If you’re under the impression that songwriting and producing are cut from the same creative cloth, you’re not entirely off-base. They often walk hand-in-hand, where the more you produce, the more songs you tend to wrap up. But there’s a trap lurking that I’m keen to help you sidestep—a pitfall that frequently hinders the progress of many music producers.
Let’s first dissect where these two artistic endeavors converge and where they diverge.
The Production Playground: Crafting Sounds and Arrangements
Producing encompasses the art of sound selection—whether through samples, presets, or sound design—along with the subsequent processing of these sounds. It extends to the delicate dance of arranging and mixing. For some, mastering may find its place here, although I firmly advocate for professional mastering whenever possible.
Now, here’s the catch with producing—it can lead to overthinking, a perpetual cycle of circling ideas, keeping you busy but finishing very little. Many fall into the trap of equating time spent in their DAW with productivity. The truth is, merely tinkering endlessly doesn’t push your ideas across the finish line; it’s a procrastination tactic disguised as productivity.
Producers often forget the end game—the goal is not to create sounds and grooves but to craft releasable songs. Production without a foundation in songwriting, no matter how experimental, often becomes a mere exercise in sound crafting without a purpose.
Try not to get lost in production techniques, just because it’s new & exciting to you. If we chase every new production tip & trick, we lose site of the song we are trying to craft. This is like making a movie based specifically on special effects but having no story. Recognize this trap before it becomes a problem.
Separation of Songwriting and Producing
Throughout history, songwriting and producing were distinct roles until relatively recently.
Traditionally, songwriters would sit down with a guitar or piano, weaving together chord sequences that evoked emotions, paving the way for vocal melodies and lyrics. The song would organically take shape with an intro, verses, a bridge, a chorus, and maybe even a “middle 8” section, as the Beatles fondly labeled it.
Once the songwriting chapter concluded, they’d venture into the studio, collaborating with a producer and engineer to bring their song to its zenith. This process meant artists entered the studio armed with an actual song, not merely a riff or a vague idea.
Even in the realm of electronic music, iconic bands like Depeche Mode and Erasure often initiate their tracks on a guitar or piano before delving into intricate production details. The studio, for many, transformed into the guitar and piano of the future.
Brian Eno, a master of innovation, elevated the studio to an instrument itself, collaborating with bands to create groundbreaking albums. But, and it’s a crucial “but,” the bands he worked with brought their box of songwriting skills to the table, creating a symbiosis between songwriting and production mindsets.
The Dangers of Comfortable Studios and Empty Canvases
Now, here’s where aspiring producers aiming to craft stellar songs might be stumbling—the habit of showing up to the studio empty-handed, immediately donning the producer hat. It’s like stepping onto a tightrope without a safety net; without a clear idea, you can find yourself painted into a production corner, wrestling with disjointed ideas that refuse to harmonize into a coherent track.
I confess, I’ve fallen prey to this too. Despite my roots in songwriting as a guitarist in bands, the allure of new plugins occasionally tempts me to shelve my songwriting fundamentals. The result? A collection of cool, quirky sounds with no real purpose.
Now, if you’ve read my previous work, you know I champion days of unbridled sound design and experimentation. Then later molding it into more structured song ideas, but this has to be balanced with some type of structured blueprint to input the ideas that work best into them.
If you’re itching to complete more songs, rather than wandering in the vastness of production without direction, consider these suggestions:
1. Start Simple:
Numerous musical success stories attest to the power of a song that sounds great on a basic instrument—guitar or piano. This foundation often transcends into greatness when adorned with intricate production. The reverse, however, doesn’t always hold. Ideas birthed from unconventional production techniques can struggle to find resonance when stripped down to fundamental instruments. So, begin with basic sounds, strum a few chords on your guitar, or experiment with piano melodies before injecting your unique production spin.
If playing an instrument is not your jam, just use a piano sound when you draw in your midi. If your melody or chord progression doesn’t sound great when converted to a new sound, try simplifying the part until it does. It’s best to start with simple chords & melodies when using sounds with a wide frequency range.
If you know your style really well, you can use standard sounds in that genre to build your ideas. These standard sounds can be placeholders while crafting your demo & then converted to the final production sounds. Some of your sounds might not even need to change much to work really well in your track.
2. Tune Samples:
When incorporating samples, ensure they’re tuned. There’s nothing worse than stacking sounds on top of a sample that’s out of key. Tune your samples, and you’ll create a harmonious soundscape where other instruments naturally align.
3. Embrace Structured Simplicity:
Craft your initial song ideas with basic sounds—piano, organ, or strings. Once you’ve got your demo version, you’ll have a clear trajectory for your final track. Starting simple enables you to swiftly develop song ideas, making it easier to see them through to completion.
In the grand scheme of your music-making journey, understanding the delicate dance between songwriting and producing is crucial. Start with simplicity, master the art of showing up with a clear idea, and let the nuances of production enhance your melodies rather than obscure them.
Happy Music Making!
If you are benefiting from these posts, you will absolutely love my 2 bestselling books:
The Mental Game of Music Production
The Process for Electronic Music Producers
To level up your Ableton Production Skills: Ableton Courses & Instruments
If you are looking for personal guidance with your music production or Ableton, you can set up a free chat with me to go over exactly what your best next steps are to create the best music of your life. If it seems like a good fit, we can move forward from there. https://musicsoftwaretraining.com/private-coaching
Happy music making!