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Have you ever struggled with knowing when to call a song “complete?”
You wind up creating countless revisions, iterations, and changes, leaving your team exhausted and ending up with a final product that is completely different from the original idea… At best, you end up with something that you’re truly proud of, but at worst you’ve sucked all the initial energy out of that foundational starting place.
Perfectionism is very much a double-edged sword, lending itself to some of the greatest works of music, but can also be toxic to the creative process. It’s great to obsess over details, but a true master of their craft knows how to obsess over the right details.
Here are five key qualities to focus on, in order to truly know when your song is done.
1. The “Scientific” Edits
This is the boring, but crucial stuff to pay close attention to. Are the “scientific” or technical pieces of our song in place? This would include things like vocal tuning, rhythm, out-of-key notes, etc. Make sure to run through your song with a fine-toothed comb, listening over several times to make sure that the mechanical components are cleaned up and release-ready.
Of course, every style has its nuances where imperfections are permissible, but make sure these imperfections reflect intention and mastery of the craft instead of sounding like mistakes.
Now we get into the more esoteric (and in my opinion more fun) phase of our process. Does the song have a sense of horizontal arrangement, that is, does it tell a compelling story across the track’s timeline? Focus on the energy of the song.
How does it make you feel? Is there a clear arc; an intro, a rising action, climax and resolution? Or does the track feel neutral throughout? Creating contrast between different sections (i.e: verse, chorus, bridge) is crucial to maintain a listener’s attention.
Here’s a trick I use all the time — if your song lacks contrast, then go back into the earlier parts and see what instrumentation can be removed. Simplifying the earlier parts of the arrangement will create a nice runway for the song to build and immerse the listener into the musical drama, keeping them engaged to the end of the track.
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3. The Mix and Master
A great rule of thumb here is to check if the music is “listenable.” Does the song sound cleaned and polished, or is it distorting, unclear, or hard to make out certain parts? Are the vocals and instruments sitting in their own space or do we have a sonic blob on our hands?
Sounding commercially competitive is crucial too — I will often compare my mixes back to back to my favorite songs on Spotify. If a track doesn’t sound at least 75% as good as my reference then it’s back to the mixing phase for me, and, in some cases, if I can’t get it to 100%, then I’ll hire the help of another mixing/mastering engineer!
4. Body Language
People often lie to us when asked for feedback, especially when we request constructive criticism from individuals not versed in the craft. This is completely understandable since it creates a bit of an awkward social situation to ask for feedback on something one may not know anything about.
However, feedback, especially from our non-musician friends is an incredible way to know when a song is ready to be released. Words may not capture the full truth, but body language NEVER lies.
Play your music out to friends and family. Ignore what they say, but pay attention to how they feel. Someone’s energy towards a piece of music is almost tangible, you’ll be able to tell right away when they are engaged or when someone is starting to lose interest. Take note at what points these emotional shifts happen to see if you might have to go back and make adjustments to your song.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Why Developing a Workflow Is the Most Important Job a Producer Has.”
5. Trust That Gut!
This cliché is trying to say that we need to trust our bodies more. Our intuition lives in the felt experience, not in our heads. Remarkably there has been a lot of research done on the body’s ability to assimilate knowledge quicker than our minds.
Oftentimes, our intuition knows much more than we do, so, lastly, trust in your physical feelings about the song. This is a kinder way of saying get out of your head! If the song sits right with you then your work is complete. Time to move on to the next.
Finishing music requires discipline and trust.
We can strive for perfection but we will never attain it (trust me, musicians at the top of the industry feel these pains too) and that’s more than okay! We can, however, have a vision for excellence.
What will get us closer to that vision is continuous growth, and nothing grows a musician more than consistently finishing and, most importantly, sharing the music we’ve been working on.
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