Perhaps the title, should be how to produce a great sounding file. That is ultimately what everyone does these days, but it sounds nowhere near as romantic.
And on that point, it is easier than ever to access the resources to create audio files. If you have a laptop, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software, an interface, a microphone, an instrument and yourself, you are pretty much all ready to go. All of this can be achieved with a relatively modest budget.
I hesitate to say that is easier than ever to produce a great sounding record. I have spent years geeking out on approach, tools and philosophy behind great sounds and when listening to some of the most successful records out there, if you listen closely, you can hear the hard work that has gone into them. What makes great records sound great are the details.
So what I hope to achieve with this article is an general outline of the approaches that should be considered when producing a record. Here they are:
1) The Song
It is worth asking yourself what comes the first? Does the production succeed in what the song intends to say? This can be very helpful in terms of you deciding the sonority of instruments you use. The overall feel of the song could determine whether I choose to use a certain type of guitar over another, or a certain type of synthesiser. It is also helpful in terms of choosing other elements of music such as texture, dynamics, tempo, rhythm, pitch, and even silence.
Ultimately the production of the song has to be in service of the song. Try and get this as close to the complete idea in the pre-production process.
2) The Arrangement
The arrangement should determine your production choices. For example, is it just a change in chord progression and vocal melody that determines when the chorus hits you, or is it double tracking your voice, harmonising, adding some different, an instrument sound, a new texture, a sub bass? The arrangement allows for opportunities for you to add moments of tension and release as well as sonic interest to the listener. Max Martin is the master at this which is why he has a plethora of hits to his name.
3) The Performance
Preparation is key. If you are booking a studio to get the record down, time and money is precious. Ensure that you have all of the tracks down under your fingers so you can focus more on why your in a fancy studio I.e. to get the best possible sound from…
4) The Source
Use your gut instincts when performing for the recording. Most of the quality of the record comes from the source, and that means getting the engineering part right, the signal path bit right and then most of all, nailing the performance. Don’t settle for less than knowing you have caught lightning in a bottle and have got the take. It does not necessarily have to be the most technically accomplished, but it should aim to be the most resonant in terms of reflecting the mood of the song. If the you have got the first three things right, there is no reason why the sound at source in the studio shouldn’t be exciting to you.
Some of this could be well decided in the pre-production process but there are loads of awesome plug ins out there that can help you develop the atmosphere of the song and add a unique sonic palette. Remember that effects should serve the story of the song. There are loads of opportunities within reverb and delay for creating for example something spacey, whereas you can add eeriness by modulating pitch. It is sometimes a case of knowing what feeling you want to create and using the appropriate effects or just experimenting through trial and error.
Once everything is recorded, it is now a case of mixing the record. If you are mixing the record, the aim again should be on instinctively understanding how the instruments and sounds relate to each other and making a sound judgement on how best to balance that and across the stereo image. It is quite easy to be led by your eyes when mixing in the box (on a computer screen). I usually listen to my final mixes with my eyes closed and what is also a helpful tip is finding out how the mix translates between different speakers and headphones. Definitely listen through Apple headphones as it is likely that is what the majority of your listeners will be using.
7) A Team
If you are able to do all of the above six alone and well, I salute you! Producing a record is exhilarating but it’s also emotionally exhausting and you can end up pouring a lot of your personal self into the process. Therefore, it is important to get yourself a team of people you can trust and share the same vision as you.
I am lucky enough to have amazing musicians and engineers I can call on who are fully on board with the projects I do. I also have mentors that I send my music to for honest input and as much as one can be the auteur of a given project, sometimes someone is able to see your goal in another perspective and offer an awesome angle.
There is a great podcast called SongExploder where artists discuss the stories behind their songs, and how they produced them. There are some real eye opening moments in there and I particularly recommend the episodes on ‘Slip Away’ by Perfume Genius and ‘Cranes in the Sky’ by Solange.
Additionally, Rick Beato is creating some amazing music content on YouTube and one of his shows is called ‘What makes this song great?’ and similarly to SongExploder he looks at individual instruments in famous songs as well as discusses the theory behind some of these songs. The episode on Ariana Grande’s ‘Into You’ shows the genius of one of Modern Music’s great producers, Max Martin.
About the Author
Ryan Elliott is a composer, producer and music educator. He leads the progressive rock band Eden Shadow and is guitarist for the instrumental jazz rock band Kinky Wizzards and their second album ‘Quirky Musings’ was released in 2017.
Follow Ryan and The Kinky Wizzards at the links below: