Being a musician often seems like a constant stream of self-criticism. If you’re like me, you’re always figuring out how to make your music sound better.
This is a sign that you are on the right path.
Although perfection may only be a heading and not a final destination… There are always improvements to be made.
It’ll make things simpler if you divide music into these THREE critical stages:
As long as you have control over ONE of these stages, you can always make a difference.
Much like Kevin Parker (Tame Impala), I like to manage EVERY stage of the “musical production line”.
This philosophy will undoubtedly grant you the most creative freedom, but it certainly increases the difficulty.
However, with the right methodology… You can learn to manage any of these “musical departments” with optimal efficiency.
Often times, it is the time spent agonizing over certain elements that are the most destructive.
By implementing the strategies I will be sharing, you will no longer need to waste time.
So let’s get to work “assembling” your next musical masterpiece. Ready?
How to Make Your Compositions Sound Better
If you’re a composer like I am, you know how crippling a “blank canvas” can be. As we gain more experience though, we learn to get over that initial obstacle.
It’s all about letting go. Release any attachment you have to your next composition.
I remember one of my mentors comparing our compositions to children; you need to accept them as they are.
This is a great analogy because children “grow up” eventually and so do your compositions.
Essentially, we’re going to be implementing some strategies to help your projects “mature”.
Tip #1 | Structure
If you find that your music has a weak “foundation”, this is probably attributable to its structure. We also refer to this as the “form” of the tune which you may be a little more familiar with.
Let’s go over some terminology to make sure we’re on the same page…
These are all elements that make up the structure of any given piece of music (in the pop world anyway).
The first thing we need to do is make sure that our song’s sections are CLEARLY labelled.
In all honesty, your form can be ANYTHING as long as your listener can follow along.
If your song lacks organization, your listener may get lost or lose interest.
Whether you’re using a pen/paper, notation software or an application… you should ALWAYS have a “roadmap” for your music.
Tip #2 | Arrangement
When I was getting started, I began to worry whether I’d be capable of captivating my listener. Popular music was repetitive, but somehow the lyrics were enough to keep people hooked.
But what if your music doesn’t have any lyrics?
If we’re composing instrumental music (even if it’s a backing track), we need to consider the arrangement.
More specifically, we need to find a way to make our repetitive structure sound LESS repetitive.
I used to think this was caused by a repetitive structure until I studied Jazz music for 3 years.
How were these musicians capable of looping the same 32 bars and not lose their listeners?
The secret is VARIETY.
The form simply serves as a foundation for you to “tell a story”. If it’s not going to come from a singer, then something’s got to move things along.
Arranging is too broad a topic to cover here, but understand this… Traditional Jazz performances are essentially arranged so that each instrumentalist gets a turn to “take the lead”.
If we apply this concept universally, we can simply make any particular instrument “stand out” at any given point.
For example, you can arrange a bass guitar solo in the second chorus, but mute everything else besides the drums.
Now, WE know that it’s a chorus, but your listener will be “fooled” int thinking it’s a new section.
Be creative with your structure and you’ll realize that the possibilities are ENDLESS.
How to Make Your Recordings Sound Better
Sound engineers use their tools to their advantage, but how? They simply learned how they work in the means of using them in an appropriate situation.
What if you used the wrong type of microphone?
What if your microphone placement wasn’t optimized?
These are the kind of questions we need to answer BEFORE we hit record.
Recording music at home is actually easier than it sounds, even with ONE microphone. We can always improve our technique, so let’s look at some tips.
Tip #3 | Dynamic Microphone
You may find that recording with a ribbon/condenser microphone may not give you the best results. Working in a room with poor acoustics can often colour your tracks in a negative way.
These microphones are also VERY sensitive, so any ambient sound may become an issue.
By far, the easiest way to get professional sounding tracks at home is to use a dynamic microphone.
Whether you’re recording vocals, guitars or anything else… You’ll benefit from the superior noise cancellation.
They may not be the “best” sounding microphones, but they are extremely versatile.
If you were to use them in combination with the ribbon/condenser microphones, you’d at least secure more control over your tracks.
Dynamic microphones are the easiest type to work with, so it’s difficult to go wrong.
Tip #4 | Direct Box/Inline Microphone Preamp
The signal-to-noise-ratio can become quite difficult to tame if you haven’t got the right tools. Using a direct box for all your line-level signals and an inline microphone preamp for your microphone will augment the quality of your recordings.
If you’re recording guitars straight into your audio interface, I’m sure you know how “noisy” it can be.
By using a direct box to “balance” your instrument’s “unbalanced” signal, you’re removing noise.
You’ll notice an immediate difference. Your signal will now be optimized for your amp modelling software.
Dynamic and ribbon microphones can both benefit from an inline microphone preamp such as the FetHead.
You’ll notice how your microphone line becomes “virtually” noiseless using one of these devices.
It will seriously improve your “noise floor”. Recording sound better when they produce LESS noise.
How to Make Your Productions Sound Better
As a music producer, you’ll be in charge of mixing and mastering the final project. This can be a HUGE weight on the shoulders, believe me.
Right off the top of my head, the best way to mix and master your music is to try it on AS MANY sound systems as you can.
When I was in college, I would obviously use the recording studio, MIDI lab, but then I’d try out my mix in my mom’s car.
Here’s a list of places you most likely haven’t tried…
- iMac Speaker
- Cellphone Speaker
- Apple Earbuds
- Friend’s Headphones
- House Party
The list goes on, but if you’re truly passionate about this you’ll listen to your song EVERYWHERE. This is great for exposure as well!
Remember, 99% of the population is not listening to music through a pair of studio headphones/monitors.
Now let’s go over some tips that you MAY have not considered.
Tip #5 | Master Bus Compression
If your project doesn’t seem to “meld” together, I promise you that using some light compression will help. Obtaining about 1-2 dB of gain reduction should do the trick.
If you want even more control, you can create an individual bus just to control how much of each track is affected.
You’ll notice that your tracks sound like they are more uniform than they were before.
But if that’s NOT enough?
Tip #6 | Master Bus Reverb
I’d have a hard time believing if you weren’t aware of this, but honoured to introduce you. EVERY mix you hear has some amount of master reverb, why?
We’re actually trying to replicate the acoustic properties of a space (room, hall, venue, etc…).
If your tracks sound like they were all recorded in different locations (which they might have)… You’ll need to use some reverb to “meld” them together.
This is especially important if you’re using dynamic microphones since they’ll sound very “dry”.
You’ll notice that your tracks begin to sound like they were recorded in the same room.
And once again, you can always create an individual bus for reverb if you’d like more control.
For example, I usually feed it a little less bass so it doesn’t “muddy up” the mix.
Make Your Music Sound Better Through Peer Reviews
One of THE best ways to improve your music is to get it reviewed by your peers. It doesn’t have to be an “expert”, just someone who LOVES music (like me).
I simply urge you to be careful about sharing your work with others. If you send a file, make sure it is MP3.
We wouldn’t want anyone stealing your music, so be cautious if you’re serious about this.
You could even join a group on Facebook or a forum where they encourage peer reviews.
What about entering a contest? That’s a sure way to get some constructive criticism.
But most importantly, your music has to sound good to YOUR ears. If you’re not happy with it, you won’t be able to sleep at night.
In other words, have confidence in your ability to judge whether a piece of music is good or not.
This is the quintessential skill for any professional musician, so you got this!
I hope I was able to provide at least ONE useful tip and if so, please share this article with another musician.
Do you have any particular struggles when it comes to “perfecting” your music? Let us know in the comments and perhaps we can provide some assistance.