The 6 Levels of Music Production
A step-by-step guide to producing tracks from idea to finished product, no matter your current experience.
SEPTEMBER 10TH, 2022
This is a quick guide to taking your music production career to the next level! We’ll cover the basics of laying down a track, filling out the sound, and then going into the details of mixing and mastering!
Lvl 1 - Lay down the beat
At the very beginning of laying down a track, before you start writing, make sure your setup is in place and you’ve prepared yourself for success — feel free to use The 5 Basics of Music Production as your guide!
Once you’re ready to start, your sole focus should be building the skeleton — a simple bass line and drum groove, maybe a melody line and chords. Once that’s finished, all the fundamental pieces are in place, but the overall result is lifeless and has little variety. The beat might be straight 4-to-the-floor without much to drive the song forward, and the bass sound is raw: It may have a general shape and some filter movement, but beyond that it doesn’t have much character to make it interesting.
If this is where your track is at now, don’t worry — it’s totally fine as a starting point and we’re about to go over how to beef things up!
Lvl 2 - Fill out the sound
The first thing we’ll look at is the core sound itself. If the bass sounds “cheap” or simplistic, it’s time to go back into your synth and give it some more intrigue with different wavetables and modulation — if you want a quick approach to this that still sounds professional, simply pull up Usynth CORE and you’ll immediately have plenty of easily tweakable bass sounds that sound full even before you add effects! From there, you can add distortion and other processing to bring it to life (Finisher RETRO is a great multi-effect for spicing up your basses).
For the drums, you’ll want to upgrade your sample set and eliminate anything that lacks the fullness and punch you need. It’s much easier to process samples that already sound good than it is to polish up lackluster material, which is much simpler when you have a Beatmaker at your disposal! Once this is done, there will still be something missing from your groove ... we like to call this the sauce, and it only takes a few quick adjustments to pack it in.
Lvl 3 - Spice up the groove
At this stage, it’s all about groove — sometimes a straightforward, linear kick and snare pattern can get the job done, but it’s very simple to break out of this by adding syncopation. This is when you push some drum hits slightly off the grid, “anticipating” notes by a 16th or 8th note and adjusting the timing to taste. This will immediately add more energy to your track, and breaking away from a completely linear beat is a great solution to the common issue of dragging rhythms that make the track feel slower than it actually is.
Subtle timing changes have the power to completely transform a beat, and the result will be more professional as it immediately feels like you have a more solid grasp of rhythm. For a quick check to make sure your groove checks all the boxes, check out our article, How To Build A Groove!
Lvl 4 - Break away from loops
It’s easy to fall into the trap of simplistic bass lines — you can avoid this by thinking in terms of contour. Take it for a journey rather than having it stay static! Change root notes, vary your rhythms, etc. A word of warning, though: It’s easy to take this too far and rush the changes. Be careful not to change chords too quickly or make the bass line so busy that it conflicts with the mix; it’s better to take your time with the changes and allow for more consistency!
At this level, you’ll also start introducing subtle changes between different iterations of your drum and bass loops. Use a lift or downward shift in the bass at the end of one phrase, add a kick here, take one away there, vary the hi hat pattern slightly, add the occasional fill and try out anything else that will give you additional variety with little effort. Most listeners won't even notice you’re doing this, but they will become more engaged since you’re giving them a bit more to latch onto!
Lvl 5 - Open up the mix
Now that we’ve focused so much attention on addition, let’s find things to remove. If you’re using multiple drum loops, listen to the whole mix and start taking things away. You might find that removing an element increases the clarity of the overall mix and allows everything else to speak more clearly. This isn’t limited to drums, of course — see if you can spot unnecessary busyness in the bass line or any other instruments you’ve added and remove anything that isn’t acting in service of the result you want.
Once you’ve removed everything that doesn’t need to be there, we can use the extra space to add some ear candy to the ends of phrases — call & response between the bass and melody, synth plucks, non-standard percussion, sound elements, whatever works in the context of the song. Just remember to limit this to subtle additions that serve the mix as a whole and use them sparingly!
Lvl 6 - Apply broad processing and automation
To reach the final level, we’ll focus on making broad changes that we can apply to many elements at once. This includes bus processing — saturation, compression, limiting, and a range of other effects you can apply to your drum bus and any other timbral groupings you’ve set up. This is also the point where you’ll want to add bits and pieces like noise sweeps, vinyl crackle, foley, and other textures to make your track really come to life.
Also, look for opportunities to automate effects, play with note velocities and add other changes to your tracks over time. One of the biggest factors behind professional mixes is transformation, whether it’s in the settings of filters, reverbs, distortion or any other elements you choose to add. Once you nail this step down (assuming you’ve moved through all the previous levels effectively), you have the essential ingredients to lay down the bones of a great track!
There’s much more to music production of course, but by applying the structure of the different levels above, you can eliminate tons of the guesswork involved in creating professional music efficiently without getting caught in the weeds. Start from the ground up, and when in doubt you can simply use this article as a step-by-step guide for what to add, remove or transform and when. Try applying this process for yourself and see how much faster your music comes together ... and when you feel ready to take the next step, check out our companion article, 5 Ways to Level Up Your Music Production Skills!
About the Author
Harry Lodes is a copywriter, marketing consultant and content writer for audio and ecommerce brands. He lives in the Philadelphia area, releasing Eastern/Western hybrid EDM under the artist name KAIRI hearkening back to his roots in Berklee College of Music.
We develop software solutions that enable people to create, consume and interact with music.