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5 Timeless Tips for Better Songs and Mixes

by Finn McKenty
featured, music & audio

mixing rock

While CreativeLive’s audio classes cover a huge range of genres and approaches to songwriting, engineering, mixing, and mastering, there are some common threads that run through all our classes. Here’s a few of our favorite timeless tips that will help you level up regardless of what genre or style you work in.

usable-dynamic-range

A simple way to think of gain and dynamic range: not too loud but not too quiet

Gain structure is the foundation of a good mix
If your mix seems muddy, your plugins are sounding strangely unpleasant or harsh, and nothing you do to fix it seems to be working, take a look at your gain structure. Check if any of your channel strips are clipping, if you you have the output control on any of your plugins cranked up by accident, and for 6 to 10 dB of headroom on your master bus.
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The basics are more than enough
While it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of trying every crazy intricate trick that you read about on a forum, the truth is that you don’t need anything fancy to get a great mix. You can get a great mix with nothing more than compression, EQ/bandpass filters, and reverb (and while upgrading your plugins is always nice, you don’t really need anything more than the ones that come with your DAW).
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Beartooth’s big, hooky choruses hit extra hard because of the extreme contrast with their dirty, nasty, heavy verses

Good songs are rollercoasters
Regardless of genre, the key to a good song is dynamics. Whether you are playing death metal, pop punk, techno, or twerk, it’s all about changing things up as the song moves along. If everything is loud, then nothing is loud. If everything is quiet, then nothing is quiet. Make sure there is contrast between each section of your song to keep the listener’s attention.
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A great example of building a song off of one part is the breakdown at 3:07 in “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga. It sounds like a totally new part, but it’s actually just modulating the scale of the main melody (coupled with a dramatic change in arrangement)

Focus on one or two ideas per song
A lot of people try to cram too many parts into one song, and end up with something that feels more like a collection of random parts than an actual song. When it comes to songwriting, less is definitely more. Most songs are built around one or two core ideas, and instead of adding an entirely new part they use a variation of one of these ideas. For example, to make it feel busier you can try arpeggiating the progression, or to add tension try changing it to a minor key. Add a new part if you must, but 99% of the time your song will be better off by simply creating a variation of a part you already have.
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You can’t buy talent (or someone else’s sound)
We love gear as much as anyone, but the truth is that gear is only a relatively small part of the puzzle. All the gear in the world won’t help you unless you know how to use it, and buying the same stuff as your favorite artist won’t make you sound like them. The magic is in your hands and ears, not a piece of gear. So don’t worry about buying more stuff, just focus on making the most of what you already have.
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Finn McKenty

Finn is the producer of CreativeLive’s audio channel.

You can email him at finn [dot] mckenty [at] creativelive [dot] com

@finn_mckenty