First of all, what does it means to sound professional? Today the standard is different from what it used to be 10 years ago, which was different from 10 years before, and so on.
What is generally accepted as the quality line in a recording is always changing as the population change for any given reason during the time. I bet that with sounding professional you have clear in mind a song to use as an example and compare with your own. Start from this. Normally to evaluate your song you compare it to already published ones that are popular in your genre and if you are reading this article it doesn’t sound near to it. Keep this in mind for later as a reference song.
Assuming that you are a DIY artist, you are new to making songs and you are looking for ways to sound professional like those hit records charting right now, I will cover the stages where something could have gone wrong, and what could be the right solution.
First, consider the fact that a released song is the result of many stages in the production process, so maybe the fact that your song doesn’t sound the way you want is due to major 2 factors happening during production:
- there wasn’t a defined goal known before the beginning of the production process
- lack of knowledge
Explaining the main reason and the process
So the production process, depending on your workflow, starts after composing and songwriting. Nowadays DIY artists can blend this almost all together with the arrangement, recording, and editing. To be specific in this article just say the main stages of a song:
- song idea/inspiration
- songwriting / composing
- arrangement/beat making
- CD printing
- marketing campaign
- song release
There wasn’t a defined goal known before the beginning of the production process
To grant success in this multiple-stage process is important to know clearly the steps and what they involved. Which I won’t cover in this article. I will focus on what are the main problem that sums up the process resulting in an unprofessional song.
You have to know what you want. For this reason and for many others, songwriting and composing are the first stages of a song after you came up with the idea. Which is developing this idea in a structured way to make the song playable and singable in your defined genre. At this stage, some issues might result in a bad song.
At this early stage, your song is in development, from your choices here your song will be defined. Some things may be changed later on, like an instrument playing a part, but the main thing starts taking shape here. For this is important that you define your lyrics, root note, melody, chords, what instruments will be involved, how do they work together, also how you want it to sound, what feeling you want to rise and when, and explicit what are you aiming for as a whole. Write this down because you must be consistent during the whole process to achieve it as you want. Some say that nothing is as expected. Following your own direction through the process you will ensure the closest result to what you had in mind at first.
Lack of knowledge
The other main reason why your songs don’t sound professional is more technical and related in particular to the production process. Keep in mind that if you are riding solo as a DIY artist, you already be doing all this. Chances are that you started music as a hobby and by the time you got here, you grow interested and willing to make and release your own music. This means probably you don’t have formal music or technical audio tuition. If you are really into this, keep digging further. A lack of knowledge will cause issues at any stage of making a song. Here below are the main problems in a particular stage.
The arrangement stage is when the song written or composed is handed to a band to play. If you are composing by yourself you are probably making beats or recording yourself playing your instrument and completing the arrangement with MIDI. The common mistake is overdue the arrangement:
- instruments on the same frequency range playing the same notes
- Are too many instruments
- lack of automation
- using sound that doesn’t match your song’s idea and goal
In the recording stage, many things could go wrong, but if you are at the recording studio they will lead you and/or, hopefully, expose the issue to try to fix them before handing the recording to the mixing engineer. But, for music people like you that wants to know, the main situation is:
- clipping recordings
- low signal gain recording (recording with low volume)
- wrong notes
- out of music scale
- out of timing (bpm)
- wrong sample rate
- wrong microphones
- wrong recording technique
- wrong lyrics
Editing is something more and more is considered the part of the arrangement or mixing stage. Still, here there something you will pay attention to when doing it:
- cut words
- uncleaned clips
- wrong duplicates
- wrong positioning
- fade in / fade out clips
Mixing is the stage where your song is being balanced out in a certain way, following certain methods. When doing your own mix the first issue is that it is hard to judge objectively, because of the time spent in the previous stages, and because of the emotional attachment, you have to it. The second main problem is to understand when too much isn’t good. Those result in issue on your song:
- wrong balance
- the wrong process of the recordings (eq, compression, etc.)
- wrong effects (delay, reverbs, etc.)
- wrong panning
- wrong bounce rate
If your song made it into the mastering stage you are almost done. Remember that this is the last stage on the production side to aim for a particular sound and goal. Like mixing, sometimes mastering your own song won’t benefit them. The common issue is also similar, plus:
- wrong loudness results
- wrong song transition
- overall feeling
Those were a sum up the mistakes or issues that could happen. Clearly, there are some others that more or less harm your song. One particular is the listening environment where you do your thing, if it doesn’t have a flat response, or has poor sound prof treatment, it might be the main problem on frequency response (monitors with colored response) because your decision is based on a not reliable audio reference.
The best solution is to identify the problem and go back to this stage to fix it. Remember that going back implies that you will start from this stage over. Resulting in more time spent on the process and a direct and/or indirect higher cost.
You maybe fix it in the mix and or mastering, but that comes at a cost. Not only on money or time but also as a trade on the quality of your song. Fixing something at a later stage could prevent your song to sound as you wanted to.
The perfect solution would be to not move on to a new stage until everything is perfect and double-checked. For sure an issue could appear because it wasn’t that perfect, but with experience and this article, you will know what to look out for when in a particular stage.
Don’t do it all at once, give it time. Detach from it if necessary for some days, so when you come back you can listen to it with a clear mind.
Mix or master your track matching a reference song. Remember the one you were thinking about at the beginning of this article? Practice and try to match its frequency response and loudness result.
With this article, you have a guide to prevent you from sounding unprofessional, but still, you have to listen and know what makes the song good and what’s not. To know what to listen for, first, you need to understand how to judge a song at a technical level. Once you do this and train yourself, you will notice that judging is relevant to your taste and expectation. Comparing your song to others is fundamental to start listening for differences. Clearly, you’ve got to be in the same genre to do a fair comparison. And with the goals you decided at the beginning, you now can judge your song and see if you achieved what you wanted.
The more you do the better you become so don’t be frustrated if the song you finished today will sound unpolished someday in the future. Your goal is to do what it takes to bring your art to its full potential within your possibilities. Whatever they are.
If you are interested in writing and recording your vocals, and not doing all the other things you might consider hiring a professional to do your songs.
Considering a path into the music market to release songs, depending on your skills now, will lead you to either hire a music professional to make sure the quality and speed are obtained on a regular basis or to learn more about making songs (like the whole process, or focus on a particular stage, to begin with).
If you are a music passionate learning how to do things is part of the journey and part of the fun. Making a song all the way you want, is totally worth it.