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Top 10 signs your electronic music is amateur

I’ve gotten a few requests to make the top 10 signs your track is amateur for electronic music instead of acoustic music. Well, here’s my list of things you should learn to avoid if you want professional sounding tracks.

  1. As I’ve written about before, the most common thing that prevents amateurs from getting a full sound is not filling the “box” that is volume, panning, and frequency. The typical dilemma is this: as more sounds are layered together, the audio may start to clip. And so, you turn the gain down on the each channel of the mixer so it doesn’t clip. But then, it sounds quiet. In order to fix this, you need to learn about compression and mixing. If used properly, compression reduces the variations between one audio channel’s highest and lowest gain levels throughout the track, which allows you to turn the volume up without clipping.
  2. Muddy sound:

    When too many frequencies are overlapping in a mix, the result is “muddy”. To prevent mud, you must consciously keep in mind what range of frequencies you are adding with each new part. Inevitably, frequencies will overlap, no matter what instruments you choose. For example, two bassy sounds on top of each other will interfere, resulting in weird phasing issues. If you want to use two instruments that use up the same frequency spectrum, you’ll want to carve out the highs on one and carve out the lows on the other (through the use of EQ, you will eliminate too many overlapping frequencies and clear up your mix) The end result should be consist of many different parts that all cover different ranges of frequencies, which all add up to a full, clear sound.

  3. Presets:

    This topic seems to stir up a lot of controversy in the electronic music community. Using presets, whether it is for beats, basslines, lead synths, or effects, can easily lead to an amateur sounding track. Let’s see how this happens:

    • A lot of VST instrument plugins have presets that sound very good on their own, but when thrown together with other presets, they clash. A lot of these presets are full sounding, filling up a lot of low and high end. Unless you carve out the clashing frequencies using EQ, you will get a muffled, muddy sound when throwing presets together.
    • Other producers will hear your tracks and recognize the preset sounds and laugh at you. I can personally say that I have lost respect for some of my favorite artists after I found out which presets or samples they used. Now that the internet is such an important tool for electronic musicians, samples found for free online have been popping up in popular electronic music for years now. The best way to overcome this pitfall and to find your own unique style is to record your own sounds and create your own presets. At the very least, you can take presets and tweak them for a few minutes to make something new.

    We can create original tracks by recording our own samples and taking the time to learn how to program a synth. I find myself dividing music-making time into at least two different tasks: patch programming and sequencing. Programming can consist of long hours in front of a synth, twisting knobs and fine-tuning the sound to perfection. It may seem boring to some people, but one of the keys to succeeding in your music is to be original and find your own sound. Taking the time to create your sounds from scratch can make the difference between a boring tune into an awesome tune.

  4. Cheap reverb
    • If you don’t have enough money to purchase a really high end artificial reverb, just don’t use much reverb. If you do, tone it down so you can’t really notice when it’s there. The key to knowing if you’ve got it right is when your average listener will notice when you take the reverb away, but they won’t notice it when it’s there, because it doesn’t stick out at you. Tracks that are drenched in cheap reverb almost always sound amateur.
    • If you want real reverb, consider using the site tank-fx, which takes your file that you send to it online and plays it back in a huge reverb silo, where it is recorded and sent back to you. This is the only way to get real reverb with nothing but a computer and the internet
  5. Using anything that sounds like “MIDI”

    You know what I’m talking about. Listen to the before and after of a trance track [from Rick Snoman’s Dance Music Manual] that uses default midi presets:

    Before: [audio:trance-before.mp3]

    After: [audio:trance-after.mp3]

    Notice the difference. The first one sounds like it came directly from a computer’s MIDI bank synthesizer presets, and the second one sounds like it was crafted by a talented producer. Notice the differences and you will see what I mean when I say don’t use anything that sounds like “MIDI”. A lot of older sampler units equally cheesy and otherwise unusable sounds. Why use artificial reproductions of a sound that already exists if you can use a synthesizer to create a completely new sound that’s never been heard before?

  6. Overall low volume, “weak” sounding

    This is a sign that the track is unmastered. These days, a lot of producers are mastering their own music with software such as Wave Arts PowerSuite, izotope Ozone, PSP Vintage Warmer, Waves MaxxVolume, Sony’s Wave Hammer, etc. Though digital plugins can really improve the overall loudness of your track, using them can never match the skill of a seasoned mastering engineer with an arsenal of expensive outboard mastering equipment. However, most of us can’t afford to hire a professional to master our music. So the least we can do is boost the loudness of our track with the skillful use of mastering plugins on the final mix of a track.

  7. A beat that isn’t “tight” or “solid” sounding

    I’ve heard tracks where people used their midi 16-pad drum trigger to play beats on their tracks, but they never quantize the resulting performance. This problem is amplified when the latency on your audio interface adds a delay from when you hit the pad to when the drum makes a sound. I’m not saying that you should quantize everything, unless you are going for a mechanical, computerized drum track. In order to retain the human feel, you should only quantize to 75%-90%. Also, sometimes you may need to quantize certain groups of midi notes on their own, apart from the whole drum truck. You’ll need to do this when you have triplet notes, for example. Some quantize menus will have “1/16 + 1/16 T”, which means it will quantize to the nearest 16th note or the nearest 16th triplet note. If you have this option, you can apply quantization to the whole track

  8. Looping too much

    Unless you are producing minimal techno or something, the repetitive overuse of loops in your tracks can lead to a stale, uninteresting track. Another common abuse is taking one sample and using it throughout the track, over, and over, and over again (minus drum samples, of course it will be the same samples), I’m referring to something such as when you sample a clip from a movie and then keep playing it throughout your track. If you want to use the same sample over and over, at least transform it or shape it somehow so we get some variation to keep things interesting. Slice it, dice it, pitch it, reverse it, flange it, phase it, you name it. Just PLEASE do me a favor and don’t repeat yourself without good reason.

  9. Misuse of compression/EQ

    So by now, you’ve probably heard of compression and EQ, two tools that are used to sculpt sound. EQ seems straightforward enough, but you should always check which frequency you are modifying, and make sure that you aren’t just randomly turning knobs. To avoid this, use a spectral analysis plugin to view which frequencies your track is using. FL Studio has a decent spectrum analyzer included. Use it in conjunction with EQ to make sure you can see what you’re doing. EDIT: However, you should always use your ears to confirm what you’re seeing on the spectral analyzer, so it doesn’t become a crutch. Real pro’s only need to use their ears. (via this suggestion). And as for compression, it’s understandable why you would not understand which settings to use. Unless you develop your hearing to discern the minute differences when you twiddle with compressor knobs, you won’t really hear what you’re doing. And then it’s easy to use the wrong setting. To avoid this, check common recommendations for whichever instrument/part you’re using. For example, the bass part is usually a 2:1 through 5:1 compression ratio. Ultimately, it’s up to the producer to decide how much or how little compression to use, but if misused, compression can kill the dynamics of a track or just make it sound really bad. Don’t use a compressor/limiter just for its own sake. Use it when you need to keep a high-dynamics sound under control (to prevent clipping, for example).

  10. Autotune abuse

    Some of you may think this program is the best thing since sliced bread. Please see HomeTracked’s post about Autotune Abuse to hear some examples of what I’m talking about. Even though the big studios abuse this program, and it’s easy to see why. It turns an amateur singer into a perfectly tuned singing machine. Anyone can sing now! Then the logic continues, “why should I learn to sing if I have autotune?”. Then it becomes a crutch, and demonstrates that you are an amateur. Not to mention it’s overdone. Cher was the first pop star to use it, so you know you should avoid it if you’re into making REAL electronic music.



34 Responses to “Top 10 signs your electronic music is amateur”

  1. Music says:


    good advise

  2. woop says:


    @ #6: why boost the overall volume of a track at all? this sucks because it destroys a vital part of the music, the differences in the volume within the track. Just listen to music from 15 years ago, it sounds so much better because not everything is on the same volume (which will happen if you make a whole track louder)

  3. Cameron says:


    @woop: I have to agree with you there that preserving dynamics is a good thing. But there is a difference between a track that is too quiet and a track that preserves dynamics. Instead of compressing the whole mix, it is better to normalize it to bring the loudest point of the audio to the loudest possible level without destroying dynamics.

  4. ArrGee says:


    Parts 2, 4, 5 and 8 are the main component of number 1 tunes in the UK these days!

  5. Deadfunk says:


    @woop

    Well it depend of the genre your producing too, if you produce jazz, the you want to be able to exploit most of the dynamics, but in your into hard-fast techno, then the dynamics wont be there as much, since every notes of the same “instrument” will most probably be hitting at the same level.

    always keep that in mind.

  6. Walmik says:


    @woop
    I agree to what u say regardless of what response u got for what u said. Not having Dynamics (even in hard-fast Techno) is a sure shot way of not being able to create your own sound which (as mentioned in the advice here) is crucial to, as the phrase goes, cutting thru the mix – which in this context the current scenario. With some exception everybody is over-compressing at the cost of dynamism thus sounding very very similar to every other artist. Creativity in sound is turning to something merely ‘novel’ in comparison to what exists. Retaining the Dynamics helps us to ‘create’ a new sound regardless of the genre because dynamism is not limited to any specific genre.

  7. Arp says:


    Aside from some genre-oriented differences, the list is spot-on.

  8. dan says:


    A great list of things to watch for in a recording… although regarding the ‘preset’ issue, I agree with you that technically preset patches may need a bit of sculpting to fit in a mix, but I think the issue of other producers recognising the sound is only a problem if you’re aiming your music at producers, or if your ambition is to create original sounds. Many huge chart hits use horrible presets, but I’m sure the producers couldn’t care less…!

  9. Derek Energon says:


    #10 Autotune abuse
    ——————

    The linked HomeTrack post points out examples that I hadn’t caught… like Avril Lavigne. (of course, I don’t listen to those tracks very often đŸ™‚ )

    I think it should be noted that the warbly effect is created on purpose by some artists. T-Pain (also mentioned in the linked HomeTrack post) isn’t trying to correct variations in the pitch of his voice… he intentionally makes it sound that way. For better or for worse… that’s in the eye of the beholder.

  10. niki says:


    great article.
    but do please tell me, does this all whole “composing electronic music” will make money? and is it a BIG one?

    i mean, would it sustain your everyday living, by doing the composing electronic music?
    and how much would the top number 1 tunes in UK artists made? can they be able to live by working full-time in music (especially these days of internet downloading & piracy) ?

  11. Craig says:


    Great article. I wholeheartedly concur with improving upon the quality of the sounds in your library. Always keep seeking out newer and better sounding libraries. I’d love to take my music to the next level and create sounds on my own, but I’m more of a songwriter and want the sounds already at the highest level. Also, I get inspired by the sounds designed by others. I equate it to having a good set of paints and a brush. As a producer, I paint the picture, but I don’t make the paint.

  12. Fred says:


    I like it! Now how can i get THE song you give us a sample of?

  13. pixelbox says:


    @ FRED –
    Both of those track examples are from the CD of the book “Dance Music Manual” by Rick Snowman.

  14. Keats' Handwriting says:


    Great post…

    Darn, I feel a bit guilty of a number of those problems, but I guess I am an amateur, so that makes sense.

    I use Melodyne and Auto-tune a lot- would anyone mind giving me their honest opinion if my use of auto-tune on Be Enough is poor?
    http://www.myspace.com/KeatsHandwriting
    (its the first song that plays automatically)

    I love this site, BTW…

    Cheers,
    Joel

  15. Vince says:


    Wow, I feel bad about my music, at least I know it sucks now. This is an awesome top ten list, you can post this to our site http://www.toptentopten.com/ and then link back to your site. We are looking for content and in return our users will track back to your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.
    -Vince

  16. The Takeover Project says:


    Rock solid advice, man! I personally, need to work on that preset issue. I lean on them too much, and need to learn to crank out my own sounds. As for everything else, I’m pretty good, but need to get better overall. đŸ™‚

  17. doomshark says:


    solid list, but if you didn’t already know everything on it with the possible exception of #9 you should just stop, your shit’s weak.

  18. 10 signs your an amateur producer | icreatesounds says:


    […] 10 signs your an amateur producer Posted on April 24, 2010 by funksenden Top 10 signs your electronic music is amateur […]

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    […] 10 signs to why my electronic tracks sound amateurish part 1. Top 10 signs your electronic music is amateur […]

  20. Pest Control Seattle says:


    Terrific post. Keep submitting posts. I am going to be back for a lot more.

  21. Welfare says:


    Excellent article
    The compression question is a divisive one too,some people compress so much,others very little (Im in the very little camp)
    Good reading though,the muddyness held me back for ages,just gettin to grips with it now
    Is it better though to boost an EQ range you want to pronounce or strip other freq bands back (like what happens in the natural world…) ?
    Another divisive 1 =)

  22. Hardstyle Is my Style says:


    cool post =)

  23. Rules of thumb « synthtech says:


    […] EMusic Tips offers a list ofTop 10 signs your electronic music is amateur. […]

  24. royman says:


    “Real Electronic music” now there is an oxymoron for you. heh

  25. 10 signs to why my electronic tracks sound amateurish says:


    […] Top 10 signs your electronic music is amateur […]

  26. Cones says:


    re: auto-pitch-correction I would agree wholeheartedley

    you can spot it a mile off and it’s everywhere now

    bad news for those who like a more organic sound in their music

  27. DJ Hero says:


    All of the above are great things to keep in mind when working through your entire track.

    @Woop, The loudness war is a concept that has no winners. That said, your final project, if your intention is to market it with other successful songs in the same genre, needs to audibly fit that genre, or it will be quickly over looked by consumers. Proper utilization of EQ’ing, Compressions, and Stereo placement of the individuals sounds in your song will help preserve the dynamics of the final productas well as preserve overhead in your final mixdown. From there you final project will, from the start, be louder as throughout the production process, you’ve cleanly engineered each sound. Any limiting or maximizing treatments you add after the fact will yield a much more rich sound, or inversely, will need to applied in smaller doses to match your production to that of similar songs in the same genre.

    None of us (producers) can speak on each other’s individual artistic vision, but when it comes to the technical aspects of producing the question needs to be asked, “do we intend to make music for the sake of making music, or for the sake of marketing our music to consumers. If you have no intention of trying to sell your music, do whatever you want or, whatever it’s going to take to satisfy your own person desire for satisfaction. If you intend on trying to sell your music, you’re going to have to compete with whatever genre your music is going to be sold in. Blue Grass won’t be treated the same as Contemporary top 40 music, or electronic music, etc.

  28. JM says:


    This is a great article. As someone who has been messing around with Reason for years trying to learn all I can about sound shaping, and making default sounds into unique sounding tunes, I agree with most of this.

    It really doesn’t take long to take a stock sound and tweak it just a bit to turn it into a unique sound. It’s pure laziness to not tweak even a little bit. Then a little effort to tweak it again after you’ve put more sounds over it so it fits right.

    Same with quantizing notes. Never do 100% as it sounds robotic and fake, but again if you don’t do it at all it can sound off beat and cluttered. Good tips here.

    A big problem I had was adding depth to bass lines. They sounded tinny and flat, some reverb and compression really added fuller sounds and greatly improved the bass lines.

    And finally for producers who scoff when they recognize a stock sound. Get over yourselves. A lot of you do the same thing and as long as its tweaked its not the “stock sound.” Everyone’s artistic vision is different and sounds like be shaped the way each person wants.

  29. Top 10 Signs Of An Amateur Beat Making Production says:


    […] even more to this. Read the full article if you want to see what cheap reverbs, amateur MIDI sounds, low volumes and beats that do not sound […]

  30. Ethan says:


    Great article! Yeah, most of the time, I definitely don’t like using presets, not necessarily for the sake of not using presets, but because I just like to control every aspect of my sound and a synth sound is an integral part of the vision for the song.

  31. Kenbox says:


    I’m relatively new to producing edm/electro/dubstep style music (and admittedly a bit of a newbie fan of the genre in general) but I majored in audio engineering in college & have studied it extensively (albeit in a live/mic mixing environment) but I learned a great tip from mixing live music tunes: before you finalize your mix, select the channel/channels that is the hook or lead of your song, whatever should stand out the most (subgroup/buss these channels if there’s more than 1) and then adjust that level while you listen to your mix through monitors (or headphones that aren’t on your head also works) while turning your master buss down until all the audio drops below the audible threshold, then turn up your hook channel until it can be heard. We do this on vox for nearly every song as an objective way to assure your vocalist is always cutting through the mix. Also–lack of automation (especially lack of fader rides in dynamic mixes) will make your shit sound amateur.

    Oh, & dont obsessively use super high sr/bit rate samples if you’re going to be releasing your mix publicly on a lower bit rate format like mp3!! The downsampling just adds another avoidable algorithm that will cause coloration in your final mix!

    Good luck!

  32. starship says:


    Great post!

    Although I am somewhat aware of those pitfalls, I’ve never seen them put together that concisely.

    I would add a point about using side chain compression for kneading together bassline and kick. This was the one trick that changed the sound quality of my stuff most profoundly…

    I was wondering about the cheap reverb (that may be my weak point). Do you believe any plugin has a chance do the job right, or would you recommend to use hardware in any case?

    Thanks again!

  33. Kieran Bolger says:


    Very good post!

    Covers a lot of the main points. A suggestion I would make to anyone developing there skills as an electronic music producer is to be aware of levels and frequencies)as advised in article) at all times. Often during arrangement, as more sounds and channels are added to the track, things can begin to get a little cluttered.

    To help avoid this problem, it is good practice to periodically(when required) re adjust your levels.

    1.Bring down all the levels fully. Take the channel you want to be most prominent i.e. kick (whichever sound you wish) and bring level to no higher than -6 db.

    2. From here gradually introduce your next sound i.e. hats, listen carefully, and select the appropriate position (volume level) for this sound.

    3. Do this for each channel until you are happy with the levels of the track.

    – Many people will know this, or have their own ways of ensuring levels are correct but for the beginner/amateur who is not yet aware, taking the time to do this will offer great support in getting better quality sound with better space.

    As stated in the article also, ALWAYS pan your channels! EQ your tracks while being aware of the frequency of the sound you are EQ’ing. Take out any frequencies you do not need.

    Proper us of EQ, Panning and Level adjusting/selection is the first big step to better sounding music.

    Thanks for the article, good read!

  34. iComputer says:


    Tonight iComputer was lucky enough to sponsor an event called “Ableton Musical Chairs” which involved every person attending to bring a laptop with Ableton Live installed on it, and headphones. You start at your computer and create for 15 minutes, and when the time is up… you know the drill. Switch to the next computer. 8 people were in attendance and the end result was excellent! 8 new pieces that were very different, yet progressed in unique ways.
    This will help you not only learn to create on the fly, but learn to work with other people and machines outside of your comfort zone. We will have another event next week and looking forward to this being a monthly event!
    Try it with even 2 other friends. You’ll be surprised at what is the end product!
    Here’s the link:
    http://icomputerdenver.com/ableton-musical-chairs-by-dema/

    No mastering done, just some normalizing.


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