What is Music Production? Step-by-step Guide + 5 Tips

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

What is music production? This step-by-step guide shows you the entire process of making music, whether you're working from a home studio or you've booked some time at a professional mixing and mastering studio

Ready to start learning music production?

Awesome!

This beginner guide explains what music production is and how the music production process looks right now for music creators working out of a home studio just like you.

(In 2020)

In the guide you’ll learn everything there is to music production from a bird-eye view.

I’ll try to point you to more in-depth content I’ve written elsewhere as we crack on, without getting you bogged down by all the details.

You’ve probably already heard that the role of a producer has changed insanely over the last few decades — the recording revolution.

I’ve chosen to look at who a music producer is and what they do much more concisely elsewhere on this blog rather than conflate these topics here. So, if you want to see the work of a record producer in music production, follow the link.

But if you want to see how the music production process works or looks like, this article is for you.

I’ve also tacked a few handy tips at the end to help guide you through the music process.

You’ll love those!*

Let’s get started.

What is Music Production? What Does Music Production Mean?

Music production is the process of making music.

Let’s break this definition down.

The Music Production Process — The Steps in Making Music

This is a beginner’s guide, the idea here is to keep everything nice and easy. So, if most of this looks familiar to you, don’t worry, we go in-depth into most of these topics in other articles on the mixing blog. Give that a look if you haven’t already.

The music production process is something I see new music producers struggle with this a lot— not knowing what happens when, and who does what…

…so let’s clear this up.

Conventionally, we break down the process of music production into 8 stages as follows:

  1. Songwriting
  2. Pre-production
  3. Recording
  4. Editing
  5. Post-production
  6. Mixing
  7. Mastering
  8. Pressing/production/distribution

Let’s look at each of these.

Step #1 — Song Writing

This stage is very self-explanatory, pretty much.

Every musician has written some songs at one time or another.

Simply put, this is the stage where you work out what you want to play and how you want to play it.

Step #2 — Pre-production

The second stage might not be familiar to most people.

This is where you record fragments of the song and arrange it in a DAW to bring together a song idea.

Pre-production is pretty important because it gives you a feel of what the song will be like when you lay it all down.

Pre-production is done before you head into the studio.

Ideally, this is where you figure out things such as how much the song will cost, what equipment you need, how much money production will cost, what time schedule is required for production, what technical skills are required to produce the song, and so on and so forth.

All these things are things you need to figure out before you head into the studio.

Even though not quite the same, the idea of pre-production still works even when you are working out of your home studio.

Try to have as clear of a vision as possible when you go to press record. That way, you won’t find yourself recording track after track only to realize you want to go in a different direction and have to redo everything.

The more organized and prepared you are, the more fun you’re going to have — which often leads to good music.

Okay.

Now your pre-production is done.

You’ve basically worked out all your songs and you have a clear vision of what you want them to sound like.

Time to record.

Step #3 — Recording or Tracking

It used to be that you head into the studio to record but this is something that most musicians nowadays do on their own.

With the right setup and a bit of research, it’s easy to get great recording quality especially for common instruments such as the guitar and bass guitar and keys and drums.

You don’t need a fancy room or prohibitively expensive gear.

I’m going to talk a lot more about this in the future. I’ll give you in-depth step-by-step tutorials on how to set up your own recording studio, recording tips, what interface to use, what DAW to use and much much more, so watch out for that.

Step #4 — Editing

Editing is a topic that most new musicians don’t really know about, or don’t tend to think about as much.

Some of the things that are done in editing include things such as pitch correction for vocals and bass, time aligning drums, guitars, and bass, and many other things.

Who is supposed to do all this editing work?

For the most part, editing is not included in mixing work. If you send your tracks to a mixing engineer, they are not going to edit your stuff.

Make sure that if you want a polished sound, you figure out who’s going to do the editing work for you.

Ideally, your recording engineer will do the editing for you, or you can pay the mixing engineer to do it.

The third option is to DIY it or finds an editor on, say, Craigslist.

Make sure you set aside some time and money to get the editing done because even if the mix is great, your song probably won’t sound as professional as modern music does nowadays.

Generally, for live music, you shouldn’t need that much editing.

Step #5 — Post-production

What is post-production?

Post-production is basically just adding effects to make the vibe pop out of your song, as it were.

As you might suspect, there are many many sound effects, way too many to list here, but some common ones are hits, impacts, and risers.

Step #6 — Mixing

Mixing is something most people are familiar with and unfortunately also something most people struggle with.

I’ve introduced the concept of mixing in what is mixing. Have a look at that if you haven’t already.

A lot of bands try to mix tracks themselves.

Perhaps it’s important to notice that every great mixer has their own unique signature sound, from the way they combine multi-tracks, the way they use their equalizers, the way they use their compressors, and so on and so forth.

Besides recording and tracking, the mix is perhaps the most important aspect of your sound.

Mixing plays hugely into getting a great record, that is why I have an awesome mixing blog right here to help you pick up as much as you need to truly understand the art of mixing.

Mixing is really an art form and it’s one of the core things you should invest in as a musician even just to know what kind of sound you want and what it takes to get there.

A lot of bands write their own songs, record and edit themselves, and even do the post-production themselves, but because mixing is such a crucial thing to the overall record, they still hire a mixing engineer to get a really great sounding record.

Step #7 — Mastering

Mastering is a somewhat obscure term for most people. It is often bundled — and confused, with mixing.

Most people don’t really understand what is going on in mastering and why it is needed.

I’ve introduced the concept of mastering in what is mastering. Have a look at that if you haven’t already.

I also have a fantastic mastering blog that brings together everything you need to know about mastering in one place. Have a look at that too.

But basically, whereas with mixing you take all the tracks and make them work together, mastering is actually just doing final touches on the mix.

The idea is to polish the mix to make sure it translates well on all speakers, adjusting overall loudness and frequency balance and so on and so forth.

After you get your great-sounding songs from a mastering engineer, it’s time to distribute your record.

Step #8 — Distribution

These days, you can think of this as digital distribution— sometimes exclusively digital distribution to streaming services such as Spotify, iTunes, YouTube and so on and so forth.

It’s important to notice that you might need different kinds of masters for each of these platforms.

That’s where you talk to your mastering engineer about what you want.

That basically concludes the 8 stages of music production.

The 5 Essential Music Production Tips

Now it is time for me to share what I believe are some of the most important music production tips.

Whether you are working out of your home studio or you booked some time at a professional mixing and mastering studio, all these tips will apply.

Let’s jump right in.

Tip #1 — Spend the Bulk of Your Time in Pre-production

You should be spending significantly more hours preparing for your recording than actually recording music.

The reason for this is simple—

Session time is expensive.

Other people’s time is valuable. You don’t want to waste recording time fixing something that could have been fixed beforehand.

Some of the things you might want to iron out in the pre-production phase are:

  • Take care of the music aspects/elements
  • Communicate your vision with the studio
  • Plan out recording details
  • Create a production schedule

Take Care of the Musical Aspects, Beforehand

  • The band should be well-rehearsed.
  • The arrangement should be worked out and everyone should know what is expected of them.

One of the things I recommend is recording rough demos of your rehearsals.

You can analyze them as a band, pointing out the things you need to work on. And you can also share your rehearsal recordings with a producer or audio engineer so they know how to prepare for your recording.

Communicate Your Vision with Your Producer/Audio Engineer, Beforehand

If you have a producer on board, discuss with them your goals and inspiration.

This will make sure everyone’s on the same page and will help plan out a course of action.

Plan Out Recording Details, Beforehand

There are also many small decisions you need to make—

  • Will your album be done live off the floor?
  • Will it be multitracked (MTR)?
  • Will it be playing to a clique?

All these decisions will influence how you prepare.

Create a Music Production Schedule

Scheduling should also be in this pre-production phase.

Write up a plan budgeting time for each part of the recording process.

We often underestimate the time that goes into tracking, so, plan on delays, and set aside some extra time for creative noodling.

Everything will feel better if nobody is stressed out about the clock.

Tip #2 — Understand the Tools

Whether you are a producer or a session musician, a sound engineer, the more knowledge you have of your music production tools, the less of a barrier there is between your vision and the end product.

Like everywhere else, knowledge of music is power.

Understanding how your software works, how the hardware works to influence the sound, understanding plugins, VSTs, understanding the role of every piece of gear in the studio is actually quite crucial.

I understand that at the start this can seem overwhelming because most you haven’t thought about these things beforehand.

And besides, most musical gear tends to have complex looking consoles and interfaces which can be a little intimidating at the beginning.

Quite frankly, this will take time.

And some of these gear will inevitably go over the head of some producers and engineers, and that’s fine too.

The quicker and better you are at using your music software, the more time you can spend making music.

Learning the shortcuts and inner workings of your DAW and plugins will lead to a smooth and seamless workflow and a huge payoff.

Tip #3 — Focus on the Arrangement

We can spend all the time in the world getting everything ready but if the arrangement is not on point, it’s all in vain.

The best recordings are masterfully arranged.

The parts are written beautifully, not just thrown on top of each other for the feel of complexity.

Every creative decision we make should be arranged with care, should be there for a reason, and should support the song.

Arranging is a skill that can be honed over time by listening to your musical instincts.

Tip #4 — Train to your Musical Instincts

For most musicians this comes with listening and analysis. So, play your favorite records and analyze the living hell out of them.

This works best when you have a solid set of speakers or headphones — this is important for conveying depth.

For each instrument, listen—

  • How the instrument interacts with the other sounds
  • Where it’s placed in the stereo field
  • How loud it is
  • What kind of effects it has on

The more important and bigger questions are—

  • Why do you think these decisions were made?
  • What impact do these decisions have on the song?

The more you listen and analyze, the easier you can pick up the elements you like and dislike.

You can then bring those into your music (or drop them).

Tip #5 — Seek Feedback

Most creative pursuits are personal.

When we are making music, we are way too in our own heads to think objectively.

It’s easy to find yourself editing away the best parts of your music or recording a solo over and over again dozens of times.

Each time feels better than the last.

If you have an outside ear, you hopefully won’t waste too much time unnecessarily.

Often times, there is always another way of improving the recording.

The feedback doesn’t even have to come from a musician. In fact, some of the best feedback I’ve ever gotten was from non-musicians.

After all, the untrained ear will make up the majority of people who’ll listen to your song.

ReverbLxnd

I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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