Production Time: Working to Maximize Output
Written by Bandcoach
“Time is an illusion, lunch time doubly so” so wrote Douglas Adams in his trilogy (which became a quintet) “Hitch Hikers Guide to the Universe”
It is funny and yet at the same time a stark reminder that time, as we know it, is about measuring the past, never the future.
How does this relate to production?
Production is about imagining, crafting, realising and delivering a musical work, ready for final use.
Four phases of development, each with their own time requirements; time requirements that can only be guessed at in advance.
Two questions arise for the beginning composer/creator:
- How much time does each phase take?; and,
- How can I reduce the time I will need to spend on each phase in the future?
The answer to the first question is each phase will take as long as is needed to do the tasks correctly.
The answer to the second question becomes one of education.
Professional means more than just slick sounding.
To be a professional brings with it two things:
- the ability to set your own price, and
- a commitment to ongoing learning.
To reduce the time we spend on each phase of production, we need to be committed to learning about each phase of production:
- current thinking
- current techniques
- new techniques
- old techniques
In addition to learning from external sources, we should be focused on reviewing what has worked and what hasn’t during our production process on a project by project basis.
“Easy enough to say, I can hear you mutter, but how do I that?”
Process Journals: benefits and uses
This is where another facet of being a professional comes into play: diary writing and process journals.
Each session/project you embark upon should be written up at the end of each day, noting what was done, what techniques were applied and whether you think the outcome was satisfactory or not. In addition, you should be making notes on what settings were used on each channel of a mix, what settings were on each fx unit and what master channel settings were in place as well.
Your project process journal/diary can be electronic or paper based. What matters is that you keep them and that you keep them organised so that you can find anything quickly and easily – no point in having them written up if you cannot find them because you haven’t bothered to store or file them for quick access.
You should make certain that you keep daily versions of the project files. By this, I mean that you need to make a separate new save at the end of each day, or preferably, make a new copy when next you start working on the project files in your daw. Versioning is a hard habit to get into, but well worth the trouble as you never lose more than a day’s work if something goes wrong and your computer fails.
Now is also a good time to get in the habit of backing up everything to an external hard-drive/network drive at the end of each – have it set up as an automatic process or as batch file/macro that you run once at the end of each day/session.
“Don’t expect much, do you,” I can hear you muttering right now.
Actually if you can’t be bothered to maintain versions, backups and actually document the processes and settings you decided to use, then you are going to be at a loss when you need to use similar ideas in a future project. You may also lose valuable time in trying to recreate a project that is damaged due to hardware failure of your computer.
In the creative phase of a project, you are struggling with competing interests:
- the need to do the job quickly (times is, after all, money; the more time you spend on a job the less money per hour you make)
- the need to do the job well
The first can only be achieved once you can comfortably execute the second.
Imagining a new track requires time to auralise – imagine the sounds with your internal ear. You can imagine the whole track or just parts of the track; it does not matter to begin with.
What does matter is that you can take what you imagine and make it concrete within the realm of notation whether that be traditional dots and lines or a modified graphical notation system of your own creation.
As you progress through this first phase of the project, you will continue to refine the ideas you will use. These ideas are usually based within the basic arranging concept of
- harmonic movement
- rhythmic impetus
To minimise the time spent you will need to develop skills that allow you take your ideas and render them to paper or your daw quickly. Ear training is the key to this skill – teoria.com is the place to go to learn this skill in a modern way. Embrace it and you will be amazed at little time you spend in converting our ideas into reality within your daw.
Learning Music Production Knowledge
More than any other aspect of being successful, targeted learning is the key.
In terms of imagining, there is a range of knowledge that needs to be learnt and mastered through investigation and application.
I have already recommended this. Ear training has a range of applications, not the least of which is to be able to hear something and duplicate it. Being able to transcribe music written and performed by others is a key ingredient in understanding how a style and it’s many sub-genres work.
This goes hand in hand with ear training. Knowing how to name notes, where to place them on the staff, how to notate different rhythmic ideas for ease of reading and playing, how to notate chords and melodic ideas, all of these are core skills in making ear training viable and applicable to individual musical needs. Scales, chord substitution theory, voice leading (smooth movement from chord to chord for each note within each chord), are all tools to be exploited in your creative activities, opening doors to new and exciting sounds.
This is not knowledge of how to play an instrument; rather it is about how an instrument can be played by a competent performer. Special techniques, available notes and possible articulations (ways of making the note sound) all play a part in knowing what is possible, probable, improbable and impossible
Crafting has at its heart, the skills of taking a raw set of ideas and moulding them into a complete whole.
This is the second part of the arranging equation, where you tackle the structural format of your project along with the individual instruments and conceptual elements.
The structural format is based within the sequencing of the various sections of a song/track/beat:
The more novel the structure, the more creative you have to be in rendering the other elements of the arranging equation.
Orchestration, the apportioning of instruments to different lines and structural elements is the central purpose of the crafting process. A second part of the crafting process is the development of variations on the basic musical ideas used.
A drum track can be simple boom-boom bap boom-boom-bap with a the hi-hats going um-tss-um-tss-um-tss-um-tss over the top. However, it is the variations to this basic pattern that will decide if your drum track is great or just ordinary.
Melodically – you can have a great melody, but as you will be repeating that melody, you will need to devise variations to keep it interesting.
Harmonically – you can use the same chords over and over, but they may begin to wear thin after several minutes of unrelenting repetition. Consider learning about substitutions and other harmonic tricks to keep it interesting
Remember that a counter-melody is more of a response to the main melodic call, than anything else in this day and age. It runs contrary to the idea that it is a shorter, faster, harmonising melodic idea, as we would imagine if we studied counterpoint. In fact, it is now often the reverse, where the melody is the true contrapuntal line and the counter-melody is a more overarching melodic contour that our central melody is providing harmonic and rhythmic contrast to.
Learning Music Production Knowledge
Instrument combinations (whether real, sampler based or synthetic), are the key to creating great musical lines and textures. Understanding what are traditional combinations and what are novel or unique combinations as well as typical uses for a combination, will help make structuring, crafting and presenting your musical ideas all the easier.
It is possible to have several different layers of musical thought happening at the same time: melody, counter-melody, harmony. Assigning combinations of instruments to each line will allow you to bring out the beauty of these individual ideas. Do not be afraid to use non-standard combinations or to assign an instrument grouping to a non-standard role – the more novel the application, the more interesting your track is likely to be to others.
Realising is the stage where we will probably spend most of our time, as this is as much about capturing the sounds of our different instrumental parts as it is about creating a sonic landscape within which our instrumental forces operate.
You may already have all of your musical ideas rendered in your daw, as a result of the first two phases. This is to be expected in the modern world. It is also why it is necessary to re-emphasise the need to make daily or major change versions of the project.
Every time you make a significant change without saving it as a new version of the project, you are essentially losing past versions that you may want to go back to later on
Realising is the phase that can be the easiest and quickest to complete, particularly if you have spent a lot of time in the past mixing.
Conversely, it can also take the longest time as it is the phase where a new range of creative skills come to the fore:
- sonic placement,
- equalisation, and
- fx application
- mix levels
Panning is necessary regardless of the final mixdown context. Placing a sound in the left-right stereo spread is an important part of providing it with space in the overall mix equation. If everything is panned up the centre then there is no “space” for individual sounds and we have to resort to other, more destructive means for creating that space.
Traditions and realities
Tradition says that kick drum, snare and hi-hats are in the centre of the mix, along with the bass. Tradition is wrong and is based on a very old model of stereo placement, based upon equipment available in the 1960’s, including the number of tracks that could be recorded to. As the technology improved, the approach to mixing, particularly stereo placement, stayed firmly mired in the past.
Tradition also cites basic psycho-acoustic theory about low frequency sounds being essentially omnispheric, with no particular perceived point of origin rather than atmospheric, having a place and space of its own. This percerptual view of frequency placement has permeated the mix industry, being used to justify placing these sounds in the centre of the mix. Of course, many folks conveniently overlook the frequency content of hi-hats and snares, which are significantly above the frequencies identified in the studies that led to the above principle.
Live sounding versus idealised studio placement
Every mix engineer worth their salt will tell you that a live mix is very different to a studio mix. A live mix can change form moment to moment based on factors that are out of their control – an amp blows and a replacement/duplicate amp and stack are put into use; a skin is damaged on one of the drums, a string breaks. All disasters that the mix engineer cannot control for and has to respond to in real time.
However, many engineers claim to be attempting to create a live space for their instruments when mixing. Most forget or ignore the two common features of a live sound mix:
Physical layout of the performance stage, it is physically impossible for two instruments to occupy the same space.
Open mics, catch not only the signals they are intended to but also anything else on the stage – creating a complex web of psycho-acoustic clues as to individual instrument/cabinet placement on the stage. These clues are in the form of delays in the millisecond range; the accrued delay times captured in all open mics giving a very complex and complete sonic image of the stage placement of everything.
Mixing a live recording made to a large multi-track recorder (daw or tape) it, you are faced with a conundrum: do I mix it to reflect the actual stage plan when the performance happened or do I stick to the idealised studio concept of instrument placement?
Sticking with the former is perhaps the obvious answer, but you would be surprised at how many engineers (including those who teach mixing for a living) ignore this in favour of creating a traditional studio placement mix. As a result, they then confront phase issues and other problems in trying to get the mix to sit. Enter the use of noise gates to eliminate low level signals. Another artificial space is created that still has some of the original placement cues intact: no matter how good your processors are there will be some bleed into the open mics all the time: removing the bleed when the instrument is not playing creates an even more complex stereo space. Mixing to mono will not solve this problem either, as there will be all sorts of phase cancellations as a result of the bleed into the open mics.
I suggest that it is better to mix it so that the stage layout is intact. Tthis has far fewer problems than you might imagine and many benefits, not the least of which is a mix that does not require a heavy reliance on dynamic processing to remove unwanted but crucial placement cues caught in the open mics. A layer of processing removed is a layer of distortion removed.
This discussion is based on viewing the kit not from the players’ perspective but from the perspective of someone listening/standing in front of the kit.
A drumkit is not a one dimensional placement, in fact it is more of a three-dimensional layout: the kick may be in the centre if it is a single kick kit, but if a double kick kit, then the kicks are placed to the left and right of centre.
The snare is placed between the drummers legs, and therefore is placed off-centre to the right in a single kick kit and very much to the right in a double kick kit (although some drummers will opt to move it to the centre in such a setup). Some kits have two snares for different sounds: a large, deeper snare and a smaller shallower snare.
Toms (or tom-toms), are placed on the kick drum(s) with the smallest on the right and the largest on the left with the floor tom usually ending up beside the drummers right leg. Kits can have 1, 2, 3,4, 5 or 6 toms, depending on the number of kick drums and other considerations, such as only having a floor tom or having multiple toms. To represent/realise these properly in the stereo field takes time and care.
The hi-hats are even further to the right. Other cymbals are placed left and right according to size and function, as much as according to preferred hitting hand. The ride cymbal is usually placed to the far left of the kit, sitting above the floor tom if there is one. Crash cymbals are placed in ring above the toms, smallest to largest, right to left. Again placing these in the stereo will take some time get right.
Every other instrument we confront in a mix needs to have its own stereo space/placement.
Piano should be to one side or the other of the mix.
The same goes for guitars. Each guitar part if there is more than one should occupy a different part of the sound stage you are creating.
Lead singer is in the centre of the mix.
Backup singers should be on either side.
Horns need to occupy a range of positions in the stereo spectrum, because no two players can occupy the same space let alone three or four.
Orchestral instruments should be panned to reflect their normal orchestral placement or create your own unique placement map.
EQ is a much talked about subject in many places. The fundamental reason to EQ anything is to “fix’ a perceived problem. This is only true however, if the problem cannot be removed by rerecording or redesigning the sound source.
Creative equalisation is about changing a sound for artistic reasons and so the above comments do not apply. Some words of advice here are to limit boosts/cuts to a small range unless you really want to change the character of the sound completely. Experiment with Q settings (effective bandwidth) if you have parametric EQ available: applying a narrow Q EQ may be far more effective than a wide Q.
Filters are forms of EQ. They should be used sparingly, as they introduce phase anomalies and other distortions. Hi-Pass filtering to remove unused bottom end is only reasonable if there is actually signal in the frequency region below the corner frequency – putting a filter in to remove something that does not exist is wasteful of resources and introduces unnecessary distortions to the rest of the signal.
Low-Pass filtering to deaden a sound or remove unwanted high frequency anomalies is ok, but again target the filter so that you get the sound you want without attempting to remove something that isn’t there (less likely with a low-pass filter).
Unless you are trying to create a specific sound, use send FX rather than insert FX. This is a point of debate amongst some engineers. The most common statement made is “with the complexity of daws today , why use an old school hardware technique? – the limitations of hardware do not exist in software.”
Personally, I believe that using a send FX buss is just better all round. You can control the level sent the FX channel and control the level coming back in on the send FX return. It is also more natural to have everything sitting in the same reverb space.
Possible send buss FX are
- any destructive/constructive FX module where you want to keep the original clean in the mix as well
Possible insert FX are:
- distortion of all sorts,
My basic premise when mixing is that you are removing layers so that things can be heard. This means reducing channel levels of things that are overshadowing other parts of the mix. You continue to do this until you have the mix that works best for you. Subtlety in dynamic range is maintained. You may even manage to emphasise a wider dynamic range with such an approach.
This approach, however, runs contrary to a lot of peoples’ ideas about mixing which is add stuff until you can hear it. In my experience, such an approach ultimately ends with you turning up something that has been obscured by what you have added, which in turn requires you to turn something else up, quickly escalating into a mess as it all becomes so much loud undifferentiated mush to the ears with no clear definition of any one sound.
A sure-fire way to reproduce a winning mix formulae is to use templates for your projects that incorporate all of the basic setting you use again and again and again. Each template you save will be the result of hours of careful work and adjustment to achieve the desired sonic outcome. Reusing your templates and patches will also automatically decrease time spent on repetitive tasks, increasing your productivity.
Have a killer eq setting for your horn section? Save it as an EQ template/patch that you can load next time.
Have a killer spatial layout developed for your entire mix? Save it as a project template that you can load new material into for your next project
Developed some nice FX settings? Save them as a patch for the fx device.
The delivery phase of a project is where the client gets the finished product, obviously. What is less obvious is how the client receives the product.
- what file formats?
- full stems?
- stereo mix?
- mono mix?
- surround mix?
To master or not is a big question these days. Most of the time it is really a question about participating in the loudness wars or deciding that dynamic range is the preferred way forward.
Mastering is the final stage before distribution. As such, it is about maintaining a sonic signature for a collection/album of tracks in a release rather than for a single track. You can proceed with single track mastering but if you later choose to collect several songs together to release as an album, you would need to remaster all of them to same sonic signature.
If you decide to master your tracks, then employ an experienced mastering engineer. You could do it yourself, but you would be spending a lot of time to get the same result an experienced engineer could do in an hour or less.
What file formats
Delivering an MP3 as the only file format says you do not care about quality. Why? An MP3 file uses a lossy compression technique that permanently changes your audio.
It would be better to deliver using either WAV or AIFF files, as these retain all of the quality you devised during your mix stage.
Bit depth is important. So is sampling rate.
If looking to do a commercial release then files should be 16 bit 44.1kHz.
If keeping internal bounces, 24 bit and project sample rate are the preferred settings.
Whilst your daw may permit you to save the audio at 32 bit floating point, chances of using this as a production format are slim, as no two daws will use exactly the same file format
If you are delivering a product for someone else to remix or add material to, then providing the stems is imperative. In such situations track out/bounce out each track as a mono file in wav or aiff format
Do not fall in to the trap of sending your project file for your daw – it may not be compatible with the daw being used by the next person in the production chain. Worse still, it will contain your potential trade secrets in terms of your EQ and FX settings
For release/distribution for personal consumption, a stereo mix should be the minimum.
For club performances and other PA system reproductions, a mono mix should be prepared. This may be as simple as loading the stereo mix into audacity and using it’s convert stereo to mono option and saving the result as <file-name>club mix.
Your daw may offer other options for creating a mono mix – explore them.
If mixing for film or multimedia presentations, consider whether a surround mix is appropriate. Research the benefits and the pitfalls
Coming back to the original question: it takes what it takes to produce good music.
As you mature and evolve as a musician/composer/producer your time frames will seem to shrink as a direct result of the experience you already have.
If you take on extra training, learn how to notate what you hear in your head or on the street, then your time frames will continue to shrink.
If you learn everything that you possibly can about your daw, your time frames to do stuff will shrink again, as you are no longer hunting in the manual or on-line trying to figure out how to do certain things.
If you learn how to program your synths or other creative sound design, time frames will again seem to shrink.
Learn about orchestration and arranging: time frames shrink as you are no longer spending so much time experimenting with new combinations of sounds and structural ideas.
In short, the more you learn the quicker your production times will seem to be, as you are no longer struggling to transfer your ideas from your head to your medium, merely transferring them in an orderly fashion.
You might also be interested in: Music Production Schools