Get With The Program: How Production Sounds Should Fit In Your Mix

Programming different “sweeteners” into your mix is one of the easiest ways to add a narrative to your productions musically. Without words, programmed instrumentation can add transitions between song sections, bridging the gap between verse and chorus, and eliciting an emotional response in the process.

Sweeteners consist of instrument and non-instrument sounds, including special effect samples. While some instruments like shakers & chimes can be found pretty frequently in productions, less common sounds like thunder, shotgun blasts & more get layered under drum hits to add impact and aggression.

If you’re looking to get way outside of the box, your options for sweeteners are endless. Just look at the Blue Man Group – they’ve built an entertainment empire performing using gumballs and PVC pipes. While this is taking things to the extreme, pop productions have seen how the approach resonates with the general public. In recent years, Jason Derulo has amassed over 2 BILLION YouTube views on his top songs. Their hooks? A sample based on the ice cream truck song, a toy flute, and a crazy trumpet.

It’s proving more and more that it’s not about what you use to make music, but how good the song is (and how good it sounds). You don’t get billions of views with kids’ toys alone. You get there with a good team and good production that ties everything together seamlessly.

Choose Complimentary Sounds

Notice the range of sounds we just discussed? Everything from toy instruments to gunshots. Usually, your production isn’t going to have a need for both ends of the spectrum. Instead, you should be choosing samples and synths that compliment the song you’re working on.

Just like a synth bass can reinforce your live bass track, samples can reinforce other elements of your mix in a subtle and effective way.

Things like rising synths and sub drops are used to emphasize changes from bridge to chorus or vice versa. Perhaps a bit predictably, the sub drops usually get layered in with kick drums and sometimes low toms. It makes sense. Low emphasizes low.

You can do the same with any other part of your mix. Try layering mid-range heavy samples and synths with your guitar leads. Find samples that mix well with your lead vocal melody and mix them in underneath.

It can be a bit challenging at first to find sounds that work without masking the instrument you’re reinforcing, so start small and work your way into it. Push your fader up and remember that less is more if you’re reinforcing.

Taking the lead is a different story…

Leading With Samples

Lead samples can be a great way to feature a particularly catchy hook in a unique and original way. If you’re going to do it, keep these two things in mind:

  1.     Keep it clean.
  2.     Keep it catchy.

If you’re going to add production sounds as your featured instrument, there’s no excuse for poor quality. When I say “clean” I don’t mean unprocessed, I just mean the performance should be accurate and intelligible. It’s no different than recording a lead vocal – people aren’t interested in listening to something recorded through a tin can. Give them something worth hearing.

After that, you need something that will stick in your listener’s ear. Your lead should be interesting and easy to remember. This ventures a bit more into the songwriting side of things than mixing, but production is the perfect time to blend the two. Find something worthy of sitting in front of your mix. If you’re giving up real estate that your vocals could be sitting in for a synth or sample, make it work.

Squeezing It All Together

More so than any other group of instrumentation, your sweeteners are going to eat up the most space both dynamically and in the frequency spectrum. Since there’s not a real way to say how dynamic until they’re in the mix, it can be hard to account for problems ahead of time.

By adding a compressor like BG-Keys to your “Sweetener” bus (where you’re grouping all of these samples and synths before the master fader), you can catch those peaks as they arise. You also get the benefit of having a bit of glue tying not only those elements together with each other, but easing them into the rest of the mix.

Check out how Nick uses BG-Keys on some of his production samples and synths here:

Hear how everything gets that topcoat of polish and really shines with the additional compression?

Synths, Samples & More

Regardless of what you’re using for production sounds, gluing them together for a solid, cohesive mix is an absolute must. Keyboard-focused compressors work great because of the broad frequency ranges they’re designed to work with, but any stereo compressor will do in a pinch.

Are you more of a synth or sample user? Come join the conversation on Facebook to see how your production approach stacks up against other engineers and producers!