Toronto producer and engineer 5PiECE creates a vocal recording template from scratch in Pro Tools. The ideas behind this template translate into other DAWs – you just need to find the best way to apply them within the DAW of your choosing.
“The quality of your life is a direct reflection of the quality of the questions you are asking yourself”
-Tony Robbins, Awaken The Giant Within
I’m amazed at how often having the right question in a situation can literally change an outcome. The right question can save you time, money, energy and stress, and can put you on an entirely different trajectory in life.
I have found many examples of this throughout my own travels, so lets explore one
An Important Question I Asked An A&R On My Last Trip To Atlanta
I was in Atlanta this past October and met with an A&R from Warner Chappell Publishing. I played him some of my music and videos and, impressed after taking in my content, he asked me what I was doing later that evening. I told him that I had already committed to an artist session at Patchwerk Studios (which was the truth- I did). But – because I knew the power of questions, I followed up with one: “Why do you ask?”
“T.I. is having a listening party tonight. I was going to tell you to come.”
And just like that, my entire evening changed. It went from going to Patchwerk Studios for a session, to stopping by the Trap Museum to private party with T.I. and the Grand Hustle family and then hitting the studio.
I didn’t see that one coming. What really impressed me was that if I had not asked that question, I wouldn’t have ended up at T.I’s Dime Trap listening party at all. One question changed a whole series of events that followed.
5PiECE jokingly making use of the jail facilities
located in the Trap Museum during T.I’s Dime Trap listening party
How We Talk To Ourselves
I’ve come to realize that us humans are constantly having conversations with ourselves. During these moments, we are subconsciously asking ourselves questions, gathering information to answer them and ultimately making decisions.
For example, usually when you are hungry, you eat or find a way to eat. This is just natural behaviour in the first world. However, on a subconscious level, what we’re actually doing is asking and answering the following questions to ourselves:
“Am I hungry?” (YES/NO)
“Do I want to eat right now?” (YES/NO)
After answering these questions – we’ll determine pretty quickly what happens next. If we’re hungry, and we feel like eating, then we’ll proceed to another set of questions – this time branching out from a simple yes or no into a more intricate answer such as the type of food we want, where we will get the food from, etc. Some questions might be:
“What should I eat?”
“What can I eat?”
(for those with dietary restrictions or limited options)
“What can I eat at home?”
(for the cost conscious person or person that doesn’t want to travel to eat)
“Where can I go out to get food?”
(for the person who has nothing to eat at home, wants convenience, etc.)
These questions then get answered (subconsciously again) and then another set of questions come up until we’ve gathered enough information to make a decision, or move onto the next immediate concern – all within the blink of an eye.
What’s really interesting is that these conversations and questions don’t really happen consciously or out-loud. Our brain has automated this behaviour so most of our decision-making is on auto-pilot in the background. That is, until its challenged or presented with a unique scenario where there is no “protocol” to handle it subconsciously.
How To Use This To Your Advantage
What I’ve learned to do is control the narrative by consciously asking myself specific questions that will move me in a direction of my choosing. The key is to understand how to formulate the right questions that will serve you.
For example, lets say you joined a gym and wanted to get in shape, you may ask yourself in the morning, “Do I want to go to the gym today?” The answer could be yes, but it could also be no. This question leaves room for you to be lazy, find an excuse, and get out of it if you feel compelled enough. It is flawed from the beginning.
So lets try it again. What happens if you ask yourself “What am I training at the gym today?” This is no longer a yes or no question – the yes is now implied. You’ve now committed to going to the gym subconsciously, so the next choice you make will be what to train when you get there.
Questions That Translate into Creative Productivity
5PiECE making music at his private recording studio in Toronto, Canada
Questions can be powerful when it comes to creating and being productive. I find most of my production and writing sessions begin with one of two questions:
“What am I trying to make?”
(stylistically – for example a love song, a trap banger, a song for a specific artist, etc.)
“What if I did X?”
Substitute X for whatever you feel like and you have a really potent recipe. What if I started this beat with bass? What if I sampled this record? What if I took this loop, pitched it down and added a filter, then cranked the reverb? “What if” inevitably becomes “let’s find out”.
The process of creating music is basically making a series of decisions and committing to them. The key to arriving at decisions is using questions to get you there.
Some questions I like to ask myself when trying to finish a beat:
“Is this just a loop or is it arranged?” (LOOP or ARRANGED) > “Can I arrange this into a full song right now?”
“Is something missing?” (YES/NO) > “What does it feel like it’s missing?”
“Is there too much going on?” (YES/NO) > “What elements can I remove to make this less busy?”
“What will this ideally sound like when the an artist is on it?” or “What would I sing/rap on this if I were the artist?”
“What does this record feel like?” (referencing genre/style)
Here’s a more in-depth look at the thought process behind the questions you may ask when dealing with a production that is too repetitive:
“Does it feel like the same loop over an over?” (YES/NO)
“How do I add more variation?” (BRAINSTORM IDEAS)
“Can I create a B section for the lead sound?” (SPECIFIC IDEA PROPOSED)
“Lets create a B Section” (DECISION MADE)
There are many other questions – or prompts as I see them – that can be used when it comes to creating music, but these are a few that I rely on regularly on my own and during collaborations with other creatives.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
What’s great about questions is you can also use them to steer other people in a certain direction. This can be for better or for worse, depending on the person asking the question and the intent behind it.
For example, when recording with an artist, they may record a vocal take that I do not particularly like. Instead of expressing my negative opinion right away, I will play them what they just recorded and simply ask, “What do you think of this?”
If they like the take, I may ask a series of follow-up questions to make sure that they are making the best and most calculated choice. For example, I may point out a specific flaw in the delivery – “Do you think the way you said this word isn’t clear?” or I may point out a tuning issue “Do you like the way you sang this word despite it being out of key?” These are also usually reasons why I do not like the take.
More often than not, an artist will consider what I am asking and choose to do it over. All of this takes place without me ever actually stating my opinion, but rather asking carefully curated questions that help them arrive at an answer within my interest.
This can be used for better or for worse. In the above, it’s for the better. Artists tend to have a bias to the first thing they record and need a third-party to help push them in order to capture their best performance. Someone who is asking questions to challenge you in order to help you grow as a person is generally doing you a favor.
However, questions can also be manipulative. Slimy salespeople and door-to-door annoyances love to ask dumb questions that they know the answer to in order to advance their personal sales agenda:
“Would you like to save $X on your hydro bill?”
Of course you would– who doesn’t want to spend less money on bills? The problem is that they know the answer is an obvious one. By committing and saying yes, they are putting you in a tough spot to say no to their offer later.
“What do you mean you’re not interested? Didn’t you just tell me you want to save money on your hydro bill?”
These high-pressure questions centred on commitment and consistency are steering you into a position to feel obligated to purchase something you may not want, need or even consider had you not been approached on it. Robert Cialdini does a great job of breaking the psychology of this down in the “Commitment and Consistency” chapter of his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” (highly recommend).
It’s obvious – I love questions. I unlocked the secret that questions help you in every way possible when used correctly – from creating opportunity, to helping you learn more, to making you more productive. The possibilities are endless once you embrace questions. The next step is to “collect” good ones and use them to empower yourself.
Mixing is complicated. If it were easy – everyone would do it well. It requires an investment of time and effort spent on understanding, and a lot of practice.
When I’m teaching, I’m constantly trying to help my students become more efficient so they can make better music and spend less time mixing it. I find that most lackluster mixes suffer from the same collection of problems – or really mistakes made from inexperienced judgment. These are also mistakes I find I’ve made in the past when listening back to my old mixes, especially when I was first starting off in music production
- Not Gain Staging Tracks Properly
I think this is number one for me always. Many people who are new to mixing under-estimate how important gain staging is. Many big time engineers cite proper gain staging as more important than EQ and compression when it comes to mixing. I wholeheartedly agree.
What is gain staging? Gain staging is how you can manipulate a signal’s gain over stages. Depending on your DAW, you can adjust a signal’s gain via:
1) the volume fader of the track
2) the clip gain on the actual audio clip that lives on the track
3) with a plugin on the track such as a Trim, Utility, or any plugin that has an input/output/gain knob.
Gain staging is about maximizing volume and dynamic range. It’s also about preventing clipping and other ugly artifacts that may happen as a result of a signal being too loud or too quiet. It’s about preserving headroom so you can let the mastering do it’s job later.
You can’t turn up a master that’s already clipping. Gain stage your tracks effectively so they are balanced and preserve headroom while utilizing as much dynamic range as possible. For more info on this, read my article: What Is Gain Staging and Why Is It Important?
- Using Additive EQ and Not Utilizing Subtractive EQ
While this isn’t a blanket statement – I find its more common for new mixers to focus on adding and boosting when using an EQ. I say this because I was the exact same. Constantly boosting frequencies- more bass, more high-end, more everything.
The problem is – there is only so much headroom in a track. Boosting requires adding gain to a signal, and effectively reducing the amount of headroom available. On top of that – boosting a frequency, and having that frequency combine with the same frequency across multiple sounds can lead to that frequency range becoming overwhelming in a mix. This will result in tracks that sound bloated and unbalanced.
Pro Tools EQ-7 filtering low-end and performing subtractive EQ in the low-mids while boosting the high-end
The key to a clean mix (keyword: clean) is to utilize subtractive EQ and strategic filtering. Removing and/or reducing frequencies does the opposite of the above– it creates headroom, and makes space for other sounds harmonically. For more information on this – watch this tutorial on How To Get A Clean Mix (Using EQ)
- Over-Compressing Tracks
Compression is an often talked about yet highly misused mixing process. Experienced mixers are always talking about compression, which I think causes many new mixers to feel they should use it on everything. I was certainly at this stage early on in my career- compressing everything without knowing what it did or why I was even using it in the first place.
This is problematic because of the nature of compression – compression is intended to limit dynamic range. Simply put – it reduces the volume of sound when it gets too loud. Mixers often end up sucking the life out of their tracks because they are unknowingly killing the dynamics with compression. To emphasize this point: a track’s dynamics are what make it feel energetic.
I tell all of my students this: don’t reach for a compressor without having a solid reason to. For example, I would put a compressor on a Drum subgroup to help gently reduce the dynamics 1-2db and help “glue” the drums together overall by reducing the difference in volume between the kick and the snare. I can compensate for this volume loss with some internal gain staging on the compressor as well. This is logical reasoning.
As an aside – I am often not compressing individual tracks (especially drums) very much, if at all. I will, however, do some parallel compression and create a blend between the compressed and uncompressed sound to help them cut. I also rely more on subgroup and master bus compression to help glue things together and increase volume overall.
Since I know you’re probably curious, I have a more in-depth article about this topic called What Is Compression and How Do I Use It In A Mix?
- Not Making Use of the Stereo Field
With so much emphasis on EQ, compression and gain staging, many forget that we have an entire stereo field to play with. It never ceases to amaze me how a mix can be enhanced with a few simple panning decisions. Not only that – but panning can help create separation amongst sounds that mask each other in a mix. Got a piano and guitar that are fighting to be heard? Pan one slightly to the left and the other to the right and see if there is an improvement.
One of the earlier decisions I make in every mix after gain staging is where each of these sounds will live within the stereo field. Take some time early on in your mix to pan elements appropriately, even if it’s only a few things.
- Relying Too Much On Effects
Less is more – isn’t that what they say? I certainly believe that, although every now and then I need to remind myself.
I find my best mixes are the simplest ones. They use very little effects – whether that’s EQ, compression, reverb, etc. They are primarily focused on point #1 – gain staging. If the production is done right, then all I really need is some strategic gain staging and volume manipulation to make it impactful. Mastering will then take it over the top and to an industry level (in my experience).
Messy mixes are usually packed to the brim with effects and unnecessary processing. Each plugin you introduce will fundamentally change a sound – and sometimes the more you do the worse it gets. If you’re unsure – read points #2 and #3 above.
Focus on the essentials (gain staging, panning) and only introduce other processing such as EQ and compression when you have a good reason to. If you find yourself doing stuff “just because” – you may want to re-evaluate your approach.
Furthermore – if you find that after making a bunch of adjustments, the sound is only marginally better – consider removing those plugins and starting again with a new strategy. This is something I do in most of my mixes, even if it’s just to see if I can make a better decision.
- Only Using Static Volume Levels & Ignoring Automation
One of the first steps in mixing a song is to set all of the static volume levels – the initial volume fader position of a track. This is an important starting point of every mix – however, it’s unlikely that a sound will sit perfectly at a static volume throughout an entire song full of other sounds and dynamic changes.
Often a sound, such as a piano, may sit well during moments of the track as you’re initially setting it’s volume. As the song plays through, the piano will likely need to come forward or be pushed back during moments of the song in order for it to function effectively in the mix. This is where automation comes in and saves the day – adjusting the volume of the piano in real-time so it sits perfectly at every point of the song. No EQ or compression required.
I encourage you to implement automation towards the end of a mix after applying other processing like EQ and compression to individual sounds.
Volume automation being applied to an audio clip in Pro Tools
- Having Too Little or Too Much Ambience
Ambience is tricky with mixing. On one hand – we need it to create dimension and space within the mix. On the other hand – too much can lead to a washy, muddy mix that lacks detail.
The latter would be because reverb pushes sounds further away into the background, which is not ideal for sounds that you want upfront like lead vocals, kicks, snares, etc. The key is to then use it selectively to add ambience, and strategically with EQ, side-chain compression and/or volume automation to help prioritize it in the mix.
I personally find I try to utilize delay a bit more than reverb as it will add the “repeat” many listeners want, without creating distance from the element, or the mud that reverb often creates in a mix.
- Using The Wrong Tool For The Job
If you had to nail two pieces of wood together – you wouldn’t grab a screwdriver- you’d grab a hammer. So how come if there is a sibilance issue in a vocal, a mixer reaches for an EQ when they would probably be better off reaching for a de-esser?
As I say to my students- there are usually 13+ ways to approach a problem when mixing. Usually, more than one solution can and will work – you just have to know which is best for the scenario you find yourself in.
The only way to know is to spend time learning the craft and the different tools, technique and strategies available to you. This is challenging at first – especially when you don’t speak the language yet. Times like this are when my mixing tutorials and my blog come in handy. But once you understand, it makes making decisions and mixing efficiently much easier.
If you want to take a shortcut with this last part – I’ve been hosting a Producer Mixing Workshop on a regular basis for residents of Toronto. The workshop is focused on mixing strategies and my personal 10 Step Mixing Process that will help you mix faster and better than ever before. Most importantly – I’ll be teaching you how to think like a mixer so you know when and why you should be using tools like EQ, compression and more.
For more information, check out the Producer Mixing Workshop page.
Compression is a highly talked about topic in the world of mixing. Unfortunately, it is an often-misunderstood tool in the engineer’s toolbox.
In this article, I aim to answer the question “what is a compressor?” and perhaps more importantly – how do I use compression in a mix?
What is a compressor?
A compressor is a device (or plugin) that reduces a sound’s dynamic range (the difference in volume between loud and soft).
A visual representation of dynamic range
When set appropriately, a compressor will react to loud peaks of a sound and work to reduce them in volume, thus making them seem quieter. As a result, the soft parts of a sound that do not trigger the compressor will appear louder than they did without compression. This is because the difference in volume between the loud and soft parts of a signal has been reduced, making the signal appear more even in volume overall. Adding gain after compression will emphasize this even further.
A compressed VS uncompressed version of the same signal.
Notice how the quiet parts appear louder on the compressed signal in comparison to the uncompressed one
Why should I use a compressor?
Because compression is discussed so often, it is important to understand why you should reach for a compressor in your mix.
A compressor can be used to solve a number of problems within a mix, such as:
- To make a sound more consistent
- To prevent a sound from clipping
- To bring out a nuance in the performance
- To help a sound cut through in a dense mix
- To add character to a sound (compressors can be very distinct)
- To manipulate the attack and sustain on a sound
- As a special effect (“just because”)
What are the main controls on a compressor?
Threshold – the point in volume at which the compressor begins to work to compressor the material. Once the signal passes the threshold volume, the compressor begins to engage it based on the attack setting.
Ratio – determines how much attenuation will take place once the threshold has been breached by the signal. For example, a 2:1 Ratio means for every 2db that goes into the compressor passed the threshold, only 1db will come out, effectively cutting the signal’s volume in half.
Attack – controls how fast the compressor will react to the material after exceeding the threshold. Often a slow attack will result in less gain reduction taking place, whereas a fast attack will be more aggressive and typically result in more noticeable attenuation.
Release – controls how quickly the compressor will “let go” of the material, allowing it to return to an uncompressed state. A fast release may create a “pumping” feeling depending on the source material.
Knee – determines how hard or gradual the compression appears. Most compressors are default set to “Hard Knee” which results in the compressor reducing volume linearly. Utilizing a “soft knee” compressor or compression settings will result in a gradual slope into gain reduction. “Soft knee” compression often sounds more transparent.
Makeup Gain – allows you to add or remove gain on the source signal after compression has taken place. Often, since we are reducing volume with the compressor, this function is used to add that lost volume back to the signal.
Dry/Wet – some compressors feature a dry/wet functionality. Dry refers to the unprocessed (uncompressed) signal, and wet refers to the compressed (affected) signal. This functionality allows you to blend the dry, unaffected signal and wet, compressed signal together, displaying the best of both worlds.
Native Instruments Solid Bus Compressor – an emulation of the popular SSL Console Compressor
What alternatives are there to compression?
If you are using compression in order to control volume and attenuate peaks, you could alternatively use specific volume automation and strategic gain staging to achieve the same effect. This would have to be done manually, which will require significantly more work than simply setting and using a compressor.
Also – it is common to use parallel compression in a mix. This is when you send a signal to a bus (also referred to as an aux or return track depending on your DAW) and compress it separately from the dry signal. By blending the volume between the dry signal and compressed signal, you are able to achieve the best of both worlds by preserving the dynamics from the dry signal, while achieving the consistency and density of the compressed signal.
Do I have to use compression in a mix?
To a certain extent- no. Compression should be used for a specific reason – such as one of the few mentioned above. I personally use compression very sparingly and find myself using it more on instrument subgroups and masters rather than on individual channels. I also utilize parallel compression often in order to achieve the best of both worlds as outlined above.
If you don’t have a good reason to use compression within your mix –don’t force it. Be smart and strategic while mixing to save yourself time and to avoid frustration.
Despite being misunderstood and misused, compression is a powerful tool that can be used to transform and improve your mix when utilized correctly. Reach for one in your mix when trying to solve problems, and leave it alone or pull it back when it sucks the life out of your records.
I’ll be back with more mixing tips on compression in the near future.
Talk about a good question.
I myself mulled over this one for awhile back in 2012 before I ultimately decided to pursue the college route. Years later – after graduating and navigating the music industry as an entrepreneur – I’ve formulated an opinion on this question which I will share with you in this article.
I will specifically discuss my personal experiences in the music industry, and why formal education may or may not be the best choice for aspiring producers and engineers today.
I made the decision to pursue a formal education in Audio Engineering and Production at the Metalworks Institute (think of it as a Canadian SAE or Full Sail). I made this decision after working crappy jobs and realizing that nothing matched my lifelong passion for music, which I had been actively doing as a hobbyist for 10+ years. Up until that point, I had been a self-taught producer and got a lot of value out of free tutorials online. But eventually, I knew more than tutorials could show and I needed to step it up. I also wanted to pursue an actual career in music with the ultimate goal of making money doing what I love.
I weighed out my options and, with a little encouragement, decided to make the leap and pursue the college route.
The Audio Production and Engineering program at Metalworks spans a full-year from January to December with no breaks. It covered a lot of topics and subjects – from using Pro Tools to music theory to Recording Engineering in-studio and more.
The instructors (for the most part) were great – active in the industry and offered a lot of insight and guidance into the next step of our lives and careers. Metalworks also happens to be a very active multi-room recording facility – one of Canada’s biggest – which was great because I was able to learn and work in an actual professional recording studio.
Fun fact: Drake was recording his Nothing Was The Same album while I was attending class next door all through my third semester.
5PiECE at Metalworks Studios during his college education – learning on an actual SSL Console.
The Power of Numbers
I took my education seriously. First of all – I paid for it out of pocket with no help from family. This was not cheap. We’re talking about $20,000 in tuition for a one-year program that guarantees absolutely zero employment upon graduation. This is a steep price of admission if you ask me (albeit in retrospect).
Second – not everyone is cut out for this. I was a very active and engaged student. I made it a point to network and talk to my instructors – about real life human being stuff, not just engineering mumbo jumbo – with the goal of building an authentic relationship.
However, not all of my classmates shared this strategy. Some were over-excited high school kids who had just graduated and wanted to impress everyone. Others were people lost and had no idea what they actually wanted to do in life and apathetically ended up there. Some were pursuing a second-career program after being laid off. Some extroverts, some introverts, and a few in between. I was 22 years old at this point, had attended post-secondary once and dropped out. I knew exactly what I was after and was committed to making it happen.
I recall the first day of class – we had upwards of 70 people in the room. This would be the group that I would have every class with and ultimately graduate with if all goes well.
By the end of third semester, only 17 people remained of the 70.
At graduation, only 7 people from that group of 17 actually graduated.
Out of the 7 that graduated, only 2 are employed in music full-time. I am one of them. Let that sink in.
I talked about this at one of my recent Mixing & Mastering Workshops:
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People who actually want things aren't scared of doing what it takes to get them. • Did you know the average sales person gets rejected 7 times by the same client before they decide to hear them out and/or buy their product? SEVEN TIMES. • How many times have you quit too early now knowing that? • The power of the numbers is always amazing to consider. If you shoot your shot once and give up, you're already done for. • The key is to be relentless. To grind. To outwork. To perform. To prove the doubters and naysayers wrong. If they sleep on you, what are you going to do to wake them up? • Mark Cuban said it best, "work like someone is working 24 hours a day to take it away from you". • How bad do you want it? 😤 Let me know in the comments below 👇🏼 • 🎼: "Baton Rouge" by @5piece 🎬: @thashowtime • #musicproducerlife #studiolifestyle #businessowner #trialsandtribulations #hustleharder #motivation
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After I graduated with 7 of my classmates, I remember looking forward to everything that was in front of me. But when I got settled– a couple of weeks went by and nothing. No job. No prospects from my applications. Nothing. I had just paid $20,000 for a piece of paper. Fantastic.
Then out of seemingly nowhere I received an email from the academic coordinator at Metalworks. He mentioned Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s producer/engineer and co-founder of OVO Sound, was looking for interns and I came highly recommended from my instructors. For a brief moment there was a glimmer –and I realized that building relationships and being a good human being in general was beginning to bare fruits. I accepted the offer immediately and graciously.
Did Metalworks make that offer to every person in my graduating class? No. They offered it to one other person and myself – simply because they knew we were qualified and both came highly recommended from our instructors.
You know how the story goes from here if you’ve read my bio. I went to intern for 40 for a while at SOTA Studios and learned a lot. It was a great experience – and then one day, it was over. And suddenly I was back to the drawing board.
Turns out – not many studios were hiring. In fact – most of them were closing down at the time. Welp.
Through friends, I ended up getting another internship at a different studio more focused on rock and metal. During this time, I got to see a very different side of the music industry. Finally – after multiple internships, I was offered a low-paying position and started assisting and engineering at a third studio. This didn’t last unfortunately – making $50 a day for a 10-hour day was just not a livable wage. The studio owner couldn’t blame me for leaving either – even he understood how little I was being paid and wished me well.
Despite this, I leveraged my experience and eventually formed a partnership with another studio to transition over and become their head engineer.
5PiECE mixing at Vespa Music Group on an SSL Console.
The Move to Entrepreneurship
Some say they chose the entrepreneur life – I say it chose me.
After grinding in the trenches- working for other people and slowly building up my name, catalogue, skills and equipment – I was put into an interesting position. The studio I had partnered with was forced to abruptly move locations and had to close for a few months. Overnight and out of my control – my income had dried up and I had to figure out how to replace it because my student debts from Metalworks were still accruing interest.
Lucky for me – all of that studio’s clientele were displaced as a result of their sudden closure. A few had other places to go – but many were already accustomed to working with me. I had all their sessions and they liked working with me – so it made sense to continue doing so. The question became: where would I continue to provide my services to them?
I made a few calls – found a few alternate studio locations, negotiated an hourly flat-rate that I could incorporate into my own fee – and in a matter of days I was back in business as my own man. I offered my services out of other studios for about 8 months as a freelance engineer until finally getting my own location that allowed me to serve my clients better and cutout unnecessary third parties.
So What Did You Learn In Audio Engineering School?
The benefit of college programs is that they’re usually structured and cover a broader range of knowledge. For example, outside of the expected Audio Engineering and Production-based courses, we also had to take other courses focused on subjects like Sound & Acoustics, Music Theory, Pop Culture, Business and more. In one course I even learned how to build my own headphone splitter (which I actually still use to this day in my studio). The benefit of this was that I learned a wide range of things that all tie into music and not just how to use Pro Tools and maneuver around an SSL console.
My instructors also provided a lot of insight into situations that may happen in recording and mixing scenarios. I was able to get an idea of how actual engineers and producers went about structuring their workflow and tackling problems. It helped me improve my own approach and develop better systems when recording, mixing and mastering at the time. I’ve expanded on that since then – but it certainly made me grow into who I am now as an individual and audio engineer.
When I graduated, I had more confidence in my abilities and myself as an audio engineer because I made it through that program (63 other people didn’t based on the above numbers). Even though I may not have fully learned how to mix, or how to make money from my musical efforts at that time, I know that I had invested a lot into the experience and ultimately got a lot out of it. I also went out of my way to get the most value from it because I was driven.
The final consideration is that graduating from a college program like that adds immense credibility. It shouldn’t be over-emphasized, but it does show that you are willing to invest in your passion and is proof that you’ve put in a lot of hours already. Real world experience is still absolutely necessary in order to bridge the gaps in knowledge, but a diploma and studio experience doesn’t hurt to start.
This graphic borrowed from Buffer perfectly summarizes the importance of experience.
Did College Really Teach Me What I Needed To Know About Production & Audio Engineering?
To be completely honest – no. I would say much of what I learned in this industry both in business and engineering was a result of real-world experience. Nothing beats that. School simply can’t prepare you for everything and this career path is one you have to work towards.
The other catch is a recognized institution has an obligation to make sure every student is on the same page. Since so many students are coming in at different skill levels, instructors may be forced to cater to the students that have less knowledge, which limits how much the more advanced students will learn. I certainly felt this way at times as I already had some background in music prior to attending Metalworks.
Now that’s not to say education doesn’t have a place. My education at Metalworks gave me the structure I needed to understand all main aspects of the industry from engineering, to music theory, to production, to using the actual software everyday. I got a lot of value out of those things and still utilize that knowledge to this day.
Metalworks connected me to fellow artists, engineers, and producers – some of whom I’m still friends with and work with today. They also connected me to opportunities – such as working with 40 at SOTA Studios. Stuff like that is indispensable. I can’t say I would’ve received those opportunities if not for attending college and playing my part.
What they didn’t teach me (and honestly probably couldn’t teach me) is how to maneuver around artists, how to have a productive and successful recording session, how to fully monetize and market your music, how to run a company as an entrepreneur and much, much more. While those may be more business and marketing focused, I think they are extremely important to every person in music today and should be incorporated into every curriculum. In the end- if I’m spending THAT much money on my education, I should at least be taught about how to recoup that investment.
Even mixing and mastering. Sure – I learned about how EQ and compression work– but they didn’t show me how to actually mix a song. That was learned over years of trial and error, getting my hands dirty by mixing directly, seeking out knowledge and mentors, and learning from legends like 40 and others in-studio as mixes were happening right in front of me.
If You Didn’t Go To College – What Would You Have Done?
Author Tim Ferriss talks about the Real World MBA in his book “The 4-Hour Work Week” and on his podcast. This is something that I whole-heartedly agree with and would probably pursue if my situation were different all those years ago.
A Real World MBA is taking the money you would invest into a college education, such as $20,000 for the Metalworks Institute, and instead spend that money on real-world experiences that will teach you what you hope to learn in that program.
For example, you could take that $20,000 and invest it into learning directly from active engineers and producers in the music industry. Compensate them for their time and sit with them to get them to teach you all the aspects about what they do and how they do it locally and abroad in other locations.
Some other things you can do to create your own audio engineering MBA without college:
- Invest into studio time to record and produce records with artists locally
- Travel to different locations and work with producers, artists and engineers in other places
- Attend music conferences, trade shows, festivals and other events centered on music production and audio engineering
- Buy books and online courses on the subject
- Sign up for workshops, seminars and private lessons on topics that will further your skills
Spend that money acquiring as much knowledge and as many experiences as possible to create your own MBA. This is important because most of the knowledge I acquired that I use regularly came from outside of my college education- mostly in the form of additional courses, books, free tutorials and more. I’m still learning outside of college every day. Imagine what you could learn on your own too.
People actually unknowingly create their own MBA with me in my private lessons all the time. My students are smart because they are paying a much smaller fee compared to a college tuition and still accessing knowledge and education that I spent well over $20,000 to acquire (just for the education alone!). The information I provide can save them a lot of time, energy and frustration on their journey as I can help direct them, cut out the unimportant and shed light on how to use this knowledge in real-world scenarios for their own benefit.
The best part of this strategy is that you don’t have to commit the full $20,000 – you can slowly chip away at it over time in smaller increments until the full amount is spent. You may spend $500 of it and decide the music industry isn’t for you. At least you can walk away with the rest of your money unscathed.
There is nothing wrong with education. As you can tell – it helped me greatly and put me into a position to succeed after graduating. However – the music industry itself doesn’t require a degree or diploma in order for you to succeed in it – especially as a producer or engineer. You simply need the right skills, experiences, and social behavior to make something happen.
If you are thinking about pursuing your passion for music more seriously – I strongly encourage you to look at the Real World MBA approach first. After acquiring enough experiences – you will know whether attending college for music production and audio engineering is the right choice for you.
In the end- no institution can teach hustle, ambition, creativity or any of the necessary components to be a success in music. These traits are internal and usually requires something more to inspire them. To quote one of my instructors: “anyone can learn Pro Tools – but not everyone can be a good person.”
I wish you the best of luck on your journey.
If you’re interested in creating your own real world MBA focused on mixing as a producer – I am hosting a Mixing and Mastering Workshop in Toronto for Producers that want to learn how to mix and master their beats like a pro.
I also offer private lessons in-person and online for creatives who want to learn more about producing, recording, mixing and mastering one-on-one.
Every music producer loves making music. So much so that it is the easy part. The challenging part is taking that passion and turning it into money so you can pay your bills and continue making more music.
The music industry offers some of the most diverse income streams imaginable for those who are savvy enough to take advantage. In this post – I aim to provide some insight on how you can take your music and turn it into an income source so you can turn your passion into a full-time career.
This is the most obvious and common way for producers and songwriters get paid from their work.
There are a number of different types of royalties, but the main ones are PERFORMANCE royalties and MECHANICAL royalties.
Performance royalties are royalties paid out every time your song is played and/or performed in public. In other words – any time your song is played and broadcasted to the general public – whether it’s performed live at a concert, or played on TV in a commercial or during a radio program – money is being generated for the songwriters. This money is collected on your behalf by your performance rights organization, or PRO.
In Canada, where I’m from, we only have one PRO: SOCAN. In the United States, there are three: ASCAP, SESAC and BMI. Depending on where you are from – there may be one or many. These are not-for-profit organizations that you sign up with who will collect your royalties on your behalf.
Therefore – every songwriter should sign up with a PRO as you are passing up on potential income if you aren’t currently with one. Furthermore – it doesn’t cost you any money to sign up with one.
Mechanical royalties are a bit different. These are royalties generated and paid to the songwriters for an actual physical or digital sale of their music. For example, if you purchase a song by Drake on iTunes, or stream his music on any popular streaming service, a mechanical royalty is generated and paid out to the creators of the song including the producer.
Mechanical royalties are paid out by whoever obtains a mechanical license to reproduce and distribute the music, such as record labels. Unlike performance royalties, your PRO won’t collect and pay out mechanical royalties. Instead – most countries have a collection society that specifically deals with mechanical royalties such as the Harry Fox Agency in the United States. There are other ways to collect money from mechanical royalties as well and it’s important to understand how you will collect them when distributing music through a label.
Just because you have music out doesn’t mean you will be generating royalties. It’s important that the music is heard and consumed in order to generate income. A song that gets three plays won’t be yielding a large cheque from your PRO – so make sure the artist and team you are working with does everything they can to exploit the record so you can reap the financial rewards too.
- Sync Licensing for Film & TV
Another wildly lucrative way to make money with your music is to license it for use on TV shows, commercials, movies, promotional campaigns and more. This is known as synchronization or sync licensing.
TV shows, movies and other forms of visual content often need instrumental music. Watch anything ever and you will notice that music is almost always tied to the visuals, even if it’s just subtly tucked into the background.
How do you get your music used in film and TV?
Through the show/film/production’s Music Supervisor- that is the key decision maker who decides what music will get used in that production. If you’re good at researching and networking, you can find music supervisor information online with tools such as IMDB and submit music for consideration.
In this industry, you often have to go after what you want. However, sometimes it’s better to let it come to you. Instead of going out of your way to approach music supervisors individually with your music, you can upload your tracks onto online libraries that specialize in licensing to visual content providers. Music supervisors will often rely on these libraries already when searching for the music they need. If your track’s fit the criteria and are tagged accordingly, they have a high likelihood of being licensed. Best of all – these sites usually have existing clientele that span film, television, commercials, corporate companies and more.
- Teach Music Production
Education is a trillion dollar industry. Trillion. People want to learn how to do things that interest them. Our current education system doesn’t accommodate every subject- making beats often being one of them- leading to a big demand of people who want to learn music production.
Chances are if you’ve been producing for a long time, you are fairly seasoned in your craft. You’ve probably made a lot of beats and maybe even worked with some artists, big or small. I would even go as far as betting you’ve learned a lot along the way – valuable information that could save someone else years of trial and error and help them become successful faster. There are people out there who would love to know what you know about music production and navigating the music industry.
It’s even better when you have some specific knowledge outside of music production that can provide an advantage over other competitors. For example, my students benefit from my audio engineering background as I often incorporate engineering and mixing techniques into my music production lessons.
Perhaps you know how to use a specific DAW better than anyone else, or maybe you are a musician and can break down theory easily, or you’ve gotten a publishing deal and can shine some light onto that process. Whatever your specific niche in music production is, you can identify it and sell it to someone who wants to further their craft.
The lesson delivery method can be handled in a few ways. If you like real human interaction and have a place to teach lessons in, you can offer in-person lessons to students for an hourly rate. Lessons can also be offered online via Skype or Google Hangouts if preferred, allowing you to tap into clients outside of your city. The beauty of the Internet.
The problem with personally teaching on an hourly basis though is that it is not scalable, and still requires your time to be invested into showing up and delivering the lesson. The alternative to that is to create an online video tutorial course, market it and sell it as a digital download online. This will require more up-front work to start, but ultimately can be an asset into generating steady revenue if you deliver a lot of value and knowledge in the course.
2018 is an interesting time for music producer income streams. Not only are artists going on tour and performing – but producers are too. The past few years has seen the likes of popular producers such as Just Blaze, Metro Boomin, Murda Beatz, and Boi 1da getting a lot of work as live performers while building their name in other locations worldwide.
They may be a bit more established in their careers than the average producer, but who says you have to have placements to perform live? If you know how to DJ, or if your music has organic live elements such as keyboards or guitar, find a way to put on or be a part of a live show.
Start locally – network and find out who’s putting on shows and see how you can get involved. You can also reach out to venues and bars directly play them some music, tell them why you want to play live and ask politely if they could host you. If the music is good and you’re able to really engage audiences, you may start building a buzz locally and that will help get you more performing gigs and expand into outer regions later.
Filming these performances and creating content around it can also help build credibility when starting to go outside of your city. Again – this may require more upfront work and investment – but will pay dividends later if executed correctly.
- Selling Sounds, Samples and Drum Kits
As a producer, we’re always collecting new sounds and eventually start creating our own. This is an important asset as it helps us create a unique sound that cannot be duplicated.
Having skills in sound design can pay off in other ways. Producers that know how to layer, shape, synthesize and engineer sounds in order to create new textures can sell and license their creations to other producers to use in their work. This can be in the form of VST presets, audio loops, individual drum kit hits and more. There is a large market for this as technology has made it easier than every for regular people to produce music. These people still need sounds and palettes to choose from when creating.
Once you have your sounds, its important to organize them accordingly and figure out a sales and marketing strategy. You can go directly to your consumer by creating a website with an online store that provides a digital download to producers who purchase your kit. It will require a bit of extra effort upfront – but it will ultimately allow you to control variables such as price, content and promotion while keeping 100% of the profits.
You can also approach established sound kit companies online that accept submissions for sample packs. You will have to split the profits with them – ranging from a 70/30 to a 50/50 split – if your sample kits are accepted. The benefit of this is they will handle all the distribution and marketing on your behalf while keeping their stake in the work. These sites will often also have established traffic and clientele, increasing the likelihood of them purchasing your kit.
- Selling Beats Online
I saved one of the more obvious revenue streams for the end. If you’ve got a large catalogue of beats in the stash, you can start selling them online fast and easily with platforms such as Beat Stars and Airbit. Whether you want to sell leases, exclusives, or both – the choice is yours. All you need to do is upload high-quality material, set your pricing and licensing terms then market it to artists who want to buy beats online.
I also wrote an article about how to get artists on your beats if you want to check that out.
As you can tell, there are many ways to make a living as a music producer. Most successful producers today have a diversified income stream that consists of several of the methods discussed above. Ultimately though, this is all contingent on having a high-quality product that fits the bill and can be transacted for monetary gain. If your beats are trash – none of these avenues may lead to dollar signs.
Additional Reading To Learn About Making A Living In Music
If you want to learn more about monetizing your music and making a living passively online, I recommend you also read the following books that partly inspired this post:
Getting a song mixed can be an exciting and daunting experience at the same time. You’ve spent so much time making sure that you’ve created your best art – now its time to put it together and add the polish it needs to leave a mark on the world when its finally released.
Making sure a mix goes smoothly requires some preparation on your end as the artist. As a mix engineer to many – I’m here to help you make sure you get the mix you want by offering some advice on preparing stems for mixing.
- Ensure all the production and vocal takes are edited and finalized before sending anything in to be mixed.
When sending stems for mixing, the mix engineer should only be provided with high-quality audio of the final takes to be used in the final mix. The mix engineer’s job is to take what you give him/her and make it sound the best it possibly can. Their job is not to act as a producer and pick and edit the best takes for you. That should’ve been done already.
Therefore, you should not be including alternate takes, or variations to be considered for use – only the absolute necessary and final takes should be provided for mixing.
- Ensure that all the files are cleanly recorded and are not clipping.
While a mix engineer can work all kinds of magic to a song – they can’t do much if they aren’t given the proper raw materials. This includes making sure all files are recorded properly with an adequate amount of headroom (usually -6db) for each track and are not clipping (track volume going into the red).
A mix engineer cannot fix something that is broken at the recording level – they can only enhance what’s already there so be sure to record your tracks properly. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, then prepare to receive back a mix that may be flawed due to factors outside of your mix engineer’s control.
Learn more about recording properly by watching my tutorial How To Set Levels For Recording Vocals
- Ensure all files are consolidated so they start and end at the same time.
Consolidating an audio file means taking multiple separate audio clips that live on a single track and joining them into one file, filling the gaps in between the clips with silence. As you may be sending your song to someone who uses a different DAW and set-up to mix, it’s crucial that the files you send are consolidated.
Make sure all of these consolidated audio clips start at 0:00 and end when the song ends. This will ensure that the mix engineer can load the files into their set-up, and have every instrument/vocal line-up and play exactly when they should on the grid.
An example of consolidated audio files inside of a Pro Tools session.
- Ensure all the files you are sending are organized and correctly labeled.
Never send files with generic names such as Audio 1, Audio 2, etc. Not only is it not helpful – it ends up requiring a great deal of time on the engineer’s part to make sense of as they have to go through each individual file, carefully listen, and rename them just to get the session set-up.
This is counter productive – the mix engineer should be focused on mixing and making creative decision to help your song sound better – not spending an hour trying to figure out what’s what, labeling and getting organized.
Be diligent – make sure files are organized and labeled correctly so your mix engineer can focus their energy on creating the best mix they can for you.
- Make sure your vocals are tuned before sending in to mix.
In my opinion, vocal tuning is in the same category as compiling and editing. It’s something that should be done before mixing and not during the mixing process itself.
Not every mix engineer tunes vocals, or if they do, it’s an additional expense separate from the mix. Make sure you have this conversation with your mixing engineer and don’t assume that they will be tuning your vocals just because they are mixing your song.
- Send WET and DRY versions of files.
By WET and DRY – I am referring to files that have effects printed on (WET) and files that do not have any effects printed on (DRY). Effects can include reverb, delay, distortion, EQ, compression, etc.
When getting tracks ready for mixing, its best to provide both in separate folders that are clearly labeled so the mix engineer has the option to use either version when mixing your record.
Perhaps they can’t get the same reverb you had on a snare – by providing them with WET and DRY files, they can use your WET version in the mix without having to ask you for it. This saves time later and helps get you closer to the mix you want.
An example of how to organize and label WET and DRY files for your mixing engineer.
- Include a PDF document with important session information such as BPM, song key, lyrics and any notes that are important to consider when completing the mix.
While many engineers use special programs such as Mixed In Key to determine some of this information – it’s better to take the extra step and include it in a PDF to reduce the margin for error. Remove all of the guesswork for the engineer and make sure they have all the information they need to in order to do a good job. Even something as simple as having the incorrect tempo can throw a lot of things off during the mix.
If you have specific requests or ideas for the mix, be sure to include a note of them in the document as well. For example, you may request little to no reverb on a specific vocal, or want a specific instrument to be treated and conveyed in a particular way. Don’t assume the engineer knows your vision – tell them upfront and clearly in order to help get you there faster and more effortlessly.
- Send a reference mix of the song you’re getting mixed – even in its rough demo-state.
The first thing I do when I receive a new song to mix is listen to the artists’ reference mix. Sure – it may not sound the best it can – but there is usually a vibe there that I need to focus on preserving, or it at least helps point me in the right direction.
Therefore, It is crucial that you send a reference mix of the song you’re having mixed as a high-quality WAV if possible. This is typically the latest version of the mix, usually from a recording session that has rough balances and some FX applied.
You may be asking- why would I send a reference of my song that is still rough?
The mix engineer may or may not know you – and may or may not be familiar with your music and taste- especially towards this song they’re about to mix. Sending them the most recent version will give them a good reference point. They’ll notice specific things, like how loud your vocal is relative to the instrumental, and they’ll be aware of specific delay throws or effects you have on the reference and replicate them within their mix.
Ultimately, the reference helps the mix engineer know what you’re used to hearing the song sound like – and they may use this information to recreate the vibe – except bigger, fuller and more badass in the end.
- Send files through a service such as WeTransfer, DropBox, Google Drive, etc.
Once you have all the files, you need to figure out how to get them to your mix engineer so they can do their job.
Most of my clients rely on WeTransfer, which is free to use up for a transfer up to 2GB. They also have a paid service for larger files.
Other services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive can also be free up to a point. When using these services, ensure the sharing settings allow for the other party to edit and download the files so they can mix your song immediately without requesting for permission online.
Alternatively – if your mix engineer is in the same city- you can arrange to meet in person and swap files using a hard-drive.
We tend to glamorize some parts of the music-making process and neglect others. Mix preparation is a process that is often ignored and arguably takes up a lot of time. I’ve had some mixes take me several hours just to set up due to the client ignoring some of these above points.
Save yourself and your mix engineer time, energy and avoid any miscommunications by following my advice above- and share this post with your artist friends to help them on their next mix.
If you have a song you’d like mixed by a professional, please check out my Online Mixing and Mastering services.