Bjorn Lynne's music composition and production tips

Welcome to my page of "hints, tricks and tips" when composing and producing your own music. This page is simply a result of "public demand", as a lot of people write to me and ask for tips about writing their own music. It's actually quite strange that I should write this kind of stuff - as I have no formal music education, neither in composition nor in production. So the cynics out there may perhaps say that I haven't got a clue what I'm talking about. And they are right!!! ;-)

On the other hand, I have been writing, recording, producing and publishing music with some success over the past 11 years, and even I can't avoid picking up a thing or two in the process. I've even managed to make a living on it, so I must have been doing some of it right.

Some of this I have learned from friends. Some I have picked up in magazines over the years. And some I have just plain "found out for myself". New stuff is added here regularly, so check back - or even better, join my mailing list, where new tips are also posted.

Tip #1: Phrase your solos

A lot of great instrumentalists forget that their solos should "speak" to the listener. A good solo doesn't sound all the time. You need to take little breaks and "breaths" to keep the interest up for the listener. You can think of it this way: Pretend that you wanted to sing the solo with your voice. You would have to breathe some times. Here's an example:

Bad solo - sounding all the time, never taking a breath. Doesn't "speak" to the listener, and becomes boring, or even stressing, to listen to.

Better solo - Here I have performed a solo which takes breaths and speaks in phrases with little pauses. Okay, so this isn't the "solo of the century" ;-) but it sounds a lot more interesting and each note has a lot more meaning.

This example was a guitar solo, but it might just as well be a synth-solo, sax solo or any other instrument. So this is my top tip - always remember that instruments also have to breathe.

Tip #2: Turn OFF the "loop" setting when using sampled loops

If you have a sampled drum-loop, bass-loop or any other looped sound that you want to use in your music: Upload your sample to your external sampler, or create a SoundFont from your loop... and make sure that the "loop" setting in this instrument is switched OFF. Instead, re-trigger the sample with a new MIDI note for every time you want the sample to play.

This ensures that the loop stays in time with the track even if it is very slightly out of time, because it is re-triggered for every bar, it means that any slight discrepancy in the loop length doesn't get a chance to get worse and worse for every time the sound loops around.

If you have the sample looped and re-trigger the sample for every bar, you risk getting "flams", i.e. the sample may be "doubled up" just as you re-trigger it, and at the same time the note from the previous bar loops around and starts again.

So keep that "loop" setting to OFF, except when using sustained sounds like strings etc. with loop points.

Tip #3: Want to get a harder guitar sound? Try turning the distortion DOWN.

For a long time, I was of the impression that in order to get the "hardest" guitar sound, I had to set the distortion as high as possible.

In fact, a too much distortion can lead to a softer, more "fluid" guitar sound. More harmonics are introduced into the sound, and as it gets saturated, it gets more "liquid" and in fact may sound softer. Another problem is that with maximum distortion, every note starts to sound the same, so you lose some of that nice expression you get with a guitar - that every note you hit sounds a little bit different from the others.

By turning the distortion down to maybe half or two thirds, you can actually achieve a more "raw" guitar sound with a harder edge - and you also get more room to add variation to your playing, because the way you pick each string will have a greater impact of the sound coming out.

Tip #4: Never trust headphones

Never do your final mix using only headphones. Even if you have the best headphones in the world, they don't tell the truth and the whole truth of what your mix really sounds like. It may sound completely different on a set of speakers, when the air starts moving. Refer to the headphones now and then to check out what it sounds like, but when it's crunch time and you are going for the final master - put away the headphones and listen to real loudspeakers.

Tip #5: Where possible, use a microphone (part 1):

There are a lot of great guitar effect boxes around these days. I have a Line6 "POD" v2.0 myself, and it sounds good. But I still get the best guitar sound by plugging into a real guitar-amp and placing a microphone in front of it. By having your guitar sound actually move the air, it gets a chance to interact with the room around it.

And don't think that you must have a totally sound-proof room with dead silent walls. In fact, a lot of the best guitar tones come from rooms where you can actually hear the reverb and pick up the "qualities of the room" around it. I get my best guitar sound when I have no sound-proofing on the walls, and allow the guitar sound to fill the room naturally. I place the microphone very close to the amp, though (10-15 cm from the speaker).

If you want more "room" and less direct sound - simply place the microphone further away from the amp.

Tip #6: Where possible, use a microphone (part 2):

I bought this really nice acoustic guitar with great internal pickups, and a "direct output" plug to go straight into the mixer. For a long time, I only used the direct output from the guitar. I assumed that since the guitar had such great (expensive) pickups internally, those had to be the best way to get the best sound out of that guitar. But I was never totally happy with the acoustic guitar sound, so one day - months later - I decided to try a normal old fashioned microphone placed in front of the guitar. This made a big difference, the guitar really came to life, and the sound I achieved (even with a pretty cheap microphone) was great. Far better than what I got with the direct output and the built-in pickups.

So even if you have paid a lot of money for an acoustic guitar with built-in pickups... where possible, forget the internal pickups and use a normal microphone placed about 10 cm from the hole in the guitar case.

Tip #7: Leave the room and close the door!

This is going to sound really stupid, but I swear it works.

When you are adjusting the balance of your mix and the relative volumes of the different instruments... go outside the room, close the door, and listen to the mix through the door! You get a different perspective on things, and this "through the door" monitoring is strangely accurate. If the bass sounds too loud, it probably is too loud. If the snare sounds too loud, it probably is. Of course, you can't do all your mixing from outside the door (you won't hear the hihats, for starters), but it's a valuable extra check. I never mix down a track until I've heard it from outside the room. This is not a joke..!

Tip #8: Finish your songs!

If you are like me (and most other musicians), you'll find that you have your harddisk full of "beginnings", "openings" and first-halves of songs that you have never finished. You work on it for a while, then you run out of ideas, or you get bored with it and start working on something else instead. This is very common, but it is not good. First of all, a song that isn't finished is a wasted song, with wasted ideas, wasted inspiration and wasted time. But more importantly than that, you'll never learn how to build a song from beginning to end, and your music carreer will not go any further until you learn that. Completing a song, buiding the "whole picture" is an art in itself. You've got to learn it, and practice it. By not finishing your songs, you are hindering your progress as a musician.

Be disciplined. Grab yourself by the neck and finish your songs, even if you seem to have lost interest in it. Pull yourself together, and don't work on anything new until you have finished the one you are working on. Even if it means that the song won't be as cool / fantastic as you were hoping. Even if, after 10.000 listens, you are fed up with it, and you don't even thing it's any good any more. Finish it anyway! Just do it. Then, if you still don't like it, put it away, move on and do something else. At least you finished it. And by doing that, the next one will be easier to complete. To have 100 "beginnings" on your hard drive, just leads to more and more and more "beginnings" and you'll never really get anywhere.

Tip #9: BPM to milliseconds conversions

When you use delay (echo) in your music, I think it's important that the delay is in time with the tempo of the song. So that the delay increases the feel of the rhythm, rather than messing it up. But your song always runs in BPM (Beats per minute), while many synths, effect units etc. state the delay time in milli-seconds. So here's a real easy way to calculate correct delay time, using a normal calculator.

Take the number 60000. Divide it by the BPM of your song. The result is the number of milli-seconds delay you want.

Example: Song in 128 BPM. Take 60000/128 = 468.75.

(Set your delay time to the nearest you can get, i.e. 469 ms.)

Tip #10: A few words about reverb

Reverb is a great thing for sure, but take care of how much reverb you use. Just like a lot of other people, I have been guilty of using far too much reverb on some of my music in the past. Listen closely to some commercial recordings, and you'll notice that, at least in popular music, very little reverb is used.

Ground rule #1: Use no reverb on the kick drum or the bass sounds. Leave them completely dry. If you have a drum unit with separate outputs, take the kickdrum out of a separate output and mix it completely dry. Feel free to add reverb to the other drums, but leave the kickdrum completely dry. If you don't have separate outputs, try to set up drums on two different MIDI channels, and use one of them for only the kickdrum.

Likewise, never put any reverb on your bass guitar or other bass sounds.

This will make your music sound fresher and more "exciting" to the ear.

Ground rule #2: The more you want an instrument to "stand out" and be clearly heard in the mix, the less reverb you should put on it. A sound that has no reverb sounds "closer" to the listener than one that has a lot of reverb. To make an instrument really come out and be heard above the others, reduce the reverb on that instrument.

Tip #11: Rest your ears before final mixdown

Don't do the final mixing of your track on the same day as you've been working on the track for hours. Your ears need a rest to regain their "neutral balance". You've probably been sitting, standing, walking around your studio where you are putting together your track, playing it a bit louder and louder, getting down and digging it.

At the end of a long day/night, your track is done and you feel exhausted, but happy! This is a bad time to create the final mixdown of your track. Save everything, shut down, go home. Have a good nights sleep. The next day, go out and do something different. Watch some TV. Listen to some music (not too loud, and not your own!)

Then come back to your track in the evening. Lower the volume to a normal listening volume, and then start to do your mixdown.

Right after you've been working on your track for hours, your ears and brain are "skewed" and if there are problems in the mix, you might not even hear them. So it's important to give those ears a good long rest, and maybe listen to some other music before you get back to it and do that final mixdown. Trust me, your track will sound better.

All text, music, photos copyright Bjørn Lynne.