The Armada Talent Experience’s treasure chest has been opened again; Armin van Buuren and Eelke Kleijn shared some valuable production tips at the Armada Music HQ in Amsterdam. But as it was a Dutch-only edition, a lot of you couldn’t be there to learn their secrets. However, we were there to take in their words of wisdom and wrote them down so you could learn from them as well. These are ten of the most important things they said.
1. Age doesn’t matter
Let’s cut right to the chase here. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Really, it doesn’t. The past edition of the Armada Talent Experience saw seventy attendees, ranging from 8 till 31 years old. And we hear you thinking: “I’m (way) older than 31, so that means I don’t have a shot, right?”
WRONG! Talent is not measured in age, nor is it measured in the amount of wrinkles that adorn your face. True, you might not become the next big thing in teenage superstar land if you’ve been around for ages, but that doesn’t mean that your music is doomed to remain unheard. If your music is good enough, it WILL be discovered. It’s just a matter of hard work, persistence, and patience. If you never give up, you’ll never fail.
2. Less Is More
Less is more… It sounds like a quote from some all-knowing, all-powerful guru with a majestic, white beard. But what does it really mean? We’ll take a bit of our own demo-drop experience to explain. One of the things we encounter often in demo submissions is a complete and utter wall of sound. We understand that you want to make your track sound big and powerful, but adding excessive amounts of extra sounds to your song is not how you should go about.
The reason why has a lot to do with balancing your mix. Every sound in your track should have its own place in the mix and should add something to the track in general. But when you add too many sounds to make it sound big, they will clog up your mix and overpower the sounds residing in the same part of the frequency spectrum. Not to mention the phase problems that will almost certainly arise.
It is not the quantity of sounds that make a record sound huge. It’s how you give each of your sounds a place in your track and how you enhance the important parts of your song. Try to boost the important frequencies of your key sounds instead of adding tons of other synths on top.
Play around with panning your different layers, make use of their specific traits (e.g. the punch of synth A, the warmth of synth B, and the sparkling overtones of synth C), and take away one or two sounds to see if they even make a difference at all or just blur the overall stereo image. Less is more if you know how to use your ‘Less’.
3. Keep your breakdowns short and exciting
Picture yourself this… You’re standing in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by thousands of like-minded individuals moving to the rhythm, bouncing to the beat, and throwing their fists in the air. The breakdown hits and the magnificent atmosphere of the track intensifies. After a minute, maybe one and a half, you’re ready to go all out. But the breakdown drags on and you are left standing still for at least three minutes. Kind of kills the magic of the moment, doesn’t it?
Keep your breakdowns short and exciting; don’t let it be the downfall of the momentum you’ve tried your hardest to build. Eelke Kleijn applied some beats to the background of the breakdowns in his ‘Discopolis’ remix to keep the groove going, while Armin van Buuren just kept his breakdowns in ‘Safe Inside You’ entertaining by adding extra elements along the way. But whatever you come up with to make your breakdown one to remember, just don’t make it seem like an eternity. Between one and two minutes will do just fine.
4. Learn from others…
Armin van Buuren stated that he still learns from other artists and producers every single day. So why shouldn’t you? A good way to start is to grab one of your favorite tunes and to dissect this record. Analyze all of the important elements without overlooking the details. Heck, it would be best if you would try to create your own 100% identical remake of the track. It might take a lot of time to get it right, but it’s faster than trying to figure it all out on your own.
From personal experience, we can say that these methods work like a charm. Not only do you get to discover what makes a track successful, you get learn from the best and train your ears while doing it.
5. …but do not copy them
Yes, there’s a but in this story. Although trying to understand what works and what makes a certain sound so successful is high on the things-you-should-do list, you shouldn’t just outright copy sounds or entire tracks. Sure, it might sound fantastic if you mimic what they do, but it will also come across as old news. And old news is no news.
Record labels, DJs, playlist curators, you name it. They are all looking for something avant-garde and fresh instead. You might catch a lucky break once or twice, but being a human photocopier is not a strong foundation to build a career on. Instead, bring your own ideas, preferences, and style into the mix. There’s nothing more interesting and exciting than something that has never been done before.
6. Strike a balance in your mix
Way too often, we encounter imbalanced songs. The vocal is too loud, the synths overpower the rest of the song, or the drums are so pumped up in volume that they make your head hurt. We want to impart that keeping an eye on the volume is essential. Not just because we value our ability to hear so much, but also because it is 90% of what mixing is about.
Let’s break away from dance music for a second and focus on orchestras and their concerts. Notice how their on-stage positioning (the traditional equivalent of panning), choice of instruments, and the volume and velocity in which they play defines the balance of the mix. There’s no frequency cutting, nor is there any real-time audio editing. This means that the mix of instruments must fill up the frequency spectrum without cancelling each other out or overpowering one another. The same principal can be applied to electronic music.
The moral of the story is to choose your sounds wisely and to balance them volume-wise before anything else. To cut out or weaken certain frequencies is to make the sound lose a bit of its naturally appealing characteristics. Whether you like it or not, to edit a sound is to screw with it; it is best to refrain yourself from editing the things that do not necessarily need it. A certain sound doesn’t fit in your mix? Too bad, choose a different one that does. It makes mixing a whole lot easier if you do and your music will benefit from it.
7. Stand out from the common rabble
We (and most other labels out there) get a shitload of demo submissions on a daily basis. We listen to every single one, but unfortunately, this also means that we receive a lot of music that sounds similar. As mentioned before, that is not a good thing. Especially when you try to convince someone that your music is special and better than anyone else’s. Find your own sound, crush the boundaries and boxes that limit your creative output and come up with something fresh and distinctive. This will increase your chances of getting signed a lot.
On a side note, you can of course send in multiple songs at once (although we prefer to just receive your best work to date). But please, don’t send in everything you’ve ever worked on. We don’t have the time to listen to your entire discography. And don’t apologize beforehand saying that your demo submission is a work in progress, lacks mastering, or whatever.
Send us your FINISHED work, a small introduction of who you are, where you’re from, and what notable things you’ve accomplished in music so far. Don’t be one of those guys that sends a 400-page novel to explain what their song is about. Be smart, don’t be like that guy!
8. Be persistent
It’s probably been said a gazillion times, but that’s just because it’s true! If you want to start a career in this relentless industry, you’ve got to be persistent. It could take years, even decades before you get picked up by a big label or discovered by a huge artist. But you can be sure of the following: if you give up or stop trying, you will NEVER get there.
Never give up, no matter how difficult it can be at times. All of the big guys in the scene have struggled with it at least once in their careers. If you want to be like them, you’ll have to face and overcome those difficulties as well.
9. Apply variation, (but not too much)
What do you do when you’ve created a killer drop? Apparently, the answer given most often is to repeat it over and over again… Do you know what kills such an exciting part of a song? Repeating that same thing over and over again until it sounds like the endless, annoying buzzing of your washing machine.
Think of it as a tune you used to love. You kept playing it over and over again, until you notice that it just doesn’t feel as exciting as it did when you first heard it. The same thing happens when you keep repeating the same elements of your track.
We need something surprising to happen at every turn. Everyone that loves music wants to be blown away by it, but that just won’t happen if you don’t apply the necessary variation. If you keep your track surprising and interesting, people won’t get sick of it after playing it out loud for a few days.
10. Back up your projects. FREQUENTLY.
If you don’t follow up on this, you could’ve just skipped the other nine tips and tricks mentioned above. BACK UP YOUR PROJECTS FREQUENTLY! Everything you come up with, whistle or create by smacking some random household object with a giant spoon… save it! Preferably every alternate version of it as well.
If you haven’t encountered the struggle of losing your best work, you are either already aware – and terrified – of the consequences or just extremely lucky. In the case of the latter, it will not last indefinitely and you’ll know soon enough why we can’t stress this enough.