When it comes to trying to improve your skills in any area of your life, it’s difficult to figure out what to do & what actions to take that will make the most impact. As humans it’s much easier to identify how to ruin something than it is to identify how to improve something. A powerful technique to get around this is to make a list of things NOT to do & then do the opposite. This can be surprisingly effective.
So with this in mind, in order to determine the best way to improve as a music producer I’m going to make a list of the opposite. These are things that will either stop you from moving forward or take you in the wrong direction altogether.
How to be a Crappy Producer
1. Don’t improve your listening skills – If you want to be a garbage producer, then definitely don’t practice deep listening to the songs you admire, don’t listen for the details most people miss & don’t develop a vocabulary to describe the elements you are hearing.
Listening skills and the ability to unravel how the elements of a track come together are paramount to good production. Your producing skills can only be as good as your ability to listen, recognize the small details & reverse engineer how each part works together. If you can’t hear it in other songs, it’s incredibly unlikely that you will incorporate these types of details into your own music. These are details that can take a song from decent, to top tier productions.
2. Boost EQ frequencies on every track – Another essential step for a bad mix is soloing & boosting the EQ frequencies of every instrument until it sounds big, fat & bright.
A good production does much less boosting, and a lot more carving out frequencies that aren’t necessary. If you want more low end on a sound, try cutting some of the mids & highs instead of boosting the lows. Also try carving out sub frequencies below 100 hz on most sounds that aren’t a kick or bass. Don’t be tempted to boost mids on every sound or you’ll end up with a thin tinny mix with no body, depth or fullness. Know your “A” players & the parts that play more of a supporting role. this will help you to know which parts to enhance & which to more or less leave alone. That said, reductive EQing can benefot most tracks.
3. Mix each instrument until it is loud and noticeable in the mix, then move to the next – This one really assisted in making my early mixes terrible. Ever wonder why the first sounds you mix always sound buried under the last sounds you mixed? Well this is the secret.
For much better results, each time you mix in a new instrument, turn it louder than it needs to be & then lower it as low as you can before it begins to lose it’s desired impact. Once again, remember your “A” and “B” players for appropriate mix levels. Also when mixing, try listening to every other sound in the mix to see how this new sound is affecting them. This will keep you from boosting each instrument too loud.
4. Don’t work on music daily – This is an excellent way to not build momentum in your music producing proficiency. Producer, learn some new things, stop producing for a week & then forget what you learned & have to start from ground zero again.
Habits are formed from daily repetition. It’s much easier to internalize everything you are learning when you have a daily habit. By doing this, not only will it end procrastination, but it will help you develop new problem solving skills that will make the things that seem hard to do now a piece of cake later.
It’s like reading a few chapters of a book & them putting it down for a week or 2. When you pick up where you left off, you’ll have forgotten what you have previously read & thus not have nearly as much context to what you are currently reading. Often times, you’ll need to review previous chapters to find your place in the story again. Daily habits are incredibly powerful.
5. Don’t use a reference track – Producing without a reference is a great way to get completely off track & to not be able to catch yourself when you’re adding too much or too little to a song. This especially makes arranging a song an unnecessarily monumental task.
Reference tracks are a roadmap to success. This doesn’t mean that you should copy a song. Instead, once you have a basic groove or song idea, you want to be able to reference, arrangement, energy levels & the types of groove elements that keeps a song interesting. This combined with your listening skills will take much of the guess work out of producing, while still maintaining your own unique sound.
Just a quick warning though. Don’t aim for the same volume levels as your reference track. Instead, lower your reference track by around 15db. This way you don’t get into a loudness war with your reference track & you will end up with a well balanced mix with enough headroom for a mastering engineer to put the final touches on your mix.
6. Watch as many videos on music production as possible – There is nothing quite as damaging to your momentum as a producer than endlessly watching tutorials on You tube. This doesn’t make you a good producer, it makes you an obedient consumer. Obedient consumers rarely reach their music goals.
As tempting as it might be to consume as much knowledge as possible, in “preparation” for your production tasks at hand, the truth is that this is just 99% procrastination. If you want to get utterly confused, listen to as many varying opinions as possible without sitting down, doing the necessary work & coming to your own conclusions from personal experience.
There is a time and place for learning. That time should be when you have pushed your skills to their limit & have an exact challenge that you need a quick solution for. When this happens, set a 15 minute timer & hunt down the specific solution. When the alarm goes off, times up, get back to work & push forward to the next challenge. If you are spending more than 20% of your producing time seeking information, you are out of balance & need to take back control of your producing time.
7. Chase whatever sound is currently popular – This is a great way to sound generic, go nowhere & never build confidence it your own unique voice. If you want to be an over worked, over stress & under appreciated musical nobody, this is your path.
For the rest of you who want to develop your own confidence in your individual sound, stop chasing tips, tricks & techniques & focus of the producing fundamentals. The aspects of professional producing that never change. It’s obviously fine to be influenced by new ideas, but if you are losing yourself, constantly afraid that your sound is going to be behind the times or outdated, you will always be a slave to trends & never develop your own confidence in making the art you truly love.
8. Worry about what others think of your music – If you want to get less accomplished in much more time, always base your self worth on the opinions of others. Don’t move on to your next song until you have been given the stamp of approval from your peers.
Now I am not suggesting that no one’s opinion matters but your opinion should be the final word. If you have someone close to you who can give you unbiased feedback on occasions, great, however waiting on this type of feedback to the detriment of your productivity is a recipe for disaster. The only way to continue improving, is to let go of your art when you’ve decided to call it done & moving on to the next project. Don’t wait. If you later want a trusted opinion before releasing songs, that is probably healthy, but in the meantime, don’t stop working.
9. Become great at making 8 bar loops & then stop – Oh man, this one is a stellar habit to develop if you want to lose at the game of music production. Just keep pumping on 8 bar loops and then stop because “finishing songs is hard”.
If you don’t focus on finishing what you start, you develop the terrible habit of not finishing what you start. The things you don’t do, become as much a habit as the things you do. When not finishing songs becomes the norm, working beyond the 8 bar loop feels unnatural and wrong to you.
Your brain doesn’t like doing new things & forming new skills & habits. Your brain has limited resources, so to help you conserve mental energy, it like to stick to what it knows & not go too far beyond that. Luckily, if you develop a new habit, you can rewrite the rules that your brain follows. Make it a point to finish what you start, even if it’s not perfect. Accept your current skill level & move to the next idea. This will help you make your way to the top 10% of producers.
10. Never allow yourself to be inspired by other songs – Worrying about originality & closing yourself off from all influences is a great way to write uninspiring music. It’s like a chef who refuses to learn how to cook because she doesn’t want to be influenced by anyone who has come before. Really excellent way to kill your creativity before you start.
Originality doesn’t come from rejecting all outside influences. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The more things you allow yourself to be influenced by, the more new ways of thinking will flow to you consistently. Any time you close the doors to outside ideas, you are cutting off part of your creative portals. Be open to everything & your creativity won’t be limited.
11. Download as many plugins as possible. You never know if it’ll come in handy – Plugin FOMO is an incredible way to waste all of your productive time. Make sure to spend all your time searching out & install every free or paid plugin you can get your hands on. Then you can become a professional tinkerer & hit of all your producer friends with “Yo, have to tried the bettergiezer 5000 yet? It’s amazing!”. You ignorant friend may respond with, “Man, I’ve been too busy finishing songs to check any new plugins out”. Sucks for him, right?
Your DAW has all the tools you need to create & finish professional sounding music. There will always be cool tools, but you have no business diving into them unless you have already developed the skill of finishing songs. If you aren’t finishing songs right now, more options is not going to get you any closer.
12. Never make music when you’re uninspired – If you really want to fail hard, there is nothing better than waiting for inspiration before you sit down to make music. It’s a great way to make sure you only make music a few times a year, plus don’t worry about finishing anything, as you have very little chance of staying inspired enough to see anything through.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”
“Action is the foundational key to all success.” – Pablo Picasso
If you aren’t willing to sit down and do the work when you are uninspired, you will miss 99% of inspirational moment. Inspiration is more of a reaction to work you are doing than a reaction to inactivity. The biggest challenge to any form of art is sitting down to do the work. If you want to make music your life, you’ll need to self motivate & trust that the ideas will follow.
13. Aim for perfection, no matter how long it takes – Perfectionism is the perfect formula for failure. Anytime you want to avoid finishing what you’re working on, just tell yourself you are waiting for it to be perfect, then keep noodling endlessly.
Perfectionism is not what you think. It’s not about “high standards”, it’s about the fear of judgement. It’s a major form of procrastination due to the fact that you can only be judged on what you finish. Perfect is not an attainable goal. It’s the enemy of art. Be unabashedly proud of your imperfect creations. Perfection, if it could ever be attained would be sterile, lifeless & lacks humanity.
14. Give yourself as many choices as possible when making music – Whenever you want to create a mess, give yourself more choices then you can possibly handle. Don’t more forward until you exhaust every possibility. Then obsess over which of the 50 “good” ideas is the best one. Repeat this process every step of the way.
If you want to be a great producer, you need to know your “go to” tools & effects so you don’t waste mental energy of decision fatigue. You are much better off having a few decent tools that you know really well than to have 100’s of potentially great tools that you have very little experience with.
15. Let yourself get lost in sound design when in producing mode – Right when you’re starting to find your flow of a track, make sure to stop your progress to perfect a sound for hours on end. It’s a great way to lose focus on the real goal of finishing quality music.
There is a time & place for sound design & getting lost in the sauce. That time is not during your precious production time. When you are in a production session, you should have interesting sounds you have created that are more or less ready to go. Do your experimentation with sounds on your off days, save the ones that you like best & keep them in an easy to find folder.
By approaching things this way, you’ll get songs across the finish line so much faster.
16. Don’t worry about finishing anything, just work until it gets hard & then start something new – If you want to be a craptastic producer, never push yourself any further than you’ve gone before. Music making should never be hard. Stay in your comfort zone & keep telling your friends you’re still “working on music”. Not necessarily finishing anything, but man do you have a lot of 8 bar loops.
Finishing what you start is a habit. Until you commit to getting songs across the finish line, it’s just not going to happen. Finishing requires you to push beyond your current skill level & to stay on target especially when it gets hard. Only through this practice will finishing songs become natural and normal to you.
17. Spend most of your time on social media, so you never miss what’s happening in the world –
18. Obsess on instagram & tik tok followers, even if you haven’t finished any songs – It’s all about “content” & followers now. Don’t worry about the music part, unless it’s a 15 second clip that can go viral. That’s all that matters!
It should go without saying that obsessing on social media content is just about the worst use of your time if you aren’t finishing music. If you are a producer, music should be the center point of your posts. Sure, We are in new times where we are competing for attention, however, nothing will get you more attention than putting out great music consistently.
Don’t compare yourself to “content creators” or “influencers”. You are an artist first and foremost. Everything around that is mostly fluff. Avoid that rabbit hole by posting when you’ve got something beautiful for people’s ears. Don’t think in terms of “content”. That’s a battle for attention that you won’t win. You’ll just find you’ve lost a lot of time you’ll never get back.
19. Don’t stick to one musical style. Instead try a different genre with every new song – A great way to not get good at a particular genre & never developing your own unique sound, is to change genres with every song you start.
Similar to a painter painting something completely different with every new piece, they never develop any professional level skill in any particular area. If you want to be known for a “sound”, you’ve got to repeat the process over and over again until your work breaths your personality & has your “stamp” on it. Nobody nails it their first couple times. You have to dedicate yourself to fine tuning your work in a particular style of your choosing. Try creating at least 10 songs in a certain style before dramatically changing things up.
20. Remember that clubbing & “being seen” is always more important than being in the studio – There is nothing more important than being seen. You should most certainly cut your studio time short any time there is a clubbing event. Also it’s important to stay out & party as hard as possible so everyone knows you’re a boss in the scene.
And if you believe that, you’re an idiot. I’m not saying networking doesn’t help, but if you’ve got nothing of substance to share, you’re not networking, you’re just partying. This is a sure way to lose focus, possibly lose your mind & then burn out. I’ve seen it many times & it ain’t pretty. Do yourself a favor and practice a life balance where your mental and physical health take a priority.
I’m not saying you can’t be a party animal & have a music career, but it’s not sustainable. Those who last clean themselves up & take care of themselves. The rest end up broke, damaged & forgotten, if they make it out alive.
21. When a song doesn’t sound right, just keep adding more samples & instruments – Oh yes, the more is better approach. What a way to overwork yourself with lower & lower returns.
If you are taking the “just add more” approach, you are probably missing what is really happening. The common reason a song will lose its spark & not sound “right” to you is usually because either 1, You have obscured the initial groove of the song to the point that the heart of your song sounds a bit lifeless, 2. The sounds you are using aren’t gelling with your track & you are trying to compensate with over-processing & extra layers or 3. Your mix is lacking dynamics & changes in volumes, highlighting different instruments at different times in your tune.
This is not to say that a song can’t have a lot of parts, but keep in mind that the brain can’t focus on more than 5-6 elements in a song at once. Make sure you are trading off instruments & giving each one it’s own time to shine, otherwise none of them will shine.
22. Never roll off low frequencies on any sound, ever – This is the formula for undefined bass, a lost kick & an overall muddy mix. If you like bad sounding mixes, this is the way.
You have to be very careful with frequencies below 120hz, as you only want 1 sound at a time in these frequencies. When more than one sound has those frequencies, they fight & make each other much less defined. It’s usually best to roll off unnecessary low frequencies from any sound that isn’t a kick, bass, sub or low tom.
You would be surprised how many low frequencies show up in mid & high frequency sounds. Even though it’s just a little, 50 tracks of “a little” adds up quick & will absolutely hurt you mix.
23. Don’t use sidechain compression on your mix ever – If you want to make mixing hard on yourself & you don’t want each sound to stand out nicely in the mix, don’t use sidechain compression.
Sidechaining is basically the idea of automatically reducing the volume of one instrument when another, more important instrument comes in. This can help each instrument sound clear with they need to & duck out of the way when another part needs attention.
Sidechaining instruments to your kick drum is pretty common in electronic music. Some music genres use it in a really noticeable way to create a stylistic affect, but most producers use it in a more subtle way, just to give the kick & maybe snare/clap more punch & clarity. This can be heard in a lot of hip hop & most beat driven music.
Sidechaining can also be used to lower an otherwise important sound only when the vocals come in & then return to it’s original volume right after. This keeps vocals from fighting from other sounds in its same frequency range.
24. Don’t educate yourself on EQ, Compression, Reverb or Delay – Just do what sounds good in the moment & you can’t go wrong.
Every sound requires different processing. The trick is to know when a certain effect is required & then know the right settings for the right effect to get the desired result. If you aren’t familiar with these 4 essential effects, you will spend a small eternity tweaking parameters, not knowing if one setting sounds any better than another. You want to be good enough where you can quickly get great results & keep your focus on finishing your song.
25. Reject new technology that makes producing easier. That’s cheating – Nothing will slow you down more than trying to do everything the hard way because you feel that anything less is cheating.
If you take pride in how hard things are for you to accomplish, you are going to have a pretty unpleasant time making music. Although I don’t subscribe to an idea of a “magic bullet” plugin & I think giving yourself less choices is usually the most beneficial approach.
That said, there is no reason not to use the resources available to make sound design, music theory, or other production processes easier. Don’t be afraid of presets, samples, loops, musical scale tools or sound randomizers to inspire your creativity. Most of your inspiration will come from a reaction to a spark. Don’t limit yourself to what that spark can be.
26. Spend 80% of your time learning & 20% of your time making music – If you want to know a lot about a lot of things & still not release any music, you should spend more time learning ABOUT making music instead of experiencing it for yourself.
I always tell me students to start off your day just producing. Try to push yourself 1 step beyond your current skill level. Ponder ways to solve your challenges & if you still are having trouble, only then should you briefly search for a solution.
It’s a good idea to set a timer for 15 minute to find a solution, so you don’t get distracted & waste time. When the alarm goes off, get back to your music.
27. Studio time is not sacred, so it’s totally ok for people to interrupt you – Keeping an open door policy, as well as open conversations on your phone & social media tabs will rob you of 90% of your focused creative energy.
You only have, at tops, 2-3 hours of quality focused time that your brain can handle per day. Any distraction during your studio time is going to dramatically reduce your brain’s ability to stay focused. This very post, even with focused time has taken me several days to complete. This is because my brain can only deliver so much creative energy.
Understanding this, keeping guard of your privacy & eliminating other distractions is so important when producing. I tend to do best doing focused work for 25 minutes & then taking a 5 minute break to recharge. A few rounds of this gives me the best results, unless I get a big burst of energy & flow & can power through for an hour or more without distraction. Try it. I think it’ll help.
28. Spend as much time as possible testing out new plugins – This can give you endless distractions & endless excuses for not working your music to completion. It’s really easy to convince yourself that the next shiny new object will make you a better producer.
The truth is that you should only try new toys after you have developed the ability to to stay focused on your music from start to finish. If you haven’t yet developed that skill, you have more work to do before you tempt yourself with new things to learn.
Unless you have put aside a full session to make weird sounds with new tools to later edit for use in future producing sessions, you’ll likely find yourself using only a handful of tools to take your music to completion. Don’t let any new toy fool you. New tools are fun & some are even useful, but none of them are going to remove the need for you to build the focus and skill to finish what you start.
29. Spend a lot of time every day in groups and forums. The more opinions the better – If you want to be a bad producer, it’s a great idea to fill your head with as many opposing opinions as possible. This will lead you to more confusion & a desperate need to hunt down even more forums and groups, searching for the right opinion.
Sadly, free forums are rarely helpful. In fact, they can be downright toxic. There are a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge but have accomplished far less than they had aspired to. Now to feel better about themselves, they judge the questions & work of others. Often harshly.
The others side of things might be developing a dependency on the opinions of others instead of developing your own self confidence by putting in the work. Sometimes when searching for a solution, google may direct you to a forum post that helps you. That’s great, but it’s usually best to get in and out quickly.
If you want to really change the game on forums & groups, get so good at producing, that you are able to go to forums to genuinely help others. Try to be a positive influence among a group of either confused beginners or bitter experts. I’m not saying there aren’t any nice people in forums, but the bad apples can quickly ruin your experience & confidence with their trolling. Be careful.
30. Always put reverb on subs – I mean, this goes without saying, right?
Just don’t do it… EVER 😉
Happy music making!