Production Q&A #8
I know it’s been awhile since the last Production Q&A, but I finally had time to answer a couple of the questions producers frequently ask me, and this time I also field one for the DJs too.
1. In a lot of your tutorials and articles you mention ways to trim songs down to make them shorter and more focused. What if I want to make a song longer, any tips?
I think in general, if you’re going to go for a longer song, the the biggest thing to keep in mind is that you need enough material in the song to keep it interested to the average listener for that amount time. A lot of times as producers we like to think that a solid groove is enough for people to listen to for a long time, but more often than not it takes more than this to keep people entertained for more than 4-6 minutes. Here’s a few other ideas:
- Have two larger breakdowns in the song instead of one. Just be sure that when you come out of the break back into the meat of the tune, you bring something different into the mix each time. No sense in having two identical drops.
- Treat the song as if it had two main ‘movements’, something where the end of the track is similar enough to the beginning that people see the connection, but different enough that it really brings something new to the table. Underworld’s “Banstyle/Sappys Curry” comes to mind:
Right around the 6 minute mark, the song starts to evolve into a completely new style that still retains a lot of the sounds and feel of the beginning.
- Ambient intro or ending. An easy way out, but if you really want to make the song longer for some reason, an evolving but simple ambient section can do the job easily.
2. What RMS and crest factor should I aim for in my mixdowns? Does it matter to the mastering engineer, or if I’m going to master it myself?
I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, and I’m not sure what’s driving it. I don’t think people need to worry about the RMS or crest factor (the difference between the RMS and peak readings of the song) at all when doing a mixdown, especially if you’re going to be mastering the song later on. The only thing you really need to worry about when doing a mixdown is that you’re not clipping the master channel in your DAW. Ideally leaving roughly 6dB of headroom as a safety margin, though this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
Generally something like the crest factor is just a way to tell how compressed one piece of music is compared to another. In the mixdown stage, trying to aim for some sort of ideal here will likely just lead you to compress the track too much, or sometimes not enough given the material. In short, it’s just making you apply processing to the song that it might not need, all for the sake of some arbitrary number.
Make sure you’re not clipping the master channel, and just worry about making the song sound good. No need to worry about RMS readings or the crest factor at that stage.
3. Lately I’ve been getting more into electronic music that wasn’t written for the dance floor, and I want to start DJing that style of music. What are some of the differences when it comes to DJing downtempo music, compared to normal club music?
Well, the good news is that for the most part, it’s really not all that different in terms of the gear you’re using, or the techniques you probably already are used to for DJing. It’s still a matter of picking tracks that don’t clash in terms of key, and using EQ to blend them as seamlessly as possible. But there are a few key differences that can take some getting used to:
- No DJ friendly intro and ending. A lot of non-dancefloor electronic music will have very short intros and endings, often without any beats at all. Setting up loop points in the beginning and end of the track can help a lot, you might not get 32 bars of beats to mix with like a club track, but looping the first 4 bars when the drums come in, or right before they drop out at the end can be almost the same thing.
- HUGE range of tempos. Most club music in any particular genre is largely within a couple BPM’s of other songs in the style. Not so with downtempo, you can have tempos ranging from 70 to 130BPM, so you really need to pay attention to the tempo of your songs when you’re mixing. I name all my DJ tracks with the tempo listed first, so that songs with similar tempos are grouped together as I browse for tracks.
That’s not to say that you can only play songs that are of similar tempo in a set, just that if you do want to go from tracks with say 80 to 110 BPM, you’re likely going to need a few tracks in between to get you there. I always map a couple of buttons or a knob on my MIDI controller to the tempo of whatever DJ software I’m using (Live or Traktor these days). That way I can constantly ride the tempo throughout the set so I can progress from slower songs to faster one, or vice versa. Just be sure to change the tempo very slowly as you play, tempo changes can be pretty noticeable and distracting to some people if you do this too quickly.
- Loose timing. Unlike a lot of club music, in downtempo it’s not too uncommon to have a real drummer playing the beat, or perhaps the producer used a lot more swing when quantizing the drums. So you need to pay attention to make sure that you’re not flamming too badly the drums in two different tracks as you mix.
- Shorter songs. Your average club track can be 6-10 minutes long, but downtempo track are often a lot shorter than that. Sometimes all you’ll have time for is mixing an ambient intro with an ambient ending from the previous song as a result, don’t think you always need to be beatmatching! Great technique for jumping between tracks with larger tempo differences as well.
Well, that’s it for this Q&A. As always, if you have any questions you’d like to see answered here on the blog, put them in the comments, or send me an email.
One last note for the Seattle-area readers, the Liquid Beats gig I had two weekends ago went so well that the owner has offered me the chance to make it an ongoing thing. Great chance to come out and try some excellent micro-brews at a great price, with some sweet downtempo to listen to at the same time. Details on the next one coming soon!