What I Learned From Making an Album

Last week I finished my second full-length album, Rediscover.


Here are some things I learned from making this album that I’ll continue to use in future projects. My hope is that you gain some insights and apply them to your own music!


Clip Your Drums and Basses A TON


For better or for worse, loudness matters in bass music. If your track doesn’t feel over-compressed, it’s not going to bop.


In order to push the limiter to my desired volume, I usually would mangle the track; my drums would lose their attack and the basses would become squishy. Nothing sounded tight and clean like the mixes I was trying to emulate.


I’ve known about soft-clipping drums for years, but assumed this technique applied only for creating crunchy drums or a textured finish to a master bus.


While these uses are great, I found that clipping could also be used to significantly reduce actual volume and massively increase perceived volume.


For every kick, snare, and drop bass on this album, I applied either Logic Pro’s compressor distortion or Waves Audio’s IMPusher.


I increased the gain running into the clipper until it either sounded bad or lacked dynamic punch.


This technique allowed me to push the drums and bass to the absolute maximum volume possible, functioning as a hard limiter with some crunchy distortion flavor added into the mix.


This sometimes reduced more than 2 db. on the loudest elements in the mix, meaning I could push the master limiter even further. Accumulatively, this technique pushed tracks from -6 LUFS to -3 LUFS on the master.


Why not compress/limit?


I could have used a standard compressor or limiter to accomplish this, but using clip distortion made the process simpler and added additional flair.


I didn’t need to think about threshold, attack, release, etc. My options were either turn up the volume or turn it down. By eliminating my number of choices, I could focus on making stuff loud and save mental energy on other aspects of the mix.


My end goal wasn’t to make a perfectly compressed signal; it was to make it loud to taste. The kick, snare, and bass sections to my track often sounded better with distortion than without it. Other instruments like pads or leads couldn’t handle the processing, so using a clipper wouldn’t be a good idea here. But because the distortion often sounded nice, I felt comfortable using such intense settings on the louder instruments.


Keep in mind that my album was predominantly bass music, where loudness and clipping fit the genre’s conventions. This tip may not be as applicable to you if you’re an orchestral composer or a house producer.


However, I would encourage you to experiment with clipping to see if it allows you to gain more volume and control over your track’s peaks.


Efficiency


I was excited about how fast I released this album: eight tracks produced in two months. Four out of the eight were completely from scratch, whereas four were repurposed works-in-progress from older projects.


For my standards, this was incredibly fast.


How did I do this? Novelty and a “Yes, man” mindset.


Novelty


I recently received a new laptop, an updated DAW, and new plugins from Black Friday deals. These new tools got me excited and curious to try new things.


Sometimes a new sample pack or created preset is all that’s needed to get ideas moving. For me, using tools for the first time is a sure-fire method of pumping out more music.


I don’t have the budget or equipment to always get a fresh batch of sounds, but I think challenging myself to use logic presets I never touch or only certain sample packs can mimic the same feeling.


For example, the idea for my track Heckler started when I first experimented with Alchemy’s granular sampler. I loaded up a Tim Hecker track as the sample and just skimmed through the processed signal until I found sounds that I liked. Those sounds became a series of one-shots that served as the drop bass for the track.


All of this came from experimenting with a synth’s capabilities in a way I didn’t know was possible.


“Yes, Man” Mindset


Don’t evaluate ideas, just finish them.


I don’t think I started a single song without creating an intro and drop template within that first session. I knew each time I went back to compose that I had a structure to adhere to.


This stopped me from getting stuck in a four-bar loop, hypercritical of every decision.


I was able work efficiently by giving myself a thumbs up for every single decision I made.


I would write an idea, and instead of asking if it was good, I would instead focus on what would be the next logical idea.


For example, let’s say I make an intro. Regardless of its quality, I treat it as if it’s the final audio.


Now my job isn’t to make the intro sound good. I'm not allowed to go back and change it.


All I can do is ask myself, “if this is the intro, what’s the next part sound like?”


As I add each new element, I continue this process until I have a completed song structure.


It’s much easier to go back and edit a track than to make one out of thin air. Even if the first take sucks, I can rest knowing that I have all the pieces to a song.


This method provides more concrete next steps. Instead of saying to myself, “I have to create a drop today”, I can say, “I have to change this drop pattern because it sounds terrible." This lets me be more specific and treat problems systematically. Eventually, I will check off all the problems on my list and will have a finished track, ready for release.


Sometimes I make a whole track, edit it, and it still doesn’t sound good. There were a handful of tracks like this that didn’t make the album. But more often than not, my rate of return is fairly high, or at least it’s much higher than before I used this method.


Less time = better mixes


I often fall into the trap of mixing for too long. This results in losing objectivity, ear fatigue, and getting stressed.


I notice that the mixdowns I spend the most time on are usually my least favorite mixdowns.


On the album, Open World was my least favorite track. I felt that it had a lot of musical potential, but I butchered the mix: it felt spacious but lacking midrange energy. The intro and verses suffered in mono, making the drop feel jarring and unhinged from the rest of the track.


Coincidentally (or not), I spent the most time mixing this track, totaling around 12+ hours with 12 different exported mixdowns.


Heckler, one of my favorite tracks on the album, took two mixdowns, all completed within three hours.


Part of this has to do with picking the right sounds. Open World forced me to make several major mixing revisions. The sounds I selected initially when writing the track no longer fit the song’s final direction. I labored to eq and compress sounds to feel differently, switch out samples for better ones, etc. That all took up a ton of time.


The bulk of the poor mixing was from spending too much time trying to get a perfect mixdown, surgically layering sounds and tweaking compression settings.


Heckler had fitting sounds to start. The mixing mainly consisted of hi-pass filters to cut out unnecessary low frequencies. This coupled with some good volume staging and limiters was all it took! Not much was required.


As I progressed in making the album, I started treating mixdowns more like live mixes rather than studio crafts. Part of this stems from my job, where I mix live sound at a church. Live performances don’t allow me time to meticulously EQ everything. I just have to make quick decisions on what needs to take center stage, get boosted, etc.


This mindset was incredibly helpful with EQ. I can spend entirely too much time staring at the EQ visualizer and A-B’ing a track to death.


For most tracks on this album, I mixed with the track playing, making quick decisions in the context of the whole mix. This was simpler on my brain and focused on the overall timbre.


Mixing in context to the whole track is an important attribute I often forget. A holistic mixing approach coupled with quick editing choices actually led to more mixes I was proud of with considerably less effort.


Use loops more


I will eventually write a separate post about using loops, but for now I will mention that I have grown more comfortable with using them in my music and will likely use them for the majority of projects going forward.


Loops allowed me to build entire tracks around a foundation that already sounded good. I can’t polish a turd, so starting with a loop that already sounded great allowed me to build upon making a good thing, better.


The track Orizaba is an excellent example. The drop is essentially two drum loops layered on top of each other. The dirty 808 drum loop became the gritty neuro bass and the other became the main drums. With some mixing and resampling, I managed to make two drops that sound quite distinct from the original loops.


Better yet, both were free samples! It just showed me how far I could push loops and create awesome music that wasn’t “cheating” or ripping loops with no creative changes.


Hopefully this post gets you to reflect and brainstorm how you approach your next project!

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