As 2019 comes to an end, I’d like to discuss some of the most important things that went on, things I’ve talked about the most, plugins I loved, topics discussed in coaching, and so on.
Productivity and Writer’s Block
I was pretty busy in the first half of the year. I released my 22nd album and two EPs. While these achievements look great on paper, I can tell you that it was probably one of my least productive years of the last decade. I had a writer’s block (on-and-off) since May, and was unable to really finish a song, so I mainly focused on working on collaborations or engineering. Being hit by writer’s block at this point of my life was unusual, but reminds me that no one is really immune to it.
Signs of Writer’s Block:
- Everything you do feels or sounds like crap or is uninspiring.
- Other people’s music is not really hitting the spot either or feels old.
- Being unable to make music for more than 20-30 minutes. A feeling of discouragement comes in really fast.
- Mostly unable to turn a loop into a song.
If you’ve been making music for more than ten years, the signs are slightly different:
- Feeling like you’re repeating yourself over and over.
- Not feeling satisfied with the techniques or gear you have.
- Unable to finish music in general or not able to start.
- Mostly struggling to polish existing songs.
My solutions to resolve writer’s block are not necessarily going to work for everyone, as there’s no cure-all. Everything passes at some point, but you can’t resolve writer’s block without going through it—you can’t get around it.
Suggestions for Resolving Writer’s Block
- Completely change how you work by trying a new DAW.
- Test tons of presets from your synths and learn how they’re programmed.
- Learn about modular synthesis.
- Try online sound banks such as Archive.org, freesound.org, or even YouTube’s obscure archives.
But more importantly, figure out what the block is in your writer’s block. Is it linked towards your expectations? In my case, it’s simply a question of finding the next concept to build an album upon. The way I discover concepts is by trying to reverse-engineer sound design. The quest to make something similar with the use of different tools to shape the sound is more important than the result itself. I see many people getting writer’s block from trying to identically replicate a sound they want and discarding other techniques.
The difficulty in replicating a technique comes from the “early beginnings of a new producer“, in which someone starts on the wrong foot. I’m always happy to have someone who wants to start producing come to me to make sure he/she will start off well.
How and Where to Start Producing
In 2019, new producers have infinite access to information and tools. Too much information means a few things:
- Giving you the wrong first impression that everything is easy and doable.
- Misleading you into investing into things sold as being essential, while they’re not.
- Having so many choices makes the task of picking one overwhelming. If you have access to all the sounds you could ever dream of, where would you start?
Counter-Productive Tips New Producers are Often Told
- If you work hard enough, you can learn anything.
- You can learn and do everything yourself.
- Not watching tutorials or reading articles is better than education because you learn as you go.
- Make all your sounds by yourself so you can be original. Hello, down the rabbit hole.
I see people coming into production with the wrong intentions/goals. Of course, if you come with the idea that: a. things are easy and that b. you can learn everything yourself, people set unrealistic goals for themselves before they’ve ever created a loop.
In the last five years, I have been frequently reminded of a client who once came to me with an artist page on Soundcloud and Facebook with thousands of followers, a logo, professional photos, etc., but not a single minute of experience in music production. He had to make some music that could match the image he had been selling, and the first step felt huge.
The other side to early production is the artist who finishes a first song quickly and gets signed. With no experience, keeping up the pace of releasing is difficult, and the quick rise can be a situation that might be difficult to handle.
My Suggestions for People Who Want to Start Producing
- Listen to a lot of music when you have the time, and attend shows. This is super important for multiple reasons: you’ll learn the relationship between what you hear on your headphones vs. a venue. This is important to develop your mixing skills—learning how people react to sounds and how artists perform music in a live context. This is valuable information for music-making.
- Try to befriend people who make music as well, a mix of newcomers and older producers. This is super important for building a network of contacts to ask questions, swap music with, share gear, get a bunch of info that you can’t find yourself, and also to break-up periods of isolation.
- Ask as many questions as you have. No shame, just ask. Ask a lot of how do you do this or that? What is the name of that sound? What effect can create that impression?
- Have studio jams. This is the best way to learn. You’ll learn so much because you’ll run into so many problems that you’ll have to troubleshoot them, and that’s useful. Jamming also puts music-making into a context that is impossible to replicate—alone in a studio.
- Try to make loops everyday. You can make them all into one project file or start a new one each time. It’s important to make many because it’s good to first practice how to start making a loop. If you make a lot, you’ll get more efficient, develop tricks, and get faster at finding your way through a new tool.
- It’s more efficient to do 10-20 minutes everyday than a five-hour session on a weekend. The optimal focus time for your brain is around 30 minutes, so you get the best of yourself. Working for five hours isn’t recommended at all: you’ll feel like you did a lot but after that time, your ears can’t really judge what you’re doing. You can do five hours in a day, but on multiple tracks. I just feel that it’s not the best of yourself that will come out of long sessions on a single project, but you’ll learn.
- When you can start a loop in 10 minutes and feel great about it, then you’ve leveled up and you can now go back to all the loops you made and practice turning them into a song. Next level comes when you can finish them in a breeze.
- One song, one idea. If you make a decent loop, it’s probably the middle part of your song. How many layers do you have? What is the main idea? Can you, or a friend, sing that idea?
- Don’t make a big deal about not finishing songs. It will come naturally if you take things one step at a time.
- Forget releasing your music or getting signed by a label. If you focus on that, you’re just distracted from doing what you have to do which is to have skills to make music like you want.
Common Issues Other Than Writer’s Block
People often share other struggles in music-making with me like:
- A loop or idea feels boring or repetitive at some point in the song. First, don’t reveal your main idea too quickly. Second, create multiple variations of that loop (ex. changing the timing or adding effects). Third, add modulation to the sounds so they’re constantly changing.
- A song feels like something is missing. This might be because you’ve heard it too many times. Try leaving it alone for a month. Otherwise, here’s the a quick checklist: percussion, bass, pattern or melody, background, and a supporting idea. If you have all those, you should be more than okay. Otherwise, try to compare your song to a reference, concentrate on all sounds and see if you have about the same number.
- A track feels empty compared to references. Often resolved by creating a noise-floor. Try a reverb or a hiss at low level.
- Sounds never feel right. You might have bad samples. If you are convinced you should do everything yourself, you’ll indeed sound off, for a while. Try buying and using pre-made sounds. If you can’t make them, find some, and learn how to make killer loops and songs. As you go, you’ll eventually train your ear on how these sounds are made and will be able to make them. Honestly, even after 20 years, there are plenty of sounds I’m slightly not sure how to make even though I know, in theory, how to… it’s harder than it seems!
- Creating original ideas and not cheesy ones. If you listen to a lot of music, this will train your ear. If you listen to a lot of music before making music, it will put you in a mood. If you use a reference track, or even try to compose music over it, it can greatly help with this issue.
Essential Music Production Tools From 2019
Even though it was released in 2018, Fabfilter’s Pro-Q3 has won many prizes this year and has gained prominence with many major engineers. I’ve been watching a lot of tutorials from Mixing With The Masters, and Pro-Q3 is often the EQ of choice. You can use multiple instances to see how each channels are interacting between one-another, do some side-chaining, corrections, and shelving. You can turn any points into a dynamic filter too, which is very useful. If you have the budget, try to get an analog inspired EQ such as the PSP E27. These types of EQs aren’t parametric and can add a musical colour.
The compressor I loved the most this year was the Avalon from Universal Audio. So badass, so powerful, so useful…no need to say more. If you don’t have a UAD, I always turn to PSP Vintagewarmer 2. Not only does it compress well, it adds warmth—people want both.
The Do-It-All Utility of the Year
No doubts, it comes to Shaperbox 2. It is perfect for resolving many, many issues like modulation, side-chaining, movement, variations, creative ideas on the fly…it’s so good that I blindly bought it when I received it in my newsletter from CurveGuys.
If there’s one effect to have on top of your stock plugins is a good reverb. There are many out there such as this gorgeous reverb by Fabfilter but I suggest the Convolution by Melda—it’s fantastic and will be useful for years.
Quote of the Year
We make music to come together, and yet spend so much time alone. Reach out to others, create new concepts and see how viewing music as something fun will build things organically.