If I had to summarize my first two months of 2021, it's in the word "onboarding." There's plenty to do at a new job and lots of firsts in some recent musical projects: new ventures, new concepts, new plugins to play with.
One year ago, I got some really nice basic equipment, Ableton and a MIDI controller. And sooner or later, I'm going to stop calling music projects "my first real ____!!" Here are things I wish someone told me while starting out.
- Learn how to use stock tools. There's this reputation that plugins do all the hard work, especially seeing producers on YouTube pull out easily up to ten plugins in a single tutorial video. It's partly true, but it's an unproductive stereotype. No one can effectively throw on a shiny multiband parallel compressor plugin without knowing what each of those means, which requires some quality time with the basics.
- Around fall 2019, I dove headfirst into an EDM remix project for a competition without knowing the difference between reverb and delay. I spent around 40 hours getting to a mediocre mix but hey there's nothing like a deadline to push you to learn faster 😬
- A "curriculum" per se in rough order of how I'd advise learning about them: panning, gain, reverb, delay, parameter automation, equalizer, compressor, sidechain compression, limiter.
- Hunt for at least one free sample pack. I was always jealous of people on YouTube who start their tutorials with "and for my next trick I will pull a sample from my sample pack, link in the description!" OK, but I want to make sounds now, and I don't want them to sound exactly like yours, so what am I supposed to do?
- To be clear, I think the value is mostly in watching how they use that sample. Do they layer it? Do they shift other things in the arrangement to make space? What kinds of effects do they use on it?
- Starting from scratch will probably not end that well. I started out sound designing from scratch before I found samples, but I eventually swapped them out for ones I'd found. And then I swapped those out for even better samples. Sound design was a valuable exercise, but I don't plan to try again unless I'm somehow imagining something insanely specialized.
- Recommendations: Slate Digital, Discord servers like Audius's
- Mix with headroom. The first DAW I used was FL Studio, which secretly puts a limiter on your master track so that you never get hard clipping. I only noticed this much later when Ableton didn't do that for me. Almost always, louder is better, so you can hear all the little details, but too loud = clipping artifacts + loss of dynamic range. Concretely, I turn the master track up to +6 dB the entire time and turn my headphone volume down accordingly so that my relative "0 dB" is really 6 dB of extra space if I want something to not have a limiter on, like vocals.
- Stay organized. I didn't understand the power of Ableton's groups and return tracks until I started trying to mix and master. At that point, how do I get the vocals to sidechain but not that high FX? Easy, just turn up the -- oh wait, it's doubling the sound, so I should set it to Sends Only. Or should send it to the group, then fix all the rest, and ... It ends up taking way longer than it should. I like to group things into a "bus" and then send the entire bus to an effects chain, which makes it easier to reason about "all the vocals" or "all the non-drum percussion."
- Do a rough mix/master as you go. By keeping levels and frequencies in check throughout the entire process, I like the certainty that a demo I bounce at any point will be fairly close to the final product. And don't forget to play it on multiple sound systems!
- Ear fatigue is real. Often after a day of not listening to a mix, I'll fire it up and immediately notice something I want to change but didn't notice in the 3+ hours I spent the day before getting it to a point I liked. I also find that I'm going back to old projects to revisit them after I listen again and my taste has changed.
And here are some things I still want to learn:
- Synth patch creation. Here's one specific area of sound design that can feature super prominently in tracks, and I have close to no experience with. I'm trying to understand the Waves Ovox plugin to see if I can get away with not actually fiddling with sine waves...
- Mixing real instruments. This is part wanting to learn arrangement, part wanting the immersiveness that real instruments bring. I've been trying to learn guitar to do this.
- Live performance. I originally got into music production by making mashups. And mashups originated with DJs who would literally have two physical records spinning at the same time. I don't think I want to go that route, but performing with live elements inspires me with some of my favorite producers. See also: Madeon, Gryffin.