I guess for many amateurs this balance isn’t obvious. Beginners likely don’t do much sound design at all, rather relying in presets and sequence samples. Over the last couple of years sound design has become a far bigger part of my process. First, to make sure I’m not being misunderstood, I’ll define what I’m talking about. Sound design is fairly obvious, this is making sounds at a low level. Designing synth presets, building drums and programming loops. Then there is composition, which I define as what you do when you turn sounds into music. However you do that.

The first balance you need to make is simply a matter of time. You have to give some time to each. How much depends on, fundamentally, how much you value the need to make your own sounds from scratch. For some genres, or some… musically career strategies… no-one cares whether sounds are made by you or anyone. For them presets are fine, so they may as well use them. Many can even get away with using 10 presets for their entire musical career. If you are an amateur, you make the rules. If you have the time I think you should definitely start to think about making your own sounds. I say if you have time as it may well seem time consuming. The advantage is that you can truly say your music is your own.

Anyway, I wanted to point out a more pragmatic balance that needs to be made. If you set about making a sound from scratch, there are two extremes of ways of doing it. At one extreme is making a sound with a very definite use in mind, to the extent that you have a precise place in a specific track for it to go. The other extreme is making a sound for its own sake, with no specific use in mind.

Making a sound for a very specific use is hard. This is because you will likely have a very small frequency space for it to live. The exception is when the track you want it to live in is bare. In this case you have all the room you like for your new sound, there are no other sounds for it to compete with. The problem with this is that if a sound like that, one that sounds good on its own, you will have a hard time fitting other sounds into ‘its’ space (i.e. the track). I think many tracks are made with some random hardware synth noise that was captured from hours of playing with the synth, looped into a hook. In this case that feature will often be a primary feature.

Anyway, back to the point. Making a sound for a specific purpose is harder than just turning on a synth and playing with it until it makes a sound you like. The trouble is that it can be equally difficult to make a sound for no reason, with no purpose in mind. If you want to do undirected sound design you tend to have to produces many sounds, create your own preset library, that you can come back to when you’re in composition mode. If you have loads of time to spend you can spend it making a huge custom library. For more experimental types of music you can probably make more bizarre combinations of sounds work. ┬áThe more ‘nonstandard’ your sounds become the harder it will by to mix them together well (one of the reasons so many mainstream producers use the same sounds over and over: they can just recall the same presets, processing and effects) I think you will find yourself making a mental balance. You will have a rough idea of the type of sounds you might want for some projects, but won’t be so fixed as to make sound design too difficult. How you balance that is something you’ll have to figure out.

A very good style of progression for beginners (and therefor a style of composing) is progressive addition of elements. I’m not sure if this has a proper name. It’s used extensively in electronic music. It involves starting with a small set of elements, then adding new elements at the end of every phrase (usually 8 bars, 4 if you’re making a ADHD radio edit). For example, how many dance records start with a kickdrum on its own for 8 bars, then the snare is added, then 8 bars later a hihat appears, then after the DJ friendly 1 minute mark a bass line comes in.. etc. I’ve even heard some tracks introduce some element, say a hi-hat, then over the next 8 bars fade it out so that they can immediately reintroduce that element and make it sound new. Cheeky.

This style is good for beginners. It’s takes the idea of composition to its basics. The problem is that thats all it is… basic. The polar opposite of this style is more inline with how ‘band’ music* is produced. There’s no reason to think that the intro section of a track should have only 1 or 2 instruments in it. It could have all the instruments. There’s no reason to think that each new scene in the track should only add elements, things can be removed or replaced.

Don’t limit yourself to this kind of composition by addition! Addition has its place but is just 1 tool of many.

*The reason I call this band music is that I have a feeling being in a band is a partial reason for the difference between the structure of dance music and band driven music. In a live gig each band member wants to be involved so it makes sense that there’s an invisible pressure to have all members contributing to as many of the scenes in the track as possible. Of course, this pressure doesn’t exist in electronic music (with the exception of vocalists). BTW it’s that I think bands have a more advanced music production / composition style that EDM because they tend not to use so much addition. They have a whole set of patterns that we’ve heard a million times before but are still used all the time… e.g. chorus-verse templates

I think you should always try to make whole pieces of music. Often people have an idea for a track, maybe a hook or rhythm or something, and make a kind of small ‘idea track’. Usually such a track actually represents one scene within a bigger composition (probably the full-on bit). Imagine watching a movie but only getting to see a 3 minute scene of the most dramatic bit. Showing the scene out of context will likely make the audience wonder why they should care. I think music is a lot like this, even if it isn’t so obvious. Stories need to be told in their own time. The chase scene is only meaningful in context, so you shouldn’t cut to the chase.

If you have one of this idea tracks, take it apart, introduce each bit just like a movie introduces themes and characters. Figure out what makes it tick and explore it. If you don’t the listener can’t.

This is probably more applicable to users of Ableton Live than most other DAWs, but I think the idea is valid generally. One of Live’s strengths is also one of it’s weaknesses. Live allows users to create elements for a track without them needing to have any idea what the form of the track is. You don’t need any structure, you can just throw ideas together and jam with them until you find combinations you like. This is a great feature for quickly exploring possibilities (and is obviously useful for live performances in which there is no explicit structure until the gig). The problem is that it’s far too easy to keep jamming and trying things out indefinitely.

If you want to make finished pieces of music you need to recognise a point where you have enough basic elements to lay out the skeleton of a track and get composing. Be rough, block things out. If you have only 1 percussion loop, then that’s great. Use that for all instances of percussion. Give the track a beginning, middle and end. Keep it simple to start with. Use broad strokes. Later you can go back and tweak at microscopic levels. The point is that all the time you were wasting jamming will no be refocused on developing the track.