Some songs are so good that they make you forget how much work goes into making one. One great idea and boom, you’re walking down the red carpet at the Grammys as the heavy favorite to win all of the awards. Right?
Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of hard work goes into the creation and production of just one song—and that’s why talented music producers are rare and in high demand.
But what exactly does a music producer do? And for those of you who might know the answer to that question already, you’re probably wondering how to get into music production. In this guide, we’ll go over some of the basics of music production, how to break into the industry, and some of the gear that you’ll need to get started.
What is Music Production?
Music production is a catch-all term to describe all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating a hit song. Not only are music producers proficient musicians, but they’re also experts in audio engineering.
Adam “Nolly” Getgood is a music producer who previously played in the metal band Periphery. Although Getgood is no longer part of the touring band, he still serves as the group’s music producer. In this YouTube documentary, he talks extensively about how his role as a producer requires him to find ways to improve each song, identify the right gear and physical spaces to record in, and coax quality performances out of each musician in the band.
It’s worth taking some time to check out the entire documentary to learn about music production. But for now, let’s take a closer look at four of the most critical stages of music production.
The 7 Stages of Music Production
We’ll preface this by saying that music producers could probably identify hundreds of stages that go into producing a song. But we’d hate to overwhelm you, so let’s hone in on the seven stages of musical production that most folks would agree are the most important.
Great songs don’t just appear out of thin air, but they have to begin somewhere. All it takes is a little burst of inspiration to get us inspired to sit down at a piano or a guitar and start working on a new hit. And in many cases, a music producer is just as involved as a songwriter at this stage.
Here’s where you start thinking through the basics. What type of song are you trying to write? Do you want to create the next coffee shop-friendly acoustic tune or a hard-hitting electronic dance track? Are you writing for someone with insane vocal range or a singer who’s a little more country? There are no wrong answers, which is why musicians like me tend to enjoy this stage the most.
The composition stage of music production takes your initial concept a little further. Here’s where you start thinking about elements such as tempo, key signature, time signature, and melody, among others.
I’ve been known to come up with concepts for songs in my sleep. It’s weird, but I’m not the only one. So let’s say you manage to remember a concept you dreamed up. At this stage, you might decide that the key signature that you imagined isn’t in a comfortable range for your vocalist. The composition stage is where you take pen to paper and create, well, a composition.
You might have gathered this already, but this stage requires a bit of music theory knowledge. To get started, check out Jason Allen’s course on Skillshare, which is a great resource for learning how to read music.
Once you’ve figured out some of the basic elements of your song, it’s time to put it all together and, well, arrange it.
Here are just a few things you’ll need to consider when arranging your song:
- Which ideas for this tune would make for a good verse?
- Which of these hooks is the chorus, which will appear multiple times throughout the song?
- Do you have a bridge section to tie it all together?
If you’re new to music production, you’ll often hear songs in this format:
Of course, that’s not a hard and fast rule. Play around with your arrangement. Don’t want to include a chorus? You don’t have to! As the music producer, it’s your job to choose which components of a song you want (or don’t want) to include.
Feeling good about your arrangement? Let’s head into the recording studio!
Music producers are also experienced audio engineers who know their way around the latest gear. The most experienced producers also have access to high-end gear and studios. But if you’re more of a layperson, you can usually get good results with much less expensive equipment.
Here’s a brief list of gear that you’ll need. You might even have some of this equipment already.
- Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), such as Logic Pro, Adobe Audition, or even Apple’s Garageband
- Audio interface
- Studio microphones (for beginners, these are also available in pre-built sets)
- Pop filters
- XLR cables
With the exceptions of your laptop and DAW, don’t be afraid to opt for some of the more “affordable” options you find, especially if you’re going to be recording and producing music from your home. But your laptop and DAW are serious investments. I’ve used MacBook Pros in the past, but many producers opt for Windows laptops nowadays, especially since many popular DAWs are now available on both Windows and Mac OS.
The moral of this story? There’s no such thing as the “best” music production laptop—so it’s up to you to find the best one that suits your needs (and budget).
Once you’ve recorded each part of your song, it’s time to take an editor’s pen to your tracks.
Music producers tend to get sucked into the editing process, and for good reason. Most music production software offers a ton of options and tools. Because music production is just as much of an art as songwriting, it’s easy to go down rabbit holes and try everything for the sake of that art.
Ultimately, here are just a few things you’ll need to think about when you’re editing a song:
- Does the instrumentation for this song make sense, or should I add or remove certain parts?
- Is each section of the song necessary? Or should I remove or shorten certain parts?
- Are the parts locked into the right time signature? If not, you’ll need to use a feature known as quantizing to automatically adjust the performances of each track to match a particular tempo.
Once you’ve finalized your edits, it’s time to turn your attention to the small details of your song. Remember those endless options that we talked about in your music production software? Here’s where you’ll get to play with them.
When I mixed songs in the past, I’d experiment with things such as reverb on vocal tracks, gating drums, and the volume levels of each track. And then I’d get into the weeds of each part again. Where can I add an echo that’s tasteful without sounding distracting? Where should the piano be louder than a guitar? Learning a DAW takes time, but once you know your way around it, the mixing process can be a lot of fun.
Also, a quick note. It only takes a quick Google search to find some really expensive DAW options. But if you’re getting started on a tight budget, don’t worry: there’s some great free music production software for you to check out.
At the mastering stage, the music producer needs to adjust the mix to be playable on a variety of different platforms. They’ll use a variety of tools to ensure that the song is loud enough on the most common music players and sounds professional. As producers get into the weeds of how to start a music production company, they tend to outsource this work to engineers that specialize in mastering.
What Does a Music Producer Do?
There’s a reason we outlined the stages of music production before we got to this question: It’s because a music producer oversees all of those stages.
In addition to the stages of music production, a music producer can be responsible for things such as hiring musicians, choosing recording studios, and getting quality performances out of an artist. This often means that they serve as a coach and mentor. Sometimes they’ll provide the tough love necessary to push an artist to their best. Other times, they’ll serve as a shoulder to cry on when the process seems to be dragging on.
Music producers have a multi-faceted role. Not only do they need to know the technical ins and outs of creating a song, but they also have to have a high-level vision for a project.
What Skills Do You Need to Be a Music Producer?
Music production requires a unique combination of music and technical skills. Here’s just a brief list of skills that successful music producers have in their proverbial toolbox.
- Music production tools: In addition to knowing how to use a wide variety of DAWs, music producers should understand the key features of tools such as studio monitors, microphones, preamps, audio interfaces, and direct interface (DI) boxes.
- Music theory: Music producers should understand the basics of music theory, including time signatures, scales, chords, and chord progressions.
- Musical ear: Great music producers can analyze a song, compose an arrangement, and edit recordings.
How Do You Learn Music Production?
This is a really important question, but also a simple one to answer for anyone who has ever wanted to know how to learn music production. At some point, you just kind of dive in.
When I was pursuing music as a career, that meant scraping together money for basic gear and a few books. Things have changed drastically since those dark, dark times. On the technical side, you can get great results from inexpensive gear. And when it comes to your musical education, there are endless online resources that are thorough and easy to digest.
Here are just a few Skillshare courses to consider as you figure out how to learn music production:
- Music Production: Learn the Compressor Effect
- Songwriting for Complete Beginners
- Garageband for Songwriting and Music Production – Module 1
- Mixing Tips 101: The Basic Fundamentals of Mixing Hip Hop Music Production
As you start to absorb what you’re learning, you’ll likely find new aspects of music production that you want to explore. Lean into that excitement when it comes. While some of the information in this guide might be hard to digest at first, you’ll ultimately find that the beauty of music production is that there are no boundaries or rules—and your imagination will take you a long way as you discover how to get into music production.
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