Recent posts: Producing
The Danger of Getting Carried Away
As I described earlier on this blog, one of the common mistakes often encountered by beginner producers just as advanced producers, is getting stuck in the process while creating new songs.
You’re loading a synth, play around a little, step through the presets, keep what you like, add another instrument, go on doing the same over and over…You`re jamming, you’re throwing together sounds you like, you’re eqing, working on the sound, create a cool bass, some drums, a nice melody… You make a nice and cool couple of bars and without even noticing it, you manoeuver yourself deeper and deeper into the realm of king Stuck-a-Lot. If you’re expert on getting stuck, it could well be that you even add a mastering processor to your master chain. In the end, you have a 15-20 seconds long hook line that rocks your house, but unfortunately, that’s about it.
So as time goes by, you produce one unfinished idea after another, and if you’re a sensitive and tender character (which is fairly common among us artists), this could easily affect your self-esteem.
„Why can’t I never finish a song? Why is making great songs so easy for everyone else?“ you might hear asking yourself.
Well, let’s at first have a deeper look on what you actually do during the process I sketched above. The process can, of course, differ from what I’ve stated above, but it’s highly probable the pattern is the same.
Why You Get Stuck
Let’s analyze what you actually do when you go through a process like the one I described:
- „You’re loading a synth, play around a little, step through the presets, keep what you like“ – that is what is commonly understood as sound design, sound selection
- „You`re jamming, you’re throwing together sounds you like, […] create a cool bass, some drums, a nice melody“ – also known as arranging
- „you’re eqing, working on the sound“ – you’re mixing
- „If you’re expert on getting stuck, it could well be that you even add a mastering processor to your master chain.“ – That’s mastering
So, you do lots and lots of stuff being actually different things, and you do it all at the same time.
This becomes even more obvious if we have a look at how music production works with other kinds of music: sound design, arrangement, mixing, mastering – those are areas with whole professions built around them and those are usually done by different people: the sound designer, the composer, the mix engineer, the mastering engineer.
With electronic music, this separation between all those different roles is no longer necessary. This is a great thing because it allows a whole new level of creativity. You have all the tools you need at hand, you can do everything yourself, and the knowledge how to it is just one click away.
But it is also very demanding and has a lot challenges of its own, one of them being mixing stuff up and getting lost in the process. Being an effective electronic music producer with a solid amount of creative output demands a high level of self-discipline and self-control.
How not to Get Stuck
The simple answer might come to mind immediately:
Don’t mix up the different roles!
As you can imagine, it is not so easy to do this as it is on the paper.
If you are designing a sound, it is very likely you touch the channel fader to adjust the volume. Maybe you add an EQ to it. Also, it is perfectly possible that you add a quick beat and sketch an idea of a melody in the process. How should you design a sound if you don’t hear it in the context of the other sounds?
You see, it is not possible not to mix up and keep everything separated. But that’s ok!
The key is to keep your focus: If you are adding just a simple low-cut and roughly adjusting the level, it’s ok. If you are tweaking the EQ to eliminate or boost a single band, you’ve switched roles.
So, constantly check what you are doing.
Yes, self-discipline, self-control, check what you’re doing – it’s easy to say that you should do that, but actually doing it and sticking to that principle is much more difficult. Is there a way to make it easier for you?
Good News: There Is a Way!
What actually helps a lot is establishing a timely separation. Establish a daily routine for doing those different tasks. We’re all human beings, and as such we can achieve the best results by cautiously listening to ourselves and doing things following a ritual.
So, get up every day at roughly the same time. Listen to yourself what time is best for you. For me, I’ve established that if I get up when it is still dark outside, neither my mind nor my body will work well. But it works the same way vice versa for me: sleeping long into the day is not good either.
Then, start with sound design. You don’t need to figure out every single sound yet, like spot fx or stuff like that, but assemble a tool kit that will enable you to create the major part of a song. Don’t worry, if you discover later in the arrangement process that you need another lead synth, or a pad, you can always go back. Think of yourself as an artisan. You will need a different set of tools if you’re going to paint a wall compared to the set of tools you need if you build a chair.
Once you’re finished with sound design, take a break. Take a break and get away from the screen, even away from your studio. I’m an outdoorsy person so what I do is go for a run in the nature for an hour or one and a half. Demanding work from my body helps me to clear my mind and to leave stuff behind me. Off course, you should not exhaust yourself in a way that you’re done for the day.
If you’re not into sports, take a walk in the nature. Getting your body to work plus a dose of daylight is an unparalleled creativity booster. Besides, it’s the most effective anti-depressant known to man 😉 If you really don’t like to be outdoors, the least thing is getting away from the screen. Grab a cup of tea, meditate, whatever does the job for you.
The key is listening to yourself and giving your body and soul what they need. Replenish spiritually.
A great inspiration for this approach can be found in this video about Minilogue.
Then, get back and start with your song. Leave sound design alone and start arranging. Try to get into flow and ideally finish the song (or at least the basic framework of the song) in one day. Working concentrated and creatively on a song for several hours can be hard and is often very exhausting, so really try to get 80% of your song done in one go. Mixing, adding spot fx, polishing etc. can safely be done the next day.
So to sum up:
Keep your tasks separated
Always check on what you are doing
Even Ice Cube knows it 🙂
You gotta check yo self before you wreck yo self
Congratulations! You decided to get into techno music production, to get into producing the most exciting kind of music. A kind of music with almost no other common denominator than the complete absence of any rules.
This, by definition, allows endless possibilities and restricts your creativity in no way. If nothing else, this is at least overwhelming. Imagine yourself having to create a whole universe with unlimited possibilities at hand. What to do first? Where to start? And should the first thing to do be buying that expensive analog synthesizer you’ve read about in that interview with dj megalomaniac the other day?
Although there are (almost) no rules, there are some best practices that can help you start your journey off the right foot.
I won’t get technical in this article, so I won’t recommend any particular software or tool to you. It’s meant to give you a basic guidance on what to focus and not getting carried away.
Most of the pros producing techno music have a serious studio with lots and lots of gear. How can you create tracks as awesome as theirs if you don’t have that kind of budget and/or gear?
The first thing to remember, and probably the most important one at all: equipment doesn’t make music. All that gear you see in large studios, all the great pieces of engineering with lots of knobs and displays… those are tools. They won’t compensate for a lack of creativity.
You’re a musician, and as a musician you need an instrument – and that’s about it for the start. What counts are your ideas, your music. A huge pile of hardware won’t make any great music by itself. Think of other arts: a designer doesn’t need more than a simple pencil to express his or her ideas.
So, start simple. What you need is an instrument – and nothing beats a computer in terms of versatility, possibilities and value for money. I don’t want to get into the discussion whether you should buy a PC or a Mac, a laptop or a desktop computer – all things considered it’s a matter of preference. If you’re on a budget I suggest you get a PC. You will simply get more bang for the buck, plus there is more free software available for the pc.
Keep it simple
Speaking of free software – there is so much available, so many free tools of high quality right at your fingertips, it can overwhelm you. But you don’t need much to get great results. Remember: it’s the musical idea that counts, not how many tools you use in the process.
Don’t get carried away. Since there are no limits, set your own limits. Like: don’t use more than 3 effects. Or: don’t use more than 3 different synths.
Restricting your possibilities is a creativity booster. It’s so much better to only use one instrument/tool and know it very well than using lots and lots of different plugins and not digging any deeper than switching presets.
Stick to the basics
What you read next may sound obvious. But as obvious as it is, it’s a common mistake I see beginners make.
If you’re new to creating electronic music, concentrate on creating music! Don’t worry about stuff you hear very experienced producers talk about, like for example mastering. It’s called mastering for a reason – it’s the last step in the process, it’s the icing, the cherry on the cake. If done correctly, it’s done by incredibly experienced people with extremely sophisticated ears and gear.
There is no plugin you can hook into your software that will turn an uninspired and boring tune into a banging smash hit. So, stick to creating awesome tunes.
Finish what you start
If you’ve started producing, it’s very likely you have tons of unfinished stuff cluttering your disk. You open a new file, start to make a nice beat, add a groovy bass, a catchy chord or melody, create great sounding 4, 8 or 16 bars – and get stuck. Better luck next time, you think, and do it again and again. Over time, this will make you feel (maybe unconsciously) unsatisfied and unproductive.
This is because every time you get stuck and start over, you fail a little. This will affect your self-consciousness and your self-esteem.
You can turn this around by finishing what you start. But how? How can you finish what you start if I get stuck in the process?
The thing is, composing is not as much as an intuitive and flowing process as you might think it is. It is, in fact, a rather cognitive and technical process. If you’ve got 8 or 16 bars that rock, it’s very likely you can make a solid 5 minutes long song out of it.
The key is to listen to songs of other people very analytically. Are all the relevant elements there from the beginning? When does the bass start? When do the hihats set in? How does the song evolve over time? Listen very carefully to the structure of the song, feel free to take notes (that is in fact what I did the first few times – it doesn’t matter if you use „correct“ terminology, it’s meant for you only) and try to recreate the structure with your song. I don’t say you should finish every quick idea you sketch, especially if it doesn’t rock you, but if you think the loop you created is good and makes you wanna dance a little, you should follow through. It will give you a great feeling of accomplishment and will boost your self-confidence.
So, when you’re producing your next song, keep in mind to keep it simple and finish what you start. Let’s get cracking! 🙂