Life As a Freelance Musician: Part 8: When Is A Song Done?

I’ve heard more than one musician say, “a song is never really done, it’s just good enough to stop working on.” I can relate to this. When I first started trying to get a professional sound, I could never quite know when a song was “done” and ready for the client. On my first few jobs, the deadline ususally dictated when it was done. I just kept thinking, “I could make this better somehow!”

Today, we’ll talk about some of basic things to make sure are in place before delivering a song.

Mixing and Mastering

Drop a professionally mastered song from an album you like into your DAWs and look at the wave form. You'll see that it probably stays at 0db or around -0.2 at all times.
Drop a professionally mastered song from an album you like into your DAWs and look at the wave form. You’ll see that it probably stays at 0db or around -0.2 at all times.

I could (and probably will) do entire articles on how to master and mix songs, but here’s the bare essentials.

Mixing is usually taking things away from a song to make it more cohesive. Helping each instrument to shine through the mix using various tools. Sometimes people refer to doing things like adding echo’s, effects and reverb as mixing, and I guess it sort of is, but to me that’s more of the actual composition phase, and mixing is just getting it to sound nice. Some quick pointers:

-Make sure it sounds like all the instruments are in the same “space”. If you have a bunch of dry chiptunes and then one reverb soaked echoing track, it’s going to sound like its sort of in another place. If you have a bunch of orchestra samples recorded in a large space, putting a vocal you recorder in a tiny closet is going to sound wierd.

-Be careful not to over-mix until everything sounds separated and wimpy. There should be some bleed over between instruments, just not too much.

Mastering is sort of the opposite of mixing, it’s adding things back into the finished song to make it louder, clearer as well as some technical flavorings that will make it sound professional and great even when converted to MP3.

Mastering is things like bringing up the overall volume in a mix without it clipping (getting so loud it distorts), adding harmonics and mastering reverb to sort of “glue” all the sounds together, adding dithering to preserve as much sound as possible when compressing to MP3 or other format.

– My single biggest tip: Take the time to really understand compression. I might do a “compression/multipressor for dummies” article in the future. It was one of the hardest things for me to grasp since those who know what they’re talking about will say things like “decrease dynamic range” and “add loudness” that will leave you scratching your head.

-Most music today is mixed “loud” meaning it’s staying near -.03db at all time. If you want it to sound like something on the radio, it will need to be like this. Of course, you can’t just crank up the volume without horrible distortion, so we’ll talk about this in a future lesson. To get an idea of what this is about, take and song you’ve heard on the radio (even in mp3 form) and drop it in your DAWs and look at how loud it is. There’s not a lot of times when the sound drops low. The picture shown here is actually a very soft and mild song by The Daysleepers, yet even a soft quiet song is pumping the a full palette of sound at you. We’ll learn more about it later.

The “Annoying” Test

I got this from the guys over at IQ Soup, as they told me they do this with every track I send them. Put the song on repeat and just let it play while you work or clean or something. Does the song become unbearable after two or three loops? Is the start-over point for a looping track super obvious? If so, you probably need to add some more variety to the track or fix some mixing problem that is making it annoying.Remember that changes go a long way in making a song interesting…don’t be afraid to pull everything out and let the drums play for a bit, or drop the drums and add some atmospherics. Listen to your favorite songs, most likely the same 4 bars do not play the entire song and if they do, the singer is switching things up to keep it interesting.


The Comparison Test

I have heard more than one musician say they like to compare their finished product with a similar track to see if it sort of “feels” the same. I don’t always want my tracks to sound EXACTLY like another song, but it can help you to listen to a professional orchestral song and then listen to your own and ask yourself, “does mine have too much bass? Does something in mine leap out too much?” I find this is really good with orchestral stuff, sometimes not even for entire songs, just instruments. Sometimes when I’m not sure I like the high violin/violas in a mix, I listen to something from a recent movie to hear how they sound there. It gives me mixing ideas to make mine sound more “pro”, as long as I can figure out how they did it. Another trick is to skip around in your track and a track you feel is of similar style and good quality. Does it seem like you switched from a real soundtrack to a cartoon one? Does something sound off when jumping from their track to yours? It can sort of help your ears get a fresh perspective on your mix.

The Bad Speaker Test

This cracked iPod 3G and little wimpy speaker I bought while on vacation from a Walgreens have super powers of exposing mixing problems.
This cracked iPod 3G and little wimpy speaker I bought while on vacation from a Walgreen’s have super powers of exposing mixing problems.

I was recently reading an article and saw that Vampire Weekend listened to their latest album on all kinds of devices with speakers from the best to the cheapest to make sure it sounded good. I was kind of surprised because this seems like something a band of their caliber would have already been doing two albums ago! I have a collection of cheap little devices that I play my songs through. These things expose clipping, distortion and mixing problems way better than my expensive monitors. This is a practice as old as recording from what I hear. It is common for producers to take a tentative final mix out to the car to hear how it sounded through a half-broken old car stereo or from a old boom box.

My favorite tool for really exposing the faults in my mix is my third generation iPod touch (the one with only one speaker on it). That tiny speaker tells me more than all the monitoring tools in my DAWS. If something is too loud in the mix, it’s all you hear. If something is too soft, it vanishes. Of course, you can’t judge bass by these kind of speakers, good monitors and subwoofers are best, but for judging what is too loud or too quiet in the mix, these little guys are my best friends.

Delivering to the Client

Every client will have different formats they want to get their files in. If not specified, I usually give them a few different mp3 compressed at multiple levels, as well as a raw WAV or AIF. It’s a good idea to keep backups since things vanish. Using dropbox is a great way to share huge sets of files when you deliver finished products.

Now, what happens when the client listens to the files? We’ll get into this next. What to do if your client doesn’t like what you delivered, how to proceed in dealing with the client from first sample until finished product.

Next up:
-Clients! Making Music for Someone Else
-The Secret Arts of Coming Up With Melodies
-My Biggest Mistakes as a Freelancer


Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 2.36.44 PMBeatscribe is a full time indie composer, musician and writer. By day he creates soundtracks and sfx for various mobile gaming companies, by night creates megaman-inspired chiptunes, in the afternoons he drinks tea. Check out his latest releases, tutorials and retro ruminations at

3 thoughts on “Life As a Freelance Musician: Part 8: When Is A Song Done?”

    1. Not all compressors are created equal, especially when it comes to vocals. Waves has a plugin called RenVox, it’s the only thing I use on vocals! If you can’t manage that, try a plugin with an auto-release setting. That will prevent the pumping effect that’s usually distracting on vocals

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