37 music production tips from the pros
9th Feb 2010 | 11:51
Advice from Liam Howlett, Will Gregory, Trevor Horn and more
Head out into the wild world of the internet and it seems that everyone has a music production tip to offer you, but what you really want are words of wisdom from the people who've been there and done it.
Lucky for you, then, that we've collated 37 tips from experienced professionals. If you can't learn something from these guys, we can only assume that you know it all already.
1. Liam Howlett, Prodigy
"Buy Superman albums. Y'know, big theme tunes from films. You get a horn section playing a chord and just sample a short section of that. If I hear a chord I like I sample it."
2. Jamie Lidell
"Putting rhythm parts down simultaneously is the essence of capturing a human feel. And sonically, the spillover between the mics in the room is often your best buddy."
3. Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran
"Having a studio at home is like having a gym at home - sometimes you're just better off going out."
4. The Stafford Brothers
"Use high-quality sounds. If you are over-EQing a sound to try and make it fit it's the wrong sound. Move on and find a new one. Plus, always try and read reviews about gear and then download demo versions of plug-ins to get an idea of what they are like."
5. Paul Hartnoll, Orbital
"Vaughn Williams: why does he always write in E minor? Blannng! E minor always sounds so full of mystery and mood. You can almost smell it. Move your chord up a bit and suddenly it's gone."
Dave Spoon: likes Reason, but digs his 808, too.
6. Dave Spoon
"At Night [2006 single] was completely Reason. I wrote it in about two hours. Reason synths, mixed in Reason, the works - it was a defining moment for me."
7. Steve Angello
"I use Logic's own plug-ins. I want to make it as simple as possible. I want a basic sound that I can create myself. If you know your tools then you're king of the studio."
"I always take care to make my mixes sound quite old. If you try to do a record that's 'of the moment' you can't be sure that a DJ will play it in ten years time."
9. Prok & Fitch
"We've found this wicked reverb made by QuikQuak called Fusion Field. We've started putting pretty much everything through it other than the kick. We use it on the shortest possible setting so you can't really hear it, but it's started giving our stuff loads of room and it really makes the sounds stand out."
10. Will Gregory, Goldfrapp
"I'm all for progress but the time you spend upgrading your gear is time you spend not making music. We worked with Flood on our last album and he turned up with Logic 4.8 running on OS 9. The results sounded pretty good to me."
Alex Gopher: elbows off the table please young man.
11. Alex Gopher
"It may seem strange working with a compressor on the master channel during the mix but you get a much better sound. It's hard to balance the sound if you mix then add compression later."
12. Luke Vibert
"Depending on what mood I'm in, I can get loads of beats going or just do tiny little bits if I'm not in the mood to do full-on tracks. You should keep everything that you do then there'll come a day when you finish 20 tracks in one day because all they needed was a little bit of arranging."
13. Steve Lipson
"I can't understate the importance of food and parking when you're recording. So long as you've got food and parking then nothing else matters. Technology is nothing without parking."
14. Trevor Horn
"If you want to get somewhere in the music business you should work really hard. That much is obvious. The important bit is that then, if you get some success, don't go out and celebrate. Get back in the studio and get the next stuff sorted out. Otherwise you're like fleas on a dog. You've got to remember that the dog rolls over every few months and a load of fleas fall off…"
15. A Guy Called Gerald
"I have Sundays as my 'sampling days'. I go through old records and CDs and build my sample libraries. Now I've got an entire planet full of sounds I can go through."
16. Arno Cost
"To make a good lead synth, work the sound with effects like reverb, delay and chorus to make it sound large and then add things like a bitcrusher or a phaser or flanger. After that, compression is really useful as it gives you the dynamic but it has to be tactful and well adjusted to sound good. I use the Classic Compressor from Kjaerhus Audio. It's really easy to use and very powerful. I also put a limiter on the master at zero dB.
"Then, I put equalisers on almost every channel (lead, bass, kick, snares, FX, vocal...) to adjust the frequencies. The more you work your samples one by one, the more your beat will sound good."
17. Sigur Rós
"The mic we use most is an old Neumann U47 through a Urei 1178 compressor/limiter. That's the set up we use for all of Jónsi's vocals."
18. Neon Circus
"I can't really explain how to write a track, I think it just happens. We always start with a riff or a beat and go from there. There is one tip a writer gave to me that I took on board: 'Don't over complicate things. If a person with little musical talent can play a melody you wrote on a piano, it's accessible and they'll remember it. Then it's a hook.'"
"One of the hardest things to learn is when not to compress something. I always thought that I should be struggling with compressor settings to get them right but if the instrument sounds fine exactly as it was recorded, just bring up the fader.
"Having a globally objective perspective is also really hard - forcing you to listen to something in the context of the song, not soloed out, and loud. Sometimes, I still have to fight the knee-jerk reaction to process everything and compress it all."
20. Olav Basoski
"The best tip I can think of to become very prolific is to spend less time in the studio! When you're listening to a track over and over again when producing, it really is inevitable that at some point you're just not hearing it anymore, even though you might not even notice this yourself!"
21. Utah Saints
"The biggest Eureka moment for us was probably the simplest, and seems obvious but can really change your perspective, especially if you've been working for a long time. It was 'go on how it sounds, not how it looks'.
"Way too often the way a mix looks - 16dB boost at 800k, no compression, etc - can affect the way people hear their own mixes. Every now and again, turn off the computer monitor, or don't look at the desk and just trust your ears!"
22. Super8 & Tab
"There can't be anything that is not really needed. Everything there has to be there for a reason otherwise those unnecessary hits might destroy the groove and eat up the dynamics which are needed for the other elements. So that's why we always chop our loops into pieces and we take all the unnecessary bits away.
"When there are lots of drum parts, it is really important to use the same quantise for all the drums - also for bits chopped from the loops. Tuning the drums to the key of the song can make a big difference too.
"Sometimes, if we feel drums don't have enough drive or roughness, we do some parallel mixing and send our drum buss to another buss and compress the hell out of it and then mix it with the original drum buss. All the UAD plug-ins are brilliant for drum buss mixing. There's no other plug-ins that can make so nice a top-end and we really like to use UAD's Fairchild to do our slamming parallel mixing."
Simian Mobile Disco: he's behind you.
23. Simian Mobile Disco
"Before archiving a track that you have finished or given up on, try deactivating all the active tracks and reactivating all the inactive tracks. It might be shit on its own but it might be the start of a whole new direction for the track, or something new."
"Almost all the bass sounds in my productions from the last five years came out of Spectrasonics Trilogy. It has an amazing warm and full sound. You almost just need a good bass drum and a Trilogy bass sound and the track is already rocking!"
25. Mr Hudson
"For me there are no rules. I might start with a sample or play some audio in. Or I might plug in a synth and fiddle about. My start up template is 16 audio channels, one record channel, six MIDI instrument channels and a mastering preset which I punch in and out to get a rough idea of what a really squashed radio mix will sound like.
"It feels like I've only scratched the surface with Logic. I love the speed of editing and jumping between arrange page and mix, also working with MIDI and audio at the same time. I probably compress things harder than most people and I mix quite loud. I start with kick, snare and vocal then build round that. It's all about drums. Also, I chop my audio quite brutally and don't worry about everything being snapped to the grid or quantised. I like to keep a loose, organic feel where appropriate. Golden rule is: There are no rules. Just, does it sound good?"
26. Karl Hyde, Underworld
"When I'm writing lyrics and need inspiration, I go for a walk and look at everything around me. I carry a notebook and write it down. When it comes to recording, I sing them straight from the notebook."
27. Yves La Rock
"I've just go hold of Spectrasonics' new Trilian plug-in. It's amazing for bass and it sounds fantastic. It makes the bass sound warmer and rounder allowing you to extend the bandwidth of the bassline."
28. Pete Gooding
"To get a great sound to your drums I would use buss compression on your kick and bass at the same time. You can treat them individually but it's better to isolate them both then put them through the same 'bass' buss. Then compress them together. This will give you a much bigger sound."
Vince Clarke: a fan of happy accidents.
29. Vince Clarke
"Mistakes and accidents often make the songs. If I've got a musical part to be sequenced then I'll already have an idea of the kind of sound I think I'd like and would suit the track. But then, as you program a sound you'll invariably end up with something different. It keeps it fresh and innovative that way."
"My number one bit of gear is my Roland SRE-555 Chorus Echo. It adds movement and takes away the rigidness of the computer as soon as you run a signal through it."
31. Fatboy Slim
"I always find a vocal hook first. That's the most difficult part because other things can always be programmed. I usually stretch a few things but the rule is if it's within three semitones I'll use if but if it's eight semis out I'm wasting my time."
32. Peter Hook
"If you start with a great song you can't really go wrong. There is a saying we have in Manchester: 'You can't polish a turd'…
"I suppose one of the greatest tricks that Martin Hannett [top producer] ever taught us was the use of ambience to create space in a record by pumping the instrument back into a room. So you would record what you wanted then pump it into bigger speakers to give it more space…
"And then you would record the space back. I think that was the biggest thing for me and was the biggest change in a recording technique because it just sort of opened your mind. I mean Martin Hannett was completely mad, he was like a mad professor and literally his imagination had no bounds and if anything, he was always teaching you to be as mad as you like!"
"I always start a session with iZotope Ozone strapped to my master channel. D. Ramirez tipped me off about the CD Widener & Enhancer preset a few years back and it still beats everything else I have hands down for making your music jump out in front of you.
"Start with it on and run all your sounds really hot. A lot of producers who know the theory behind engineering chastise me when they see my mixes. 'You have to start with the kick at about 60% and leave a lot of headroom for mastering etc.' But they're also the people that who ask me how my mix sounds so punchy and loud. I've had calls from mastering engineers from the best studios in the country ask me how I did it."
34. Steve Lawler
"When writing and producing the first thing I do is build the drums, starting with a nice kick or maybe two kicks EQ'd to sound right. When I add percussion I always un-quantise them by pulling back the track delay so it brings the percussion slightly off the kick so you get a more live organic sounding drum loop, I do the same with shakers, tambourines - it all makes your drums more organic.
"When I come to add bass or bottom end to my track, these days I use sub bass more than anything to give the track a heavy dark sound. I don't use any bass sound or module, I simply open up the EXS sampler and play the MIDI controller with no sample going through and get that tone. I then play in my bass melody on the lower keys, and use the Sonalksis TBK filters to get the tone sounding nice and smooth."
"Most people usually solo things when equalising. I never solo a track when EQing. I'm also a grid freak. When I create something in MIDI I always record and transform it into audio, to have total control of time and to have other options such as EQs, dynamics and effects."
36. Serge Santiago
"It seems to me that everyone believes FL Studio is a child's toy. It isn't, its user interface is fantastic and fast - faster than Cubase or Logic - plus it now boasts some of the best plug-ins around. It's also a great way to sound different.
To get good sound off the master channel, use Image Line's Soundgoodizer along with T-RackS' Brickwall Limiter. That keeps the sound clean without it sounding over compressed."
37. Sean Tyas
"Among the nice features of Logic Pro 8 and 9 is the ability to freely move around your plug-ins from channel to channel, as well as copy them. Simply hold the Command key while dragging any plug-in on your mixer, complete with all your settings intact, to any other channel strip.
"EXS24 is one of the quickest samplers you can possibly ask for, and here's a great reason why: want a bank of kick drums or hi-hats? Open up an empty EXS24, then click the Edit button. Make sure Contiguous Zones is selected. Now go into your Finder and find a nice folder of kicks, hats, whatever. Drag up to about 80 drum samples to the C0 key of the keyboard you see in your Instrument Editor. Bam. Click OK, and you now have an instant bank of all those samples."
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