Reverse Engineering - the Best Way to get Started in Music Production!

I am often asked how to get started with music production. Many of these people already have the recording equipment and a basic idea of how to record and mix. But they don’t at all know how to create a song from scratch.

Blank Canvas Syndrome: BCS

As a songwriter or producer, having a “blank canvas” in front of you, whether it be white lined paper waiting for lyrics, the 88 keys staring up at you or the 24 audio/24 midi blank template in your DAW, it can be a total creativity-killer. If you have BCS, the answer is as simple as knowing where to start. And to learn to produce music, where to start is where someone else finished. In other words, we’re going to “Reverse-Engineer” a song.

Why would you want to copy what someone else produced? “I want to be a creative producer, not a copy producer!”, right? Well, because reverse-engineering trains your ear to hear the detail in every sound that makes up the song. The length of the reverb tail. The frequency boost on the kick. The panning movement on the oscillating synth...Every. Freaking. Detail. And until you hear those details in other songs, you won’t know how to create the sounds you hear in your head. Got it?

Since this article is aimed at folks hoping to learn how to produce music, I’ll share with you my process. After reverse-engineering for close to a decade now, I’ve found that there is a process that makes it flow the best for me. It goes like this:

Pick a song

First, select a song that you know you have the ability to recreate*. I don’t play guitar so I’m obviously not going to choose a guitar heavy song. Virtual instruments are pretty darn amazing, however. If you are still learning your software and aren’t quite sure what instruments you have and can create legit sounds from yet, that’s ok. This is how you will learn what you have and don’t have!

Don’t forget the vocals. If you are a singer, make sure to pick a song you can sing. If not, find a singer and pick a song they know how to sing. Give yourself the best chance of being able to replicate the song in every detail. If you don’t have Kelly Clarkson chops or know someone who does, don’t pick a Kelly Clarkson song.

Now that you’ve chosen your song, import it into your DAW. Set the tempo, create markers at all of the verses, pre-choruses, choruses, interludes, notable moments (drops), bridges, etc.

*I strongly recommend starting with the song “Meant to Be” by Florida Georgia Line featuring Bebe Rexha because….it’s quite simple behind the vocals. Even if you don’t have vocalists that can sing it, just recreate the music and you’ll end up with a karaoke track!

Sounds

Drums

Start with the kick pattern throughout the entire song. If you are using a kick sample (which I usually use rather than programming a midi note and then tweak/EQ/Compress the crap out of the synthesized kick...I have samples that already sound pretty close to the way I want the kick to sound, especially for modern music so, why not?) I find the absolute closest sound to it that I can, knowing that I might still need to play with EQ/Comp before it’s right.

Then I go through the same process with the snare hats, cymbal crashes and swells, other percussion and sound effects.

What if you missed something? No biggie. You may notice later on when you are programming keyboards or synthesizers that there was this little triangle blip you didn’t notice before. Go ahead and add it as soon as you hear it. Get it in there. What if it takes 2 hours and you still haven’t gotten the kick drum to sound right? Move on. Get it as close as you can and take note about what you couldn’t get right. Then when you listen back and you can tell that your version sounds different than the original, you’ll remember what obstacles you encountered and hear what a difference those “little” differences make in the final product. This is part of the “learning to listen” process.

*Trick: Use your eyes when copying drum patterns. You can often see in the audio file of the original where drum hits are because there’s a big spike!

Bass

But I don’t play the bass! So what. One of the best discoveries I made when I started programming/producing music was that the bass is the coolest instrument of all! But you can still replicate it which eventually will help you figure out what your bass should do in a song you are producing from scratch. There will be some nuances that you will never be able to recreate using a virtual bass, even though you can get close. Most virtual instruments have amazing sounds including slides, string squeaks, string hits, etc. You can get pretty dang close. The point is that you are learning what a bass player does, what the tone of the bass is and how that sound adds to the character of the song. If you do play the bass, good on ya. Focus on getting the tone and the feel to match the song you are recreating.

Other Instruments

Begin programming all of the “inner” instruments. If you are freaking out because you can’t tell what instruments are there, just start with the most obvious one first. You’ll probably experience something I call the  “zooming in” phenomena. The closer you listen, the more you hear. As you listen carefully, you’ll notice more sounds. And then more. Again, it’s ok if you now hear a synth sound that you didn’t hear 5 days ago or even 5 minutes ago. Keep “zooming in” until you think you’ve gotten everything.

Since matching synthesizer sounds exactly can be…”hard”, to put it simply, program the notes first then flip through synthesizer presets and find the closest one. Sound design is going deeper than what you’ll want to worry about at this stage, so don’t get hung up on matching the sound exactly for now. Just get as close as you can. This will help you to become familiar with your synths which is imperative. Once you know what your synth presets do and sound like, you can work toward learning how to shape and design the pre-set sounds to your desired sound.

A note about electric guitar tone: like I said, I don’t play guitar. But I worked closely with a guitarist for over 10 years and learned something very important. Guitar tone is king. And nailing the tone just right can be an elusive moving target. There are literally thousands of combinations of settings when you consider every guitar knob, pickup switch, mic placement, amp knob, pedal possibility, effects processing...it’s mind numbing. Needless to say, you could spend years just figuring out how to match guitar tone to your favorite songs. Just like the synths, get it as close as you can and then move on. You’ll get better and better every time you tackle this reverse-engineering exercise.

Trick: Make note of places in the song where there are breakdowns, soft choruses, intros and outros. Often times these are the sections where you can better hear patterns or sounds that may be going on throughout the song but aren’t as easy to hear in other sections of the song. In “meant to be” there’s an a cappella break down where you can clearly hear the harmony happening during the hook which is harder to hear during the “full” choruses.

Vocals

Begin with the lead vocal. Make sure the recording is clean and “uncolored” with room acoustics or outboard hardware that may add specific coloring to the track. You can add processing later. Once you have your lead vocal track you are happy with (I hope you’ve read my blog post about getting the best vocal performance from your singer in the studio before you do this) now you get to listen to the processing of the vocal and try to match the processing on your copy song.  

Now, work on the backing vocals. Zoom in closer and closer and notice every harmony, double and stack. If you are not a singer, this might be difficult for you to hear at first. Work with your singer to pick out all of the parts and get them recorded. Don’t over complicate it! The harmony notes will MOST LIKELY fit the underlying chords going on so make sure to follow the chords and you should be in good shape.

For all elements now in your song, make sure you have addressed panning, EQ, compression, reverbs and delays and other fun spatial processing. As with everything in music production, you will get better the more you do this.

In case you didn’t notice, you started from the bottom and worked your way up. This is what I’ve found works the best for me. See if it works for you! If not, try it the other way.

Share with me your first “reverse-engineering” project and I’ll offer feedback if you’d like. Best of luck!

Becky Willard

Vox Fox Studios, Orem, UT 84097, USA