How to start with independent music production?
A few words before we begin, this page won't make you a star producer / Beatmaker or independent artist! We will just give you a few rules and tricks to help you while your creating music. No matter if you start from scratch or already have a studio you will certainly discover some tricks which will help you during your creative journey.
We will start by checking out what you're looking for, there are many different categories in the sound industries and being a specialist is far better than getting a few knowledge about everything.
As soon as you know what your goal is we will start checking out the virtual and physical environment you need to have to start doing your job.
We just talk about being a specialist, but even as a specialist you need an overall knowledge to understand, or even better to overstand, how things work together that's why we gonna get into the deep world of frequencies how you can manipulate them and how it affects your final mix.
One of the hardest parts in music production is getting your own workflow without breaking the fundamental rules of music. We can't give you a workflow but we will try to help you get an understanding of how everything works together so you can define yours.
Okay if you are ready? Let's go for it!
Find out what's my job.
First of all, we need to understand what we want to achieve because in the virtual world or in the physical one there are a few different tools we gonna use. For example, a singer doesn't need turntables right?
If you are a solo vocalist or instrumentalist and do not want to do the mixing and mastering job by yourself you need to get a clean input you should focus on the environment/room you're recording in. As a vocalist or if you are playing a real instrument plugged or not, you may choose a DAW specialized in the recording like Cubase or Pro tools more than in a composing like Reason or Fruityloops.
But as a vocalist or even as a solo instrumentalist one question remain are you going to play multitrack? Are you as a vocalist recording some backing voices? As an Instrumentalist are you going to record some Harmonic tracks mixed together? If yes then you also need to understand how frequencies work, how to create a room and where you gonna place the sound in it (we going to talk later about that). To achieve that specific sound treatment you will need to work with some tools like EQ, reverb, delays and more...
If you are a beatmaker and only want to use virtual instruments (VSTi) then you don't need to worry about your environment/room. You should choose a DAW specially designed for the creation rather than for the recording like Fruity Loops or Reason. You may also have an understanding of music notes. Thanx to modern technology you ain't need to know everything about music theory, there are a lot of tools VST which helps you during your production, but it may be helpful to have the basic understanding of it. A lot of beatmakers out there create amazing instrumentals but they do not sound as loud and powerful as the mainstream production. The main issue is that they design the sound independently from each other or try to perform a virtual pre-mastering on the full mix. Without understanding how the frequency of each sound react together and how to create an imaginary room which contains the full instrumental, you won't be able to enhance the power of your sound. For example, boosting a tom or a kick without considering how they gonna fit with the middle lows of your lead melody or with the bass is useless. To get a clear sound in each frequency range and a detailed sound of each instrument fitting perfectly in the mix you will need to work with and combine correctly a lot of effects.
Your goal is producing? Well, you choose the hardest part of music production you need the full spectrum of understanding from recording environment to hardware setup and comprehension over having a piece of very good knowledge about your DAW and how to combine hard- & soft- ware together. We don't need to go deeper into it know, lets go further to the equipment setup.
What equipment do I need?
Let me start by clarifying one thing: Knowledge over Equipment!
T he most musician I worked with truly believe that they get a better sound just by plugged themselves into a thousand dollar hardware, no one can say that good equipment does not improve your sound experience I won't do either!
You should ask yourself what makes more sense, using low-cost equipment at 100% of its capability or shine with high-end equipment having no clue how to use it correctly? I ever use to say please don't try to understand your equipment but understand the music. As soon as you understand the music use your equipment to create the sound you wish!
My goal is to help you to start making great music not to sell you a dream you can't afford. For this simple reason, I will focus on the minimal setup required for each category.
I will Focus on the 3 categories I've already mentioned above split into 6 sub-categories, don't hesitate to ask for more in the comment box at the end of this article or write me an e-mail for more specific information.
A - One track recording plugged Instrument
You need a PC or Laptop with a soundcard fast enough to allow you a latency-free (under 4ms) recording and processing results in an error-free audio stream without dropouts or glitches. Of course, you also need a DAW allowing you to record your input. If it isn't your goal to proceed to more complex sound treatment you will find a lot of free DAWs out there.
B - One track recording unplugged instrument or vocalist
Basically, you need the same equipment as for recording plugged instrument and a microphone, but the most important thing here is the environment / Room in which you are recording. more information in the next chapter.
C - Multitrack recording plugged Instrument
You need the exact same equipment as the one track recording method. You should also equip yourself at least with a 4 bands EQ and reverb both are available as a free VST plugin. We going further in the explanation in the Knowledge chapter
D - Multitrack recording unplugged instrument or vocalist
Use the same equipment as method B and add a 4 Bands EQ and reverb. With a good setup combine your knowledge and effects you are ready for a really amazing unmastered sound even with a low-cost microphone. By the way with a very good setup, you will be able to create a better sound with a 50 dollar microphone than with a raw recording with the best Neuman microphone without any room configuration.
E - Beatmaker (Digital music production)
Here you need the same configuration as method A accepted that I will lie to you if I said go for a free DAW let us be realistic and I also will recommend you to buy a few VST plugins and a few VSTi. I will help you to choose the right VST and VSTi by giving you a comprehensive approach on how to use those plugin in the next chapter.
F - Producer (recording, mixing, mastering)
Remember that I am giving you the minimal required equipment and focusing on knowledge. Here you need the same configuration as method D combine with method E. As soon as you fully understand the knowledge I'm trying to give you in the next chapter you will start to enhance your configuration with more equipment. Let us be honest if you fully understand the next chapter and got a few month experiences in music production you won't need an equipment listing from me anymore! So let us go further to the next chapter, the most interesting part for you.
From sound to frequency back to sound ...
F or a deep understanding of sound engineering, you have to understand how the frequencies work and how to manipulate them. The simplest way to figure it out without any equipment is to use one sound and play it in a different environment. Let us try to say "hello" once normal once with your hands 1 cm in front of your mouth and once in your bathroom. You should hear a different sound even you speak the word "hello" exactly in the same way. What you are hearing is not the output coming out your mouth but the reflexion of the frequencies coming back to your ears, it's as simple as that!
Every material has a different biologic structure which allows some frequency to pass through it or to reflect them back like throw a ball against a wall or against a waterfall and every equipment, hardware or VST plugin, your sound is running through is doing the same job.
While we manipulate a sound in a studio we are constantly facing the sound routing which allows you to control how you manipulate the frequency and how you affect the full mix so let's go back to the different method mention in the equipment chapter. We go from natural sounds to a translation in an audio signal running through a cable which lands into your soundcard and allows you to finally capture it into your DAW (you may run through some equipment like compressor, noise suppressor, reverb or something else before you arrived into your soundcard, if run through them before you get into your soundcard/DAW we call it an insert effect). For easy comprehension of it, you have to know that a plugged instrument works exactly like a vocalist facing a microphone, for example, an e-guitar have microphones built in under the chords which translate the generated frequencies into an audio signal.
Let us start with configuring a clean recording environment for unplugged sounds like an acoustic guitar or a vocalist.
If you understand that your environment reflects each sound bouncing in it you may understand that your microphone do not record your voice or your instrument but your microphone is recording the environment in which it's standing. Your job to gain a clean recording is to reduce all reflection who may interact with the sound you wish to record. As we seen before every material got his own ability to absorb some frequencies, with that knowledge you can now start putting different things around you microphone to isolate the true sound from the room natural reflection. But remember that you mainly want a warm natural sound so be careful with your isolation, do not create a so-called "dead room". Remember that sound is a range of frequencies, let me explain you the difference between a hanging microphone and a standing microphone. A lot of artists follow the BPM by smashing the floor with their feet like a metronome. Let go back to that example with a ball, when you let a ball fall between your feet you can feel a vibration. The question is, is that vibration a frequency? The answer is yes it is! So remember to be careful when you follow the metronome or rhythm with your feet or you will record unwanted low frequencies.
Remember what I told you at the beginning "Knowledge over equipment" now you may start understanding why you can't get a clean recording with high-end equipment if you ain't have the knowledge about creating a clean record environment!
Now that you have created a clean environment we can go further, our next step will be the routing between the microphone and your input device. Now we are facing the configuration of a plugged instrument.
As I have already mentioned above I am trying to give you some tricks with the minimum required equipment, but while our audio signal is in the cable I can't go further without mention Whitenoise. As we have learned that an audio signal is nothing else than a frequency range we need to understand that sound is also energy like electricity and this energy moving through a cable also generate some frequency like your feet smashing the ground during a recording session. We use to call those frequency "White Noise". Here we got different ways to reduce this so-called "white noise".
- Hight Quality cable as short as possible;
- Don't lay audio cable near electric cable;
- Insert a noise suppressor just before you run into your input device;
- Insert an EQ just before you run into your input device reducing a few DB around 9kHz;
- Insert a noise suppressor or an EQ as VST in your input track from your DAW;
- Insert a noise suppressor or an EQ as VST in your recorded track from your DAW;
- Route your noisy record back to a noise suppressor or EQ to generate a second track;
There is some Major difference between the 7 methods I mentioned above. some of them can't be modified after you have recorded and some give you the freedom to adjust the intensity of how they affect the audio signal. You also may want to combine some of the methods. here are 2 examples:
The cheapest way: Don't lay audio cables near electric cables and insert a free VST noise suppressor in your recorded track from your DAW.
The expensive way: Use short high-quality cable don't lay them near electric cable and route your noisy signal back to a noise suppressor and record it into a separate track.
For everybody who just wants to record himself you are done and can now give your record away to a sound engineer for further enhancement!
Till now we gonna work in our DAW combine with our hardware. Do you think that you do not have to worry anymore about your room configuration, the way your environment affect the sound you are hearing while you are working on post-production, enhancements, mixing, pre-mastering, and mastering? False you really have to worry about even if you have some high-end monitoring speakers! Let me clarify this with an example:
Your room configuration reflects a lot of middle hight frequencies around 1000Hz to let say 4KHz. In this case, you may have high-end monitor speakers but what you hear isn't the sound your speakers are build/designed for. Monitoring speakers are built in a way to gives you a neutral output. as soon as your room configuration enhance the middle hight frequencies you ain't hear a neutral sound which is equal as working with a hi-fi stereo music system with a build in EQ which enhances some frequencies to optimize the listener experience. with a miss configuration of your working environment, you invest a lot of money for nothing. Now let us talk about how this miss configuration affects your final mix, let take for example you are working on a track with vocals in it. The main clarity of a human voice is between 2kHz and 5kHz, so if you hear while you are working let say 3DB enhancement between 1kHz and 4kHz you will EQing this range to minus 2 to 3DB so that range fits better into your mix! But after exporting the final mix and listen to it with another sound system you will realize that you push down the clarity of the voice and maybe placed the voice in the background instead of bringing the voice in the middle front of the mix and have maybe the kicks over punchy in the front what is not the result you were working on.
Okay, now that we got a clean working environment we can start working into our DAW! Let us start with some fundamentals.
Whatever you are doing you need to know that manipulating an audio signal is not a one-way road! We have many configurations we can apply to one unique signal. before we going deeper into this let us clarify a few methods you can work with :
Insert an effect directly into the signal;
Send the raw signal into an effect channel;
Send the raw signal into a group;
Split the signal into 3 mono signal one centered, the second only left and the last one only right;
As soon as you send or split your main signal you can repeat all 4 steps infinitely. If you never heard something about those methods let me explain why you should use them. let say you want to add a delay into a voice and over compressed only the delay and add some reverb to it, well, if you insert in your voice track a delay then a compressor and finally a reverb you will lose your row voice and the only thing left is a mix ( depend on how you set your dry/wet mix in the delay effect) between raw voice and delayed voice which are both over compressed and reverbed. The best practice here is to leave your voice track free from inserts and send the raw signal into a new track. Now if you play those 2 tracks you will have a gain enhancement because what we have done is similar to duplicate the raw voice track. Now you go into your new track, the one in which you send the original raw track and insert a delay into it set the Wet/Dry knob on 100% wet, in this case only the delay will be playback and no more the original raw signal. Now you can insert after the delay your compressor to compress only the delayed signal. When you now play the 2 tracks you will hear the raw voice with a compressed delay. Now you can insert a reverb into the delayed track or send the delayed track as we did with the raw voice track to arrange it independently from the delayed track.
Why should you send some tracks into a group track? Let us take our previous example with the delay and we assume that you did not reverb the delay but send the raw voice into a second track which contains a reverb so we reverb the main voice and not the delay. Now we should have 3 tracks playing together one raw the second one delayed and the third one only reverb. Mostly we want to bring the vocals in front of the mix and use effects like reverbs and delays to fill the room, letting them play more in the background. The best practice is to send both effect tracks into a group which allows us to control all effects with one single track independently from our raw signal (in this case the voice track). Insert now an EQ in the FX-Group and give it a low & high pass filter plus set the output gain to minus 6DB. Play all 4 Tracks together (the raw voice, the delayed track, the reverb, and the FX-Group). Now you should hear how your voice is coming back to the front and your effects playing in the background filling the room.
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