If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to go overboard editing, processing, and tweaking your recordings-in-progress. Here’s some advice on how to make your productions sound their best — and knowing when to stop.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Production technology has become so sophisticated that, with the right software and a good dose of know-how, you can do nearly anything with your music.
But with great power comes great responsibility. If you can add limitless instruments and make limitless edits, how do you know when enough is enough?
Overproducing a song can be just as problematic as underproducing it — but instead of your tracks coming off as unpolished and unprofessional, they can sound synthetic, dense, and squeezed empty of emotion.
Here are some tips that have helped me maintain a healthy perspective on my recorded music and avoid the pitfall of overproduction.
Listen to other songs with production in mind
As you’re preparing to start production on a new song, ask yourself a simple question when you listen to other people’s recorded music: do the tracks you’re listening to sound overproduced, underproduced, or just right?
As you listen, pay attention to and define what overproducing a song means to you in specific terms. Does the pop-rock anthem on the radio feel too chunky and heavy because the guitars are layered too thickly? Are the drums are too dense and aggressive? Does the most recent dance track go ten degrees too heavy on vocal tuning? Is that holiday ballad overwhelmed by the schmaltzy string and choir arrangement?
The more you develop a sensitivity for what makes you feel that a track is overproduced, the better prepared you’ll be to avoid making such errors in your own recordings.
Be clear about what you’re going for
If you’re going for a hyper-slick, dreamy dance-pop song, chances are you’ll want to invest a lot more time and effort into heavily effected processing and fancy studio tricks. However, if your goal is something closer to a Chris Thile acoustic track, you’re going to want to make the production sound as much like an organic live performance as possible.
Keeping such benchmarks in mind will help ensure you’re not going off the rails once you’re deep into the weeds of production. Before you start producing, choose reference tracks — existing songs that carry at least some of the production vibe you’re going for — and regularly listen back to them to make sure your song-in-progress is staying in its lane.
Regularly save new versions of your song
Whenever I produce a song in Apple Logic, I make sure to save multiple versions as I go and label each clearly in case I need to circle back, hours, days, or weeks later. Sometimes, if I make a significant change that I may or may not still like a few days later, I put a brief note right in the file name — something like MySong_ExtendedDrumEnding — so I know exactly where to look if I need to go back on any production choices.
The idea here is to build a catalog of different versions of your production, so if you find yourself needing to revert any section of your work, at any time, it’s relatively easy to do so. Did you suddenly discover some unwelcome audio glitches in a vocal track that showed up after you made several layers of edits, and you want to pull an earlier, less processed version instead? Or, after blending in layers of percussion and electronic drums, are you wondering if the track was more powerful when you had a simple kick and nothing else? Having multiple, clearly-labeled versions can help you maintain momentum and recover quickly if you find yourself on the brink of overproducing a song.
Recruit beta listeners
Recently, a producer friend asked me to help with his track-in-progress at various stages of completion. I was able to give feedback, contribute a few synth and keyboard parts — and most importantly, tell him when the track started feeling overproduced. There was a clear point where he added an extra background vocal part that tipped the track from feeling rich and powerful to dense and overcrowded. I’m glad he gave me the opportunity to call it out, and that he trusted my ears enough to act on the suggestion.
I’ve certainly benefitted from outside ears on my productions. Whether I’m working on instrumental jazz or vocal rock, I’ve found it immensely helpful to share my tracks-in-progress with other producers and musicians I trust. If someone tells me they think I’m starting to do more harm than good by continuing to add, tweak, and edit, I take that feedback very seriously.
After working hard on your production, take a breather, take a walk, listen to music completely unrelated to what you’re working on, and come back to your project with a fresh perspective. Sometimes, even a short break is all you need to help you decide whether your track is underproduced, overproduced, or just perfect.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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