Want Better Mixes? Follow This Music Production Checklist
Remember when you were a kid and wanted to be an astronaut?
No? Me neither. I was too into music to be interested in the cold vacuum of space.
However, astronauts have the right idea when they’re blasting off into space because they use a pre-launch checklist to ensure they don’t kill themselves during liftoff.
Similarly, musicians and producers need a pre-mixing music production checklist to create a successful mix.
In this article, you’ll check off everything you need to keep in mind before you start recording and mixing your songs.
Song Structure: The Foundation
Before you even start recording your song, consider the following questions. These questions focus on the songwriting, arrangement, and production aspects, setting the stage for a successful recording and mix.
- Is the Song Completed? Are you happy with the song itself? Make sure it’s fully composed, recorded, and ready for mixing because you won’t fix a boring song with an awesome mix. Although mixing as you produce is a method that works for people, I’ve found that constantly jumping from the creative composition phase of the songwriting and production to the more analytical and technical part of mixing and mastering will get in the way of finishing your work.
- Do You Have All the Necessary Parts? Verify that your song includes the required elements, such as verses, choruses, and bridges, or any structure that suits your vision.
- Does Each Part Flow Naturally Into Another? Seamless transitions between song sections are crucial for a song’s overall cohesion. If something sounds clunky, you’re unlikely to fix it with some mixing tricks.
- Are the Lyrics Completed? Make sure your song’s lyrics are fully prepared before you start recording. It’s a waste of time and money to work on lyrics while recording, especially if you’re hiring an engineer. And it’s a waste of mental capacity to try to do both the lyric writing and recording simultaneously.
- Is the Melody Strong and Emotionally Evocative? Your song’s melody should resonate with your intended emotions and build up to the chorus effectively.
- Songwriters Who Don’t Arrange Their Own Songs Don’t Know This Little Secret…
- Why Production Can’t Fix A Bad Song
Instrumentation and Arrangement: The Sonic Palette
In this part of the music production checklist, we’ll discuss how to prepare your instrumentation and arrangement to ensure everything is ready for mixing.
- Have You Thought About All the Instruments Needed? Double-check that you’ve included all the desired instruments in your song.
- Are Band Members on the Same Page? If you’re in a band, ensure that all members are clear on their parts and follow the agreed-upon arrangement. Disregard this if you’re in a jam band like Phish or The Grateful Dead. If you’re playing really long extended solos and sections that don’t have any parts other than what you come up with on the spot then just do what you want. Who am I to get in the way of improvisational greatness?
- Are There Enough Musicians and Instruments for an Exciting Song? A simple rule to follow for an exciting record is this: Don’t be boring. That means the arrangement has to be interesting enough to capture the listener’s attention. If you’re in a band, that means making sure everybody is contributing something that enhances the production. If you are a singer/songwriter, you may need to hire musicians to flesh out the arrangement if you can’t do it yourself.
- Is the Song in the Right Key for the Singer? Ensure the song’s key suits the vocalist and doesn’t strain their abilities.
- Is the Song in the Right Tempo? Determine if adjusting the tempo can enhance the song’s power or emotional impact. I have re-recorded entire songs because they were at the wrong tempo. Don’t be like me where we recorded the drums, bass, guitars, vocals, keyboards, and then we’re listening to it and realizing that the song is too fast and we have to slow it down. At that point, you can’t use fancy time-stretch tools. You have to re-record the entire thing. That’s a lot of lost time, so make sure you think about all of those things before you hit record.
- Have You Written Vocal Harmonies? A few vocal harmonies here and there really add character to a song, so don’t dismiss that.
- Will You Need Overdubs? Will you need to do a lot of overdubs, or will this be a simple demo recording with everyone playing in the room? Decide whether you’ll require additional recordings to enrich the song’s production.
These considerations help ensure your song’s instrumentation and arrangement are ready for the mixing phase.
- How To Choose the Right Instruments for Your Productions
- Top 15 Tips on Creating an Effective Musical Arrangement
Editing: The Crucial Polish
Even the best recordings can often benefit from minor editing for tightness. But it’s even worse when the recordings aren’t tight to begin with.
I don’t know how often I have struggled with a mix, trying to figure out why it isn’t working and realizing that the takes aren’t tight. So I’m trying to create excitement, punch, and tightness and it just doesn’t work because the inherent performance isn’t up to snuff. So don’t dismiss editing your tracks because it’s crucial to making your mixes sound better.
Like I say in Step By Step Mixing: “You have to clean up the kitchen and do the dishes before you cook.” The same goes for editing your tracks before you mix.
To prepare for a successful mix, go through the following editing-related tasks:
- Have All Tracks Been Recorded? It’s not the best use of your time to constantly switch between editing mode, mixing mode, and recording mode. Make sure that when you’re done recording, you’re actually done.
- Have You Identified the Best Takes? Make notes on the best performances during the production phase for reference.
- Have You Grouped Tracks for Editing? Group tracks that should be edited together, ensuring they remain in sync.
- Have You Listened to Each Take Carefully? Note standout moments in different takes for potential emphasis during mixing. This is super helpful for mixing because you want to know where the “magic moments” in your music are. If there’s a cool fill, a fun slide, or a happy accident in the performance that makes it stand out, you want to make sure those spots shine in the mix.
- Have You Compiled the Best Takes into a Master Take? Merge the best parts of each take to create a polished master recording.
- Have You Chosen the Anchor Instrument for Editing? Select an anchor instrument with the tightest performance to guide your edits. You want to find the tightest instrument that has the best performance and groove. Usually, this is the drummer, but it can be the bass player, so you end up editing the drums to the bass because the bass has more groove. Find that one instrument and then edit the rest of the tracks to it so that they all play to the best groove.
- Have You Nudged for Timing Consistencies? Minor timing adjustments can enhance overall groove and coherence.
- Have You Removed Unnecessary Silences? Eliminate unwanted gaps or noise between vocal or instrument performances. If you’re vocalist is silently waiting for the next vocal phrase, they’re anything but silent because the microphone will pick up breaths and vocals smacks you might not hear during the recording process. Get rid of that.
- Have You Tuned the Vocals? You want to get a good performance without tuning, but sometimes you just need to tune a vocal. But if you get too perfect, it’ll sound robotic, and you’ll get that auto-tune effect. Unless you’re going for that vibe because it fits your genre, you don’t want that.
- Have You Implemented Crossfades to Avoid Pops and Clicks? Add crossfades between edits to prevent audible disruptions in the mix.
- Have You De-noised Tracks as Needed? Home studio recordings often have background noise you need to get rid of. Maybe it’s the hum from your refrigerator because your kitchen is next to your studio. Maybe your large diaphragm condenser is picking up your air conditioning too much. Eliminate that unwanted background noise using software tools so you get cleaner recordings to mix.
By addressing these editing tasks, your tracks will be in excellent shape for the mixing stage.
You’ve made it through the music production checklist! I sincerely hope you keep all of these points in mind. Once you’ve done all the necessary tweaks to the song and arrangements, as well as strengthened the recording with the edits you need to make, you’re ready to start mixing.
When you’re ready to start mixing, check out Step By Step Mixing: How To Create Great Mixes Using Only 5 Plug-ins and learn the proven process for finishing your mixes using the five plug-ins you already have in your DAW.
Keeping Track, Music Mixing