How to Produce A Professional Sound
How to Produce A Professional Sound by Learning From Your Favourite Producers
If you’re starting out in music production, you can easily spend hours, days, and weeks perfecting your track, only to be disappointed when you compare it to a Beatport Top 10 track. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the “pro” sound we all crave comes from hours or hard work in the studio. But one technique that can help you get there faster is track analysis: listening closely to your favourite tracks to understand exactly what is going on beneath the bonnet. Producers often refer to this as an A/B test or comparison.
What You’ll Need
1. Pick 3-5 of your favourite tracks;
2. Something to take notes on/with;
3. A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like Ableton Live, Logic Pro, FL Studio, or similar, to drop your chosen tracks into for analysis;
4. A high-resolution spectrum analyser: the best ones also show you what note corresponds to different frequencies. I would recommend Voxengo SPAN which is free, allows you to analyse your track in both stereo and mid-side mode, and allows you to solo the left, right, mid and side signals.
What To Analyse
Now, it’s time to do some active listening of your track. Listen for each of the following and note down what you observe.
Hooks, Motifs & Melodies
Dance music tends to have several hooks or motifs. This House classic by Robosonic for example, has multiple vocal hooks, the bass pattern that starts at 1:05, the guitar pluck which also starts at 1:05, and many others. In addition to hooks, most tracks will have a lead melody.
- What hooks, motifs, or melodies are playing? How short is the hook? 1 bar? 2 bars? 4 bars?
- How do the hooks change throughout the track to keep things interesting? Is it the musical pattern that is varied, or is it the sound itself?
Arrangement & Structure
Arrangement refers to the sequencing of ideas in a piece of music over time.
- How long are your favourite tracks?
- What sections do they have? Most dance tracks have a 32-bar intro and 32-bar outro, but what’s going on in between? How long is the intro, build-up, breakdown, main section and outro?
- How many breakdowns are there?
You can go a step further by marking each section in your DAW and use the project as a template for your own productions.
Drums are the hardest to analyse because there are often so many sounds. You might need to listen to your tracks several times, focussing on a single drum sound each time.
- How many drum sounds are there? Dance music can have more than 10 different drum sounds, including kicks, claps, snares, tom drums, closed hi-hats, open hi-hats, shakers, cowbells etc.
- Is the kick long, medium or short? Is it layered with anything?
- What audio effects can you hear on your drum sounds? Typically, everything except the kick drum tends to have some reverb and delay on it. However, Deep House hi-hats tend to have only reverb and delay, while Techno hi-hats tend to have reverb, overdrive, distortion, chorus, flanger, and/or delay.
- What note pattern is the bass playing? Even if you can’t hear the exact notes, you’ll be able to identify how many different notes there are and you’ll be surprised at how simple bass-lines are. Most of the time, there are only one or two notes playing.
- How many layers are there in the bassline? Grab an EQ plugin and apply a low-pass filter at 100Hz. You’ll likely hear the sub-bass. Then apply a high-pass filter at 100Hz and you’ll start to hear the mid-layer of the bass.
- Is the bass playing long, sustained notes or short, rhythmic notes? How does the length of the bass notes complement the kick? Typically, long kicks are accompanied by shorter bass notes and vice-versa for short kicks. Is this the case with your favourite tracks?
You can apply a low-pass filter on an equalizer like Ableton’s EQ Eight at 100Hz to filter out the higher frequencies and hear just the sub-bass frequencies.This will help you hear just the sub-bass and the sub-frequencies of the kick.
You can also apply a high-pass filter at 100Hz to filter out the sub-bass frequencies and hear what your mid-bass layer sounds like.
Mix-down (i.e. levels, frequency, stereo width)
Mix-downs are arguably the most difficult element of music production. But here too, you can learn a lot from your favourite tracks.
- What do the frequency curves of your favourite tracks look like? Here’s where your spectrum analyser comes in handy.
- See if you can find a section with just the kick playing. How loud is the kick on its own?
- On your spectrum analyser, go into mid-side mode and solo the sides. This tutorial shows you how to do it in Voxengo SPAN.
What sounds can you hear?This will show you which sounds you need to add width to in your mix-downs and which sounds you need to make narrower.
- Grab a stereo imaging tool (Izotope’s Ozone Imager is free) and have a look at how wide the mix of your favourite tracks is. If you’re using Logic Pro X, you can use the stock Multimeter which has both a spectrum analyser and a goniometer for measuring stereo width.
The stockMultimeter in Logic Pro has a spectrum analyser and a goniometer that allows you to picture the stereo width of your track.
Taking it Forward
If you’ve been taking detailed notes, you can go back to enjoying these tracks as music once again and use your notes next time you’re in the studio. I’ll be honest, it’s a painful experience. But if you go through it, you’ll leave with a solid understanding of how to emulate the music you love.
Remember, you still want to be original and come up with your own ideas. But by knowing what works, next time you’re stuck coming out of a breakdown, you’ll be better equipped to know what sounds you need to make the drop hit as hard as possible.
Good luck and happy analysing!!
Imran Bhaloo is an A&R Manager for the UK-basedProgressive House, Deep House and Techno label, Keep Thinking Music and aDJ and producer (under the name 1MRN). You can connect with him directly on Instagram and Facebook and check out his music on Soundcloud or Spotify.
Further Music Production Help & Tuition
For expert help and guidance you can now enrol on our 1-2-1 music production courses either online from the comfort of your own home or in our London studios! We also have partner studios in Manchester, Birmingham and Oxford too! If you have any questions about our award-winning DJ courses or music production courses on Ableton, Logic, FL Studio or Reason click here to contact us!