25 production secrets from the pros
Success isn’t always measured by the amount of money you earn - sometimes doing it for the love is enough. But either way, some sound advice from those in the know is never a bad thing, right?
We’ve corralled tips from artists, producers and DJs from all over the globe on how you can become more successful as a music producer. Read them, reflect on them, and then put them into practice.
1. Start with a solid idea (Skrillex)
"At the end of the day it's not so much the editing style that matters, it's more about having a real cool, concrete idea. Even if it's a whole line of bits and crazy parts, it still has to stick with you and have... almost like a phrase."
2. Know your environment (Tosca)
Richard: “I believe it takes a while before you get used to a certain room, the way it sounds and the way the speakers are harmonising. The more time you spend producing there, the better you know the dynamics.
“All the Tosca albums from 2004 onwards were produced in the current studio - and we still feel very comfortable there.”
Rupert: “I know artists who travel all the time; all they work with is their laptop and their ears. That’s fair enough, but for Tosca we wanted to concentrate all our powers in one place, so we don’t have to worry about unknown loudspeakers, missing gear or overbooked flights and hotels.
“We know the space, it’s waiting for us and we know how it sounds. This plug-and-play situation is really ideal for us.”
3. Think like a cinematographer when arranging and mixing (Brassica)
"We have a limited amount of space on the soundstage in the same way a cameraman has a finite amount of screen space. The cameraman can obviously move further afield from the subject in order to accommodate for more visual objects but what happens? Things get smaller, you can no longer see the actor's eyes, etc. The same laws tend to apply to sound."
4. A good technique (Avicii)
"The cool thing today, is that anyone can learn how to make a track. It’s not about your finger skills on an instrument, but your skill in the programs and knowledge of what makes a good track, putting it together and getting to grips with chords and scales in that way.”
5. Get honest feedback (Concubine)
"One of the best parts of collaboration is having a pair of trusted ears to provide instant feedback. Sounds that one of us would have taken hours to arrive at on our take shape much more quickly in each other's company, and bad ideas get quashed well before wasting valuable studio time.
"Whether or not you're collaborating, find some trusted critical ears - preferably someone who can deliver their criticism constructively - and get in the habit of running things by them. A lot of people surround themselves with yes men and their sound develops much more slowly as a result.
“As an artist, you have to be sensitive enough to express yourself authentically, but you also need to be able to take criticism in stride. It may seem counter-intuitive, but you'll do yourself a massive favour by inviting critique from people who understand your aesthetic aims."
6. Don't force writer's block (xxxy)
"I used to go through long periods when I was unable to make music, now I have realised that if things aren't going well I just have to stop and do something else; go for a bike ride, read a book or have a mix.
“Whenever I sat in my studio and forced myself to work on music I made terrible music and ended up frustrating myself and pushing myself deeper into ruts."
7. Be prepared to invest your own money (Chromeo)
Dave 1: "Our records have never really sold big and we're more popular now than we ever were before. Record labels come and go and we'll always find a label. The idea is for us to have interesting deals in place but we really concentrate on making good music and our live show."
P-Thugg: "Everything in the studio is ours, y'know. I win a dollar and I reinvest it in those synths. I save $5,000 a month from not living in New York and that gets reinvested in the studio too. We just need to keep some money aside to get somebody like Philippe [Zdar] to mix it."
D: "We spend a lot of our own money on Chromeo for sure. I mean if nobody can give us the budget to do a video, then we'll do it ourselves. I think we're still quite big on the Internet and that's still a vitally important echo-chamber for our music so we see the value in investing in it."
8. Start with good sounds (LV)
"…and try not to ruin them. Seems obvious, but it's easier to get things right as you write than do a lot of remedial work later."
9. Mix in reverse (Groundislava)
"Instead of bringing the gain up on something you want louder, consider that maybe everything else should be quieter. This is why I call it mixing in reverse. Bringing everything else down isn't always the solution, what's important is realising that just making a certain thing louder isn't always the solution either.
"It's so easy to be mixing for an extended session, only to realise you've slowly ended up with every track completely maximised, and zero headroom for mastering. You've probably heard this a billion times, but it's so easy to overlook.
“I used to ignore this tip because I could make my tracks really loud using lots of compression and maximizing everything, and it worked fine when I was just exporting them and never touching them after, but when I began actually releasing tunes and getting stuff mastered, I realised how I was actually just shooting myself in the foot.
"Mastering is art and if you have a talented person doing your mastering and you leave them plenty of room to work with, they can really make your tracks sound incredible!"
10. Keep an open mind (Paul Van Dyk)
"The sounds that you use to make a song - whether they're presets or you've programmed them yourself - are part of a larger piece of music. If a preset sound works, why change it?
"The only problem I've found over the years is that some presets can overpower a song. That definitely used to be the case in the hardware days. You'd go into a music shop and flick through the presets going, 'Wow! Incredible! I must have this synth!'. Then, you get back to the studio and realise that the presets are all so full of effects that they're too big to sit with the rest of the music - they destroy everything else in the song.
“In that instance, of course you look for an alternative, but I'm not going to change a sound just because it's a 'preset'. That seems a bit snobby!"
11. It's not what you have - it's what you do with it that counts (Submotion Orchestra)
"Dizzee Rascal's prize-winning album was largely made on a playstation. Skream has had platinum success using fruity-loops.
“Some of the most promising work I'm sent is by kids making music on headphones. Likewise some of the most awful music I've heard has been made in million-pound studios full to the brim with expensive hardware.
"Make the music you feel like making with whatever resources you can get your hands on. If you get good enough, real music fans will understand and appreciate it.
In my opinion, if you make a good track and the mix-down is well-balanced, and you get the final premaster sent to a top mastering engineer, then your track will stand up to everything else out there, no matter what equipment you used to make it."
12. Use unusual sound sources (Winter Son)
"Use instruments and sounds that aren't necessarily associated with the kind of music you're writing in. I use my guitar a lot in techno tracks and not only is it a lot of fun, it gives a texture that's not heard a lot in that style.
“I don't play blues riffs are anything like that, but just a few notes with some atmosphere can change the feel of a track. Vocals a lovely too, even just some breathing or whispering can do a lot to the music. It also gives the music a sense of depth as you're adding sounds that are taken from different locations and recording methods. It's all good fun!"
13. Get your loops right (Noisia)
"It might sound obvious, but if you have a sick bass sound, you can easily make it sound pretty worthless by adding a crappy drum loop. Work on a loop as a whole, and make all the elements sound right together."
14. Sometimes it's a good idea to go back to your first few mixes (Shook)
"When you are working on version 231 of a mixdown of a track, it's sometimes a good idea to go back to your first few mixes. I often go back to that first intuitive mix and find out it's the best and sounds the most natural sounding of them all.
“Maybe the settings are completely out of the ordinary and won't work on paper, but that's not really important. If it sounds good I just leave the fader alone and go with it.
“Maybe you would only need to adjust some small stuff like rolling off the bass end under 50Hz and so on. But I believe that sometimes your first natural feeling of a mix can be the right one."
15. Start with fresh ears (Secon Storey)
"Obviously the inspiration to write music in the first place came from hearing other people's music, but I often find it counterproductive to listen to too much music before starting a session.
“This particularly applies to music in a similar style to that which you might be attempting to write. Everyone's different of course but I think I write more original stuff when I simply have my own melodies and ideas as a starting point rather than be subconsciously coloured by someone else's."
16. Collaborate (Adrian Sherwood)
I’m wise enough to know - and that’s not ego - that I have to keep working with young people who have got fresh ideas, even if those fresh ideas sound similar to something I might have a reference on.
“But I’ve not been anything other than happily amazed by all the people I’ve worked with recently. They’ve got some great understanding of frequencies and I’m always picking up things by working with new people.”
17. Don't get bogged down in the small stuff/know when a turd is a turd (Baio)
"In 2011 I tried to mix my first ever track myself. I spent two months working on the mix, trying to balance everything, make the synths and samples sound good, and the drums hit hard. What I was really doing, however, was overcompensating for a track that wasn't good.
“You can spend forever mixing a turd, but no matter what, a turd will be a turd. Don't be afraid of abandoning something if it doesn't feel right, it's important to continue moving forward when working on music."
18. Don't over think (Kasket)
"Always go with the flow and follow your ears/head. Sometimes we can go way into depth about sound, it's something we all do and it's good sometimes, but the less you think the more you enjoy yourself and get stuff done, then you can do all the editing and cleaning up at the end.
“Think of making a tune like painting, it's very similar to me. Get the colours together and the outline, then blend at the end with a fine brush. Sometimes we overthink things and you find that you end up working on the same sounds for hours, then getting bored and sick of the tune you're making…"
19. Work where you feel most comfortable (Mattew Koma)
"I don't really like working on vocals 'in the studio'. It can feel a bit too… formal. I like to take a song away and listen to it on a plane or while I'm at home. That's when the best ideas come.
“Obviously, the production side of things is a lot more collaborative. I always like to produce my own vocals, but if the person I'm working with - like, say, Tiësto - feels I've got something to offer in the studio, I like to dive in there."
20. Allow space (Gazelle Twin)
"Some of my favourite music uses silence for impact, even the most aggressive noisy music can be all the better for having a bit of space. You definitely find this in Hip Hop. I always think less is more."
21. Listen to your mistakes (Kiasmos)
"…And we mean that literally. Listen closely to your mistakes, are they really mistakes? Many of the best ideas on our album came from these happy accidents.
“Especially technical glitches can be very inspiring. In fact think of how many common uses of equipment today are not their intended uses."
22. Don't let your music be defined by genre labels (Bonobo)
"I grew up listening to folk music with my dad, psychedelic stuff with my mum, the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized in my teens, Dinosaur Jr., hip-hop, jazz, loads of weird shit from charity shops…
“I suppose the music I make has been influenced by all of that - a compilation of those sounds. What do I call it? Does it really matter?"
23. Don't rely too much on pretty visuals on your computer screen (Shook)
"Don't stare too much at the screen and rely too much on visual information and settings and so on, but trust your ears instead.
“It can be very distracting to focus on graphical information that is happening in your DAW or the plug-ins you are using. When playing with different settings for hours and not actually going anywhere it often helps to turn off your monitor screen and dim all the lights and just listen to the track in a different perspective.
“It sounds very simple, but this can really help you to hear the mix better and know what can really improve your mix."
24. Always move forward (Cut Copy)
"We never want to repeat ourselves, so we're always looking for a new direction or set of boundaries for each record.
“This is as much for our own sanity as it is for an outside listener, but I think it's always good to have some idea of what's happening around you, so we certainly took on some current reference points.”
25. Keep the studio distractions to zero (Rex The Dog)
"Have a separate computer for internet and email and stuff like that. For us it's important to keep studio time sacred and separate. The cellphone gets switched off and there's no internet.
“When we need to download plug-ins we'll connect the studio computer, but never for anything else ever."
Tune in for part 2...