Perhaps you’ve been making music for a little while or you’re completely new to it, perhaps on the verge of jumping in this as a new hobby, and you have this overwhelming feeling of being overwhelmed or lost. Let’s be fair, some hobbies are easier than others to start with. Maybe you’ve tried DJing and you saw how fast it is to get into it and then tried producing and found it to be a steep learning curve. Therefore, I thought I’d write about the different challenges people face when they start and the workaround or strategies that I give to students in order to get through the difficult emotions.
Common Beliefs and Misconceptions about Music Production
There are so many different misconceptions about our passion that it’s a bit difficult to list them but I’ll try to debunk many ideas that confuse people I work with.
“Electronic music is easy to do” or a variant, “If you have everything you need, then it’s easy to do.”
This is honestly the one I debunk on a regular basis. I often also argue with strangers about it and I gathered so much theory. So to start with how easy it is, that’s absolutely not true. I’ve explored making music for 30 years and there are still times where I’m not totally sure what I’m doing. Also, I learn something new every single day I practice.
Do I need to know everything to make music? No, absolutely not. I’ve been able to make over 20 albums and on some of them, I was just scratching the surface of what production is about.
The idea that it’s easy comes from the idea that compared to someone who grabs a guitar and performs music theory, rhythms and all that is related to music perfectly is harder, that’s something not everyone can do. On the surface, technology has democratically opened music making by making so many tools, software, and hardware that can let many do more than anyone could, 30+ years ago. It doesn’t mean it’s easier.
If you want to make a loop and play music, yes, it can be similar to video games and that part is honestly where most of the fun is. Anyone that wants to go deeper will soon feel like that will not be enough and want more.
This is where the second variant kicks in, with the idea that you need something else to do that. You’ll also be exposed that you need something from all the ads we are exposed to or if you talk to other producers, they’ll quickly tell you all the things you need… Which is a bit of a trap.
I’ve said it many times before, but to do music you basically, at minimum, need one device that can make a sound(mobile phone, tablet, hardware, computer) t and something to listen to (headphones, speakers). That’s really all you need.
When I tell that to people, I often then get the famous “I knew it was easy!” response.
That’s when I drop the bomb.
Oh yeah, it’s easy… You’ll just need to understand the basic theory of sound design, signal flow, music fundamentals, engineering, storytelling, and perhaps also recording too, to name a few. So then again, it’s confusing because as a newcomer, you might be aware of how little you know and this triggers confusion and frustration.
So this is where there’s a paradox. On one hand, everything is there, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll know how to get your way through to achieve what you want to do.
My approach is simple – it’s about convincing anyone diving into music to start with little steps. I saw many people wanting to learn how to play piano and some of the first exercises they’ll start with is to get familiar with hands on the notes, play around with scales, and basically just practice going up and down the keys. If you learn piano, this is what you expect to do at first because it’s the basis of playing.
When it comes to electronic music, people are all over the place. They want to make a song, they want to make music like an artist they love, they want to try this and that… So much to do and there’s not much of a methodology anywhere so people try things and it often fails.
So, more myths follow.
“You make a song by starting from the beginning and then finish it”
This one is probably the most damaging of all because it puts people in a workflow that is counterproductive, alienating and just not fun at all. If you are familiar with this blog, you’ll be familiar with my idea that making one song at a time is one of the worst ways to work. So perhaps let’s think about what it means to you to make a song, or what a song is supposed to be.
For some, it’s a little story, for others it’s an experiment, or it can be something for a DJ to play. The thing they all have in common is that they have a beginning and an end, plus some ideas that evolve (or not) in the middle. Some songs have one idea, others multiple. But what this means is that each song needs at least one idea. This is where music starts, by finding ideas. That means you can probably listen to music you like and love something in it. Perhaps you want to sample something from an old record or just want to write notes of a melody yourself.
I usually stress the importance of finding ideas as one of the main things to do because it’s not hard to do and because it’s fun. The other thing I tell people who start is to spend countless hours in their music software and not have any goals other than to basically test everything with intense curiosity and openness. The more you are goal driven in front of something you don’t understand, the more you might be lost and lose interest. One of the main conditions for finding flow in an activity is to do something that seems doable but a bit challenging while having fun.
Exploring, getting familiar with your software, and doing little experiments is where you start.
Here are some little projects you can do if you’re really new to it:
1- Drag a song or samples you like in your DAW and play with it
chop it, add effects, stretch it, pitch it up or down, destroy it wildly and see what happens. Note what you do and be aware that certain tools bring specific results.
2- Spend time playing 1-2 notes on a keyboard and listen to the results.
This means, test all the synths you have, samplers. Play long or short notes, and see how they behave. Record the notes and try to record the sound, destroy it.
3- Be responsive instead of curating.
One of my approaches with music is to pick any sound and have the attitude that if someone paid me $1000 to do a song with this, what would I do? The problem for many people is that they have access to way too much and they’ll spend the entire studio session searching for a specific sound they’ll never find. This makes you creatively lazy. You’ll learn more working with something crap than searching for the perfect sound. You might actually learn how to make sounds you love by goofing around.
If we agree that ideas make songs and that you like specific ideas, you need to practice playing to gain ease, spontaneity and control in order to eventually make your own ideas. This is why I invite people to play with what they have to become fluent.
So, to sum it up:
To make music you don’t need a lot.
There’s a lot to know but you don’t need to know everything to have fun.
If you have fun, you’ll want to spend time exploring.
Remain curious of what you think is useless or too complicated.
Exploration means practice.
Practice brings new ideas.
Ideas can be turned into songs.
It’s easier to get the most out of a sound than searching for the perfect one.
Simplicity is sophistication.
Making music is about having fun. If it doesn’t feel fun, you’re not seeing it from the right angle.
Last belief that causes harm:
“I have great ideas in my mind but I can’t put them all together in my songs”
Anything one has in mind is wonderful but once you try to replicate it, things are never really exactly the same as what you’d expect. In years of making music, I never really was able to translate my inner world to sound. Perhaps if you’re a singer or folk artist, this is easier but in the realm of electronic music, things are completely different. You can have a nice melody idea but you’ll need the right sound. You might have the right sound, but then the melody might not fit. The more you chase something abstract, the less grasp you’ll have on what you actually control.
There’s a vast number of elements that can really cloud your judgment and to chase something, always brought me frustration. I sometimes had way more fun working on simplistic ideas than going for a very ambitious project. It doesn’t mean that you have to stop yourself, but it’s important to understand where you stand, technically, and operate with your current skills.
Someone was asking, how do I make very long techno tracks like some artists do? My answer was, don’t do that. He was surprised and disappointed. My explanation was that it’s more important that he becomes really good first at doing what he’s doing now. Then you expand and do something a little more challenging once your basis is solid. I explored longer tracks once I managed to make solid 6 minutes ones, then moved to 8, then 10, and then up.
Bonus tip here:
“My friend told me this software is crap”
I could have added a lot of quotes here but my point is that many people will tell you what their experience is, and how they came to some conclusions but in the end, it’s just someone’s perspective. I’m always a bit cautious of people telling me to not do something (especially if I never asked for advice) and will be more curious of people explaining how they managed to do something I like. Many people have self imposed rules that are super weird, not backed by anything technical. Many times I heard some bogus claims that some software wasn’t good enough (FLStudio, for instance is often put down) or that a plugin isn’t for music, while I know so many people that made amazing ideas with the most ridiculous setup and ressources. It’s not what you use, it’s really what you do with it that matters.