5 essential concepts for music production
For hobbyist music producers - some of these principles may enhance the joy you get out of creating music. For producers with bigger aspirations, if you haven’t come across these concepts, they are likely quite valuable.
Music is one of the most holistic artforms around - nearly everything done well in music depends on everything else. So there are definitely more principles around music than I have listed below. But these at least are a great starting point - they certainly would have helped my younger self a huge amount had I known them earlier.
1) Sound source
I was once told that the source of the sound you use doesn’t matter. It took me quite some time to figure out that for the most part, this is not true.
While this is dependent on the type of music you are making - lofi, experimental folks, this may apply less to you - for most of us, we want a full, harmonically rich sound in our productions.
This is evident in songs with universal sonic acclaim such as Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd or So What by Miles Davis. Every sound in these productions is fantastic, and the majority of that sound is coming from the source.
The gear matters, yes (and we’ll get to that a bit further down) but as they say, you can’t polish a turd.
In the acoustic realm, this means tuning drums well, having quality heads/strings on instruments, having a good acoustic room and using good sounding instruments.
In the electronic realm, this means choosing high quality samples and synths (vsts or hardware).
In the beginning, this may mean limiting sound sources more than we’d like - although this can be used to our advantage as we discussed in [The Power of Creative Constraint]
2) Source vibe
As important as source (and essentially linked, as all of these elements are in music) is the vibe. Other words for vibe are style, delivery - how the musician performs their part.
No one knows the vibe principle better than low-fi folks and one master of the genre is Unknown Mortal Orchestra. One of their earlier releases “So good at being in trouble” fully demonstrates this - the drums are very filtered, the vocals sound like they were recorded on a cheap mic found in the corner - but they are delivered perfectly and hence, they resonate with UMO’s audience (the track has over 100 million plays on spotify alone). Keep in mind here, the bass in this track is very full and high quality, and as deceptively low-fi the drums and guitar sound, they are still great sounding instruments.
Another example is Fred Again who has stated in this interview on Tape Notes that he uses his iphone microphone to record his vocals. This works for him - his relatively lo-fi vocal sound is beautifully delivered in amongst a bed of hi-fi instrumentation and found-sound samples.
For the most part, vibe is more important than the sound source or gear, the vibe of the music is what resonates with people - the sound source and gear are merely tools to enhance that human emotion.
Gear is of course, dependent on what we can afford. And luckily for new producers, quality gear is getting cheaper every year.
The most basic setup for most people will be headphones and an audio interface.
I started with low quality versions of each of these, and if I was starting again, I would definitely make some different decisions.
Here is an excellent headphone purchasing guide by Sonarworks with price points for most budgets.
Two universally regarded brands, SSL and Universal Audio both have entry-level interfaces for under $200 while Focusrite’s 3rd gen Scarlett series can be picked up for under $100.
Having good quality interface and headphones are the ground of production and will make a huge difference if you haven’t invested in them already.
4) Self honesty
This was something that I struggled with a lot in the beginning - really looking at my music objectively, in an unattached way, and asking myself “is this good?”.
It’s tempting to put ourselves in our own small bubble with art, only showing it to our friends and family who we know will tell us “it’s great”. And maybe they genuinely feel that - and for hobbyists who are doing music purely for the joy, this is likely all that’s needed, and that’s 100% valid.
But for those starting out who have goals to compete on the global music market, a more brutal lens is needed. The public don’t know you, or your story - they simply hear your music and feel it - or they don’t. This is generally true for labels and industry folk as well. And if the music isn’t up to scratch - in both songwriting and production - it won’t do well.
This can be pretty hard on self esteem and motivation but that doesn’t mean one should necessarily give up the dream. Many artists come leaps and bounds from their first demos and releases - compare one of Rufus du Sol’s first releases to their transcendent hit Innerbloom 6 years later.
And as we’ve talked about in [The Quantity Principle of Songwriting] or as Steve Pressfield talks about in The War of Art - it’s all a process, and can take a lot of work and patience.
As long as we’re honest with ourselves (and have honest folks we can show our music to that we can trust) we can get a real sense of our progression as musical artists.
5) Feel don’t think
This one is the most simple but most powerful.
It’s tempting to think about how music should be and not how it is.
Music is at its core about feeling. Listen to your tracks and feel how they ebb and flow and progress. If you’re no longer feeling the track, take some space (sometimes it can take a week or 2) and feel it with fresh ears. Try it on different sources. Is it invoking an emotion in yourself and others? Then you’re likely on the right track.