I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the non-technical side to making a “great” track.
Undoubtedly it’s the substance and imaginative ideas behind a track that are the most important element in any piece of music. Being strong in this area is something that seems to be missing in a lot of new releases, with a lot of music having a lack of depth. (there is still at least as much great music, if not more – but there’s a lot more not so great music) This could be down to gaps in education or just disinterest – the reason doesn’t matter. What matters is we look to encourage, nurture and support this deeper meaning in young aspiring producers as a way to shine in the over-noisy world we inhabit.It’s the meaning behind the music that made all the great historical movements so compelling, timeless and enduring.
Do you have a strong concept / idea in your music?
After a quick scan through Beatport.com – or any other similar online music outlets – one thing becomes abundantly clear: the “signal to noise” ratio has worsened considerably and the amount of stale music you have to delve through before you strike gold has increased. There has been much discussion about the causes and on the complex issues that exist in the modern world of music, especially underground music.
The democratization of music, along with lower costs and expertise needed to start producing can hardly be said to be bad things, and if someone does bemoan them they are always greatly over simplifying the issue. This is a great time, with many exciting new artists emerging. At a time like this it’s dismaying to see how many copy-cat bland and artistically pointless tracks are made, without a real cohesive idea to put across: often made by someone with nothing to say.
It is vitally important when you work on a piece of music, for that music to have meaning, have a story, be it through the lyric, in the musical notes or in a more abstract way. What you are working on is Art – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! It can be emotional; it can be far more than a beat and a bass line which roll.
What are you trying to say?
When you start working on a piece of music, if you’re anything like me it can be quite a random session trying things out and just playing with what I make. At this point it’s fine to have no specific or clear idea in mind. We’re not all musical Savants with the ability to compose a complete work of art in our mind without touching any equipment.
This early stage should be filled with things that could inspire you, so make sure you put yourself in a situation that is conducive to inspiration and this could be different for everyone and is very personal to you. For example: walking in the forest, listening to the birds or maybe an early morning on a dark dance floor with your friends, whatever works for you and sows the seeds of inspiration is valid. Once you have an idea going and that spark of inspiration, you can begin to work at fleshing out that spark into a fully formed idea for a fresh track.
From the very first experimental stages of production you should be trying to piece together the idea. As you keep working to develop and nurture it you will eventually become more aware of where you’re heading.
So spend some time thinking about it, thinking about the aesthetic that your crafting and as you progress, add new sections and new ideas ask yourself “are they relevant?” and do they work in terms of the style you are trying to put across. Some things may sound great in terms of the engineering and the sound design, but do not work with the idea or pull against the musical scene you are trying to set.
Like a great film, or a beautiful painting, the overall effect and how potent it is, can be ruined by little elements which don’t “fit” and therefore drain authenticity.
Can you talk about your track?
A good way to check if your track is strong enough is to talk about it. Can you tell people the inspiration behind it, or how you made a certain part? Taking your tracks from simple initial constructs to more developed ideas with some heritage in your own head and then sharing that with others is a great way to get used to working like this. The more you work like this and add a meaning and message to what you are putting across in your music, the more your music will become more enthralling to others. Don’t worry, it’s not pretentious and believe me it’s important.
Think of all the great tracks from your childhood, they all had a solid meaning. They appealed to people who could relate to them and connect them to the experiences in their life. That emotional “Connection” is valid for any type of music – be it Pop or Techno – and it’s also what makes a well-crafted track “oh so special.”
Is your track concise?
I’m talking about the situation where you have too many ideas in your track. I’ll refer back to my last article, “a track is finished, not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away”. One of the many dark arts of music is being concise in what you are trying to say. Maximum impact is achieved when your music gets the point across uncluttered and un-confused, sometimes you can be in so deep you keep adding layers to the cake when in reality what’s needed is to take some away.
A great way to check if you’re over-egging the pudding is to share your working with a trusted close friend, someone who will listen and be honest, without fear of offending you. As a working producer one of the most valuable assets you can have is a close circle of friends to help guide and critique you.
Does your track sound like music that is out now?
Club / Dance / House / Techno / Disco and most other music should be built on innovation. Obvious caveats aside, I think it would be hard for anyone to argue with that! To give people something fresh is the ideal everything is built upon. The music should be new and exciting and connected to what’s going on in people’s lives at that time, that’s why a certain sound becomes stale and sub-genres come and go in clubs. Although great music lasts forever it will fade in and out of popularity, and when you’re sampling an old track it should be about creating your interpretation of it. There is a lot of music now that leans too heavily on the music it samples. It’s a minefield… producers looking for a quick shallow hit are responsible for the rising noise levels making it harder to notice some of the truly wonderful re-workings out there, and there are many.
Going back to my original question – when working on your new track it’s very difficult to aim to create something “ahead of your time” or aim for a “classic”. But there is an easier way: all you have to do is make sure you don’t make music that is “of the time”. The new and current music at any moment in time was usually made 6-12 months previously, and those producers will already have moved on to new sounds. It is important to make sure you’re not making music that sounds like what’s being heard now. Simply making sure you’re not “of the time” opens the door to your music always sounding fresh, and think 6 to 12 months down the line your track could be a part of the next big sound…
When to publish… (When to stop yourself!)
One of the biggest changes in the music industry recently is that there has been a rapid expansion of people producing music, and an even quicker growth in the different ways of publishing music. That has led to many more labels selling their music commercially or sharing their music online and that is great and has many benefits. However, the change in the average quality of the tracks being released is markedly lower. So this is an area where you can really get ahead if you just “raise the bar” a little and ramp up your attention to detail.
I recently read an interview and a comment in it really explained the difference in quite a succinct way. It was said that for each track this producer released, he would have 7 or 8 different mix downs of the track left back on his computer, never released. On top of that, for every track he picked for his album, there were many fully finished tracks that he would completely reject as not “strong” enough.
This ultra-perfectionist level of quality control is very different to what I think is happening today. A mass of artists seem to be releasing absolutely everything they make, regardless of quality.
I understand completely that when a track is completed and you’re happy it’s very easy to get over- excited and taken with your creation. You just want to get it out there! But the best decisions are made with a cold head and constructive critical input from others. You’re crafting the image of an artist and the impression you give from each track is very important. Keep quality high – bad tracks or filler tracks with no message won’t help you rise above the rest!
Over-eagerness to release everything, however mundane is a current world trend not only in music but in life in general. This ability to easily share everything has raised the background noise level and hampers peoples ability to easily find things that are relevant to them.
But it is in noticing this and trying to increase the amount of meaning we put into our work which gives us a road-map to how we can become better artists, providing more compelling ideas and some truly unique creations.