There’s never been a better time to be a music producer. Whether you’ve got years of experience under your belt, or are new to the process, there are now more resources, tips, help and communities out there to answer your questions and help you improve than there ever have been before.
With the accessibility of Music Production software (there are many cheap and even free versions), it’s never been easier to be a producer either. What once required a professional studio and a whole load of expensive analog equipment can now be achieved from the bedroom on a computer or laptop.
While there’s definitely still a huge place in music production for analog or outboard gear, the rise of ‘in the box’ production techniques means that with time, dedication and practice, anyone can achieve good results if they commit to it.
Below we will delve into some techniques or concepts that are guaranteed to improve your Production.
1) Brush up on your Music Theory.
Without doubt one of the most useful things you can add to your skillset is a fundamental knowledge of music theory. Learning about melody, harmony and rhythm provides a core understanding of the building blocks of musical compositions.
There are many examples of budding producers asking on Reddit and other forums ‘Do I need to know music theory in order to produce?’ and while there are normally mixed answers, the benefit that a knowledge of Music Theory brings is undeniable.
Rhythm is fairly basic; everyone is familiar with the concepts as it’s something most children are introduced to in school with clapping exercises, but having a more in depth understanding can help with writing drum parts, creating syncopated rhythms or melodies, introducing swung or triplet oriented beats, or generally creating more complex sounding productions where rhythm plays a greater role.
Melody and harmony are even more useful. Understanding harmony, and the relationships between certain key signatures and scales brings a deeper understanding of how music is created from the ground up. The Circle of Fifths is a great example of an infographic containing a ton of useful information; it shows the relationships between all key signatures and scales, so it’s a good idea to keep a copy of it in your studio.
Minor scales sounding sad and Major sounding happy, are plain for everyone to hear. But understanding theory gives you as a producer the ability to create whatever mood you want with your music. The use of 7th or 9th chords, the right scales for the mood you want, if you’re creating music with a particular ethnic sound (for example Asian or Middle Eastern), understand the scales used in that style of music allows you to more confidently create using those tools.
There are tons of great resources to learn music theory out there, and it’s an extremely advantageous subject to know about. If you’re looking for something to take your music to the next level, starting to learn Music Theory is a good jump off point.
2) Give Active Listening a try.
Of particular use if you’re looking to hone your skills of producing a particular style of music is a skill referred to by most as Active Listening. Though, you can call it whatever you want. The premise is exactly what it says on the tin.
In today’s technologically fuelled world where everything is instant and we’re doing multiple things at once, music in particular is often put on in the background whilst you’re doing something else. Driving, cleaning your house, cooking some food. This is fine, but to compare it; how much of a movie would you actually absorb and take in if you were also tidying your living room while watching it?
Active Listening encourages listening to music as the only thing you’re doing in that moment, give your whole attention to the music you’re listening to. It’s almost like a meditation, and can be helpful to treat it as such. Let’s say you’re a producer of old school hip hop music and you’re looking for ways to tighten up your productions. Find a track that’s considered a staple of that genre, stick your headphones on, and listen to it. Ask yourself questions about the music.
What’s happening bar by bar?
What effects are there?
How many layers of drums are there, is that one or several hi hat parts?
Are there samples? How have the samples been treated?
A good exercise when doing this is to write down the things you hear, and the elements you like. This could be in the form of a list, or even a graphic that looks similar to the arrangement you see on all DAWs. Draw blocks representing bars, place the different elements on their own ‘tracks’ and draw out the arrangement, write down how effects are applied over the course of the track.
Digging deeper into the track, listen to it 4 times over and over and pick a different instrument to focus your attention on. Or one pass you could listen to the harmony. Next, the rhythm.
Often the difference between a ‘professional’ sounding track and an ‘amateur’ one is the attention to detail.
Maybe there’s a subtle filter that changes over 32 bars. Delay on hi hats that slowly fades in and out. Subtlety is king when it comes to creating complex productions, and actively listening to a track allows you to pay attention to and identify those subtleties.
3) Dedicate time to your craft.
There really is only one boundary when it comes to the question of how far you can take your music. That boundary is you and how much time you're willing to put into producing. Every producer on the planet has the same amount of hours in their day as you do, whether it's Calvin Harris or Diplo.
It's said that it takes ten thousand hours (or ten years) to master something, so there's really no time like the present to get started. Whether you're new to production or a seasoned producer, there are always ways to improve.
Setting a dedicated time - whether it's weekly, daily or whenever you can fit in - is a huge benefit and will pay dividends down the line. Merely opening your DAW is more than a lot of aspiring musicians will do today. And opening it is half the battle, if you open it, chances are you’ll end up working on some music.
A great example of how to use this dedicated time is what to do when you don’t feel like making music. A lot of producers on various forums ask questions like "I'm not feeling this track, should I finish it?" or "what can you do when you aren't feeling the inspiration?" to which I would say: work anyway!
Consider the amount of projects you've scrapped half way through because you weren't connected to the song you were making. Maybe you liked it initially, but then you came back to it a day later and weren’t feeling it as much. It's in these situations that's it's most important to see the project through to a finished track.
Finishing a piece of music is as much of a skill as starting one is, and since you can't be producing a number 1 hit every time you open your DAW, your best bet is to use every opportunity you can. Taking an idea you aren't super passionate about and seeing it through to a finished track develops other skills.
While it may sound counter intuitive, you have to consider that if your attention isn’t distracted by how much you love the music, you may be able to focus more on the concepts that can often take a back seat. Arrangement, song structure, mixing, automation of effects. These are skills you could focus your attention on by finishing a piece of music you aren't 100% passionate about.
There are more ways to improve your skills than just making the music you love making. Finishing songs is just one of those.
4) Always be learning and growing.
This point very much springboards off the previous one, but it deserves its own section. A huge advantage to being a producer today is the accessibility of resource material due to the internet. There is a treasure trove of tutorials, guides, help and communities online. This might be a forum on Reddit dedicated to the production of a particular genre of music, or a specific DAW's online community. Or a site like Top Music Arts!
There are communities where you can post your music and receive feedback, as well as giving this feedback to other producers. This is an invaluable resource, as it allows you to have impartial ears listen to your music and identify areas in which you could use some improvement. But that’s not the only way to identify what you need to improve, as you’ll know yourself what your strengths and weaknesses are.
Identifying weakness is a strength in and of itself, but once you’ve done this, you know the areas you need to work on. So instead of spending all of your time making music, spend some time learning how to really use that synth plug in. Or ask yourself, how much do you actually know about compression, or EQ? How about using effects in parallel, or sampling? The benefits of grouping tracks? How to change time signature in your DAW? The list goes on.
There is a rabbit hole of skills and tutorials down which you can fall, so take care not to get lost. But there’s a huge advantage in making sure you know how and when to use the tools you have at your disposal.
There is always something else to learn, and if you’re stuck, you can check out some of our tutorials.
5) Check out Ableton templates
Ableton is one of, if not the most popular DAW amongst electronic music producers. Chances are, your favourite producer uses Ableton. This means that there’s now a direct link between you and them, because you’re both using the same software. Even more useful than this though, is the development of Ableton Templates.
Ableton Templates can take the form of a specific song remake, or can be more general and be a starter point for a particular genre. They allow you to dig deep into a workflow you may not be familiar with, exploring the tracks used, perhaps the effects applied and track grouping. Or it may just give you ideas to project your own productions to that next level.
Regardless of how you decide to use an Ableton Template, it’s an incredibly valuable resource to be taken advantage of. In fact, you can grab Ableton Templates from our site if you visit our templates page.