Thinking Outside the DAW

Posted by James Cullen on

There are so many things you need to remember when you’re a music producer, that it can be super easy to forget a crucial piece of information, or some really good advice, or some best practices for your workflow. We’re all guilty of forgetting the basics at some point in our lives, whether it’s in our music production or otherwise, but sometimes an event comes around where you realise what you’ve forgotten, and in the worst cases there can be a significant cost! 

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, then it may help you to understand if I tell you that at the back end of 2020, my laptop died (Rest in Peace). Not only that, though, but my laptop died when I hadn’t prepared a backup of any of my music, Ableton projects, sample packs or plug ins. So, going back 5 years, I have lost all of my data.

Now before you get upset for me and start sending me your condolences, know that I’m fine, and I’ve found a way to turn it into a teachable moment and a chance for a fresh start. 

Organisational Habits

  • Backing Up

If you’re taking your music seriously, you need to remember how important it is to cultivate habits that help you outside the studio with as much dedication as you apply to working on your production skills within the studio. You need to be an all round professional, because there’s no point in making amazing music if your organisation falls by the wayside. Considering the context here, the most important one of these I want to talk about is backing up your projects regularly! 

If you don’t own a portable hard drive, now is the time to invest in one. There are some really good options for a very competitive price, and you can grab yourself 1TB of external storage for under £50. This is so important, because if you were to find yourself in a position like I was back in December, you would know that you had your data backed up and you wouldn’t have to worry! 


Now, part of the success you will see with your production is building this type of useful habit; backing up your music, projects, sample packs, Master WAVs. You need to be thinking about this all the time. Some people would even recommend having a backup of your backup! 

Consider how easy it is; once a month, at the end of your writing or producing session, just plug in your hard drive, back up all your new projects or any new sample packs you’ve found, and then you can sleep easy. Then also consider how easy it is for something to go wrong and for you to lose everything! 

This is why regular backups need to become an integral part of your process, because you don’t want to be in my shoes and lose years of work, seeing all of that music disappear in the blink of an eye! 

  • Sample Sorting

Having to re-source all of my sample packs and plugins made me realise how many I had that weren’t getting much use. 

I had so many sample packs on my laptop, and in truth I probably used less than half of those samples. I had a select few folders of some really nice drum sounds and one shots that I’d use all the time, and some more loops in other folders that really worked for me. But other than that, I realised there were a lot of redundant folders that had barely seen the light of day.

Now you’re familiar with the adage “a cluttered house equals a cluttered mind” right? This is a concept that is also true with your Sample folders. If you find that you’re scrolling through tonnes of samples each time you want to find a sound, it may be time to do a bit of a clear out of your Sample folders. Refining your collection to sounds you regularly use will not only help you from an organisational point of view, but it will also streamline your production process, giving you more time in the box and less time trawling through folders looking for a perfect clap sound. Further, it may help refine your sound, as consistency within your sample use can help create a consistency in your music too. Bear in mind though, there’s a fine line between creating a uniform sound through your productions, and using the exact same samples on every single tune. So be mindful of this.

The Importance of Attitude

Now, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, losing everything - while a huge blow- has got me excited about the opportunities for a fresh start. Yes, I had lots of tunes I was working on in Ableton that are now gone, but I’m at peace with that. After all, if I’d have been doing regular back ups, the damage would be minimised!

It made me realise that your attitude towards your work is such a crucial part of seeing your success, whatever that success may look like to you. In the last year, I’ve really found a groove with my music making. It’s consistent, both in style and quality, and what’s more is I stopped doing it with any purpose in mind other than wanting to make music that I enjoy listening to, that plays well in my DJ sets, and that makes my daughter dance (she has the final word on if a track is a banger or not).

This sounds like a really obvious piece of information to give you, but the importance of this can’t be overstated! If you aren’t making music primarily for yourself, perhaps it’s time to explore the reasoning behind it. Chances are, the main person who will be listening to your music is you, so if you don’t like it, why are you doing it?

It is only when I began creating music in this way that my tunes got some recognition from labels, and I think in a way that’s because I’ve been creating music that’s a true reflection of myself. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I spent a lot of my formative years making music ‘trying to get signed’ or making music because it’s the style of music that’s gaining loads of popularity, and I thought I could jump on the hype train. Spoiler alert; I did not manage to jump on the hype train.

But this is a flawed mentality from the outset because unfortunately, there is always going to be someone somewhere who is better than you, who has more time, more resources, more natural talent, more industry connections. If you’re working on your absolute breakout Trap album, but there are 5 million other producers also making Trap albums, and all thinking they’re the best, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. Now that’s not to say that you can’t make music in a genre that’s popular, because of course you can, and many producers have breakout hits in the boundaries of existing genres. However, there’s one thing that no one else in the world can best you at, and that’s being true to who YOU are. 

Without wanting to sound too much like a self help book, the realisation of how important authenticity is in music creation is a profound one, and it’s one that you can only really arrive at by yourself. Only when you stop trying to emulate others, and make music that is truly your own, and a true reflection of your tastes and personality, can you open yourself up to that potential.

And so this is why I am not too devastated about losing my files. Because my attitude is in the right place. I know the music I want to make, and I’m seeing the recognition as a result of that authenticity. I’ve been making music in some form or another for over 10 years now, and it’s this level of honesty and authenticity that has allowed me to thrive! I’m honestly just looking forward to opening up Ableton once again and getting back into the swing of things!


So, I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about things that are decidedly un-musical. But it’s these concepts and best practices that are so important when you’re wanting to be a successful producer. Let’s be honest, if you’re human, chances are you have one or two flaws, and you may not realise it but these flaws can actually hinder your mentality in the studio!

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this new level of authenticity in my music creation has come in tandem with some personal growth in my life outside of music. 2020 was a horrible year for everyone. The Coronavirus pandemic impacted the entire world, and it sent millions of people into a new reality that we are still enduring today. But it’s in these tough times that we find the most opportunities to grow and develop, and that’s exactly what I’ve made a priority in my life over the past 12 months, and the results are translated directly into my music. As I have grown and felt better in myself, so my music has become more consistent too! 

And so if I can leave you with one piece of advice to top the list today, it’s to take care of yourself before you worry about anything else. As a human being, and as a creator of music, it is so important to cultivate an inner peace and comfort that allows you to bring the best version of yourself to everything you do. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience. If you don’t spend the time working on yourself, how can you expect that to translate into your studio organisation, or your music making?

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