Things you might be doing wrong (pt.1)

Time for the first real post. ‘Things you might be doing wrong’ will be a regular feature on this blog. I already have a load of these written, I’ll be writing more as they crop up, and I’ll publish them periodically.

Before I get into the meat and potatoes though, a few disclaimers, caveats and whatnot.

  • Underneath the sarcasm, mock disdain and questionable ‘humour’, this is genuinely intended to help people. I have wasted many, many hours of my life messing about and banging my head on (metaphorical) brick walls. If this helps people to avoid that, to save their time and energy allow them to put it towards making better progress or improving their craft, then this missive has served its purpose.
  • If any of this applies to you and it causes offense, I apologise – that’s not my intention. Hopefully you can see the general light-heartedness behind the text; if not then you should probably go and read Rupert The Bear or something even less offensive instead.
  • I don’t know everything. I’m really pleased about that. I’m writing this sort of hoping that in a few years I read it again and have better ways to approach things, even that some of it is wrong or mistaken. One thing I learn in my daily work is that there’s always some new problem that requires a new, creative solution. That’s the root of my fascination with audio – ‘how on earth am I going to make this sound good?’ – and when that’s gone I may as well be gone with it.
  • You may disagree with some or all of this, and feel that your experience is in complete opposition to what I’ve written. Perfect. You are probably not someone to whom this article applies, or is directed. Let’s have a pint and a chinwag some day.

So with the introduction, excuses, and pre-emptive apologies out of the way, here are some things you might be doing wrong with your audio.

You spend months on a song and then export it with the delay tail chopped off

This HAS to be first. It’s actually the main inspiration for me starting this whole blog.

I mean… come on now. Anyone with more than ten minutes’ music-making experience knows that echo effects – brace yourself – echo for a while after the original sound has stopped playing. Setting your export markers/locators to end right when the last audio part stops will chop the end off that delay, giving a musical effect not unlike sprinting face-first into a sturdy brick wall.

That epic masterpiece that you spent so long on… Making it build up, develop, making it fill the listener’s heart with hope before tearing it out and stamping it into the floor before filling it with hope again, then subtly dying before coming back in an epic orgasm of tumultuous power, before reaching a climax so moving that you end up in a different emotional postcode… Nothing – nothing – ruins that more than the bloody thing ending mid-delay tail. It’s like your Mum calling you on your phone 3 seconds after finishing outrageous, rampant sex with Angelina Jolie.

I admit that this is a personal rant. Nothing gets on my wick more than having to piece together a fake delay tail made from the tiny little crumbs I’ve been left to work with. It takes AGES to get that stuff sounding right. It takes about 1.02383948 seconds to put the bloody export marker to the right a bit. Jeebus.

The delay tail thing is a bit misleading. The true underlying point here is a more general one; There’s no real reason why things should go wrong once you click ‘export’, but they do. So listen to and check your stuff properly before you send it out.

You spend as long working on your logo and website as you do on your music

Ask yourself;

Do you want to make music? Does it consume your heart and soul? Does it keep you awake at night, that idea that has to be caught before it escapes? Tapping rhythms on public transport, scribbling ideas down on post-it notes, beatboxing into your mobile at bus stops, running home repeating an idea over and over so you can get it down before it goes?

Or do you want to be a ‘big producer’?

Music comes first. There’s nothing wrong with having a vision of how you’d like to present yourself as an artist, but you need to have art to show first. Art – that is, honest self-expression – can only truly come out once a certain level of technical proficiency has been reached. If you want to write a piano masterpiece, you have to learn to play Mary Had a Little Lamb first.

You might be lucky, and your first track might sound incredible and sum up all those feelings you wanted to express, or execute the perfect dancefloorslayingultimatedeath technique, such that all other would-be dancefloor smashers are rendered irrelevant.

It probably won’t.

And even if it does – what about the second? Nobody wants to be a one-hit wonder.

Forget the internet. Stop spamming soundcloud links of your first track/s to all and sundry. Work on your music, work on your craft. Make the metaphorical distance between the idea in your head and the sound that comes out of your computer shorter. Express yourself honestly and some people somewhere will like it. Keep at it and things will open up. You’ll probably make a few tunes that lots of people like along the way, but you won’t even be able to do that if you’re too busy figuring out what font the obligatory ‘Z’ in your producer name needs to be on your website.

Don’t get me wrong; people’s talents are distributed differently, and ignoring that is shortsighted. If you’re great at web design and make a bit of music, then it would be silly to pay someone else to design an inferior site for you. However, these aren’t really the people I am addressing here. I’m addressing those who really want their stuff to sound great, who want their music to excel. Equally, I’m addressing the people who spend equal amounts of time designing a logo or thinking up a cool producer name (their 3rd this year), then wonder why their stuff doesn’t sound any good then moan about it on message boards. While you’re posting ‘Y MY STUF NO SOUND GUD?’, someone somewhere is figuring it out for themselves.

Allow me to reiterate: Music first. If you share out your time between logo/site/’brand’ design and music, results will follow accordingly. Results are unlikely to be stellar, unless you stick at all of them for a very long time. If, however, you spend more time making music and not concerning yourself with being a ‘producer’, you might be more likely to end up being one anyway.

You spend more time reading about engineering than you do engineering

The internet is full of good information. It’s also full of bad information. As a beginner, it’s incredibly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff when you’re dealing with things that you have little experience with. Close your browser and get your hands (ears?) dirty.

If someone prefaces their advice with ‘I read somewhere that…’ then beware. If their justification for recommending a practice is that they read it ‘somewhere’ (I mean… really?), then they should at least be able to tell you where they read it so you can read and assess it for yourself. These things serve as useful leads, perhaps, but you are equally likely to find such leads by hitting a dead end and researching the specific answer to your specific problem yourself. Often, the ‘answer’ to an engineering question turns out to just be asking a better question. That comes from experience, which comes from time spent doing.

On a related note, one can’t assimilate a lifetime’s worth of engineering experience by reading Producer X’s ‘How To’ interview with some magazine/website. Masterclasses are to be taken with the same skepticism as forum advice – ‘will this work for me?’. DJ Mashupyerface might have the coolest technique for compressing his jazz kazoo samples, but without everything else that surrounds it – sound selection, taste, musical intention, other mixing skills, blah blah – the overall outcome could be very very different in your music.

Similarly with those eq charts. Let’s be frank here; if you have been working with music for 2 years or more and have to read a chart to have even a vague idea where to even start eq’ing, something is very wrong. The thing is that they never, and cannot, take into account where you are when you start.

I saw one eq guide thing the other day, passed on to me by a poor confused chap, wondering why his tracks don’t sound very good. This ‘guide’ said ‘4.5kHz – put a notch here’. I mean…. words (except swear words) fail me. What if – and call me crazy – I need to add a bit of 4.5kHz? What if – and this might sound even crazier – there’s the just the right amount and *gasp* I decide to do absolutely nothing? My god. The mind boggles.

I recall that I once had an album where every single track had a huge notch taken out at something like 6kHz, because he had read somewhere 6kHz was bad. As in, all the way out, basically no 6kHz at all. You can imagine the hollow phasiness that pervaded the album. True story.

Listen very carefully; listen. The best way to hear what eq (or whatever) does to a sound is by working with the sound, with eq (or whatever), and listening. Sounds very often don’t respond how you might expect. Even with a very informed opinion/instinct, sometimes it simply doesn’t sound right to do what you first think. Sounds always respond differently. Guess what? Play with them and listen. You’ll come up with your own words, your own innate feeling for what’s wrong with a sound and what range that might correspond to. Too much 7kHz sounds ‘rusty’ to me. I know one engineer who sees sound as a painting of a field in his head, with bass being clouds, the fence being something else…. madness. It makes no sense to me at all, but what can I say – he is the best and most accomplished engineer I know.

Use the internet, but don’t expect it to teach you. Train your ears by working with sound, not by reading about working with sound. Be prepared to make mistakes, to have things sound wrong. To be making engineering mistakes, you need to be actually engineering. Being hungry to learn is a good thing, but focus on developing your art, your style, above copying xyz’s techniques. Maintain a healthy skepticism towards anything but the most qualified sources. And that includes maintaining a skepticism to everything I’m writing here 🙂

As a certain wise man once said; ‘accept what is useful, reject what is useless, add that which is uniquely your own’.

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More in this series to come…

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