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The Journey of a Song from Spark to Spotify

by Ian Stewart, iZotope Contributor October 29, 2019
Take your song from spark to Spotify.

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Have you ever wondered what it takes to get a song out of someone’s head and onto a streaming platform like Spotify where fans can listen to it? Today, we'll examine this process with helpful tips and links to more information along the way—whether you're a seasoned producer and engineer or you’re just dipping your toes into the waters of releasing your music.

I’ve split the journey of creating a song into six phases, but it’s important to remember that, realistically, there are no hard boundaries. In fact, there will likely be a good deal of overlap from one phase to the next, particularly early in the process.

In this piece you’ll learn the six major phases of taking a song from conception to distribution:

1. Songwriting

2. Arrangement/Orchestration

3. Production/Recording

4. Mixing

5. Mastering

6. Distribution

Songwriting

At the risk of sounding obvious, to have a great song first someone has to write it. Of course, there’s no one set way to write a great song. In fact, there are probably as many ways to write a song as there are songwriters.

But there are some common themes. Think about where you fall on the following spectrum, and if you’re ever feeling stuck, try pushing your boundaries by exploring different writing techniques.

Writing to a theme: This could be a particular topic, emotion, life event, or melodic or harmonic structure.

Experimental writing: By playing with different sounds, rhythms, instruments, etc. you can let the music find you and follow a compelling thread.

Simplified writing: If you can create a compelling song using just a few instruments (e.g. voice and guitar), you’ll find there are almost no boundaries to where it can go.

Writing integrated with production: Sometimes the production is the song, and you’ll find yourself inspired to write in ways you wouldn’t imagine otherwise.

Of course this is only scratching the surface. If you’re looking to learn more about songwriting, or need some new techniques to get inspired, there’s a whole section of iZotope Learn dedicated just to that!

Artist writing a song, photo by Nick Karvounis

Arrangement and orchestration

A good arrangement—second only to good writing—can make or break a song. The arrangement is where you can really start to set the direction for your song, and it’s crucial to formulate a plan for where you’d like things to go stylistically. Not only will a good arrangement strengthen the emotion and impact of a song, it can also help support the vocal (or other lead instrument), and pave the way for a better mix.

If you’re working with a dedicated producer, this is a great time to get them involved. Not only can they help with arranging, but by understanding the goals for the song early on they will be empowered to guide its direction through the rest of the process.

Here are some tutorials to help take your arrangements to the next level

Arranging Music for Better Mixdowns

How to Write Better Song Arrangements Around Vocals

Production and recording

Approaching the halfway point, this is where a song starts to turn from an idea or performance into a product that your fans will someday listen to. These are deep, deep topics, and again there are entire sections of iZotope Learn dedicated to audio recording and music production. At a high level though, consider the following tips:

1. Resist the urge to “fix it in the mix." Getting the best recording of the best performance you can will make everything easier and more authentic down the line.

2. Try a dedicated producer. They can assist with coaching you and your fellow creators to get the best performances possible, electing the best takes, comping and editing vocals and drums, and selecting the right sounds, techniques, and effects to move the song toward your stylistic goal.

Here are some popular tutorials and helpful tips on music production:

How to Use Reverb in Music Production

Beat Making 101: How to Make a Beat

Home Recording Studio Hacks for the Bedroom Producer

Record producer in a recording studio, photo by John Hult

Mixing

Past the mid point, it’s now the job of the mix engineer to create the best representation of the recorded song they can. At a fundamental level this includes balancing the levels of all the different instruments and sounds, and likely some equalization and compression too. Of course there are myriad other techniques and effects that can be applied at the mixing stage, many of which you can read about here.

Once a song is mixed, ideally you should feel like it’s done, and ready for the world to hear. This is another place to resist any urge to “fix it in mastering." If there’s something you’re not happy with at this point it’s best to do what you can to address it in the mix, or, if necessary, even go back and re-record it.

Try these mixing tutorials for more techniques to improve your craft:

Digital Audio Basics: Sample Rate and Bit Depth

Twisting a Track with iZotope Effects Plug-ins

Synth VST Essentials: Oscillators, Envelopes, and Filters

5 Beginner Mixing Mistakes

6 Ways to Tame a Bright Mix

A mixing console, photo by Steve Harvey

Mastering

Hold on, didn’t I just say that after mixing a song should be done, and ready for the world to hear? If that’s true then why should you have to master it?

Well if, in a simplified sense, mixing is balancing the level, EQ, and compression of all the different channels in a song, mastering is doing that for all the songs on an album or EP. Even if you’re just working on a single song, mastering can help ensure the level and tonal balance of your song is appropriate for the final distribution medium.

Some of the benefits of working with a mastering engineer include:

  • A fresh, unbiased set of ears listening on top tier speakers in a great acoustic environment
  • The ability to correctly prepare your song(s) to the right technical specifications for your final distribution medium(s)
  • A final quality control listen on high-resolution monitoring to ensure there are no unintended clicks, pops, distortions, or other unwanted noises

Once all that is done and a mastering engineer has delivered all the final formats you’ll need, it’s time to send it off to distribution!

Whether you work with a mastering engineer or choose to master your own mixes, take a look at these useful tips and techniques to improve your mastering skills and knowledge:

5 Strategies to Master Your Own Mix

How to Master a Song from Start to Finish with Ozone 9

How to Master an Album, and More Audio Mastering Questions Answered

Mastering console and speakers

Distribution

It’s never been easier than it is today to get your music on a platform where hundreds of millions of listeners can potentially hear it. In the old days, two of the major functions of record labels were to facilitate replication of records, cassettes, and CDs, and to then get them into retail stores. These days much of that has been supplanted by a group of service providers known as aggregators.

Aggregators are the link between you, the artist, and all the streaming platforms. They have the infrastructure not only to provide all the streaming services with your files and metadata in the formats needed, but to also collect and pay you your earnings.

One word of caution though: it’s still somewhat the Wild West in the world of metadata and to a lesser extent, file formats. More and more streaming platforms are providing submission guidelines though, so when in doubt, go straight to the source or consult a trusted technical resource (like a mastering engineer).

Listening to music on Spotify

Conclusion

Certainly, not every one of these steps applies to every song, and this is by no means an exhaustive review of the process. It will be up to you to determine which of the above phases are right for which of your songs.

If there’s one universal element, however, it’s this: procrastination doesn’t pay in music. The earlier in the process you can devote attention to good writing, arrangement, and production, the easier it will be every other step of the way, and the better the end result will be.

Learn more about creative workflows:

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