top of page

Beginner's Guide to Music Production

A Non-Comprehensive Guide to How I Approach Producing a Song

Hey friend! If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a fearless music-maker, wading into the murky waters of music production. I know firsthand the challenges and excitement that awaits you!!


Below is a guide that I rifle through with every song I work on. It’s less of a technical guide, and more of a philosophical, general-approach-type-of-guide.


There will be plenty of time for you to pull your hair out over the nitty gritty of music theory, plugins, hardware, mixing, mastering, etc, but for now we’re going to get into our feels to explore the great storytelling medium that is music production.


INTRO


Before we dive in, I want to you fully accept the fact that there will be times where you feel like you suck at production. Let yourself wallow in self pity, but only for two seconds, and then keep going! Seriously, who has time for that?


When starting out on production, I allow myself to fail miserably. I throw things up on the wall to see what sticks, and in most cases, it splats unceremoniously on the floor. I’ve become faster at identifying what will sound good from the get go, but with every song there are a slew of instruments and sounds that never made the final cut, because, well, they sounded bad.


These moments of exploration and experimentation require patience and some self-love, because there are many times where I’ve thought to myself, “you’ve lost the magic sauce, David. In fact, you never had it to begin with!!” But the magic sauce is persistence! The moments of subsequent discovery and breakthrough are what will feed your producer soul for years to come.

MAKE A MESS

Where to begin? There are many instances in which the songwriting and production process directly coincide--you may dive into production without a fully written song, or maybe you’re exploring production without any melody or lyrics written at all, both of which can be satisfying and organic ways to make music.


In fact, this is how I usually write my songs! I often find that the identity and soul of a song lies in the interplay between the composition (melody/lyrics) and the production, so it often makes sense for them to be created at the same time.


For the moment, let’s pretend that the melody and lyrics have already been written before entering the production phase. You may ask yourself -- what does this song call for in terms of production, instrumentation, style, and genre??


STARTING OUT


Some things to think about:

  • How does this song make me feel when it’s stripped down to just the melody and lyrics?

  • How much will the vocal performance guide the production? What’s going to support the vocals best? (assuming the vocals will be the focal point of the song)

  • Will I be working within a specific genre? This can often inform the bulk of the instrumentation.

    • If you need a boost of inspiration, try blending two genres together. Kacey Musgraves does a great job of this in her Grammy winning album "Golden Hour' -- it's a great blend between Folk, Americana, Pop, & more, while always staying true to her unique songwriting style

  • Can I create any limitations/constraints for myself regarding the instrumentation?

Sometimes this is the best way to get past the initial "producer's block," because it eliminates millions of possibilities which means I have to be creative with the available options.


This could mean:

  • Forcing myself to pick a genre to work in

  • picking a handful of instruments to work with

  • only allowing myself to work with a limited amount of tracks in my DAW

  • only allowing myself to use a few specific sample packs

REFERENCES


Are there existing songs that I can borrow inspiration from? Train your ears to listen to all the itty bitty details of your favorite songs so you can implement them into your own music.

Another way to reframe this question is -- what kind of playlist do I want this song to end up on once it’s done? Spend the time to create a playlist of songs that you would want your song to sit next to. Listen to the playlist. Draw a bath and *live inside* the sonic landscape of this playlist.

INTO THE THICK OF IT

Generally speaking, most songs I produce are made up of 5 key elements:

  1. focal point -- usually the lead vocal, sometimes there will be an instrumental melody that takes center stage

  2. groove -- usually the drums/percussion in conjunction with a bass element

  3. foundation -- the main sounds that support the harmonic structure of the song. Could be piano, guitar, synth, etc

  4. ear candy -- these are often one-off moments that help keep the song moving and feeling fresh. Moments of surprise and joy for the listener!

  5. wild card -- I usually try to create one element that gives the production a unique flavor or color. This could be found in any of the above elements, but often I find that it’s something grabby or catchy that provides a counterpoint to the lead vocal

Don't overthink this one! For example, in Maggie Roger's "Love You For a Long Time," the vocal "hoo hoo hoo" chants at the beginning of the song serve as a great melodic "wild card" that helps create a unique flavor for the track

STRUCTURE


Most of my production follows roughly the same structure, because most songs in the pop realm follow the same structure.


Usually it goes like this -- introduction, build up, climax, resolution, repeat. This idea of tension & release is a storytelling principle that has been pleasing to humans for thousands of years, so why try and reinvent the wheel?


If I’m considering breaking from this structure that’s comfortable for most listeners, I ask myself, “is this truly what's best for the song, or am I just trying to be unique for the sake of it?”


There are plenty of instances where a break from the expected structure is called for, and I just make sure I’m executing this in a tasteful way where I’m not rocking the boat too violently. This of course is all subjective, and that’s just my taste!



Here’s an example of classic story structure that most people are familiar with:








And here’s how it relates to a typical flow of energy in song production:




CONTRAST

One of the most powerful tools in your arsenal is contrast. If you’ve ever listened to a song and thought, “dang, the beginning of the chorus really smacked me in the face in the best way,” it’s probably because the moment RIGHT before the chorus was very small or quiet, and relative to that, anything can sound huge!


LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean" is a great example of this -- up until the 3 min mark, the instrumentation is pretty restrained, and then BAM! Contrast is what makes this moment so impactful


This also goes for textures, rhythms, frequencies, energy, etc. -- having moments of contrast in your song will help it move, keep the listener engaged, and exaggerate whatever effect you’re going for at any given moment.

LESS IS MORE


As I continue to build the track, if I find myself wanting to add more than a handful of layers to any given moment, it’s usually because I’m trying to compensate for something not working in the existing elements.


This weak link could be: a poorly recorded guitar track, a cheesy sounding sample, a weak vocal performance, or your elements might just be poorly mixed.


I don’t want to get into mixing too much, but this principle usually rings true in most cases throughout production -- make sure the source sound you’re working with is solid to begin with, and allow it fill out the space and have its moment in the sun. There’s a lot you can do to alter a source sound to make it sound unique, or layer complementary sounds together to achieve the effect you’re after, just make sure you’re not doing it to hide or bury something mediocre.

I recall a song from my newbie producer days that needed a big fat hit at the beginning of the chorus. I layered about 4 kicks and several cymbal crashes with the thought that “more is more.” However, the different layers ended up subtracting and masking each other because they were too similar. Instead, I needed 1 to 3 elements to completely fill out the sound instead of 6 sounds competing for space.

DON'T GO IT ALONE

Listen, I know you’re probably reading this because you want to become a self-sufficient, one-stop-shop that can do it all yourself. Which is great! This is just one step in controlling your musical destiny. However, in most cases, the best songs that I’ve created have been the ones where there was a healthy amount of collaboration. Being a good producer doesn’t

necessarily mean doing every step yourself -- it means knowing what’s best for the song, and

managing all the different ingredients and contributors to create a killer track.


I keep a running list of vocalists, instrumentalists, producers, engineers, and writers that I want to collaborate with. Keep your eyes open on social media and don't be afraid to *tastefully* reach out to someone -- just make sure you're ready to compensate them accordingly!


No one will judge the process you used to create the best song ever -- they’ll just be singing along to your track. So be willing to drop the “lone wolf” mentality if you want to make your life a little easier.

PRODUCTION "HACKS"

Here are a handful of technical techniques & production tips that are worth a closer look:

  • side-chain compression -- a technique often used for mixing, but can be a very cool production effect (Ex: "Everything I Wanted" by Billie Eilish)

  • templates -- create project templates and save instrument/plugin presets -- this will save you a lot of time down the road!

  • reverse reverb -- pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Be creative with reversing reverb, delays, vocals, or whatever you want!

  • print to audio -- bounce your MIDI instruments, effects, and other elements to audio. This gives you more control with the audio waveform and makes you commit to a sound. Helps with my decision making and overall productivity!

  • clean up the clutter -- if you're feeling stuck, spend some time organizing and cleaning up your project. This always helps me think straight!

  • WIP paralysis -- don't listen to your work in progress too many times. It may be satisfying to hear the cool thing you just made, but it wastes time, and "poisons" your ears with over-familiarity of the track. Fresh and objective ears are worth a lot!!

  • low volume -- work on your track at a low volume. Not only will this reduce your ear fatigue, but if you can get your track to feel exciting and dynamic at a low volume, you'll be set

  • education over equipment -- prioritize learning how to use the tools at your disposal instead of spending money on shiny new plugins or equipment. You'd be amazed what can be created with stock plugins and instruments in your DAW!

bottom of page