The Importance of Dividing Production into 4 Stages

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How much time do you spend producing one complete track from soup to nuts?  That’s right, the entire production from that first burst of inspiration to a final mix down ready for master?  My guess is that most producers in the beginner to intermediate stage take about 20-30 hours to complete a track.

That’s how it was for me for quite some time, but that isn’t the case now.  Not nearly.  In fact, one tune I was working on was 80% arranged in less than 2 hours which is much much faster than what I was used to.

Here’s what happened.  What I realized is that it very much makes sense to divide production into 4 separate or unique stages.  That’s right.  When you pick a phase to work on, you do that and nothing else.

The reason my early productions took so long is because I was jamming for a bit, then arranging, then mixing, then automating something, then trying a new plugin, experimenting with a mix technique here, and arranging a bit more and so on.

In other words, the production process was very scattered.  Part of this has to do with just learning the tools, but if you take a phased approach the whole thing can become much more manageable.  And this is what I have to share with you.

So let’s dive into the 4 stages of production.

Stage 1. The creation stage. 

This is the fun part I’m sure you’re very familiar with – having fun and getting grooves going.  If you’ve gotten the hang of this phase you no longer play back the beat you were making the night before and think it’s whack.  At this stage it’s important to be familiar with your sounds and you have some go to libraries, presets and what not that get you a good result for the style of music you make.  It’s not 100% rigid and also allows for happy accidents.

Stage 1 is all about generating ideas that you like and want to turn into fleshed out polished tracks.  You like what you’re doing, you’re not switching styles, but you want to finish more music.  More on that in a moment.

One way to work smart while in the creation stage is to front load your mixing with moderate use of nothing more than subtle EQ and high-pass filters.  This way once you’re happy with your idea or loop you can export your tracks as-is and begin arranging.  Think about it like opening up a fresh remix project.  You get a bunch of tracks that sound good enough to begin arranging and remixing.  That’s how you want to think about the next phase of arranging. You have a bunch of tracks that sound good enough to begin structuring into a whole track.

How to Go From 8 Bar Loop to a Fully Developed Track

Stage 2. Arrangement.

Many people struggle arranging their music because they don’t realize arranging music is a learned skill.  For a bit I barreled through the arrangement process and finally got it done.  Maybe you can relate? Sure, the job gets done but it’s like using a dull axe to chop wood.

I also unknowingly fell into patterns, so I knew I had to change things up but didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and also wanted to arrange my music faster.

What to do?

Eventually it occurred to me that I should be studying how other producers arrange their music.  By doing a deep dive bar by bar into how other producers tracks breathe and evolve I was able to get a much clearer understanding of how to structure my track.

Instead of falling into my own patterns and habits I had something else to go by.

Now, don’t get this twisted, structuring your music to someone else’s isn’t copying.  This is a great way to actually learn.  If you want to write well, write other people’s material word for word. After a while the flow becomes second nature.  When you study other tracks you get a feel for when energy levels increase or decrease throughout a track but also how that producer does it.

What most people do is spend too much time jamming and grooving never finishing anything. When they look for outside inspiration it’s usually to try and “get” a certain sound or effect that someone else has already done.

Or they think they have to keep watching tutorials and keep plugging away until the arrangement happens.  This isn’t a good approach and leads to people trying make music for years and ending up with little to nothing to show for it.

You can definitely leverage other producers’ arrangements and align your own original material to theirs and still have something that’s 100% yours. Try it.

Study a song and take detailed notes about what happens every 8 bars.  Make track markers in your DAW so you know when certain changes happen.  Instead of figuring out when you will drop your bass, how long the intro will be, when you’ll add hi hats, or rides, you can have this already sorted out.

This is how you get 80% of the arrangement done in 20% of the time.

Sure there will still be work to do like automations, ear candy, airy effects that give the tune those extra interesting transitions and character, but it’s most effective to do those things when the track is arranged or laid out.

Stage 3, Mixing. 

At this point you’re ready to mix.  If you front loaded your mix you know that most of the subtractive EQ has already been done. Meaning you’ve rolled off low end from non bass tracks and everything is adequately rough mixed.  Now it’s time for extra clarity, punch, and sparkle.

Setting levels, pan, compression, reverbs, tape saturation and so forth.  This isn’t a mixing article the point is that when it’s time to mix, mix and nothing else.  Producers laboring more then needed often do so because they mix, then create, then arrange, then EQ, then mix some more, then add parts and the whole thing is very unstructured.

If you were in band you would not go to the recording studio to jam and noodle around unless you had money to burn.  Bands jam and song write, rehearse, and then record, then mix and master.  There’s a process. This is why albums take a while.

So when you have material that’s ready to mix, just do that.  The good news is that if you’re not feeling terribly creative you can go in and mix because that’s a different skill set than composing.  The same applies for arranging.  You don’t have to be feeling super motivated or creative to sit down and line up your own material to someone else track.  There’s always something you can do to move forward.

And lastly we have mastering.

Stage 4 Mastering. 

Here’s where I share my mastering voodoo secretes.  Just kidding, I’m a firm believer in outsourcing the mastering.  In case you didn’t know mastering engineers for dance music are very affordable.  You’re looking at $20-$50 for a pro to do it.  For a full mix down it’s much costlier to hire out which is why I recommend doing your own mixing and outsourcing the mastering.

I’m amused at how people think they can just take all of this on themselves.  As if it’s so easy to just plop down and watch some free tutorials which will take the place of a trained pro, in a tuned room with tons of experience and gear.  Personally I think those who think they can do it themselves are fooling themselves.  Hiring a mastering pro is one of the best moves you can make.

Here’s the thing.  If you haven’t released anything on a label yet, chances are you’re going to need to get it mastered and the better it sounds means you’re putting your best foot forward.

I won a prestigious remix contest and sending my entry to a mastering pro definitely helped me stand out from more than 300 other entries.   My logic was that I really enjoyed what I had done and if I didn’t win it would be something to give away for the fans and playing in my own sets.

Either way I wanted it to sound as best as possible.

As you go about making a track you’ll probably check you mix on consumer speakers.  Ear buds, in the car, or perhaps another pair of big speakers other than your studio monitors.

I happen to be a fan of Landr, not to replace a human engineer but to use while I mix, to get an idea of what a pro would do.  It’s not the best situation when you get back a master and then decide you don’t like how something sounds in the mix.  Then it has to be redone and will incur another fee. Most mastering engineers will offer feedback if something in the mix needs fixing, however rounds of back and forth is not a great way to start.  Landr is also fine for shopping demos as some labels have their own preferred shop for mastering.

If you’re thinking about making your production efforts more efficient, then consider where your abilities at each of stage of the process.  Take stock of your skills and make sure your skills at each stage are up to par.

When you’re proficient at the basics of each stage, finishing music should become faster and easier.  Someone in the business told me that this foundational work is like becoming a black belt.  If a beginner busts ass she can be a black belt in 12-18 months – that’s a lot of progress.  But those 2nd, 3rd and higher level black belt degrees can take much longer.

It’s very similar to production.  Once the basics are handled there’s no reason why you can’t start releasing your own material.

Eric Louis has been DJing since 2003 and after a 5-year break, put out 3 tracks on New York’s Nervous Records and in 2015, won Victor Calderone’s Remix Contest.  Data Transmission readers can get 5 free lessons from Eric which cover “How to Make More Music Labels Want to Sign and DJs Want to Play.”