Asking when a song is “ready” is kind of like asking Bob Ross how he knows when to stop adding happy trees to his paintings. There is no definitive answer. He just ‘knew.’ There is an element of instinct; but unlike animal instinct, it must constantly be refined with a conscious effort. Most of us won’t wake up one day and know how to play the piano without experiencing some kind of head trauma. So regardless of the amount of “talent” that we’ve been endowed with, it’s our own personal responsibilities to slowly chip away at what we do know and have until we’ve shaped it into something resembling what we want. Where would Mozart or Beethoven be if they sat around saying, “man, I have this great idea for a song but piano is fucking hard!”
I might not be able to tell you exactly when a song is “ready.” That’s largely up to you. But I can give you guidelines for better judging yourself and examining what you want. A good place to start would be to look at two of the most common song formats of the 21st century “electronic music producer.”
1. The Radio Mix/Edit (Sometimes called the “Original” Mix)
The radio mix/edit is (in most cases) the predecessor to the club mix. It tends to be roughly 3:30 to 4 minutes long and contains two to three or more chorus sections and two or more verses. It’s called a radio mix because (obviously) it’s the version of the song most likely to be played on the radio or featured in other forms of media other than DJ sets. Below is a rough example of what the waveform of one of my radio mixes might look like. (Again, this is not the “be-all and end-all” of formats, just an example.)
Intro - Usually an instrument or multiple instruments that are going to be used periodically throughout the song, like a guitar or a synthesizer.
Chorus - The main vocal “hook.” The “Royals” in “Royals.” The part that people remember the most, has the most meaning and that people would want to sing along with. The chorus in a vocal song encompasses the theme.
Verse 1/Verse 2/etc. - Verses are like the vocal bridges between heightened sections of a song that describe the theme in greater detail or in a creative, rhythmic way.
2. The Club Mix/Extended Mix/DJ Mix (Also sometimes called the “Original” Mix)
The club mix is typically an extended and/or rearranged version of the radio edit. It will usually feature a 30 second to 1:00 intro of rhythm and build-up to make it easier for club DJ’s to mix in and out of with other songs. An extended mix of the above song would probably look pretty similar to that version, just with a longer intro and outro, likely to have the main drums accompanying what is already there. An example of an instrumental club mix might look something like this:
The “two-drop” format for club tracks is effective because it allows the creator to intensify the second drop while retaining elements from the first, keeping it partially familiar but ever-evolving. The break sections are oftentimes a “free-for-all” build-up section where the writer can get creative with “juicing up” effects and doing elaborate automation chains on different parameters within their plugins. The section between the first drop and the second break is for maintaining the groove and the section between the second drop and outro are for slowly building that groove down until the tracks’s end. Each break, as the name implies, gives the listener (or in this case, “club-goer”) a “break” from the “high-energy” sections of the track. As I stated before, this is not an exact science but this is a format that I’ve seen work many times, especially in venues.
Those two common examples of song layouts can be used a building block or a reference point but remember that nothing in music is concrete. BT has built a name for himself putting out 7 to 11 minute tracks, some of which were intended for clubs and some of which weren’t, that have deviated from musical stereotypes technically, lyrically and musically. The only way to know where you will stand is to experiment and find out what feels right. And if it doesn’t feel right to others, lend an ear to constructive criticism; if you don’t feel like you’re being forced to completely compromise your creative vision, then try making some changes and sit with those changes for a little while. Remember, don’t just rely on instinct, refine your instinct by training yourself. Youtube and other online tutorials can be a very useful tool for this but make sure the sources of those videos are reliable. There are just as many false tutorials as there are thorough and helpful ones. For example, you’ll learn a lot more from a Native Instruments Masterclass on the Massive plugin than you will by watching a clip on “DJ Xdawg1’s” Youtube channel that only has 38 subscribers.
…Which brings about another topic: the infamous DAW (digital audio workstation) debate. Many of you have probably asked yourselves which DAW is the “best” and many of you have also likely witnessed or even engaged in one of the many online verbal slanderings between self-proclaimed genius producers and the programs/people they’re bashing. All I can say about that is to completely ignore them. With the exception of “make music fast and easy” programs like MTV Music Generator or Rave Ejay, which should be avoided because they basically just allow the user to arrange loops written by other people and say, “look, ma! I made a song!,” all of the other professional DAW’s (Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Reason, FL Studio, Bitwig, Ableton, etc.) are all highly capable while still having their own unique pros and cons. For instance, FL Studio (which I’ve been using for almost 15 years) is great for getting ideas out but doesn’t handle 64-bit plugins well. Another example is Reason, which is great for visual learners but suffers in the mastering department. I’ve used them all and I always end up coming back to FL because it’s what I’m the most familiar with but sometimes, when I want to give a track an extra “lift,” I will bounce (export) the stems to Logic Pro for a new mix down and a little polishing. But in the end, they’re all just tools and what comes out of them is determined entirely by you.
Personal technique comes from a combination of hands-on experience and education, either on your own, through a college or trade school or all of the above (which is what I would recommend if you have the means). Never presume to know everything. None of us know everything and there is always going to be more to learn as technology is always evolving. But no matter how much of a bookworm you are, you’ll never make the most of that knowledge unless you sit down in the driver’s seat and play around, for hours and hours and hours and hours. Believe it or not, this can be done without completely sacrificing your social life, quitting your job, renting a storage unit and living in it by yourself with a computer. As long as this time is treated like a means to an end and budgeted as if it were homework, or a second job, ample time can be made available. It helps if you love it, too.
But if you plan on hiring a ghost producer (someone paid hourly or per project to write all of the music for you for no credit) then I have no advice for you because I’m not in the business of teaching people how to be frauds. I’ve known people who hire ghost producers, sit behind them while they work and act like that is participation. The fact of the matter is that you’ll never learn as much as you want to know unless you’re forging sounds from the irons of sawtooths and sine waves. Without doing this, you’re taking credit for something somebody else has done and there will never be a shred of honor to any recognition you receive. Your self-education, your academic education and all the money you’ve spent on software and gear will have gone to waste. But I guess if that’s what you’re going to do, nobody would be the wiser. Except you and that other person. And if that other person wanted to blow the lid off of your whole operation, could you stop them?
Mixdowns & Mastering
Speaking of hiring someone to do something to your music for you, mixdowns and mastering are pretty much the only area of making a song “ready” where this is morally acceptable and Jiminy Cricket won’t be giving you the finger for doing it. This is because whereas producing a song that sounds great to you and your friends might be highly satisfying and rewarding in and of itself, a “second ear” is often necessary to make sure your snare drum isn’t going to blow somebody’s speakers if it’s played back to back with a Maroon 5 song, or so your track doesn’t sound like a faint whisper next to Gwen Stefani. Avoiding hiring a mastering engineer is not recommended. If you like your song the way it is and you’ve tried making it louder with a limiter or even a multi-band compressor (all things you should at least learn/be learning), stop screwing with it and let somebody else make the dynamic and tonal changes that will make it a complete product instead of just a quiet little file on your computer. I avoid doing the mastering myself (except on my free songs and bootlegs) because frankly, it’s the one process of putting music out there that I hate the most. If I had it my way, songs wouldn’t be compressed at all because I’m a purist but since that’s not how the world of music works, I hire a mastering engineer to do the part that I loathe doing because it feels so destructive to the natural sound of an unmastered mix with tons of headroom. It’s a lot of extra work that is oftentimes completely unrewarding. Everyone wants everything louder because our generation is a product of the loudness war (look it up if you haven’t). So let them make it louder so you don’t have to sit there and assault your ears with a brick walled mix.
I reiterate, hiring a mastering engineer is not an excuse to forgo learning about the mastering process yourself to the point of knowing full well how to do it to your own tracks. Understanding multi-band compression, limiting, peak vs. RMS values and proper equalization is crucial in knowing what to listen for when you finally receive your master from the mastering engineer. Listen to your pre-master back-to-back with your new master. Are certain sounds, such as the snares, the percussion, the high hats, etc. still crystal clear in the mix, or are they being muddied by over-compression? Did you get your mix sounding exactly how you want it to in the pre-mastering stage? Do certain channels, such as your bass, your strings, synths, etc. need to be raised or lowered in the overall mix to draw more or less attention to them or other sounds? Compare your master to a commercial song that you want it to sound appropriate when played back-to-back with. Are you satisfied with the loudness, the clarity of the highs and the punch of the bass, or do those aspects need to be adjusted? Would doing so cause problems with the overall sonic balance of the track? All of these questions need to be addressed when moving into the mastering stage. The more refined your pre-master, the more likely you are to be satisfied with your final master. The mastering engineer's job is to make the master sound uniformed with other songs on the radio, or other songs on itunes or other online outlets, other movie scores, other video game and television soundtracks, etc. It's not their job to take your crappy mix and make it sound fantastic. There's only so much they can do with a fully rendered mix to mask its flaws. It's also worth noting that you should never send your mastering engineer a format any lower in quality than a 16-bit, 44.1khz wav file (from the initial render... no upscaling!) with at least -6dB of headroom (the space between the "peak" 0dB level and the peak level of the loudest point in your song). Many will even request a higher quality format, such as a 24-bit, 48khz wav file. Whatever the case, make their work easier for them. A happy mastering engineer is a happy client.
Releasing It To The World
Granted, the above image is a bit of an exaggeration but the overall message rings true: making the music isn't all that is required of an artist anymore. Oftentimes, no one is going to work harder for the artist than the artist themself. I've designed the graphics for many of my releases, both free and not free, either because no one offered to do it for me or because of the old adage, "if you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself." Knowing photoshop, basic HTML and aggregation 101 is crucial in making sure you're not left out of the loop during any stage of getting your music "out there." A website, a Facebook fan page, embedded apps such as music players, external links, a concise and well-arranged website, a Twitter, any corner of the internet where there is an opportunity to stake your claim, do it. Because for every inch of the internet you're not reaching, there is somebody working ten times as hard as you to make sure they get there first. This doesn't mean spamming comments sections on blogs indiscriminately. It simply means making yourself as ubiquitous as possible so that when that random person stumbles upon your track on Youtube, they can look right in the description of the video, find your fan page on Facebook, click the "like" button and immediately know which tab to open if they want to buy a t-shirt. Leave no stone unturned. If you're going to use an alias, make it unique. If it's not unique, figure out how to make it unique. Strive to be the first search result on Google when someone types your name. Eliminate as many opportunities for confusion as possible. Create a brand. Design a logo. Plaster it on everything. And last but not least, be you; it's the only way to stand out in a sea of copycats.