Super Producer
January 4, 2010 7:49 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn more about music production, specifically hip hop / electronica. I have my head around the basic equipment that is required, but know nothing about the techniques and workflow that a producer like Pharell / Moby uses. I can quite easily put together a 8 bar loop using Reason / Live with my Akai and Oxygen. But it sounds like a cheap loop. I want to learn about the elements in a good arrangement, composition, the tools and techniques used to get a professional sound, and the workflow that producers use to build a song efficiently from scratch. Learn me more about hooks, compression, managing samples, recording vocals, appregiators, etc. At the end of the day I would like to create a song that is radio ready while having fun and not breaking the bank.
posted by kaizen to Education (11 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Can't help you with your brands of music specifically, but in general I find that producing music is a lot like playing an instrument, because:
1- It requires a lot of practice to get good at it
2- Lots of good ideas on style/sound are constantly being circulated
I've found the best way to improve my amateur producer chops is to attempt to "cover" a song in the same way a musician would. For you, this might mean finding the samples used in a track you particularly like ( is a good resource for hip-hop) and trying to rebuild the track using your setup, or simply using a couple of patches to recreate an electronic beat. This works for me, as I like to learn things intuitively, but there is certainly no shortage of google-able information if you want guidance on a particular element of your quest. There is no escaping the need, however, to spend some quality time with your gear.
posted by caminovereda at 9:13 AM on January 4, 2010

bob katz
posted by Leon Backwards at 9:27 AM on January 4, 2010

Sound On Sound magazine usually has a feature or two from producers talking about how the put their stuff together, along with tutorials on recording vocals and different instruments, how various effects and software work, etc, and pretty much everything else you want to know. It's often a very technical read, but worth diving in I reckon to get a feel for how everything fits together. It's also biased towards the production end of things rather than the composition, but there are often articles on that side of things too.

Ultimately though, a hell of a lot of people learnt this kind of stuff through experimentation rather than reading up on any formal process, and even the professionals will just throw stuff together from time to time to see what it sounds like, so it's always worth just connecting your kit together in different ways and hearing what it all does for yourself. Ultimately with everything available in software (and a lot of good freeware) from synths to effects and mastering tools, it's a better time now than ever to just start tweaking knobs until it clicks so to speak. There's certainly no magic device for coming up with a professional sound (as much as I wish there was), so you should expect a certain learning curve one way or another.
posted by iivix at 9:42 AM on January 4, 2010

you really just have to do it a lot, and stick with it. listen to a lot of music with a critical ear, mess around with effects, notice what they do and see if you can figure out how they relate to songs you like. but mostly it's just about doing it a lot - eventually you'll reach a point where you have your own workflow and creative process. reading interviews with other musicians you like can help get you some insight but little in comparison to just experimenting and practice.
posted by god particle at 10:04 AM on January 4, 2010

You will need to do a lot of reading and a LOT of work. In terms of radio-readiness, there is a pretty strict sound that Clear Channel goes for that almost always involves a lot of expensive equipment.

You can, however, make awesome-sounding tracks with very little outboard gear now. I recently got an excellent piece of advice from a great mix engineer that I can't believe I never really thought of before, so this is as good a place as any to pass it on in the hopes that it might help:

When you are mixing, you can't really listen to the music; you have to listen to it emotionlessly, as a complex set of frequencies to bring into the proper balance with each other. In other words, don't rock out too much while you're working. Once a day is plenty; the rest of the time should be spent, you know, working.

As for compression, just realize that for most people, it takes quite a bit of time and experimentation to REALLY hear what it's doing and how to use it well. Even people who have ended up being masters of compression have said this. I have been recording/mixing/producing for about six years pretty much every day, and I am just now starting to feel like I'm getting the hang of how to use it.

Basically, you can't rush the process. With songwriting, you have to fill up several books full of bad lyrics before you might be lucky enough to get something great. With production, you just have to make track after track. I advise you to get a track as close as you can to the way you want it to sound, but don't belabor it in the beginning. Once you feel like you're not sure how to make it sound better anymore, start from scratch with something new. You will naturally incorporate what you learned from your mistakes on your last track, and the next one will be better.

Good luck!
posted by nosila at 10:12 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Probably the best way to go about things is to make sure you understand how various effects and other parts of whatever software you might use work, and why you might use them.

But really there's no right or wrong (well, to some extent). You've just got to use your ears and decide what you think sounds good. Music tends to end up as more than a sum of its parts. Your drum loop might sound shonky on its own, but might not sound so bad once you've got your guitar part or whatever down. The beautiful thing about software is that you can go back and alter pretty much everything to taste.

There's also loads of technical stuff on acoustics/psychoacoustics that might be useful to at least get a general grasp of, even if they you don't utilise them in your music, the knowledge might help you spot problems in your own work.

As mentioned before, Sound on Sound is a great resource.

Sound is actually strangely interesting once you get into it.
posted by iamcrispy at 10:14 AM on January 4, 2010

Workflow, gear and techniques are meaningless except as a means to express what you want to express.

Listen, record, practice, mess around with your gear, talk to other artists, listen a lot more, record a lot more, play your stuff for other people, listen even more, try to make stuff that sounds like what you are listening to as practice, and always hone your own musical taste & style during the entire process.

Once you have done this enough, your workflow and technique will magically appear in front of your eyes.

Probably not what you wanted to hear. You can always press the arpeggiator button on your synth if you want to take the shortcut.
posted by Aquaman at 10:15 AM on January 4, 2010

There's an online course about that, but it's a little expensive and you need to have a Mac and Apple Logic software:
But it covers most of what you're interested in learning.
posted by dayintoday at 10:21 AM on January 4, 2010

Some time ago I read some website that was demonstrating how your ears naturally EQ music. They played a sample with a full bass sound for 30 seconds, then immediately afterward, the same sample with much less bass. They were pointing out how the first 5-7 seconds, it sounds really flat, but that feeling goes away as your brain adjusts the sound.

My theory is that this is part of the problem, it's very hard to get a true sense of the sound when you are focused in on a song or a loop. Possibly solutions: periodically stop what you're doing and listen to something professionally produced to reset your ears; include samples from professionally produced music in your stuff and bring other sounds up to meet them; sample something and try to copy it, then use a spectrum analyzer to see where the differences are.

Other tips:

It can be hard to get anything to sound good in Reason, the basic samples are kind of flat IMO. Maybe shop around for a different sample library?

I found that adding a limiter on the master output helps a lot, and now I do that every time. You can add EQ and even a touch of reverb there -- it helps to bring all the sounds together. Also BBE Sonic Maximizer is a cheap, easy way to improve the sound.

I've heard a lot of amateur-produced tracks and even ones that I thought were amazing in terms of arrangement and composition didn't quite have that professional sheen. I think this means that that's what a mastering engineer does, and it is a dark, complex art involving multiband compressors or something that's beyond me. I've always wanted to send my music to be mastered and see if this is true.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2010

MacProVideo 3 days $1!
posted by dpcoffin at 12:51 PM on January 4, 2010

One of the most influential producers is Brian Eno. He is not a trained musician, and he never went to any music school or institute to learn production. He's not a great technical wizard. What sets him apart? Fripp, who recorded seminal music with Eno, put it this way: "Eno has the best taste of anyone I know". That's the key. This cannot really be taught. What can be said, is to follow the advice of: use your ears, and use your taste. Experiment a ton. If you like something, use it, or if it doesn't fit, file it away for future use. Don't get lost in the technical stuff. Something one of the guys from Autechre observed: a lot of DAWs have these very attractive graphs, and it is easy to start graphing your music - basically composing visually... and that's a huge mistake, because it takes you away from what the music actually sounds like vs pretty pictures. So, don't get obsessed over visualization - another way of saying: use your ears, not your eyes... the option of using your eyes didn't really exist once upon a time, and that distraction wasn't there - so get back to your ears. Learn one DAW or system - well. Because otherwise you'll get drawn into collecting and polishing and you'll accumulate hardware and software endlessly - master of none. Become the master of one. And you don't need to keep looking for more and more - Eno frequently would work with just one piece of equipment... that was actually broken! But he liked the quirk or limitation of the brokenness forcing him to use it differently from the way it was "intended" - the result was liberating and original... again, he looked at some unassuming old gear and heard potential. Because it is all about ideas and using your ears. Another Eno quote/paraphrase: the great thing about working in a studio is that you are not crashing airplanes - you can afford to go wrong and nothing catastrophic happens, you just start over again with another idea. Experiment. Use your ears. Have no fear. Don't obsess over technical details. Master one DAW/equipment - work with it until you feel you're ready for something different. Did I mention - for the hundredth time - use your ears? Good luck - I too am looking at that road... for me, it's Reason 4 and the Axiom Pro 61 - I doubt I'll create masterpieces, but I don't doubt I'll have fun!
posted by VikingSword at 4:18 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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