Finishing beats is hard. There isn’t a producer alive who hasn’t struggled to finish a beat at some stage. And while there are a lot of places a track can die, the main thing that causes a track to die is not moving forward. Whether that’s a lack of technical skill or indecision, getting stuck is often a track killer.
In the previous article, we talked about the stages of creating a beat. And some tactics for blasting through the creative part of the process. In this article, we’ll pick up where we left off and give you some ideas on how you can push through the sound design and mixing stages.
Sound design and mixing will mean different things to different people. But for this article, sound design is choosing and shaping individual sounds. And mixing is the combining of the different elements of your beat so all the sounds fit together.
The articles in this series aren’t meant as a one size fits all approach to becoming a finisher. Instead, it’s offering up some ideas which will help you develop your finishing muscles. The more you work out those muscles the more they grow so let’s get after it.
Sound design is taking the rough sounds you created and giving each sound its own character. Different people will do sound design at different parts of the process, but pre-mix is a great time to give your track a once-over before you start blending them all together. So pull out your bag of plugins and let’s get sculpting.
When working on improving individual sounds try to start with a sound in mind. If you know what you’re after then you’re much more likely to be able to create it. Your ability to execute the sound in your head will be limited by your technical skills and ear. But both your technical skills and your ear will develop over time.
If you don’t have a sound in mind, but still think the sound needs something don’t worry. Instead, make a list of things you’d like to try. For example, you could try EQing, compressing, resampling, pitch shifting, layering, revoicing, etc. Then just start working down through the list. The key is just to start, and then tweak and refine as you go along. Your gut will tell you when it sounds good. The old maxim of “If it sounds good, it is good” holds. Trust your gut on these things.
For most of The Beatles’ career, they recorded on 4 and 8 track magnetic tape. Do you know what they had to do a lot during recording sessions? Commit. Once you bounced all the drums down to one track to add the bass there was no tweaking with the drum part. It was finished.
The Beatles lived in a brave new analog world, whereas we’re living in a digital world. And here in the future, there’s almost no limit to how many tracks a project can have. Or versions you can have of that project. But does that make for better music?
I don’t know, but it certainly leaves the door open to more indecision and second-guessing. Why commit if you don’t have to? You can just keep all your options on the table, right? The problem with this is you might never finish the track. You can keep refining and shaping and tweaking forever and no one will ever hear your music.
Instead of this, commit to your sounds as you go by bouncing them down. You’ll be creating the stems for your mix and you’ll also be reducing the temptation to keep tweaking. Be an artist and commit.
I’m not going to cover the process for mixing in detail, but the same advice holds from sound design. Start with the sound in mind, make a list to try, trust your gut when deciding if it sounds good, and commit to your decisions.
Both mixing and sound design tend to be more technical. And early in your music production career, you won’t have all the technical skills. So it will be easy to get lost in the technicalities. If that’s you, remember: you don’t have to know everything at the start. The more tracks you finish the more you’ll learn. Which is one of the main reasons you should try to finish tracks even if they’re not perfect. If you only ever make loops or parts of beats, then you’re probably working towards your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses.
By working to finish more and more tracks you’ll find out what stages of the process you’re great at, and which parts need work. Do you love the arrangement and musical ideas of your beats, but your sound design is lacking? Then go learn as much as you can about sound design. Once you’ve got a few finished tracks together analyze them to figure out which skills you should invest more time in, and then work on those.
We’ve outlined a workflow here that you can use as a starting point, but by working through this or copying someone else’s workflow you’ll start to learn what works for you. Then you can dial in and refine that workflow so you can produce more tracks, more quickly. The more tracks you finish the more you learn, the better your music gets, and on and on.
This series is intended to give you ideas to help you get from that initial spark to a track you can share with the world. And to use the process of finishing tracks to get better at making beats in general. Look out for part 3 where we’ll be giving you some ideas on ways you can motivate yourself to finish once you’ve hit an inevitable stumbling block. See Part 1 the creative bit for ideas to get you through the creative part of the process. And Part 3 for other ideas on how you can motivate yourself to become a finisher.
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