Here are 5 areas Pros use to make a BIG difference:
A good song starts with a simple, effective musical idea. A memorable melody. A good chord progression. A unique drum pattern. Whatever it is, it needs to work standalone. It needs to work played on an acoustic piano, a solo guitar or a complex synth patch.
When you paint, you choose colors. When you cook you choose ingredients. When you compose, you choose sounds. It's a complex marriage. That's why a good recipe has already figured out all those taste dynamics. That's also why you need to taste the food while you cook. Do not figure out your instrument choices at the mixing stage!
The use of silence is underrated in music production. Yet this is the single most important notion when it comes to building grooves and breathing life / soul into a track. The same way you figure out interesting patterns between hats / snares / kicks, you need to figure out simple interlocking patterns between drums, bass, keyboards and voice.
This is basically silence on a higher level. When composing, mute and solo different parts and try to pinpoint what combinations shine. These will be the building blocks to your intros, verses, hooks and outros. Oftentimes, a strong track is one where you take out parts, not when you add a second solo.
My brother and I can listen to hours of music together, just dissecting what makes a good song weak, and an average song timeless. It often comes down to the quality of the mix. A loud hihat (ahem, golden era Mobb Deep) can ruin a track. Too much drums can prevent anyone from pressing replay, due to ear fatigue. Mixing is also the art of conveying your musical vision to its purest, most beautiful form.
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You don’t need anything. You can achieve incredible mixes on your white iPhone earbuds for all I care, given that you understand their frequency response (what they sound like at each crucial frequency bands). So my short answer to the question in the title is: headphones. Plain and simple. Oh… and here are 5 reasons why.