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A few tips on how to make your songs sound better (edit: added examples)

5 posts in this topic

I'm creating this thread because there are A LOT of songs out there that are conceptually really good, but sound just plain awful. Also, seeing that there are two extremely helpful stickies regarding making music already available in this forum, I will only try to add a few pointers as to how to go about making the optimal (possibly the cheapest) pick among music creation software and what you can do to suck that last bit of juice out of that software to make your songs sound better. I'm laying the emphasis on Fruity Loops as that's probably the most cost-effective semi-professional tool out there that's actually within the price range of many students and hobbyists. ONE - the tools It almost doesn't matter what software you're working on because it's you who's really making the song, not the software. Here's a nigh-perfect setup for a desktop computer that can give you absolutely nothing if you don't know how to use some of the most basic tools: Cubase SX or some equivalent studio-class software suite as the main tool with Reason as a primary synth with a 3-computer VST-link setup, ProTools for mastering and a really expensive Korg (or equivalent) hardware synthesizer hooked up to a Hoontech or Audigy 2 (or some equivalent ASIO-compliant card) for low-latency live recording, totalling something like $10000 (of which ~$1500-$2000 goes on software). The truth is that while such a suite might give you all the power in the world, many (if not most) bits in it are easily replaceable with freely available software packages from the Net. While it's true that there is no free software synth out there that can compete with commercial products, Fruity Loops is more than capable of providing the same quality as Cubase - however, possibly with a little bit of extra effort. Regardless - that's not the point: the point of this thread is to help those of you who are just starting out gain some insight into how to bring your songs to life. TWO - 8 simple rules 1) quality is paramount 2) post-processing (mastering) makes the song as far as quality goes (unless, of course, you're starting out with utter garbage in the first place) 3) you NEED a proper sound card. Seriously - if you're going to approach things with a solid idea of creating something worth while, a SoundBlaster Live! will not suffice. Don't ask around which ones are the best - just look at the price and you'll be able to identify quality. Differently from politics, in sound/music hardware industry, price and quality mostly run in tight correlation 4) you NEED proper headphones - there are a few things you shouldn't do while using headphones, but for the most part owning quality headphones is much more crucial than owning a 7.1 surround system 5) you NEED to know a thing or two about DSP (digital signal processing) - more on this point later. I've heard way too many songs that lack the "proper" (read: they make highly experimental) use of effects due to the composer not knowing how an effect works. Before you apply a highpass filter or a compressor to your track you NEED to know how to use it to maximize the effect that it will give you 6) owning a few sample CD's is a plus 7) knowing music theory to some extent is important - too many songs end up as collections of samples piled on top of each other because the composer just mixes and matches, but doesn't compose 8) knowing your target audience and format IS important - for instance, you can't add extensive stereo imaging to a track if your target is the web or the track will simply not mix down to mono well and you'll end up with utter garbage once you've uploaded it and start listening to it in your browser THREE - quality No matter what your target format is, the most important thing you need to pay attention to when composing your song, is quality - quality sells. The days when someone like Prodigy could sell millions of records of tracker music, are over. The only solid ways of ensuring the quality sound of your music is by either: 1) using instrument banks (collections of instrument sounds that provide interpolation points for an instrument across the entire spectrum, such as a collection of recorded piano sounds at every C note, which are then interpolated to provide somewhat accurate pitch values for notes that lie between them), or 2) using software synthesizers. Don't be fooled, even if your aim is to write music that only uses "natural" instruments (the piano, sax, nylon guitar, etc). There are numerous VST instruments out there that provide rather realistic-sounding natural instruments. Because synthesizers are in fact synthesizers (of sound created from "scratch"), the quality they provide is purely digital, eg free of sampling or recording artifacts. In addition to Steinberg VST, there are DirectX-based plugins that do an equally good job. Fruity Loops supports VST, as does Steinberg's own Cubasis (naturally). Propellerhead Reason does not support VST plugins (natively, and on purpose) because it is designed as a software syntheseizer itself to be used in conjunction with some "master" application (in most cases through Rewire technology). For that reason you cannot compare Reason (no pun intended) to Cubase or Fruity Loops! There are hundreds and hundreds of VST plugins available on the Internet - all you need to do is Google them up. To help you out: Free plugins Links that lead to more free VST plugins (and other stuff) Not so free plugins Don't go crazy, though, because there are so many plugins that one can easily get lost in them. Once you've got the proper instruments - the ones that you want, not the ones that you think will do, you need to pay special attention to how to make these instruments sound appealing. There's just a handful of very simple effects that can add a whole new world to your songs (see the mastering section). FOUR - know some DSP and the terminology Before you start adding a lowpass filter to a track, take the time to KNOW what that filter does. I'll provide a rundown of the basics of DSP that you will need to know most essentially. Since sound exists in the frequency domain, you need to know its nature before you start messing around with it. A volume slide might sound nice for an intro or outro, but a lowpass slide will almost definitely sound cooler. To learn the basics quickly, all you need to do is know what your sound card can do. Here is a link to the test results of Creative's Audigy 2 SZ Pro at 48 kHz. At the very least, you NEED to know what the first graph in that link means and how to read it:
A frequency response
As the most fundamental thing, you need to be able to glance at the frequency response of a filter and know what it will do to your song (even if it's just sliders or numbers that you can look at). I suggest you read through the linked page, even if you don't really understand it. For instance, in the image, the white and green lines seem to run almost straight for most of the graph at almost zero gain (vertical axis), but drop off drastically at around 15 kHz (the horizontal axis). If you were to think of the frequency response as a multiband tapestry, then the left side (up to ~90 Hz) would denote bass, from there, everything up to ~8000 Hz would include human speech and generic instruments, such as the violin, guitar, etc. The 3000-16000 Hz region is perceived as treble by humans and includes hats and cymbals as sounds. Take the time to aquaint yourself with this page to know what components make up a filter's frequency response. For instance, when setting your filter parameters for a lowpass filter (cutoff, Q - or the the amount of ripple in the passband, and gain), you should in fact know what sound you're going for or it'll be very difficult for you to imagine what something will sound like once you start combining filters or using some more complex effect, such as a parametric equalizer. (Speaking of other "traditional" effects - it's a little bit more difficult to describe how phaser and chorus work - however, since these are effects you won't be using every day anyway, knowing their inner workings isn't that essetial.) Next is a dissection of a typical synthesizer module that you can find in just about every program. Here's an image of the Wasp software synth, natively provided with Fruity Loops:
The Wasp software synth from Fruity Loops
Even though you can learn what most of the knobs roughly do by just turning them, the only way of knowing how to use the synth is by knowing how to use it. Take time to read this description of the Wasp synthesizer - it'll be of great help if you've never looked at one before. A synth is a simple waveshaper - that is, it takes two or more wave shapes (such as sine, triangle, ramp, square or some more elaborate predefined shape that appear in the form of oscillators) and combines them according to the parameters that you define. Most synths have quite a few more controls readily available to you - something that can hook your attention for hours (or until you lose interest in both the synth as well as your song). Interpolation: quite a few programs provide more than one choice as far interpolation goes. Just know that whatever interpolation you end up using, the default one (in most cases) - linear interpolation - isn't how the world works. If you want to transpose human voice or some highly pitch-sensitive instrument sound, you'll need to use a vocoder (try getting one here). FIVE - mastering As the final step, you should always master your song before releasing it. There are probably many great mastering tools (that cost a fortune) and I couldn't say I can provide a link to a freely available high-quality mastering tool. However, luckily most of the steps done in mastering can be "faked" using simpler plugins or effects. For starters, I suggest you get your hands on a demo version of iZotope's Ozone to get the feel of what mastering is like and what it entails - Ozone costs $300, though, but having a look at its demo version will be invaluable. Mastering is the primary point behind this thread - most songs released on the net are not mastered and sound home-made for that very reason. To use it as a point of reference, Ozone includes six effects that you can use to alter your tracks:
  • parametric equalizer Fruity Loops provides you with a very flexible parametric EQ as one of the in-package effects. Searching for a free VST/DX parametric EQ plugin isn't that trivial - most products cost quite a lot (generally in excess of $150). However, unless your song is really well balanced, some minor equalization tweaks on the final mix will allow you to greatly balance out any bass/treble inconsistencies. Understanding how the parametric EQ works presumes you have full knowledge of what a frequency response is and what types of filters there are.
  • reverb Even though it's a good idea to add reverb to each individual instrument track (or group) separately to increase the "breadth" of the instrument (group), always consider adding an extra bit of reverb to the final mix to smooth out any "holes" and make the track sound more flowing. Get a free VST reverb plugin here. It is, however, my suggestion that you do your own additional research and compare several plugins as there's nothing that's guaranteed in this world - including the quality of freeware tools.
  • compression In simple terms, what a compressor does is that it limits the really loud peaks of your mix from clipping (by simply making them quiet enough to not clip). A compressor can be divided into three parts: the limiter (the part which prevents clipping), the compressor (the part which maintains a constant volume) and the expander (the part which acts to complement the limiter and boosts certain quieter parts of your mix). Fruity Loops has a built-in compressor, which acts linearly in regard to all volume levels below its threshold (that is, it doesn't include the expander portion) - that is, every peak that is louder than Threshold, is reduced by a factor of Ratio (for instance if the maximum desired volume is 0 dB then a peak of 3 dB is compressed to 1 dB if the ratio is 3:1, which still clips, but a lot less). The Gain of a compressor defines how much the entire signal level is boosted after it's been compressed. This page provides the MDA VST plugins pack, which includes a somewhat more elaborate compressor. You should use the compressor on every instrument track, not just the final mix to provide consistent volume levels and minimize clipping. Only use the compressor when mastering if the levels are really off - as a rule of thumb you should not start mastering a track that clips in the first place, but instead go back to the drawing board and fix the clipping.
  • stereo imaging This is probably the most important effect of all mastreing effects - a simple one at that. Fruity Loops has a plugin called Stereo Enhancer, which is essentially the same thing: a stereo signal is delayed in one channel, creating a sense of spaciousness. Ozone, however, provides a greatly enhanced version of this effect: a multiband stereo imager, which allows you to specify different levels of stereo separation in different frequency bands. The trick here is to apply stereo imaging to each instrument track or a group of instruments separately. It is rare that you need to enhance the stereo properties of the bassline or the bass drum. However, adding stereo separation to the lead synth will give a superb effect. Adding a little less stereo separation to the hats will, in turn, provide more focus on the middle frequencies (eg the lead synth) and not distract the listener.
  • harmonic excitation Even though you'll most likely have to skip this step if you're broke, harmonic excitation adds a lot to a mix if applied correctly (that is, when it's not overdone). In simple terms, what this does is that it adds new harmonics in between existing harmonics to "add color" to the final sound of the mix. As far as I know, it's not possible to obtain a free harmonic excitation plugin, so there isn't much to do on this part if you haven't got the money. Ozone, however, does include a four-band harmonic exciter - I suggest you check it out, even if it's only the demo you can affort!
To sum up on mastering, here are some final thoughts: The catch is that while several of these effects are very complex and do not float around freely on the Internet, they can be emulated (but only to an extent) through the use of simpler filters. While you can't reproduce the effects of the harmonic exciter just like that, you can use several 1-band equalization modules to create a makeshift parametric equalizer. Very rudimentary stereo imaging can be done by manually shifting (delaying) one channel by a small number of samples (try this out in a wave editor) - this will sound more bad than good, but if there are no other solutions available to you, this will possibly sound better than the raw deal. Process every instrument track separately to minimize the need for final mastering and once you're done with your song and do decide that it requires a final polish, buy an hour of studio time and master it there - most studios do have professional software (or hardware) available and do not cost THAT much (unless you want to be in the best studio in town). As a rule you should master the final output of your mix - the song rendered to a wav file, not by applying more effects on the output channel in the composition program (ironically, I did my best to avoid writing "master channel" here...). To read what you just read here in much more detail, refer to the Mastering With Ozone Guide available here, which is free and directed to the community to more explain the fundamentals of mastering than anything else. Also note that there are other products (such as T-Racks) that can also do the same job as Ozone. In conclusion, when you make a song and decide to release it to the public, please work on it so the apparent dryness and lack of color/space doesn't become the instant turn-off that happens in the case of many songs. I wrote this thread in hopes that maybe the experience/knowledge I've gained will help someone else get over some of the hurdles more easily. Please post your own comments and questions regarding this topic, or point out any mistakes I might have made (it is pretty late after all) - hopefully this short guide can be referenced in the future when someone asks on these boards "why aren't my songs sounding like, you know?" or "what do I have to do to make my songs sound like "that"?". SIX - the five steps First, download this zip file (~1.5 MB), which contains five files in MP3 format (8 seconds each). They don't have the most creative names, so order them as follows and listen to them in WinAMP (or something): 1) NoEffects.mp3 2) PercussionEffects.mp3 3) AllEffects.mp3 4) Premastered.mp3 5) Postmastered.mp3 It's a somewhat idyllic segment of a trance/house mix (they're the easiest ones to make if speed is the target, but that's not important right now), however the rudimentary mastering and composition techniques used in making the fifth file out of the first one remain the same. Thanks to friends in neat places, I had the opportunity to run Ozone over the premastered version of the song to throw in some extra fullness (resulting in the postmastered version - however, this version isn't nearly as good as it could be if I could have gone back to the editor and fix a couple of things). I used Fruity Loops to create the base file and the first four versions of it have been altered using FL only, including the "premastered" version. The track itself uses the Wasp synth, two bass kicks, claps and hats - in other words, all frequency ranges are represented at least to some extent. First off, once you've listened to all of the examples, you'll notice that Fruity Loops actually did a rather good job with the premastered version and it's pretty enjoyable to listen to (quality-wise). Here's the problem - even if most amateur songs are released at state 3 (with all the fancy effects enabled), people hardly ever go that extra mile to apply the final polish to their song and, to me at least, the premastered version is enjoyable while the "AllEffects" version is, well, not - as it just sounds too home-made. Here's a rundown of what each step means as far as effects go: 1) The "NoEffects" version has absolutely no effects enabled - I basically set up the first synth line I could produce, tweaked some parameters on the Wasp to make it sound less "default" and added a rudimentary bass kick, some house claps and a simple hat. 2) The "PercussionEffects" version adds short-duration Reverb and a little stereo widening to the hats and stereo narrowing (negative separation) complemented by a 3-band EQ (to boost only the lower frequencies and disable all high frequencies - much like the Bass Boost effect in FL, but different) to the bass kicks. Since the synth is basically in mono between the two, the whole thing sounds a little surreal. 3) The "AllEffects" version adds a bunch of effects to the synth: a lowpass filter to make the synth sound less harsh, some reverb, a low-cutoff low-feedback delay module (this adds much more substance to the instrument than a simple reverb), stereo separation and a parametric EQ to boost frequencies around 250 and above 4500 Hz - this not only makes it a little louder, but gives the synth a whole new feel. 4) The "Premastered" version introduces four effects in the master channel, compressors to all intrument channels, and a little adjustment in global volume: a parametric equalizer to boost the three most important frequency ranges (those of the bass kick, the Wasp and claps), a very short reverb, a little bit of global stereo widening and a compressor with proper gain adjustment and a long release time to allow for slow volume changes when clipping does occur. Fruity Loops doesn't have a proper built-in peak detection system (the most effective system is a psychocaustic one and for that reason quite complex and for that reason proprietary and for that reason costs a lot of money to have rights for) and therefore doesn't provide very good clipping management - the only tool available is a compressor, which tends to add volume fluctuations to the track at clipping points and that sounds really unpleasant. Ozone's volume maximizer includes very good peak detection and will allow you to push the volume quite a bit without brute-forcing clipping into the mix. 5) The "Postmastered" version introduces remastering of the permastered version in Ozone. This isn't particularly correct because multiple boosts of the same parts of the signal tend to eventually start to deform the signal instead of improving it. To conclude this edit, I hope everyone who's about to write a song will at least be striving towards the quality of the "premastered" (in the current context this word doesn't even mean anything sensible...) version. [Edited by - Crispy on March 21, 2005 9:27:59 PM]

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Here's what I've learned: If you can't actually hear what you're doing, well, it's not going to sound like you think it should.

The best money I ever spent on sound equipment was a $99 pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones. They are leagues above what you can get at Best Buy -- in fact, I know pro engineers who bring their own pair to whichever room they go. This is because they are accurate and consistent; once you learn how things sound on this set, you can mix anything and have it come out right.

The second best money I spent on sound equipment was a pair of Genelec 1029a powered monitors (a k a "mixer speakers"). They are almost as accurate as the headphones, and beat anything from Klipsch, Creative, Bose, or the other cheap brands. In fact, they're much better than my stereo system speakers -- and about 1/10th the size! They recently released a newer model called 8030, so you might be able to find the 1029as at a bargain price.

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I'm honestly not quite sure why this thread is stickied, as it contains a lot of misinformation on pre-mastering. Essentially:
[*]The OP suggests to get a free Equalizer VST for pre-mastering, which really isn't the best choice, as cheap EQ's can add unwanted distortion, or color to your track. When pre-mastering a good linear phase or minimum phase EQ is almost paramount.
[*]The OP suggests to use Compression on every instrument track (during mixdown I suppose) "to provide consistent volume levels and minimize clipping", but your tracks shouldn't even be anywhere near 0dB during mixdown. If something is clipping, adjust your volume faders, don't rely on compression. Any compression adds distortion, unless you want all your instruments to sound distorted I suggest you don't use compression on all tracks, but only where it's actually needed (or where you want it for that matter).
[*]The OP lists stereo imaging as "probably the most important effect of all mastering effects" while it is actually a rarely used tool during pre-mastering. The most important tools are EQ and Limiter. Any stereo imaging during the pre-mastering stage might cause phase issues, and should only be applied when actually needed. However, it's always better to fix problems with the stereo image in the mix where you have much more control over individual tracks, as opposed to the pre-master where you only have one stereo track to work with.
[*]Harmonic Exciters are very rarely used in pre-mastering. The one in Ozone 4 is crap as it usually causes huge phase issues. Not sure about Ozone 5 as I don't own it.

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