Audio Production: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started
So you’re wondering how you can get into audio production. Where do you start?
One thing I do know is the road to audio production is not paved and you’re not in a Mustang. You’re walking on gravel while wearing old shoes.
In other words, it’s a grind. But it’s a grind that’s super rewarding the more you learn.
Here are the basic stages of audio production in the music world:
What Is Audio Production?
“Audio production” is often used interchangeably with “music production,” but they’re actually different things. Audio production is when someone records audio and edits it to make it sound a certain way.
For example, an Audio Engineer — the person who’s at the mixing board during a recording session — is performing audio production. They’re in charge of choosing and positioning the mics, ensuring the sound is captured accurately and making sure everything sounds high quality. A Mixing Engineer is also involved in audio production, and so is the Mastering Engineer.
Although you might think these people aren’t the creative types who are making production choices, that’s not totally true. The sound of an acoustic guitar can change drastically depending on how the Engineer sets up the mic. The Mixing and Mastering Engineers have to decide what plugins and effects to use based on how they think a song should sound.
That brings us to the person who gets much of the credit (often due credit) for the creativity in a recorded song: the Music Producer.
Music production deals with how the song flows, what instruments are involved, and how to bring out the strongest emotion in a recording. Music Producers are not the only ones who do music production — Artists, a Songwriters, and Composers also have a huge say in how to record their songs.
So “music production” fits under the umbrella of “audio production.”
The Stages Of Audio Production
There are six stages in the world of audio production; we’ll discuss them below. I should point out that these stages often overlap — songwriting tweaks, arrangement changes, and basic audio editing may happen during the recording stage. So each stage is not totally separate from the one before and after it, but this is the general workflow you’ll find yourself in.
There are many ways to write a song, but one thing I can tell you is that production can’t fix a bad song. Each of the following stages depends on a strong song as their foundation. No matter how many cool samples you add and no matter how much autotune you use, the song can only be as good as its foundation.
If you play the song with just your voice and an instrument and it doesn’t evoke an emotional response in people, it needs more work.
One thing I do know is the road to audio production is not paved and you’re not in a Mustang. You’re walking on gravel while wearing old shoes. In other words, it’s a grind. But it’s a grind that’s super rewarding the more you learn.
You can actually do a good portion of the arranging during the songwriting process — at least that’s where it starts. Part of songwriting is how the song is structured, and structure is part of arranging.
The arrangement decisions will involve:
- How the introduction goes and how long it lasts.
- The instruments used and where they show up in the song.
- Where the instrumental breaks will be.
- When the song should build and when it should decrescendo.
- How the song will end.
As you can see, many of these steps happen during the songwriting stage while many of them happen when you’re in the arrangement stage. On top of that, much of the arrangement will change during the recording process.
This is when you take that dope song and its solid arrangement and bring it to life. This is when you put mic to voice, cable in guitar, and virtual instruments into the song.
Even though some songwriting adjustments may happen during this stage, recording is more like the “creative assembly” of a song. You can record the music live, then go back and redo certain parts that need to be tighter or performed better.
Recording is where you build the song.
Editing and recording overlap a lot. Right after you record, you’re often editing the tracks just enough so you can continue recording.
For example, a vocalist may want a bit of reverb, delay, and/or chorus on their voice while they’re recording. Or the drummer may lay down a beat as a scratch track for the rest of the band and you may have to shift a couple of hits to make it perfectly on rhythm. This saves time and makes the recording session more efficient.
After recording has wrapped, you’ll enter the editing stage full-throttle. This is when you’ll pick the best takes of all the instruments and splice them together. You’ll shift track items around until everything is on time, you’ll adjust pitches that are off, and add crossfades.
Editing audio nowadays is easier and more versatile than ever. Take advantage of the tools available.
This is where many Audio Producers have their fun. This is the stage where you take a dry track and make it sound vibrant and professional.
Mixing is when you make all the instruments sound good together using things like EQ, compression, reverb, delay, and a bunch of other audio plugins.
A good mix allows the listener to hear all the instruments clearly. If the listener wants to focus in on one instrument, they should be able to pick it out. But if they want to just sit back and enjoy the track as a whole, they should be able to do that too.
The final mix should sound drastically different (and better) than the unmixed recording. It’s basically a polish for the already great songwriting, arranging, recording, and editing.
And finally, the dark magic mystery called mastering. Well, to most of us it’s a mystery, but to Mastering Engineers, it’s second nature.
Mastering is your final chance to shine up a song. It does a few things:
- Makes the song louder to meet industry standards.
- Helps all the songs on an album sound coherent with each other.
- Ensures the instruments keep their original recorded and mixed sounds.
- Points out any issues with the mix.
Many bedroom Producers can’t afford to hire a Mastering Engineer, even though a trained human can get a better and more accurate master. But there alternative options, such as automated mastering services like LANDR or eMastered, or a relatively affordable mastering software like iZotope 8.
Authenticity beats people-pleasing every time. If you’re bobbing your head to your own track, that’s a good sign. Chances are, other people will like it too.
Top 5 Places To Learn Audio Production
So where can you learn all these skills? Glad you asked. Here are the top 5 places you can learn audio production (in no particular order):
- A certified music production school: check out our list of the best ones.
- Udemy: a way to learn at your own pace for an affordable price.
- Berklee Online: Berklee is one of the most trusted names in the music education world, and you can learn audio production with or without earning college credit.
- Masterclass: this young but bold online library of courses offers lessons from some of the best in the music industry, including Herbie Hancock, Hans Zimmer, Deadmau5, and Christina Aguilera. And the classes are surprisingly affordable (Timbaland’s course on producing and beat making is just $90).
- YouTube: this one may surprise you, but there’s plenty of good learning content on YouTube, including Recording Revolution, Musician On A Mission, Produce Like A Pro, and wickiemedia. Plus, it’s all free!
13 Production Tips To Get You Started
Okay, maybe you’re not ready to go full-throttle down the education highway. In that case, here are 13 audio production tips to get you started today:
- Stay persistent: No one was born amazing at what they do — the biggest Music Producers today had to earn it with hard work and an openness to learn.
- Go with your gut: authenticity beats people-pleasing every time. If you’re bobbing your head to your own track, that’s a good sign. Chances are, other people will like it too.
- Record every single idea you have: are you hearing a theremin solo on that one song? Do anything you can to make that happen. If it doesn’t end up working, at least you tried and didn’t just wonder whether or not it would work.
- Make sure all instruments are tuned up and vocalists are warmed up.
- Double up instruments to make your song sound fuller: record acoustic guitar in stereo, add two layers of that drum machine, add a chorus of vocals.
- Listen to lots of music: you can’t pull anything up from the well if it’s dry.
- Invest in knowledge, not super expensive equipment: once you get recording equipment that’s good enough to make professional music, spending loads of cash on higher-tier equipment is not worth it. At that point, it’s better to invest in gaining knowledge.
- Plan for multiple income streams: today’s music industry is a place that often requires musicians, Producers, and Audio Engineers to have more than one source of income. Audio Producers often work with musicians, record audiobooks, and do freelance audio editing.
- Title every track in your DAW: you have to work quickly and efficiently, and you don’t want to forget where that fourth harmony went.
- Start simple: when building an audio foundation, keep things simple. You can always get more complex later on.
- Learn basic music theory: even if you’re not a musician and if you just want to focus on producing audio, it can still be really helpful to know some basic music theory. After all, you will be dealing with musicians every day. You may have to speak their language.
- Mix at low volumes: when the volume is low, the main features of a song will still be audible, giving you a better idea of what listeners will hear. Plus, it will be easier on your ears.
- Take breaks: for the sake of your ears, take a break from all noise for 15-30 minutes every two hours.
If you start with these basic audio production tips, practice a lot, and then consider furthering your education, you’ll be on the right track.
Lastly, remember to never stop learning. Even though I wrote this article and I produce music nearly every day, I still learn about production all the time.
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