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Anybody who has ever tried to learn music production, quickly realizes that professionally-produced music is so much harder than it seems to create! Even very simple-sounding pop or top-40 music is deceptively difficult to master. So much invisible work goes into perfecting the sounds. New producers quickly find that they want to learn how to make their beats sound fuller. Pro music has this “full” and “polished” quality that’s hard to replicate.
Read on and you will learn some great tips to start giving your own music that professional “punch.” Some people will be reading this article as they work on producing original music, while other people will be working with instrumentals they have bought or downloaded, so I will give advice in two sections, one for each group of people.
First, for people who are producing original beats, here are some tips to make them sound full.
Producing Original Beats
Arrangement is the most important
This is one of the hardest things to learn, because it can involve music theory as well as the technical aspects of music production. But at the end of the day, no amount of “producing” can compete with a song that was put together really effectively in the first place.
Don’t despair, because the best way to learn this is by example. Listen to music and think about the arrangement as you do. You could even take notes, for example “In the verse there is a kick, snare, bass, and a synth. In the chorus the hi-hat comes in and another synth.”
For a fun challenge, listen to some very minimally-produced pop songs and see how they use arrangement in interesting ways. One of my favorites from this standpoint is “Boom Boom Pow” by Black-Eyed Peas. (On that note, I consider will.i.am to be a very underrated producer in general.) This song could hardly be more minimal. The different instruments are used very effectively and sparingly. It is so minimal that if you took any one element away, the song would fall apart. Other examples of minimally-produced, yet effective, songs are “Royals” by Lorde, “Shake it Off” and “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift, and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke.
One valuable lesson you may take here is that “less is more.” One of my favorite ways to say this is “simplify to amplify.” Sometimes, adding more and more layers to a song can end up diminishing the power of the song, making it confusing instead of powerful. The songs I listed above all have simple yet powerful arrangements.
This is one of the most classic tricks for beat-makers and producers. It is especially effective for drums and percussion, but it can work on any synth or VST sound as well. The basic idea is this: when you hear a snare sound in a professionally-produced song, you are probably not hearing a single snare sound from a sample pack. You are probably hearing a half-dozen sounds layered together. Play with the volume and pitch of the different samples as you layer them- if you are not careful you may create something ugly. Even drums have a “pitch” and they can definitely clash if they are not “in tune” with one another. Use your ears, and don’t be afraid to keep experimenting. I recommend having a few sample packs to play around with. As with most aspects of being a good producer, the most valuable learning tools will be trial-and-error, and comparing your music to reference tracks. No amount of technical explanation can take the place of those two!
Add Synths to Exciting Parts
This is a great trick that is often used and seldom noticed. A saw (a basic type of synth) is notable because its sound is extremely thick. If you play a saw through a spectrum analyzer, you will see that it fills the frequency spectrum more than almost any other kind of instrument. So in exciting parts of your song (such as choruses or drops) try adding sustained saw chords. If you lower the volume until they are barely audible, they will do a great job of “filling up” the frequency spectrum of your song, and making it sound saturated. You could also add a rhythmic part that follows the drum pattern, instead of playing sustained chords.
Use EQ to Bring Out Overtones
When you play a note on an instrument, what is really happening? The instrument creates a frequency that corresponds with that note- that’s called the fundamental frequency. (A great example is A=440 Hz, a very common reference point.) But that’s not all that happens- the instrument also creates a series of “overtones,” which are higher frequencies layered onto the fundamental. Every instrument has its own unique set of overtones, which is the reason different instruments have different timbres. (If you could only hear the fundamentals of each instrument, they would all sound nearly the same.) A sine wave is just the fundamental frequency, and for what it’s worth, flutes and whistling are two acoustic “instruments” that have very pure tones- that is, very little in the way of overtones. In reference to my last point, saw waves have some of the most overtones of any instrument, hence their full frequency spectrum.
Keeping this in mind, experiment with EQ to bring out overtones. This can be very effective on bass and kick. Often when people mix low-frequency instruments like these, they are rightly concerned with the fundamental frequencies- that’s where all the power is. But listeners often play music on phones, earbuds, and computers these days- and as you know, small speakers don’t have great bass response. So when you hear a song played back on a small device, any kick or bass you can hear is actually the overtones. The fundamental has effectively disappeared.
Boosting around 7k can give kicks a wonderful presence, this is a classic place to boost. Bass can vary, but try anything from 650 Hz through 2500 Hz and see what works.
Play around with boosting frequencies in other instruments too. Remember to do it while other instruments are playing back, so you can hear how it makes the instrument fit in your mix.
Balance Bass Frequencies
This is one of the most important technical aspects of mixing music. Bass frequencies create the feeling, the power, the movement in the music. You can think of bass frequencies as a beast that must be tamed. As powerful as they are, they can be destructive if not handled correctly. The two issues they can create, are to eat up your headroom, and to create muddy, unclear-feeling mixes.
Headroom refers to the space you have to make your mix louder. Mixes cannot be made louder infinitely. There are limits before your music becomes distorted or starts clipping. Bass frequencies require the most power, and therefore they can disproportionately eat the headroom if not handled properly.
Basically, you need to make sure the different tracks in the bass frequencies (40-200 Hz) have their own space. Typically, kick and bass tracks both use this frequency range. It’s important to use EQ to give each its own space. Cut the 40-100 range in one track, and cut the 100-200 range in the other track. I typically give the kick the lowest frequencies, and the bass the higher frequencies in this range. But you can try both in each mix, and just choose whatever feels best.
Another option is to not use EQ at all for bass frequencies. Use side-chain compression instead. This is a powerful tool, and taming bass frequencies is one of its most important uses. Since the bass usually has more sustain than the kick (that is, the sound holds for longer) I typically side-chain the bass to duck every time the kick plays. Make sure to play with your threshold and release times to create the right feeling. If you use the effect too strongly, your mix will feel like it is “pumping.” This is occasionally done intentionally, often in EDM. But usually a more subtle effect is better.
Use Reverb and Delay Effectively
This is one of the hardest tips to generalize. The use of reverb and delay in a mix is highly dependent on the arrangement. There are a few general guidelines that I can provide, though. Adding some reverb makes a mix sound much fuller than a totally dry mix. Yet reverb is very easy to overdo, which will quickly make your mix sound “soupy” or “muddy.” Thick, and hard to hear detail. Remember, “simplify to amplify.”
When producing music electronically, I generally recommend having reverb or delay on one or two tracks playing at a time, max. Try using reverb on lead tracks or on snares; this can make a very noticeable difference to a track. Reverb and delay should pretty much never be used on kick or bass, and your reverb should be high-passed, as reverb frequencies below 500 Hz or so tend to make a mix muddy. I often send my reverb out parallel to the track, and high-pass the reverb track.
Other than these general tips though, other aspects of reverb and delay- when to use it, what decay time to use, how wet or dry to make it- vary song to song. There’s no substitute for experience. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Try bouncing out a few different reverb alternatives of your mix and play them on your car- I often find that that system reveals when I am using too much.
Use EQ to Mix Effectively
I covered bits and pieces of EQ use in other tips. But when you have your arrangement set, you have layered your samples, you have added synths and delay and reverb at appropriate times- EQ is one of your most effective tools left. You have all your frequencies in place, and you want to ensure they are all being used properly.
Try google-searching “EQ Cheat Sheet” and you will find a few graphs that relate the different ranges of the frequency spectrum with different feelings, such as “boomy” “boxy” “presence” and “air.” This was a huge benefit for me personally, and really helped me keep my technical knowledge in touch with the actual experience of music. By learning these charts, you can start to translate feelings into frequencies and vice-versa.
So, listen to your mix, and listen to a reference. If you notice your percussion does not sound “airy” enough compared to your reference, boost the highest frequencies. Or if you notice your rhythm section sounds too muddy, cut some of the 600-1000 Hz frequencies. If your mix could use more warmth and fullness, boost 250-500 Hz. Do this to give all of your tracks the right “tone” to work together. And sometimes the tone of a track can change at certain parts. Like the earlier example of a synth that’s a lead part in one section, and a rhythm part in another section. You might want to boost the 2k range when it’s a lead instrument, to give it more presence.
Working with Pre-Made Instrumentals
And here are tips for people who are working with instrumentals that are already mixed. These tips can also be used on the master bus, for those who are producing original beats, or they can even be used on individual instrument tracks.
Compression is one of the subtlest production tools, and most difficult to master, but it’s unbelievably powerful, and it’s crucial to learn for any producer! Poorly used compression is one of the most basic giveaways that an inexperienced producer worked on something. The basic concept of compression is quite simple- it automatically reduces the volume of the loudest moments in a track, allowing you to raise the overall volume. But the devil is in the details- there are so many nuances to the way compression is applied.
For new producers, I highly recommend getting a VST based on the classic LA-2A compressor. I use Waves CLA-2A which is one of the cheapest when it’s on sale. It only has two knobs- gain reduction, and output volume. Yet it’s extremely powerful and has its own beautiful sound that seems to magically make nearly anything sound better. This compressor is an excellent starting point to learning the basics.
Compression can be used on individual instrumental tracks, on your master, or both. Be careful not to apply too much compression to the master, though. A track that is too compressed overall will sound lifeless and un-dynamic.
Use EQ to Boost Certain Frequencies.
Each range of the frequency spectrum has its own character and feeling. Raising certain ranges can change the perceived loudness of a track. First, try raising the frequencies around 8k-10k Hz. This can make a track sound “brighter” and make details easier to hear. You can also raise the volume of frequencies around 2000-2500 Hz. The human ear is very sensitive to this range, because we use it to understand speech. Increasing this range can add a lot of “presence” and make something sound more “in-your-face.” But be careful; since we are sensitive to this range, it can be fatiguing over long periods as well. Again, I recommend listening back to the track loud. You should be able to feel if this range is getting too harsh. Don’t forget to check out the Fletcher-Munson curve! This is a very valuable resource that many new producers don’t know about. It shows how the human ear is sensitive to different frequencies.
Distortion, which is essentially random noise, can actually be very musical. Distortion first became a musical concept in the 1960s- guitarists would intentionally play through their tube amps too loudly to create a now-ubiquitous “distorted tone.” In technical terms, it actually adds overtones to music- it can sound musical because it is literally adding more music! There are several ways to achieve distortion. One of the simplest is with a VST. Variety of Sound has an excellent free plugin called Ferric TDS that emulates the type of distortion you get when you record too loud onto tape. It has a handy limiting feature to make sure you don’t clip (and get digital distortion!) Once the limiter is activated, you can push your input signal as hard as you choose to add distortion. Of course, distortion has its own very specific feeling. So it will sound fantastic in some contexts and awful in others. That said, sometimes adding just a small amount can add fullness without noticeably changing the timber.
And There You Have It!
With these tips, you have a great starting point to making your beats sound fuller. Like I said, these tips can work on many genres of music, and they can work whether you are producing original beats or processing instrumentals that you found or bought. And don’t be afraid to try out professional mixing services. They can be surprisingly inexpensive, and it can be a great way to compare your mix to a professional’s, and to learn by example. Keep working hard, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.