Five easy steps to improve your songs

Posted in Production, Recording, Songwriting on März 13th, 2011 by EO-Manager

Apart from talent and good ideas for songwriting, you can improve your songs and recordings quite a lot using a handful of things that have proven to be working. A new song often leads to  overexcitement and urge to finish everything as soon as possible. Unfortunately that very often leads to mistakes you can avoid.

When you work in your homestudio it is necessary to change roles from musician to recording or mastering engineer. But it also means you have to do different tasks with different results. So when you finished the song as a musician, it is always a good adea to leave it for a day or two. When you come back with fresh ears – be critical. Is the hook line really good? Are parts of the songs only copied and pasted? Is the singing the final answer? As a „producer“ it is your task to check all of this – and change it to the best possible result. Arranging the song is sometimes hard because you might have to delete the solo you and the band have been working on for hours. But if it is necessary, don’t hesitate.

Also, arranging a song does not mean to generally add things – quite the contrary, if you ask me. Arranging means that a song has to be thoroughly carved out of the raw material. Often it means a reduction or deletion of all the unimportant and unnecessary stuff that clutters the nucleus.

Sometimes you hear songs with good potential – but awfully bad arrangement. Example: check, if your songs have multivoicings or choirs in your production. Listen to „pro“ songs: you will often find exactly that to underline the singer or the chorus. At the same time you find only drum and bass parts during the verse (with a few sparse musical effects on top) that accompanies the singer. Most songs also have a catchy melody (which is often used right at the start of a song) to draw your attention. If you say it’s not important, ask yourself: what part of a song would you whistle? The rhythm? The bassline? Piano? Certainly not.

Ok, here are my top 5 that improve songs almost automatically:

1. catchy tunes – as said before, find a melody. You can even start with it when writing songs. If you don’t start with it (like me), try to spend some time on it to make it sound well thought. It will definitely pay (and often helps the singer, too).

2. work on the drums – yes, that’s right. Even if you are not a drummer. Take extra care on the production and sound of the rhythm section. They will carry the song. If your drums sound weak, the whole song sounds weak. You will find lots of professional producers in the web explaning in detail why and how.

3. less is more – don’t always add…reduce. It might be hard sometimes to strip down a song, but  it helps when finding the „soul“ of the song.

4. spread the instruments – again something that can be found in many amateur recordings: all instrument mixed into the middle. Be brave, pan things. It will not only open up the song, it  also leaves space for the really important parts. What belongs in the middle? Voice, bassdrum, snare and bass. That’s all.

5. don’t overproduce – that speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Too much compression squeezes the life out of songs. Too loud productions kill it, too. Also, make room for each intrument. Not every instrument needs a full range mix between 20hz and 20 kHz. Trust your ears, not your computer. Try to find a niche for every instrument and leave enough space for the lead vocals. Vocals are the most important part of a song.

I know, there are millions of other things that help producing and mastering, but this is how I always start my „reality check“. If you have more tips how to improve songs – let the readers know by commenting. As always you are most welcome.

Tags: , , ,

Beginner mistakes in mixes

Posted in Recording on Februar 1st, 2011 by EO-Manager

When mixing music you have to keep in mind a lot of things. Even though (or maybe because) I mixed a many songs I found no golden rule or formula for everything and certainly no handbook or article replaces personal experience. But a couple of mistakes happen all the time. This article can’t cover all aspects of the mixing process. If you are really into mixing I strongly advise to buy pro books about it or attend courses. Here are my top ten.

Ok: first of all when you’re mixing you’re mixing, not mastering. Be absolutely clear about that.  Primarily it means equalizing, effecting and levelling all the different tracks to one stereo output track. Here is tip number one: do it with fresh ears. Don’t mix immediately after all tracks have been recorded. Leave it alone for a night.

Two: beginners tend to do everything at once and quickly. Record a track, immediately mix it afterwards, tweak it, compress it, engineer it – NO! Don’t. Leave the track alone and record the next. Nothing else – no fx, no limiter, no eq. You will do this later. Concentrate on recording – that’s enough to do.

Three: drums are NOT one big unit. If you want a pro sound make sure each part has a different channel, eg. bassdrum, snare, toms, hihat, cymbals and mix them seperately. If you record analog drums you have to tweak with the microphones, distances, even drumskins until you have your sound.  Don’t let the drummer argue with you! (I know what it’s like, I AM a drummer). If you record drums from cds or drum machines it is easier, because very likely these are already optimized. If they are perfect – leave them perfect. You don’t have to mix everything just because!

Four: Listen and read. You need to have an idea what kind of sound you want to end up with. If you don’t know it you will mix yourself to death. Have your favourite CD nearby and compare. Make sure the CD and your song have the same loudness level. Louder seems better (even when it’s not) compared to softer. Do A/B comparisons. Make sure you get as close as possible to your favourite sound. Learn about frequencies, waves and eqing. Read before you start so you have a „cookbook“ of the things that never change and you do automatically (e.g. cut rumbling frequencies) Buy Bob Katz’s book „Mastering Audio“.

Five: Clean your tracks from all kind of things you don’t want, like rumble, breathing, pops and other acoustic dirt. If you don’t do it, it will be enhanced and amplified with each step of the process. Yes, I know, this is dead boring but unless you are a mega producer with mega bucks and a couple of studio slaves (commonly know as „junior engineers“) who do that for you… it is part of your job, sorry.

Six: Everybody does it a little different, but my method is: when mixing, reduce levels rather than amplify. Which means starting with all faders  on zero db. If things are too loud, reduce them. If everything is louder than, let’s say the guitar, reduce everything but the guitar. Or record the guitar again, if possible. Do I use compressors and limiters during the mixing process? Well, sometimes. But the reason is we do the mastering ourselves and I know what has been compressed. And I accept that we will never get to that mastering pro level. But when you give it to a pro mastering studio, just don’t do it. Why? Because even the best engineer can’t reverse it. Plus they have better tools for compression than you . Guaranteed.

Seven: when you do everything from playing the instruments to mastering, it’s not a bad idea to have a plan, a sort of how to do what when. Have a workflow: record basic tracks (dr, b, gt or piano, vox) – overdub with more instruments or reduce the orignal instrumentation – edit, cut, remove noise – mix – master.

Eight: Avoid extrem mixes. Especially in the beginning you believe more is better. Forget it! Fact is, the better the original recording, the less you have to do. Tracks that need 5 or more fx and/or extreme cuts or amplification have a problem.  Don’t think you can fix it during the mixing process. You can’t and you won’t. Mix gently, like a surgeon.

Nine: you have to invest time. Usually you need at least the same amount of time for mixing and mastering as you needed for the recording. Don’t haste things. When you are an amateur you don’t need to. Be brave enough to start all over again and throw mixes away, if they don’t sound right. If you don’t like it now, you won’t like it later either. And let’s say, a voice with too much reverb WILL be noticed by your friends, too. So, take your time and be true to yourself.

Ten: don’t give up. Be persistent. Yes , it takes a long time until you know what you are doing and which multiband compressor you want to use on what. But the good thing is: you learn with every song. You are getting better with each track. Don’t use VSTs because they are there. It is better to use a limited number  knowing what they do than throwing everything in you have with no idea. Remember, it is not the effect that does it – it’s you.

And never forget: mixing (and mastering) is neither witchcraft nor mystic. It’s experience and time. You will get there, I am sure.

Tags: , ,