If you’re like me, you might find it hard to know when you’re done.
Specifically, when recording a song. How do you know when you’ve recorded enough? How do you know when you’ve overdone it?
The answer is difficult because it really depends on the song. Some songs feel best when they’re full to the brim with guitars, synths, harmonies, and percussion. Others seem to work best as a single acoustic guitar and a vocal.
As a home studio producer myself, let me share the 2 most helpful tips I’ve used over the years. Starting with the most important…
Listen critically to a LOT of music
This isn’t some super-secret trick to making all your music sound perfect.
The reality is, I think we all know that we need to listen to and learn from other music. Especially music that is really well produced.
But if you don’t get anything else from the rest of this article, let this be a take-home action item for you: Go listen critically to some music.
When I say “listen critically” I mean try to reverse engineer it. Pick it apart. How many guitars are there? What do they sound like? What vocal tracks stand out? What can I hear faintly in the background? Can I hear all of the core elements of the song? (More on this soon)
It might help to actually get out a pen and paper and try to write down all the things that you hear, and take notes.
Start by listening critically to songs that you like. Then branch out to other songs and other bands in your favorite genres.
Then, try out some new genres that maybe you don’t listen to as much. What sorts of things are different? What similarities do they have?
The more you listen critically to music, the more acquainted you’ll become with the production process, and how to fill out your songs. In some cases, you might find that the song has less instruments than you had anticipated. Or maybe you’ll find that it has more. Either way, you can learn a lot.
Listen for the 3 Core Elements
There are three things that almost every produced song has. They can take different forms, and it depends greatly on the genre. But these elements are worth keeping in mind:
Most songs have some sort of rhythm.
In some songs, this may be a drumset or two, various percussion instruments, rhythm guitars, and a keyboard. In other songs, it may be just one acoustic guitar strumming chords, or maybe a hand drum.
Make sure the prominence of your rhythm section fits the genre of your music. In some genres, you might need heavy-hitting drums smacking you in the face, whereas in others it can be more subtle.
I like to think of some instruments, usually synth pads or strings, as being my “back wall”.
Between strums of the guitar, what do you hear in the background? Is there some sort of drone back there? Are there some “filler” instruments? Or is it blank and lonely?
Again, this depends on the genre. But often you will want to have some instruments filling in the cracks between your main tracks.
I would consider a “lead instrument” to be any instrument (including vocals) that is supposed to stand out.
Usually, in any given part of the song, there is one instrument that should draw the listener’s ear. Typically this is the lead vocal, although often it is a lead guitar, a piano, or some other instrument.
This is one area of the production that can get cluttered up really quick. If you have a lead vocal belting away during the guitar solo, for example, chances are they’re going to clash. You can make it work, of course, but you really need to pick which one you’re going to “feature”, and let the other one be in the background.
The “lead” instrument doesn’t have to be a vocal or a guitar solo. You can even have something like an acoustic guitar or a synth pad as a lead instrument. Just remember: you’re guiding the user through your song. Make sure you point out what you would like them to listen to along the journey.
There is so much more that goes into a production. But I feel like sometimes we need to just get down to the basics.
Try to exercise your critical listening this week. I’ve mentioned before that Dueling Mixes is a great place to do that, but I would suggest starting with music that you already know and love.
And on your next recording, think about the three core elements I’ve mentioned above. If those elements are there, and sounding pretty good, maybe you can call it done.
What do you think? Do you have some other Core Elements that you always include in your productions? Leave me a comment below!