There’s a saying, “Copying is the highest form of flattery.” Copying is also one of the best ways to hone your production skills. Taking the time to pick apart and recreate a song done by your favorite producer is almost like being an intern for that producer. You’re getting the benefit of dissecting the techniques used to produce their unique sound without the hazards of being an actual intern (you’ll never be shackled to the coffee maker nor asked to clean up after the band).
When selecting a song to copy, make sure that it is full bandwidth audio (like what you find on an audio CD), not a compressed audio file format (such as MP3 or AAC). You need to be able to hear every nuance of the original production, and a 128 kbps MP3 file just isn’t going to cut the mustard, there’s just too much audio content missing. You can audition MP3 files to find the song that you want to copy, but when you’ve identified the song, you should buy the audio CD to ensure that you’re listening to the best quality audio available.
The object of copying a song is to get as close to the original sound as possible. However, even though this is a great bar to shoot for, it’s not usually possible from a technical standpoint. For example, the producer used a $20,000 Lexicon 960L reverb unit, and all you have to work with is D-Verb (the Pro Tools factory reverb plug-in). Obviously, the sound isn’t going to compare. Fortunately, simply going through the process of copying the song as closely as you can is practice enough. Even if your copy isn’t a dead ringer, you’ll still be going through the steps and experiencing the techniques required to create the producer’s sound. Of course, ultimately, the idea isn’t to become a clone of your favorite producer, it’s to learn a variety of techniques and then to apply them in your own unique ways.
Neither is it necessary to copy an entire song, from start to finish. It’s fine to copy just a short section of the song. For example, the chorus, the bridge, or simply the intro beat. The production elements that you’re wanting to emulate are, more often than not, contained in only a few bars of the music. Copying just a section makes it convenient to loop the part, then beat match your session’s tempo to the loop. This also makes comparing your copy to the original song, right in your session, a total snap. Plus, with your session beat matched to the original, it becomes possible to extract the loop’s groove (using a tool like Beat Detective in Pro Tools, Get Groove from Clip in Reason, or Extract Groove in Ableton Live) and apply it to your own tracks.
Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself when you copy a production:
Attached is a Pro Tools session in which I’ve imported and looped a short drum loop from Missy Elliott’s “Sockit2me” (produced by Timbaland). Then, I’ve used Xpand! and the Pro Tools stock plug-ins to copy the song’s basic production sound. It’s not perfect because of the limited palette of sounds I had to work with, but it certainly captures the flavor of the original beat. In fact, I even picked up an interesting production trick along the way: hard panning a gated reverb return to the left speaker, and then hard panning the original dry signal to the right speaker. See if you can hear this effect in the original loop and then find how I recreated it in my mix.