Help me make better electronic music.
December 12, 2011 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Help me move forward in producing electronic music.

While I realize that there have been numerous questions already asked on MeFi about how to get started in producing electronic music, I feel that my scenario may be a bit different:

Basically, I’ve been producing my own electronic music for the past ~3 years. I am extremely fluent with FL Studio (the first DAW that I learned, and still use) and am fairly comfortable with Ableton. All of the synths/plugins that I use come from respectable third party developers/software companies, and currently, I am able to achieve a somewhat decent, though notably amateurish, sound.

My problem is that I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling with how far I can take my music. I’ve learned mostly through experimentation (playing a note and then tweaking some knobs) and have a solid grasp on the very basics of composing/synthesis/sampling. However, I feel like in order to make my music sound more “professional,” I need to learn more about the intricacies of mixing/electronic music production in general. The best analogy that I can come up with is this: currently, I know what a compressor does, I know why one would use a compressor, but I don’t know what threshold/ratio will help me achieve a warmer/fuller sound on a sub-bass or kick drum.

This sort of “not understanding the finer details” applies to nearly all aspects of my music, from mixing/equalizing to creating my own custom presets.

In the end, I just want my music to sound better; I want to have much more control over the sounds that I make. Because I am a college student, I don’t have the time or the money to enroll in a music production course; however, I would love suggestions for books/websites/tutorials that could help me out.

Thanks so much Mefi!
posted by lobbyist to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if this request is too broad to get a complete answer just via AskMeFi. I would recommend finding some good websites that you can incorporate into your daily or weekly reading list which will gradually fill in your knowledge gaps.

A few that come to mind:

Also, I think you can get by without knowing everything about compressor/effect settings- Just play with the different presets and trust your ears to find the right setting.

EQing requires more work, but is also easier to wrap your head around. Basically you want to get a full range of frequencies, and as few overlapping frequency parts as possible. You can use stereo panning, bandwidth filtering, sidechain compression, etc to keep from too much overlapping/muddying of your sounds.

If you also have problems with melodies, rhythm patterns, or other composing elements I'd look for Youtube demos/tutorials for inspiration..
posted by p3t3 at 7:54 PM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

What do you really want to achieve? What kind of music do you make? There are stone-cold classic electronic records that aren't much more than a noise box or three plugged into a tape deck, dry. It might help to start listening to the music you like in terms of production values, dirty, clean, clean-masquerading-as-dirty, layered, psychedelic, rockin'/jackin', etc.

There's a ton of process in electronic music, and sometimes the process is the output, but it's typically somewhat ends-oriented, so it helps to at least have some stereotypes to work with so we don't have to recount the entirety of the theories surrounding Dynamics Processors.
posted by rhizome at 7:56 PM on December 12, 2011

Response by poster: @rhizome/@The World Famous -- I totally understand your point(s).

Honestly, what prompted this question was a friend turning me on to Nicholas Jaar's album, Space Is Only Noise. While I realize that this album incorporates a lot of processed field recordings -- obviously different from sounds made through software -- the overall quality of the sound, the "atmosphere" and textures that he achieves, is just so far beyond what I am doing/know how to do.

Ideally, this is the sort of thing that I would someday want to know how to create.

Aside from this, the music that I am really interested in pursuing is more ambient/trance; Above & Beyond/Anjunabeats is something that I would love to emulate.
posted by lobbyist at 8:17 PM on December 12, 2011

Let go of the idea that there is a category of music known as "professional" and that it should be made and you are not making it.

Plus a lot of what you might be missing is done in the mastering.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:23 PM on December 12, 2011

Best answer: One of the most important things with mixing and production, if you're going for a polished, clean, big sound, is to not have more than one instrument occupying the same frequency range. EQ-wise, carve out a space for the kick, a space for the bass, a space for the snare, a space for the lead, every drum sound, every other sound, and don't let pads take over the mix. If you're not doing that already, you'll be amazed at how much clearer the mix sounds when the instruments are not all crowding each other out.

There are guides online that suggest what sorts of frequencies each instrument sits in, and that's a good starting point. Once you have a grasp on that, you can mess around with what works in your mix. This chart is by no means gospel, but you can try using it as a starting point and work from there to see what works best for your production:

Compression settings will depend on the sound of your bass and kick as well as how they relate to everything else in the mix. Play around with them and see what sounds good.

I'm not familiar with Nicolas Jaar, but I listened to this. Note how there isn't really that much going on in the arrangement at once - it's pretty sparse - and each sound is kind of its own island. Nothing clashes.

And yeah, don't underestimate the power of mastering. You can't polish a turd, but a good mastering engineer can do amazing things with a good mix.
posted by wondermouse at 8:37 PM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like you might benefit from learning a little about synthesis I've found this series on sound on sound really helpful, even if I've not directly used the tutorials it helped me get my head around different types of synthesis and what they sound like. Similarly obewannabe has some good tutorials about sound design (for pure data) it's perhaps from a different perspective than you are after but I've found it helps me to get into the head of a sound designer and construct sounds from the bottom up by thinking about the materials and textures they consist of, even if its just about tweaking a kick drum or something like that.
posted by pmcp at 8:40 PM on December 12, 2011

Nicolas Jaar also does a ton of stuff with panning in the songs I heard, as well as delays. Between all that and effective use of EQ, you'll be well on your way, provided you are happy with the basic sounds coming from your synth/plug-in library.
posted by wondermouse at 8:42 PM on December 12, 2011

I find lots of the tutorials on Sonic Academy helpful.
posted by phoebus at 9:10 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like this was made for you. Many other similar offerings there…
posted by dpcoffin at 1:40 AM on December 13, 2011

Agreeing with pmcp here, as well. Now may be the time to focus on 'sound design,' and not using the presets all your VSTs give you. Operator and Analog in Ableton Live are incredible synths, once you've been shown the ropes and done a little experimenting. I'd recommend learning about frequency modulation synths (Operator can be an FM synth if you don't want to plunk down a wad of cash for FM8).
posted by kuanes at 4:20 AM on December 13, 2011

Check out soundcloud; also, if I were you I'd start going to small local electronica shows. Members of the smaller bands would likely be willing to talk to you after/before the show about their process. Also check out any Ableton Live local usergroups. Some folks offer free workshops to help find students for classes/tutoring.
posted by ejaned8 at 7:27 AM on December 13, 2011

Best answer: I've been doing electronic music for well over 30 years.

Unfortunately, there's too much to write :-D so let me concentrate on specifics that can be useful.

Of course, the most important thing is learning how to listen - listen to other people's music to get ideas and learn about production, and listening to your own to fix it.

What are you using to listen to your material? In particular, for electronic music there's a whole area of sound from about 40Hz to 120Hz that's very important but that most speakers don't reproduce well at all - and if you can't control that area of your mix, your sound will be murky.

I'm assuming you're on a budget. If you have the money, getting a decent set of monitors with a subwoofer is essential - if you don't, consider spending the money on a decent set of headphones. I'm a little out of the loop on headphones, but Grado has always been a high-quality brand that isn't expensive. Look for something that cleanly represents that low bass.

Now you have something to listen on, start by really listening to the production of some Great Albums. Everyone starts by listening to Kraftwerk, and you should too. A friend of mine once worked in a studio where they were working - they spent 40 hours on the kick drum part of one track. I'd say this attention to detail is obvious in each second of their music.

While I'm not a massive Björk-head, I think Vespertine is an astonishing album, and the production particularly shines. Much of the characteristic sound is due to the guys from Matmos, and the album Supreme Balloon is another brilliant example.

Now you know what you're looking for, how do you actually get that sound?

Let's start with Tom Swirly's Secret Law of Music Production - not that it's that secret but hey, it's really useful and applicable to all styles.

In production, each sound can be placed on three axes: EQ, reverb (wet-dry) and panning, in decreasing order of importance. If you want two sounds to blend, they should be as close together as possible in all of these axes - if you want them to stand apart, they should be as far apart as possible.

Take a classic example, Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" The guitar is wailing away, and then Jimi's voice comes in, right in the middle of the speakers. Even though he's practically whispering, you can hear him perfectly, because his voice is ultra-dry and everything else is washed in reverb.

Now, panning is the least important component - if for no other reason than a lot of people will not be hearing your material in stereo, or in a situation where the stereo is less audible. And reverb should be put on close to the end - like adding salt to food, you can be adding a little, "not quite enough" during the mix and fix it at the end, but if you start with a lot of reverb, it's hard to avoid ending up with a murky sound.

So EQ is your first weapon in getting a good mix.

Getting tight, powerful, non-boomy drums is hard, so let's consider how you'd use EQ to get that.
For drum (or drum-like things) you want to mix each "surface" or sound separately. Even though a lot of my material doesn't use standard drums, I still use the names of a standard drum kit - so let's assume that you have a kick drum, a snare, a high hat (or some other metronomic sound), toms, and cymbals.

For each surface, I mentally take a fairly small area of the frequency spectrum, and give it to that drum surface as its "sweet spot". For example, I might take the region from 60-80Hz to the kick drum, and 600Hz-1000Hz for the snare.

Now, put a separate EQ on each surface, boost the sweet spot and cut everything else. Then when you play back just the drums, you should have the pleasant phenomenon that you can hear all the parts even if you move the level faders quite dramatically.

But now you want to make the drums into a single instrument - so what you want to happen is that the drums as a whole blend but also that the most important parts, usually the "kick" and the "snare", stand out.

There are thousands of ways to do this - in a typical recording session, about half the setup time is spent on the drum kit, and about half the mixing time too. As an example, a classic sound would add some EQ to the kick drum so you can hear the impact and not just the low frequencies, add a short delay to the snare to get that "slapback" sound, and then put all the drums into one specific reverb (avoid putting too much of the kick into your reverb, it'll get murky and you won't know why...)

The same technique for separating and blending generalizes to your entire mix.

Now, let's move on to compression. A compressor is a tool for making the soft parts of your track louder - or you can think of it as making the loud parts of your track softer, it's symmetrical. :-D A technical buzzword for this is "gain reduction" - because you're reducing the dynamical range of your track.

This is essential, because your ear hears logarithmically, but sound combines linearly. Evolution gave you this gift so you can hear that tiny twig break behind you even during a thunderstorm.

If a good singer is performing in a room without amplification, comparing the sound amplitude at the softest and at the loudest isn't just a ratio of two or three to one, but can easily be a thousand to one or more. You have no trouble listening to that in a room - but if there are other instruments, since sound adds linearly, you won't be able to hear the soft sounds, or the loud sounds will be too loud.

Electronic instruments don't have quite the dynamic range of acoustic instruments but still have the same property.

Compression is at least as important as EQ - I call it the MSG of music, and it has the same property that if you add a little more, it will almost always make the music sound better, and yet you can keep turning the compression up and end up with something disgusting.

By the end of my mix, there is likely to be a compressor on every channel - but I try to delay doing it until forced to.

Compressors come in all shapes and sizes with different "knobs" (it's almost all software these days, of course). The compression ratio measures "how much" compression there is - a compression ratio of 1:1 is "nothing at all" (though there are still reasons to use a 1:1 compressor occasionally), a 2:1 compressor is "medium", 4:1 "strong". Less is more here, I often start with all my compressors at 1:1.2 or something like that, but sometimes heavy compression here can sound really good.

A compression ratio of less than 1:1 is perfectly possible - these are called "expanders" and this has the effect of increasing the dynamic range of your track. This isn't so useful in acoustic music, but in electronic music there are often algorithmic sounds with interesting internal details which are hard to hear - an expander will help here.

The threshold indicates how loud or soft the sound has to be to trigger the compression. Almost always, this should be set so the input is "nearly always" "just above" the threshold - so the compressor is "just triggering".

There's the gate time - how quickly the gain reduction works, how fast the compressor "moves the fader up and down". A short gate time means that the compressor reacts very fast, but the downside is that you can hear the compressor "pump". Again, tweak this "in between" so you're "just hitting" the gate time but you aren't hearing pumping.

Finally, there's the "knee" or "smoothness" of the compressor. This controls how much compression you get as the intensity of the sound exceeds the threshold. A "soft knee" will bring the compression on smoothly (as opposed to a "hard knee").

We're getting near the end of our mix here, because if you've put the right EQ and right compression on then you should be able to get a listenable result even if you move the level faders around somewhat. You really should spend very little time tweaking the level settings compared to the EQ and compression, and if you find yourself having to record performances on your level faders to get a good result then you should go back and fix your EQ and compression. (Fades, where you continuously move the fader from one level to another, are a different matter and are often essential, particularly at the end of a track.)

This is the point where you can start to add the "final" reverb for the track.

At the very last stage, if you're doing any sort of commercial music, you should use an "ultra maximizer" or "lookahead compressor" on the whole mix - there are different names for this concept. While it has the same results as classic compression, making your mix louder, it does this without reducing the dynamic range! When I first heard of this, I felt it was impossible, but how these compressors work is looking ahead at the actual digital signal and flipping over short peaks to make a signal with exactly the same harmonic content and intensity, and yet all the digital peaks lower (so you can then crank the sound up a little more).

I personally use the Ozone mastering system, a plug-in that works with pretty well any recording setup, but that isn't cheap. But unfortunately it's hard to get away without some such effect. If you ever wondered why you'd "normalized" your mix so that you were covering the entire range of the CD/mp3, and yet your disc/mp3 sounds much quieter than commercial releases, well, now you know.

Again, this is like MSG - it's really easy to turn this effect way up, lose all your dynamic range, and sound terrible. Well, I think it's terrible but most radio music sounds like this these days... Still, you should keep a lid on it as much as possible.

Frankly, if you had some money to spend on this issue, I'd put it all into Ozone. There's a new version out, which looks good, but even the version I have is great - you can either throw their standard mastering effects onto your track, which will make pretty well any track sound "punchier" and "more airy" and "louder", or you can tweak a huge amount too. They have a decent student discount, too.

Reading back I feel I've left out as much as I hit - but I hope I got the basics, and if nothing else, it gives you a place to start!

References: Here's an album recorded live in a studio that I was a performer on, mastered and mixed; and here's a completely composed electronic track that I wrote, performed, mixed and mastered (before the days of Ozone and lookahead compressors at home, so it's a little soft for today's radio, but I'm not sure I'd change it if I did it today, as I like the dynamics...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:27 AM on December 13, 2011 [21 favorites]

(and boy, do I crave an edit feature just to fix a few repetition errors in there... nothing substantial though...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:21 AM on December 13, 2011

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