67 Music Production and Songwriting Tips - 67 Tips, 19 Topics for 2020
1 How to arrange a Track and stop making Loops
Tip 1: get started with the “all faders down approach”
Before taking your loop, copying it 20 times and start to deactivate random clips and samples, start with your project as it is and put ALL faders down.
With this technique you force yourself to start arranging, by substracting everything and slowly adding clip after clip or track after track in different combinations - maybe you start with the hihat loop and then let the synth simmer and gradually increase in volume until kick and bass enter, to bring all four to the floor, where the plucks are bedded in a cozy blanket of radiating pads.
Tip 2: be neutral towards your ideas
The first ideas you recorded are not necessarily the clips or tracks you should start with! Try to identify the “carriers” of your song - which motif, melody or sound does hold the whole song together? Use that to build tension by adding it and leaving it out - if one sound or melody gets played on the full length of the song, it will tend to get boring and monotonous. Unless that is what you are going for.
Tip 4: contrast is king
Create dynamic! Mute the kick after a full blown drop or filter the bass for more tension in a build up. Try to see the final wave form already in front of you while you are composing and paint in some ditches and peaks. Detract very prominent instruments for a C-part.
Tip 5: practice with old songs
Unearth all your old “2 bar loops” and lay them out to arrange a full song. You might not be that emotionally attached to the old ideas, so you can learn substracting and letting go of unnecessary parts or sounds.
Tip 6: spread your ideas
You used tip 1 and still love every part, every sound and every piece of melody? Great! But maybe try putting them in 2 or 3 different songs - unless you are composing an opera of course!
2 Learn about Compression - it gives you more Power!
Tip 7: mixing - always start with adjusting levels and panning first!
There are so many mistakes that can be done, while applying a compressor to a track, because you are not satisfied with the sound or you just need more volume. Use a compressor when you really need one.
Check our videos or any other video on compression, to get a better understanding of the concept.
This is a good starting point: https://bit.ly/2IgWqzJ
Tip 8: bus Compression
You are about to apply a compressor to multiple tracks with similar adjustments?
Try routing them to a bus and compress only that channel. That way you not only save CPU and resources, but also get a more even sound.
Tip 9: EQ first
You want a certain sound to stand out in the mix? Did you really do everything you can with your EQ? Let´s assume you want your vocals to pop, did you substract the frequencies needed for that from pads, leads, guitars or synths? From all of them? You did? Good, then maybe this helps you to get what you want, before applying a compressor.
Tip 10: panning
Same example, your vocals need to shine more. Main vocals are usually not panned at all, to hit you right in the middle at point zero. But maybe you forgot to get the other instruments layed out in the panorama? Doubled guitars are usually panned all the way left and right, pads and layers between 45 and 60, leads also in the middle, when they do not play at the same time as the vocals. If they do, substract unnecessary frequencies and pan them to 15. THat way you have a lot more space in your mix and maybe don´t even need compression. If you still do, you will hear the differences a lot better now.
The list of tips for compression is endless and this is not the “Ultimate guide to compression”. But to get started, you need to know what each knob in your compressor does and how it can enhance your sounds.
3 Use not too much reverb - Do not get lost in space
Tip 11: add reverb slowly
Turn your reverb down until you do not recognize it anymore, but you see that it still reacts. Now bypass it and hear or better feel the difference. That is how you want to approach supportive reverb in the beginning. If it fits the mix and you want to get more creative, try applying reverb VSTs to only 1 track, instrument or sound first. That way you learn hearing what really matters.
Tip 12: use bus tracks
Your lead is played by a layer of 5 synths? As always, do not push open up separate reverbs for all of them individually, but route them to a bus and spoil that with some ‘verbs. The other possibility is to use send effects of course.
Tip 13: Rule of thumb
Apply these rules to other effects, like delay, compression or chorus, too. Too many (or much of each) effect tend to sound unprofessional. Reduce and use only 1 real creative effect per song. That way you will focus on what is important to make a mix pop!
Learn more about using Effects right? Check this Master Class!
4 Create Contrast - BREAK your songstructure
Tip 14: surprise, surprise
Use a low pass filter on the master or on a group with almost every track routed to. Dial it down and leave the listener with a strange sound, that was only in the background before - maybe some white noise or a metallic sample. Or introduce a new sound or sample, to create a different kind of feeling and atmosphere. BUT, do not stray too far away from where you came from and leave some breadcrumbs to find your way out of the woods again after 16 or 32 bars. To lead back into the known sounds or parts, gives the listener the biggest feeling of reward - you can decide if you want to grant them their sugar or if you want to leave them out there.
Tip 15: create space
Leave the listener with vocals and pads only. Or better take away everything they could hold on to like a kick, a bass, a hihat loop or rhythmic figure. Go for layered synths, pads or long chords and strip from drums - you reintroduce them in the build up.
Tip 16: beatus interruptus
Foreshadow your break by interrupting the drum pattern here and there. That way you even await a break and people can “get ready” for it.
Tip 17: spoken words
Producing techno or house? Introduce a spoken word passage, that fits the vibe of your song. Maybe pitch it down and give it a known flavor, so the listener can always relate what is happening.
Tip 18: additional bars
You do not want you listener to feel safe and/in sound? Vary the length of your breaks and the moments when the kick sets in again. Do 17 bars instead of 16. Pause the bass 2 bars longer than the kick. Build up without the offbeat hihat and let the groove get back to the song after the break seems to be over.
Now take a break or make a break.
5 Use Reference Tracks - Compare to be incomparable
Tip 19: similarity
Pick a track that is really similar to yours and identify differences or flaws. Then choose a more diverse track and do the same. That way you get a more profound picture of what your song needs.
Tip 20: free shots for your friends
Invite some friends and play DJ for a night (if you not already are a DJ). Mix some tunes and give away a free shot or whatever they fancy to the one identifying your track among some reference tracks. Ask them how and why they made their decision and try to see slightly negative feedback as help and a starting point for your improvements.
Tip 21: Stay unique
Do not try to copy what the other songs do, but try to approach the problems your way. There is nothing more important than creating your own sound!
Comparing is caring - for your song!
6 Be creative with your Loops - Every Effect is allowed
22 define different start or end points
23 apply a delay and only use the wet signal
24 *singing* cut it´s life into pieces, create a new retort! Start with the extracted middle section, before wheeling in the end part and put the first bit at the end.. Or whatever you fancy doing here.
25 go through your effect rack and apply something you always wanted to try, but never had a real use for. In Ableton those could be: Beat Repeat, Corpus, Erosion, Grain Delay or the beautifully disturbing Resonators
26 simply reverse it and apply all above mentioned tips
7 Envision your Sound - before making it
Tip 27: feeling first
By recognizing the feel you want to go for, you can already dismiss a lot of possible instrumentations or sounds. That saves you time and energy and the risk of getting lost in flipping through synth presets.
Tip 28: orchestrate your ideas
Follow your inspiration, but set limits in terms of the arrangement. Try to hear, where your pads need to be in the mix, before you place them around randomly. Listen to a reference track for guidance.
Tip 29: prepare your project
If you have a custom preset for different moods, feeling or styles, you will achieve your goal much faster.
Take a rainy sunday to prepare project presets with pre loaded synths, samples, you name it, to dive right in, instead of setting up the necessary and lose your ideas.
8 Focus on your Arrangement
Tip 30: parts
Be sure you create parts, that are different to each other in order to achieve dynamic. In music theory there are many concepts on how a song needs to be arranged - and quite as many exceptions. Frankly, there is no right or wrong. But throughout the decades certain structures and similarities stood the test of time.
The good old “Pop Form” is still valid for most of the productions today - not only in Pop Music. Intro, Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Verse, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus - even by intentionally neglecting this form, most songs have at least some pieces of this concept. Why? Because it works!
Tip 31: explore the vertical
Make sure you don´t use all instruments at the same time all the time - no matter how much you love their sound. The listener gets tired to hear the same “full stack loop” over and over.
Leave the kick out, cut the bass before a massive drop, to make the impact even bigger, insert a dynamic drum roll that fades into your chorus - be creative! One bar of silence is also a way to make use of the vertical ;).
Tip 32: look around
This is pretty obvious - but to create something outstanding, you need to know the basics. Most songs work, because the are not randomly put together and follow a red line, that guides us through. Drop a track into your DAW and analyse the hell out of it, until you understand why each part is where it is.
Extra tip: the waveform will be very useful as a visual support.
Tip 33: proportions
Most tracks have an even amount of bars that follow each other. For example are most verses 2 times 8 bars followed by 8 bars of pre chorus or directly 16 bars of chorus.
You can play with uneven proportions of course, but be sure to use them fully intentionally - good position is 1 bar of silence before a drop, to give it more emphasize and let the listener out in the blue for a moment.
Want a walkthrough of a whole song - Start to Finish?
9 Five Finger Melodies - less is more
Tip 34: proximity
Do not write notes too far away from each other. Do not choose an interval bigger than a 5th, if you want to write a catchy melody (for anything else, go crazy on your keyboard).
Try to go back and forth with some repetition, to drive the screw into the listeners ears.
Tip 35: hit your chord notes
Most of your triads will give you that 5 finger melody material you need. Just take your chords and chop it into a cool hook.
Tip 36: ascension
Depending on your scale, you can write a melodic figure, which can be started later on another note, but with the same proportions, note lengths and intervals. That way you create repetition without actually repeating.
10 Don´t start on the downbeat
Tip 37: move your bar
Don´t put your 1st bar right in the beginning of your Ableton project, if you are in arrangement mode. Leaving space prior to your “real” first bar, gives you the opportunity to start off beat and kick in with the music.
Tip 38: 4 and
Try starting your current melody on “4 and”. Yes, go to your project, grab your newest melody in the editor and move it´s starting point to “4 and “ of the previous bar. Your ears are probably set on the way it used to be and you can always change it back, but you will like at least 1 unexpected turn, that might lead you to starting on a different beat next time.
Tip 39: breathe
Imagine taking a breath on your first beat of the bar and starting to “sing” or write the melody after that. It will add a human feel and can be easier to sing along.
11 Add melody note to Chord
Tip 40: repeating figures
By adding your melody note to a chord, you can swirl around different notes with the same musical figure and create the juice for catchiness: repetition!
Tip 41: go easy on the semi tones
While whole tones work most of the time for this trick, do not trust too much in the semitones, because they tend to create disharmony in your chords. There are beautiful chords like the Major7, that integrate a semitone, but if you want to please your audience, listen to it first, before you send it to your buddy.
Tip 42: leave notes out
When you add a note to your chord, you might want to get rid of another one, to not clutter your chord too much. In our example above we left out the A as a root note.
If you add a D to a C Major making it a Cadd2 or Cadd9, which creates an open feeling, it is better to leave out the 3rd, which gives a chord it´s very own character and push your listener into the void.
Want to write better Chords?
12 Focus on note length - Size matters
Tip 43: improvise
Try to sing, whistle, clap or dance a rhythm, that differs from 4/4. Mumble, stutter or sing a melody in that rhythm and try to translate it to your editor. You might want to record it first, so you don´t forget.
Tip 44: randomize
Although randomizing can be identified as such in most cases, here it can come in handy. Just drag some notes around as you like. Maybe they start overlapping and create a cool gliding sound. Maybe you find inspiration for a “real” melody or maybe you hit the jackpot and get something nice out of it.
13 Start with your hook
Tip 45: pitch your vocals
If you have a vocal sample or a real singer on your drop/chorus, extract the main phrase from the melody and pitch up or down an octave, to just give a hint on what is coming. That way you introduce the catchies part of the song first and get peoples attention. Especially useful for producing future bass or trap.
Tip 46: alternate the main sound
If your lead sound is a cool Serum patch with a heavy super saw, take the melody and play it with a plucky mallet and a lot of reverb. You expose just a little sequence without getting naked ;).
Tip 47: filter the master
Oldest trick in the book, but not often used for the introduction of a hook. Cut out a phrase of your drop/chorus and apply high or low pass and let the filter dive right into the “real beginning” of your composition.
Tip 48: cut and repeat
Just cut out a fragment of the main hook and let it repeat in the beginning. Effectwise you can apply all of the above mentioned methods.
14 Finish your Tracks - seems too obvious?
Tip 49: set deadlines
If you want to be a successful producer you need to meet your customers expectations and deliver. Also if your customers are your fans - you don´t want to be that producer that takes forever to release a new track.
Set realistic (!) deadlines, but try to push yourself.
Tip 50: re-visit old track
Go through all these hard drives, dig deep and unearth some of the “hit-songs” of old times and practice finishing songs. Your emotional attachment is probably less intense and you can just do, what the whole lesson is about - finish it.
Tip 51: let it go
Yes, it can always be better or different, but it will never reach some ones ears, if it stays at 70%. Break your habit (if you have it) and finish, publish, release and celebrate.
15 Use send Effects - not only on the Master
Tip 52: define your sound
You are the master of your DAW! You can customize almost anything. You need a granulizer in every track? Make it your custom send effect preset for all compositions you start.
Tip 53: invest
Spend some time on defining and tweaking your send effects. Don´t be satisfied with the “init patches” and create your own sound. Remember: the effect is used on multiple tracks, so invest some time and make it shine.
Tip 54: parallel compression
Use send effects to parallel compress a drum track for example. Leave one track untouched and treat the duplicate with an overload of compression. By finding the right level of mixing them together, you get the best out of both worlds - dynamics and tight sound!
16 Learn Shortcuts - and save time
Tip 55: read the handbook
Yes, these times we live in we expect things to just work - plug and play. But there are reasons why the printed version or a PDF copy of the handbook can actually come in handy. Take it out of the shelf or google some sheets and study the short cut section.
Tip 56: customize
Of course there is always the possibility to set up every button exactly the way you want it. You are recording a lot of audio tracks? Then you might want to have your transport control or at least the rec button at a position you reach naturally. Being ready to record after just hitting a button makes your life easier.
Tip 57: use a controller
If you want to step up your game even further, you can get a MIDI controller with a built-in transport section and lots of faders and knobs to map your effects or synths to. It is not really a short cut, but has the same effect: a more natural feel and way faster flow.
Yes, it can be painful to customize and set it all up, but the time you spend on that, will be given to you thousandfold after - promise!
17 How to get out of the Loop
Tip 58: create change
Duplicate the initial idea a number of times, so that you have lets say 4 identical copies. Edit the first duplicate until you have made one meaningful change, like modifying the lead sound.
Now go to the next loop and change something else – this time we mute most of the tracks, to create a break part.The next loop will be armed with a snare roll, to have the right material for a build up. In this loop we change the harmonies for a possible bridge.
You get the point – by moving forward loop by loop in a very playful way, you find enough material to arrange your complete track.
Tip 59: create patterns
Take your 4 or 8 bar loop and duplicate it once. Then apply a major change on one or two elements. Maybe change the sound of the pads together with the harmonies. Then duplicate this modified loop and apply another change.
This time you could go for the rhythm, by leaving only the top loop active and mute our kick. The next loop will build up tension, by repeating one part of the melody and a swoosh effect made with white noise rising up. By applying change by change, you organically evolve your ideas and end up with a coherent change.
Tip 60: substraction
Arranging as a subtractive process - if the traditional arranging workflow is analogous to painting, the subtractive workflow is analogous to sculpting. Duplicate your 8 bar loop across the whole timeline. Now start to shape your song by deleting elements. You can start doing this eratically and will figure out for every track, what is working and what just does not sound right.
Turn an 8 bar Loop into a full Track - as if a producer sits right beside you in the Studio!
18 How to build a drop
Tip 61: create contrast
Contrast is what it´s all about! You want to add or leave instruments or musical figures, to create dynamic over the period of time that is considered to be a song. By doing that, you devote yourself to the idea of keeping the track interesting for your listener.
Tip 62: no bass in build-up
By introducing the bass in the verse or intro, you make people crave for more. When you suddenly take away, what they already love, you create a feeling of „give it back, I need it“.
Now mute the bass line in the 4 or 8 bars prior to your drop, to let the feeling of satisfaction set in right there with the bass in the drop.
Tip 63: raise tension and release energy
All parts leading to the chorus are there to raise tension, which you want to release in the chorus. The level of tension goes down, while the level of energy needs to rise as high as possible.
Tip 64: repetition
Repeat the whole thing before the last chorus and take away even more! This time maybe add some new rhythmical figures in the last drop, to make it bounce more.
19 Learn the Pop Form
Tip 65: analyse
Try to analyse as many songs as possible, to figure out, which parts raise which emotion. Grab the best or most successful songs of your favorite genre and examine all parts and their function. That way, you can find out, why and where your drop/chorus needs to be placed.
Tip 66: variety
Rules or structures are there to be broken, but before you define your own guidelines, try to find out, why the Pop Form works – for almost every genre.
Once you figured out the differences and most important distinctive features you can implement them in your songs and whitness more coherent songs in your portfolio.
Tip 67: history of success
Even if you don´t like Pop music, this structure has influenced your live without you noticing, because most songs we hear in public (not only radio) are catchy for a reason. Google your way through different forms of arrangements and try to adapt it to your latest track 1 on 1. If you don´t like it later, you can still press cmd+z.
Last but not least
Tip 67,5: just do it
You can only be as good, as your current abilities allow you to be - that´s why you should never stop learning or trying to get better. Music is constant change, it evolves - and so should you. We know that it is hard to cut some time out of a busy day to sit down and produce some tunes, but without you, they would not exist.
Creating a piece of music and playing it in the club or to your friends or who knows, maybe even on the radio some day, is very rewarding on and in it´s own. So never stop expressing yourself and just do it!
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