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.

My Strengths 

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.

 

Weaknesses

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,

Jason

 

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