Lately I’ve been working on a live set, and I realized that I have a personal checklist I use to see if I covered everything to help me decide if a particular song is finished; from little details to bigger things, sometimes it’s easy to overlook important factors. Just like with traveling, you want to make sure everything is ready before stepping out of your project.
This checklist outlined in this article is what I personally use before shifting to the mixing phase. In a past article, I explained the importance of exporting the stems out of your project once the production is done. This frees up CPU usage, lightens up your projct, gives you the option to backup or collaborate, or possibly to do some mixing into another DAW to get different textures. But mostly it’s a way to tell yourself “Ok, time to move on.”
Do you need to cross-check everything in this list to declare your song finished? No, not at all. Below is just a cheat sheet to help you have a better idea of everything that could potentially be covered (and I’m sure I’m missing one or two things here).
Below are what I believe to be the major categories of the “song is finished” checklist in terms of production (mixing is another phase altogether that comes afterwards):
1. The Hook
The hook is where everything begins and ends, so ask yourself these simple questions to get started:
- What is the main hook of your song? Remember, the hook is what someone would sing or recall to someone else to explain what the song is about. Your song might not have a main hook, which is okay, but a hook is one of the most important factors to help make a song memorable and timeless.
- What elements supports the hook? A good hook is often not enough. Supporting it with complementary sounds or little blurbs of secondary melody is very helpful.
- Are you aiming at a pop structure or more of a repeating mantra? There is also a grey area which combines both of these structures. But whatever your pick is, it helps to have a clear answer to this question in your head.
2. Sound design
Sound design is actually the most important section to me and this is usually where I spend the most time. I have sub-categories here that I will cover.
- What is the direction and purpose of this song? Is it mainly for DJs or at-home or headphone listening? Vinyl or Spotify? Chill, dancefloor or experimental? This is something that can sometimes be good to keep in mind until the very end.
- What song or artist would be a similar reference to your track? A reference track can be added in the project itself in a channel. See my past post on how to use a reference track.
- What is the ratio of organic vs synthetic elements? This is something I sort of think about in the beginning but I am usually also open to revising at the end.
- What is the main key for my song? This is not always essential, especially if you make atonal music. But it’s a good idea to be aware of a general tuning of bass, kick and melodies.
- Kick drum: Is the kick in tune with the melody? Is it side-chained with other conflicting sounds? I recommend trying to have a different kick from whatever previous track you were working on. The kick is the last sound to be designed as it is there to support and complement the entire project.
- Snare/clap: Often equally important to the kick, I usually alternate between more of a clap sound vs. a traditional snare and I also try to have multiple layers. In electronic music, the percussion sound that will go on the 2nd and 4th beat should vary otherwise it sounds a bit monotonous. I personally to try to offer different sound options here for when I play my songs live or DJ them.
- Bass: Is it in key? Is it side-chained?
- Melody: This one is a bit difficult but as explained in my non-linear production technique, I like to go back and forth with the track to see if the melody has an impact; if it feels good over time. Finding melody is hard enough, but to make a melody that stands the test of time is an art in itself.
- Atmosphere: Is there a background to this track? What is in the background vs foreground? I like to use busses for creating atmosphere.
- Recording: Have I used field recordings for this to add another layer of atmosphere or sound?
- Textures: Are the textures clear and audible? Or is the song meant to be more subtle?
- What’s the ratio of repeating sounds vs ever-changing? Some people like to always have the same clap through out the song while in Hip Hop for example, producers often like movement and change. Is this a rule you want to follow? If so, on what sounds?
My “groove” section is a bit less detailed, but is very important, especially if the song is more percussive and dancefloor-oriented.
- Is the groove borrowed from a song or from a groove template? Or is it custom?
- What is the time signature? Is it global or different for different parts?
- Is there a global groove applied or is this song using multiple grooves depending on the part?
- Export all percussion loops to MIDI to tweak the groove.
- What is repetitive and what not? Find the healthy balance of sounds being repeated through the song and others that change over 1-2-3-4 bars.
- Is there sidechain between channels to create subtle or obvious pumping? This can make a difference.
- What are the sounds that are modulated? This is one of the most important thing to do if you want your song to have a more organic feel rather than synthetic. It’s one thing to select all organic samples but the way you program them will be critical for a general feel. In general, the human ear is very sensitive to movement, even if the music is played in the background; you’ll be surprised of what people notice, and what they don’t.
Using sends is crucial for giving the track a unified feel. One of the most common mistake I see from new producers is to use multiple reverb effects everywhere in the project instead of mainly using one as a send. I usually use multiple sends to create elaborated and sophisticated 3D effects for percussion and melodies. One of the most important point I always remind myself is to use them with care, towards the end of the production phase.
- Is this song more dry or wet in terms of effects? How much room have you left for reverb?
- What type of reverb do I want for this track? long or short?
- What is going to have a 3D effect? What makes the song 3D is the amount of sounds you put right up front vs the ones you put in the background. A healthy combination of both will have a better effect.
- Use one delay for the project! Which time signature does it have?
I previously referred to song structure as Lego building blocks in a previous post. Blocks are often constructed in the same way; this is why using a reference track can help break out storytelling ideas. I always recommend dropping Markers in the arrangements this way: One at the beginning, one at the end, and one in the middle. Markers will give you perspective, help you see if your general storytelling is balanced, and help you determine if things are properly organized.
From the middle marker, I would drop one additional marker between the very beginning and the middle markers, and then do the same thing in the second half. Your song should have four distinct sections. Sections one and four are intro and outro; the middle part is where your song develops and mostly exists.
- Does your song have intro/outro? Does the action start immediately or slowly develop?
- How much space have you left for the DJ to mix the track, if you’re making DJ-friendly music?
- Are your melodic elements evolving properly through each section?
- Does your song have at least one anchor point of interest per section? All the sections of your track should be interesting.
- Does the song have any surprises about two-thirds through its duration ? I always recommend considering this to make your song even more interesting.
These sections cover the main points that I usually think about when determining if a song is finished or not. If I don’t like the answers I come up with to some of these questions, I usually go back and work on the track even more!
SEE ALSO : Is My Song Good?