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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.