We scour our mailbox for the most deserving recipient of the Attack readership’s collective advice in the first experiment in crowdsourced answers to all kinds of production and creative problems. No query is too small, no question too personal…
This month’s question comes from a reader struggling to strike a balance between composition and sound design. Join the discussion in the comments below.
Hello Attack Team,
I’ve maybe got a topic for your “HELP!” section. I’d be very interested in Attack readers’ opinions on this one.
How far do you go with mixing while you compose and/or arrange a track in your DAW?
Composing, sound design, arranging and mixing were for me all separate sections of songcrafting, which actually started to blur when I began producing electronic music.
Mixing seems like its own independent instrument, with all the possibilities and easy ways to go in modern DAWs. I always find myself getting lost in mixing and sound design questions, when I’m actually still composing.
I have to say that my musical background is more guitar-ish and I’ve been playing in bands for years, so it maybe isn’t that surprising that this is the hardest part of electronic music for me even though I’ve been making electronic music for some years now.
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I’m very much the same way. I too come from a guitar background: I still compose musical ideas on my guitar and then sound design and then arrange the ideas with the created sounds.
I go pretty far with mixing a track. I spend maybe 60% of my time spent on a track mixing. I can also catch myself micro-mixing while I simply arrange a track, and many times I simply have to destroy any automation I’ve written, set all tracks to center pan and 0db and start from scratch. To keep from pulling my hair out, I record and compose all parts I think could work with the song, then arrange, getting rid of things that don’t work, and then after it’s all aranged, I mix.
The mix is easily your most important part of creating a track. Mastering can work out a few kinks, especially if you get a really good mastering engineer, however, mastering can only augment the good parts of a bad mix. Ideally, you want it to highlight the good parts of a great mix.
Also, in my opinion, EQing is just as big a part of mixing as panning and leveling. Keeping everything in a separate frequency stage helps listeners to really grasp everything that’s going on. You can make a complex track with 24 different sounds all operating within 100Hz of each other, which is cool and all, but people can’t hear all that you did, and the meticulousness of your work is lost simply in the closeness. Spend a lot of time studying EQ, and your mixes will stand out more than they ever have.
As cliched as it sounds, sometimes you just have to see what works for you. Some people can really crowd a mix and still make it sound unbelievably awesome. Some of the best chill tracks only have 3 or 4 different mix busses, but they are well separated enough where it fills all the space it needs to, and feels so much more expansive than what it actually is.
Hope you can find your balance, and I hope that feedback provided at least a little bit of help 🙂
I don’t think there can be any hard and fast rules about this kind of thing. It’s all part of the creative process and the only way you can figure it out is by trial and error until you decide what works best for YOU. What approach allows you to get the best results? To make the music you’ve got in your head.
That doesn’t mean you can’t take a disciplined approach to figuring out what works best for you. The next track you make, decide whether you’re going to focus on composition, sound design or both. Be strict. Force yourself just to do what you planned. Think about what’s working and what isn’t. Then repeat for the other approaches.
Eventually you’ll figure out what works best for you.
Another thing I sometimes do if I find myself getting caught up in minor details and not making any real progress is to set a 30 minute countdown timer on my phone. When it goes off, take a break for 30 seconds and think about whether you’ve made any real progress with your track over the course of that half an hour. There should be some clear improvement over what you had before. If not, you’re getting caught up in unimportant stuff. Reset the timer and go again. That can be quite helpful for figuring out which parts of the process are wasting time.
I suffered from this for years. It came down to trying to do everything in the same environment I.e trying to start and finish a track in my daw. Now I have very separate workflows for each stage of the process:
Ideas jam using grooveboxs recorded to hd recorder
If anything sounds worth keeping ill do a rough arrangement live in maschine
When im happy with a rough track ill bounce everything down to stems to load into logic
At this points the grooveboxes and maschine are put away and I concentrate on mixing and extra sound design to flesh out the track.
If the initial jam is rubbish I dont even take it to a mixing stage
I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that arrangement, sound design and mixing is basically the same thing in a lot of dance tracks. I’d go so far as to say that even choosing the sound of a kick drum or a bassline is, ultimately, a mix decision. ie there is no boundary between the ‘jam’, the creative part of the process and what has traditionally been thought of as ‘mixdown’. it is one of the key things that differentiates dance music production from many other genres, where it still makes sense for there to be a day or so ‘mixing’.
All that said, I think R speaks wisdom when he tried ti imprint on this blurred timeline some kind of order. For one’s own sanity, for one, and to improve one’s mixes, I think it can be useful to use slightly different setups for the ‘jamming’ and the fleshing out of ideas, before moving to a different setup for the final ‘mix’. However much crossover there is, I think can help give some final impetus to a mix by thinking of it a separate part of the process, allowing you to approach your creative work with something close to third party ears.
So I suppose my point is contradictory: 1) the ‘old’ ideas of mixdown are dead, BUT 2) manufacturing a distinct mixdown could very well help your mix!
I’ve been thinking about this too lately and this is what I’ve come to:
The main problem is that you you are struggling with ideally two different processes -sound design and mixing- because they share some of the same tools like EQ, Reverb or Delay.
What helps to differiente those processes is the intention you’re working with:
Sound desgin deals with a sole sound and tries to give it a direction and expression.
Mixing deals with your track as a whole an tries to make every element work with each other.
Now those two processes mix up or respectively at the stage of sound designing you preemt some of the mixing decisions.
When they work against each other it’s the key to find a compromise between those two processes i.e. shape a sound in the way you want it but still make it sound good with the other elements of the track.
Another thought – why not exploit the struggle to work in your favour? By that I mean setting time aside to do sound design – program a whole bank of presets in your synth or making a new sample library from scratch. This may serve to give you a clearer view of the palettes of sound which you are or are not using and even better – they will all be yours
I’ve been overlooking my creative process for a couple of years now. After producing 7 years of electronic music. I found it really hard to overlook the composing part of tracks and the technical part (Sound design mixing, mastering)
Eventually i started to shape up some of my own techniques and build them into standard preset racks (Ableton) The only things that i use with composing and mixing together are EQ’s and a utility plugin for keeping my volumes in the right place and some mono stereo placing. But that’s it. After that you can start shaping up everything into the details.
For the sound design part i take it on another tour. I try to seperate my sound design and composing/mixing. Because i need to be specific with the sounds i need. So i’m not working on a track that’s bundles with sound design samples. Because that creates a mess. So i try to imagine what i like with different elements in a track. For instant a hihat needs to be fresh and crispy in my opinion. So i tend to go that direction in various ways ofcourse. Then I can choose from my own personal sample library. So it always suits my own tracks. That way you can easily work true more of your own stuff. And re-use it after and transform it into something else.
this is mostly the way i do it. And it works really good for me.
Because when i’m composing i need to hear my sounds just the way i like them in my mix. so if i need to cut the low freq. I just do that immediately
For sound design i take a day or 2 rest. get all the music out of my head and start fresh. and clean with samples that i like to use in the future.
Hopefully you can get something out of this to use 🙂
I am an advocate of arranging first and fine tuning the design second. But that is because I generally struggle with completing an arrangement and getting hung up on sound design. My thought is to create a basic, but inspiring, complete tune that I can go back and add complexity to and fine tune.
The benefit to this is you know what elements seem to take front stage at each section of the song better which gives you an idea of how to EQ and generally design each sound with effects and sidechained compressors and filters and compression.
Another point to this is it can be easier to test out risers, falls, and impacts in various sections of the song because you already know WHERE that section ends and where it moves to.
I like the idea of countdown timer, will try asap. My advice would be, don’t do any EQ, compression etc. in production stage, make a 16 bar loop, throw ideas inside, make quick decisions what doesn’t fit together and change it. When you feel you need to hipass something or to compress your drums together because you don’t know what’s the next step, take a break than print everything to audio and start mixing in a fresh project. When it sounds roughly good, try to do a bit of arrangement. Reference tracks helps alot with arrangemet decisions, so I would suggest using them.
Personally, when I set out to make a new track I think of it as a three stage process, with each stage having it’s own set of tools, techniques and purpose.
Stage one consists of pure music composition, In this stage I am tracking my ideas into Ableton via MIDI and arranging/cutting my audio samples. During this stage I play my ideas with every track at 0 db and free of any pre or post FX to get the highest resolution possible. This stage is where I gather all of my musical ideas and create a flowing track, which I will then mix during stage 2.
After stage 2 comes eq, compression, delay, reverb and anything else you may want to add to bring life to the mix. By this time during the work process I will not be making any more musical changes.
After I have my song tracked out and set up, I EQ everything into its own spectral range and compress what I feel needs compression the most. Then I create and route my reverb and delay busses.
(NOTE: THIS STAGE IS DONE IN ABLETON)
Stage 3 is the last leg of the race and the shortest: Mastering. After I finish in Ableton I bounce it all to separate WAV files and import the tracks into Pro Tools. Using Pro Tools and a set of mastering plug ins I put the final layer of icing on the cake .