Music Production Tutorials – The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Posted by on Jul 21, 2020 in Pick Yourself | No Comments

These days, music production tutorials on YouTube are the number one way of learning how to produce music. This is especially true for electronic music genres like Techno and House. Whether you want to learn how to use Ableton, get better at mixing your songs, or simply understand how your new compressor plugin works: There‘s a free music production tutorial for every question you have.

However, blindly trusting YouTubers can be a dangerous path because most of the time, there is no „one and only“ answer to a problem. In this episode, I‘m going to play myth-buster for you and destroy the three most common myths I see over and over again.

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What‘s great about free music production tutorials

So first of all, let me get one thing straight: I‘m all in favor of free learning. This blog and podcast is exactly that. A free resource for everyone who wants to build a meaningful artist career. When it comes to learning music production, mixing, and mastering, I think that we‘re living in a wonderful era where a lot of knowledge is being shared for free. That‘s awesome!

Today‘s empowered laptop-producer has most likely learned a lot from free tutorials. The entry barrier to music production is lower than ever, which means that more and more talented young music producers will find their way into this world. Some of them are going to build successful music careers, having paid zero for education in this field.

What‘s the first thing you do when you have question on a certain function of your DAW? You either enter it in your search engine or you directly go to YouTube. Either way, you will end up on a page with a free tutorial that helps you solve your problem. Isn‘t that great?

Here‘s where it gets problematic

Looking up a certain function or technique on YouTube is perfectly fine. The problem with free music production tutorials arises when opinions are being sold as facts.

Often, we stumble upon YouTubers who tell us their „three secrets to a better mix“ or „the number one strategy to make your kick drum slam hard“. But here it gets tricky: Many of these YouTubers are… YouTubers. Not successful music producers, not successful engineers. Simply YouTubers with a certain opinion.

Now, my goal isn‘t to discredit YouTubers who make a living off their channel. That‘s perfectly fine, but you as the viewer need have the ability to separate opinions from facts. Sadly, there are way too many music production tutorials out there that give problematic advice and sell opinions as facts. This is why I‘ve decided to bust some of these myths in this episode.

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Myth-busting the three most popular tips on music production

The more mixing and mastering projects I did over the last years, the more I started to observe certain patterns in the works of my clients. Strangely, the tracks had the same types of issues even if they were produced by very different people, even in different sub-genres of electronic music.

At some point, I started asking what they were doing and where they got the advice to do it that way.

The result was shocking: Most of my clients were watching the same few high-ranking YouTube music production tutorials that contain very problematic advice.

I won’t call these YouTubers out because that’s simply not my style. Instead, I‘m going to show you what typical advice I find problematic and why. I‘m also going to show you what would be a better way to approach these issues.

Just because someone has a large YouTube audience doesn't mean that they're a great source for music production tutorials.

1. You have to use high-cut and low-cut filters on every track

I‘m sure you‘ve heard of this as well. Putting filters on all of your tracks must be great, right? It cleans them up and gives you additional headroom. So all you need to do for a cleaner production is to slap a high-cut and low-cut filter on every single track and you‘re good to go.

Nope, not a good idea.

Music production tutorials share this advice again and again. I have no idea where this is coming from. Maybe because analog consoles have an integrated filter button? That doesn‘t make sense either, because even on an analog console you would never activate the filter on every channel. If that was such a good idea, why is there even a button?

First of all, the problem is that there is no „one magic frequency“ at which you should start filtering stuff out. Then, there‘s the question which filter slope you should use (this is usually measured in dB/octave). What many upcoming music producers don‘t know: The values you put in here make a massive difference and can potentially ruin your signal.

Here‘s what happens if you follow this advice blindly

If you put high-cut and low-cut filters across all your channels, your songs will most likely sound dull, lifeless, and lack that „expensive“ full-range sound that makes professional mixes and masters stand out from the rest.

I‘ve heard countless examples of this in the last years and when my clients started to remove and/ or adjust the filters, it felt like somebody had lifted a curtain. Suddenly, the songs were full of life, sounded more three-dimensional, and simply more natural than before.

A better way to approach filters

Filters are a great tool. My recommendation is to first of all ask yourself: Why do even want to use one on this track? Is it really necessary? What exactly do you want to remove and why? Then, experiment with frequency settings and filter slopes.

At first, this can be a longer process because you need to train your critical listening skills and „tune in“ to what the filters are doing. But after some weeks of practice, you‘re soon going to notice considerable differences. The ultimate goal here is to choose your filters based on strategic, deliberate decisions.

2. You have to „carve out“ frequencies in your bass to make room for the kick (or the other way round)

This is another myth that persists in music production tutorials on YouTube and other platforms. The idea of „carving out space in the frequency spectrum“ might sound logical to you. The masking effect is a real phenomenon and we all know how problematic it is to make kick and bass sit well in a production.

The standard argument in most online music production tutorials goes more or less like this: „If you don‘t carve out these masking frequencies, your low-end will be muddy and you can‘t properly hear kick and bass“. So far, so good, but is that really the best solution?

Here‘s what‘s problematic about this advice

Carving out frequencies in the low-end is a pretty heavy operation. Since kick and bass consist mainly of frequencies below 200Hz, you drastically change the sound if you take out let‘s say 120Hz to make the kick cut through.

Altering the fundamental tone of an instrument has serious consequences though. It simply doesn‘t feel right anymore. It‘s not what you designed it to be. You‘re changing its characteristic quite dramatically and this can be the reason why you‘re so unhappy with your low-end again and again.

I‘m not saying you should never use a bit of EQing to separate sounds. It can be part of the process, but you have to be very gentle. That‘s usually not the case in most music production tutorials. They notch out 10dB or more and sell this as „the one secret that solves your low-end problems“.

This results in a very unnatural sounding low-end, which is often sounding too thin. That‘s especially problematic when the two elements don‘t play at the same time, so for example between kick drum hits or during a breakdown.

Here‘s what you should do instead

My recommendation is to ask yourself if there‘s any way of designing kick and bass in such a way that they organically support each other instead of fighting for attention. Usually, the more time you use to select the right samples and design your own synth patches, the better your low-end will sound.

Moreover, you have the possibility of composing kick and bass in such a way that they rarely play at the same time. This would solve the problem more elegantly and leave the original sounds untouched. Using a bit of sidechain-compression (again, be more gentle with this compared to what you see in music production tutorials) or trying an lfo-tool can work wonders as well.

In the end, a bit of EQing will most likely be necessary to make your kick and bass sit well in the mix but that‘s a completely different story than „carving out space“.

3. You need to use a lot of compression to make your track sound big and punchy

This advice from music production tutorials is one of my favorites. Supposedly, you need to compress the sh!t out of your tracks to make the song sound big and punchy. Makes sense, right? Compressors take off the peaks of the signal and elevate the rest.

But it‘s not that easy.

Compression is one of the hardest aspects to get right in music production. If you blindly follow this advice you‘re most likely ruining your songs one after another.

Here‘s why this myth needs to be eliminated

Compressors are shaping the dynamics of a signal. Most upcoming artists use them in a way that‘s harming their music because they think they need to „control peaks“. So what do you do? Exactly what the music production tutorials out there tell you: Use a fast attack time and a ratio of 4:1 or more to get rid of the peaks. But what does that do to your music?

It completely kills the transients of the signal and makes it sound dead and boring.

Music is about movement, especially in club-oriented electronic music genres like Techno and House. If you use too much (and the wrong kind of) compression, you‘re killing the groove and this results in dull and boring songs.

Here‘s what you can do about this

With compression it‘s actually quite easy: Most of the time, you need to use way less than you think you need. There‘s no way around practicing how to dial in a compressor, learning how parallel compression works and why this sometimes makes more sense, and when to go for a more transparent limiter instead of a compressor.

Think about it in this way: If you want certain elements to stand out, why would you want to make everything flat? I recommend you learn how to shape transients in the desired way. Often, that means using longer attack times and gentle ratios.

I‘m not afraid of slamming a signal with a compressor, but that‘s only the case when I intentionally want to add a certain character to the sound. Apart from that, the compression I use is very gentle and hard to hear if you haven‘t practiced it.

In music production and mixing, it‘s often about the sum of many small adjustments that create an amazing end result. That still allows for some extreme moves on certain elements which then truly stand out from the rest.

Conclusion: Music Production Tutorials can be great but you have to be cautious

Now that these myths are out of the way, let‘s draw a conclusion. I‘m still a big fan of free music production tutorials. Personally, I feel they‘re helpful in two occasions:

  1. You want to figure out how a certain program or tool works. In this case, you‘re most likely going to find great information.
  2. You want to have a look behind the scenes of someone else‘s workflow. If that‘s the case, you should see the things you learn as suggestions, not as facts.

If you don‘t blindly follow any advice and do a bit of research on the people who make these tutorials, you‘ll soon be able to sort out the bad apples. It‘s not that obvious in the beginning!

Double check your sources and contrast that opinion with material from other music production tutorials.

Putting it into action: Getting the most out of free music production tutorials

As always, I leave you with three action steps that are designed to help you implement the things you‘ve learned. Most importantly, I recommend critically looking at the music production tutorials you‘ve watched so far and figure out what is fact and what is opinion.

1. Analyze your current techniques

  • What have you blindly adopted?
  • Is there another way of looking at the problem?
  • What makes the most sense in your opinion?

2. Double-check your current sources

  • Are the people you follow mainly YouTubers or do they actually make a living as music producers or engineers?
  • How are they structuring their content? Do they tell you that this is just their personal workflow or are they trying so sell their advice as something „you must do this way“?

3. Become more selective with whose opinion matters to you and why

  • The number of views or comments doesn‘t mean anything. Popularity is not the same as trustworthiness or credibility.
  • Select tutorials by people who‘ve built a successful career in music or sound engineering and are now at a point in their life where they want to share their knowledge and experience.

Alright, that‘s it for this episode, now I‘d love to hear from you: What are your favorite music production tutorial channels and what are they doing differently than others?

Let me know in the comments, I read everything.

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