7 stages of Music Production: A Complete Guide

Check out some essential advice from the ICMP community on the production process... 

 

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When learning music production, it rapidly becomes clear every producer approaches the music making process in different ways.

But, although there’s no definitive route into a track, there are some common stages everyone needs to pass through when trying to express themselves musically. 

From capturing that initial flash of inspiration to maintaining creative momentum and even knowing when a track is finished, there are some universal questions which need to be answered when it comes to the creation and production of every song. 

We quizzed ICMP students, alumni and staff to find out more about how they take on these challenges to get to the bottom of music production. 

Read their advice on how they approach each stage of the process:

1. How To Find Inspiration For Songwriting

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My creative process varies quite wildly depending on what I’m working on. If it’s my singer songwriter project I like to have the song written and finished before I even think about recording/production. 

I usually like to co-produce this kind of work, for a few reasons:  

1. The songs for this project tend to be quite personal so it’s nice to get someone else’s perspective on the music.

2. I really like to concentrate on getting the performance just right and when you’re pressing buttons and working on things like mic placement and gain control you can lose sight of this, so it’s helpful to have someone else to take care of the technical stuff. Much like a producer needs to have a good engineer to take care of the technical side of things so they can do the creative things like getting the best out of the artist!

On other projects I like to compose using production as a tool, so I’ll usually open Logic and and use soft synths and plugins to create nice textures. This can also help with the compositional process. 

James Rees, BA Creative Music Production Deputy Programme Leader

2. Arranging 

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Arranging is my favourite part of the process, because - for me - it is the process!

I rarely write a song on a guitar or a piano; I tend to write using Logic. Sometimes it’s a drumbeat, or a little riff, or a even tech accident that starts things off, then another layer gets added that takes me somewhere else; then I’ll hear the chord for the next bit in my head, played on a harpsichord, but I don’t have a harpsichord so I mix two sounds together that (in my head) might sound like a harpsichord. Turns out they don’t sound like a harpsichord, but it’s an interesting combination anyway so I go with that, but now the drums sound too big, so I change them for something smaller sounding, and now the idea is starting to sound a bit ‘city-like’ or a bit ‘panicky/jittery’ which might suggest something lyrical.

That’s how it goes on; one tiny thing leading to another tiny thing until all the tiny things make a big thing that hopefully resembles an arrangement. Trouble is, all the tiny things affect the other tiny things quite dramatically, so changes are constant.

Patience is really helpful; attention to detail is key; recognising mistakes as opportunities is priceless, and having someone there to shout at me when something is done is vital. "

One piece of advice that I often give is: just because you wrote a song on guitar using big blocky open chords; doesn’t mean those big blocky open chords have to be in the arrangement. They’re useful to have there while you’re starting to arrange, so that there’s a map of the structure, but very often they’re too big and too blocky and take up a ton of space that could have been left open or used for smaller, more detailed ‘colour’ elements. Go for a walk, or sit on a bus - somewhere away from computers and instruments - and try to imagine what those elements might be.

Tim Elsenburg, BA Songwriting Tutor

3. Editing 

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With DAWs, it is so easy to add track after track and stack elements on top of each other. But this can be counterproductive. You may actually be making more work for yourself. I cover the basics before I add too much texture. I start with a musical mid-range instrument like a piano, guitar or synth part, then add the drums/beat and then bass. Now I can start to fill out the track and add other elements that contain more melodic or prominent parts.

Keep the vocals in at all times. Vocals are the most important part of any song. They take up a lot of space in the mix and need to be the focus. Building around the vocal, even if it’s a rough recording, can really help your production to take shape quicker."

Don’t overdo it though. 300 tracks doesn’t mean it sounds better than 35 tracks. It’s all about choosing the right sounds in context that add the right characteristics to the track.  

Charlie Thomas, BA Creative Music Production Tutor

4. Stay focused 

It can be hard. When I work on a song for longer than a few days and don't put down anything new into the DAW, I usually find myself losing interest in the project. 

I have to say that all of my released (or soon to be released) songs have been entirely composed within a few days - the proper production and studio sessions took longer, but the general composition and all instrumental parts were written quickly. 

When it comes to mixing, on the other hand, I prefer to work on songs that I haven't produced. I’m too familiar with the content if I composed the song, and I can't properly mix it. If I wait long enough and go back to it - I somehow manage, but I much rather mix songs that I haven't produced. If I get a multi-track session from a client and it is properly edited, it is a matter of a day or two really to get 90 percent of the mix finished. After that, I do final touches and revisions and these never really take more than a couple of days. 

Krzysztof Kessler, BA Creative Music Production Student

5. Mixing 

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Keep it quiet and dynamic, remove any unwanted low rumble, and if you do not have a proper setup with speakers and audio treatment of the room try to mix with your speakers at a low volume. The less the better as more instruments mean more mixing problems. These can be difficult to solve in the wrong environment.

Try to do more sound design and less mixing. Working on the sound source can save a lot of time when mixing, as well as trying to record your instruments in the best way possible. There is no magic trick that can fix a bad performance or a bad recording."

Practice, try to mix music of other artists and of different styles from yours, learn from the way they arrange their instruments and layers, the internet is full of multi-track projects to be mixed for learning purposes.

Marcello Ruggiu, Ableton Live and BA Creative Music Production Tutor

6. Completion 

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How to know when a track is finished is an amazing question all producers ask themselves. It’s never finished. You just surrender to it I guess. 

But honestly, if it gets to a point where the changes I make to the song are so miniscule in detail, that’s a tell-tell sign it’s probably 90 percent there. Again, referencing your track to what’s out there in official playlists helps a ton.

Jonathan Milanes, BA Songwriting Alumna 

7. Mastering

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If you want to get a master right, it’s always best to refer this to a professional mastering engineer who will give 100 percent professional attention to your track and deliver a high end quality product. 

If you’re tight for money, Ozone 8 is a good alternative to get a decent finished product if used wisely. But don’t kill the dynamics. It has nice presets from which you can start understanding the process and shape your sound from it." 

I often use it myself. 

Ary Amato, BA Creative Music Production Student 

Final advice

I say this all the time. Network and collaborate. Find artists, singers, writers and get involved as much as you can with other music makers. Personality also plays a big part. If you can make artists and performers feel comfortable and confident when they work with you this can enhance their creativity.

Don’t be precious about your ideas, sometimes you will suggest things that you may LOVE, but others may not. This is not a reflection on you or your abilities, it may just not be what the artist was imagining, or they might not agree it fits with the project. 

This will happen all the time, don’t take it personally. It’s always for the good of the song, not the ego.

Try not to limit yourself to just one genre or style. Work with different types of music or artists when you can. The speciality and focus of one particular genre will become more obvious later on, but initially you want to get as much experience as you can with a wide range of music." 

This will help as production techniques evolve, which they always do. Music is always changing. What is popular now will not be in the next three years. You need to keep your finger on the pulse and up to date with as much current music as you can.

That being said, don’t forget what has gone before. Styles, melodies, instruments and techniques from the history of music up to now are still relevant. Popular and current music always has influence from past decades. So listen to old and new and always try and integrate a variety of techniques into your work.  

Charlie Thomas, BA Creative Music Production Tutor

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To completely immerse yourself in your music career, chat with our friendly Admissions Team via email enquiries@icmp.ac.uk or give them a call on 020 7328 0222.

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by Jim Ottewill
May 27, 2020
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