TMCP 011: How Do I Know If My Track Is Good Enough?

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 03/17/20 •  24 min read

In this episode I answer the question “how do I know if my music is good enough?”

This is a huge deal to lots of people as it can often get shrouded by your inner critic, so you may naturally find it hard to distinguish a “good” from “bad” track.

I like to think I answered this in this episode. I reckon my answer was good enough ;)

Transcript

Hey guys, welcome to session number 11 of the trailer music composers podcast welcome. 

Music.

One with one microphone who is still incredibly proud of his daring feat of doing the ledge bungy.

Welcome to the trailer music composers podcast.

Hey guys, welcome to another episode of the trailer music composers podcast.  Now I’ve got an interesting question, it’s actually a post of one of my previous podcasts in the Trailer Music School from one of my students.  It wasn’t a direct question, it was part of the comments she’d left, the question was sometimes I can’t tell whether  my track is good or not.  And I have to say as soon as I read that I thought of course, I;ve got to cover this on the podcast because its again one of those universal things that we all have because we are all sat there, usually on our own, probably say in the dark, but I don’t want to paint this picture of trailer music composers, we’re all sat there on our own working hard on our tracks and sometimes you, what’s the saying, you can’t see the wood for trees. Sometimes you’re so deep in the track, and deep in the process that you actually, you press play on it for like the millionth time that day and you think you know what I don’t actually know if this is good any more.  In fact usually thinking about the previous podcast episode the critics they are going you are rubbish, just give up, you’re not original just give up.  All those things that come flying into your head.

But I think I’ve got some advice for you guys who are confronted with that question, how do I know if my track is good or not?  A couple of them are short cuts, I say a couple but I’m going to say loads and loads, but I’m not going to, I’m going to say a few, and they’re probably going to be closely linked together.  But first of all let’s paint that scenario again.  You’re sitting on your desk, not on your desk, on your chair at a desk, and you’re working hard.  Say you’ve been working the whole day on a trailer cue, which I generally don’t recommend spending that much time on one cue anyway because of the modes of creation, and what I mean by that is that writing a whole trailer cue involves many hats and actually switching between the hats here is not like an instant process, it takes energy, it takes time to switch your processing. 

And this is my first sort of tip to it, you know I’ve covered this stuff and I will cover this again because it’s a huge aspect of being a composer in my point of view that you must be aware of what hats you’re wearing when you’re in the process of production.  And what I mean by that is there is the ideation stage where you’re just playing around, you know improvising on the piano, fiddling around with your knobs on your synth, you’re just chucking stuff into your session, you’re not really like necessarily thinking of the finished track.  You’re not necessarily thinking about the mixing, you’re not necessarily thinking about the orchestration per se, you’re trying to start the fire.  Or as I like to think of it you’re trying to tap into the flow of inspiration that’s always there, it’s just whether you’ve got the tuber clocked or not, you’re in the ideation stage, so you’re basically throwing things on the wall and seeing what sticks.

And then there’s the next stage which is the second stage of ideation, it’s where you’ve got your spark has been lit, the flow has started and you then create, you then write, you are composing, you are taking your sounds and you’re giving them structure.  And that’s the key to that next step is structuring the stuff that you have.

Then the next step would be the orchestration which is essentially choosing your colours, your textures, your timbres, your dynamics etc. and then the next step would be the mix which is balancing everything so it sounds good.  And the next step which would be mastering, which is magical wizardry at the end, probably involving expensive plugins, or a master engineer in my case because I don’t dare say that I know anything about mastering.  So let’s return.

So say you’ve got that whole day on your trailer cue right.  You’re doing the ideation stage one and two, you’re doing the orchestration, so that’s composing, orchestrating and mixing.  Now you have to approach a track differently for each of those things.  Some might argue that there is an element of orchestration and composition, and there is an element of mixing within composition, and once you master this, or at least become aware of it, there are always shades of grey.  Not 50 of them, I’d probably say more, but there are always shades of between composing, orchestrating and mixing.  And you know the nice thing is when you get into the initial ideation composition stage where you naturally orchestrate and naturally mix as part of that process. 

So we’ve got your four stages or three stages whatever you want to call it.  Going between those hats takes time and energy.  And also it’s a different thought process.  As a composer, as somebody who is creating and finding ideas you are the optimist, you are endlessly positive, you are thinking oh that sounds great, this is nice.  You’re like a child in a sweet shop, you know when you’re scrolling through the synth free sets like burp, no, burp yes, burp no, you’re just looking for stuff that is exciting.  And that is the great thing.  So that’s one thing right.

Orchestrating, ideally you are still an optimist, but what you’re looking at there is you’re looking at it differently, you’re going well, there’s a thought process behind what I’m doing here, so if you’re orchestrating for live performance its different than orchestrating for a track that’s made completely and entirely on a computer.  So for instance I have written piano parts that are next to impossible for pianists to play, but it doesn’t matter because no one is going to play it, it’s just going to be put on a  trailer. 

So you’re approaching orchestration differently.  You’re thinking about the process more, you’re thinking ok what are my ranges here, what am I trying to say with these colours? Your thought process is more critical.  And that’s again something that I always, always advise is to keep your critical thought out of the compositional process.  With the compositional process just chuck it on there.  Everything that you like and gets you excited throw it in there, and then put it aside.  Start another track, throw it in there, then you go back to those tracks at a later date with your orchestrating in mind, with your, you know you’re fine tooth comb, you’re thinking ok how can i bring out this sound that I like, that I’ve chucked in here, this big fat synth, you go yes, how can I orchestrate this to bring out some more.  You go ok, well obviously it’s this range so I;m going to throw in some big farty trombones, your bass trombones as well.  You’re thinking like that so it is a little bit more critical. 

And then obviously with a mix you’re still thinking critically, you’re thinking ok what’s in the wrong place, that’s too loud, what’s too quiet, you’re essentially looking for problems, where am I peaking, what needs to be compressed, you’re going in there kind of shaping everything up and to an extent you also have a producer hat.  And by a producer I don’t mean like a music producer, pumping out fat beats, I’m talking about producing somebody who goes to a track and makes it something even more.  You’re restructuring it essentially, you know in the same way that you would have that process.

Luckily most of us have publishers and other people who will be doing that work for us, you will send them your track and then they will come back and say take this out, remove that, add this, you know that type of thing.  So some of us will have that producer hat on too, we;re restructuring as we’re working.  So again we’re being critical of the piece.  Do you see where I’m going here.  And then obviously when it comes to the mix and the master you’re being critical of how the sounds are.  You’re not looking for stuff that’s exciting, or if you are, you’re looking for a critical eat that will let you take that sound that you think is freaking awesome and make it be the signature sound of your cue.  So you’re thinking critically.

So we have two things here, we have the optimistic exciting phase of creation, of composition.  We have the critical phase of structuring, of development, of mixing, of orchestrating, you have to be more critical of what you’re doing.  And if those two hats are on at the same time you’ve basically got a little argument going on creatively.  You’re going this is amazing, but then the orchestrators going, mm, but it’s in the wrong range..  You know actually this is going to mess with the low mids of my drums, you know, you’ve got someone who is fighting your every creative step.  And what you start to get is fatigued.  And then it leads to the direct result, well I’m sure I could have said that in a much more eloquent way, you know that leads directly to the problem of not knowing whether your track is good or not because you’ve basically sat there and had an argument with yourself over your track.

Ok, so that’s my first thing, is to follow my previous advice which is to keep the existing creation phase separate from thinking and writing your track.  Make sounds, do stuff that’s exciting on one day, or one part of the day, no mixing, no orchestrating, beyond obviously going well, I think some strings playing this would be amazing, beyond anything exciting like that.  No critical thinking, save that for editing later on when you edit your track.  That way you will save energy, you will be more prolific and you will probably find that the tracks you are producing are more and more exciting, because when you go back to listen to it with a critical ear, you will go yes, this has wings.  This has promise, this has mileage, all those words that basically mean this truck can and will be amazing.

So the next one.  This one is a tricky beast.  And I suggest this with a warning because this can be a very, very useful tool but it also can be the rabbit hole of doom.  And this is a direct comparison.  And the reason I say direct comparison is because what do you deem as a good track will depend on what you deem as a good track.  So some people might say this track is good because of a mix, some people might say this track is good because of the orchestration.  Some people might say this track is good because of the structure, this track is good because of the samples, all the levels of goodness can be compared directly to other tracks that you think are good.

Now this can be a very useful tool, especially with mixing and stuff like that, and you can literally put a track side by side and compare them sonically with all our fancy tools that to be honest I don’t really understand although I like to sound like I do, you know you can sit there and go oh look at the EQ there, oh they look the same, great, ok.  So you can compare directly, comparison is really, really useful.  And you can sit there and you can think about how somebody else has structured their act three, how somebody else had used their build in the act two, you know comparisons like that.  So you think ok does this have the same level of excitement, is this the same level of drive, is this mixed as well, is this whatever it is you’re looking for to rate, to qualify. 

But the reason I give you a warning about this is because comparison can lead to the dark days of a critic being far too vocal.  And what I mean by that is if you do the comparison at the wrong stage, i.e. when you’re not feeling in the right mood, or you are not as in control of your own thought process as you would like you will hear a track and go oh mine is rubbish. And then you will baxilc lay just sit there slagging yourself off. 

So go into comparison with real caution, i generally don’t compare my tracks to other people, not because I think I’m better than other people, but because I know myself and I know if I start comparing my tracks to other people I would do one of two things, I will try and make mine sound too similar to theirs, not because I’m intending to steal it, but just because I think I’m a bit of magpie, I will go I love what they’ve done there lets see if I can do that too. And I’m just kind of essentially copying parts of that track and I don’t want to do that.  So yeah don’t do that.

And the other one is that I would tend to start being mean to myself, you know, even if I say this with the most modestly I can muster, even with eight trailer awards and countless sinks, I still will listen to somebody else’s track and go ah I’m a fraud. And then you go you shut up, you know I know when you shut up myself, but I still don;t like hearing it.  So that’s generally why I don’t do comparison.  Sometimes I do it for mix purposes and sometimes I do it more for an inspiration, or I love the synths they’ve got there.  Oh I love the strings because it’s nice to hear what other people are doing.  So when I do the comparison it will be directly off the trailer.  So rather than listen to their tracks in isolation I will listen to their tracks in situ, because then you see the real purpose of the cue.  And also you will see that it’s being synced, which is always worthwhile.

Ok, so we’ve gone into knowing your creative process, and making sure that you’re not mixing your editor with your computer because they don’t get along really well if we’re honest with each other.  That was me being honest with my editor.  Then you’ve got a comparison. 

Now this last one, and this is the big one really, this is the money, and this holds true I think for everything in life.  Yes, well wise words from Richard today, it is a life lesson to follow what gets you excited, follow your curiosity, follow your enjoyment.  Obviously when I say follow what gets you excited I mean musically obviously.  So this can be brought into your life in all aspects you know, follow your curiosity, follow what you enjoy, because otherwise you will end up doing stuff that you don’t enjoy, and what’s the point in that really.  So this ties in with your music right.

So if you are doing stuff that you enjoy, you will generally find that you produce a nice feeling, right.  You will feel good when you are doing stuff that you enjoy, and that feeling, that energy will go into your cue.  And that will then feed to whoever listens to it.  Again I’m going to the energy levels again because I think that it is hugely important, the energy that you put into your music, you know if you put the ah it’s not very good, I’m not a great composer, that’s going to go into your tracks guys, don’t do that.  Sit there and find stuff that gets you excited, do stuff that gets you, even if the only thing that gets you excited is making risers.  Be the master of risers, just do stuff that gets you excited because the thing is if you do that, you will, I would presume more likely to continue doing it and perseverance I would probably say the biggest part of most people’s success you know.  It’s time to see if people who are always guaranteed success because if they don’t persevere then they won’t continue and if you don’t continue then you reduce the amount of chances you have to succeed etc. etc.

I go back to the fact it took me seven years before I could go full time.  So the fact that I was always trying to do things that I enjoyed I think was a huge part of my success.  So carry on following what you enjoy, following your curiosity.  And you will actually find yourself getting better and better at knowing what it is that you enjoy, knowing what it is that gets you excited and therefore knowing what it is that you think is good, and that will apply to your trailer music as well.  You know if you carry on practicing following these moments of enjoyment you will start to notice that actually you’re producing cues that you just think ruck, hey this is awesome, send.  Why this is awesome, send, because you have listened to that, this is your intuition basically.  Listen to your higher soul, whatever it is you want to call it, that’s the thing that you’re training yourself to listen to.  And I give that to you in answer to the how do you know if your track is good or not?  Listen to it right, and I don’t mean after a 12 hour sess, of composing, I mean listen to it after you’ve had a break from it. 

That break could be a lovely 15 minutes cup of tea, it could be a nice half an hour salt bath, it could be a swim in the sea, it could be a night’s sleep, it could be a week, it could be four months of paternity leave.  Whatever it is, take  a break from it and listen back to it, when you’re in a good mood,  that’s realy key.  And then you’ll be like Rich, I will never  be good, ok probably should look at that. 

Listen back to it when you’re in a good mood and if you’re listening back to it, even if it’s only a slight part of you, listen to it and if it gets you excited you’re onto a winner.  And if you are like, if it’s well I like it, cool, what is it that you like about it, is it a sound that you like, how can you make that sound mr foe of the cue?  You know you think back to the trailer for Alien, you that original kind of like screeching sound they had, that one, they used that one again, was it Promethius, yeah I think it was Prometheus.  That trailer was patently just that sound.  And that was freaking awesome. 

So if there’s a sound in your cue you like, if it’s the sequence great, the thing about ways because you’ve got your editor heat on that you can bring out the stuff that gets you excited.  It might just be this, you might listen back to it after your comparing section and go you know what this is awesome, I’m going to send this off.  Because admittedly i quite often do, that poor Vic at Elephant Music the amount of very, very rough sketches I’ve sent him because I’ve just done something and I’ve gone this is awesome and I’ve sent it off, and act two is basically like a 36 bar loop, but just because we’ve worked together so long he kind of knows that I’m going to develop it [past the 36 bar loop, or at least add some other loops on top if not anything else. 

Anyway, so find what gets you excited and find what makes you curious, and by that I mean oh, that type of curiosity.  I still get this we’re getting dinner plates out for dinner at home and one of my kids has a bowl and I go oh, that sounds cool, curiosity, I’m curious as to what that sound was.  So then I take that bowl and I do it in my study and then hello I’ve got a sound that I like.  And then you will find that you are surrounding yourself with stuff that you like and you’re surrounding yourself with ideas that you like, and it just snowballs like that.

And if you carry on following your enjoyment and curiosity, you will find yourself just producing the work you like.  I’m not saying you’re going to find yourself when you have days, you’re not going to have days of like low levels of energy and feeling a bit rubbish about the work you’re producing, we all have that.  Our life is a bunch of cycles, you know we’re all going to have ups and downs regardless, so we’ll always have ups and downs in our composition process, and it’s good to know when you’re on the up and when you’re on the down so that you know that you’re looking through either you’re lovely pink goggles of love, or you’re, they sound like really dubious love making glasses, I mean like rose tinted glasses, or whether your looking through the sad blue lens of I should just give up.  I’ve been there, totally been there, I should just give up you know.  I’m not very good at this, I’m just a fraud, shush you, onwards.  So if you want advice about dealing with the inner critic listen to that podcast where I talk about advice about that. 

So yeah there we have it.  We have our three tools to help you know whether your track is good or not. And the thing is I can give you, I mean I will because I just love talking about this stuff, I will give you more tips to help you with this as well, but those three, really rely heavily on you having some self-awareness.  And if you don’t have that level of self-awareness where you still don’t know, you’re like a, I still know, I followed your advice Rich, I still don’t know what I like, this the other, I would suggest, you know what take some time to do some mediation, clear yourself out, take some time to do some exercise, clear yourself out.  Have a salt bath, those things they will help you get rid of the bad juju, the bad energy that’s fogging your mind,  or get some sleep, that’s a huge one, a huge one for me at the moment anyway with a four month old. 

And then you will have the tools.  And at the absolute last resort, you’ve gone through  all your stages of composition, you’ve kept your editing, you’ve compared and you thought that yours was still rubbish, you have tried to do what you enjoy but you’re still feeling a bit lost, you’ve meditated, you’ve had a bath, you’ve done some exercise, you’ve had some sleep, you still don’t know if a track is good enough.  Then you send it to somebody else for a point of view.  I mean obviously my students send me their tracks on a regular basis for me to feedback, and usually my feedback is pretty straight forward, this is awesome.  Just because I get very excited about new work.  And if it’s not this is awesome it’s hopefully helpful feedback.  And you know I rely heavily on the wonderful Elephant Music for giving me his feedback.  And this is again why it’s good to have their composers, you know, all the composers in the trailer music school have each other to give each other help and guidance. 

And it’s good to have a community.  You know I went into composting feeling insanely egotistic lately, insanely competitive, because that’s what the music industry was painted out to me, you know, which was entirely wrong, the music industry is filled with lovely people who will help you, and will want to help you succeed.  Because there’s plenty of success for everybody.  And that’s what I’d like you to do, follow my advice, because that will help you in your process.  And also get yourself surrounded by other composers, other like-minded composers,  you know obviously I can surround myself with some producers, I’m not sure that’s something  enjoy, I wouldn’t do that, whereas people who are fascinated by crazy weird sounds and want to make music out of those weird sounds, now that stuff i enjoy.  Or people who are interested in not orchestrated, not traditional orchestration for performance, although that does interest me, hugely, Iceman trailer composers, this is they go wow how did you do that, that was awesome.  I want to see and listen to people who are interested in shaping the same core sequences but in a new and interesting way, because that’s what I enjoy and that’s what I’m curious about among the millions of other things. 

So I really want to say thank you so much for taking the time  again to listen to this, and I really would love to hear about how you’re getting on with this advice, if it’s helping you, because otherwise I’m just talking into my phone in the woods, which actually I really enjoyed, so bonus to me.  And obviously if you want to learn more about trailer music head on over to the trailer music school, get tons of courses, get sample libraries and obviously get loads of awesome like-minded composers who just love trailer music, love making noise and are keen to help each other.

Yes I wish you all the best in your trailer music endeavours and I want to say thanks again for listening and see you around.

Music.

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).