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Criteria of professional production. Part 1

Sound design

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What are criteria of professionally-made tracks?


Being a DJ and A&R guy, I receive a lot of promos and demos on a regular basis. Some tracks are great, some are... well, not really. Some producers ask for my opinion, and if I honestly tell «sorry, the quality of production is not good enough», it brings debates about professional vs. amateurish tracks which led to more questions than answers. I’d like to help all up-and-coming producers out there by defining the main components of professional tracks from the technical side of things.

After thinking about it, I came up with the three main criteria that stand out for: sound design, transitions/fills, and DJ-friendly arrangement. In this series, I’ll tell about each criterion in details, and today’s talk is about sound design.

Part 1. Sound design
Part 2. Fills and transitions
Part 3. DJ-friendly arrangement

In electronic dance music, it’s not that important what sounds, but how does it sound. Although personally I love musical content, there are plenty of professionally-made and successful tracks with literally just one or few notes, so bear with me.

Let’s take the very foundation of any track, kick and bass. Compare these two:

The second one sounds better to you, right? You see, formally speaking, in both cases are the same four-on-the-floor kick and three bass notes in between. The only difference is in sounds design. I’d like to clarify that there are no such things as “bad sounds” themselves, but due to genres sub-standards, we may perceive some sounds as “better or worse” compared to what we hear in this specific genre. I’ve written about it earlier.

Train your ears using a reference track

“Sound design” is a broad term, so let me define it to avoid confusion. By sound design I mean the timbre, the shape, the feel of each every sound in the track individually and their matching together, which in turn includes equalization, compression, effects, and other post-processing. At some point mixing and mastering also could be named “sound design”, but I prefer to put it separately as it’s a pretty distinctive field of work.

I believe, sound design is the main criteria of professionally-made tracks. Even if your track has some amazing ideas and musical content (which I’m not talking about in this article), but if sound design doesn’t match the sub-standard, it sounds poor. Keep in mind that vice versa isn’t necessarily true: a musically poor but professionally-made track can be a dancefloor hit.

Here is some advice:

  • Learn the basics. I’m talking about synthesis, sampling techniques, processing, modulation and other fundamental aspects of music production in general, which are essential for sound design as well.
  • When you think you’ve learned enough, learn more. Make sure to invest your time in learning new things, new technologies, new tricks. In fact, as a music producer and as a professional, you should never stop learning. Luckily, the internet opens huge possibilities for education — you can easily find courses, online schools, master-classes, communities, blogs, and millions of free tutorials.
  • Be creative. There is nothing wrong in using sample packs or presets, but use it wisely. Rather than use it as it is, do some processing: tweak, resample, reverse, chop, and more weird things. That’s where real creativity comes in!

In next instalment, we’ll talk about transitions between parts of the track.

On cover image: working on sound design at my home studio on the last weekend.

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 78   2016   Advice   Music production   Sound design

This post is a part of the “Advice” series. I’m happy to advise on such topics as music production, sound design, performance, management, marketing, and career advice in the music industry and beyond. Send me your questions via this Google Form.

1 comment
Hana Grygarová 2019

Don’t want to be annoying, but can you share at least some secrets how did you move from kick and bass stage one to kick and bass stage two? :-)

Anyway, great article.