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Jan 25, 2013
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6 Common mistakes that Music Composers make!

Hello there everyone!  I’ve been seeing a lot of new composers popping up lately, which is always great to see!  The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be much information available for them on how to compose on this site. So, I figured I’d take a shot at trying to help out there, starting with a pretty simple article on some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen composers, both new and old, make with their compositions.  We’ve probably all made these mistakes before, so if you make them, don’t worry, it happens to everyone at some point!  Just make a note of it and try to catch yourself next time. 

These tips are primarily for midi based composers rather than audio based.  In order to keep the length of this post from getting way too long, I won’t be going into too much detail and you will be expected to research the details of this stuff on your own (something a composer should always be doing).  Though, if you're unsure about something, feel free to ask!

Let’s get started!

1.   1. Not using velocity/expression controls.

This is a big one (in fact, it’s technically two in one!) and a good one to start with, I feel.  One of the biggest problems a lot of new composers have is that their compositions sound very static, they have no movement to them.  However, this can very easily be helped, one thing you can do is use velocity and/or expression midi controls.  Velocity and expression controls allow you to change the the dynamics of a track, you can make some parts louder, some quieter.  Using them effectively is pretty much how you make your music ‘breath’.

Obviously, there’s a whole lot more you should do than just this to make things sound better, but this is definitely one of the more essential parts of doing so.  Most audio software will show the velocity controls under the instrument/midi track you’re using, all you have to do is use them to make some parts louder, some quieter and hey presto!  Your music probably sounds a lot better. 

In compositions with real recordedinstruments, you’ll notice that not everything is played at the same volume, you’ll want to emulate this in your own music, and yes, electronic genre musicians, that means you too!  Velocity can be used on every type of instrument, though they only account for whole note durations.  Some sample libraries will even have the samples change to harder/softer playing dynamics (e.g. forte, mezzo-forte) as the velocity values are changed.

Expression controls are a little different, as they can be changed within the same note.  This is very useful for sustained instrument parts like strings, brass and wind.  Using the line tool with an expression controller is an easy way to make a crescendo or diminuendo, more advanced users can also use it to simulate bowing on string instruments.  The expression controller is usually marked as CC11 under midi automation types.

2.   2. Not using reverb or using it incorrectly

Reverb is an effect used to simulate music being played in a room, studio, hall or other acoustic space.  Adding it is essential to any type of composition as it just flat out makes things sound better and makes them sound more realistic.  You should only avoid using reverb when the style you’re writing for doesn’t warrant it, e.g. very old-school retro music.  Otherwise, there’s no excuses, learn to use it sparingly and you’ll find the quality of your music increases.

Do be very careful when using reverb on bassier instruments as too much low-end can obscure your other instruments by making your mix too ‘muddy’.  As a general beginners guideline, use more reverb as the instruments you use go higher in pitch range e.g. more on a trumpet than a tuba.  Always make sure you only use enough reverb to place it in a virtual space, unless, you very specifically want an over-reverberated effect like for a space or ambient music track.

3.   3. Overusing compression

This one is a touchy one as there are many different accepted standards of compression and it is useful to use it, at least lightly, in most types of track.  However, using too much compression is a sure-fire way to squeeze all the life out of your compositions.  If you’re completely stuck on how to use it, use a very low threshold or just don’t use it at all.  Always keep an eye on your track’s dynamic range, even battle themes need both loud and quiet sections.  If you only have one volume setting, your track will lose all it’s impact and interest very quickly, even if it seems loud at first.  Remember, louder is not always better.  Use compression to average out your levels, raise perceived volume and add character to a track.

4.   4. Not being careful with high/low frequencies

I know how it feels, you want to make a part more dramatic, so what do you do?  You go up an octave and before you know it, you’ve gone all the way up to C6 and everything now sounds really piercing.  The problem is, you really should only do this sparingly and only with very careful use of the volume, EQing out the higher frequencies might help to a degree, but sometimes, it really is better to just change the melody.  You want to make people enjoy your music, not hurt their ears!  The exact same applies for low frequencies, if you can, listen to your music on a bass heavy setup so that you can tell.  Failing that, have someone who does have a bass heavy setup listen to it for you.  You should also try to listen to your tracks both with headphones and speakers, having a range of comparisons to use helps you make decisions about these things.

5.   5. Blaming bad samples for low quality of work

This one might ruffle a few feathers but it is a common one.  If you’re not happy with having a bad set of samples/synths then you probably need to look harder, there are tons of free plugins and software available and I recommend starting with Ms Littlefish’s great post on the matter.  If you’re still not happy with your work, don’t blame the samples, because chances are, it’s not the samples, it’s you.  All those old games that made you want to become a composer had far worse sounds than what you have access to for free on the internet.   Don’t beat yourself up if this happens, it’s all part of the process and as long as you keep trying, you will improve.  A lot of people are under the impression that better samples means better work, in actuality, most higher end samples actually require additional work to get the sound right due to the extra controls and functions you need to learn.  You can still make great music on older samples/synths, you just need to work at it.

6.   6. Not handling criticism of your work correctly

Another feather ruffling point here!  At some point, your work will be criticised by someone and when that time comes you need to be graceful about it.  Not all criticism will be sweetened with positive points but, what you must always remember, is that most of it is intended to help you.  It can be very tough to have something you put your heart and soul into ripped to pieces, but it’s also a necessary part of your growth.  There is of course, such a thing as exposing yourself to too much criticism too though, if that happens you will never be happy with your own work.  It’s good to always want to improve but if it’s removing all your composing enjoyment, then you probably need to take a break for a while.  For this reason, I would recommend not getting feedback on every track you make, save it for important ones.  You also don’t need to post/show off every track you make, becoming too dependent on receiving validation from other people for your work is a very self-destructive habit in the long term, it doesn't matter what field you're in.  That being said, validation is important, you do need to receive some praise for what you do, being acknowledged for your work is very motivating.  Just don't be that person who constantly puts links to their work on the forums, skype etc but never contributes anything else.

That's it for now!  I hope you found these tips helpful, if you want to add any of your own or discuss any of these tips in more detail, please feel free!  This is also my first post on this kind of thing, so if there's anything I can improve, let me know!


Aug 28, 2014
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Thanks for the tut! I struggle with the Velocity stuff mostly when I make music, it's not dynamic enough.

I came in here expecting to send this to the guy who is creating music for our game, but he doesn't do any of this stuff thankfully x)

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