The dream of creating music is common. However, to many it might seem like a far-off goal they’ll never get to, reserved only for the lucky few who have attained pop stardom. Fortunately, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Music creators don’t need to be adored by countless fans, exhibit a uniquely irresistible stage presence, or even have mastery of any instrument. The world of music production, from composing to songwriting and everywhere in between, is something anyone can get into if they want to create their own music. It’s a highly rewarding experience to have a melody, beat, or chord progression go from existing only in your head to being pumped through your speakers. Although there’s no guarantee of fame and fortune, the experience alone is rewarding in itself, and there’s no telling where it can lead you.
A Music Maker’s Tools
No matter what kind of music you plan on making, you’re going to need a DAW, digital audio workstation. This is software that’s a staple for any audio producer working in the modern music industry. What used to take hours of tedious and expensive work can now be done in seconds thanks to the advantages of going digital. While it’s certainly easy to romanticize about the analog recording studios of the past with satisfyingly chunky buttons and big spinning reel-to-reel tapes, audio producers and engineers everywhere are thankful every day for the digital tools that make their work possible.
Pro Tools is the first name in DAWs among industry professionals in every genre. There are other programs with specific capabilities specifically suited for looping and low-latency streaming, Pro Tools is the software that suits the needs of the vast majority of musical creators. It offers a powerful multitrack recording system that allows you to easily edit and mix your work. Nondestructive editing means never having to worry about accidentally erasing something good. Avid’s extensive library of MIDI instruments gives creators the means to produce their music in the exact voice that they want.
Besides the software, many audio producers enjoy discovering their musical ideas by playing around with physical instruments. Even if you’re far from mastery at the guitar or piano, you can still explore the keys or fretboard until you land on something that sounds good to you.
A quality sound system and headphones allow you to review your work from all possible angles. It is important for audio producers to hear their own work so they can accurately assess problems in the mix and determine the best musical decisions to move the mix forward. Sometimes it’s easier to feel a song when you can literally feel the vibrations filling a room. On the other hand, playing your music loud isn’t always possible or courteous; producers’ housemates and neighbors tend to deeply appreciate the use of headphones. Not only that, but headphones also give you the ability to pick out fine details in your mix and make more precise adjustments.
It’s important to listen to your mixes through both speakers and headphones to catch any differences in the way your track is presented. While every producer hopes that their music will be played at packed venues over industry-standard speakers, the fact is that many people will be playing your song over sub-par speakers or earbuds, and it’s important to have the sound equipment to mix with that in mind.
How a Producer Works
While there’s no step-by-step guide for how to find your own personal musical inspiration, there’s definitely a common list of steps to follow for producing a song. While there are artistic elements of producing along every step of the way, much of the process becomes more straightforward once you break it down into different stages.
Many audio producers tend to keep the music they create within one or two genres, but that’s not always the case. There’s no reason to limit yourself, especially when you’re first starting out and there aren’t any expectations as to what you’re going to create. The early days of an audio producer’s career can be the most open-ended because of this freedom to experiment, but there’s also no reason that these experimental tendencies ever have to end. When you make daring and unexpected musical decisions that push you outside of your comfort zone, you might not create your most popular song, or even one you want to go public with, but countless producers use it as a pathway to inspiration that would be difficult or impossible to recreate.
It’s good to deliberately choose a genre if you’re still in the beginner phase of your production career. This makes it simpler to make all the subsequent decisions to pull the mix together cleanly and cohesively. Leaning into a genre also helps when you have a song idea that doesn’t have much to it and needs to be developed. When in doubt, you can always try swapping genres on a song until it feels right.
For more experienced audio producers and songwriters who already have a set vision in mind, genre is something to be aware of but shouldn’t be seen as a controlling force that limits your creativity. Some of the best songs defy genre or are hybrids of two or more genres; it’s merely a classification system in a musically diverse world.
Once you have your musical idea, the brainstorming process can begin. This is when you build off of what you have in a logical and interesting way that’s satisfying to your ear. There are countless directions that a track can go in, and this can easily become overwhelming. Audio producers have to come up with their own system of organizing their thoughts and ideas during this brainstorming phase if they’re going to use the time effectively.
The Desired Effect
Effects should be used to enhance your work and not distract from it. Oftentimes, beginners will make the mistake of being overindulgent in effects by drenching their tracks in reverb or adding too much distortion to heavier lines. Once you have a few projects under your belt, it becomes much easier to develop an ear for what sounds right and what’s too much.
Reverb is one of the most common effects, highly effective in sweetening vocals or any kind of solo voice. It’s also how to make an instrument that’s too in your face, pushing it off into the background, giving the instrument a faraway sound. DAWs like Pro Tools allow you to fully customize your reverb to capture the exact sound you’re looking for.
Compression is another key effect that all audio producers should be familiar with. It’s another staple of audio production that the digital revolution transformed into a nearly instantaneous process that’s done with the push of a button. With the right amount of compression, an audio producer can bring out the subtleties of a recording while easing up on the parts that pop out too much. Other effects like phasers and delay are useful to keep a track interesting.
Sound effects are also often useful for bringing out a specific vibe or to make a climactic buildup all the more powerful. Like other effects, sound effects should be used in service of the music you’re creating, not the other way around. If it becomes all about the different random sounds you’ve jammed into a song, most likely it’s time for a reassessment, except in the case of some novelty tunes.
Finishing Touches – Mixing and Mastering
Once you’ve edited your song down, meaning you’ve clipped out all the parts that don’t work and tightened up every section, it’s time to make that edited version sound its very best. When amateur producers or indie artists record their first album and neglect to run it through the mixing and mastering phase, it always shows. There are always industry professionals you can send your work to and have this job done for a pretty penny, or you can learn to do it yourself and forge an even deeper connection to your own compositions and a better understanding of music and production in general.
Mixing is the essential process of placing the different voices in the optimal positions in a stereo soundscape. A good mix maintains the balance between the left and right channels and is strongly rooted in the center with rhythm and melodic lines. Instruments with similar timbre or range should be mixed apart from each other to avoid competing with one another.
Mastering is one of the most important steps in audio production, and it’s generally the very last thing you do. This involves relistening to the song or album as a whole to find inconsistencies with levels, making sure all the songs are within a certain decibel range so that listeners won’t be reaching for the volume dial every few seconds, and anything else that sticks out in a bad way.
Keep in mind that every time any new change is introduced to a track, the mastering process must be done again to ensure that you accurately judge the end product that is put on the album and streaming sites. The best approach is to make as many changes and editing decisions as possible before starting in on the mastering phase. This avoids any redundant studio work, which is critical: The mastering process requires listening with a fresh ear to buff out any auditory blemishes.
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.