From my conversations, it appears that many composers subscribe to a belief that the music production and arrangement phase is an isolated process that stands independently from the mixing and mastering stages.
This, to me at least, is incredibly inaccurate.
If you've ever heard the saying "a good song mixes itself", and have been in situations where you've worn the hats of - songwriter, producer, and audio engineer, I'm sure you get the gist of this statement.
In this blogpost, I'll be sharing my thoughts regarding the "requirements" that go into polishing a track for release.
Arrangement, Songwriting & Composition.
This is probably the most overlooked component when it comes to "polishing a track for release", and the reason I write this is because no amount of mixing and mastering can salvage a poorly written track. At this point, I'm not talking about the production quality of a song, but instead, a song that has been poorly constructed and therefore, conceived.
Many orchestral music composers that did not have the privilege of playing in an ensemble before or going for lessons or to school for the craft tend to be mesmerised when given an entire orchestral instrument palette to play with. They tend to overcomplicate parts, layer excessively with instruments that do not blend sonically, or write things in an unrealistic way that makes it impossible for real instrument players to follow.
In other words, these composers are not aware of the timbre of instruments; their sonic qualities, their function and role in a traditional orchestra setting and so on. Now don't get me wrong - I'm all about breaking rules. I just believe that one has to learn the rules before breaking them.
A Brass section for instance, sounds significantly different when they hit high notes as opposed to when they play low mellow legato ones. Many virtual instruments out there replicate the low to mid notes of a brass section really well, but tend to sound excessively artificial when higher notes are introduced. An experienced MIDI Orchestrator would know which music libraries sound more realistic and would figure out ways to manipulate weaker replicas to sound better or closer to the actual instrument.
A good arranger also knows what to do to make a song flow in cohesion (unless the intention is to create an experimental progressive track which ebbs and flows in unorthodox forms). Contrary to popular belief, no amount of mixing or mastering can save a "broken song". Remember that mixing and mastering cannot bring out what is not already present. If the song does not already sound like a single entity, it's back to the songwriting phrase.
If your song is poorly produced, audio editing and post-production can sort of hide mistakes and glitches, but at the sacrifice of your track's sonic capabilities. The average listener can't probably tell what's wrong, but they will frown when they notice something damaging in your production.
Unless you are replicating an old-school recording, most listeners these days expect a pristine and almost overly manicured kind of production quality from your work. Even if you are replicating an old-school sound, remember that there's a difference between a high quality recording of an old-school sound, and a song that's just poorly recorded from the source.
This is ESPECIALLY true if you're trying to get into the music placement game or if you produce electronic genres that often rely on already well-rounded loops and samples. If your song has a weak production quality, no music supervisor or label will consider placing your song in any kind of professional multimedia. This is because it reflects badly on them. Music licensing is one area in our industry that no one actually cares about the "potential" behind the songwriting or whatever excuse people try to give. The days of "the guy in the suit" holding a briefcase with a ton of cash standing in the corner waiting for you to finish your performance so that he can sign you to his label are long gone.
If you're a great composer or songwriter that struggles to get his or her production quality up to par, look for someone who can and work with that person. If you are an artist, your benchmarks are easily attainable from whatever you hear on air. If you are a composer for multimedia, yours are whatever you hear from films, TV, commercials and games.
Mixing & Mastering.
This is a little controversial, but if you are a music library composer who cannot mix or master his or her own music, you're in trouble. The reason for this is that the expected turnover time for production music is extremely fast, so no library has a few days to wait for a mixing engineer to do his intricate magic on a song before sending it off to a mastering engineer who in turn waits for client feedback. So unless you have a team around you with specialists in each area working out of a professional studio, you're very likely going to do everything yourself.
Naturally, the work you produce initially is not going to be the best, but the resources out there are valuable and varied. You CAN learn to mix and master your own songs from your bedroom. Will it sound the best? No. But would it help you develop a consistent workflow, a familiarity with your equipment, train your initiative to look around you or online for assistance if needed and constantly drive you to produce great music on your own terms? Yes.
Now, obviously if you have a team of engineers at your back and call who have proper facilities to churn out your mixed and mastered compositions, that's great. But you'd probably have to split profits or pay them somehow.
So how will you know when your track is "polished enough" for release. The short answer is: you don't. No songs are ever "finally ready". You need to know when it's time to let go.
If you're talking about knowing when to release a song or send it to your client, the "checklist" is relatively simple (though arguably tough to achieve consistently):
When the song's composition, arrangement & production is on par with what's out there in the industry.
When your work translates well on your playback devices (especially mono ones).
If you're composing for multimedia; when your song amplifies the message or emotion or whatever your client intends to convey. (In such cases, your client will tell you whether he/she is happy. This should lead to more and better clients).
All in all, polishing a track for release is a process that begins right from the songwriting phase and ends only once your client or audience is satisfied. You need to be aware of what is going on at every step of the way.