Producing & Mixing as an Artist: How to Get Started (Part 2)

September 23, 2020

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Sirma Munyar, and is the second in a three-part series. Be sure to check out part one and stay tuned for part three!]

In the first part of the series, I offered some pointers about how you can get started with your demo-making process in the comfort of your home.

In this article, I’m going to break down how you should approach arranging your songs and editing your productions.

1) Understanding the basics of MIDI is important, because software instruments are essential for any home production. 

With so many sampled real instruments presented in virtual form, many producers, including film composers, turn to MIDI to translate their vision into reality. 

MIDI stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface”. As such, it’s a universal language DAWs around the world can process.

You can trigger just about any software instrument patch you can imagine with MIDI notes. The melody you’ve recorded with a virtual piano can be played back by a violin, an entire group of strings or even a Middle Eastern instrument. 

Lots of professional producers can’t play a single instrument. Some of them pencil MIDI notes into the piano roll and drag them around until the composition sounds right. Why shouldn’t you?

2) You don’t have to learn how to read music, but you should learn how to use the piano roll.

The piano roll in your DAW is a magical place where you can manipulate each MIDI note with ease. 

It comes with a great display for those who don’t read music: a piano on the left side of the window conveniently showing which notes are playing when you’re in the process of recording or editing. 

3) If your digital audio workstation (DAW) has markers, use them to map out the structure of your songs. 

Every time I’m in the process of writing and producing a song simultaneously, I reach for the markers in my DAW, Logic Pro X. Why? Because seeing the big picture as soon as I have a couple sections in my hands increases the efficiency of my process.

Let’s say you have a verse and chorus already. You can then make a decision about whether you want an intro or not. How many bars will the intro be? You’ll probably want to add another verse after the first chorus, and chances are, you’ll want it to be as long as the first verse. That’ll be followed by a second chorus and possibly a bridge. As you map the song out, you’ll find that the writing process immediately becomes less intimidating. Now, you just need to fill in the blanks.

This strategy will also help you easily see and hear which sections should repeat in your songs. For instance, even if you end up revising the arrangement, using the same instrumentation every time the chorus repeats is a good starting point.

4) When it comes to instrumentation, start small- then go big.

In most cases, songs that are fully produced tend to have at least drums, bass, keys/synthesizers and/or guitar and vocals. When it comes to ballads, many arrangers prefer working with orchestral instruments like strings and woodwinds. 

When it comes to experimenting with instrumentation, the sky’s the limit. But being aware of the standards will help you get there faster. 

To start, create tracks in your session for the instruments you have in mind and either play them on your MIDI controller or browse your loop library to find pre-recorded parts that fit your song. The emptier your session looks, the more daunting the arranging process will be. 

5) Don’t shy away from using loop and sample libraries.

Apple offers a wide selection of loops and one shots. There are so many sample packs out there offered by sites like Splice, LANDR and Loopcloud. Output’s Arcade is beloved by many producers, beginner and advanced alike. 

Loops and samples get a bad rep, but in reality, everyone uses them at this point. It’s up to you to re-design, edit and put your own spin on them. 

6) If you can’t find or make the sounds you like, try layering.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on the most incredible sounding virtual instruments on the planet. There are many options you can work with for free. One of the best out of those options, especially for people who love ambient and orchestral sounds, is Spitfire Audio’s LABS collection, which gets updated with new instruments continuously. 

When a sound or instrument is not quite working for you, simply blend it with others. Copy and paste the MIDI notes on a couple other tracks and keep auditioning all kinds of different instruments. Mix them together until you achieve the blend you like.

7) If you’re new to music production, work with presets and multi-effects plugins in order to learn by doing. 

In many DAWs, almost all audio and MIDI effects come with built-in presets. What’s more is that you can get third-party plugins that offer even wider preset selections. 

For instance, iZotope’s mixing module Neutron offers several great starting points for producers at any level. One of the advantages of mixing with a multi-effects plugin like Neutron is that it provides a one-stop solution. 

Another multi-effects module by iZotope, Nectar 3, is even more beloved- and for good reason. Designed for processing vocals, it has everything you need, from the standard mixing tools including time based effects like reverb and delay, to pitch correction and a harmonizer. 

SIRMA is an independent singer, songwriter and producer. She’s the creator of the Modern Pop Vocal Production course on Soundfly and has a degree from Berklee College of Music.

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