9 Things I’ve learned from 3 Months of Daily Music Making
As of March 3rd, it has been 3 months of producing music everyday, for at least an hour.
I can’t say that is completely true as there has been 3 occasions that I found myself away from home & unable to produce, but other than that, I’ve been staying committed to this practice. To be honest it seems so much longer. There are songs I’ve completed that I completely forgot about already until I go back through my work. I see that as a very good thing, as it just means I’ve accomplished a lot. If you want to follow my daily progress or get involved yourself, join my free Facebook Thread
As always, I want to share with you what I have learned so far on this journey.
1. You don’t have to feel creative to be creative.
In the past, I always thought inspiration was the precursor to great work. Now I can say with some confidence that this is only partly true. I have done some of my best work on days that i thought I had nothing to give creatively. Knowing that I had to get my hour in, I went in with the attitude of ”ok, let’s just get this over with”, and several hours later I came out of the session with a smile on my face. I’ve learn that we are creative beings, so we can’t not be creative even if we don’t feel creative. It’s like those days when you don’t feel hungry, but once someone offers you a bite of something you realize you’ve got a bigger appetite than you thought you did.
Turns out that inspiration is a process. It comes when we take a leap of faith. The best way to do inspiring work, is to just keep doing work.
2. Don’t marry your work
When you find yourself making music regularly, you’ll most certainly have 1 or 2 songs that stand out above the rest. No matter what you make in the future, people will continue to rave about your old tune. Don’t get down about this. Your job isn’t to make people like everything you do, your job is to keep making music that you like. If you stop to try to figure out what you did in the past, it can run the risk of stopping your creative flow completely (although it doesn’t hurt to reference past successes). Just let whatever comes to you happen. Make it the best you can & then move on to the next. Don’t take too much time celebrating what you have done in the past. Keep moving into the future & you’ll find yourself with a serious body of work that you can be proud of.
3. Don’t be concerned about the legal stuff
I’ve found legal bullshit to be the biggest waste of time. Creativity can not be governed by laws or rules. Use everything as your canvas & be shameless about it. Movies, speeches, other songs, presets, sample cd’s, something you overhear at a pub. It’s all fair game. If you are inspired to borrow of repurpose something, that is reason enough to go ahead with it. Of course, there will be some songs you won’t be able to sell, but we don’t create strictly for money anyway. We simply express first & deal with what is marketable later.
4. Stand on your own shoulders
You may have heard the quote “Standing on the shoulders of giants”. The way I interpret this is that everything we are able to do today is because of the genius that has come before us. We didn’t have to invent all the creative tools we use today & we certainly aren’t required to reinvent the wheel in order to make great things happen. Success templates are already in place, giving you some of the greatest creative advantages in history.
When you make music every day, you’ll soon realize you can start standing on your own shoulders. As you make more music, you will have figured out how to create that perfect kick or a great effect chain or a really groovy hi hat rhythm. Congrats! You’ve just added another tool to your box that you can pull out at anytime. Usually you’ll tweak it to fit your current song and often times those tweaks will make the tool even better than before. By standing on your own shoulders, you put yourself on an upward spiral & you’ll rarely have to ever start from an empty slate again. This has helped me speed up my songwriting process enormously.
5. Find a mentor but trust yourself
If you are smart, you will have someone you can share your music with that will give you an honest opinion & good advice. This has helped me improve in a big way, but I’ve also learned to trust my instincts even if my work isn’t getting the positive feedback I expected. No matter who is helping to guide you & offer sound advice, they are not you & simply can’t connect with everything you do. This is not a bad thing. It’s ok to go ahead with something because you like it, even if your friends don’t. Just make sure not to get your ego too involved. As long as you are making music, a 2nd or 3rd ear can be priceless to your progress, even if you don’t take that advice.
6. Off days
In the last 3 months, I have had off days. Days where I just felt like I sucked. These periods typically last for 2-3 days before you come out of it. If you’ve been on a wave of momentum and run into this, it can be debilitating & sink you into a deep depression if you aren’t careful. The secret is to just keep moving forward. I tell myself that if after 5 days the song just isn’t happening, I’ll scrap it & start something new. In every case so far though, what seemed like a dud has turned into something I can be proud of. The more you make music, the higher your standards become. This means that what you made 6 months ago probably isn’t going to cut it for you today. You have off days because you are getting better. You are more sensitive to the subtleties that make music great. Sometimes that sound you are going for is a little out of reach from your current skillset, but you’ll get there. And when that happens, you will have brought yourself to a whole new level & a high expectation of yourself. Don’t worry about off days. If you never had them, you probably haven’t pushed yourself hard enough.
7. Every day is a success
You can’t worry too much about how awesome you were in today’s session. The success happened the moment you sat down to work your hour, instead of creating some shitty excuse to not put the time in. If you put in your hour, you win & you become part of the productive elite in your field.
8. Ambient sounds can make a crappy song sound better(and a good song great)
When a song is too clean, it sounds amateur in most cases. I might be speaking stylistically, but from my experience, some random ambience low in the background will make almost any song gel together better. This can be an iphone recording while you were out on a walk or in a restaurant, or it can be some spoken word thing you found on youtube. You can’t really do this wrong. The unexpected sounds sitting low in the mix will unconsciously add interest to a song that is otherwise a bit monotonous or loopy. I like whatever I use to be mostly indecipherable, so I’ll often add reverb and delay to not only disguise the source, but also make it a bit more rhythmic. Having the predictable mixed with the random creates a beautiful balance.
9. You are a natural problem solver
When you hit a creative roadblock or need to figure out how something is done, your brain is far more powerful than you give it credit for. Before you dive into a tutorial, access what tools you have available right now & figure out which tool or tools have the greatest likelihood of getting the job at hand done for you. If you just take pause & let your own creativity come to the surface, you’ll be amazing at the innovative, yet simple techniques you come up with. I’m obviously not anti-tutorials, but I am anti thinking. If you constantly search for someone else to solve your problems, you’ll never build confidence by developing your own unique problem solving skill set.
I am loving this creative journey I have taken & I am learning so much, so quickly. If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that you will never know everything, and that is ok. The things you don’t know makes you just as unique as the things you do. Find your path & follow it. Preferable daily.
happy music making,
Attack Of The 8 Bar Loop
So there you are, staring at your computer screen. 12 tracks of brilliance, or at least 15 seconds of it.
You sit there listening to the loop on repeat over and over again, trying to convince yourself that you are being creative, instead of just stuck.
We have all been there. Our closet is not full of only skeletons, but unfinished digital waste that only sits there as potential. Unfortunately, this is where most of your work will stay.
One day, your gravestone will read: “He almost put a lot of great art into this world”
If there is any challenge that computer musicians have that I hear about repeatedly, It’s the 8 bar loop syndrome. This seems to stop more creative people than any other obstacle I can think of. Let’s solve this here and now.
Making loops is easy, finishing songs is hard
The first step is admitting you have a problem. Your problem is that you make your little loops & you rock out to it for a couple hours, pat yourself on the back & then put it aside. The next time you sit down for “studio time”, you open up another blank slate & off you go into 8 bar purgatory. This repeats over and over & you eventually realize years later that you haven’t finished any music.
The problem is that you haven’t defined your goal before you sit down to write. You buy loads of equipment & can’t wait to get into the studio because making music is fun! We it stops being fun, you end the session and hope eventually inspiration will bring you back to another fun session of finishing what you started.
It doesn’t happen like that. Fun follows struggle and frustration, which follows fun and so on. It’s almost never fun to do something you don’t know how to do, so you usually get stuck because nobody likes doing things that aren’t fun. Realize this. Even the things that are fun today will stop being fun tomorrow because you will have done everything you can with your current skill set.
Stop focusing on fun
I know that is the last thing a music producer wants to hear but if you are going to finish songs, you are going to have to start by accepting that some unpleasant work is involved. “I don’t know how” is not an excuse. The answers are out there, but they won’t help you much because you are probably looking for the “golden bullet” that will fix all your problems. It’s not going to happen. Consistent practice and experience are what fix all your problems.
Trust me, when you get in the habit of working through that 8 bar loop, you will make important discoveries that will not only start making the process easier, but it will start to become fun again. In fact, more fun than you had with your previous skill set.
What all this mental mumbo jumbo? Just give me a damn solution!
You probably know me enough by now to know that I believe creative solutions are much more complicated than just throwing you a few problem solving bullet points. Sometimes quick tips can be a huge help, but when it comes to finishing songs, it is sometimes necessary to dramatically change your mindset & focus. This in itself can be very simple to understand but difficult to internalize. That is why the tips I am going to give you below are in the middle of my post instead of the top. The internal work always comes first.
Some practical tips
Ok, so it really isn’t that hard to turn that 8 bar loop into a finished song. If the task seems daunting, it’s likely because you are overthinking things. From my experience of working on music nearly every day for the last 2 months, I’ve discovered a process to getting things done that has worked well for me. With experience, you will discover what works for you, but here is my cheat sheet for turning that loop into a song.
1. Get out of the session window - Most of you reading this are probably Ableton Live users & know that is has 2 different music windows. The Clip view & the arrangement view. If you are using another DAW, you are probably already in the arrangement view, which is where you want to be.
So if your loop is still in the session (clip) window, record it into the arrangement window. Since all finished songs end up there anyway, this keeps you from procrastinating in the wrong window. The Session window has it’s advantages for getting quick ideas together, but you need to leave this view asap.
2. Drag out your loop - Once you have your loop in the arrangement window, just drag it out or copy it for around 7 minutes. You can always go shorter or longer in the end, but this starts you looking at your loop more as a song.
3. Intros & outros - Start working on a simple 16 bar intro by stripping out what is not needed. This is where the DJ will be mixing, so keep that in mind. Once done, copy the whole 16 bar intro to the end of your song. Congrats, you have an intro & an outro.
4. Ghost track - Create an audio track & pull a similar style song in as your first track. Turn off the track so it doesn’t play unless you hit “solo”. Now visually look at the breakdowns in that song & emulate that by simply removing your kick drum in those sections. This will give you a visual cue where your own break will happen. You can also shorten or lengthen your song so your 16 bar outro lines up with your ghost track. (Remember, nothing is permanent & you can go in a new direction once you are inspired to)
5. Bringing in elements - Listen to your ghost track for how certain elements are brought in & out through the song. Test this out with your own elements to see if similar arrangement works for your song.
6. Creating atmosphere - From my experience, it really helps the mood of your song by having some subtle atmospheric sound going on in your song so things don’t sound too clean. This can be a simple field recording from out your window or an ambient loop fed through a good amount of reverb with or without delay. I keep it low enough so it’s not interfering with anything but when turned off, you notice it’s absent. You’ll be surprised how this can make your song sound more professional.
7. FX - Nearly all electronic tracks have effect sounds, odd voices or drum hits bouncing around the stereo spectrum. When you hear a song like this, you imagine the complexity of what must be 50 tracks of just effect sounds. It’s actually much easier to do this. Just pull your fx sounds into a drum machine instrument. For Ableton, I suggest Drum Racks. Next, create an effect chain that gives some stereo movement. I typically add reverb, delay, filter & autopan. I’ll also create 1 or 2 return tracks with panning, verb & delay with different panning settings. By feeding the fx track through the send/returns the sounds randomly bounce all around your head. Cool stuff! Make sure you filter off the low end on your effects or things can start getting really muddy, really quick.
8. Breaks and builds - Breaks and builds often sound most effective with reverse sounds, sounds with rising or falling pitch, percussion & more intense reverb or delay. Once again, listing to your ghost track for a reference on what might help your own song sound better.
9. Cut copy & paste arrangement sections - I find this to be good fun & easy to do. I imagine you should be able to do this in most DAW’s but it works incredibly well with Ableton Live. I can easily cut a few bars of the song here & double a section over there to make sure the good parts are enhanced and other parts don’t carry on too long. You will typically work in 4,8 & 16 bar chunks of music. This is where you abandon your ghost track & feel what works best for your own song.
10. Drum programming - Once you have a basic structure & arrangement happening, it’s time to make sure things aren’t sounding boring. There is nothing more effective than drum programming & variations. It doesn’t take much to spice things up. An extra kick here, a snare fill there, maybe a few well placed claps. I also can’t understate the importance of layering. Just when things seem to be losing excitement, you can add in a second snare drum or clap & later another hi hat layer. Using multiple sounds can really help to keep interest throughout the song.
Congrats: No more 8 bar loop -
If you followed all the steps above, you will be well on your way to turned your well crafted loops into full songs. It is my hope that you put more music into this world by pushing through the challenges on a regular basis & getting your endless list of loops out of purgatory.
Happy Music making!
Ableton Bass Tutorial – Create a Richer Bass with Sampler
Here’s a quick tip in Ableton for getting more out of a short bass sample by using modulation in Sampler. Enjoy the video!
If you are a Producer’s Playground Member, you can download the Sampler preset below:
Sampler – Rich Deep Bass
Happy music making,
My music making resolutions & the art of keeping them
So let’s be honest.
How many of you already have put your new years resolutions in the shitter?
If you have given yourself something to do daily, from my experience, you have likely failed or have dropped the ball once in these first 6 days.
If this is you, why?
Think about this. Try to think about any positive habit that you have been able to form for a full 30 days without missing a single day. I have attempted this many times, but have succeeded very few. It takes serious mental effort to stick with something until it becomes 2nd nature.
Your first challenge to overcome is just how wrong it feels to break your daily habits. Even if you’re wasting your time with mindless tv or browsing the internet, to do something else during that time is difficult, especially if it’s creative. I seriously would start thinking about doing dishes, cleaning the bathroom or laundry, just to avoid the risk of sucking at my creative endeavors.
In November, my girlfriend and I challenged ourselves to eating a strict Paleo diet up until thanksgiving. I’m proud to say it was a success which felt really good to achieve. As often happens one success can create the momentum you need for another.
So with that in mind I felt more confident in taking on a creative challenge, but before I dove right in, I bought a book that had apparently helped writers a lot & read it front to back in a day. I highly recommend it, it’s called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This put a serious fire under my ass & made me as ready as I was gonna get.
The December (and beyond) experiment
Starting December 2nd (2013) I started an experiment as much for myself as it is for you, the music producer. This experiment was to challenge myself as well as all my readers to produce music for at least 1 hour a day, every day for as long as you can go. Each do you make a simple post sharing a snippet of the work you’ve done that day with the group & give us a brief description of your process for that day.
Results thus far
The experiment is still going currently, and the results have been pretty interesting.
In the first few days of starting this, I got a bunch of “I’m so in!”, “Let’s do this!”, “Count me in” comments. Many of which are yet to post any of their work over the past month. Several have put in the effort for a few days & then feel into obscurity. Still others have done their best to stay in the game, even though they miss a day here of there.
From the day this started, there has been 36 days. I counted a day for either posting a song, or commenting on what you completed that day. In that amount of time, here is how participation broke down:
85 people “liked” the post
7 people “shared” the post
50 People commented
Of those 50 people:
I made music 35 days (missed 1 day – Dec 26th)
1 person made music 29 days
1 person made music 25 days
1 person made music 15 days
1 person made music 7 days
2 people made music 6 days
2 people made music 4 days
3 people made music 3 days
4 people made music twice
11 people made music once
23 people didn’t post any music
As expected, the number of people who publicly committed vs those who followed through are pretty slim. The lower the number of days producing, the higher the number of people. None of us produced for the full 36 days, but I came the closest .
For me, this experiment proved that daily work on music not only increases your musical output, but it also improves the quality of your music. You truly do get better & although the process is never simple, I gets enormously easier the more you do it.
It seems that repetition of a skill is necessary for improvement. It’s like pushing a rock up a mountain. When you stop the upward motion it’s going to slip back downhill & you’ll likely have to rediscover that skill from the beginning again.
I can testify to this myself. In the past, I would write sporadically and then go through a huge time of being unmotivated or uninspired. The longer I stayed away, the harder it was to start again. I would stare at the screen not knowing where or how to begin. Sure, some creative instincts stay with you, but since they haven’t been regularly exercised, you won’t be on your game.
In the past 36 days, I have personally finished 7 songs. I might make some minor tweaks, but they are otherwise good enough to call done. I have NEVER finished this much music before. I’ve also been very happy with the results. My goal for years used to be to finish 1 song a month, 12 a year. When I would fail at that, I’d go for 6 a year. In actuality, I’d usually finish 2-3 songs, one usually being a remix, and if I’m honest now, every song was a struggle, with long periods of not having much fun.
The daily approach has put the fun back into the whole process!
Of course there are days that I don’t feel like working on music, but not making music is not even an option now. There are just too many unfinished ideas to get to. Now I don’t worry if the tune I am working on doesn’t come out amazing. I just put in my best effort, call it done and immediately jump on to the next song. When you are this productive, you become less worried about having a bum day or making a tune that isn’t a 10.
It’s much different when you are only making 1 song every few months. Each song matters so much, that the results can make or break your confidence in a big way. These days, my goal is more about beating resistance and procrastination. The rest just takes care of itself.
Daily progress of a recent remix
During December, I found myself finished with one song & looking for another when I caught wind of a Tears for Fears remix on Beatport. Considering the their album “The Hurting” is one of my all time favorites, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Below is my daily progress. It went through some big changes over the few days I spent on it. You just never know how something is going to turn out until it’s finished.
There are several other songs you can see the progress on by myself and many others Here.
It’s totally free to join or browse & the benefits of daily practice simply can’t be understated. If you feel like you are off to a great 2014, this may be just what you need. I really look forward to see the transformations people make as we continue.
Happy Music Making,
For further motivation check out my best of 2013 post