A common problem in the tracks of novice producers – and it’s one that is manifested in a couple of ways – is that the tune lacks any kind of clear focus. Which is unfortunate, because often there’s a great track in there just waiting to be unleashed. So how can you avoid this fate, and really let your tracks shine? Read on, as we suggest ways of taking a step back to see your tune more clearly…
It’s a bit like taking a photo. You can point your camera at the most beautiful landscape, but if it’s out of focus, or your brother’s clapped-out motor is stuck in the foreground, it won’t make for much of a picture. All the ingredients are there, but the end result doesn’t quite work. And so it is with music – you might have a great groove, and loads of superb musical ideas, but unless you arrange and mix the tune to show off these strengths in the best possible light, you may just end up with a mess.
So the key is to identify the best parts of your track, and push them forward into the spotlight. If they’re strong enough, they will carry the vibe by themselves. Cluttering up the arrangement will only distract listeners from the main theme of the tune, or worse, obscure it completely.
Consider Todd Terje’s track ‘Ragysh’. One of the standout tracks of 2011, it is defined by a huge breakdown, and runs to nearly 9 minutes in total. But there are essentially only 3 sounds in the whole track, plus the simplest of drum beats. No big risers or snare rolls in the breakdown, no crazy FX or edits, no acid line or ravey strings to bolster the track in case it gets dull. It just has strong melodic ideas shown off to their fullest, and the discipline to leave them alone.
At the opposite end of the dance music spectrum there’s the junglist DJ Die, famous for his rollers. He’s said in interviews that his motto is ‘don’t over season the soup’ and it shows in his tracks; usually a beat, simple bassline and couple of samples for ear candy. He identifies the essential elements and pares the track down to just these – and the results are incredibly effective.
So you need to take this into account when you’re writing. Don’t fall into the slacker’s trap of just doing the bare minimum – make sure there are plenty of ideas in your beat before you start arranging it, and then you can pick the strongest ones, discarding most of the others. (If you really like the sounds you’re losing, you can always use them in the next track!) Start thinning things out, muting channels to see what works on its own and what’s just filling out the spectrum. It should be possible to get down to the essence of what the track needs to be about.
You should then build the arrangement around these important areas; dropping other elements out when your main themes come in. Indeed it’s often advisable to drop one major element out of the mix when another comes in, to let the listener focus more clearly on the new factor. If the main idea on it’s own doesn’t quite seem to cut it sonically, then instead adding another element, consider reinforcing it with EQ, adding some FX or perhaps subtly doubling it with a synth line playing the same pattern. Often the added sonic weight will work better than cluttering up the mix with more details.
Your mixdown process should be tailored to similar ends. Anything that isn’t the main focus of the track can be pretty low in the mix, and it should lean towards the main idea – just listen to the average Rihanna track for instance, and see how incredibly loud the vocal is mixed. Many novices mix vocals way too quiet, and the vocal sits amongst the various elements of the track, instead of taking pride of place at the head of the mixdown.
The same goes for EQ – while your main idea should sound full, the supporting cast of your track can be whittled down to just what is needed. It’s often advisable to use subtractive EQ on some of the background sounds so that they don’t clash with your main theme. If you’re not sure how to start, try using a frequency analyser on the main element of the track to see where it sits in the frequency spectrum, then doing a gentle EQ cut on those frequencies in some of the other sounds.
It’s not easy to stay on top of all this as you’re writing your tune. But it’s essential to make sure that the essence of your track is not lost in amongst all the things you put in to support it! So make sure that at every stage of the writing process, you keep asking yourself – what is the focus of this track? Is it being pushed front and centre, so that it’s the thing people will remember? Do these other parts really help, and do what they’re supposed to do? Make it into a habit, and you’ll soon find it becomes second nature. So keep writing, and stay focussed!