After writing my last article about how to make it in the music industry, I received a plethora of questions. It occurred to me that I left out some vital advice that might help aspiring artists who have not yet created any recorded work. I have recorded 5 albums over the last 5 years and released a remix album this past fall. I have made a lot of mistakes, as well as a lot of successful moves, and I believe it's a time in the history of music for all of us to share our stories and help independent artists evolve beyond the competitive mentality that pervades the industry.
Please talk to me on Twitter or Facebook if you have any questions about what I am sharing. My team and I are here to help!
It goes without saying that there are millions of talented musicians who already know how to make music. My intention is not to share my thoughts on composing, but instead speak to creating a finished product from start to finish.
The goal of this article is to help you create music that is as professional as possible without breaking the bank. Realize that the songs you hear on the radio often can cost up to $50,000 or more (for just one song!).
I want to share what it takes to make a professional sounding song for anywhere between $100 - $1,000 so that you can confidently share, distribute and ultimately sell your song. Your song will never sound as professional as the ones on the radio ... but it can be pretty close. 50% of people discover new music from listening to the radio. Chances are, our songs won't get on the radio, but you can still target the other 50% of people that discover new music from friends, family, youtube - so putting out high quality music is powerful.
If you are making music to express yourself, not to make a living, I respect and honor that. Self-expression is definitely what drives me as well, which is why, until recently, I didn't necessarily follow this advice I'm about to share. That's also why I am sharing this with you, because when I look back I wish I had made more music and done these things earlier, so I could have been making music full time sooner. It is an amazing job!!!
Before I start, you might wonder, "How can a song you hear on the radio honestly cost so much money?" What exactly costs so much?
Here's an awesome article that talks about how much it costs to make a hit Rihanna song.
- Songwriting -15,000
- Production -20,000
- Vocalist - That was Rihanna, so in this case, it was free (kinda)
- Mixing & Mastering -15,000
So that's $50,000 for one song.
But let's now focus on doing this for around $100 - $1,000.
... and remember the most important thing: in most cases, YOU will be the Executive Producer.
What's a producer? A producer of music can have many roles, from gathering ideas for a song, to coaching the artist, to supervising the entire recording, mixing and mastering process.
** For the sake of this article and keeping things simple, we are going to assume you are a vocalist (singer, rapper, etc) that wants to make a song over a produced beat/instrumental (as opposed to a band that has real instruments and lots of members, although bands may find a lot of this applicable and helpful! I just don't have the expertise or space to get into that as in depth - being in a band again is on my list of to do's!).
Here are the 10 steps to making professional music at a fraction of the price!
- Listen to Music Daily
- Find Beats
- Write Your Music
- Create the Scratch Track
- Get Feedback!
- Find a Mixing Engineer
1. LISTEN TO MUSIC DAILY
Make a playlist of your favorite songs and continually add to it
Listen to ALL types of music. Pop, Indie, hip hop, classical, rock, music from other countries. Save all these songs somewhere on a playlist and continually listen to them over and over again. The more diverse your playlist of songs, the more diversity you can have in your sound. At the end of the day, all of these songs you are listening to have something (or many things) that are amazing about them. Take notes about each so that when it's time to make your music, you incorporate as much as you can from proven songs that have garnered attention and appreciation. NOTE - I did not always do this, and I can see now that this would have helped me so much if I had!
If you only listen to a few artists often, you may end up sounding like them, and that isn't really fulfilling or cool! So make sure you listen to as many artists as possible, so that you can develop a unique sound. It also will be helpful to understand the psychology of each song you put on your playlist too.
You're going to need these songs handy so that you can listen to them side by side with your completed song when you do Audio QA.
What's Audio QA?
QA = quality assurance. It's a term that's used across many industries. From making software to medical devices. It's the process of testing your product to "assure quality." When I say "Audio QA" in this article, it means the following.
Listen to your "hit song playlist" across all devices.
- Your car
- Computer speakers
- Portable speakers
2. FIND BEATS!
Always be looking for and listening to beats (aka crate digging)
By now you should be having a lot of fun. You are listening to lots of great music that is giving you some amazing inspiration. But now you're going to have to start making some tough decisions. The first tough decision will be to find some beats you like that you can eventually record yourself over. But where on earth can you find these beats? Here's where I find them.
- A friend. Most of us have friends that "make beats." Go listen to them! You are both aspiring artists and it's likely you won't need to pay up front. You can set up an agreement with the beatmaker that you will split profits with him/her 50/50. Also tell the beatmaker that you'll credit them in the TITLE of the song ... which is huge. I love working with people I love. Make sure they understand that profits are split AFTER you have recouped what it costs to actually create the song, market, package, etc. This is usually assumed, but helpful to explain just in case, given you are both trying to get yourselves out there, this puts you on a level playing field.
- Soundcloud. Lots of aspiring producers post their beats on soundcloud. You can tell who's hot by the amount of followers and comments they get. If you like something, create a soundcloud account and message the producer to find out what it will take to use their beat. Sometimes, you can strike a "Friend deal" like above because they understand how hard it is, but sometimes you might have to shell out a couple of bucks. And, these folks will become your friends too!
- Soundclick. This site is made to sell and share beats. Beats can usually be leased for around $75
Here are a few more things you NEED to know.
- Don't worry about buying a beat as an exclusive. I still don't think I am big enough to afford this luxury.
- Just lease the beat, but make sure you get the separated track. (leasing a beat usually just implies the beat maker/ producer can lease their beat to as many artists as he/she would like)
- Make sure you get the separated track in your hands BEFORE you start recording anything (That means you have to love the beat). Many times I've written a song to a certain beat, only to find out the producer never had the separated tracks, or the producer sold the song as an exclusive to someone else and had to take the beat down, or in some cases, they lost or misplaced the files.
- AUDIO QA! Play the MP3 next to the other hit songs you had on your playlist. Is it high quality? Are the sound levels comparable with the hits you have on your playlist? Try it on all devices at a softer and loud volume. Often, many of these producers will not know how to create professional beats that have an audio quality that sounds crisp, clear and static-free on all devices. That's why you'll need to AUDIO QA their beats before recording over them.
What are separated tracks?
It implies that every "track" in your song is separated out so that when it comes time to mix, the engineer can adjust the levels of each track in order to create a higher quality song. For example, the producer you choose should give you the following files.
- mp3 of the beat so that you can easily practice over it
- Separated tracks of the sounds in the beat, each in WAV format
- These separated tracks are usually ready to be inserted right into any mixing software (for the mixing engineer)
I once bought an instrumental that had like 30 separated tracks in it. Every drum roll, every cool sound, was tracked out lovely. It gives the mixing engineer lots of freedom when trying to mix the instrumental with my vocals. Ask the producer to do this if they can, instead of giving them to you as stems, which can mean all drum tracks together, all synth sounds together, etc.
MP3 vs WAV (compressed vs uncompressed)
Don't ever, ever, ever record over an mp3, unless it's a practice track of some sort. Mp3's are compressed (low quality) files that were designed for easy sharing and fast downloading. Your goal will be to make sure all of the files you record over are as high quality as possible. Those types of files are usually called WAV files. WAV files are about 10 times larger than MP3 files.
Yes, your output (final product) will be an mp3 ... but in order to make sure your MP3 is the highest quality mp3, you'll need to make sure that all of your ingredients to make your song are the highest quality ... which means they need to be WAV files (uncompressed / lossless)
Achieving the best mix starts with a good recording, not only of your vocals, but your instrumentals. Strive to achieve the cleanest instrumental tracks you can, with no excess noise or distortion.
The importance of "the source" when creating a mix can make or break your completed song. Oh, and here is one of my favorite videos about making a beat. It's so funny, yet informative!
3. WRITE YOUR MUSIC
It's not just about writing, but composing and delivering
Write all the time, as much as you are able, whenever you feel inspired. I wish I would have taken this advice. For real, notebooks are cheap, pens are cheaper, put one in every place you feel inspired - the toilet, outside the shower, the car (but don't write while driving!) etc. Or if you are tech savvy then do it all on your phone. For me it's a mix, I have an old love affair with notebooks and just love going back many years to see how I wrote, but using your phone is super convenient and you probably always have it on you. Just save and save and backup and backup everything.
Record all ideas on your phone
Most phones and computers have some mechanism to record at this point. Inspiration comes at weird times, if you have a melody or a line and no paper or no way to write the melody (because you're like me and can't read musical notes)- record it. This will really come in handy and you won't kick yourself for that great idea you forgot.
At the end of the day though, the more you practicing songwriting, the better you'll get.
4. MAKE A SCRATCH TRACK!
Don't waste time going to the studio until you're 100% ready
Recording, mixing, and mastering is not cheap. And if you happen to be a band, it's not only expensive, but incredibly time consuming. This is why I suggest that you start with a scratch track. A scratch track is simply a rough version of your song. Record it on your computer, but buy a decent mic though. Here's one for $50.
Just grab the mp3 of your beat and use a software like Garageband (or something similar). You're gonna need to learn this software, which should be pretty easy, since all you will be doing is recording over your beat. Once you're done (and by done, I mean you've gotten to a point where you think you can't do any better), export it to mp3 because it's time to share it with people you trust.
5. GET FEEDBACK ON YOUR MUSIC!
Keep working on your scratch track with constructive feedback
Take that scratch track and literally let every person you know (that you trust to be truthful) listen to it. Ask your friends on Facebook, email it to people, especially "music snobs", other artists, people you know that hate the music you like, and who you imagine will be your biggest fans. Get as wide of a sample as possible. This can seem intimidating given it's obviously not mixed, and probably not how you want it to be ... but that's not the point. This is a great chance to experience what it's like to be heard. Let them know it's a scratch, a draft, unmixed, etc - but also and most importantly, let them know you are not looking for kudos, you are looking for real, honest, candid feedback.
Develop a thick skin
Art is art and it should not matter what others think. It really doesn't. But if you want to live off of your art, it makes a difference what "they" think. If you are like me, criticism has been constant in your life as a creator. Some people love it, some hate it, and some are indifferent; but the fact is, as you grow it will only get harder as people are further removed from you, and will likely get meaner. I almost quit after my first youtube video launched and the comments became insane. But that's part of the process and you can ignore it eventually. But in the beginning, hopefully you will get constructive criticism that will actually help you grow. I didn't do this, btw. I just surprised everyone and was like, 'Here's my album and my release party and it's on!' I think I missed out on some vital tips that would have made me a lot better, and perhaps my first youtube comments a bit kinder.
Write it all down, and note who said what. Suddenly you will notice that your bf has an incredibly tuned ear, your cousin listens to the same music you do, your biggest critic is helping you more than your piano teacher, and that rando funny friend on Facebook has a knack for describing your melodic choices. Soon there will be people you just know you have to get opinions from. And most of the time, they will love to give it! Remember them and offer to do things for them and help them in some way with their passion. A team for this type of feedback will be needed in the future. ;o)
Decide what, if anything, changes
So you heard the lovers and the haters. Did it matter? Were they right? Some of it will "feel" right, other notes will just feel unimportant. Where does this leave you, what do you need to work on?
Re-record your scratch track
Get more feedback until everyone thinks it's a "hit" and is super excited to hear a finished product or until you feel like its where you want it .... and DON'T let yourself be stopped. Promise yourself this before you begin. Perfection is silly. You were perfect already because you are you and no one else can do what you do. It's all subjective! Pleasing everyone is even sillier so promise yourself you will continue expressing and get it out there. Consider my free advice here as an agreement and promise to me too, that you will keep going and that ultimately you will not care what others say and put your heart out there!
6. FIND A MIXING ENGINEER FIRST!
Save yourself time from future technical issues that can arise
This part may seem strange to many people, but let me explain why. Traditionally, you find a studio you want to record, mix and master in - but that's actually really hard (and expensive) to accomplish. Recording is a craft in itself, mixing another, and mastering another. I like to treat the 3 of these separately, even though they are all interconnected. Here's why:
- For Recording, you have to be physically present in a studio. This limits you to your local area if you want to keep things affordable.MOST OF ALL, you need to feel comfortable with the person recording you as you bare your soul.
- For Mixing, you have the whole world at your disposal. Mixing is the "magic" that happens to your track. Finding a mixing engineer that you love, at an affordable price, that can work with you at your actual recording studio at the same time you are free, can be a challenge. Finding a mixing engineer somewhere around the world that has the time/ passion/ commitment to work with you at an affordable price is more likely. For Mastering, once your mix is complete, it can be sent off to a mastering house anywhere around the world, so this doesn't limit you either.
So why find a mixing engineer first?
Because you want that mixing engineer to be able to talk it out with the studio you will be recording in to make sure that files and sessions are able to be delivered in their preferred format. I've been through so many cases where the recording studio uses one version of Pro Tools, and the mixer another, a lot of time is wasted and it's stressful and potentially costly. This complication can be avoided if the recording studio simply records you and passes along a bounced pre-mixed track along with the raw files of your vocals ... but in many cases, a recording engineer might be able to add a few extra goodies onto your track before passing it over to the mixing engineer. Regardless, you're going to have to find a mixing engineer you can trust so you might as well do it now.
How do you find a mixing engineer?
Remember when you were looking for beats? A lot of beat makers actually have songs they've produced and mixed as well. Even if you passed up on different beats from producers, see if any of those producers you listened to on soundcloud, soundclick, etc have completed songs they can share with you. Find 5 - 10 solid producers with songs that are complete and play those songs next to your AUDIO QA playlist. Are they of similar professional quality? Play them across all the devices and play them loud to make sure those songs don't distort with high volume. If they passed the test, start contacting each producer and ask them how much they charge to mix/co-produce a song. Some may charge hourly and some may charge a flat fee. Find a producer / mixer you like, who responds quickly and who you can start a long time relationship with them. Become their facebook friend, follow them on twitter, etc. This person will be the most important in your music career.
Some may charge $100 a song. Some may charge $1,000. It all comes down to what you can negotiate. Perhaps you can offer them a percentage of profits of the song in exchange for a free mix? Perhaps you can offer them something else of value, like co-production credits??
Either way, once you find who you think is the right mixing engineer, you're going to want to let them know you are about to record your song and need their instructions on passing over all of the right files.
- Separated Tracks
- Recording Session in their preferred format.
Put them in contact with the recording engineer once you find them. Be a liaison in that relationship, and don't be afraid to be persistent and diligent in following up with everyone. They are artists too, and are probably very busy, but show them both that you mean business.
But remember, the most important aspects of choosing the right mixing engineer are
- Fast communication via text, phone, email, social media, etc (stay away from people that take more than 24 hours to respond) - respect that they may be in a session and can't respond immediately.
- Finished songs that you have QA TESTED against your hit songs playlist and approve of the sound.
- Mixing engineers that have vocal and music production (beat making experience) so that they can essentially, co-produce your song!
7. RECORDING YOUR MUSIC
Record your song. Get in and get out.
Now that you've found the right beat, wrote a catchy song over it, gotten people's approval and have practiced it inside out ... it's time to record it. Here's where you have to get VERY professional. You'll need to find a local recording studio where you want to get in and get out as quickly as possible so that you keep your costs low.
Recording studios can cost anywhere from $50-200 bucks an hour depending on where you live. Just google your city name + recording studio, call them up, and ask them how much they charge an hour. Your goal is to spend 2 hours TOPS in the studio because you know your song inside out and you know exactly what you want to do on your song. I memorize my lyrics before hand, some artists don't like doing that but for me it makes the process SO much easier. Make sure the studio you choose is professional and has samples of songs similar to the genre of the song you are creating.
Don't expect the recording engineer to give you any feedback on your song. You're not paying for that. You're paying for someone to record your vocals as clear and crisp as possible, so that you can take those files and give them to your mixing engineer. You do, however, need to feel comfortable with them. Stop by to visit them before you pay for a session. Most studios will be fine with this.
If you want real time feedback, advice, and guidance while you are recording, then bring someone with you to help you- a vocal coach, a song writer, another artist. Engineers should however, tell you when a take has an audio issue, you mess up, or they hear something strange. Good engineers often don't even explain the issue, but just ask to have you try it again, to save time. The engineer should move faster than you and be ready to record right away if you stop, mess up or need to go back. If it takes a long time for them in these instances, they may not be that experienced and I would consider finding someone else next time.
Lay down lots of tracks, if you can, of each part of your song: doubles, triples, harmonies, adlibs, etc. In some cases you may want a very raw, one vocal or acapella sound but its still good to get many takes and save them. This gives your mixing engineer more to work with if one take was not as good, or he needs to thicken your voice to achieve a particular effect.
When you're all set, you should receive WAV files of separated tracks of your vocals along with the actual session (generally Pro Tools), so that you can give it to your mixing engineer.
8. MIXING YOUR MUSIC
This is where the magic happens
Send your mixing engineer the session / files so that they can get to work. The mixing engineer's job is to not only take your vocals and instrumental and achieve a proper volume balance but also add effects and any production enhancements to the song. This is why it's so important to find a mixing engineer that you love, because this is where all the magic happens with your song. Mixing is half science, half art, so you'll want to make sure your engineer possesses both of those passions so that your song will not only sound clear, crisp and balanced, but also creative, fun and entertaining. It is awesome if this person can be local so you can work right there with them, but again, it's more important that they have the skills!
Treat your mixing engineer like gold, as he/she will probably end up being one of your best friends - even if you never meet in in person, you will be making magic together! And remember, your mixing engineer should be able to:
- analyze your style / groove
- find the most important elements of the song to emphasize and de-emphasize
- balance all of the tracks
- add effects
- fine tune the final mix
When your mix is complete, make sure you perform Audio QA on it. Although Mastering your song will take it to the next level, your mix should sound pretty good next to other hit songs.
Here's a great youtube video that really shows you what the mixing process is like. Take the time to watch this later ... it's over 40 minutes long, but you might as well know what goes into making your song so that you can have a greater appreciation and respect for the craft of it.
9. MASTERING YOUR MUSIC
This is where the polishing happens
IMO your mixing engineer usually can't master your song properly. Your mastering will have to be done by an actual mastering studio. I learned this from my good friends at Tree Lady Studios here in Pittsburgh. Garret, the owner, taught me that Mastering is the last step in the creative process, but the first step in the manufacturing process of making a song.
Mastering brings out the best parts of your music.
A professional mastering engineer is a craftsman who assembles, polishes, and puts a final sonic wrapper on your recording. It helps your song not only sound great across all devices, but also takes your song to the next level. It's so important if you want a professional sounding product that will last forever.
Mastering engineers never use near-field reference monitors (speakers) found in recording studios. Instead, they use a single pair of wide-range speakers. These speakers are usually driven with custom boutique power amps and wired with specialized cables. They let you hear things 'you didn't know were there' which is great for Audio QA.
The real reason mastering is SO necessary is because mixes done on typical studio speakers (reference monitors) often fool the mixing engineer into thinking that the mix is good enough. Better speakers, amps, acoustics, etc, reveal the flaws that need attention and the areas that can be enhanced.
When your mastering engineer is done with your song, do Audio QA on it next to your mixed song and see if you can notice the difference. Then play it next to your hit songs playlist and see if your sound quality is as good as the hits. If it is, and you're happy, then you're ready!
If you're curious about Mastering, you should watch this later.
10. STORING YOUR MUSIC
Keep every last music file safe and organized for future use
Throughout the entire process, you're going to need a reliable place to store everything. I use Dropbox for $15 a month. It may sound expensive, but it's TOTALLY worth it for me. Why? Because every last file you use needs to be in a secure place that you can always access for quick sharing. Every beat, every mix, every separated track, every master, every MP3, every Pro Tools Session. EVERY. LAST. FILE. And, if you can, buy a hard drive and save it there too!
SAVE IT! NAME IT! KEEP THEM ORGANIZED!
This is SO SO SO Important and I have learned from MANY mistakes. You'll need every thing in a very organized fashion that you can access quickly. Recently I was reminded of how important this was when I wanted to release a Remix Album of a ton of old songs with one of my fav mixing engineers/producers J.Glaze. Thank goddess we had it all saved or essentially my 6th album would have never been made!
RELEASING YOUR MUSIC
Let the games begin!
I wrote that article already. How To Make It In Music. ;o)
I hope this article helps you get started with turning your music into a finished, professional sounding product that you can share with the world forever! Much love and blessings to you in your creative process!