The Start and The Simple: Make Music the Easy Way
It starts at the bottom.
Music production today is a minefield. While it’s never been easier to learn how to do it, it’s also never been more confusing.
There’s no end to new tricks, techniques, and plugins that keep us distracted from what we really need to be focusing on, not to mention conflicting advice and information out of context.
If we want to improve and get things done, we need an approach that bypasses the bullshit. We need to learn to start properly and to keep it simple.
Don’t get me wrong – details matter. But even they can be handled with simplicity.
Trust me on this. I wasted years getting distracted and focusing on the wrong stuff before I’d learned how to keep it simple. Although I’m still paying for my past mistakes, I’m finally seeing some positive changes since learning this simplistic approach.
We’ll have a look at this concept in more detail and run through what I believe to be the most effective way to move through a tune while minimising obstruction.
So, how do we do this? We start at the beginning.
The right start will set you up.
Before anything else, we need to make sure we have a solid base to work from when starting a new track. This allows us to move forward with simplicity and maximise our progress.
This might ring a bell for you: you’re deep into a track and something feels a bit off. Maybe the kick and sub aren’t working together, or it could be that the intro doesn’t transition into the drop properly.
Whatever the case, you get to work, adding more plugins, more synth layers, more FX, etc. to try to fix the problem. Does it work?Rarely.
This a trap we fall into when producing. We turn our simple problems into complicated problems and in turn look for complicated solutions.
And because we’re looking in the wrong place, we almost never find the answer.
The problem has likely come about as a result of what I’ve decided to call “childhood neglect”. If you put together a rough loop and you completely skip over the part where you go back and refine it before you start mixing or adding lots of other details, you’re a bad parent.
To avoid this, take the time to get it right at the start. This is the part where you can use a lot of plugins and crazy techniques to get your sounds right. Fuck around with that melody until it works. Take another look at the instrumentation in that breakdown. Go back inside the synth to build a solid foundation for that bass sound.
Think of it like this:
Things should get simpler the further you get into your track. This is because you’ve done the bulk of the work early on, so anything you’re adding (or doing) after that is less important.
Please don’t confuse this with getting everything perfect before you move on – that will only jam you up. If you need to sketch out an entire rough version of your track before refining, that’s fine.
But be present with your track. Make sure you’ve resolved any issues that will destroy your track later on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bounced my sounds to audio before they were ready, and it’s almost never worked out for me.
You can determine your own approach to this idea of simplicity. If you’re making drum and bass, you can always do more resampling, so having your bass perfect at the start might not always be necessary.
Your version of keeping it simple here might be to ensure you’ve got enough bass weight in your sound, so that no matter how much you twist it up, it’ll still be heavy.
It might be the opposite if you’re producing a clean pop song. The vocals need to be recorded really well if they’re to sound good in the final mix. You get the idea.
Do what you need to do to make sure your track grows up as well-adjusted as possible. It means it’ll be better equipped for any challenges they may face in future.
A quick note on tweaking.
Of course, we will always need to tweak things, no matter how far into our track we are. I’m not trying to say we can cut that out completely – that’s just part of the game.
What I am saying is that the more time we spend trying to get things right at the start, the less trouble you’ll run into in later on.
If you can drastically reduce your tweaking time as you get further into your track, there’s more chance you won’t ruin it, you’ll finish it and you’ll actually like it.
Ok, so we’ve got our bass sounds right, our arrangement tight and our hats nice and bright. We’ve shown them the necessary love early on. Let’s now look at how simplicity can help us as we move forward.
This section won’t need to be as long as the last bit, because we’ve already covered the most important idea – see what I did there?
Now that we’re starting to get further into our track, we might need to start adding some details.
We should be able to breeze through this, because we’re not relying on the quality of these details as much as would have if we hadn’t taken the time to get the big stuff right. We’ve laid a clean foundation and making decisions about details should be a lot easier.
It’ll take far less processing to get that pad sitting behind the bass and drums now. Honestly, in a lot of cases, some basic reverb and a low-cut filter might do it.
That’s insanely simple. If our bass and drums still sounded like shit, we’d be trying to EQ the pad in all kinds of strange ways to try to make it fit, maybe adding unnecessary FX to turn it into something it’s not. It’s a total waste of time and a fucking headache.
Keep it simple.
This works for building an intro, breakdown or build-up, too. No need to create a whole lot of new material.
You’ve got great source sounds, so you can pluck bits straight from the drop, add some basic FX and drop them into other sections of your track. Bing bong! You’re most of the way there.
Lay the foundation, add easy details and move forward with simplicity.
Let’s go to the mixing stage.
Now, I’m no expert on mixing, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that if you’ve followed the simplistic approach so far, your mixing session is going to be a lot easier.
Put your fancy plugins away – you won’t need them here.
Firstly, if you’ve done the work to get things right in the earlier stages, you’re probably not going to need to spend too much time on this.
Aside from the years of practise and experience, the pros might be able to mix a song in an hour because everything leading up to that was executed well. The guitars might need a bit of simple filtering. The kick might not need anything. Everything is already working well together.
Secondly, your sounds will be so good that you’ll be able to make not just simpler, but better mixing decisions. If your track sounds like shit, your vision is blurred and it’s harder to know what to do to make it better.
Often with modern electronic music, producers mix as they go, at least somewhat. As Nik from Noisia says, “the mixing is also the music with this sort of stuff.”
If you’ve figured out how your sounds are going to sit together (stereo field and frequency spectrum) as part of the composition process, the mixing has essentially already taken care of itself.
Another note on tweaking.
Tweaking during the mixing stage is both incredibly dangerous and necessary. Be careful and make sure you know why you’re tweaking. There’s a difference between changing the tone of a sound and creating space for other sounds.
That being said, the mixing stage might require some fancy stuff – just be aware of what’s happening. If you’re using too much “weird shit” while mixing, something is probably wrong back near the starting line.
So, thanks to our hard work in the beginning, adding details and finalising our mix has been much less of a headache than we thought. Only one thing left to do.
Well, maybe not. But this isn’t uncommon.
Seriously, if you’ve done everything you can leading up to this moment, a limiter might be all it takes.
You’ve worked hard to get your sounds sitting together nicely. Your basses are round and clean and full. Your drums punch but don’t hurt. Your ambience transports you. Do you really want to fuck all that up with mastering?
Of course, if you let a professional mastering engineer loose on your track, they’re not going to fuck it up. But if you’re doing it yourself and all you need is a bit of loudness, why not just use a limiter? You might only hurt your mix by colouring it with a bunch of plugins on your master buss.
As always, keep it simple. This is how you got to the mastering stage in the first place. With the same mindset, you’ll get past it, too.
I hope this has given you something to think about for your next track. If you’re struggling to make the progress you want, this could help.
The right start and a simple approach could save you a lot time and even more heartache. That’s not to say you won’t still run into trouble along the way, but this will absolutely set you up for conquering those demons when they arise.
Put the fancy stuff to the side for now – focus on what will move you forward, not what keeps you wondering why you can’t.
If you enjoyed this and want to learn more about the best approaches to improve your productions, you might like The Magic Button Is In Your Ears. It’s all about why ear training will move you forward quicker than anything else.
Thanks for reading!