Non-Musical Concepts

Posted by James Cullen on

I recently had some discussions on Reddit with several people on what they wanted to learn most out of music production resources. I figured, there are millions of videos and articles out there covering all sorts of topics, so I wanted to get some direct interactions with fellow producers and to find out exactly what they wanted to learn.


I’m going to give a shout out to one Redditor by the username of Doggy_Blue (I hope you actually have a dog, if you do, hello!) as they said they’d be really interested in learning the important stuff that goes around music production. What habits outside of the actual production can you implement to help make things better, help things work smoother, and just overall help you improve. They pointed out that from the info I gave, I am obviously  doing something right, balancing a musical job and being a father (thanks dude, means a lot!) and I guess they wanted to know what habits they could implement in their everyday life to help their music production.


Luckily, I can come up with one or two ideas! 


So, without further ado, let’s break the topics down and go into some detail about some of the things you can do outside of the studio to supplement your production.


Time Management

If you’re hoping to get serious about music production, then time management is one of the simplest disciplines you can implement to help move forward. And while it is simple, that’s not to say it’s easy. Your time is one of your most precious resources, because as much as we’d all love to sit around making tunes all day every day, real life just gets in the way. 


So how can you make sure you’re making the most out of your time?


The first thing I’d recommend is setting aside a dedicated and regular block of time to work on your music. This is a great habit to get into, and even if you don’t use this time to actually make music, simply sitting at your computer and working on your DAW is going to develop your skills even if you don’t realise it. Consider this, if you open up your DAW and mindlessly click through your samples or plug ins, play some presets and generally explore, while another producer just doesn’t open their laptop at all that day because they aren’t feeling “inspired”, which of the two do you think is doing more to help themselves long term?


Let’s talk about inspiration for a second, because it’s important. I know all too well that sometimes inspiration can strike at the most inconvenient times, and in those times you may have to hit pause on everything just so you can get an idea down. It’s a romantic notion isn’t it? Oh this track just came to me in a dream.


Sure, fantastic. And when that works for you, it’s amazing!


But the reality of life is, your feelings of inspiration can’t always coincide with the time you have available to make music. And some days you just might not be feeling inspired and you might not want to make music at all, but there are still useful things you can do with that time.

How well do you know your main synth of choice? When was the last time you went through your samples and took note of some you want to use? Ableton Live 10 has a great “favourites” feature which I’ve been using loads since upgrading, browsing through samples and saving them for later use. You could take this time to familiarise yourself with some unfamiliar plugins, learn some hidden features of your DAW, or just try making something totally out of your comfort zone.


Whether you’re a novice, experienced or seasoned producer, this is a great discipline to get into. If you set aside a 2 hour block, 3 evenings a week, there is 6 hours of dedicated music time for you. Obviously you can work on tunes outside these hours if you have that time available, but giving yourself a minimum guaranteed time slot in a format that works for you and your family (if applicable) is a great way to ensure you’re progressing.



Diversifying your Music-Related Income


One of the other questions I was asked was if I recommend diversifying music-related income.


When I was studying for my degree in Music Production, one of the often repeated adages told to us by our tutors was that as a Music Producer, you’re likely to have what’s called a portfolio career. What this means is that as you develop your skills, you will figure out areas you’re succeeding and getting as much out of your music as you put into it.


As much as we’d all love to study music and then go on to be chart topping artists, that just isn’t the reality. It’s a simple game of maths. However many thousands of people across the world studying music or production related topics each year adds up to a heck of a lot of people. We just aren’t going to be seeing number ones from all of them.


The reality is a lot more down to earth, but no less rewarding!

Some of the first “work” I was able to secure as a music producer was scoring a few short films. Now I put the quotation marks because I was a student, and the filmmaker was a student, so I wasn’t paid for this work. I was introduced through a friend and was happy to connect and make some music for free. All told I scored two short films for this dude over a couple of years, and it was a really fun process to work on! I had them in my portfolio for the future.


Moving on, I was able to use that background to secure some more work. My brother studied film at University, and we were able to link up with a local TV channel in Liverpool, and we pitched them an idea for a TV showcase of local musicians playing in iconic venues across the city. Again, this was voluntary work, as a lot of your early endeavours will be. 


I was in charge of recording and mixing the sound, and I had a real hands on role with the production of the show too, and due to a big funding issue with the channel we were only able to make two episodes, but nevertheless, I had another musical project in my portfolio for the future. See where I’m going with this yet?


The words of my University tutors are ringing true, as 5 years after graduating, I am working writing these guides for you all, as well as releasing music on a couple of labels, and working on a few other personal creative projects. 


Everyone’s journey is going to be totally different, but the best advice I can give you is to open your mind to the possibilities ahead of you. Accept that, if you’re only getting into music to be the next Skrillex, that just isn’t going to happen. There is always going to be someone with more talent, more industry connections, or more money who is able to reach those goals easier than you are.


Many of the friends I made at University are now teaching Music at various levels. Some had their music licensed for adverts (one even got their on an Apple advert), which is something called Sync Licensing. There are specific sites such as Sentric Music in the UK that help musicians put their music forward for Sync deals, and even contain specific briefs that advertisers are looking for. This is an option for many musicians; writing music for adverts can be a lucrative business, with some deals in the 5 figures.


The downside to this type of portfolio career is that it involves a lot of networking and seeking out opportunities for yourself. Afterall, it’s all about who you know right? 


Niche Speciality


So, forget everything I just told you in the section above.


(Don’t.)

 


What is the best route for you if you like music production not because you’re a super artistic music creator, but you absolutely love the art of recording bands. Booking studio time, or using your own home studio setup. Getting the mic placement just right, spending money on a really nice 18 input interface so you can record a full drum kit.


Or maybe you love mixing. Check out a project called Shaking Through at weathervanemusic.org. It’s a recording and documentary series that allows you to watch how a song is recorded in a beautifully filmed format, and then download the stems of the project and mix it yourself. Some producers I knew in University were super technical and they loved this side of things; balancing levels and EQs, mastering the dark art of Compression and Multiband Dynamics to really make those snares pop.


Or maybe you’re a reclusive wizard in the mysterious art of Mastering. 


The above are examples of specialisations within the broad range of skills that encompass music production. Obviously there are many more that I haven’t listed, but these serve as examples of disciplines you can take up and really focus on, honing your skills to become as good as you possibly can at that specific things.


Freelance mastering engineers, mixing engineers, recording engineers, all started this way. They found something they naturally gravitate towards (or wanted to do and put in the HOURS) and then made that their thing, and you can do this too! While my above examples of a portfolio career are a super viable option to many music producers, so is a niche specialisation like these ones. 


It’s all about setting your own goals, priorities and expectations. You know what you want, what you’re capable of, and what you’re willing to do to get there. Whether you’re looking at having your finger in a load of different pies, or picking one discipline and smashing it, it’s figuring out your own route and your own definition of success that will get you there.


How to Practice effectively and efficiently

There probably hasn’t been a musician out there who has struggled with the art of practicing. Sometimes we can’t summon the energy, sometimes we overdo it, never being able to find that perfect balance. 


But what is effective practice? What does it look like? How can we make sure the limited time we are able to dedicate to practicing our music production is spent in the most efficient way?


We all know that practice in its basic form is repeating something over and over, with the goal being to improve that thing. But have you ever thought about what’s actually going on in your brain? 


I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of your brain tissue and neurons too much, but practicing is having a real effect in our brains. Your brain sends signals down nerve fibres called Axons, which are wrapped with a fatty substance called Myelin. Think insulation on electrical cables, and you’re on the right track. 


Studies have shown that this Myelin casing around the Axons prevents energy loss, and what’s more, is that practicing a specific action increases the layers of Myelin to insulate the Axons, so the more you do a specific thing, the more efficiently your body can send nerve signals to do that thing again. Practice makes perfect right?


There are many theories out there trying to quantify the magic number of practice. How many hours does it take to truly master something? Unfortunately, no one knows. They say you have to put 10,000 hours in to master something, but that’s only a little saying. What’s most important here is that it’s less about the amount of practice and more about the quality of practice. 


Effective practice has been shown to require consistency, focus and targeting content or skills that are on the edge of your current abilities. This is something that I speak about often; things like forcing yourself to finish a track even if you’re not too keen on the idea, or just spending some time exploring Ableton’s Operator synth and seeing what all the controls do. 


Here are some good tips for effective practice:


  • Let’s start with an obvious one; focus on the task you’re doing. Minimise distractions like your phone or social media, as these are notorious for drawing your attention away.
  • Start out slowly. It doesn’t matter how many repetitions of a skill you do, or how fast you do them. Studies have shown that starting slow and gradually increasing the speed or frequency of your repetitions is the key to successful practice.
  • Frequent practices with allotted breaks. Many top athletes or musicians spend up to 60 hours a week practicing skills directly related to their fields, which are broken up into a series of shorter practice sessions with breaks in between them.
  • And to throw in a bit of a weird one; practice in your head. Studies have shown that once you have practiced something enough physically, mentally practising in your head can be just as effective as physical practice. This sounds like pseudo-science but I promise it’s not!

These are some great tips that apply to practice in general, and if you break these down and apply them to your individual methods of working, you can create some really good and hopefully long lasting habits to ensure your practice is always efficient and effective. 


For me personally, I try to get on my laptop and work on Ableton at least every other day, even if at the end of the couple hours I sit there, I haven’t come up with anything useful. I set a regular time to do this. I also make sure to keep challenging myself; use unconventional instrumentation or samples, or work in a new genre, just for fun.



How to avoid burnout

Burnout is a curse afflicting many creatives and non-creatives throughout time and space. It’s just a simple fact of being a human being; sometimes you get tired, you do something too much and you just end up being worn out or losing your motivation.


It’s happened to all of us at some point, but how can we avoid it? Should we avoid it? Is there any use to be found in this feeling?


This links really well into the above section. I found the most success with my music when I was able to find a sense of direction for it. I started putting consistent time in, to make music that was fairly consistent, and this set me on a path of knowing the things I wanted to pursue in order to continue on my journey. I knew I wanted to make a collection of remixes. I knew I wanted to continue to make tunes with the hopes of getting more label releases. I knew I wanted to practice my DJing as much as my production. So there are 3 very different pursuits there, and many times I’ve gone to my laptop with the intention of doing one of them, but because I wasn’t feeling it, instead of quitting altogether, I was able to channel my energy into something else. Not feeling like making music? Fine, I’ll have a mix instead.


So this is an important point to think about if you’re wanting to avoid burnout. If you have a sense of purpose / drive / direction (or whatever motivational word of the week you’d like to use) then you can start to build a sort of structure around your work, so at any given point you know where in your journey you are, and what you want to work on or achieve.


Of course, not everyone wants to have one consistent musical project, and many of us pursue several little ideas at once. This can be a problem in itself, because some may argue that not focusing on one specific thing can lead to burnout; you’re not putting your full effort into one project, so you’re likely to feel unfulfilled by it. But I’m not sure I agree with this.


I think the main way to avoid burnout is to find balance in whatever you’re doing. Variation is the key here, and it plays into the concepts we touched on in the section above on practicing. If you’re beginning to feel burnout in one area, for example actually creating music, take a break from it and work on something else. Not all time spent at your DAW has to involve actually making music. 


I think the concept to remember is that there is always something you can be doing, and the best producers will tell you that they are able to overcome that lack of motivation and get some work done even when they aren’t feeling like it, and I have found that for me personally this is a really important concept.


Having the honesty to be able to admit I’m not feeling too inspired is one thing, but it takes a whole other level of motivation to still force myself to do something like watching some mixing tutorials to brush up on my knowledge, or learning how to actually use a plug in instead of guessing. What’s more though, is that if I can’t even bring myself to do that, it takes a special type of awareness to come to terms with the fact that I could or should be doing something, but I’m not. Some days I’d just rather switch off and relax on the sofa.


At the end of the day, you don’t want to spend too much of your time creating music feeling like you’re forcing yourself to do something. It’s okay to say you’re not in the mood. I’ve had breaks of days and even weeks, which is fine! Creative burnout isn’t this evil thing we’re trying to banish completely, it’s a natural part of being a human being, and sometimes sitting with it and letting it take control is fine. But if you find yourself feeling burnt out more often than not, then perhaps it’s time to take some steps to get a little routine, and push yourself out of your comfort zone to get the ball rolling! 


As a final point on this, I think a lot of what plays into this phenomenon is how we define our own success. I’ve seen many people posting on forums saying “just getting into music production, how can I make money from it?” and I just wish I could have a face to face conversation with these people and tell them (in the nicest way possible) that it’s very unlikely that they are going to make a living from it. If you begin learning to produce music with the sole intention of making it big, everything you do that isn’t making it big is going to feel like a failure.


I see so many people complaining how their music doesn’t sound pro enough, and I almost want to say ‘well of course it doesn’t, you’ve admitted you’ve been doing this for 6 months!’. There are no fast and easy ways to get to a position where you can consider yourself successful, so being able to define that success for yourself is a huge motivating factor. If you don’t consider anything short of a 6 figure record deal a success, then maybe you should find another pursuit. But if you consider simply finishing a track a success, then you’re cultivating a much healthier attitude towards your music making, and you’re more likely to stick at it! 




Balancing your personal life

 

This is something that is going to look different for everyone, but I will try my best to impart some wisdom about how I’ve made things work for me, and hopefully this will provide some inspiration or useful information.


A key theme through this guide is time management. Gone are the days of being a teenager and having no responsibility, and a seemingly unlimited amount of time to dedicate to whatever you want to do. Now, approaching 30, I have a child, I have household responsibilities, I have pets to look after (two rabbits, thanks for asking) and a relationship to maintain. I can’t spend all night every night making music like I used to.


So what do I do?


I make sure that no matter what happens, I get at least 3 days a week where I can take myself off for a couple of hours and work. Sometimes it might be literally one hour, other times it might be an entire afternoon.


That work may be writing articles like this, it might be making some music, it might be doing some networking or promotion, or it might be a little bit of everything. The important thing though is that I have a partner and support network that allows me to do this. My work time is incorporated into our weekly family schedule, because while I am doing this, my partner gets to spend one on one time with our child, and then we can swap.


I am lucky in that I have a very accommodating network of friends and family. We are a tight knit bunch, but we look after each other and want to support each other achieving goals and successes. When one thing falls into place, other things begin to do so around it. I know that if I was really feeling the inspiration and told them I had to work non stop on a track all day, my partner and our closest friends would absolutely support that, and make sure I was able to get things done.


When all’s said and done, you are in control of what you do with your time. Obviously there are things that take up a huge portion of our days, and I am fortunate enough to be someone who works from home on a freelance basis so I can multitask, often getting music and work done simultaneously. But if this isn’t your situation, that’s fine, you just have to find a way to set aside some time for yourself to work on your music.





So, hopefully this was informative, helpful and useful. We are always working to get you as much help with your music production as possible here at Top Music Arts, so thanks for checking in with us. Don’t forget to check out our Ableton templates and the rest of our blog for more tips and tutorials! 


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