Our Quick Guide on How to Produce Music

by Anders Johanson October 22, 2020 10 min read

How to Produce Music

How to Produce Music

For beginners, this is a great starting point at your fruitful career in music. But first we need to start with the basics of how to produce music. So let's get down to the basics. A piece of music can be divided into two parts: the composition and the production. The composition is the process of actually writing a song. This involves coming up with melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and lyrics. This step is where most artists spend the majority of their time. The second part of making music is the production. The production stage of music involves taking the song that was written during composition and adding in sounds, instruments, and other enhancements. During production, the volume and effects are also adjusted. Making music on your own is a difficult task that requires two main things: talent and patience. Talent is needed to create good songs, and patience is needed to let your songs "age". Just because you made a song today does not mean that it will be good right now.

Your song should "age with age" and get better as you look back at it. You can make your own music using a variety of software programs, such as FL Studio or GarageBand. Or you can also make your own music using something as simple as iTunes on your computer or even a piano. If you are interested in making your own music, you will need a few basic things: A creative mind - No amount of technology will replace the human imagination.

You can make your own music using a variety of software programs, such as FL Studio or GarageBand. Or you can also make your own music using something as simple as iTunes on your computer or even a piano. If you are interested in making your own music, you will need a few basic things:

  • A creative mind - No amount of technology will replace the human imagination. Computers can make random sounds, but it takes a human to know how to make those random sounds into something meaningful and beautiful.
  • A computer - You don't necessarily need a powerful Mac or PC to make music. All you really need is something able come up with melodies and beats, record your work, and add effects.
  • Software - There are a lot of different software programs out there for recording and editing music. The type of software you use depends on your own personal preferences.
  • Use what you have - Maybe you don't have the most powerful computer around, but that doesn't mean you can't make great music. Even without pricey recording software, you can still write a song using a simple text editor. There's also apps for your phone that allows you to record your own music. The easiest and probably cheapest way to start making your own music is to download a program called FL Studio.

What is the process of making music?

Making music is pretty easy. All you need to do is write down or make a melody on a recording device or software. A lot of people like to sing when they're making music, but that's not necessary. Professional musicians often use instruments such as pianos, guitars, and even simple things such as pots and pans.

The first step is to come up with an idea for a song. Maybe you have a certain phrase that you think would make a good "hook", which is the part of the song people will remember after hearing it, such as "Hey Jude" by the Beatles. You could also be inspired by something and want to write a song about it. Once you have an idea, it's time to start writing. Sometimes it's helpful to write things down, such as lyrics or other notes about the song. You can use a word processor or even a notebook for this. Once you have your lyrics and melody, it's time to start recording. You can use simple recording devices, such as a tape recorder, or more modern equipment. If you're using more modern equipment, don't try to do everything at once. For example, if you're writing lyrics, just write them, then go back and record it. If you make a mistake, you can fix it later. After you have the main part of the song finished, it's time to add instruments and other parts. It's important to have an idea of how each part should sound before you try to record it, or else you might have to do a lot of editing later. 

When everything is finished, you can add other effects such as reverb and EQ. Reverb makes the song sound like it's being played in a large space, such as a concert hall. EQ, or equalization, allows you to adjust the frequencies of the recording. For example, if something sounds too "booming", you can reduce the amount of bass. Finally, listen to your creation! If it's good, share it with others.

No Matter Where Your Sounds Come From, Your Finished Songs Are Wholly Yours

Whether you follow a deliberate, manifesto-based approach to music production, or you just make beats in an ad-hoc way, you have a sound that is uniquely yours. Beyond the instruments, melodies and grooves you choose in your music, the production techniques you use distinguish your sound from that of other creators, and stamp an indelible fingerprint on your songs. In the case of some producers this is noticeable immediately — as with electronica demigod Aphex Twin, EDM pioneer Skrillex, new wave star Suzanne Ciani, or super-producer Max Martin — but often it’s more subtle and hidden.

This fact is especially obvious when listening to the content of sample packs made by other artists. Auditioned in isolation, the constituent sounds often seem like they’re lacking something. Maybe a kick drum will be missing the extreme low end, or a snare drum will sound strangely snappy, or guitar/keys loops are compressed to death. This is because they are taken out of context, but when combined, they form the perfect blend. This exercise is useful to us as producers, as it tells us a few things, and can save us hours of anguish in the music-making process. Once you realize that each sound in isolation needn’t sound full, rounded or face-melting in its own right, we can concentrate on the thing that matters most: the mix. It also helps us to discover hidden tricks in others’ productions.

Every producer’s sonic outlook is different. Imagine giving five different producers an assignment to make a track using the same, limited amount of sounds. Apart from the musical component and arrangement of the song, each version will sound different, and that’s because we are human, and we all experience life (and music) in our own distinct way. There is no right or wrong.

How To Define Your Sound… By Stealing!

stealing music

If you’re a newcomer, and you want to carve out your own niche in the expansive landscape of modern music, one of the best ways to start is by using the oldest trick in an artist’s playbook: stealing. Creators in all artistic disciplines have been stealing other peoples’ ideas for centuries, from classical composer Stravinsky to writer T.S. Eliot. The phrase ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ is born out of this concept of copying or borrowing from others. Auston Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, takes this conversation further. In his TED talk, he says that the key to creative theft is not to imitate, but to transform, “taking the things you’ve stolen and turning them into your own thing.” This concept can help you find your own sound pretty simply.

Take a critical listen to some productions you like and appreciate, and analyze what it is that you really like about them. Maybe it’s the powerful negative space in minimal techno, the in-your-face drums of Top-40 pop music, or the ethereal spatial effects in ambient and electronica. Once you have identified your favorites, try to emulate them in your compositions. Although the ideas aren’t completely original, the combination will be uniquely yours, and you will have, by borrowing ideas from others, found your sound.

Taking Ownership of Other Artists’ Sounds

Once you have the skills to process sounds in your unique way, it’s time to apply those skills to your beats, loops, samples and other sounds. When we make music, we take ownership of every element of our songs, from the grooves, melodies and rhythms, to the effects and dynamics processing, and of course the final mix. Then there’s the artwork, promo campaigns, collaborators… the whole package — it’s ours. Even when we sample recognizable chunks of existing songs, and declare / clear them before release, the end result is always in your new form, having been written, arranged and mixed by you. But what about the individual sounds? The raw materials used in our compositions are often not all original — unless you’re in a bare-bones punk band or you create all your samples from scratch — so can we still claim full ownership when we use them in our music? The short answer is, of course, yes. But there are deep and meaningful reasons as to why, when we use sounds available to other people in our productions, it’s totally fine to claim full creative ownership of the end result.

Lots of producers start with sound sources that are not originally theirs: be they loops sampled from someone else’s record, a sample pack from a company such as Samplified, a vocal a capella, or even a drum machine like the TR-808 or Linn LM-1, with its limited set of built-in sounds. But what follows the process of loading other peoples’ sounds into your DAW, is where that initial building block gets placed into a new context and mixed among an infinite number of other musical elements.

Getting Creative

For the remainder of this piece, we’ll cover some ideas for using different production tools to your advantage, in order to make a sound that is wholly yours. Remember that your sound can change and adapt, so you should embrace all your creative ideas down the line.

Dynamics Processing

Dynamics Processing

There’s a common misconception that compression is just about squashing the dynamic range of a signal so that its amplitude remains at a steady level, so that it doesn’t get masked by other instruments in the mix. But compressors, gates and expanders (which all follow the same audio-processing principals) can be used to masterfully shape and sculpt your tones, and in doing so, create a unique sound. Using one sound to process another — using the side-chain input of a compressor — is a great way to personalize your productions. And don’t be scared to think outside the box with compression, especially when using software like Ableton Live or FL Studio, where you can make drastic changes and complex routings without overloading your signal paths. Parallel-path compression can help to blend the up-front sound of compressed signals with the naturally dynamic tonality of the raw sound.

Custom Music Production Effects

Effects have been known to define complete genres of music. Take gated reverb as an example: its brutal sound was so new and unheard that it came to define 1980s pop music, and put Phil Collins’ and Peter Gabriel’s happy studio accident on the music production map. Similarly, the production team behind Cher’s ‘Believe’ were famously the first to noticeably use Antares’ Auto-Tune as a vocal effect (though they didn’t admit to it at first). Twenty years later, the same vocal process is still commonly called the ‘Cher Effect’ (though T-Pain is in the running). But you don’t need to pioneer a completely new sound with a megastar, you just need to find the right combination of effects that work well in your tracks. Don’t be afraid to push effect parameters beyond their natural limit, double up effects instances in FX Racks, and create unusual chains of weird and wonderful plugin processors. Thanks to the potential of modern computer systems and DAW software, the possibilities are limitless.

Finding Sounds

Though it’s reasonably common for producers to record their own found sounds to build drum kits and sound effect libraries and suchlike, the actual content of one artist’s found sound library will always be different to another’s. You don’t need high-end gear to capture found sounds — every smartphone has decent audio-recording facilities — although a good mic with a windshield and a stereo recorder with headphones will bring more reliable results. Whatever your recording system, make it a habit to record a couple of snippets for your found sounds library when you’re going about your day-to-day. Using these in your compositions will help to define your original sound.

Avoid Presets: Make Your Own

Though they can help you get half-decent results quickly, plugin presets are, by their nature, not unique to your productions. One worthwhile way to help define your sound is to take time to create your own presets. These are the things that, used repeatedly in your work, will stamp your songs with recognizable and unique tonal properties. That’s not to say you should avoid using presets altogether; you might be lucky enough to find plugin presets from artists you wish to emulate. However, if you’re trying to make your sonic mark, a personalized set of sounds and effects are one of the easiest ways to get ahead.

Esoteric Gear & Handmade Instruments

Unusual equipment can really help you to define a distinct timbral flavor. And it doesn’t have to be expensive; already-loved flea-market effect pedals or a family hand-me-down guitar amp can be integrated into your setup to provide an unusual sound palette. Building your own percussion instruments from household items such as discarded metal containers, dried beans or lentils, and glassware, is a fantastic way to add totally unique sounds to your setup. Record a few passes of homemade percussion over every track on your next EP and you’ll be sure to create an exclusive audible effect.

Production Tricks

Same goes for unusual production tricks. You’ve seen the videos of open-reel tape delays and hand-cranked music machines, but simpler and equally quirky production methods can be used to add uniqueness to your production style. If you have a snare drum, a mic, a spare speaker and an open channel on your interface, you can add a buzzy, distorted tonality to your sound by re-recording sends from your DAW through the speaker and mic combo (picking up the acoustic reaction of the snare drum) in a way that will guarantee a unique tone. That’s just one example of many, but the key to creativity is thinking outside the box. Take a look around your studio and follow your ideas!

Summary: Stick With It

To wrap this piece off, take a moment to refer back to the opening lines at the top of this page. Remember that, while going through the motions of defining your sound, your new creations and processes might, in isolation, seem and sound strange or unconventional — maybe totally bizarre! It’s important to remember that the final mix and tonal consistency in all your work is what you should focus on, rather than the individual production tricks you choose / invent / adapt. In honing your sound, high-passing your kick drum at 120Hz might be the norm, and that’s because you’re side-chaining a sine-wave sub-bass oscillator to the kick drum channel. And those over-compressed melodic instruments are squashed into oblivion because you want that ‘wall of sound’ effect to sustain the mid-range energy in your chorus. That’s all fine, but only ifyou say it is. It’s your music after all!

Anders Johanson
Anders Johanson

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