Imagine you are a few months into tinkering with production. You've learned the very basics of your production software - maybe you've learned enough to sequence (arrange) some drum beats, chop up audio samples, and play around with synthesizers. While producers at every level are always learning and facing obstacles, being a beginner producer is particularly frustrating because can see how a track might be produced, but have absolutely how to achieve a "professional sound".
Even though gains in production skills happen very gradually, we are all eager to learn quickly. In the situation just mentioned, you might get impatient and google something like "how to make your track sound professional". There are plenty of articles on this, and many of them will mention something like "how to achieve a good mix" or "tips for mixing your track". These articles can be a source of great information, or at least exposure to new terms and concepts...but when a beginner producer dwells too hard on this information, it can create an endless pit of despair and frustration. I'll explain why - let's first quickly talk about what the hell a "mix" is.
According to the Wikipedia article on audio mixing, mixing is the "process by which multiple sounds are combined into one or more channels" to achieve the best possible sound. This mainly involves adjusting the gain (volume) of each track, using panoramic positioning (sending things to the left or right in the headphones), using effects to subtly alter the position of a particular track such as reverb, and a multitude of other techniques. Generally, mixing is the process by which you get a track from the recorded parts to the finished product. "Mastering" is also a term you might have heard regarding the process of finishing a track, and for the sake of this blog post, it's not really important.
But here's the thing about learning how to mix: it is yet another skill that develops over time as the ear is more well trained. Producers and audio engineers study this skill academically, train as apprentices in this skill, and hone this skill over the course of lifelong careers. The more time you put into making music in general, you will gradually get better. However, I discovered something that can be applied to production, even as a beginner, and significantly improve the track's quality of sound: good instrumentation.
In a nutshell, instrumentation is the process by which you choose the parts and layers that build up a song. Think of any successful band...what are the instruments that you usually hear at any given time? A basic band set up usually contains drums (kick, snare, cymbals, toms), bass guitar, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and vocals. A slightly bigger, or alternate set-up might contain synthesizers (check out Sound Tribe Sector 9), back-up vocals, and maybe even an auxiliary percussionist.
It's easy to forget about these basic foundations of a good sounding ensemble in a post-Scary-Monsters-and-Nice-Sprites electronic music world. Those crazy growls and bass noises you hear, even in the bro-iest of bro-step, can still fit into this 'instrumentation' concept. By using the minimum amount of instruments, while still filling up the full spectrum of frequencies, you can achieve the foundation for a good mix. The image below gives you an idea of where certain instruments/sounds fit into the frequency range.
Here's a great exercise to get really good at instrumentation: Listen to music. A lot of it. Your favorite songs, and even some of your least favorite (as long as they are well produced). Listen to music of all genres, including electronic music. Here's the important part...listen actively. Take notes on what instruments and sounds you are hearing in each section of the song. This will develop the intuition you need to select instruments for your tracks.
You'll need to also incorporate some basic techniques, such as EQing. A sub bass won't sound good unless you throw a low-pass filter (only allow the low frequencies) on it, and a hi-hat won't sound good unless you throw a high-pass (only allow the high frequencies) filter on it. Beginning to play around with different cutoff frequencies on these filters is a great way to begin to understand 'mixing'.
Next time you open a new project, before you get bummed out that you can't mix as well as a professionally trained engineer, think about how you can use instruments and sounds that take on the role of each instrument in your favorite band. You will start to hear more and more clarity in your music.
As always, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts, questions, or criticisms.