Just focus on not sucking
When making music, especially in the beginning, there is a LOT of pressure that artists put on themselves. Their first priority is usually to make music that all their friends will like. This can be a very slippery slope & I’ll let you in on a little secret.
Most people have bad taste
Steve Jobs put it brilliantly when he said “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.
The same thing can be applied to a good DJ. He doesn’t poll the crowd and ask them what they want to hear, he shows them what they need to hear. If you want to stand out from the herd of sheep, you should live by this.
There is a philosophy to my music making that is so ingrained in me that I often consciously forget it was there. From the time I first picked up a guitar I had no idea how to play, to manipulating synths, samples & computer screens, I’ve always had this approach.
Don’t worry about being amazing, just don’t suck
Not sucking sounds much less serious & attainable than being amazing or perfect. You’re guaranteed to be much more productive with this intention.
As time goes on, you will develop your style while getting a much better ear for what is good & what isn’t. An incredibly important thing to remember is that a great song doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, the imperfections will make your art better. If your goal is to be the best of the best, good luck on finishing any tunes. You’ll never be satisfied with a single thing you start.
By vowing not to make crap from the start, this steers you away from the temptation to lower your standards in order to please a wider audience. You will find yourself dumbing things down instead of challenging yourself and your listener. When your goal is simply fame, your standards become based on who is popular, not who is good. And that my friend, leads to the dark side.
What is amazing is that with having the goal of not sucking, chances are you will find your unique genius faster than with any other approach. You set some important guidelines & then you have the freedom to just go for it, instead of second guessing everything.
Another benefit of keeping your focus on not sucking is you will finish more songs. Expecting perfection from yourself is a lot of pressure, but just making sure you aren’t making crap gives you the freedom to explore your own abilities without constantly comparing yourself to others.
Technically, Joy Division, Bauhaus or Jesus & Mary Chain (I might be dating myself here, but who cares) aren’t the greatest musicians & you could argue that the singers would never last a round on “American Idol”(ok, maybe peter murphy), but they have stood the test of time because they don’t suck. They expressed something unique with their limited musical abilities, and that is what I am suggesting you do.
I’m not trying to say that with this philosophy you will never create crap. In fact you probably will. The early incarnations of my bands as well as when I started making electronic music definitely had some garbage. The reason for this is not talent related, instead it’s that your listening skills haven’t developed to the point where you can recognize the subtleties that can make of break a good song. This process is going to happen either way, so don’t worry about it. If you are aspiring to be like artists that take the road less traveled, the ones that really blow you away, you will develop in that direction.
I’ve always believed that having good taste in music was far more important than talent. It saddens me that in this day and age people have access to more amazing music than any other time in human history, yet never bother to dig any deeper than the top 100. That is a certain path to sucking. I’m not saying there isn’t any good pop music, there is (however, less now than ever before), but if you aren’t a hunter of good music, if you don’t get joy from being the first to share a rare B-side with your friends, you probably don’t have a music passion. You’re probably more obsessed with fame.
Although there is plenty of money going around for playing the fame game (Paris Hilton DJing Ibiza, anyone?) in the music industry, just realize that your mountain of cash will be proportional to your mountain of suck.
On the other hand, if you just focus on stripping away anything that sucks from your music, you will actually start to discover that your music starts to sound pretty good, and more importantly, you will sound like YOU. There is no better gift you can give the world than yourself (which will always be the accumulation of your biggest influences filtered through your own creative process).
Feel free to borrow the best ideas from other artists that you think are great. Don’t worry, they borrowed too. Just don’t lose yourself in one artist to the point that you become a crappier version of a band you love. Instead, pick 5 bands to be your main influence as well as little tidbits of 100′s of other musical ideas you come across. Continue to fill your toolbox with these wonderful musical vibes & you’ll find you never run out of ideas.
These influences will be the ruler that you measure against to avoid sucking. Eventually, your sound will be so ingrained in you that you can abandon your direct influences & explore without the fear of making garbage.
Now go out and make me proud!
happy music making,
Steal This Ableton Tip: How to Crossfade in the Arrange Window
This is a very quick & simple tip but can really com in handy when wanted to crossfade several audio files on the same track. This option has been around since Ableton 8, but there are still a lot of people (like me) who haven’t put it to use.
I like to use this to either create evolving sound effects, pads & atmospherics but your imagination is the limit. Enjoy the video!
Happy Music Making,
Find your creative strengths, borrow the rest
As a veteran producer, I am not great at everything & you shouldn’t have to be either.
In another life, I was a guitarist in a Goth/New Wave band. I wasn’t a great guitarist, but I knew what I was good at and let the others in the band use their talents, while I pointed out things that I thought were working and things that weren’t. I was fairly active in the studio, but there was always someone much more knowledgeable than me, taking the reins.
Does anyone frown on a member of a band because she doesn’t play every instrument, create every sound from scratch, control every aspect of engineering & mixing as well as mastering?
Of course not!
So why is it that we judge electronic musicians in this way?
I say it’s because of ignorance to the idea that most of us have help in one way or another. Nearly all “professionals” have either a team or tools they didn’t create themselves that allow them to focus more on their strengths. Although I find it sad that many of the top electronic DJ/Producers don’t write a lick of their own music, I have zero issue with someone focusing on their own strengths, while either partnering with people who have other skills, or using tools created to relieve us from the pressures of doing everything from scratch.
I find that many people who demand of themselves to create everything on their own form scratch are 1. not making much music & 2. Denying the fact that they are still standing on the shoulders of tools & ideas they didn’t create.
I suggest that we drop the judgements & accept that every producer has his strengths & weaknesses. If you want to be more productive, focus on your strengths & don’t be afraid to use the tools available to you for completing tasks more quickly & injecting some inspiration.
I have no problem acknowledging my own weaknesses. I went through years beating myself up over them, convinced that if I didn’t know everything about everything, I didn’t deserve to make music.
So there I would sit, staring at my computer screen endlessly, paralyzed by the idea of using a sample, a preset or a loop. What would people say when they recognized a preset in my song?
I’ll tell you, they might talk crap, but so what. People that are frustrated by their own lack of productivity, spend much more time on forums & social platforms judging others. It bothers people that we could be freed from our self imposed limitations. I allowed myself to “cheat”, to use what was available to me & inject myself into the creative process. Surprisingly, I discovered that at the end of the day, I still sounded like me & I had more to show for it.
From this freedom, I was able to discover what I should focus most of my attention on, while borrowing assistance on the things I had no business spending endless hours trying to master.
For me I found my strengths were in a few key things
1. Grooves - I feel I have a natural ability to know when something isn’t working & when it does.
2. Basslines - Had I not started writing a lot of new music, I may not have discovered this. In the past, I spent so much time on the sound design for Basses that I overlooked the actual notes & rhythms that were tucked somewhere in my head. When I allowed myself to find 1 or 2 great bass tones that worked well for me & just write a lot of basslines with them, I discovered & wasn’t half bad at it.
3. Mixing & engineering – I must have built a fascination with the studio from a very young age. My dad had a studio in his garage and I loved all the faders & knobs, even though I had no clue what they did. Because I enjoyed it, I was able to put enough time in to get pretty decent at it. Of course I am still learning new things all the time, but this side of songwriting has become something I am really comfortable with.
4. Listening skills – Nothing makes you a better producer like listening to a lot of music. It’s amazing year by year how you can listen to the same song but notice so many more of the subtleties. I’ve become good at approximating sounds that I hear, ever though I don’t consider myself a good sound designer.
5. Sound manipulation – As opposed to being great at building sounds that I have in head with synths, I find I am much better at manipulating a sample to conform to what I am looking for. I don’t know everythign about all effects, but I have gotten really good at a handful of simple tools that help my build more complex ideas.
1. Sound Design - As I mentioned above, I’m not a great sound designer when working with synths. I honestly can’t be bothered to learn every synth inside and out. It’s not my strength. Sometimes I wish it was, but instead I will tweak presets or just record myself dicking around for an hour and slice up the good bits. By not having an agenda, I don’t tend to miss those 10 amazing sounds because I was on a mission to create a sound in my head. I do my best to let that go and just keep a childlike curiosity. I am decent on a couple of synths (Like Operator), but I am more interested in discovering something quickly & moving on with my song than I am in agonizing over some sound I heard on another track. Also I don’t make many drum sounds from scratch. I shamelessly use sample hits & layer them up to satisfy my needs. I rarely use a sampled loop as my main drum groove, but I may cut a drum loop or 2 up as a background addition to the groove. I’m open to whatever improves the final results.
2. Song Arrangement - This was another thing I agonized over for ages while building a huge graveyard of unfinished loop ideas. There is nothing sadder than great ideas that never get finished. Although after writing over 40 songs in the last 7 months I have gotten more comfortable with arrangement, I still have times when I just borrow the structure of another song I like and move on. People do it in pop music all the time. There is no shame in grabbing a blueprint from someone else & building on it. Remember, your potential will never be heard or appreciated if you never finish a song. When you borrow ideas form others, what you will come to realize, is that the person you are borrowing from also borrow some ideas form someone else. Borrowing and building on top of ideas is how everything we know today was created. Allow yourself to be a part of the process & don’t flip out when someone also borrows from you. It’s a true circle of creativity.
3. Starting from Scratch - I don’t enjoy the process of starting a song from scratch. It takes too long to get to the point where I can get my inspired idea out of my head. Instead, I borrow from myself. I take a groove form another one of my songs as a starting point to write a bassline quickly. Once I’ve gotten to the point where the bass sounds good, I will start editing the drum groove and sounds to work better with this new bass groove. Sometimes I ‘ll drop a new bassline in a totally structured song of mine. This allows me to hear my idea in the context of a song and make more informed choices. Once things are working, I’ll pull out all the obvious parts that are too recognizable & replace them with new sounds, switch up the rhythm, maybe change the tempo & rearrange the structure. In the end, it stand on it’s own and sounds much different from what I started with, while removing the part of songwriting that I sometimes find tedious.
What are your strengths & weaknesses?
Have you allowed yourself to create a process that allows you to focus on your strengths while managing your weaknesses? If not, how is that working for you so far?
I encourage you to explore this idea yourself & borrow your way to the finish line!
happy music making,
Ableton Production Q & A
As many of you know, I encourage my readers to email me with any questions they have regarding Ableton or production. Often the questions are too specific to be helpful to many others, but I do also get some questions worth sharing. I’m sure many of you have run into these issues as well, so this post is for you.
1) What can I do to stop having my tracks sound so Muddy?
Typically a muddy mix means poor EQing skills or a poor understanding of how frequencies work in a mix. Many new producers tend to overdo it on the bass either by layering bass & kicks together, or trying to add a little bass to each sound. This seem like a logical approach for big sounding bass in your song, but actually the opposite is true.
For Clean low hitting bass you want 1 kick drum to add thump & one bass to add sub. If both your kick & bass have sub, you’ll likely want to use sidechain compression to “duck” the sub by a few db when the kick hits. You can layer more bass sounds or kicks, but you’ll want to roll off the low frequencies on these layers & use them more for the mid & high frequencies that help them cut through the mix.
Next, make sure to roll off all frequencies below 120hz besides kick & bass, and if you have individual sounds that still sound a bit muddy, try lowering frequencies in the 250-550hz range. When you find the spot the sound should be cleaner & a bit punchier.
2. How can I create 3 dimensional space in my track, where every track has its own sonic space and sounds great when played in cars, on headphones, etc? My tracks always sound flat.
Again, EQing is extremely important. You don’t want multiple sounds taking up the same frequencies. Sometimes panning can help a lot, but other times you have to reduce a frequency on one sound so the other sound is more clear. Also, use different reverbs on different sounds some short, some longer (don’t overdo this), this can help create space.
Understand that not every sound is the start player, so you need to know which sounds need to be upfront & which need to sit back in the mix. Trying to make everything loud & upfront is not only an assault on the senses, it will make you mix sound flat. When everything is loud, nothing is loud.
By rolling off some if the high frequencies, certain sounds with appear to be further way. Also, the size of reverb space will certainly effect where it sits in a mix. Be sure to cut the low frequency on reverb or you could re-introduce mud.
Also, try to make sure each sound has a purpose. it’s very easy to end up with 10 sounds all in the same frequency range (often the mid range). When this happens, you’ll need to either get rid of some or make sure they aren’t playing at the same time. You may also try to bring a sound up or down an octave so it is taking up a different frequency range that isn’t cluttered with sounds.
Finally, listen to other songs to see what elements are necessary & which might not be. Less is more.
3) Can you provide any tips to mixing in Ableton?
The ableton arrangement window is really not much different than most other DAWs when it comes to mixing. You will, however find your mixer in the session view (simply hit the tab key to access it). That said, you can adjust your volume & edited any kind of automation you can imagine from the arrangement view.
I typically start by mixing groove elements first, then bass & then mix the supporting elements. When mixing a sound, it’s important to listen to all the other sounds more than the one you are mixing, this way you can hear when it starts to intrude on other sounds. If you always focus on the sound you are mixing, you will almost always turn it up too loud.
Drawing in your automation can also give you dynamic control, as most sound aren’t just going to stay at one level throughout the song, except the groove elements.
If you mix a sound in and suddenly lose the groove & notice other sounds are getting lost, this may inform you to either keep the sound lower in volume, or lower a frequency with EQ that is fighting with your other sounds.
4) What kind of template can I set up in my Ableton Projects where I can have the cleanest and clearest sounding tracks??
From my experience, you aren’t going to find a “one template fits all” situation. If it were that easy, nobody would ever hire mixing engineers. The fact is that every song is different & requires different techniques to get a great sounding mix.
You can certainly create a template for your kick drums with the EQ, Compression & effect chain you like & use that as a starting point for your tracks. Same goes for bass, there is no reason not to re-use great sounds to get started on new tracks & tweak them as you go. I do this all the time & it makes my songwriting process much faster.
A great mix is really about your reductive EQing. The more you can get rid of from each sound (without removing it’s most important frequencies), the more clean and spacious your song can sound.
Think of your song sound as a box that can only fit so much before it gets messy & overflows. Not enough in there & the box gets unbalanced & lopsided. you want to fill your songs from left to right, from low to high & front to back.
This all might seem like a lot to take in, but just like driving, the more you make music, the more this will all become second nature to you.
Have any questions you would like addressed in a future blog post? Leave it in the comments section!
Happy music making,