Electronic Music Production – Drawing the Line Between Composition and Mixing

electronic music production

This is a guest post by Mark Dowdell

The process of mixing has so many dimensions, there’s no question that keeping track of everything is a task in and of itself. The tracks, the returns, the effects, the overall groove… it all piles up quicker than we’d like.

Taking all of this into account while still writing the composition? That’s where things get sticky.

The greatest advantage of in-the-box electronic music production is also its greatest weakness. After the past few years of utilizing Ableton Live for almost 100% of my musical endeavors, certain issues have reared their ugly head time and time again. For one, having a library of thousands of real-world instrument samples, sound manipulation devices, and effects is as convenient as it is paralyzing. Not only do I often find myself unsure of which drum kit to use, I tend to forget whether I’m in mixing mode or composition mode.

No matter how often I tell myself that I’ll separate the two processes, they inevitably end up reuniting in some form or another. I’ve come to appreciate my way of doing things, however, and realize that although it might not be the way you’re supposed to do it, it’s effective for me. Nonetheless, I make sure to approach the two processes separately, joining them when the composition is nearing its final form.

Step Back and Record

In general, I approach mixing in the way that an engineer working in a brick and mortar studio would. The first step in any production is getting the musician in and recording the performances. It’s the same idea in my virtual studio, but the mics and other recording instruments have already been set up.

First off, I imagine that I’m that musician entering the studio, unaware of the magic behind audio production. I purposely put out of my mind any notion of the way the sound is coming out of the speakers, focusing only on the composition that my heart finds beauty in.

I develop the basic structure of the piece with MIDI keyboards and translate melodies, harmonies, bass lines and rhythm sections to their appropriate virtual instruments. In the way that a band has multiple members, I build each performer from the ground up.

While in the beginning stages of composition, the closest I get to production entails adjusting the timber, or the characteristic sound, of each instrument. Because Ableton has such robust instrument creation tools, it’s easy to get lost in tweaking the knobs to get the timber I’m looking for.

Beyond that, I allow momentum to build, and the composition takes shape. It normally takes a few sessions of intense song-writing before I’ll even begin touching compressors, EQ or panning the tracks. Even effects such as reverb, delay or spatial processing will confuse the mix if they’re used too early on.

Going for the Mix

When the “recording” process is done, I make sure that I keep the structure of my MIDI compositions in their current form, as an engineer would have to do after finishing the tracking process.

Sometimes, if I’m being particularly picky, I’ll resample the tracks to audio files so that I won’t get distracted from the new task at hand. I essentially step back into the engineer’s shoes and try to forget the fact that I’m a musician, the total opposite of how I approach the mix in the beginning.

Right off the bat, I make sure that I’m mixing at an appropriate level, usually at conversation volume. This makes it easier to pick out things that aren’t working together, as I’m of the opinion that if it sounds good when it’s quiet, it will sound better when it’s loud. Compressors usually go onto some of the tracks, and I tweak each one depending on the type of instrument their assigned to. I usually then strap a spectrum analyzer and EQ onto each track and carve out a space for each instrument to sit comfortably in.

From that point, it takes a few sessions to get things sounding the way they should. I’ll make sure that the mix sounds appropriate on different sound systems, as my home studio can’t take into account every listening environment. I’ll listen to the mixes in my car, on my Sennheisers, even on the little iPod dock in my living room. This gives the mix room to breathe in different situations.

Organize Your Electronic Music Production

While home recording and in-the-box production will never replace the work done by the big boys, it can still yield a high quality product. Even with the generic tools found in most DAWs, the aspiring electronic music maker can bring even the worst of recordings to a listenable level.

The hardest part of it, however, isn’t learning how to use compressors or EQ, it’s how to most effectively handle your style, how to organize your thoughts and translate them into good sounding music. It’s an aspect of creativity that I’m still working on as an electronic musician, and I’ll probably never stop trying to get it under control.

Mark Dowdell is an electronic musician and producer who specializes in making music sound like something it isn’t.  He also runs the music filtration site Bandcamp’s Best, which provides concise reviews of the best albums hosted on Bandcamp. You can find him on Facebook & Twitter.

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  • Jdpak2

    I’m always stuck in the same situation as you mentioned. I will try to focus on the composition BEFORE messing with any effects. Thanks for the tip.

  • Phil Tidwell

    Thank you for this article !  It’s always great to hear someone else talk about their work flow, and I can really appreciate your “focused” approach.  Hopefully you’ll inspire me to be a little more focused on separating these activities into discrete bundles !  Have a good one ! 

  • Karl Hendricks

    Some good advice. Thanks for the article! 

    I tend to compose->mix->master in a cycle… using the same iterative development workflow that I employ as a software engineer. The basic idea is that you work on your project in chunks… and perform a complete cycle on each chunk before moving on to the next. For me, this tends to be an instrument (vocals, lead synth, etc), or a section of the song (chorus, bridge, etc.). 

    With each area I work on, I compose the parts, mix a little as I go, and usually do some mastering to see the polished result. (Yes, I will actually master a 20s clip of the chorus and listen to it on repeat). Then I start again, composing, mixing, and mastering a different area (which sometimes changes what I’ve done in the first part, and that’s okay).  I continue in this cycle, improving as I go, until I have a finished song.

    In the end, my “chunk” is actually the whole song… and this is where the final mixing and mastering happens. By this point, everything is pretty much how I want it… but I’ll devote some time to really checking my frequency ranges, position elements with pan/reverb, and getting the loudness to a standard level.

    This method may be a little strange in the audio world, but I find that it works great for me.

    • Uni-VERSE

      mmm… this is very strange but to each his. I can see how it can work, because i mix my beat and master as well so i can hear it as a mix and loud as well. Then i make corrects to to the mix until the master sounds greats

      I also dont EQ in mastering, only in mixing. My thinking is that why should i work hard to get a master right when i have access to the mix????!!! I only use plug-ins to make the mix loud, give it space and depth and maybe add some punch to it. You can say i do alot of mastering work in the mixing phase so that the mastering is as easy as cake

      • Yeah, if you’re mastering your own stuff it’s way better to be so happy with the mix that you don’t really need to EQ anything during mastering.

        • Uni-VERSE

          I have maybe 10-20 different mixes. Like Mark, i test it on different mediums to see how it sounds. Once i have a good idea of how it translates and it sounds good i move to mastering.

          Its a process but it is worthwhile

    • Nice!  I’m an engineer by trade, too (Environmental/Civil), and can relate to using the iterative process.  In any sort of iteration, you need to go back and tweak your results to get the desired outcome, which feels the same to me when I’m coming up with a piece.

  • Navarre

    Thanks for sharing your tips! I have just recently settled into this workflow, and it has really helped me get further in my compositions. Before I would get lost in trying to get my instruments or rhythms to sound “just so,” and before I knew it, I would lose that emotional momentum that is so critical to song writing. 

    Another note, I have been instructed that -10db on the kick drum is a good volume to mix around, and to turn volume up to its final levels at the mastering stage. I’ve also been told that, at least in Ableton, it’s important to go through effects chains and make sure each output at each effect stage is -10db, or thereabouts, so that digital distortion doesn’t get introduced. Sometimes signal gain gets increased very significantly by plugins. Some people say -12db is the ideal for Ableton, taking the -12db default volume setting on Simpler as a “suggestion” from the Ableton engineers. 

    Thanks, again!

    • Navarre

      Ah, as a note, I learned the “-10db” bit in a course on “dance” music production, mainly pertaining to house, techno, nu-disco, nu-funk, etc… I don’t know a thing about how to mix or EQ live drums or live music in general.

    • Uni-VERSE

      I learned that before i export my separates for mixing, I turn the master fader waaaayyyy down (I use reason 6 for my production by the way). This way the music is soft and when i process it it does not overload the digital plug-ins and i dont have juggle the volumes to get my general mix to peak at -6

      • Actually, I don’t recommend doing that. I would try to keep all of the separate faders at a low volume so that combined they won’t overload the master fader. If you’re using hot plug-ins on each channel, the channels are going to be hot when they hit the masterfader, and a bunch of hot tracks will overload a masterfader regardless of what its volume is. 

        • Uni-VERSE

          Hi BB,
          No i do that as well. Of late i have learned the value of not overloading the fader. The volume does not HAVE to be 127 on the fader. I watch where it peaks and adjust in context. Bob Katz taught me to turn my speakers up and not my fader:-)
          But i also turn the master fader down when i export my stuff my stuff, just as an extra-precaution againt have loud samples when i start mixing. You would cringe at the mixing mistakes i have made so maybe that is just me overcompesating:-)

        • Pff

          Actually from what I know, you can’t clip on a track channel. Clipping only occurs on master channel. That’s the case in Cubase for sure.

          • I’m not talking about clipping. I’m talking about giving the master fader enough headroom and dynamic range so that you have at LEAST -3 dB if you’re going to get it mastered somewhere else…

  • Norbert Olszewski

    Thanks for the article. I agree that its difficult to separate all those processes- composition, arrangement and mixing and its all  ‘feedbacking’ constantly untill you get to the point where there is nothing left from the original idea after all tweaks, cuts and changes. It means- you must stop somewhere. In my case I have to usually enforce it on myself in a sort of external way, I just decide at some stage that the particular part is done, whether I like it or not later- I treat is as an engineer already, not writer/arranger.

    I usually have concept of general arrangement and sounds before I even start recording, but it never comes out as I imagined- which I love. I dont pay very deep attention to EQ my guitar or bass parts when recording, just what I try to get is general sound and to make various parts sound different. It will be all corrected in the mix, cause parts always sound different separetely and in the mix.

    I have a few rules which I try to keep in mind (and which for various reasons are difficult to follow sometimes)
    1. Less is more in arrangement
    2. Importance of silence and change of dynamics
    3. I try to have only one instrument leading, a bit like in jazz, the rest being a background. sometimes I fail here.
    4. It always sound better when yoou listen than when you play
    5. I try to listen music/arrangement as a listener, not as a musician. It sounds trivial, but its really helpfull.

    • Thanks for your comment. I really enjoyed your approach and those tips you follow 🙂

    • Yes!  The dynamics are so key.  Silence is one of the most important aspects of a mix.  I also like your description of it being a constant feedback loop.  At some point you have to step in and just say that enough is enough.

  • Hislop500

    One thing I Have found important also is not trying to showcase every instrument while tracking. I have been learning that less is more and to think of the song as the focus and not to have too many instruments crowding eachother. I love the aspect of constant learning on every level about creating music.

    • Yes, it’s great to separate things and focus on each thing on their level. 

    • Yeah, I’ve found that cutting out certain instruments will clear up the mix, especially those that overlap in frequencies.  Tough to do especially if you’ve created your own instrument (synths, overlaying sampled instruments, etc…).

  • Gdh1532

    Anymore I don’t think to much about the aspect of work flow. I usually work out my arrangements on paper (varies). Try to get the melody ironed out in my head then on paper. Thinking about what other instruments would work well together in my head. I’ll usually chart these out ( simple chord charts) . I almost always record all tracks first , multiple takes for comping and to thicken up things if needed. I don’t do as much copy and paste/ offset as I used to, I like double, triple or more tracking.

    I then start adding in any virtual instruments , I sometimes spend time looking for ther right sound.
    Then edits really cleaning things up.
    Then I go to work running through each instrument, setting its tone, and location in the mix. I spend time here. Lots of automation with levels, pans, effects, dynamics, eq. I’ll put a ear only mix together while doing this… My eyes can lie to my ears, I do make sure that all gain stages are correct (do this as you go along, checking and rechecking). I like to really focus on the music, trying to make sure what I’m getting is real close to what I wanted when I started. Nothings etched in stone though, I’ve learned to be flexible.

    I then go into what I call mix mode. Extra care in dynamics, eq, placement, effects ect. I at this time start focusing on getting to the end product punching through to a final mix I feel ok with.

    • Work flow is just that – work.  At times I don’t find that restricting myself to a ton of rules is helpful, though I find that building constraints is very important.  If your piece has no direction, it moves no where.  I think that managing the constraints with your ability to be flexible is a formula for success.

  • Uni-VERSE

    This is the coolest post i have read so far, maybe because it resonates so deeply with me.I can relate because i am all of the above as well. However, I dont separate the writer from the producer/arranger, nor do i separate the arranger from the engineer. With all cognicains present at all times it easier to craft a masterpiece.

    My process goes as follows, 9 out of 10 times i write the song first.

    Once completed (enough), i work on the music to capture the essence of the words.

    Once i have both a (rough) beat and some lyrics i go over to recording.

    Now, i will most likely listen to the song for a while  just to decide what i would like to add to the song. I listen to see what i would like to change and what doesnt fit. Once i have an idea of what i would like to do i go into post-production mode. 

    Now in post-production is where the magic happens. This is where i have really built my clientele. I put on both my mixing and producer hats. I make sure i get the best possible sounds and arrangement to suit the song and that is most practical for mixing. I add melodies, breaks, riffs, i re-inforce sounds and make the song breathe. With everything i do i ask one important question: Will this work? With Reason6 being able to support audio better, i import the vocals and let them play while add the touches and instruments; this way i get a better idea of the big picture and how everything sounds together.
    This can sometimes take a day to a month to complete, depending on what im trying to achieve and if inspiration finds me. 

    Then i start mixing, i may go back to the production stage if something doesnt work. And Voila, i song has come about. Mixing for myself and others has taught me a lot of do’s and dont’s and how to properly prepare a song for mixing and mastering.

    • Interesting that you mention that it can take either a day or a month to complete a piece.  I’m the same way.  Some pieces can be finished within a day (or a few days to let my ears rest).  Others take months and months to complete.  Just the nature of the beast, I think.