Here is a common set of steps that happens to someone who is new at this…

  1. You are all excited about your first song and you put it online, but when you try to show it to your friend at their house, it doesn’t sound right. So you give up and turn on your favorite band and when it comes on, it is so loud, it almost blows you away. Once you turn it down, you realize how much better it sounds than what you were doing.
  2. You go home frustrated, determined to do better, but unsure where to begin. So the first thing you do is try to deal with the volume. “What’s up with that?”, you ask, “Why is mine¬†so much quieter?”. Naturally, you go turn up the levels on your project and suddenly it is distorting. “It doesn’t go any louder!“, you scream. Ah, but it does, Watson …patience. ūüėČ
  3. Fuming about how they do it, you turn to the internet for advice. Wise but foolish. You find that the answer lies in compression. So you throw one of those things on the track and it gets quieter, not louder, driving you up the wall. Or maybe it has built-in makeup gain and it makes things louder, but sounds all weird now either way. Grrr. Poor fella, the preset betrayed you.

This can go on for a long time –¬†you try to fix a problem and it just creates another one, or doesn’t have much effect. Sadly, it is so easy to do in engineering, but you are getting ahead of yourself. You are attempting to create music with tools, when you should be creating tools (understanding) with music.

Take your favorite artist’s song and put it through the same paces you do to your own stuff. But this time, try to ruin¬†it with EQ, compression, gating, etc. In doing so, you will learn where its important pieces are. If the original is bass-heavy, a high-pass filter will make it sound weak and wimpy. If it is already compressed, further compression¬†might cause “pumping”, an unnatural sound that happens when volume changes (or not)¬†in ways your¬†brain doesn’t expect. If you set a noise gate¬†with a high¬†threshold on a track that has very few quiet parts, it will show you the edges of what is loud and what is quiet around a certain volume level. This is useful for knowing how much to compress by ear, as well as learning about the gate itself – which is the whole point.