.
A spectrum analyzer is a bit of a double-edged sword.
While learning to use them you might discover certain “truths”, only to realize later that the same “truth” just ruined your mix. I’ve certainly had my ups and downs with them, but I’ve come to appreciate what they can do, and when it is better to simply ignore them.
My analyser of choice is Voxengo SPAN. I like it because it’s usable, and it’s free. If you want to jump right in, you can download my Span preset Download my Span preset.
First, let’s set it up right. I find a window size of 8k samples suitable. This gives adequate resolution in the lower frequencies. I then set the AVG time knob to around 200ms which allows me to comfortably follow the movement of the display. I also set the metering to “k-20” as this represents the levels I mix at. Finally I add a second spectrum that holds the peaks behind the moving spectrum. It can be reset by clicking the display.
Frequency spectrum analyzers give a very technical representation of a sound, and, much simplified, all they show is the volume level of a particular frequency at any given moment in time. As such I’ve found their functionality to also be technical, rather than musical.
For one, they are great at showing you how low in frequency a sound actually goes. In many cases sounds will have energy in the low octaves that simply isn’t required. In fact, retaining this low frequency rumble will eat up space in our low end that our kick and bass could occupy, thereby reducing their punch and definition.
Snares are often candidates with unnecessary rumble. Solo your snare and look to see if the spectrum analyzer shows any movement below about 150Hz. Chances are you won’t need that energy. Similarly, low bass notes often extend way below 50Hz, especially from synthesizers. Since most sound systems can’t reproduce these frequencies anyway, it’s pretty safe to remove them.
Spectrum analyzers are also great for spotting ugly resonances in a sound. Where these come from will most often remain a mystery, yet they are easily visible as peaks on the display that are substantially higher than the peaks around it. Reducing or completely removing them often triggers a strong “ahhaaa” effect, making the sound more open, comfortable and simply less annoying. Untamed resonances can wreak havoc on all sorts of sound processors and the oh so important balance question.
The final use I have for the spectrum analyzer is much more a musical one than the first two and thus needs to be exercised with caution. That is re-balancing individual harmonics of a sound. While the goal here is completely dependent on the particular scenario as well as your taste and I therefore I can’t recommend what you should do, it is quite possible to use the spectrum analyzer to see how the individual harmonics in a sound are balanced against each other. Sometimes an instrument somehow feels uncomfortable or is difficult to mix because a particular harmonic is to loud, or the balance of harmonics is otherwise unfavorable. Dipping or boosting certain harmonics with an EQ can then be used to great effect.
The one point I’d be very careful with is judging the quality of your mix by its overall frequency balance in the spectrum analyzer. A great mix is one that supports the emotional statement of a song in the most effective manner. For one, this says nothing about the actual sound quality of the mix, but more importantly it certainly doesn’t say anything about its frequency balance. Everything is allowed and nothing is forbidden, as long as it triggers the right emotions. It is sometimes mentioned that you should aim for a “flat” frequency balance but, while some great mixes do in fact exhibit this behavior, it is by no means a hard-and-fast rule. In any case, mixing such that the spectrum analyzer shows a “flat” response will most likely not be the right frequency balance for your song.
Mixing music is like mixing cocktails.
When you’re mixing a drink, there is a limit of how much you can put in the glass. Once you’ve filled it up to the brim, and you find that you haven’t added enough vodka, there is no way to add more without spilling the drink. (OK, of course you could just take a sip, and then add more. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re the bar keeper, and you can’t really experiment with quantities in front your client.)
The same principal holds when mixing music. Actually it holds true for the entire creative process.
Let me explain why.[someimages img=”10-cocktail.jpg”]
In music, everything is relative. In the same way that you can’t dictate an absolute volume for your music, since the listener will simply adjust the volume to their liking on the playback device, there is no absolute front to your mix, no absolute left or right, no absolute punchy kick drum, and no absolute huge drop.
In all of these examples, if taken to their extremes, their ‘absoluteness’ will not hold up. This is because of the simple and important fact that there is no point of reference.
If all our elements are all the way at the front of the mix, we will not perceive them as being in the front. If everything comes from the left speaker, the listener can simply turn their head to face that speaker and now, for them, that speaker will be front and center. If we hear a punchy kick drum, we can’t tell how punchy it is, until we compare it with a different kick drum.[head]The point is, in music, just like when mixing cocktails, everything is relative.[/head] If we want a vocal that’s all the way at the front of the mix, we have to give it a point of reference that is located far, far away.
If we want a huge drop, we better make sure that the part leading up to it is quite in comparison.
If we want a track to sound extremely wide, we need to make sure that the elements in the middle are narrow in comparison.
And because there is natural limit of how far we can go (the brim of the glass), the balance between the two contrasting elements is of utmost importance.
Too much vodka is too much vodka. Getting the mixture just right, while staying within the confines of the glass, is what makes a fantastic drink. It tastes good, and gives you a good buzz.
So how do we know that we’ve added too much vodka? Or rather, when do we know that our kick drum is punchy enough, or has too much punch for that matter?
That’s where referencing other music comes in. A good reference track is a track we know well, which we’ve heard on many different speaker systems, and which we know translates in a certain way. It can tell us, for example, if our punchy kick is in the ball park, or if we’d like to make it slightly punchier. It can tell us where our upper, or lower limit lies. It can also tell us if our mix has enough definition, has too soft, or perhaps even too hard transients, or if our master bus processing is choking the entire mix. (Although I recommend staying away from master bus processing all together anyway)
So the next time we find our mix is lacking something, let’s think of mixing cocktails, load up a good reference track, figure out if our glass is already filled to the brim, and then decide if we can add, or if we should be taking away.
In music, everything is relative. It is through contrast that we can express strong emotion.
If you are DJ these days, chances are you are a producer as well.
As we all know it’s almost impossible to be one without the other in today’s electronic music business (5 Reasons Why Producers Make More Successful DJs). However, if you are just starting out, you might feel very self conscious about your productions, because you feel that they don’t hold up in comparison to the tracks you like to play.
The thing is, for the novice producer and the industry veteran alike, playing your tracks in the club is just about the most important tool to get feedback on your production.
It’s just so easy to get lost in a production and consequently loose any objective way of evaluating the actual music, its emotional impact and functionality. We easily end up focusing on some intrinsic detail, while completely blending out the big picture. But it is the big picture we should really be focusing on! The best way to stay objective, and to hear the music, and not the sound, is to listen to the track outside of the production environment. A DJ set at a club offers the perfect opportunity for this. When playing a track embedded in the flow of a DJ mix, our brains are automatically conditioned to hear the track in the context of other music and a state of emotional connection, rather than technical quality. And it is in this state of mind that functional and dysfunctional aspects of a production become blatantly obvious. Questions like: “Is a particular part too long or too short?” “Does the break happen when it needs to?” “Is the emotional energy and impact delivered on the drop and the following groove?” seem to almost answer themselves.
Together with the feedback from the crowd, this very focused type of emotionally embedding your own track within other tracks has a very distinct way of uncovering strengths and weaknesses in the music.
Of course, how, under the unhinged conditions in the DJ booth, you then make sure to capture that feedback, is a whole other matter. I imagine a small text block and a pen will come in very handy.
The second main reason to play your own tracks is that fans want to hear the productions of the artist they admire. Because of today’s strong connection between DJing and production, gigs have long evolved into more of a concert environment. DJs are known for their particular sound, and fans want to experience that sound in a club atmosphere.
So the next time you are struggling nailing down a track, and have a DJ gig lined up, take the opportunity, play it, and gain some serious insights into your production.
It’s a common misunderstanding that the levels in the DAW determine how loud your record will ultimately be.
In fact, how loud we perceive the music, called loudness, and the technical levels of the material, have less in common than you might think. As it turns out, and I am sure you have experienced this yourself, two records played back at the same technical level can differ in loudness quite a bit.[someimages img=”13-Mobile.jpeg”]
The simple explanation is that loudness is created in our brains rather than through any actual technical characteristics of the material. Loudness is, in effect, how loud we perceive the music rather than how technically loud the material is. It is determined through the frequency content of the material, where the energy sits in relation to our brain’s “frequency curve”, the balance of the mix, the dynamics of the material and the development of these throughout the song. Loudness is, in many ways, also a measure of how good a mix is. A mix with high loudness tends to present the material in a very effective way, which is why it is so enjoyable and desirable.
The big pitfall in this regard is that it is generally assumed that high loudness can be achieved through high technical levels. We demand absurdly high levels in mastering, hoping to compete with the songs we are referencing, when in reality what we want is higher loudness. In the process, we introduce undesirable distortion, compromise both micro and macro dynamics, negatively impact depth and width, and generally speaking, reduce the enjoyability of the music.
Now when we get to the real world, the listener actually seeks a consistent experience of loudness, such that a sequence of songs will appear to them to be played back at the same volume. They either compensate for any perceived difference in volume between songs through the volume button on their playback device, or playback volume is adjusted automatically by the device itself. In effect, any differences in technical level, or loudness, between songs become almost irrelevant. What does remain however, is the compromise in audio quality that occurred when we tried to to push the levels during the mastering process. In a way, what we tried to achieve has turned up on its head. Instead of gaining high loudness, we got stuck with bad audio quality. The track that was carefully mixed for high loudness, however, and conservatively mastered to maintain all the finesse in the music, now sounds clean, full, deep, impact-full, in one word: enjoyable.
So what can we learn from this?
First and foremost, there is no point in pushing the technical levels for loudness sake during any part of the production process. In almost any scenario this will introduce compromises that do not benefit the listening experience in any way. Watch Ian Sheperd’s video on the automatic mastering service “Landr” for a great example of what compromised audio sounds like.
Second, we should strive for high loudness, not high levels, when our aim is to make high impact music. Again, Ian Shepard gives a simple example on how to manipulate loudness, rather than levels.
Third, as the final loudness of the music is not linked to the technical levels, we can start thinking about how to use the levels in our DAW constructively. This is what gain staging is all about.
There is one final very interesting aspect to all of this. And that is that as listeners, we are actually intuitively very good at judging if we achieved high loudness or not. If we are listening to “healthy” loudness, we tend to reach for the volume knob with the desire to turn it up. In fact, you’ll want to turn it louder and louder. And if the material was treated right, your heart will thank you for it with a jump of joy. If however, you listen to a song and wish to turn it up, but always end up thinking: “That was painful, let’s turn it down again”, you are most likely listening to a very compromised kind of loudness. So next time you are enjoying a good listening session, pay attention to what you do with the volume knob. It might just tell you more about the music than you think.
Every creation of a piece of music eventually reaches a stage where the focus needs to transition from song writing/production to down mixing.
Every jingle, rock ballad, film score, sing-a-long, pop song and club banger comes to a point where bringing everything together, ensuring competitiveness and translation, and simply put, maximizing the emotional impact of the song, gets the highest priority. With the availability of high quality mixdowns to just about everyone, there should no longer be any more excuses for releasing something not quite hitting that standard. If you are serious about your work, people will expect it to be mixed down properly.
At that point, there are really only two options. Either you mix it down yourself, or you pass it on to a professional mix engineer. Of course, giving away a track to be mixed by someone else is no easy decision. Perhaps you have been slaving away over this piece of music for a long time. It’s your baby. When listening to it, a world of emotional potential unfolds in your head. How could this other person possibly grasp the complexity of what you are trying to achieve and make it happen?
Let me tell you, those are all valid thoughts. And in fact, the main priority for a good mix engineer is to understand this relationship between an artist and their creation, to nurture it and bring it to fruition. They let the emotions in the music speak for themselves and let them dictate the decision making. It is through this that a good mix engineer will have the skills to take that creation much further than the artist ever imagined.
A healthy relationship between an artist and a mix engineer is one of trust. The artist knows what the mix engineer is capable of and that they always have their back. The artist knows that the mix engineer’s ego is applied in the right way, being honest about making decisions and giving feedback, and being 100% dedicated to fulfilling the tracks potential. The mix engineer on the other hand knows that they have this trust, giving them the room to try ideas and realise the vision for the song the best way they can.
So when should you seek such a relationship?
The most obvious reason is that you can’t get the mix right yourself. This may be because your skills aren’t up to scratch, because you lack the time, or perhaps because you are so intimately involved with the music through the production process that you have lost the objectivity to make the necessary decisions at mixdown.
Similarly you may feel that bringing a second pair of ears to the process would benefit the end result, even though you are perfectly capable of making a solid mix.
Some people also just can’t warm to the process making every mixdown feel like an uphill battle.
What ever the reason may be, in my opinion, hiring a mix engineer will always lead to more creativity, more fun in the process, higher confidence, and in the end, better music. I think it is well worth the investment, and I hope by now, you do too.