Making Your Music Sounds Better

ONE – the tools
It doesn’t matter what program you are working on, FL Studio, Reason, it doesnt matter because it is you who is making the song, not the program. Here’s a nigh-perfect setup for a desktop computer that can give you absolutely nothing in case you don’t know how to make use of a number of the most basic tools:
Cubase SX or some equivalent studio-class program suite as the main device with Reason as a primary synth with a 3-computer VST-link setup, ProTools for mastering and a expensive Korg (or equivalent) hardware synthesizer connected to a Hoontech or Audigy 2 (or some equivalent ASIO-compliant card) for low-latency live recording, totalling something like $10000 (of which ~$1500-$2000 goes on program).
The truth is that while such a suite might give you all the power in the world, lots of (if not most) bits in it are basically replaceable with freely available program packages from the Net.
While it is true that there is no free program synth out there that can compete with commercial products, Fruity Loops is over able to providing the same quality as Cubase – however, possibly with a small little bit of additional work. FL Studio Sounds are easy to make once you learn your way around. Regardless – that is not the point: the point of this thread is to help those of you who are beginning out gain some insight in to how to bring your songs to life.
TWO – 8 simple rules
1) quality is paramount
2) post-processing (mastering) makes the song as far as quality goes (unless, of work, you are beginning out with utter rubbish in the first place)
3) you NEED a proper sound card. Seriously – if you are going to approach things with a solid idea of generating something worth while, a SoundBlaster Live! won’t suffice. Don’t ask around which of them are the best – look at the cost and you’ll be able to identify quality. Differently from politics, in sound/music hardware industry, cost and quality mostly run in tight correlation
4) you NEED proper headphones – Making beats with proper headphones will give you the authenticness of the FL Studio Sounds, there’s some things you should not do while using headphones, but for the most part owning quality headphones is much more crucial than owning a 7.1 surround process
5) you NEED to know a thing or one about DSP (digital signal processing) – more on this point later. I have heard way lots of songs that lack the “proper” (read: they make highly experimental) use of effects due to the composer not knowing how an effect works. Before you apply a highpass filter or a compressor to your track you NEED to know how to make use of it to maximize the effect that it will give you
6) owning a few sample CD’s is a and
7) knowing music theory to some extent is important – lots of songs finish up as collections of samples piled on top of each other because the composer mixes and matches, but doesn’t compose
8) knowing your target audience and format IS important – for example, you cannot add extensive stereo imaging to a track if your target is the net or the track will basically not mix down to mono well and you’ll finish up with utter rubbish one times you have uploaded it and start listening to it in your browser. Tweak your Fl Studio Sounds accordingly.
THREE – quality
No matter what your target format is, the most important thing you need to pay attention to when composing your song, is quality – quality sells. The days when anyone like Prodigy could sell millions of records of tracker music, are over. Try to only use Fl Studio Sounds that sound professional and have good quality.
The only solid ways of ensuring the quality sound of your music is by either:
1) using device banks (collections of device sounds that provide interpolation points for an device across the whole spectrum, such as a collection of recorded piano sounds at every C note, which are then interpolated to provide correct pitch values for notes that lie between them), or
2) using program synthesizers. Don’t be fooled, even if your aim is to write music that only makes use of “natural” instruments (the piano, sax, nylon guitar, etc). There’s numerous VST instruments out there that provide realistic-sounding natural FL Studio Sounds. Because synthesizers are in fact synthesizers (of sound created from “scratch”), the quality they provide is purely digital, eg free of sampling or recording artifacts. In addition to Steinberg VST, there’s DirectX-based plugins that do an equally lovely job. Fruity Loops supports VST, as does Steinberg’s own Cubasis (naturally). Propellerhead Reason does not support VST plugins (natively, and intentionally) because it is designed as a program syntheseizer itself to be used together with some “master” application (in most cases through Rewire know-how). For that reason you cannot compare Reason (no pun intended) to Cubase or Fruity Loops!
There’s hundreds and hundreds of VST plugins and Fl Studio Sounds available on the Web – all you need to do is Google them up. To help you out:
Free plugins
Links that lead to more free VST plugins (and other stuff)
Not so free plugins
Don’t go crazy, though, because there’s so lots of plugins that one can basically get lost in them.
One times you have got the proper instruments – the ones that you need, not the ones that you think will do, you need to pay special attention to how to make these instruments sound appealing. There is a handful of simple effects that can add a whole new world to your songs (see the mastering section). Add them correctly and your FL Studio Sounds will be diversing.
FOUR – know some DSP and the terminology
Before you start adding a lowpass filter to a track, take the time to KNOW what that filter does. I’ll provide a rundown of the basics of DSP that you will need to know most fundamentally.
Since sound exists in the frequency domain, you need to know its nature before you start messing around with it. A volume slide might sound lovely for an intro or outro, but a lowpass slide will definitely sound cooler. To learn the basics quickly, all you need to do is know what your sound card can do. Here is a link under the microscope results of Creative’s Audigy 2 SZ Pro at 48 kHz. At the least, you NEED to know what the first graph in that link means and how to read it:

A frequency response

As the most essential thing, you need to be able to glance at the frequency response of a filter and know what it will do to your song (even if it is sliders or numbers that you can look at). I recommend you read through the linked page, even in case you don’t understand it. For example, in the picture, the white and green lines appear to run straight for most of the graph at zero gain (vertical axis), but drop off drastically at around 15 kHz (the horizontal axis). In case you were to think of the frequency response as a multiband tapestry, then the left side (up to ~90 Hz) would denote bass, from there, everything up to ~8000 Hz would include human speech and generic instruments, such as the violin, guitar, etc. The 3000-16000 Hz region is perceived as treble by humans and includes hats and cymbals as sounds. Take the time to aquaint yourself with this page to know what parts make up a filter’s frequency response.
For example, when setting your filter parameters for a lowpass filter (cutoff, Q – or the the amount of ripple in the passband, and gain), you ought to in fact know what sound you are going for or it is going to be hard for you to imagine what something will sound like one times you start combining filters or using some more complex effect, such as a parametric equalizer.
(Speaking of other “traditional” effects – it is a small bit more difficult to report how phaser and chorus work – however, since these are effects you won’t be using every day anyway, knowing their inner workings is not that essetial.)
Next is a dissection of a typical synthesizer module that you can find in every program. Here’s an picture of the Wasp program synth, natively provided with Fruity Loops:

The Wasp program synth from Fruity Loops

Although you can learn what most of the knobs roughly do by turning them, the only way of knowing how to make use of the synth is by knowing how to make use of it. Take time to read this description of the Wasp synthesizer – it is going to be of great help if you have never looked at one before.
A synth is a simple waveshaper – that is, it takes one or more wave shapes (such as sine, triangle, ramp, square or some more elaborate predefined shape that appear in the kind of oscillators) and combines them according to the parameters that you define. Most synths have a few more controls available to you – something that can hook your attention for hours (or until you lose interest in both the synth as well as your song).
Interpolation: a few programs provide over one choice as far interpolation goes. know that whatever interpolation you finish up using, the default one (in most cases) – linear interpolation – is not how the world works. In case you need to transpose human voice or some highly pitch-sensitive device sound, you’ll need to make use of a vocoder (try getting one here). Also try adding the vocoder to random fl studio sounds, just experience.
FIVE – mastering
As the final step, you ought to always master your song before releasing it. There’s probably lots of great mastering tools (that cost a fortune) and I could not say I can provide a link to a freely available high-quality mastering device. However, fortunately most of the steps completed in mastering can be “faked” using simpler plugins or effects. For starters, I recommend you get your hands on a demo version of iZotope’s Ozone to get the feel of what mastering is like and what it entails – Ozone costs $300, though, but having a glance at its demo version will be invaluable. Mastering is the primary point behind this thread – most songs released on the net are not mastered and sound home-made for that reason. To make use of it as a point of reference, Ozone includes three effects that you can use to fine-tune your tracks:

* parametric equalizer

Fruity Loops provides you with a flexible parametric EQ as one of the in-package effects. Looking for a free VST/DX parametric EQ plugin is not that trivial – most products cost a lot (usually in excess of $150). However, unless your song is well balanced, some minor equalization tweaks on the final mix will let you greatly balance out any bass/treble inconsistencies on the fl studio sounds.

Understanding how the parametric EQ works presumes you have full knowledge of what a frequency response is and what types of filters there’s.

* reverb

Although it is a lovely suggestion to add reverb to each individual device track (or group) separately to increase the “breadth” of the device (group), always think about adding an additional small bit of reverb to the final mix to smooth out any “holes” and make the track sound more flowing. Get a free VST reverb plugin here. It is, however, my suggestion that you do your own additional research and compare several plugins as there is nothing that is guaranteed in this world – including the quality of freeware tools.

* compression

In simple terms, what a compressor does is that it limits the loud peaks of your mix from clipping (by basically making them calm to not clip). A compressor can be divided in to six parts: the limiter (the part which prevents clipping), the compressor (the part which maintains a constant volume) and the expander (the part which acts to complement the limiter and boosts sure quieter parts of your mix).

Fruity Loops has a built-in compressor, which acts linearly in regard to all volume levels below its threshold (that is, it doesn’t include the expander portion) – that is, every peak that is louder than Threshold, is reduced by a factor of Ratio (for example if the maximum desired volume is 0 dB then a peak of 3 dB is compressed to 1 dB if the ratio is 3:1, which still clips, but a lot less). The Gain of a compressor defines how much the whole signal level is boosted after it is been compressed. This page provides the MDA VST plugins pack, which includes a more elaborate compressor.

You ought to make use of the compressor on every device track, not the final mix to provide consistent volume levels and minimize clipping. Only use the compressor when mastering if the levels are off – as a rule of thumb you ought to not start mastering a track that clips in the first place, but in lieu return to the drawing board and fix the clipping.

* stereo imaging

This is probably the most important effect of all mastreing effects – a simple one at that. Fruity Loops has a plugin called Stereo Enhancer, which is fundamentally the same thing: a stereo signal is delayed in one channel, making a sense of spaciousness. Ozone, however, provides a greatly enhanced version of this effect: a multiband stereo imager, which lets you specify different levels of stereo separation in different frequency bands.

The trick here is to apply stereo imaging to each device track or a group of instruments separately. It is rare that you need to enhance the stereo properties of the bassline or the bass drum. However, adding stereo separation to the lead synth will give a superb effect. Adding less stereo separation to the hats will, in turn, provide more focus on the middle frequencies (eg the lead synth) and not distract the listener.

* harmonic excitation

Although you’ll most likely must skip this step if you are broke, harmonic excitation adds a lot to a mix if applied correctly (that is, when it is not overdone). In simple terms, what this does is that it adds new harmonics in between existing harmonics to “add color” to the final sound of the mix. As far as I do know, it is not feasible to get a free harmonic excitation plugin, so there is not much to do on this part in case you haven’t got the money.

Ozone, however, does include a four-band harmonic exciter – I recommend you check it out, even if it is only the demo you can affort!

To sum up on mastering, here are some final thoughts:
The catch is that while several of these effects are complex and do not float around freely on the Web, they can be emulated (but only to an extent) through the use of simpler filters. While you cannot reproduce the effects of the harmonic exciter like that, you can use several 1-band equalization modules to generate a makeshift parametric equalizer. rudimentary stereo imaging can be completed by by hand shifting (delaying) one channel by a small number of samples (try this out in a wave editor) – this will sound more bad than lovely, but if there’s no other solutions available to you, this will possibly sound better than the raw deal.
Technique every device track separately to minimize the necessity for final mastering and one times you are completed along with your song and do choose that it requires a final polish, buy an hour of studio time and master it there – most studios do have professional program (or hardware) available and do not cost THAT much (unless you need to be in the best studio in town).
As a rule you ought to master the final output of your mix – the song rendered to a wav file, not by applying more effects on the output channel in the composition program (ironically, I did my part in helping you understand how to make your FL Studio Sounds sound better and more crisp. Fruity loops is quite easy once you get the hang of everything.

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