As we become proficient music producers, we must develop a wide variety of production techniques.
We'll undoubtedly use some techniques more than others. Some are more commonplace while others are fairly niche. However, it's worth having these techniques at our disposal, if not for the techniques themselves then at least for the understanding of the process(es) that go into them.
I've written this article to share a whopping 100 music production techniques I've learned, developed and relied on throughout my music production career. I've also included a total of 5 short videos to go along with each set of 20 techniques.
Take what you need and leave the rest. Feel free to return to this resource at any time or have me send the 5 different sets as PDFs to your email for future reference:
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Let's get into these music production techniques!
Music Production Techniques 1-20 Video
Here is the video I put together briefly outlining and demonstrating techniques one through twenty:
1. Pumping Reverb
Pumping reverb is a way to add a rhythmic element to a reverb to help add to the movement of the mix while also reducing the risk of the reverb washing out the mix.
Pumping reverb is any technique that modulates the level of a reverb effect. Typically, we will set up an effects return, insert a reverb (100% wet) and insert another process to control the level of the reverb (insert it after the reverb for cleaner results).
The “pumping processor” could be any of the following:
- Sidechain compression: try sidechaining the compressor to a rhythmic element like the kick or snare or, alternatively, to a “ghost sidechain signal” playing consistent ¼ notes
- Tremolo: a stereo or mono tremolo can give us pumping-style amplitude modulation
- Trance gating: a trance gate will rhythmically mute and unmute the audio passing through it to produce this rhythmic effect
- LFO shaping: I like using Xfer Record’s LFOTool to draw in the pumping I want
Alternatively, we could choose to automate the fader or gain level of the reverb return to achieve pumping in a much more controlled, yet tedious way.
Pro tip: pump the volume up on the upbeats to help the reverb balance better with the dry downbeats.
2. Clipping Drums
When done subtly, clipping signals with strong transients (like drums) can reduce their peak level without overly altering the tone or the perceived level. This can help us get “louder” drums in the mix.
When done more aggressively, clipping our drums will cause audible distortion, which can be used to enhance the tone and aggression of the overall drum sound.
Set the clipping level to taste, depending on whether you want audible clipping distortion or you want to shave off the peaks of the signal(s) to gain more headroom.
Pro tip: the long wavelengths of low frequencies will begin audibly distorting before the shorter wavelengths of higher frequencies. Therefore, pay special attention to the kick drum (and floor toms) when clipping your drums.
3. Doubling Single Mono Background Vocals
Doubling a background vocal can help widen it out and make it sound more distant thanks to the phase differences brought on by doubling. It also makes more room for the lead vocal in the centre image without throwing off the left-right balance of the mix.
Doubling is generally achieved by duplicating a track, panning the copies to opposites sides of the stereo image, and then delaying and detuning them differently from one another.
I personally love using the Waves Doubler, which gives me all of these options in a single plugin.
Pro tip: you can automate the doubler parameters to alter the perceived width of the background vocals throughout different parts of the mix.
4. Anchoring Elements With Delay
Anchoring lead elements that are mixed a bit louder in the mix can help to tie them back into the mix. This can be done with quiet and subtle delay, which is felt more than it is heard.
Send the lead element in question to an effects return and insert a mono delay. Sync the delay to ¼ notes at your session’s tempo and set the feedback low or even off. Mix the delay well underneath the lead element so that it’s barely perceptible in the context of the mix.
Pro tip: automate the level of the anchor delay to match the volume and density of the different sections of the song.
5. LCR Panning
LCR panning is a great way to maintain strong mono compatibility while also achieving a nice, wide mix. This is because the most important elements as well as the low-end elements are panned straight up the centre while all the other elements are contrasted to the far left or far right.
Opt to only pan your tracks hard left, to the centre or hard right.
Stereo tracks and stereo effects will effectively “fill out” the space in between.
Pro tip: use LCR panning as a framework and don’t necessarily avoid panning intermediately just to follow this “rule”. In fact, I’ll often use a hybrid approach where I’ll pan tracks midway between hard left and centre as well as midway between hard right and centre in addition to LCR just to have some more variation.
6. Revisiting Melody
Repetition is a critical part of songwriting and music production and yet novelty is equally important.
By revisiting a melody with another vocal timbre (often a different vocalist) or a different instrument, we can give the listening something new yet familiar. This is a songwriting and production technique that has been popular for a long time.
Understand the melody of the song and, where appropriate, revisit the melody with another instrument or vocal.
Pro tip: take the vocal melody and reference it during a guitar or keyboard solo.
7. Split-Frequency/Multiband Bass Processing
Having independent control over the low-end of a bass element can be beneficial in the mix.
We typically want a solid, mono low-end with consistent levels. However, we may want to alter the tone of the bass element (largely in the midrange). The same processes that sound great in the midrange may affect the low-end in not-so-pleasing ways.
Splitting our bass elements into a low-end control and a midrange/high-end control is one way to achieve this independence.
Duplicate the bass track and insert the same EQ on each track. Low-pass filter the first track between 100-300 (or another corner frequency if you wish) and then high-pass filter the second track with the same corner frequency (this will be the “crossover frequency”) and slope.
Automate either track as necessary throughout the mix.
Note that any differences in processing between the low and high controls will cause phase differences which will interfere in and around the crossover frequency. You may want to adjust the crossover to achieve the best results.
Pro tip: you can bus the two tracks back together for common processing and a single fader for the bass element.
8. Automating Delay Time For Unique Modulation Effects
Since chorus, flanger and vibrato are based on modulating the delay time of a delay line, it makes sense that automating the time parameter of a simple delay unit would yield similar, albeit different, results.
Insert a delay plugin on the track in question and set the wet/dry control to taste. Remove any tempo sync from the delay time, and automate the delay time in the session.
In addition to the changing delay times, which can be made more apparent with some feedback, there will also be pitch-shifting. As the time is increased, there will be a decrease in pitch. As the time is increased, there will be an increase in pitch.
Pro tip: as we’ll cover in technique 15, it can be beneficial to record this automation by hand in real-time.
9. Performing MIDI Slowed Down
Sometimes we want the “humanness” of actually performing the MIDI information in our sessions (typically via a MIDI keyboard or trigger pads). The slight differences and “imperfections” in timing, note length and velocity can make our virtual instruments sound more realistic and emotional versus programming our MIDI information.
However, we sometimes can’t play fast enough to achieve an adequate performance (especially when the keyboard isn’t our primary instrument).
One quick way of solving this issue is to slow the session’s tempo and perform the MIDI at half-speed, quarter-speed or some other lower BPM than what the song actually is.
Because it’s MIDI, we can then return to the original tempo in the session, and the MIDI will be triggered at the correct speed as a result.
Reduce the tempo of the session and record the MIDI to that new tempo. Once the MIDI has been recorded, bring the tempo back to its original setting.
Pro tip: try pushing yourself and recording at as fast a tempo as you feel comfortable with. The closer we can get to the real speed, the better the performance will translate once the original tempo is restored.
10. Pushing Levels Too High, Too Low, And Splitting The Difference
Some tracks can be difficult to balance appropriately within the song. This is but one strategy to help you place such difficult tracks in the mix.
Play back a section where you’re having difficulty balancing a track. Bring the fader down to a point that is obviously too low, followed by a fader position that is clearly too high. Split the difference and listen intently to whether the track is now balanced appropriately in the mix.
Repeat as necessary.
Pro tip: try balancing the track with the entire mix summed to mono so that you’re not thrown off by stereo information. This will also help with mono compatibility, which is important in mixing.
11. Tightening Vocal Timing
Loose timing can sometimes fit the vibe of a song. However, in most modern productions, having tight timing is expected. It objectively sounds fuller and more professional. This is true of drums, bass and other instruments, and, of course, vocals.
There are a few tools to use when timing vocals manually.
The first is comping or choosing the best takes that naturally align the best.
The second is cutting and nudging. We can split audio files and move them around so that they better align with each other.
The third is time expansion and compression, which allows us to stretch or shorten the audio to better align the lengths of each word, syllable, etc.
While it’s important to understand how to time-align vocals with these methods, it’s also critical to make the best use of the time we budget for editing, which is why I use Synchro Arts’ VocAlign Ultra for nearly all my vocal timing needs.
VocAlign records a guide track (to time-align to) and a dub track (to alter in a way that aligns to the guide). It will then automatically align them for you.
Pro tip: sometimes it’s best to align all the vocal tracks together and other times it’s best to align the lead(s) and the background vocals differently.
12. Vocal Tuning
Hate it or love, vocal tuning is part of modern music production. Though it can often be taken overboard (for special effect or with uncanniness), when done correctly it can help make a vocal sound more professional and suit the music and mix aesthetic.
There are plenty of different vocal tuning softwares on the market. To wit:
My preferred option is Celemony Melodyne. They all work a bit differently, and I’d highly recommend trying out the demo or lite versions to see which is the best fit for you.
The premise of all vocal tuning plugins is to identify the pitch of the dry vocal and allow you to alter that pitch to a given note.
Pro tip: to avoid excessive artifacts and robotic-sounding tuning, avoid tuning the initial transients of words.
13. Multiple Vocal Reverbs
Artificial reverbs are excellent tools for honing in a sense of spatial dimensionality in the mix. When it comes to vocals, we can often benefit from such spatiality.
Furthermore, different vocals can be made to sound better with different reverbs (think of the upfront lead vocal versus the background vocals).
Additionally, a single vocal may benefit from different spatial characteristics across the different sections of the song.
Try sending different vocal tracks (or different groups of vocal tracks) to different reverb returns and effectively “place them” differently within the mix.
Another strategy could be to send one or more vocal tracks to multiple reverb returns and adjust the relative mix of such returns (even going as far as muting and unmuting) throughout the mix.
Pro tip: try not to go over 3-4 reverbs, as this can start sounding uncanny in terms of the perceived dimensionality of the mix.
14. EQing Delay, Reverb And Other Effects Returns
Effects returns are excellent tools for having independent control over our dry tracks and our effects (both for time-based effects like delay and reverb and for our traditional parallel processes like compression and saturation).
Of course, these additional tracks add audio to overall mix and, therefore, contribute to frequency masking within the mix. Therefore, EQ is a valuable tool for helping to fit these effects into the mix.
Consider inserting an EQ before and/or after the processing on your effects returns and adjusting the frequency balance of such returns to mix them better with the dry tracks that feed them and the mix as a whole.
This generally constitutes cutting, especially with high-pass filters, but can also include boosting the frequencies that deserve to stand out a bit more in the mix.
Pro tip: the “muddiness” range is generally defined in the low mids around 200-500 Hz. If your mix is muddy and ill-defined because there’s too much masking the low mids, try cutting these frequencies from the effects returns before opting to EQ the dry tracks of the mix.
15. Recording Live Automation
Having a “human feel” is important in many genres of music, and while drawing in our automation can be remarkably precise, it’s sometimes best to record it by hand in real-time to get the most honest results.
Set your track automation lanes to latch mode (or write mode if you’re feeling brave), playback a section that would benefit from automation, and ride the parameter in question to record the automation.
I personally do this for the faders of my drums and vocals, for my effects throws, and for many parameters for my other instruments (modulation effects, formant shifters, clipping, etc.).
Pro tip: listen critically as you go through each automation pass and pay attention for any issues you hear that may need addressing. Make note of them for a later time.
16. Micro Arrangement
I’ll restate that repetition is important in songwriting and music production. However, it’s also important to maintain the listener’s interest throughout the song (especially with the short attention spans we hold today).
Therefore, having new information being presented every few bars or so (building within the sections of the overall arrangement) can be a worthwhile part of the production process.
Once you have the overall arrangement laid out and recorded in your session, consider ways by which you could keep each section growing into the next by offering new information to the listener.
A few suggestions I have include:
- Doubling specific vocal lines and words (but not all).
- Harmonizing specific vocal lines and words (but not all).
- Adding new percussive elements throughout the section (shakers, tambourines, etc.)
- Including risers up to the end of the section (filtered noise, reverse cymbals, rising pitch-shifted element, etc.)
- Switching up or automating the amount of reverb or delay
- Doubling up instrument layers
Pro tip: be sure that your added production doesn’t draw too much attention away from the main elements of the mix. A lot of this so-called “micro arrangement” is felt more than it is heard.
17. Composite Tracks
It’s sometimes the case that a single recorded performance won’t be perfect in every way. However, if we recorded multiple takes, chances are we would have at least one great take for each section, even if only line-by-line (in the case of vocals or solos).
Therefore, if we do have multiple takes similar in recording method (ideally from the same session or at least the same studio and equipment), then we can effectively “mix and match” them to create a frankensteined composite track that will sound better than any of the individual takes by themselves.
Set up a new composite track or another playlist within your multi-take track (depending on how you record).
Go through bar-by-bar, section-by-section or line-by-line and audition each take. Choose the best option and bring it up to the composite track. Move on to the next bar/section/line/etc.
Repeat these steps as necessary until you have a composite track. Regularly check the playback of the composite track to ensure the different audio pieces flow nicely together. Remember to crossfade at every cut on the composite track to avoid digital clipping.
Mute and hide the original tracks/playlists that you build the comp track out of.
Pro tip: when editing groups of tracks like drums, be sure to group them together within your DAW before going about editing and comping. Single overdubs are easy. Multitracks recorded simultaneously are more difficult, especially when there’s bleed.
Arpeggiation can allow monophonic instruments to insinuate chords. It’s also a useful technique for adding sonic interest to chords and solos, both melodically and rhythmically.
Rather than playing all the notes of a chord at once, play them on at a time. Adjust the timing to your liking and add additional notes if you’d like.
Additionally, there are MIDI effects that can arpeggiate chords in MIDI files.
Pro tip: go beyond the notes of the block chords and try extensions within (and even out of) the key.
19. Using Reference Tracks
Additionally, we can reference other songs that we’d like to borrow ideas from, whether it be a specific rhythm, timbre or chord progression.
Bring a track you want to reference into your session, either on its own track in the arrangement or into a referencing plugin (I personally use the Mastering The Mix Reference 2).
A/B between your work and the reference(s) and make moves accordingly.
Be careful and original. Do not steal anything, especially if it is copyrighted, such as lyrics and melody.
Pro tip: always level match your reference track so that you avoid the loudness bias (our naturally propensity to believe the louder option sounds better).
20. Gain Staging
Gain staging is useful for driving processors/plugins with appropriate levels, maintaining headroom throughout the mix, and making the faders more visually representative of the relative balance between the tracks in the mix.
Insert and gain/trim plugin on each of your tracks and adjust the gain so that the average level of each track is between -20 to -18 dBFS with faders at unity (0 dB).
Pro tip: Do your best to level match the inserts on each track to maintain the benefit of easily visualizing the balance by looking at faders.
Music Production Techniques 21-40 Video
Here is the video I put together briefly outlining and demonstrating techniques twenty-one through forty:
21. Chorus Enhancement
The chorus sections of songs are often higher in energy than most, if not all, other sections. While musicians will naturally tend to pick up the energy during the choruses, it may not always translate to record (especially in many modern production sessions that prioritize overdubs over live-off-the-floor recordings and utilize heavy compression).
Either way, it can be beneficial to give the chorus some additional enhancement with a variety of production techniques to help it stand out in the mix.
There are plenty of way to make a chorus sound bigger than the preceding section (and the following section if need be), many of which can be achieved with simple automation. A few options include:
- Performing more energetically during recording.
- Adding additional percussion.
- Adding additional instruments.
- Adding additional layers of previous instruments.
- Adding background vocals.
- Increasing the volume of individual tracks.
- Increasing the volume of the entire mix.
- Increasing the midrange energy for perceived volume, either with EQ or saturation.
- Increasing the low-end for more power.
- Increasing the high-end for more openness.
- Clipping a bit more for extra edge and also greater headroom to push levels higher.
- Making the overall mix drier by reducing delay and reverb
- Introducing new delays or reverbs for dimensionality.
- Enhancing the width of the mix with panning, stereo imaging and stereo effects (think contrast between a strong centre image and the “side” information).
- Enhancing the depth with reverb and levels differences (think contrast between the dry/upfront elements and the wet/background elements).
- Reducing the strength of the mix a few bars going into the chorus.
- Reducing the strength of the mix a few bars after the chorus.
Pro tip: always check your mix in mono to ensure any chorus enhancement will translate well to mono playback systems. This is especially important when pushing the chorus to be wide in the mix.
22. Parallel Compression
Parallel compression offers us a style of pseudo upward compression, where the dynamic range is reduced due to the lower levels of the signal being brought up more than the peak levels.
It’s a great way to thicken up a sound and make it more present in the mix. It sounds great on drums, vocals, and many other instruments.
Send a track, a group of tracks or a subgroup to an effects return and insert a compressor on the return channel.
Set the compressor so that it’s crushing the signal (10 dB of gain reduction or more) and adjust the time parameters so that the amount of gain reduction fluctuates as much as possible between the maximum amount of gain reduction and no gain reduction.
Mix the parallel compression return channel underneath the dry track(s) to taste.
Pro tip: ensure the amount of gain reduction is fluctuating to achieve the sound of heavy compression — having a consistent amount of gain reduction is akin to simply turning down the volume of the track and doesn’t give us the sound of heavy compression.
23. Dynamic Delay And Reverb
Time-based effects (delay and reverb) can sometimes wash out the dry tracks or the mix as a whole.
By utilizing dynamic delay and reverb, we can reduce the masking while the dry and wet signals are both present, while still having the wet signal (delay or reverb) be apparent in the mix when the dry signal subsides.
Send audio from your track to an effects return and insert a delay or reverb. Insert a compressor after the delay or reverb and set the sidechain input as the dry signal that is feeding the input of the return channel.
Adjust the compressor parameters so that the delay or reverb will be ducked while the dry signal is present, but swell up after the dry signal’s level is reduced.
This is particularly useful for tracks that have ‘empty spaces’ in their audio signals. For example, the space between vocal lines or the space between snare hits.
Pro tip: if you’re still dealing with frequency masking and wash-out issues while using dynamic reverb and delay, try widening or panning the effect return away from the dry signal’s stereo position. Additionally, try EQing out some of the problematic frequencies, which tend to be in the low-mids between 200-500 Hz.
24. Split Harmonies
Chords are fantastic, but monophonic instruments can’t play them by themselves. Therefore, if we want to harmonize chords with monophonic instruments, we can record multiple tracks, each with its own note in each chord.
We can extend this to polyphonic instruments as well, which are capable of playing chords. However, we can achieve cool effects by panning and processing each note a bit differently versus having the entire chord on a single track.
Rather than recording the entirety of the chords on a single track, record multiple tracks, each having one note per chord. Pan and process each track to taste.
Pro tip: experiment with different voicings than would be natural for your given instrument and don’t be afraid to alter the octaves of different notes.
25. Distortion And Saturation For Presence
Humans are naturally the most sensitive to midrange frequencies or the “presence range”. In order to make a track (or subgroup) more present in the mix, we can increase its levels, particularly in the midrange.
While EQ can be effective, it can lead to phase issues and can only boost what’s already there.
Saturation and distortion, on the other hand, effectively create new harmonic content based on the original content of an audio signal, much of which will be in the midrange.
Therefore, we can use distortion and saturation to enhance the presence of certain elements in the mix.
Insert a saturation or distortion plugin on the track, subgroup, effects return or even mix bus that could benefit from more presence.
Adjust to taste in the context of the mix. You may be surprised by how far you can push things in the context of the mix versus how distorted they may sound in solo.
Pro tip: this technique is particularly effective if your bass element (808, bass guitar or bass synth) is lacking clarity in the midrange. You can get more aggressive in this case and even consider splitting the bass into a low-end and a high-end control, and applying different amounts of saturation to either.
26. Reverse Reverb
Reverse effects can help to fill space and move things forward in the mix. Reverse reverb is much more subtle than reversing dry tracks, and can therefore be used without drawing as much attention to itself.
Send a track or multiple tracks (or a subgroup) to an effects return.
Insert a reverb on the return channel (100% wet) and adjust to taste. Ideally, the reverb tail should be faded out by the following note.
Print that reverb channel as an audio file.
Chop up the audio file at each note/chord/hit and reverse the files.
Keep them in place to have a reverse reverb happen after the dry notes or move each of them so that they effectively swell into their coinciding dry notes.
Alternatively, there are reverse reverb plugins you can opt for, though they may not offer as clean a result.
Pro tip: add additional effects to the reverse reverb to enhance the contrast between the dry and wet signal.
Risers are a fantastic way to increase the perceived energy over time and lead the listener into the following section of the song.
In modern music production, it’s important to regularly introduce new information for the listener, and risers are one strategy for doing just that.
There are a few different options that we can mix and match to produce a riser:
- Reverse cymbals.
- Reverse reverbs.
- doubling the timing of percussion bar after bar.
- pitch shifting upward over time.
- Having instruments play notes up the scale to achieve a more natural “pitch rising” effect.
- increased amplitude of noise.
- Increasing the corner frequency of a high-pass filter over time (filter sweep).
Pro tip: the risers don’t have to necessarily draw attention to themselves. Subtlety is often key as we move between sections of the overall arrangement.
28. Low-Level Noise
With the prevalence of virtual instruments, we can run the risk of our productions sounding too clean. Introducing noise into the mix can make things sound more realistic and dare I say “analog”.
Note that, when recording in real environments with real microphones, the noise floor will be present, and we’ll likely want to reduce the noise rather than introduce more noise.
There are several ways to introduce noise into a mix. Let’s consider a few:
- Record real instruments, either via direct inserts or with microphones.
- Insert noisy audio (coloured noise, ambience, applause, etc.) into a track in the arrangement window and mix it quietly.
- Choose samples that have some noise floor.
- Use outboard gear or plugins that have an inherent noise floor.
- Many synthesizers have noise oscillators, which can be engaged to produce noise along with the “musical” oscillators.
- Re-amp virtual instruments, either by real amplifiers outside the session or with virtual amplifier simulators within the session.
Pro tip: rhythmically altering the level of the noise can add subtle movement to the mix.
29. Extending Loops With Creative Cutting
Loops can be great tools for quickly adding new material to a mix or even as the starting point of a production. However, they can get repetitive, especially when they only span a few bars.
We can chop these loops up and re-order the audio segments to produce more variation across time. In doing so, we can reduce the repetitiveness of our loops.
Note that this works best with percussion loops and may not be a valuable technique for loops with non-repeating chord progressions.
Take your loop and repeat it after the original. Chop up the second file at the different hits.
Where it makes sense, re-order the hits to achieve a similar but different-sounding runthrough of the loop. Be sure to crossfade between the chopped up audio files.
Repeat as necessary to build up a catalogue of similar loops and re-purpose them throughout the mix.
They don’t necessarily have to go in order. For example, if we end up with four different loops, we don’t have to order them as A B C D A B C D. We can mix them up like A B A C A D B C, and etc.
Pro tip: time compression and expansion can help to further mix things up in your sampled loops — just be sure to keep things on time by cutting and nudging as necessary.
30. Octaver Effects
Additional harmonic content can improve the presence and tone of instruments. One way of achieving this is with octaver effects.
Additionally, whether we mix the dry signal with the octave-shifted wet signal or not, octave-shifting is a great way to produce new sounds that we may not otherwise be capable of producing.
Choose an octaver effect or a pitch-shifting effect that spans to octaves. You can opt for any number of octaves below or above the original signal (so long as the effect allows for it).
Adjust the settings as necessary. Remember that you can keep the original audio, either with the output of the unit/plugin or via setting up a parallel channel for the processed signal to be mixed with the dry track.
Pro tip: automate your octave effects to offer different timbres throughout the mix and consider the signal flow and location of any octaver effects in the signal chain.
31. Crushing Rooms
Heavily compressing or “crushing” drum rooms has been a common mixing technique in rock and metal for decades. It helps to enhance the character and dimensionality of the drums by making it sound fuller and more aggressive.
Insert a compressor on the drum room track of the mix and set the parameters so that there’s a lot of movement in the gain reduction of the compressor. Set the threshold low, ratio high, and the time parameters to taste.
Pro tip: high-pass filtering the rooms often yields a cleaner low-end in the mix.
32. Modulation Before Reverb For Character And Movement
Reverb is one of the most important and common processes in music production, but we can always consider ways to make it more interesting.
Utilizing modulation effects such as chorus, flanger and phaser can add a bit of extra character and movement to the reverb. Similarly, reverb can help dampen the sometimes-jarring effects of such modulation processes, allowing us to modulate our audio in a subtler way.
Send audio from a track, group of tracks or subgroup to an effects return. Insert a modulation effect on that effects return channel followed by a reverb. Adjust to taste.
Pro tip: you may want to cut specific resonances and over-exaggerated frequencies with EQ before or after the reverb.
33. Changing Up Reverbs For Different Sections
Music can be defined as sound changing over time in a structured, rhythmic and harmonic way. Part of music and mixing is the perceived dimensionality of sound.
By utilizing different, albeit similar, reverbs through different sections of the song, we can subtly adjust the dimensionality of different sections without causing uncanniness in the overall sound of the mix.
We can go about changing up the reverb(s) throughout our mixes in a few different ways.
The first is to automate one or more reverbs so that they perform differently throughout the different sections. This can be done by automating the fader of the return channel or the parameters of the reverb(s) on these channel(s).
The second is to utilize entirely different reverbs for different sections and automating them in and out as you see fit.
If you want more seamless transitions, try automating the levels of the different reverb sends. Bring reverb A down over a bar or two before the upcoming section and bring reverb B up over that same bar or two (as an example).
Pro tip: remember that you can utilize different reverbs for different tracks through the mix. Try to keep the number of active reverbs low (3-4 maximum) to maintain a cohesive sense of space.
34. Bouncing MIDI To Audio ASAP
Virtual instruments can take up a lot of CPU and RAM and, in particularly bad cases, can even mistrigger, leading to differences in their performance on each playback.
Furthermore, having these instruments live with their accompanying MIDI information makes it tempting to adjust them until they’re “perfect”, which can be a massive waste of time in the grand scheme of the production (don’t let perfect be the enemy of great).
Therefore, bouncing our virtual instruments down to audio as soon as possible is a great way to keep ourselves on track and reduce distractions while also reducing the load our session puts on our computer.
The exact semantics will depend on your DAW, but there will always be an option to bounce MIDI tracks in place as audio.
Once bounced, you can mute and hide or freeze the original track to save processing power so that you may return to it if you ever need to. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to if you chose the right tone and performance, to begin with (out of sight, out of mind).
Pro tip: if you want to “double-track” your MIDI instruments, try duplicating the MIDI track, humanizing the audio or altering the parameters of the virtual instrument, and then printing the two as audio for further processing.
35. Creating Unique Samples From Vocal Recordings
The human vocal is our most expressive instrument, and we tend to enjoy the sound of the human voice even if it’s not necessarily recognizable as such.
Creating samples and sampler instruments out of vocal takes is a great way to craft new sounds in your productions that, in many cases, tie in nicely with the lead vocal.
There are a few ways to turn your vocal tracks into unique samples.
The first is to utilize a sampler instrument, where you can insert a vocal sample and effectively turn it into its own playing instrument via MIDI. The sample’s pitch will be transposed to the notes of the keyboard and you can alter the way by which it’s played back with a multitude of parameters.
The second way is to chop up a vocal recording and process it in a way that makes it unique. I like pitch shifting, transient shaping and distortion effects, though you can utilize whatever processing you’d like.
Pro tip: interweave the original vocal audio, processed to your liking, in with the vocal-based “sampler instrument”. For example, you can set up the original vocal as a reverse reverb effect to swell into different notes from the sampler.
36. Feeling Pads
In sparser arrangements, we may feel as though there’s not enough body in the mix. However, we may not want to add anymore instruments to the mix, especially if it takes away from the band members’ contributions (it’s good for a record to sound like the band sounds live).
The subtle use of pads can help to fill out the frequency spectrum without necessarily drawing any attention.
Choose a simple pad that suits the overall timbre of the mix and perform the chords of the song. Mix it well beneath everything else to taste and A/B test by muting it and unmuting it.
The goal is to help fill out the frequency spectrum of the mix without making the pad an obviously noticeable element of the mix.
Pro tip: pads can be used in lieu of doubling up instruments (notably guitars) in order to thicken them up in the mix.
37. Call And Response
Call and response has been a common technique in songwriting for years, and can be used with great results in your productions.
It offers something familiar to listeners while also changing up the timbre of the instruments involved (assuming you’ll be using different instruments or at least different tones for the call versus the response).
Have one musician or programmed instrument perform a line (typically a melody) and have another musician or programmed instrument “answer” that line with a complimentary phrase of its own. Repeat as necessary.
Pro tip: consider switching up which instrument calls and which one responds throughout the different sections of the song.
38. Filter Sweeps
Filter sweeps can transform the overall tonality of elements in the mix and provide important movement and variety across different sections.
This helps to keep the listener involved by providing new information within the song.
Automate the corner or centre frequency of the filter over time to achieve the desired result. Try building up/down to a certain frequency at the end of a section and then immediately muting the EQ/filter to remove any filtering at the beginning of the next section.
Pro tip: try sweeping different tracks, subgroups and effects returns at different rates to get more interesting results.
39. Noise Gating And Manual Gating
Noise and bleed can be severely detrimental to a mix. Gating this noise (removing it), either automatically or manually, can help reduce excessive noise, leading to better results in the mix.
To gate out noise automatically, insert a noise gate on the problematic track. Set the threshold so that the gate opens when there’s sufficient signal and dial in the time parameters so that it opens and closes appropriately.
To “gate” noise manually, look over and play back the audio file of the problematic track (ideally in context of the mix), and cut out the audio that’s excessively noisy and that doesn’t add significant information of the track’s instrument. This strategy takes more time but offers more flexibility over the results.
Be sure to crossfader appropriately when “gating” manually!
I personally use the latter on toms and other infrequently played instruments, while I use the former for instruments that are more regular in their production of sound.
Pro tip: try gating effects returns with and without the use of an external sidechain (think gated reverb).
40. Monitor In Mono Periodically For Better Translatability
The way we hear our music production and mixes is likely different from the way the general public will hear it. There will be differences in the playback system, the room, the listening location, environmental noise, and more.
In some cases, the music you work on will be played back in mono, and so while stereo mixes are the standard, ensuring they translate well to mono is critical.
And thus, we can opt to periodically monitor our mixes in mono in order to ensure such mono compatibility.
Insert a gain/trim or stereo widening plugin on your mix bus and collapse the output to mono. Do this periodically through the mix and listen for phase cancellation between the left and right channels when they are summed together.
Pro tip: consider balancing the mix when monitoring in mono rather than in stereo, at least initially, to help with mono compatibility.
Music Production Techniques 41-60 Video
Here is the video I put together briefly outlining and demonstrating techniques forty-one through sixty:
41. Pre-emphasis And De-emphasis Filtering
Pre-emphasis and de-emphasis filtering is commonplace in radio transmission and mastering for vinyl as a way to avoid excessive noise.
In music production, we can set up these filters before and after the bulk of our processing to achieve different tonal results, often with less low-end and more presence.
Insert two EQs on a track, subgroup or return channel. They can be either transparent (like the FabFilter Pro-Q 3) for more obvious A/Bing, or coloured for even more variation.
Create some sort of tilt filter on the first EQ (the pre-emphasis filter) that accentuates the high-end and reduces the low-end of the signal. Create an equal and opposite curve in the second EQ (the de-emphasis filter) .
Insert you processes between these two emphasis EQs. A/B by turning both EQs on and off to test the differences in tone caused by pre- and de-emphasizing the signal.
Pro tip: automate the amount of filtering over time to adjust the timbre of the processed signal.
42. Transient Shaper Automation For Liveliness
Sometimes the attack, sustain and overall level of our instruments (particularly percussion) is too steady. This is common when we utilize samples.
Transient shapers, as the name suggests, alter the transients of audio signals and can also shape the sustain, ultimately leading to alterations in the overall sound and level of the audio being processed.
Automating a transient shaper can add more sonic variation to otherwise overly-consistent sounds.
Insert a transient shaper on the track in question.
I’d recommend automating in real-time with latch mode, allowing you to adjust the parameters by hand. However, you can also draw the changes you’d like to hear without needing to playback the audio.
Pro tip: automate the transient shaper parameters by hand in real-time to get a more “human” feel.
43. Gated Reverb
Gated reverb can make a snare (or any other track) sound huge without the reverb causing unnecessary washout.
This effect essentially works by allowing a massive reverb through a gate and then muting it so that the tail does not interfere and mask the tracks of the mix.
Send a track (the snare drum is the most common for gated reverb) to an effects return and insert your reverb of choice (I really like the Soundtoys Little Plate).
After the reverb, insert a noise gate and set the sidechain input of that noise gate to be the same “dry” track feeding the return channel.
Adjust the parameters to taste so that the gate opens to allow the reverb through when the dry track is loud enough, and then closes at appropriate times afterward. Nice transient-rich signals are ideal for this technique.
Pro tip: consider using gated reverb as an effects throw or punctuated effect rather than a consistent one, saving it either for specific hits/notes or specific sections of the song.
44. Doubling Or Tripling Parts
Doubling and tripling are common practice in modern music production and when done correctly, help to add dimension and power to the lines being doubled/tripled.
Ideally, you’d want to track any doubled or tripled parts during the recording of the song. From there, you can select exactly what parts of what tracks deserve some doubling and go from there.
You may consider editing the doubled tracks for time-alignment and tuning, but you’d have completely different takes to work with.
Alternatively, if you don’t have “real doubles”, you can opt for doubling processing, which generally includes copying the original signal and panning, detuning and delaying the copy or copies. The Waves Doubler is my go-to for such processing.
These are all simple processes that alter the phase relationships between the original and the copy/copies, thereby producing a similar effect to true doubling.
Pro tip: consider doubling or tripling certain phrases or sections rather than the entirety of a performance.
45. Running Non-Electric Instruments Through Effects Pedals
Effects pedals output interesting tonal results when processing guitars and basses. They can output even more interesting and unexpected results when processing other instruments.
If you’re after unique tones or want to take full advantage of your pedal (both real and virtual), this technique is for you.
Taking into account real and virtual pedals, there are basically three ways of doing this.
The first is to connect a microphone directly to a real pedal(s) via an XLR-to-¼”TS adapter, and recording the output of that pedal, either via direct inject, or by miking up the cabinet of the guitar/bass amp the pedal is feeding into.
The second would be to route pre-recorded audio out of the computer or mixer back into the pedal and record that on another track (by either of the previously-mentioned strategies).
The third is to utilize virtual pedals within your DAW and to either record through them in real-time, or process your non-electric instruments through them after the fact.
Pro tip: run previously-recorded material through the effects pedal and re-record the output. Automate parameters in real-time to get more movement and sonic interest. Mix the original and the affected signals together if you’d like.
46. Vocal Throws
Vocal throws help accentuate certain lines and add additionally sonic interest to the production.
Set up an effects return with the desired effect (special delay and reverb settings are common) and set up an auxiliary send to that return from the vocal track.
At the desired word, phrase, syllable, etc., either automate the level of the send up from zero to an adequate level or, alternatively, have the level set and unmute the send during the desired word, phrase, syllable, etc.
Pro tip: automate the effects being thrown over time to add even more sonic variety to the mix.
47. Humanize MIDI
When programming MIDI (or even quantizing the MIDI we record ourselves), we often run the risk of making our virtual instrument sound too robotic and uncanny.
Most DAWs have some sort of “humanize” function that can randomly alter the timing, note length and velocity of the selected MIDI information to make it less “perfect” and more “human”, hence the generic name.
Open up the MIDI editor in your DAW and find the “humanize” option (if applicable). Dial in the range of randomization and apply the effect.
Pro tip: finesse the MIDI when needed to get the exact performance you want.
48. Opposite-Side Delay And Reverb
While not the most natural-sounding option, opposite-side time-based effects can enhance the sense of width in a mix by contrasting the dry audio on one side of the stereo spectrum with its reverb tail on the opposite side of the stereo spectrum.
First, choose a track (a mono track, ideally) and pan it one side of the stereo spectrum.
Next, send that track to an effects return (again, ideally mono), and pan it to the opposite side of the stereo panorama.
Insert a delay or reverb and dial it in to taste. Adjust the fader of the return channel to mix the opposite-side time-based effect appropriately.
Pro tip: consider sidechain compressing the opposite side delay/reverb with a source that is panned to the same side for more movement, interaction and “glue” within the mix.
49. Saturation For Glue
“Glue” or the overall sense of cohesion between the mix elements is an important part of music production. While separation is important for dimensionality and sonic interest, it’s also important to ensure the tracks of the mix work together.
Applying saturation to a subgroup or mix bus helps with glue as it causes subtle compression and creates harmonic content based on the combined audio signals of the tracks in the subgroup/bus.
Bus the tracks you’d like to glue together to a common subgroup (or opt to saturate the mix bus as a whole).
Insert a saturation plugin on the subgroup and dial in the amount of saturation to a point where the elements sound more cohesive and less separated.
I tend to utilize this technique on the drum subgroup, background vocal subgroup, and in some cases, the mix bus.
Pro tip: try saturating different subgroups with different styles of saturation to help them stand apart from the others, even if only slightly.
50. A/B Testing With Proper Level Matching
Music and music production are largely subjective artforms. However, whether we’re being subjective or objective, it’s important to being to compare our choices in the mix and production phases to better understand whether our actions are actually getting us closer to the results we want.
A/B testing, whether by muting/unmuting tracks and processor or testing different settings on our processors, is an important technique for ensuring we’re making the proper decisions.
When A/B testing, it’s paramount that we’re comparing relative levels (ensuring the output of a track is the same whether the processor in question is on or off, or that the settings within the same processor are output equal levels).
This is to avoid our natural loudness bias, where we naturally tend to prefer the louder option when comparing music.
Whenever you utilize any inserts on your tracks, do your best to adjust the output of the plugin so that it outputs roughly the same level as its input.
Develop a habit of periodically A/Bing your processes on/off to test whether they improve the overall production or not.
Pro tip: oftentimes, the fewer processes you need to use to get the desired result, the better. Every process in a signal chain degrades the original audio to some extent.
51. Linking Plugin Parameters To Modulation Sources
Music is largely about movement and so modulation, whether subtle or pronounced, can help enhance our production.
While there’s an entire category of proper “modulation effects”, we can also opt to modulate specific parameters of our plugins/processes to add additional movement to our tracks.
The way by which we can modulate our plugin parameters depends largely on our plugins and our DAW.
Some plugins offer the ability to link certain parameters to LFOs and other modulators.
Depending on your digital audio workstation, you may have a modulator (MIDI or otherwise) that can be linked to specified plugin parameters. If you do, try linking different parameters to the available modulators for additional movement.
Pro tip: get creative and automate the “starting point” of the same parameters that are being modulated.
Disclaimer: this is not sample rate conversion.
Resampling is a catch-all term for creating an audio file from a track in your session and processing it in a variety of ways.
Resampling is different than adding additional processes at the end of a signal chain by way of you having a new audio file or “sample” to work with.
Having a new sample affords us a variety of different options including:
- Time compression and expansion
- Quantization and elastic audio
- Chopping, nudging and reversing
- Re-triggering in a sampler instrument
- Re-working inside a wavetable synthesizer
- Additional processing with more inserted effects
Bounce down audio from a track’s output (including all the processing on the track).
Choose any of the above strategies to alter the sound.
Repeat the process as necessary.
Try mixing multiple versions (resamples) of the same original audio together for interesting results.
Pro tip: mix the original and heavily-processed signals together for even more sonic experimentation.
53. Bass Booms
We all want our music and mixes to have an impact on the listener. One way to create a great sense of impact at the beginning of a section is to employ a “bass boom” or a sub-bass element that quickly drops in pitch and level.
This is a common technique in hardcore music genres, especially at the beginning of breakdowns.
Find a bass boom sample in the root note of the section you’re producing, insert it in the arrangement view on its own track and mix it accordingly.
808-style bass samples or sampler instruments can also work for this purpose.
Otherwise, you can utilize a synth with a sine wave element (add distortion to taste) and an envelope that pitches it down over a short period of time (set it to match the song’s rhythm).
Pro tip: distorting or clipping the bass boom can make it more present in the mix.
54. Keeping Synths Interesting With Subtle Automation/Modulation
Virtual synthesizers can be somewhat bland and “sameish” in the way they output sound. This is largely due to the consistency of the waveforms they produce.
Most natural sounds have a good deal of variation over time in their waveforms.
One way of making our synths more interested, then, is to subtly adjust their parameters, either via modulation or through automation.
Depending on your synth, you may or may not have internal modulators (LFOs, envelopes, etc.) or macro controls (that can be linked to multiple parameters for automation).
If you do have internal modulators, try assigning them to subtly control a variety of parameters over time. I suggest small, rhythmic movements in filters, fine-tuning, wavetable shape, noise level, and whatever else can contribute to a more nuanced and interesting sound.
If you have internal macro controls, you can link multiple parameters together for a single automation lane. Otherwise, you can control individual parameters via independent automation lanes within your DAW.
Pro tip: you can go as far as automating the inserted processes and any effects returns to enhance the sonic variation.
55. Layering Leads With Other Instruments
Layering is a great technique for altering the timbre of an original sound, so if you want some additional tone from your lead instrument, consider layering other instruments with it.
Perform the same notes as your lead element on a different instrument (or least a different tone if using the same instrument).
This is easily achievable with MIDI and virtual instruments but can also be done with real instruments recorded as audio.
Mix the two (or more) tracks together to achieve a new tone that suits the song.
Pro tip: try doubling the layered instrument to give some separation if that’s the sound you want to go after.
56. Reversing Samples Into New Sections
Having transitional elements at the end of sections can help move things forward into the following section and give a bit of additional sonic interest to the music.
It’s fairly common to utilize reverse cymbals, snares and noise patches and samples to achieve this effect. However, it can translate better to the mix at hand if we opt to sample tracks within the song and have them reverse into the new section.
A great example of this technique would be to take the last note or chord of a specific track in a specific section, duplicate the track with only the audio of that last note/chord, and reverse that audio.
That way, the ending swell of the section will have the same timbre as a previous element and won’t sound out of place. Be sure to mix the reversed sample in way that doesn’t sound out of place/uncanny.
The same can be said of vocals and even percussion elements.
Pro tip: time-stretch or compress the sample for more sonic variation and to fit the timing of the song.
This songwriting technique adds rhythmic interest to the track, and can be used as a primary source of rhythm or more subtly in the mix to add rhythmic texture.
Establish a foundational number of evenly-spaced rhythmic beats (2 or 4s generally work best).
Choose another number (3 is the easiest) of beats to space evenly in the same amount of time it takes to cover the foundational number of beats.
This is most commonly done with percussive elements.
Pro tip: change up the polyrhythm for jarring or subtle changes in the rhythm.
Tuplets is another songwriting technique that can add interest over the standard rhythmic patterns that happen within single bars and beats.
This technique includes any rhythm that involves dividing the beat into a different number of equal subdivisions from that usually permitted by the time-signature. For example, triplet (3s), quintuplets (5s), sextuplets (6s) and septuplets (7s) can be used in 4/4.
Establish a foundational number of evenly-spaced rhythmic beats (4/4 time is the most common).
Subdivide the space between two given beats into 3, 5, 6, 7, etc. equal parts and fill in these tuplets with musical information.
Pro tip: introduce tuplets at different sections or beats to help give more impact to the tuplets when they’re present.
Muting is an overlooked tool in mixing and music production, largely because we’re often so concerned with adding to the music rather than sculpting away.
Muting can help enhance the mix by eliminating unnecessary or problematic tracks. It can also be used to periodically take out elements (tracks, subgroups or effects returns) only to have them return at timely sections of the song.
If there’s an element that just isn’t sitting right in the song, try muting it to hear if it improves the mix.
Otherwise, we can automate the mute/unmute of different tracks and of different processes to bring elements in and out of the mix, thereby adding extra sonic interest to the song.
Pro tip: muting can be used creatively to create a trance gate-like effect.
60. De-essing For Vocal Sibilants
Vocal sibilance (the frequency range responsible for the production of “s” sounds, typically in the 4-8 kHz range) is necessary for speech intelligibility, but it can quickly become a source of harshness in the mix.
De-essing, as the name suggests, tames these sibilant frequencies to reduce the harsh “esses” from a vocal.
Insert a de-esser on the vocal track in question. Adjust the frequency to target the harshness of the vocal (you can typically solo the band to be reduced), and dial in the settings so that the esses are dynamically reduces as they surpass the set threshold.
Pro tip: you can use de-esser on other instruments to reduce their high-mid energy. I’ll sometimes use them to reduce the string squeak on acoustic guitar.
Music Production Techniques 61-80 Video
Here is the video I put together briefly outlining and demonstrating techniques sixty-one through eighty:
61. Pseudo Drum Room
The drum room mic(s) is an important capture point for any great-sounding drum kit and room. It can be difficult to get a great drum sound when you only have close mics and overheads, but it’s not impossible.
“Pseudo drum room” channels can be useful and even necessary for getting an appropriate drum sound if you failed to utilize any room mics during recording.
If you’re missing a drum room channel, you can opt to set up an effects return and send each of your close mic channels to it.
Insert a convolution reverb on the pseudo drum room return channel and choose an appropriate drum room impulse response. Adjust the wet/dry mix so that it sounds as close to a real drum room mic as possible.
Note that you may want the reverb return to be mono or stereo. It’s a personal choice for what will work best in the mix, and many drum room captures are done with a single mono mic when recording.
Additionally, you may want to add significant compression and perhaps even saturation after the reverb plugin in order to “dirty up” the reverb return and make it sound more natural.
Pro tip: try sending the pseudo drum room to the parallel compression bus (if you happen to be using parallel compression) to help glue it even better with the drums.
62. Drum Enhancement/Replacement
Many modern music production sessions benefit from tight, sampled drums, whether they’re sampled/programmed from the beginning, or created by triggering samples from the acoustic drum kit audio tracks.
In some instances, we may want to enhance the original audio by mixing in samples. Other times, we may find that the best option is to replace the original audio with samples.
There are several plugins, both stock (depending on your DAW) and third-party, that can dynamically trigger samples based on the peak amplitudes of an inputted audio signal.
Some of these tools work on MIDI, and the MIDI that is outputted can be further edited to remove mistriggers and/or add notes where the tool failed to trigger properly.
Choose high-quality samples that suit the mix aesthetic and consider whether you want to blend the sample with the original audio or replace it completely. For example, I’ll often replace kick drums but mix snare drums.
Depending on the sampler/virtual drum plugin, you may be able to output virtual overheads and even a virtual drum room channel. My go-to is Toontrack's Superior Drummer 3.
Pro tip: once you have your drum track levels mixed, use VCAs to control each drum type (group all kick tracks together, all snare tracks together, etc.) so that you can mix each individual drum in the kit without altering the balance of the tracks representing each individual drum.
63. Chorused Bass
Chorus is a fairly common effect for bass guitar, as it gives some added weight, width and shimmer to the mid-range, helping to make it stand-out, particularly as a melodic instrument.
Run your bass guitar through a chorus pedal or, alternatively, insert a chorus plugin on the bass track within your session.
Dial it in to taste and so it fits within the song. Consider the low-end and rolling off the effect toward the sub-bass to help maintain a strong mono image in the low-end (if possible).
Pro tip: consider automating the amount of chorus on the bass element throughout the song to help emphasize the effect when it is present.
64. Elastic Audio
Tight timing is part of a great modern production, and it can be difficult to get things perfect when recording.
Elastic audio can help to tighten the timing of audio files, much like quantization can help tighten the timing of MIDI information, once the audio has already been recorded.
Disclaimer: perfect timing isn’t always worth going after. It all depends on the aesthetic of genre and song. Additionally, beware of the artifacts produced by stretching and compressing with elastic audio. It’s always best to get things right at the source, and this technique should only be used if necessary.
Your digital audio workstation should have some version of “elastic audio”, where it will scan an audio signal for transients and provide markers at each point it sees as being a new note.
When engaged, we can use elastic audio to nudge these transients around and align them with their ideal locations in the timeline.
Pro tip: always strive to get the best results during tracking and only use elastic audio as a last resort.
65. Multiband Reverb
Reverb is a key process for creating dimensional space in the mix. However, it can often wash out different elements of the mix by causing too much frequency masking in certain frequency bands.
While EQ is a valuable tool for reducing the amount of masking at certain frequency bands, setting up multiband reverb can afford us even more control over how a reverb (really multiple reverbs) affect a sound.
Set up multiple effects returns, each with the same reverb plugin (2-4 is good). Insert the same EQ plugin, capable of clean bandpass filters, after each reverb (I like the FabFIlter Pro-Q 3 for this technique).
Set up the bandpass filters so that they each pass an independent band. Have each successive filter start at the same crossover frequency and same slope as the previous band to ensure no resonances or anti-resonances.
Adjust the levels of each return channel to dial in the “pseudo EQ” of the reverb.
More importantly, dial in the parameters of each EQ to offer more or less dimensionality to each band. In general, higher frequency bands can afford to be wider and more dimensional than lower bands.
Pro tip: keep low-end and sub-bass reverb to a minimum as the low-end is sensitive to wash out and stereo information.
66. Parallel Saturation
Saturation, especially when applied heavily, can have a big impact on the tonality of a track.
Sometimes, we want to squeeze a lot of tone out of a sound but also want to mix it with the original dry sound. That’s where parallel saturation (and distortion) come into play.
Send a track or subgroup to a parallel effects return channel and insert a saturation plugin on that channel. Dial in the amount of saturation to taste and mix it back in with the original.
Pro tip: add more sonic interest to the parallel saturation track by sending it to its own effects return channel and processing it with delay, reverb, pitch shiting and more.
67. Re-amping Instruments And Vocals
We all know that guitars and bass guitars sound great through their amplifiers and cabinets. Many of us know the same is true of keyboards.
But other instruments and indeed vocals can be passed through amps and cabinets to achieve interesting tonal shaping.
It can be worrying to record such sources directly through an amplifier, and so it’s oftentimes best to experiment with cleanly-recorded material by means of re-amping. This allows us to dial in a tone and mess around without necessarily having to commit to the results.
We can do this either virtually or in the real world.
In the real world, we’d have to set up an output from our mixer or audio interface to an amp and cabinet (ideally through some sort of re-amp box that can adjust the signal level and impedance). From there, we could take a direct out from the amp or mic up the cabinet and record the sound.
Virtually, we can achieve similar results by running the track through a virtual amp plugin.
Pro tip: consider mixing the re-amped version with the original audio for parallel-style processing.
Segueing refers to the seamless transition between songs on an album. It’s not always appropriate, but it’s a cool production technique to add to your albums where possible.
First, ensure that the audio at the end of one song seamlessly transitions into the next song. This can be done by writing the music a certain way or by bridging the gap between songs with a specific effect.
The next step is to ensure that there is no gap between the two exported album tracks at the mixing stage or the mastering stage. Crossfade as necessary and match the waveform amplitude at the last sample of the first track to the first sample of the second track to avoid digital clipping between the two album tracks.
Pro tip: if possible, you may find that producing each song to be segued together in the same session to be useful from a production and mixing standpoint.
69. Vocal Ad Libs
Vocal ad libs act to enhance the lead vocal by giving additional lines, melodies, harmonies, or simple repetition.
Once the lead vocal (and perhaps the background vocals) is recorded, allow the vocalist to ad lib over top of their vocals on a new track. Have some fun with it and take as many additional takes as necessary to get the desired results.
Pro tip: process the ad-libs differently than the main vocal. Re-amping, band-pass filtering, modulation, saturation/distortion and panning are great options.
70. Time-Stretching Samples
Time expansion and compression algorithms continue to improve and as they do, cause fewer artifacts in the audio being processed.
While we may not be able to stretch or compress our audio too far, subtle changes can alter the sound in a way that provides a nice amount of sonic variation, especially in one-shot samples that repeat throughout the song.
Use time expansion/compression on the sample in your session to fit them better with the tempo of the song or to simply add sonic variety to repetitive samples.
Be sure to listen critically to the samples being processed to ensure the artifacts being introduced aren’t uncanny for the genre and overall mix aesthetic of the song.
Pro tip: try stretching and then compressing a sample back to its original length (or vice versa) to get a different sound.
For more information on getting more sonic variety out of your samples, check out my article 5 Techniques For Sonic Variety In The Sound Of Your Samples.
71. Ghost Sidechain Signals
Sidechain compression can be used to great effect in music production, especially when used in a rhythmic fashion. However, it’s not always the case that we have the ideal elements within the arrangement to act as our sidechain signals.
By introducing a ghost sidechain signal, we can achieve the desired pumping via sidechain compression without adding unnecessarily to the arrangement itself.
Choose a transient sample like a kick or snare to act as the ghost sidechain. Put it on its own track and duplicate it across the timeline at the desired pumping rhythm.
Keep the fader up but remove any output routing from the ghost sidechain track. That way, the signal will not be sent to the mix bus.
Insert a compressor on the track, subgroup or return channel you want to pump and select the ghost sidechain track as the external sidechain input.
Adjust the compressor parameters to taste.
Pro tip: once you dial in the appropriate time parameters, try duplicating the sidechain compressor in your inserts to get deeper pumping rather than trying to get deeper pumping with a single compressor.
72. Limiting And Clipping Individual Tracks And Subgroups
Limiting and clipping help to control the peak levels of the signals they process and thereby help to increase headroom and ultimately allow for louder mixes.
They’re not only useful in mastering.
Additionally, they can make levels more consistent and each has its own sound.
Limiting can push tracks and subgroups back in the mix but also keep their levels very consistent.
Clipping can make tracks and subgroups sound more aggressive when pushed far enough.
Insert a limiter or clipper plugin on your track or subgroup and set it to taste.
Pro tip: clipping into a limiter will allow the limiter to process more consistent audio and, therefore, sound more consistent itself.
73. Creating Tension With Off-time Beats
It can be all too easy to produce music that fits too perfectly to the grid. While this can be ideal for some songs and genres, the best rhythms often have sway, swing, push, pull and/or tension.
We can achieve such tension by intentionally budging our programmed and live-recorded drums and instruments off beat.
Perform and record your audio or MIDI with an off-beat swing.
Alternatively, nudge your prerecorded audio and MIDI information slightly off-beat. To make the most out of this technique, I suggest keeping the “one” of each bar (or whatever makes sense) on the grid so as to juxtapose the rushed or dragged beats that come afterward.
Pro tip: some delay units allow for swing, which can also enhance the tension of an element within the mix. I like using the Soundtoys EchoBoy for this purpose.
74. Delay Into Reverb Or Reverb Into Delay
Delay and reverb are our two time-based “spatial” effects, and we can combine the two for neat, yet still natural-sound dimensional results.
Send a track or subgroup to an effects return and insert a delay and reverb on the return channel.
Experiment with having the delay before the reverb or the reverb before the delay.
I’d also suggest experimenting with the wet/dry controls. In most cases, it’s best to have our effects return processors at 100% wet, but in this case, we may want some dry signal to come out of the delay or the reverb.
Adjust the effects to taste.
Alternatively, we can utilize two sends. The first return channel can have a delay or reverb and be outputted to the mix bus while also being sent to the second return channel, which will have the other processor inserts and be outputted to the mix bus as well.
Pro tip: try adding shimmer (pitch-shifting) to the latter process in the chain to provide some additional separation between the effects.
75. Upside-down Triangle For Stereo Width
In general, it’s safest to keep the extreme low-end (the sub-bass and even the bass ranges) in mono in order to achieve decent mono compatibility and even stereo playback.
We naturally hear low-end frequencies as being omnidirectional and it’s best to keep them in mono to mimic this truth in the mix.
The shorter wavelengths of high frequencies, however, can be more directional without the resulting phase interactions between the left and right channels becoming an issue.
While not perfect, we can think of an upside down triangle when considering how wide to make our mixes, with the low-end being more mono and the top-end being more stereo.
Be aware of how you’re panning elements and of your stereo tracks and effects, keeping your ear out for phase issues, particularly in the low-end and low-mids.
You may consider utilizing stereo widening plugins, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them due to their effects on phase.
Pro tip: consider changing the perceived width between different sections. For example, make the chorus wider than the verses.
76. High-Shelving For Distance
High-frequency content in sound waves is the first to be absorbed by the medium the sound waves travels through. Therefore, sound sources further in the distance will sound as if they have less high-end energy.
We can take advantage of this in our mixes by either boosting the top-end of a track to make it sound closer or cutting the top-end of a track to make it sound more distant.
Insert an EQ on the track or subgroup you’d like to pull closer to or push further from the listener. Insert an EQ and engage a high-shelf filter. To move the track closer, give the shelf a boost. To move the track further, give the boost a cut.
Pro tip: use high-shelving on you effects returns to push them back or bring them forward in the mix.
77. Carefully Cutting Low-Mids For Clarity
The low-mids (and bass) are critical bands to get right and any masking or phase cancellation can easily throw it off, leading to a “muddy” mix.
In many cases, the fundamentals and first few (most important) harmonics of our instruments are within this loosely-defined range (let’s call it roughly 60 – 600 Hz).
So for most tracks, we can get away with a bit of cutting in this range to help improve the clarity of the mix.
We can test whether the low-mids are too muddy by inserting an EQ on the mix bus and cutting in this range holistically. If we find that we improve the clarity in doing so, we should investigate individual tracks and pull what we can to improve the production.
Ensure you aren’t cutting too much (if any) from the tracks that drive the power of the mix. Focus on those tracks that don’t necessarily need power in the mix and only cut as far as you have to.
Pro tip: you can often high-pass above the fundamental frequencies of individual tracks without thinning them out in the greater context of the mix thanks to the psychoacoustic phenomenon known as the “missing fundamental”, which states that we will naturally process the harmonic content of a sound to understand the fundamental note, even if that note isn’t actually present. Always listen critically to judge whether you’ve gone too far.
78. Bus/Subgroup Compression
Compression is perhaps the most important processor for “gluing” elements together in a mix. Therefore, it can be used to great effect on subgroups and the mix bus to help the tracks in such groups sound more cohesive.
Insert a compressor on your subgroup or mix bus channel, dial in the settings so that there’s a small, intermittent amount of gain reduction happening (I generally only go as far as 4 dB at the maximum), and sweeten the time parameters to taste.
My go-to bus/subgroup compressor is the Waves SSL G-Master Buss Comp.
Pro tip: subgroup audio can also be sent to effects returns for parallel processing (such as a parallel compression bus) if that’s what the mix needs.
79. Unique Reverb And Delay Layers
Interesting sounds are a somewhat easy yet creative way to enhance your music production without necessarily getting into songwriting.
Having a reverb or delay tail with a different timbre than the track that is seemingly feeding such a reverb or delay is one way to improve the sound design of your productions.
First, we need to recreate the same musical information as the original track with a different instrument.
This is easy with MIDI. Simply duplicate the track and choose a different virtual instrument.
With real audio, we’ll have to recreate the same musical information (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.) with another instrument (it can be a live recording or a virtual instrument with MIDI).
Next, we’ll insert a delay or reverb directly on the second track, set the wet/dry mix 100% wet, and dial the time-based effect appropriately before mixing it underneath the original track.
Pro tip: you can choose to morph reverb tail directly from the dry signal into that of the alternate reverb tail for more sonic interest, especially in sparser mixes.
80. Reverb Pre-Delay For Transient Preservation
Reverb is often avoided because it has the tendency to wash out the dry signal, particularly at the transients.
However, we can utilize pre-delay to push the onset of the reverb back in time, thus preserving the transient and adding a bit of rhythm to the track.
Set up an effects return, insert a reverb and send your dry track to it.
Adjust the pre-delay in a rhythmic fashion so that it plays nicely alongside the original track. Adjust to taste and mix alongside the original.
Pro tip: keep the reverb time short to play into the rhythmic purpose of the effect. We don’t want the tail to wash out the following transients in the dry signal.
Music Production Techniques 81-100 Video
Here is the video I put together briefly outlining and demonstrating techniques eighty-one through one hundred:
81. Shimmer Delay And Reverb
Reverbs and delays can sometimes wash out our mixes. Additionally, they can sound too similar to the tracks feeding them (as to be expected).
One way to solve this issue is to pitch the audio up one or more octaves before feeding the time-based effect. This combination is generally referred to as “shimmer delay” or “shimmer reverb”.
Send your dry track(s) or subgroup(s) to an effects return, insert a pitch-shifter/octaver effect and bring the audio up an octave or more. Insert the delay or reverb after the pitch-shifter/octave (100% wet) and dial in the parameters to taste.
Alternatively, there are shimmer effects units and plugins that will also do the job for you.
Pro tip: add additional layers by way of a chain of effects returns to stack different octaves on top of each other. Utilize reverbs and delay to mix things up.
82. Tuning Drum Shells And Samples
Although most drums are percussion instruments and don’t necessarily have to be tuned, adjusting their tuning so that their fundamental is in the key of your song can, in some cases, be of value to the over cohesion of the mix.
The first step is to find the fundamental frequency of the drum in question. While this may sound like a job for a tuner, they generally won’t output the correct note, if they output any meaningful information at all.
Rather, if you do choose to try tuning your drums, I’d look at an EQ plugin that includes a piano roll so that you can align the fundamental peak with a note value. The FabFilter Pro-Q 3 is a good option.
Once you can find the fundamental, try transposing the audio to have it sit at a fundamental note that matches the key. The root or the fifth are the two most stable options.
Always test any transposition of drum audio to ensure the new fundamental is actually where you expect it to be.
Be careful not to go too far with the processing, as it’s likely to alter the sound too much.
Pro tip: tune your acoustic drums before recording and choose samples that are tuned to your liking to begin with. Getting it right at the source is always the best option.
83. Singing Melodies
Assuming you’re a musician, you probably have an innate sense of what can work for a melody of a song, either from scratch or along to a given chord progression.
Take advantage of that and sing or hum a few potential melodies for your work. They may very well sound more musical and “human” than what you may come up with on your instrument of choice, especially if you’re proficient.
Take some time to hum or sing and consider how those melodies translate to the song being produced.
You may want to record your voice to use in the track itself or for a scratch take to program or play along to.
Pro tip: record yourself humming or singing the melody and produce around that, replacing it with a real or virtual instrument if need be.
84. Tracking And Editing Tightly Vs. Loosely
Different genres and songs demand different production styles. Many songs will sound best when everything is performed and edited tightly to the grid, while many other songs will sound better with looser playing and editing.
It’s ultimately up to you and the other artists involved to decide what the best option is.
As always, I advise you to get everything right at the source if possible.
If the song needs to be tight, spend some extra time ensuring the recording is locked in before getting into quantization and elastic audio.
If the song need to be loose, perhaps you don’t have to stress so much during recording and editing, though it’s essential to know the deal before wrapping up the recording session(s) and diving into editing.
Pro tip: ask for and utilize reference mixes to get a solid idea of the ideal looseness-tightness for the production in question.
85. Altering Formants
Altering formants, particularly of vocals, is one of the many ways to alter the tonality of the performance. It can also work on other instruments, though it may not yield results as clean.
Pro tip: consider setting up a parallel channel and mixing the original version of the audio with the formant-shifted audio.
86. Program Drums Along To Scratch Takes
When programming anything in a digital audio workstation, the tendency is generally to over-quantize, leading to rigid results. Sometimes this is exactly what the song needs, but other times it will sound too robotic for the song.
One way around this, if we are set on programming our drums, is to record a scratch take and program to the “imperfections” of the scratch performance.
The scratch take doesn’t necessarily have to be on a drum kit or even a virtual kit. It can be a simple shaker recording or a recording of you tapping away on your desk.
Whatever the scratch take, we can line up the MIDI notes to the audio and end up with a much more natural-sounding drum performance.
Pro tip: if you can’t record your scratch take to the proper tempo, reduce the session’s tempo and record to the slower speed, program the MIDI to that tempo, and then increase the session’s tempo.
87. Sample Older Projects In New Projects
The best way to get better as an artist, musician, writer and producer is to practice creating music.
Not every project will be a winner, but many of our sessions can have interesting ideas that we may want to utilize in newer, better songs. One way of doing that is to effectively recreate what we had once done. Another way is to simply sample what we had done in the previous session and bring the sampled audio into the new session.
Find the session that has something interesting to sample, bounce it out of the session as an audio file, and import it into the new session.
Pro tip: do your best to finish every production session you start. Even if it ends up being a terrible song, there will likely be parts of it that can be repurposed in future projects. It also gets you in the habit of finishing your projects.
88. Alter Kick Drum Samples For Perceived Low End
The perceived low-end of a kick drum is largely dependent on the amplitude and frequency content of its tail. Furthermore, kick drums, like other instruments, tend to fade out into fairly simple repeating waveforms after their initial transient and tonal information passes.
Therefore, if we can alter the tail of a kick sample, we can alter its perceived low-end in the mix.
Zoom in closely on the kick drum sample audio file and look for the tail where the waveform is simple and repetitive.
Make a cut, ideally (but not necessarily) at a point of zero amplitude at the beginning of a wave cycle and another at the start of one of the repeats (it doesn’t necessarily have to be the very next cycle.
Choose to shorten the kick drum by removing one or more of the common waveform cycles or to elongate the kick drum by adding more of the common waveform cycles, ensuring the tail of the audio remains as intact as possible.
In the former option, the kick drum will have less perceived low end. In the latter example, the kick drum will have more perceived low end.
Pro tip: transient shaping can offer similar results.
Chromaticism allows us to play outside the given key, often with “leading notes”, in a way that helps to tie the notes of the key together while also adding additional interest to the melody and even harmony of the music.
Consider adding passing notes to lead and bass lines between the notes that fall in the song’s key.
This may take some getting used to, but it’s a cool writing technique to add interest.
Pro tip: while chromaticism can work in chords, as a production technique to add more interest to the song, it’s generally best to restrict its use to monophonic bass lines and lead instrument lines.
90. One-time Events
One-time events can help shake things up and offer “easter eggs” for return listeners to appreciate.
Choose a cool sample, effect or musical fill/embellishment that you can utilize at one part of the song, and leave it at that.
Pro tip: repurpose elements from the project to produce the one-time event to help keep it from being too uncanny. Consider over-processing a certain track and resampling it or perhaps overdoing a specific effect that’s already been introduced for a short period of time.
91. Flip Stereo Effects Returns
Stereo mixes are the norm, and sometimes it’s valuable to cross the lines between the left and right channels when it comes to effects. Flipping the L/R channels of stereo effects is one way to do that.
Additionally, if we have a stereo track or subgroup that’s a bit lopsided, sending it to a stereo effect with swapped left and right channels can help to rebalance the stereo spectrum, even if only slightly.
Insert a stereo utility plugin that allows you swap the left and right channels before or after the effects on the return channel in question.
Pro tip: be sure to periodically check your mix in mono to ensure proper mono compatibility.
92. Snare Plate Reverb
Plate reverb is fairly common on snare drums thanks to its spacious and bright characteristics that help give the snare (and ultimately the drum kit as a whole) extra dimensionality in the mix.
Send the snare drum track(s) to an effects return and insert a plate reverb on that return channel. Adjust the parameters as necessary.
My go-to for this purpose is the Soundtoys Little Plate.
Pro tip: insert an EQ after the plate reverb on the effects return channel and cut the low-mids to help reduce muddiness and washout around the snare’s fundamental frequency.
93. Guitar Spring Reverb
Spring reverb has been use on guitar for decades now, largely thanks to its integration in many guitar amplifiers but also because of its transient, bouncy sound.
Record your guitar with some spring reverb dialed in on the amplifier.
Alternatively, in the session, send the dry guitar track(s) to an effects return and insert a spring reverb on that return channel. Adjust the parameters as necessary. My go-to here is the Softube Spring Reverb.
Pro tip: guitars are typically recorded in mono, so try opposite-side or same-side spring reverb when processing it on an independent effects return channel.
94. Use Stereo Widening Tools To Reduce Stereo Width
I have my reservations about stereo widening tools because, by natural, they have to worsen the phase relationship between the left and right channels in order to “enhance” the stereo width.
However, I’ve found them to be useful for reducing the stereo width of stereo tracks and effects when necessary.
Remember that if everything is wide, nothing is wide. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to “mono-ize” all of our stereo tracks and effects, but we can decide to reduce the “stereo-ness” of certain tracks to allow them to fit better into the mix.
Insert a stereo widening plugin on a stereo track or subgroup that could benefit from being narrower in the mix. Adjust the reduction in stereo width to taste in the context of the mix.
Pro tip: width is largely achieved via contrast. If everything’s wide, then nothing’s wide. Keep this in mind whenever you’re using stereo widening tools.
95. Increasing Reverb Pre-Delay For Transient Preservation
Reverb has the tendency to wash out elements in the mix. This is especially true of large reverbs.
One way that sources stand out in the mix is through their harmonically-rich transient information — the peak information at the beginning of notes.
So while it may be subtle, we can increase the clarity of our dry signals by setting our reverb pre-delays long enough to allow the initial transient to poke through before the reverb swells in level.
Set up your reverb return channel with an appropriate-sounding reverb. Adjust the pre-delay to allow the dry transient to be clearly heard before the reverb swells up.
Pro tip: we can also utilize sidechain compression to help with the overall “swelling” versus simply delaying the onset of the reverb.
96. Layering Percussion With Foley
Foley often sound remarkably textured and natural, which can help both heavily-programmed and real-world acoustic drums sound more exciting.
Find a foley track that may work with your percussion.
Find the drum hits that you want to layer.
Cut up the foley audio, paying attention to the transients (if they’re notable), and place the cuts so that they layer simultaneously with the drum in question.
Repeat as necessary, and process and mix the foley tracks to taste.
Pro tip: you can help glue the foley together with the drums by bussing all the tracks together. Conversely, you can help separate them by bussing them to different subgroups and processing each subgroup differently.
97. Altering Chord Voicings
Harmony is incredibly beautiful and it’s amazing how voicings will alter the feel of a chord progression that otherwise hasn’t changed at all.
If you’re using MIDI, simply move a few of the notes up or down an octave to open up the voicing.
With closed chords, a basic triad will have its root on the bottom. First inversion would have the third on the bottom and the root on top, and second inversion would have the fifth on the bottom and the third on top.
We can expand this out to whatever we see fit. So long as the same notes are there, it’s technically the same chord, no matter the voicing (though we can certainly apply different labels to the chord, in theory).
Pro tip: pianos and keyboards are easier to work with when it comes to altering chord voicings. When using string instruments, consider voicing the chords in a way that’s ergonomic and actually possible to play (unless for special effect).
98. Dual Mono EQ For Width
EQ is used for frequency-dependent amplitude balancing and comes with the side effect of phase shifting.
If we insert a dual mono EQ (one that gives independent EQ controls for the left and right channels), we can effectively create differences in the stereo image and thus create width.
This can be done with a mono signal that has been duplicated and fit into a stereo track.
Duplicate a mono signal and insert the two identical files into a stereo track. Insert an EQ capable of independent control over the left and right channels and create difference between them.
The result will be width in that signal, only in and around those bands that have been affected by the EQ.
Pro tip: it’s generally best to keep the low-end in mono, so try to focus any mono EQ moves in the midrange or high-end.
99. Haas Effect
The Haas effect describes a natural psychoacoustic feature of our hearing that states that we will hear a sound source as a single source (without echo) so long as the time difference between that sound wave reaching one ear before the other is under about 40 ms. We will hear the sound as being in the direction of the ear it reached first.
We can take advantage of this fast to create width in an otherwise mono signal.
Duplicate a mono track, pan the two identical files to opposite sides of the stereo spectrum (ideally hard left and hard right), and delay one of them at the time below 40 ms.
Alternatively, there are plugins you can simply insert on a single track that can do this for you such as the KiloHearts Haas.
Pro tip: automating the delay time(s) can give very interesting stereo modulation effects. Also, it’s important to note that the Haas effect, by itself, will cause us to perceive directionality in the stereo image, though the actual levels in the left and right channels will remain the same.
100. Consistent Organization
Organization is important for productivity. We can be much more focused on actually producing our music if we aren’t concerned with setting up our common instruments, routing and effects for every single session.
Additionally, setting up our sessions consistently makes it much easier to jump between sessions and understand exactly what’s going on in whatever session we open.
Practice working in a consistent workflow, while leaving time and space for experimentation. Create templates for everything you do so that you aren’t doing repetitive work that only acts to slow down your actual creative production work.
Pro tip: create different templates for each of your common project types. This could mean different templates for mastering, mixing, recording, songwriting and general production, each of which could be different depending on the genre of music being produced.
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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