At VIP Studio Sessions we’re often asked how to make a track sound better? How do you get a great mix? How can I ‘master’ my track? There are a lot of complicated technical things people will tell you about each one, but we work with basic concepts and central ideas that we explain to young producers, regardless of the software or technology they’re using.
We’ve found that applying them to any music made in the classroom often means that the end product turns out better, and that young people are happier with the results.
It’s important to note that all the ideas covered here can also be found in the online tutorials offered in VIP Studio Sessions, so your students will get to incorporate them into their music.
The most common problem with music made by young people is that there’s just too much going on. They have often started with a strong idea, but have then added and added to it, until there are so many layers and sounds that it’s difficult to listen to.
Step 1 Simplicity
One thing to stress from the start is that simplicity is often your best weapon as a producer – particularly when you’re just starting out. Spending a while finding the sounds students are going to use in the first place is a must when making music with young people; otherwise what tends to happen is that they will start with something that sounds average, and then add more and more layers to it in the hope that will fix it. It won’t.
Always make sure that a group spends long enough getting their drums to sound good – often a bit longer than they really want to spend on it. The risk is that they programme a basic pattern and then want to rush straight to the next stage of adding a bassline, samples and synthesizers.
A successful lesson can find you managing the balance of keeping up enthusiasm, while making sure things aren’t totally rushed or dwelt on for too long.
Step 2 Volume
Most of the time, tracks made with young people will be made on headphones or small speakers, and often in less than ideal studio situations. The first thing to reassure a group about, is that this isn’t necessarily a problem. A lot of music gets made this way, and there’s no reason why they can’t make something that will do well, without a studio, professional monitor speakers and vintage microphones.
However, small speakers and headphones tend to lead to one common mistake with Hip Hop and other types of bass-heavy music popular with young people: the bass being too loud.
When using headphones or small speakers, the tendency is to turn up the bassline or kick drum of the tune so that you can ‘hear’ them. However, what this means is that most of the time you are also turning up the very low sub-bass frequencies that you just can’t hear on small speakers.
This causes two problems:
- When you play your track on a decent sound system, you will have made the bass far too loud – so loud that the rest of the track sounds muddy or muffled
- This will also result of making your track very quiet, especially when compared to other ‘professionally’ mixed and mastered tracks.
If doesn’t sound as good as they are expecting, this can be very disappointing to a young producer – especially when they come to finally show it to their friends, family or peer group.
There are a few simple things that you and they can do to avoid this, leading to more polished-sounding tracks:
- Check the music on as many different sound systems and speakers as you can. One good idea is for young people to get together and listen through their mixes on a better sound system, if possible. Listening to music on just one set of headphones or set of speakers doesn’t give a balanced perspective on how it really sounds.
- Use EQ in their tracks – see the VIP Studio Sessions page on ‘Subtractive EQ’ [login required] if you really want to get on top of making polished mixes.
- Make sure there aren’t lots of bassy sounds going on at the same time. A really common problem is having a kick drum with a lot of bass at the same time as a big bassline, for example. While there are clever technical ways around this, we find that, for classes, the best approach is to get young people to choose one main sound to provide most of the bass for the track, and to be aware of where each sound sits in the mix.
The way that we explain mixing tracks and getting a good sound to young people is this: Imagine a sound system playing your finished track. The way speakers work is to use energy to vibrate the air – making sound. Speakers only have so much energy to vibrate the air and push out your sounds. When you mix your track you are telling the speakers how much energy to spend on each part: high, middle and low frequencies (bass).
If you have absolutely loads of bass, there is less energy left for all the other bits of the song, including, if it’s Hip Hop, the hi hats, snare and vocals – which is why tracks sound muffled when the bass is too loud.
It’s also worth remembering that some really low bass frequencies are so low that the human ear can’t even pick them up. But, if they are in your track, the speakers will still try to play them, using valuable energy that could be making your snares crack or your bass drums thud. That’s why you need to check your bass out on some decent speakers and to take out the very low bass sounds you can’t hear.
The bottom line to explain to young people is that if you have your bass too loud and too low, the entire track will end up quiet – sometimes even with the strange effect of making the bass itself sound quieter!
Step 3 Mixing the Track
Having written a drum part, a bassline, and maybe added some samples or synthesizers, the next crucial step will be to mix the track. What this means is to make sure all the separate sounds can be heard and that the overall balance of the track sounds right. Again, this is a fine art. It could be the subject of a whole book, but there are a few tips that really help when working with young people.
When making music, you hear a lot of talk about bass, middle and treble. What this means is low sounds, sounds in the mid range and high-pitched sounds. Being aware of what is going on with these different sounds in a track is, in many ways, the key to being a good producer.
EQ is basically an effect that lets you control the amount of bass, middle and treble in each part of your track.
Click here to watch a video on how this works with one of the tutorials on the site [Login required]
When we show young people EQ, their first tendency is just to turn up the sound that they want to hear more of. For example, in a Hip Hop beat, they might want to add bass to a kick drum to really make it boom, or add treble to hi-hat sounds to make them really bright and crispy. This is what that would look like:
While that works in a way – on the decent sound system we talked about earlier – turning up the bass or the treble isn’t the best way to get the sound they want, and can actually end up making their track sound worse.
Let’s have a look at the hi-hat sound to show you why: When you turn up the treble on this hi-hat to make it sound bright, you can’t get something for nothing.
By turning up one sound, you are effectively turning down another one. If you turn up the bright part of the hi-hat – it will make it harder to hear the bright part of the vocals, the synthesizers and all the other sounds you might have used.
If you try to turn up the volume of everything you want to hear more of, you end up effectively turning down everything else.
The trick is not to turn up what you want to hear, but to get rid of everything that you don’t need in the track.
So with this hi-hat sound – we want to hear the nice crisp bright part of it, but we don’t really need all of the low parts because that’s what the bassline is for.
So – the trick is to use the EQ to TAKE AWAY sounds you don’t want – instead of turning up the bits you DO want to hear. In many ways getting the hang of this is the secret to making mixes sound great.
Each different piece of equipment, software or technology works in a slightly different way, but if you can really get your head around this concept (usually referred to as ‘Subtractive EQ’), then you’re really getting somewhere.
The key to getting a professional mix is looking at each part of a song, figuring out what it is meant to be doing, what part of it you want to hear more of, and getting rid of the part you don’t need. The thing to get to grips with and to explain to young people, is that producing a track isn’t just about stacking on a load of layers until you’ve added enough and it’s finished – it’s about getting a balance between the parts you add and having them all working together.
One young person explained how this has helped with their mixdowns, using the analogy of gardening – it doesn’t matter how many beautiful flowers you plant, if there are millions of weeds choking the garden, they won’t grow, and no one will see them. Using EQ is like gardening – get rid of the bits you don’t need (weeds) and the rest of your track (flowers, hopefully) will come into its own.
Step 4 Mastering
This is a subject on which entire books have been written, so we’re not going to go into too much detail here, but the basic idea is something which we’ve found really, really helps in the classroom.
Mastering is the process of taking the finished track you have made and adding a final level of polish to make it sound good, and, most importantly, sound loud enough to sit with other commercially-released tracks.
This step can often get overlooked and means that the end result can be disappointing to young people. We’ve noticed that when done right, they value the final music that little bit more if they can play their CD or stream the track from their phone and it holds up against the commercial music they will naturally try to compare their own work to.
Sometimes young people can struggle to find the time and resources to create a space for music-making in the first place, so to pay extra for something like professional mastering used by record labels would be a luxury expense. Learning how to master tracks to a basic level leads to the final product getting a much better reception.
Effectively, the process involves taking a finished track and applying a couple of effects to the whole mix. Now the software you use to do this will differ, but they will all contain EQ and some form of what is called a LIMITER.
The idea for mastering is to listen to the track in the best environment you have – speakers ideally, often headphones. How does the track sound? Does it sound muffled? Does it sound too bassy? Mastering is the final step in making the track sound the way that the group wants it to.
Use the EQ to subtly tweak the final sound – maybe a bit more treble and a bit less bass if the track sounds muffled.
There is no quick way to get good at this; it really is something that comes with practice. The trick (if you can) is to listen to the music in as many places as you can, and when you get it sounding good everywhere, you will have succeeded.
When you have applied a bit of EQ, it’s then time to use a limiter. This works to average out the volume of all the parts of your track – making it louder overall. This is something that can easily get very technical and complicated, but in terms of what’s needed at this level, every piece of music software will contain an effect that will do what you need. Most of those will also come with ‘presets’ – settings that give you roughly the effect that you need.
What you need to do is apply the limiter to the ‘output’ on your track’s mixer, and to have a look at the presets to see if there is one that says something along the lines of ‘mastering’ or ‘average limit’.
Our advice would be to start with one of these ‘presets’ and, as you get more experienced, to experiment if you feel the need. When you turn it on what you should hear is that the track immediately sounds a bit louder and punchier.
This may upset some music experts, but with young people, the main aim is to make sure the track is reasonably loud. If you use a limiter in a really extreme way and try to make the track too loud, it becomes distorted and the track starts to sound bad. The reality is that young people’s tracks will (hopefully) end up on their phones, and maybe even Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Music and the like. If their track is really quiet, they will be unhappy.
We have never had a young person complain that their track sounded distorted, but I have seen them unhappy when they can’t hear the track on their phone or CD in their mum’s car.
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