I recently made a video explaining the 5 ways I make my beats sound more professional. If you're more of a video person, go ahead and scroll past the words to the video at the bottom of this post.
If you're more of a reading person, hi! Here are my 5 tips for making your beats sound more professional.
I use a 7-band Pro Tools stock EQ, and on almost every sound except for the kick and the bass or 808, I create a low shelf and cut off the bottom 50Hz. These frequencies are generally not noticeable to the human ear, but they can still crowd the mix and cause distortion when combined with the kick and bass/808. I also often cut low mid frequencies and slightly raise the high middle frequencies as well as the high frequencies, especially on my synth sounds. This is not always necessary, but it can clear up any boxiness and add some brightness to the mix.
2. Sound Selection With References
If I'm going for a commercial, polished sound, I will choose songs that I love that are at a current commercial level of quality and use them as references. As I pick my sounds for the beat, I try to make sure that I pick sounds with similar frequencies in them as my reference. This is especially applicable with drum sounds. The sounds don't have to (and shouldn't) be exact, but starting with quality sounds makes it much easier to have a quality beat. What you don't want is to get to the mixing phase of the beat and realize that you have to mix the mess out of every sound just for the beat to sound decent when you could have started with picking quality sounds.
I use white noise, fx risers, drum rolls, pauses, etc. to transition between the different parts in my beats. Transitions add a level of complexity to let the listener know when the next part of the song is coming. If you don't quite understand what I'm talking about, listen to some of your favorite commercial tracks and listen for how the beat lets you know when it's going from the verse into the chorus, the chorus into the bridge, etc. Use some of those techniques in your own beats to help give a more professional quality to your beats.
4. Drum loops
I know, I know, "everyone uses drum loops in their beats." True. But something I advise you to do is wait until you're getting close to finishing your beat, and listen for what it's lacking. Does the beat sound too narrow or mono? Find a drum loop that's wider or more stereo to make up for it. Does your beat sound too boxy? Add some drum loops with some higher frequencies in them to balance it out. In addition to adding a sense of complexity to your drums, drum loops can help fill out the beat and add what the mix is lacking.
Sidechain is a compressor setting, where you set the compressor to only act when it is signaled by a particular sound or channel. I sidechain my bass or 808 sound using the kick in almost every beat I make. Sidechaining helps make the mix clearer and keeps the 808 and kick from distorting when they play at the same time, and a clear mix is key when it comes to sounding professional.
I hope that all made sense! If you need some extra explaining, feel free to watch the video below.