Episode 11 – What is Mastering?
We’ve all been there, we start a song, everything is great but after awhile you get stuck or bored with progress and it becomes part of the ever expanding ‘unfinished song graveyard’ on your hard drive. From a personal point of view, my Achilles heel when it comes to finishing songs is creating amazing loops that i’m initially really into, listening to them repeatedly but not structuring them into songs quickly enough. In the end I just get bored of the loop just as you would by listening to any song on repeat and then I start on something else. It’s so easy to become a serial starter!
I reckon everyone has something that holds them back when making music, so to improve as producers we need a level of self analysis in terms of what hinders our music making, to get better at actually finishing whole songs. Essentially it boils down to creating the right habit(s) as we as humans are creatures of habit. Through repetition of tasks, in this case the practice of finishing a whole song, we get better and quicker at it. On that note, excuse the musical pun, I thought for today’s tenth episode of the blog I’d list 10 music making tips that you might consider to help you finish more songs, try different things and create a better song finishing habit. Here we go:
- Use your smartphone correctly
What I mean here is don’t surf the internet, use social media or play Pokemon Go when you’re making music. Put your phone in Airplane mode! Smartphones are such a distraction and really make us lose focus on what we are doing. You need to focus on the task at hand here which is making music and not faffing about on your phone while trying to make music at the same time.
(But, do use your phone on the go to record musical ideas, vocals and melodies. I do this all the time using the voice memo app and it’s great for getting down inspiration quickly. See also point 8. below)
- Keep your workplace tidy
Sound silly but a really useful thing to maintain is a clean and tidy studio space that is organised and efficient. A clutter free zone is so much better for your musical zen.
- Know how to make a song in your genre of choice
You’re most probably making music in a specific genre. Therefore you really need to understand the general structure that most songs, well at least the ‘big’ ones, follow within this genre. Study how long the intro is in bars, the pre chorus, the drop etc. Then recreate this structure with a song of your own.
- Let the main actors in your movie star as they should
Your song is like a movie, there are lead roles, there are supporting roles and there are extras. The most important instruments are like the lead roles in a movie and should be treated that way, getting a lot of focus. One of these lead roles is almost always the vocal and needs the maximum screen time! Learn to respect the roles of the different voices and instruments in your song, they all carry different weight and need to be shown correctly. I didn’t used to think about the parts of my song in this way before but since I have my productions have gotten a lot better.
Try some subtractive composition. It’s so easy in this era to have too many tracks and layers, limited only by the processing power of your computer. Try muting tracks and stripping the track right back to the vocals and drums and adding elements in from there. Simplicity is beauty!
- Keep your partner (non-musical!) happy
“When will you be finished?”, “You spend so much time making music”, “It’s me or the music!”, ok so I haven’t had the final statement thrown at me by the wife just yet but the other question and statement or similar are common in my producer friend circles. Keeping your partner happy and being in the music game is tough and tricky. You definitely need to allocate time for your better half and make them feel valued – date nights, day trips, flowers…work your magic, it’s worth it for the music!
- Break the rules
You probably use the same chords or progressions a lot. Or maybe the same synth patches or plug in presets. It’s time to try something new, break away from what you usually do and try something new. It’s so easy to do the same process repeatedly or use the same thing again and again. This new method to creation needs some focus and you need to set out on trying a new approach for creating your next song.
- The magic is all around you
Listen to the world around you, inspiration in sound is everywhere. A mechanical tone here, a door closing there, an alarm going off. With phones and other modern recording devices sampling the world around us has gotten easier and easier. Try getting some inspiration from the world around you and incorporating it into a track. It means you need to practice active listening and really start to use your hearing consciously more, which is a good thing. You also get to add unique sounds and textures to your productions, sounds that no one else using Splice or sample libraries has!
- “Take a break, have a Kit Kat”
For my Worldwide friends a Kit Kat is a chocolate bar in the Uk and they used to have a commercial that had the phrase “Take a break, have a Kit Kat” in it. You guys get cultural knowledge on this blog also! Ok so you don’t need to have a Kit Kat but it’s very important to have breaks when making music. Hardware / Software issues, getting a great take, giving a good performance, even 5 mins of ‘away’ time can work wonders in helping us to relax and refocus.
- See you later
When you have finished a song don’t listen to it till the next day with fresh ears. If it sounds good, play it through different systems, my favourite for this is the car as that’s where I listen to lots of music and my ears are trained really well to how the car speakers work. Also play your song through your phone and elsewhere. Does it sound good across all playback systems? You need to make sure the song will sound great where most people will hear it.
That’s it folks, get into the habit of creating songs quickly and trying new things, oh and listening for inspiration around you. Hope some of those points might help you think about things in a new light. It’s all so simple isn’t it! 🙂
My production partner, Matt Thurtell and I just released our latest single! “AiEW” (short for All I Ever Wanted) under our production guise – ‘pirateblood’ via Spotify, happy days! Check it out here: https://open.spotify.com/track/53s4tbe5er9xoHpCMPaNuq
As part of my life outside of co-founding SendMusic I am also a music producer. SendMusic comes into its own during the music production process (yes I would say that but it actually does!). For our workflow Matt and I bounce down versions of the tracks / edits we are making or have made and send them to one another using SendMusic (he’s based in Italy near Rome, i’m in London). We can then listen to the tracks on the go via the inbuilt audio player – SendMusic was created to be a ‘mobile first’ tool. One of the most useful features is that when either of us listen to the file we receive the sender gets an email telling them that the file they sent has been listened to. That’s so useful when I need to know Matt has listened to the music I’ve sent him and it gives me the opportunity to harass him until he has! Everything that I receive goes into my SendMusic ‘Inbox’ and the files I send go into the “Sent’ folder which makes it really easy to get access to all the music files I receive and send quickly. As well as this I’ve also added my SendMusic profile link to my socials, (i.e. my Instagram and Twitter) – https://send.mu/pal – so anyone can click on this and send me music directly really quickly. Finally i’ve customised my SendMusic page by adding a background image related to the work I do. You can now customise your own SendMusic page by changing the page colours or by adding a background image of your choice and you can remove all SendMusic branding which makes the page look completely your own. This is a really neat feature for producers, labels, A and R’s, Mastering Engineers, well anyone really, who wants to have a unique looking page through which to receive music in a beautiful way, that looks like your own and essentially aligns your brand with how you want it conveyed to the wider world. Why not give it a go 🙂
Anyways, I’ve made music for a long time now and as mentioned in older posts it’s gotten a lot easier to make music and release it these days. I really do believe this is a great thing as it means more people can make and release music, meaning we should be getting lots more better music. However in reality and from speaking to record label A + R’s and other music industry people it also means there’s a ton more poor quality music out there, making it in turn a real slog to listen and sift through to find that next gem. So if you are making music how do you stand out these days, well i’m sure there are quite a few ways but i’ll share some of those with you below and how SendMusic really helps in the process. I’m not going to lie, it isn’t easy but with hard work and dedication it is possible. Here are 4 quick tips to try and stand out from the crowd:
1.Focus on making great music, the art. Regardless of anything else, if you haven’t got great authentic music there’s not much point in moving to any of my suggestions below. This essentially means hard work in the studio, practice practice practice, A/B testing against big tracks in the genre you are making to check the mix you’ve done etc.
2. Once your music is good enough – GET IT OUT THERE. You’ll soon know if it is any good. Send it to tastemakers in the scene, to blogs, Spotify playlists etc. This is the hustle part and as much as it’s a known thing to do we music / artistic types are generally really crap at this. We procrastinate, we do it half heartedly or worse still we send it to one label and don’t hear back and give up. The music business is about learning to accept rejection, not giving a damn and continuing to push. It’s not easy, you need to be focussed and keep on keeping on. This is where some infrastructure can also help, e.g. being signed to an independent label or having a manager who will push the business hustle on your behalf.
3. Learn the Music Business – read “All you need to know about the music business”: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Need-Know-About-Music-Business/dp/0241001633/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=music+business&qid=1561925083&s=gateway&sr=8-2
4. Have some sort of social media presence (and a SendMusic page lol). People need to know you and see what you are doing. You need to build a fan base and engage the people interested in you by interacting with them. Again this can be a slog and needs discipline.
In conclusion, to make music is easier than ever now, but to stand out and get heard is harder than it’s ever been, especially as making is so accessible to the masses. However if you’re disciplined and focussed and work hard there is every opportunity out there for you to have a career in music. Ultimately it comes down to you and your mindset and setting up the correct infrastructure to make your dream a reality. Keep pushing and best of luck!
I use Ableton as my DAW of choice, recently I’ve started using FL Studio also, especially since FL Studio 20 launched with Mac support (it had been PC only before that). When I first started producing I used Cubase, Acid (I doubt anyone remembers that), Pro Tools and then Ableton and FL Studio, with a bit of low level usage of Logic thrown into the mix.
Back in the day it was a real ball ache to learn a DAW, you had to do one or more of the following:
- Actually read the manual
- Get a book, and again, read that
- Be lucky enough to get shown by someone who was in ‘the game’
- Pay for tuition in some guise (class or private)
Guess what, in my quest to be the next Quincy Jones (the greatest producer ever in my humble opinion), I did all of the above at some point. BUT, then the internet came in it’s full power, mobile technology enveloped our lives, cat memes became … you get the point. Basically YouTube came about and I didn’t have to read a manual again – (however I did read the Serum manual a little while back so the geek game is still strong in me).
You may ask – why Ableton? It’s super quick, it’s easy to learn, it’s like playing an instrument, especially using the Clip view. The stock plugins are superb, need I say more? Basically it’s a joy to use. However to be honest I don’t think it matters what DAW you use, as 9th Wonder said – “it doesn’t matter if you have the latest Nike Air Jordan’s, if you can’t jump you can’t dunk” – well something like that. Anyways on that note and with the help of some blogs I follow I list below 10 Top Youtube channels for Music Production learning resource. These are all DAW agnostic and brilliant so make sure you check them out:
Prolific creative Mr. Bill’s channel is a goldmine of insights and Innovation. Glitch Hop, Breaks and much more, he’s well worth subscribing to for Ableton Live enthusiasts.
Very active YouTuber specialising in advanced FL Studio techniques. Seamless recreates synth sounds from popular dance tracks imparting wisdom as he goes.
FM in the studio is possibly the best known studio series on YouTube. No tutorials specifically but the biggest artists from around the world are all here. Workflow, plugins, DAWs and more are on show. Read between the lines for nuggets.
MUSIC PRODUCTION TUTORIALS
Danny J Lewis a tutor from Point Blank decided to create his own channel. Spanning Ableton, Cubase, Logic Pro, NI Machine and Bitwig with a community on Facebook, MPT is a pretty cool way to learn new stuff and join in.
Pensado is main stream pop focused content featuring Interviews with todays super producers, subtle studio techniques with a ProTools Focus. Some may find the slow pace and endless Ums, Errs and Ahs too much to take.
Comprehensive tutorials, reviews and more. Free video content is a made available to help sell sample packs and video courses on the site. The ADSR YouTube channel is well worth a visit for it’s production techniques and covers all the bases.
Sonic Academy is top notch content with the aim to get you to subscribe to more tutorial courses online. Freebies are worth subscribing if you are serious about educating yourself. This is the channel for people who like to read manuals.
Point Black similar to Dubspot, great info delivered by teachers in an effective way. Contains musical fundamentals often overlooked by more production focused channels. Relatively Lame demos based in Logic and Ableton Live.
Sadowick Another Ableton live user with a passion for sharing tutorials to help others. Offers sample packs for free with the aim of selling more content through his website. He Has to come Numero Uno for worst channel name out of the bunch.
Dubspot is active and technically accurate tutorials based on Ableton Live. Nuggets of gold here if you can tolerate the uncool music of people who didn’t make it so became teachers instead. #tooharsh? Also nothing to do with DUB either…
There’s loads of knowledge out there now, available for free. If you’re disciplined and motivated that’s great. It takes time to learn and you actually have to practice what you are learning, so make sure you’re always creating. But it’s also never a bad idea to do a course in a more structured studying approach. Whatever you do, have fun and keep the music flowing.
Outside of my life as co-founder of SendMusic, the fastest and most secure way to send music files, (sorry had to get that in there), I am a published music producer. What does that mean I hear some of you say. Well basically I have made music and it’s been published by a publishing company called No Sheet Music. They like the music i’ve submitted to them, signed it so they own the rights to it for a period of time and have then put it on their website so others can browse their whole music library and choose music for specific purposes. In my case my music has been synchronised to television globally, in commercials mainly. I have had syncs with Audi, the BBC, ITV etc. Quarterly I get a payment for any work that I have had synced and it’s wonderful to see my music being played as far afield as Australia, China, India to name a few places. I get a quarterly statement and it shows me how much I made the quarter gone and where my music was played.
We’re very lucky now in that making music is readily accessible to nearly anyone using the most basic of device. I remember back in the day when I started out, getting into a recording studio was almost a dark art. I mean it when I say I used to scour my local area looking for studios to somehow get into as I had so much music in my head that I wanted to get out there into the world. Nowadays however there are literally just two things, in my humble opinion, that you need to start making music in the digital realm – a computer and a DAW.
I’m sure you know what a computer is but what is a DAW? Well DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. A DAW is basically either hardware or software used to record, edit and produce music. I’ve used a number over the years and they all have their own pros and cons but they’ve all gotten really good over the years. As such which DAW is best for you really boils down to a few things – what style of music you are doing, how easy is it to use (this is subjective really and depends on how much effort you put into learning the DAW) and the cost. Over the years i’ve used the following DAWs in chronological order starting with oldest first:
- Pro Tools
- Logic (sparsely)
- Bitwig (sparsely)
- FL Studio
Notable exclusions from this list are:
- Studio One
- Digital Performer
I think the above lists highlight the plethora of options that are available now.
So what sorts of features do DAW’s have? While each program has its own unique layout and features, all DAWs are capable of recording digital audio, editing and processing it, and mixing multiple tracks together. Most DAWs also incorporate MIDI functionality, allowing notes to be programmed or played via MIDI controller to control virtual instruments like synthesizers. Plugins are also a major feature of DAWs, doing everything from simple EQ and compression to vintage amp modeling.
To wet your palette there are free DAWs out there you can play around with to get started, things like Audacity, Reaper and Garageband on a Mac are great starting points. Beyond these the industry studio standards are really either Pro Tools or Apple’s Logic. Some DAWs could be considered specialty, almost genre specific. For example Ableton is very popular in Dance music circles, encompassing genres ranging from House to Drum and Bass. FL studio on the other hand is extremely popular in the hip hop / rap world. The best thing to do is do some research, think about what style of music you want to make, look up the biggest producers and see what they use. Then get it, legally! Go onto youtube and watch tutorials, there are thousands for every type of DAW and then start finishing whole songs, not just loops (like I did for a long time). Most importantly also, have fun and enjoy the process and journey!
My own personal set-up now consists of the following 2 DAWs, Ableton 10 and FL Studio 20 (beta) which i’m testing. I must say i’m very happy with this setup as I can open FL Studio as a plugin within Ableton. This for me is amazing as i lean towards making dance stuff and hip hop so all bases are covered with my DAW choice. Any questions do ping me a question:
So this week’s blog post is about our little startup baby, I guess that kind of makes us tech parents and I definitely have some stories about the whole birthing experience, a few of which i’ll share briefly. SendMusic is the startup that we co-founded and hopefully you use to, yes you guessed right, send music! There are in fact 3 of us who co-founded this fledgling beauty, myself – PaL, Kemal and Ben, who is currently cycling around the world with his bike, para-glider and laptop in tow.
SendMusic started as a prototype a little while back now, just over a year to be more exact, from very humble beginnings, i.e. a very basic looking and functioning Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Actually thinking back it it now reminds and encourages me of how far we’ve come, which can at times be easily forgotten. SendMusic has been fully self-funded or as is known in the game ‘bootstrapped’ by us. The reason behind this was that we never wanted to be at the mercy of venture capitalists who probably wouldn’t care about what we were trying to achieve per se, but just wanted growth, bigger numbers and MORE money, essentially forcing upon us targets to hit in as short a time as possible.
For us SendMusic was always about growing steadily and being something really useful and fresh. My co-founders and I are all music industry people ourselves working in and around music. and we saw a gap in the market for a service through which you could easily share your music, promote your brand and use really intuitively and quickly. Through being in the game we had realised that all the other products that did this had too much friction at different levels and, for want of a better expression, were a bit of a ball ache to use. Things like too many unnecessary steps to just send a file, poor UX, drawn out user flows, we identified a number of pain points with existing systems on the market. So the idea for SendMusic was born. The first thing we did was to think about what we wanted to achieve and we then thought about the product features required to do this, those things that would eliminate the existing pain points we had identified. We then prioritised the features to build and identified the most basic feature set that we could build out to prove if our idea had legs or not, so the SendMusic MVP was born. Basically an MVP is a smart way to:
- Release your product to market or test users in the shortest time.
- Reduce implementation costs.
- Test the demand for your product – before releasing a full-fledged product.
- Avoid failures.
- Gain valuable insight on what works and what doesn’t work.
- Work directly with your clients and analyse their behaviors and preferences.
- Gather and enhance your user base.
- Get user feedback.
We initially released our MVP to music industry professionals we knew and friends involved in music to test and gather feedback from them, was SendMusic worth making into a fully fledged product? We quickly realised that the uptake and usage was more than decent and people actually found benefit from using SendMusic, it was a good feeling. Some even said it became quite indispensable to their daily workflows.
On the other hand we also identified a number of bugs and were fed development ideas via user feedback on how to improve SendMusic and potential features to implement. User feedback I might add is super useful, you are given ideas and challenges that you wouldn’t have thought about yourself, I guess it’s collective intelligence coming into play.
Anyways, the idea to push on and create SendMusic into an actual thing had taken shape, data and feedback had proved this and we were going to run with it!
To be continued…
We live in an era now where things we feel might last a long time often don’t last quite as long as we had expected. As civilisation has advanced through the passage of time so has the rate at which we adopt new technology and then discard it with this trend ramping up exponentially, especially in recent times.
Not so long ago we listened to music on Walkmans, then iPods and now it’s our mobile phones usually paired with wireless headphones that are providing the soundtracks to our lives. I remember when artists were getting discovered on the once legendary MySpace, this was eventually superseded by SoundCloud and now it seems we have a new king in town – Spotify and namely the Spotify playlist.
So what exactly is a playlist. Direct from the horse’s mouth (Spotify!), a playlist is a collection of songs. You can make them for yourself, you can share them, and you can follow the millions of other playlists created by Spotify, artists and fans. I believe playlists are so popular because you get to pick the music you want to listen to, so unlike older linear media channels where the music is programmed for you, now you can listen to what you like all the time. Great right? Well the obvious downside to this is that you can in fact get stuck into lazy listening habits, not listening to anything new, but instead the same playlist you created 4 years ago. The onus is now on you to find great new music, or is it?
You’ve all probably (if you have Spotify), seen the playlist called Discover Weekly? This is an algorithmic playlist, meaning it’s been curated by a Spotify AI system for you that’s assessed your listening habits and found similar music to suggest to you. Another famous algorithmic playlist is release radar. Last year, Bryan Johnson, director of artists and management at Spotify UK, said that Release Radar alone is driving more streams than any of Spotify’s in-house playlists, and certainly far more than any curated playlist that isn’t managed by Spotify’s editorial team. Yet musicians are spending all their time and energy seeking placements on bigger curated playlists.
So if you are a music producer or artist, how do you go about getting onto an algorithmic playlist?
There are 3 key steps to this:
- Build your Spotify following – get your fans to follow you on the streaming platform
- Focus on good activity to engagement ratios – Spotify don’t care as much about streams (a vanity metric) as they do about what your fans do with your music: adding your song to a playlist, listening to the whole song without skipping, sharing it on social channels.
- Release more music regularly – the more tracks you release the more chance you have of making it onto an algorithmic playlist
So whether you’re an artist or fan, things are changing and they will continue to change, that’s for sure. Any music makers now have to seriously consider the Spotify playlist as a force of nature within the music sphere and the algorithmic playlists are what you should really be looking at to exploit.