As with my Bad and Wrong Music Lessons, you should take all of this with a grain of salt. I’m figuring this stuff out as I go, and I’m likely getting lots of details wrong. Also, in the past I’ve noticed that posting Wrong Stuff about music is a great way to get musicians to show up and give me a bunch of education for free. It’s the classic internet problem. Ask a question…
“What’s a good chord progression?”
… and aside from people telling you to “Google it“, you’ll get ignored because people have better things to do than answer questions for lazy info-beggars. But if you make an assertion…
“In A minor, the a-F-C-G chord progression is pretty much the only one anyone uses.”
…then lots of people will stop and tell you how terribly wrong you are. Some of them will even stop to explain why! It’s free knowledge! All you need is a lack of self-respect!
Annyway, here are some of the most interesting things I learned:
1. You can just mash chords together like, whatever.
This didn’t come directly from the instruction and it wasn’t really part of the class, but it’s something I stumbled across in two different places on YouTube while I was working on the class and I want to talk about it here.
Assuming you’re working in a traditional genre and not messing around with strange experimental stuff, then your song is going to have a chord progression. For example: A minor, F major, C major, E minor, which is sometimes annotated as a-F-C-eLowercase for minor chords, uppercase for major chords.. But whatever. In pop music, having three or four chords in your pattern is pretty standard. Fewer than that and it will feel (even more) repetitive, and if you have too many then it might be hard for the listener to detect the pattern and the song might feel aimlessAs always, there are exceptions.. You play your chords, in the chosen order, over and over again, and then maybe you change things up a bit when you get to the verse / chorus / breakdown and play some other chord pattern so the listener doesn’t get bored.
The important thing here is that I really thought you were limited to one chord at a time. I’ve had occasional mishaps where I accidentally played two chords at once and got the “cat walking on a piano” vibe, so I figured that was a bad thing. But then I ran into this video:
In that videoSkip to the 40 second mark to see the bit I’m talking about.A video that gets right into the information without a lot of preamble? I wish I could give it more than just one thumbs up., the producer has a standard chord progression, but on top of it they’re just playing D power chordsA power chord is a one with the top and bottom notes, but is missing the middle note.. Like, through the whole song. I wasn’t sure why that worked. After some experimentation I found that this works best if you keep this “bonus” chord on a different octave. Maybe put it way up high on the scale so it doesn’t get mixed in with the main chords?
That was useful, but I didn’t really get why it worked or which chords would be useful until I ran into this video a few weeks later:
And that’s where it all clicked for me. It’s a video for guitar players – a group which doesn’t include meI put “a guitar” on my wishlist for Santa this year. We’ll see if he brings me one. – but it presents some theory that helped me understand why this works, and gave me a way to intuit which chords will work and which ones might result in Cat On Keyboard syndrome.
In his class, Huang talks a lot about production. In the class, he conceptually divides tracks into five parts:
- Foundation: This is the drums and bass, establishing a rhythm (drums) and providing a bridge between the rhythm and the melodic sections (bass) of the song.
- Pads: Long sustained chords and atmospheric stuff.
- Rhythm: Rhythm is any instrument that plays off of the Foundation’s pulse. A good example would be a guitar that plays on the off beat.
- Lead: This is normally a singer, but in my music it’s usually the loudest synthesizer.
- Fills: Little details that break up the patterns in order to keep things interesting. This can be sudden musical stings, a brief change in the drum pattern, or an audio sample of someone shouting “Yeah!” Whatever. Something that is both novel and yet fitting.
I come from a programming background where there are a lot of hard rules. Don’t free a NULL pointer. Don’t reach beyond the boundary of an array. Always sanitize your database inputs. And so on. The rules in music are a lot more… mushy. As far as I can tell, there aren’t actually any rules – just guidelines of varying importance and flexibility. The above 5-part model isn’t some concrete truth of music production. It’s just a handy way to think about the structure of a project. I’ve found it immensely useful.
Different producers will have different mental models of how to arrange their tracks, but for an amateur like me, just having a model is a good step.
3. Mixing Tips
This was the meat of the course for me. This is the stuff I really wanted to improve. Huang is really good at mixing / production, and it’s always been my weakest area.
A lot of the tips were too technical or esoteric to explain here without needing to provide pages of context, but a few of the simple ideas were things like:
- Don’t make your bass instruments too “spacious”. That is, don’t make them feel far away using reverb and don’t give them a lot of stereo separation. If you have to, make the bassline mono. In popular music, bass is often a bridge between the melodic and rhythmic. It’s playing notes like the musical stuff, but it’s also keeping the beat like your drums. Bass notes should start with a punch rather than fading in, and they should end clean rather than trailing off or fading out.
- Nearly all instruments make some degree of low-frequency noise. If you look at your lead or your drums with a visualizer, you’ll see a lot of activity on the low end of the spectrum. Specifically, you’ll see a bunch of garbage noise in the 50-200hz range, which is where your kick drum lives. This low-end noise isn’t enough to be appreciated by the listener, but once you get all the various song parts stacked up you’ll have enough residual noise to make things muddy. Then your kick drum will fade into the mix instead of punching through. I struggled with this for ages. The solution is to cull those low frequencies from instruments that aren’t using them.
- Related to the above: Sometimes you’ll have an instrument that sits in the middle of the mix, but it sounds really good if you let it keep the low frequencies. That’s fine! Use automation (the process of having the software turn knobs for you when the song is playing) to adjust how much of the low end you let through. Leave the low frequencies in when that instrument is playing alone so it can sound rich and full, but then get rid of those frequencies when things get busy and you need to make room for the bass / kick drum.
Huang also had a bunch of advice on how to construct basslines. I follow multiple bass players on YouTube, but I’d somehow never run into the basic lesson of “How do you make a good bassline?” I’d been getting by with simply imitating stuff I liked, but it was really nice to have the various techniques mapped out.
Yeah, yeah. Don’t quit my day job. I know. Still, this is a fun hobby and I’m grateful my mostly gaming + programming audience will tolerate these posts once in a while.
Here’s one last track. I made this last week. I guess we can think of it as my attempt to apply everything I’ve learned. It’s not mixed professionally, but I think this is the first track I’ve produced that wasn’t mixed incompetently. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. One criticism I have is that I lingered a little too long in the middle. I was fiddling around with different instruments and FX. That’s fun, but for the listener it probably still feels like the song gets stuck in a rut. A track this long really needs a key change or a steady supply of fresh chord progressions.
That’s enough music nonsense for now. 2019 is winding down and we have end-of-year nitpicks to cover.
 Lowercase for minor chords, uppercase for major chords.
 As always, there are exceptions.
 Skip to the 40 second mark to see the bit I’m talking about.
 A video that gets right into the information without a lot of preamble? I wish I could give it more than just one thumbs up.
 A power chord is a one with the top and bottom notes, but is missing the middle note.
 I put “a guitar” on my wishlist for Santa this year. We’ll see if he brings me one.
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