Electronic Music Production – Drawing the Line Between Composition and Mixing
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 .
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