Sound Selection Tips
Learn how to choose better sounds for all your music
Last Updated: October 2023 | Article Details: 3650 words (18 – 20 minute read)
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Sound selection is one of the most important aspects of creating music that sounds professional and makes an impact on listeners. Choosing the best sounds for your beats and music compositions is an art in and of itself.
That’s why some of the biggest beat makers and music producers out there employ people specifically to design amazing sounds for them.
And in this article, we’ll give you some tips on how you should approach choosing sounds when you’re making music. There aren’t any hard and fast rules here, but there is definitely a mindset you can build, and skills you can hone to help you improve.
If you’re brand new to beat making and music production, then first it’ll be useful to check out our guide to beat making for beginners to bring yourself up to speed.
If you already know all that stuff, let’s dive into how to select sounds for your music.
Article Table of Contents
- 1 What is Sound Selection?
- 1.1 Why is Sound Selection Important?
Listen to the entire article (excluding featured video) instead:
What Is Sound Selection?
Sound selection in music production and beat making is the process of intentionally choosing different types of instrumentation to combine various sounds together into a composition.
The idea behind it is to choose parts in a way where every individual piece “fits well” together with every other piece, and sounds like it belongs.
It’s the equivalent to carefully choosing only high quality ingredients that all complement each other when you’re cooking a meal.
Why is Sound Selection so Important?
Choosing good sounds makes sure that your beat/instrumental or song is cohesive and coherent to a listener. Music is supposed to convey emotion/feeling and evoke specific imagery.
So making good sound choices can help to make sure that “vibe” is effectively felt by the listener.
If you make a bad choice that just doesn’t fit it can be jarring to the point that the listener loses their connection to the song. Further, if you randomly choose a bunch of sounds that don’t go well together it can ruin the overall effectiveness of your song.
Even if your musical patterns, phrases and grooves are amazing – if the sounds suck, the song sucks.
Sound selection is KEY to a truly IMPACTFUL song.
How to Choose the Right Sounds for Your Song/Beat
There are lots of tips to help you get better, but unfortunately there’s no step-by-step process of making sure your sounds go well together.
This is the 64-million-dollar-question – and to be honest, no one really has a concise answer on “how to choose good sounds.”
It’s an art – one that requires a highly tuned and trained ear.
The good news is, you can get better at picking sounds with some study, a little bit of practice and lots of experimentation.
It’s Like Cooking
Have you ever cooked a meal?
Then you probably know that there are certain foods and certain spices that tend to always go well together.
And this is the best way to think about sound selection.
When you’re cooking a meal, you have an end goal in mind and you choose ingredients that will help you get there
Types of Sounds You Can Choose and Considerations to Make
There are a lot of different types of sounds that can be made into a great piece of music. Most songs and beats, however, will have a lot of the same types of instrumentation. And each of those instruments/sounds will have a certain “role” to play in your production.
So let’s talk about the various categories of sounds/instruments available.
Always remember one thing – each of these “categories” of instrumentation have limitless possibilities in how they end up “sounding” to the ear (more on this later…).
Note: A lot of the conventions I touch on below are not hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes you want to experiment with unusual sound choices and come up with weird, yet workable, combinations.
Drums and Percussion
These are the sounds that become the heartbeat of your track and provide the overall “groove” or rhythm of a song (i.e. how the song “moves”).
You have kick drums, snares, claps, hi-hats, shakers, woodblocks and a ton of other instruments that can be combined in different ways to produce a certain “vibe” or feeling.
For example, a heavy kick drum and a dusty-sounding snare helps give you an old-school, underground vibe – great for boom-bap or lo-fi types of beats.
But a kick layered with a long 808 along with a short, snappy rim-shot wouldn’t work for that type of track. It’s the wrong vibe. Instead that would work best for a more modern trap style beat.
These instruments are also quite varied. They can include things like brass (trumpets, tuba, trombones, etc.), woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, saxophones, etc.), and strings (violins, cellos, harp, etc.). It can even include drums and percussion instruments like timpani drums or gongs.
But again, choosing the right types of sounds is key to your end product. For example, very lush and wide “waterfall-like” strings work great for soulful R&B music. On the other hand, sharp sounding violins work better for classical-inspired songs/beats.
Guitars (including Bass)
Whether you choose acoustic or electric guitar (or any other guitar-like instrument) – and the effects you apply to the instrument – will impact the vibe and feeling of your track.
If you’re making a rock inspired beat, a ukulele would NOT be the best choice in sound. On the other hand, using an electric guitar might seem a bit out of place in a bluegrass inspired track. A banjo would probably fit the overall aesthetic of your song better.
In terms of bass, a lot of modern songs are using synth bass more and more. But if you want an authentic soulful or boom-bap vibe, using an electric bass might be a better fit for your track.
Pianos and Keyboards
Pianos and keys are also not all equal. And there are a lot of different types of sounds included in the term “keys” – organs, e-pianos, clavinets, etc. They all provide a different feeling and work best in different circumstances.
Using a bright grand piano would be great for something classically inspired, but a dull upright piano might not fit as well. Using a clavinet would give you a funky vibe while using a harpsichord would feel and sound more olde-timey.
Synthesizers (both hardware + software)
Synths are the widest ranging instrument you can choose. The sounds you can produce are limitless in their uniqueness. And in a lot of modern popular music, synths (and synth vsts) are king.
They’re used for pad sounds, bass sounds, keys, stabs, flutes, strings and so much more. The type of synth sound you choose can heavily impact the vibe/style/era your song lands in.
For example, a 90s style synth orchestral “stab” will make your beat sound heavily dated. But a lush pad without a lot of high-end is very common in modern R&B. If you use a synth sound that’s very robotic or machine-like then your beat will probably end up with a heavy dubstep influence to it.
Samples are short pieces of pre-recorded audio that are used as instrument sounds within a larger composition. Sampling became very popular around the time electronic music started to grow. And you can sample anything.
If you sample an old soul record from the 70s, then it might make sense to match it with boom-bap style drums because their “sounds” work well together. On the other hand if you’re sampling a 90s R&B record then you might want to pair it with cleaner, more modern drum sounds.
Recognizing Qualities of Different Sounds and Choosing Better Sounds
Now that you have a lay of the land in terms of instrumentation choices, we should talk about recognizing different sound qualities.
If you can become familiar with these concepts, it’ll help you improve your “vocabulary” of sounds when you’re studying music and choosing instrument combinations.
Knowing how to recognize and describe these aspects of sounds will help you make better choices in your own productions.
Timbre, simply put, is the quality or tone of a sound. It is what distinguishes one instrument or voice from another, even if the same note is being played. Timbre is often described as the “color” of a sound, and is related to it’s texture.
Timbre is determined by the instrument shape, how it’s played, the effects the sound passes through, etc. Listen to two different types of pianos – a grand piano and an upright piano. The difference in sound is subtle, but it’s there if you pay attention.
But timbres differ across instruments too – a piano note has a completely different timbre than a plucked guitar string. Try to pay attention to and recognize even the slightest “differences” between two sounds.
If timbre is a sound’s “color,” then it’s texture can be thought of as how a sound “feels.” The texture of a sound impacts how well it will fit with other sounds in your song or beat’s arrangement.
This feeling can be affected by the instrument itself, how it’s played and also what kinds of effects it has on it. Of course, how a sound is recorded can also impact it’s overall texture and timbre.
Texture can also be related to a sounds “complexity” – described as either thick or thin, depending on the number of layers it has. The texture of a sound can be described as dense or sparse, as well.
Overall, it plays a crucial role in determining its richness and depth, and it greatly influences the overall perception and experience of the sound.
The envelope of a sound is all about how the sound itself is played.
Think of every sound having a few different audible aspects to it: the sound of how it starts, the sound of how it plays out, and the sound of how it ends. You can alter these aspects to customize any sound you are using.
This is referred to as an ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) envelope.
A sound’s “attack” refers to how it starts – does it swell up gradually or hit you all at once, up front? A sound’s “decay” is how much it’s volume drops after the attack’s peak. The “sustain” of a sound is how loud that sound plays out if you hold the note. And finally, the “release” is how long it takes the sound to go from the sustain volume to completely quiet after the note is let go.
Why does that matter? Well, if you’re trying to make an up-beat funk track, a swelling synth bass sound might not fit as well as a staccato electric bass sound.
If you can start to recognize these aspects of how a sound plays out, you’ll be able to use it to your advantage in choosing the appropriate sound to complement the others in your production.
The frequency range of a sound is how much space within the spectrum of human hearing that sound takes up.
Humans can hear sounds between 20 hertz and 20,000 hertz – that’s the range of human hearing. Every sound you can audibly hear will fall within that range (of course, no one can really hear 20 hz, or 20,000 hz for that matter).
But it’s a good rule of thumb to try and choose sounds that complement each other within the frequency spectrum than clash or fight for space. For example, bass sounds cover the lower part of the spectrum (80hz-350hz)while strings are much higher up the spectrum (2000hz-6000hz).
Try to choose sounds that give you solid coverage of the 20hz-20khz frequency spectrum, without overlapping too much and causing clashes. Just remember, that includes the human voice if you’re recording a vocalist.
Stereo refers to the “left – right” spectrum of where you perceive a sound to be coming from. Think of when you hear a sound only coming from your studio monitor setup’s right speaker or from the right cone of your studio headphones. That was placed there specifically by the sound engineer.
The stereo width of a sound itself, though, can impact how much space it takes up in your overall track. More than that, it can impact how well your other sounds fit together with it.
If, for example, you choose several sounds that have a very wide width (or conversely sounds that are all narrow) they can start to clash with or mask/cover each other.
The result can be cool sometimes, and other times a total disaster.
Effects (saturation, reverb, delay/echo, tape, distortion, etc.) are HUGE when it comes to the impact of a sound, not just when mixing and mastering. A lot of the time new producers and beat makers will choose preset sounds from a synth that are heavily effected.
They sound incredible in solo (i.e. on their own) right out of the box – no tinkering needed. But when you add it to your overall track it can stick out like a sore thumb. That’s usually due to the effects processing of that particular sound.
Let’s take reverb as an example. Reverb is used to add a sense of space to a sound. You can make it sound like it’s coming from inside a small bathroom, for example. But if the other sounds in your track have a different type of reverb (like a huge hall or chamber) then those sounds probably won’t sit well together.
Something will just seem “off.” The same goes for other types of effects that are on sounds too. So pay attention to how a sound is effected when you’re choosing it.
Tips on How To Get Better
That’s a lot of stuff to consider and be aware of. And like I mentioned, there’s no hard-and-fast, step-by-step process I can give you to mastering this art.
Now that you know what to look for in sounds to help you describe and categorize them to yourself, it’s all about experience and experimentation.
So, here are some general tips you can use to improve your ability to choose sounds for your music productions.
Study a Genre/Artist/Producer
The best thing you can do for you craft is to study the art that you already love. Pick your favorite songs, styles, artists and producers and actively listen to that music – over and over again.
Don’t listen to it in the background while you’re working or studying. Instead, focus and pay attention to everything. Close your eyes if it helps.
Start to recognize the types of sounds that are used together in each type of song. Write them down and describe them in words.
The more you study music like this, the better and better you’ll become.
Select Sounds Before Starting to Work
Instead of doing what most people do (randomly choosing sounds as you’re making the beat), why not curate a set of sounds before you start working on the composition.
Before your session, go through your sounds and pick sounds you think would work well together – from drums to bass to synths/keys and more.
You can audition them while you choose them, or you can just decide on a bunch of sounds to use before even opening your laptop.
Doing this a few dozen times will help you get better at knowing intuitively what works well together and what doesn’t.
Use Reference Tracks
Everyone in music could benefit from using reference tracks before they create.
This is where you take a song you love (or would love to make) and listen to it back-and-forth while you’re making your own song.
The idea here is NOT to copy the song, but to use it for inspiration and as a “check” on your own work.
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Compare your track to your reference – how are the sounds the reference track uses compared to the sounds your track uses? How can you make your sounds better?
Pick something great, and try to match/exceed it’s level of cohesion and quality.
Good Sounds Don’t Always Work
This point goes back to the idea of sounds “sounding” great when played in isolation, but not sounding good as part of the overall track/song.
A sound can be an amazing, interesting, unique sound that blows your mind when you play it. But it might not be the best fit for your track just because it’s great on it’s own.
When you think you’ve found a great sound, test it out but don’t be married to it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, don’t try to force it. Be brutally honest with yourself here.
Make sure everything you use gels together and provides the listener an overall “cohesive” experience.
Every Sound Needs a Role
When you’re making a beat, it can be really easy to just keep adding sound after sound after sound, until you’re left with a way-too-dense wall of sound.
That’s not how you should approach producing music. In fact, every single sound you use should have a clearly defined role in the track.
There are only a few main parts to any song:
- Melody / Counter Melody
- Ear Candy
As you can see, there aren’t a lot of roles to play. The groove is all the drums and percussion and in music with vocals, the singer handles the main melody.
So what you’re left with is a few key places to add instrumentation to the track. Choose wisely.
Of course, the above doesn’t mean you can only have 3 or 4 different sounds in an entire track. And that’s where layering comes in.
Layering different sounds together (so they’re playing the same notes at the same time) can substantially impact the vibe and feeling of a song. It allows you to keep things interesting.
But layering can also be used to make a sound that isn’t fitting well into a mix, fit better. Be careful, though, because it’s easy to go overboard with layering as well.
Experiment and try different things to see what works well.
Use FX on Your Sounds
Going back again to the idea that some sounds just sound incredible off-the-bat, using effects (FX) on your sounds can dramatically improve (or worsen) them.
A lot of times, the “wow factor” you get from particular presets on your synth, have a lot to do with the effects being used on them.
So if you have a sound that has a good texture/timbre/etc., but still isn’t fitting well, the answer could lie in effects processing. Try some saturation, distortion or add a reverb to see how that impacts the sound.
Again, experiment with things until you become familiar with how it impacts your sound.
Step Away and Return
One of the tricks to evaluating your chosen sounds is to simply step away from the track for a while to let your ears (and brain) rest and reset.
Once you give yourself a break you can go back with “fresh” ears and make better judgements about whether the sounds you chose are working well or not.
If you’ve been working for hours, listening to the same thing on repeat it’s easy to get “used” to something that actually isn’t working at all.
So take breaks. It’s a complete perspective shifter.
Get REAL Feedback
And finally, the best way to know if you’re choosing good sounds is to get legitimate feedback from others.
This doesn’t mean asking your friends and family if they like your beat. They’ll probably just say yes to 1) not hurt your feelings, or 2) because they’re amazed you’re able do this kind of stuff at all.
What I mean by feedback is a bit more professional. It can be hard though, because even some “professionals” (who often charge for “beat critiques”) don’t say shit that’s actually helpful.
But if you can find someone more experienced/successful than you to give you honest feedback, it can make a world of difference to your ability to choose sounds for your music.
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This is a key aspect to professional music production. But it’s a bit hard to wrap your head around.
How do you know what a “good” sound is? It’s tough.
But learning how to choose good sounds for your beats and songs is a learning process.
If you use the tips and recommendations in this article, you’ll be able to hone your ear and instinctively pick better sounds for your music.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and break shit – it takes failure to see success.
Thanks for reading this comprehensive guide to better sound selection – I hope it was helpful!
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