Producing is mostly problem solving
Many new and old producers have a really difficult time looking at their own work and saying “This is done”. There is a huge paranoia that there is a gaping hole in our work that is immediately going to be spotted by our peers. This issue can lead to analysis paralysis and cause you to never finish anything you start.
Every track you show people will be a “work in progress”. You’ll never commit to saying “here it is, it’s done”. I hope this post will help you across the finish line with more confidence.
The truth is, if you haven’t written in a while, your songs may very likely have some unfinished business, but you really can’t look at things like that. Your job is not to create perfection, it’s to abandon your work when you’ve done all you can currently do.
See, your production improves in direct relationship with your experience and your listening skills. This means that unless you are willing to put yourself out there & possibly fail a few times, you will never truly begin to succeed. You’ll think that one more learned trick is going to save your song, but it’s really not the case.
You can’t improve your skills from studying somebody else’s skills unless you are also learning from doing. You also can never expect to develop your own style. Instead you’ll be chasing everybody else’s.
When is my song done?
So when is your song complete then?
The short answer is that it’s done when you say it’s done, but let me dive a bit deeper.
As you produce your own music, you start to develop a much better ear for things. You get much better at figuring out what makes other songs “tick” & learning to apply it to your own work.
Many of us go through a period where we realize our song is still missing something. The problem is that we don’t know what. Sometimes there truly is an element missings, other times the problem is in the mixing or EQing. Other times there is just too much happening and the song no longer sounds clean.
Once again, you learn this from doing. With any form of art, you can only be as good as your currently are.
So when is your song done? When you can no longer perceive any problems.
The problem solving approach
This year I have gained a decade of experience over the last 10 months by writing constantly. I’ve written, remixed or collaborated on more than 60 songs so far & still going strong. Surprisingly, I like 90% of my work quite a bit. The advantage you have when you are continuously writing is that you are building habits, skills and instincts. You can also always go back to a previous “finished” song & know immediately what you can do to make it better.
See, you don’t have to call a song done forever, you just have to abandon it when your current ear is satisfied. You can always come back. The trick is to get something as far as you can take it, then try to take it just a tad further, then let it go without getting too much emotion involved & start your next tune.
My approach as a producer now isn’t to reach some sort of perfection, but to construct something that sounds good to my ears and feels good in my body, then arrange it into a full song format & finally fix the problems.
Some of the issues I find I need to solve are:
* The song sounds muddy, what sound do I need to clean up? Do I need more high frequency content?
* This part has been going on too long without change, how can I retrigger some excitement?
* I seem to have lost the groove, what is taking away from the rhythm?
* Everything seems to be coming from the center, how can I add more movement?
* This sound isn’t cutting through, should I add EQ, compression or saturation?
* This new sound is overpowering another important sound, can I solve this with panning or EQ?
The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.
Getting out of the DAW
When I feel I am getting close to completing my song, I will mix it down and listen to the song outside of my DAW. Sometimes visual cues can trick you, so I like to be 100% using my ears.
While listening, I’ll make a note of issues with the mix & the time it is happening. This is extremely useful to me, because I know exactly what I need to do to call this song done. I no longer need to overthink, I just go through my checklist.
When there are no more issues I can perceive, I call the song done & move on to the next one.
Follow my songwriting process
If you would like to follow my (mostly) daily songwriting thread on facebook, you can check it out here. It’s totally free & you can also share your own daily process. It’s helped a lot of producers stay focused and productive. I invite the same for you.
Happy music making,
Stutter Effects with Warp Settings
Here’s a hidden trick in your warping setting to get cool stuttering effects on any audio file you apply it to. Automating it sounds pretty cool too, although you will need to do that manually while recording the results to another track. Depending on what you are going for, the results may very well be worth the extra time (which is really only 1 or 2 minutes).
Check out the video below and I’ll show you how it’s done:
Happy music making,
Nobody Wants To Hear Your Music
If you are a music maker in the digital age there are many things you need to come to terms with. Some of it is going to sound harsh, but knowing this will give you a slight edge in this tough market.
We are bombarded with shit day in and day out like never before. Everybody wants to share their thoughts, opinions, art, music, cat vids, you name it. Not only are we bombarded with shit, we are bombarded with free shit (and let’s be honest, some of it is good, but most of it is shit).
If you are an aspiring music producer, you simply can’t compete with the wealth of free entertainment that is available to everyone with a TV or computer. Most people don’t want to bother with your free stuff, let alone your paid product that you poured your soul into.
Don’t worry, nobody wants to hear my stuff either.
I am not offering strict pessimism here, but I want to be clear that for the majority of people, you mean nothing, and that is what us artists are up against.
If you want to get anywhere in this business, you want to find out what everybody else is doing & do more, do different. Come from an angle that gives people value for their time. Do something that makes people give a shit about you. And trust me when I say, it’s you, not your music that people are buying. If people don’t feel connected with you, your great music will never matter.
It’s no coincidence that an outspoken public guy like Deadmau5 is on top of the electronic music game. He might not be your favorite & he isn’t mine, but you’ve got to appreciate his approach in this changing musical landscape.
Influence the influencers
If you want people to care enough about what you do to pull out their hard earned $5-10 on your EP or album, you have to understand that most people are naturally followers. You need to identify the leaders of your niche and make them care. You can divide your workload by 100, hell 1000 times by simply getting a nod or 2 from those who influence your scene.
Like in any field, you typically only have access to the guys in the middle, not the guys at the top. Although you might get lucky, you’ll have to accept that Richie Hawtin, Dubfire & Adam Beyer aren’t going to be very accessible, but you may be able to build relationships with people a bit lower on the totem pole that are connected to these guys.
In the early 2000’s, I got very lucky when my partner & I were trying to get out our music (under the name Innerstate). It actually took a couple years to climb the ladder though. We had about 4 songs we had finished and really had no connections. We would go to gigs with CDs and hand them to the DJs after shows. At the time Taylor was a pretty big name & we really loved what he did. We followed him to gig after gig bringing the same CDs. Each time he would say he hadn’t had a chance to listen, or “lost” the CD. He wasn’t being a dick, he was genuinely busy & he didn’t know us from anyone. There was no reason to care. In our scene there was a new guy that had been coming up named Brandon Meyers. Since he was still on his way up, he wasn’t bombarded with as much music, so when we handed him a CD, he listened right away & started playing a couple of the tunes. At some point, he connected with Taylor & when Taylor heard the tunes and the crowd reaction, he had to know who the artist was. Brandon told him “from what I hear, you have 6 copies of these songs stacked somewhere in your house!”. Needless to say, he started playing them a LOT & we build a friendship that lasts today.
Not long after this my production partner and I headed out to Miami for the Winter Music Conference. While many people were pressing vinyl & professional CDs by the 100’s, we went with 10 burned CDs with our crappy handwriting on them. We gave 1 to Pete Tong, Nick Warren, as well as a great guy who worked for Allen & Heath. Although it didn’t go anywhere with Tong, we did hear he liked what we gave him, so who knows if he passed it on. Nick & his Way Out West partner started playing them out, but most importantly, our friend from Allen and Heath liked our tunes enough to hand them off to Hernan Cattaneo who started giving us huge festival plays & talking us up in magazine interviews. When John Digweed did a gig with him, he heard one of our tracks & had to get a copy. Needless to say, he started dropping it left & right as well.
This is the equivalent of a nobody going hugely viral. It happens. I’m living proof.
As much as we would like our music to speak for itself, you are going to have to be the spokesman for your art. You need to do more than post “Listen to my new jam” if you want anyone to give a shit. If that is what you have been doing, most of your would be fans hate you. From your perspective, the time you put into your tune is your gift to the world. Unfortunately from the other perspective, you are just another crappy music maker trying to get famous. Sad but true.
There is a reason musicians and actors have a PR team. People need to feel like they know you for you to earn the time of day with them. If you don’t have the budget for that (and many of us don’t), you are going to have to give more value than music to engage people. For me, it was sharing my process, giving people a backstage pass into my little world. Giving my music a face, a soul.
When you have successes, many of your biggest fans are striving to be where you are now. Help them. Share your stories & your personality. You, your music and your story are all intertwined. The more you can open up, the more chance of building an audience that cares.
Learn how to market yourself
Technology has since changed & although my approach can still work, there are many more music makers in the game. Everyone and his grandma are slagging off their tunes to DJs face to face & through social media. Here is where you have to look at what others are doing & think different.
One thing that 95% of producer’s aren’t doing is spending money on marketing themselves. Everyone wants the free approach, and that is where you have an “in”. By doing what others aren’t willing to do, the noise in this scene gets cut by 95% & you have access to a much wider audience.
Understand that this is an investment that you won’t make back in sales in the short term, so you’ll need to be in this for the long haul (other thing that will set you apart while others get frustrated, lazy & quit before they ever got started).
Don’t worry too much about trying to be the biggest & the best right now. Focus instead having enough people who love what you do to support you. Kevin Kelly suggests building a fanbase of 1000 true fans. A true fan is someone who buys everything you do, including the t-shirt & the super deluxe box set with rare demos and b-sides & will also drive a long distance to come to your shows. If you can get 1000 people willing to pay you $50-$100 a year, you can make a living as an artist.
I’ll be sharing my own strategies for making a living as an artist. This not only includes selling your music stuff, but also ways to create some other passive income streams that can bring you income 24/7. If that interests you, you can sign up to my free mailing list here.
So try to think outside the box with your music & try to give people a reason to care. This will require more effort and energy from you, but doing what others aren’t willing to is the secret sauce to any success story.
Happy music making,
How Long Will it Take Me to Sound Like ______ ?
This is a question I get asked often from new aspiring producers. They often ask me this after they have purchased a training course from me or joined my Producer’s Playground, so given their current mindset, it’s a fair question, but it isn’t the best question. .
It’s VERY important that you start with a different attitude than “how long will it take me to sound like this pro?”
You can’t possibly go directly from A to Z, without moving through the whole alphabet. You can certainly skip some roadblocks that gets you through faster, but you still need to move through each of the micro steps before you make that giant leap.
The real question you may need to answer is:
“How many songs did this artist write to get to this level of production?”
Then your next question might be:
“How many songs will I need to finish to get the experience needed to write on that level?”
With a mentor or someone who helps you focus on the right things, you might be able to get to a professional level in your productions in less time than the original artist did, but I wouldn’t expect your first 5, 10 or even 20 songs to be on that level.
“Why even bother making making music I’m not 100% satisfied with?”
This is the attitude that keeps 95% of people out of the big leagues. It’s like asking “why even bother learning kung fu if I have to start as a white belt?”. It’s why most people quit before they have even begun. Most people are not able to sit with sucking at something until they don’t suck anymore. Instead they beat themselves up through the whole process.
Here’s why you make music, however bad you are at it right now:
1. Because you love music enough to fight for your ability to be great at it.
2. Because you already envision your success & you know these are the steps that get you there.
3. Because there is no other way to get there.
Your goal should be to get comfortable with finishing songs right now at whatever level you are at. Don’t make the mistake of spending a year on 1 song, thinking this is how you become an expert, because:
1. That isn’t the way to master songwriting
2. You’ll hate the song before you have even finished it
3. You might be inspired by something completely different by that time
When you go through the process of finishing songs, you aren’t only improving your writing skills, you are also improving your listening skills. The more your listening skills improve, the more you’ll realize that some of the first songs you wrote are missing certain details you never even thought of before.
This is why, as you are developing, it’s so important to call a song done when you’ve done the best you can for now & start something new. You won’t be able to develop your listening skills any other way, than to write songs & reference your music with other artists.
The writing and listening process will progress naturally, and when it does, you’ll be able to go back and improve your older songs. I do this ALL the time, as my process is always improving.
Does this mean that every song you make is going to be better than the last?
Not necessarily. You can’t really predict your hits and misses, but you are guaranteed to be a more experienced producer with every new song completed & your toolbox will be not only bigger, but much more organized.
You’ll be much better at sounding like yourself than anyone else
If you aren’t great at sounding like somebody else, that is a good thing. It means you have your own style that you are developing. As long as you improve at being the best you possible, you won’t be wasting your time chasing someone else’s art.
Chasing the dreams of others is the best way to kill your own art before you ever get off the ground. You will always borrow ideas for your art, but when you know who you are, the ideas you borrow will move your art forward, not somebody else’s.
So many artists die with their own art still in them because they never had the confidence to share themselves with the world. Don’t be another statistic.
I recall in the mid 90’s, I was trying to make the trance music that was popular at the time. The only thing epic about it, was what an epic failure I was at it. Everything I made sounded like house music. I felt like a loser, instead of realizing that my personality just happened to gravitate toward a different style of music. I now see my failure at making what wasn’t really me as a success.
Keep this in mind as genre’s change so you don’t get “shiny music syndrome” where you try to chase down every new popular style. If you want to sound like a pro, you’ll need to be consistent with your sound for long enough to get there.
“My song sounded great last night, but sounds like shit today”
This is incredibly common for new producer’s and even veteran producer’s and there is a reason why this happens. Let me try to explain.
If I were to play you a low quality mp3 dj mix, but not tell you… after about 10 minutes, your ears might adjust to it & suddenly it would sound just fine. Your brain has a way of adjusting to what you are listening to.
Since your song is all you are listening to for hours on end, compared to nothing but itself, it sounds great. Over the next day or 2, you will likely be listening to other music, refreshing your ears. Suddenly, when you return to you own production, you’ll hear the difference & notice that it sounds sub standard to how you originally thought is sounded.
This is part of you developing listening skills & it’s the reason you may look back on some of your work and go “what was I thinking?”.
Improving your listening skills
If you and I were to listen to the same song & then describe it in terms or production or arrangement, we would likely hear things differently, because our experience & listening skills are different.
You might say “Listen to that fat kick drum” while I might be hearing things on a different level and say “Sounds like a thumpy kick with short decay, layered with a clicky kick for presence & a subby sine wave underneath for the boom”.
We both heard the same thing, but our ability to break down what is happening in terms of production is proportional to our ability to really hear the details when we listen.
How to improve your listening skills
If you want to improve your listening skills, take 10 minutes before each music session to listen to a song & then write out in as much detail as you can, what you are hearing. Try to figure out what elements are making the groove happen, what is creating tension & what is releasing it.
Is there a sound that glues things together?
Can you hear what effects are being used to create dimension & space in the song?
Can you recognize what is happening with a filter?
What is happening in the song to keep it from sounding boring & loopy?
The more you can understand what really makes another song tick, the more you can apply that you your own productions & the faster you can expect to become the expert you so desperately want to sound like now.
With everything you do, there are shortcuts, but there is never a free pass. The faster you can accept where you are right now, the faster you can tackle each step necessary to becoming great.
Happy music making,