Ever wonder how to take an idea and make it into a fully produced piece of music? There are the steps of music production to take into consideration when writing. To the outsider, the process of producing a professional quality piece of music might seem enigmatic and overwhelming. How does a music producer take raw tracks and combine them at the ideal levels, mix them to maximize the spatial distribution of sound, and apply the perfect filters and effects to bring out the best in every voice in the song? If you’ve never done it before, the whole process is bound to appear daunting, like something that cannot be learned or taught.
Although it is a complex process guided by personal intuition and artistic insight, there is a technical process that virtually all music producers must go through in order to manifest their work, no matter how creatively original it may be. Music production is both an art and a science; you need elements on both the creative and technical ends of the spectrum to create any concisely organized and aurally pleasing finished product.
The Individual Steps That Make the Musical Journey
As it turns out, the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” is just as applicable to the process of music production as it is to anything else. You must start somewhere when producing any piece of music. Sometimes, an idea will come to you fully formed, or you might be collaborating with someone who already has a basic structure or hook in mind.
Other times, you are left completely to your own devices and is expected to create music from scratch. Different music producers work in different ways, and it’s important to know which way works best for you and where you struggle the most.
Certain music producers work exclusively on either their own original projects or on tracks that are already in development, but there are still plenty of professionals who stay flexible and are open to both ends of the process. It’s highly beneficial in the industry to hone these dynamic skillsets in order to keep a steady stream of work; however, it’s just as important to be cognizant of what you’re best at. So, what are the steps in the music production process?
Step #1: Songwriting
This first step of the production process can encompass a varying number of smaller micro-steps, and it’s often the most unpredictable, open-ended part of the experience. Songwriting is when you get your initial idea and make some rudimentary decisions about what the song is going to be about.
If there are lyrics in your work, the themes of your lyrical content should be fully explored as deeply as possible in these initial songwriting steps. It’s much easier to make a strong decision early on in your work than it is to completely course-correct far later down the line. While it’s easier in some cases to make fully informed musical and thematic decisions once you can hear the completed mix in its entirety, experienced music producers pride themselves in making those intuitive choices right from the start.
In pieces that are purely instrumental, the songwriting phase is often referred to as composition. Composing is more about the tonality of chords and melodic voices that carry themes and phrases. This tends to be a much more abstract way to write music because you can’t rely on words to directly express your meaning.
Step #2: Arranging
Once a song’s structure is fully formed, the next steps involve breaking up the voices. In production, a “voice” refers to the instruments playing the different parts of the song in the mix. Whether you’re working with real-life physical instruments or digitally synthesizing your sounds through production software, it’s key to assign the right part to the right instrument to get the most from each of your song’s musical elements.
The arranging steps can require a measure of experimentation, particularly with more ambitious pieces of complex music. In this step, a music producer benefits substantially from experience. Hearing different instruments allows them to internalize the sounds and imagine how they would blend with the rest of their mix. This cuts out a huge number of steps, thus saving the music producer ample time for taking on more projects and adding greater depth to their existing production undertakings.
When arranging with real instruments, music producers must be aware of their limitations as well. Depending on the budget of a project, it might be difficult to hire enough studio musicians for a full-fledged ensemble, and not all music producers are multi-instrumental virtuosos. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple in order to make the most of what you’re working with.
Step #3: Tracking
The steps involved with recording each individual part of a song is called tracking. Rarely in the professional music industry are songs recorded with all the parts in their finished form all at once. It’s much easier to hone each individual track as they’re recorded individually.
Additionally, it’s logistically more feasible to schedule each musician to record when they’re available as opposed to having everybody in one recording studio at one time. This is a particularly important consideration when working with high-profile artists and musicians.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits to getting a full band or ensemble together to play at the same time. Some artists and other industry professionals still prefer to work this way because they’re better able to communicate and follow the energy of their colleagues. In those cases, it’s more important to keep your tracks separate, whether that means sound dampening walls between each microphone or even putting some musicians in their own separate booths.
Depending on how a music producer chooses to work, tracking might be a crucial part of the production journey. Most hands-on creators work best when they’re layering ideas one on top of another until they hear something that strikes a chord with them. Other times, the perfect instrument to take a solo or carry a subtle countermelody might not become apparent until this step in the tracking phase.
Step #4: Editing
Once you’re satisfied that all the right parts are in place and you have all the raw elements to create your masterpiece, it’s time to do some editing. This is when a music producer starts to alter the recorded material by snipping out the bad and accentuating the good.
When compared to mixing and mastering, editing involves much broader strokes that still leave room for further fine-tuning afterward. The most important thing is to make sure there are no mistakes in any of the tracks and that your piece has the length and structure that you’ve intended.
Step #5: Mixing
The process of creating a good mix can completely transform the way your material has sounded up to that point. Giving your listener a sense of spatial sound while making sure different tracks at similar frequencies don’t crowd each other out all comes down to good mixing.
Finding the optimal stereo mix means panning each track to the perfect spot on the left or right channel; it also means knowing which parts to keep dead center in the mix. Depending on the genre, there may be different panning conventions that any music producer making that type of music should be aware of. However, there are no hard and fast rules of panning and music producers must rely on their own sense of musicality to determine the best use of the sound.
In modern music, the production side of things has become ever more important in generating unique mixes that keep the listener’s interests piqued. Using a mixing board, music producers fade tracks from left to right to give their music a sense of motion. It’s important not to overdo your panning to avoid distracting from the central voices that your listener should be focusing on, but in some genres, this active movement between channels has become not only commonplace but expected for a piece to sound fully produced.
The other key aspect of mixing is controlling your volume levels. It’s easy for weaker tracks to get lost in a busy mix, and certain tonal registers will easily drown out the less powerful ones. The ideal mix is one where all the tracks fit into a pyramid of sound, meaning the lower frequencies form a foundation that the higher instruments can sit upon and build off of. If any individual track is sticking out egregiously, no matter how in-your-face it’s supposed to be, it’s almost certainly going to throw off the entire mix.
Step #6: Mastering
The final step of polishing a piece of music so that it’s ready for the world to hear is mastering, the importance of which cannot be stressed enough. It’s the part of the process where all tracks on an album or collection are adjusted to be at consistent levels. This prevents listeners to reach for the volume knob to either hear all the nuances or not have their stereo speakers blown out.
Mastering is also the only way to give your song a fair chance of sounding great regardless of what system or media format it’s played back on. The woe of many beginner music producers is when they think their work is done after hearing their beautiful mix over headphones, only to find out it doesn’t sound at all the way they intended through speakers. Since people are going to be listening to your music in countless different ways, it must be optimized for each medium.
Audio Production Program
Ready to get into audio production and start creating your own music? The Audio Production and Engineering Program at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.
At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.
Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.