The beautiful world of music production comes with its own challenges & confusions like the beauty of a rose garden maze with its talons and dead ends. Like any art form, it took comes twisted, mystical with inexplicable sources of inspiration & further baffling mind-blocks among other illusions of the mind, so to speak. Here are some things that have made my life as a producer a lot more gratifying, effortless & manageable! Maybe some of these might help you get out of a rut or just jump with joy, or sigh with relief, whichever, I hope it does something for you. This isn’t a terribly technical article, but provides simple approaches that a producer of any level may find uplifting! So, whether you’re just discovering the joys and frustrations of digital audio production or you’re a veteran looking for something to break the monotony, you may find something here!
1. Do NOT spend all your time hunting Samples/ Synths/ Plug-ins
Don’t focus on the tools more than the music! With today’s technology offering countless variations of high quality tools, it is an incredibly tough choice to make! My advice is to have a start point to understand each tool with the native plug-ins of your DAW so that you have functional criteria for making a switch to a different plug-in/VSTi, or knowing when to use what.
Depending on the faith you have in your memory, you may wish to make a chart outlining your favourites and why – especially if you juggle between software a lot! STAY ORGANISED! It also helps to remove any 3rd party plug-ins you no longer use to help you de-clutter.
The corollary of obsessively hoarding plug-ins and VSTis is one of non-exploration. Although living in the stone-age isn’t likely to cause much damage if you’re very creative and proficient with your tools, trying out something new every once in a while will keep your relationship with production, fresh and exciting! Or not, but at least you would have tried! Subscribe to some cool tech gurus on YouTube, or an RSS feed from any active music tech blog that you find resonating with your interests.
2. Play with the space of your mix.
Although reverb is your typical spatial effect (besides other imaging tools), the way you pan and shape your gain really makes a drastic and apparent impact on your sound. The use of EQ, Compression & Panning as a combo yields a highly reactive super tool to place the voices in your music in creative ways into the mix – reverb then takes the role of salt, just a pinch for flavor! This is particularly evident on a decent pair of monitor headphones and of course on good monitor headphones although its great to always experience the effects on consumer grade listening devices.
Once you have your fundamental space sorted, and with today’s technology, you can be as surrealist as you want! Create scenarios of where these instruments might be, to create a hybrid canvas – violin in the mountains, guitars in rooms, drums in a cathedral while dry bass lines slam the bottom almost obnoxiously – anything.
On top of that, or at the bottom, or to the left, or wherever you want to place the sounds, you could have all sorts of effects processing your voices. Play around with order of effects, pushing settings to extremes (be sure not to blow your speakers), combinations, running effects in parallel and well, whatever crazy idea you can muster, because there’s very little you cannot do with on your standard DAW!
Doubling or layering your parts with slightly (or not) different tones and timbres also makes for adding presence to your sounds, or just texture-ize an otherwise simple part. The possibilities are endless.
3. Quit clicking in notes on the piano-roll!
Now, nothing wrong with clicking in notes, specially if you know exactly which one to click (much like composers did on paper before DAWs and profiling guitar amps)– but when you’re just trying to come up ideas, manipulating piano-roll notes has limited freedom for expression. Almost ALL, or probably ALL DAWs, come with the ability to use your computer’s keyboard as a piano’s keys. Look it up! MIDI controllers keep getting more and more affordable, so if you need some tactile action with velocity sensitive keys/pads, its probably a small investment you should make right away instead of those branded-bass-heavy headphones! This makes the musical patterns less like graphing some mathematical equation and makes the expression only as malleable as you can physically play – since we’ve not run out of music, I think there’s no end to your ability to play, just as long as you work on it and get your chops up!
4. Learn to play an instrument
Well, if you’ve got yourself a controller, then technically, you’re already learning a new instrument – be it the meta-musical-grid-based controllers for Ableton Live or a more humble keyboard type controller, it’s still very much an instrument with the option of playing rhythm, melody & harmony with it! Whichever mechanism you prefer, you’re bound to become a better producer as you perform music more than just program it. This allows for a more instantaneous and intuitive flow of musical ideas to make your final output that much more satisfying.
Having your space well-organized and comfortable makes a huge difference in the way your production process unfolds. Make sure your chair is ergonomic and your I/O’s are handily accessible along with other common tools within a reasonable reach to make the experience less laborious. Now, you wouldn’t want to lose that cool idea in your head by the time you actually plug in your instrument, right? Making your space lively also makes for some motivation during a frustrating mixing/recording session.
6. Explore all genres; at least objectively
This is actually a skill that needs to be developed – the world of marketing via radio & TV has made us very lopsided in every way possible, including our music appreciation and consumption. Luckily, we now have the Internet! This means you can explore pretty much anything you want and decide if you like it or not & either keep it or move on! It’s one of the greatest blessings of our times. Use this! Even if you may have your favorite style of music, check out other styles to at least borrow elements that you may like! Help’s break the rules in a nice way.
You have a Sampler and a Synth – pretty much any instrument you need is within these 2 fundamental units, so why do you need anyone else to do anything? The benefit – you get to share audience & learn each others’ style and skills. For the most part, its FUN! Collaborating often brings you outside your comfort zone and makes you have to think in a different state of mind, thereby helping you be more creative! It’s a very humbling experience that really makes the creation of music very social and keeps you from traveling to the stone age in your cave (studio/bedroom).
8. Don’t let peers be your only audience
There are always either too many or too few of us, and even fewer who understand music the way we do: The challenges that each fader poses and the joy of bringing out the sweetest of overtones to get a tasty mix. We often find immense gratification when hearing a fellow producer/musician critique the technicalities of your work, but often forget that the music is what most people hear, not the processing! Unless you really just want your music-making contemporaries to be your only audience, don’t forget to think about YOUR average listener! Supports the reason why you should focus on the music!
9. Learn a secondary form of production
Much like learning an instrument, dabbling in a parallel form of expression has an exponential effect on your connection with both forms of expression. Be it photo editing or digital art, video or heck, even coding; Find something that sends you in a refreshing, rejuvenating feedback loop!
10. Keep up the pace! (The freedom in limitations)
Dedicate relaxed sessions where you can casually jam and explore the infinite sounds of your powerful DAW but NOT ALWAYS!
“What? Creativity has no time frames!” you say?
BUT, it does! If you spend too much time thinking about the same thing, it is possible to loose momentum. What about creative freedom!? Now, this is touchy territory. There are definitely situations where extensive meditative zoning-out/focusing (which ever you prefer) is the best way to arrive at a desirable outcome, but more often than not, it helps to make an effort to keep up the tempo. Let your cathartic productions have their own space from time to time, but when you’re not healing your soul with modulation effects and distortion plug-ins (brownie points if you get the irony), try to set some time based targets to explore more aural scenery! This will help you connect deeply with your spirit synthesizer, I mean, animal.
In fact, limit the number of voices in your production. There is great freedom in limits and there are great burdens that come with freedom.
Have a sense of development – think like an arranger.
An Ode to Presets: Presets often come off as somewhat misunderstood or misrepresented. They are marketed as typical/popular/average settings, and although that IS what they are, they are sometimes seen as amateur. They are, however, really great for speeding up the production process with user presets or even stock presets. You don’t want that cool riff in your head to disappear back into imagination, while you auditioned various sounds by twiddling the thousands of knobs in your favorite plug-in/VSTi to find just the right one. Make, or note down presets of sounds/settings you find yourself often coming back to and then tweak the settings from there to make it more precise to the context! Save time & patience.
AND to end this, here is a gentle reminder to always SAVE YOUR PROJECTS!