It’s become a colloquialism within internet producer circles. But there’s a reason behind it.
Producers collaborate for a variety of reasons: to learn new skills, to come up with better ideas, inspiration, or even career growth.
Beyond that, every producer wants to collaborate with their idols.
But not every producer knows how to approach collaboration.
Let’s take a look at this important aspect of music production.
Note: this blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. Click here to learn more about it.
THE BENEFITS OF COLLABORATION
“Collaboration is much like a birth. The song that springs forth resembles each one of us to a degree, but it’s the kind of thing that would never be born from just one of us.”— Grant-Lee Phillips
If we’re honest, it’s easier to work solo. When a lot of us think of collaborations, the words “slow” and “frustrating” come to mind.
Let’s not kid ourselves, they can be slow. But they should be done. Collaboration is not only fun, its practical too.
In this section, I’ll cover the benefits of collaboration before sharing tips on how to streamline the collaborative process so you and your collaborative partner can get the most out of it.
If you’ve ever played in a band, you’ll know how powerful jamming can be…
…just playing around, following each other’s cues, and developing ideas in a natural way. Before you know it, you’ve made a song.
When you’re collaborating with another producer, you can bounce ideas off each other in a similar way. You have two minds working instead of just one. Two creative minds.
This is even more potent when you’re in the same room (local collaboration).
But wait, wouldn’t two people in the same room be distracting? How can you leverage intense concentration and do “deep work” if there’s someone sitting right next to you?
Well, as long as you’re both focused on the same goal, it should be fine:
“For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight—be it someone phys- ically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually—can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.”– Cal Newport
Balanced strengths & weaknesses
In a perfect world, your collaboration partner has strengths in place of your weaknesses.
It doesn’t normally end up that way, but you are bound to have different strengths, which results in more creative ideas and better-sounding music.
If you’re great at writing melodies but terrible at mixing, and your partner is great at mixing but terrible at writing melodies, you’re a match made in heaven.
When you work out what your strengths are, you can split up production processes based on them. If your partner is good at composition, then let them handle most of the work upfront. If you’re good at mixing, then provide input along the way (you should still be involved in the creative process) but spend a few hours, in the end, cleaning everything up.
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You learn new techniques
If you ever come across the opportunity to collaborate with someone better than you, take it.
Don’t make any excuses. Do everything you can to make that collaboration happen.
Why? Because collaboration is a great learning tool. If you’re in person, you can ask questions and study how they’re doing certain things. If you’re collaborating virtually, you can still see how they’ve done certain things as you have access to the project file.
Note: You can still learn from collaboration partners who are at your level. Individually, we all have different tips and tricks that we’ve picked up that are worth sharing.
You finish more music
We looked at accountability in the last chapter. Specifically, reliant accountability.
Collaboration is one of the best forms of this. If you don’t do your part, your partner suffers.
You have skin in the game. You want to finish the track not just because your partner depends on you doing so, but also because you want to show them that you’re someone who follows through.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons collaborations take place is that they’re beneficial from a marketing standpoint.
Not only do you and your collaboration partner become friends, but you also get introduced to their audience and them to yours.
You also can’t underestimate serendipity. What if you collaborate with someone who’s being watched by a label? What if that label checks out your music and likes it?
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FINDING A COLLABORATION PARTNER
The best way to ensure that your collaborative project goes smoothly is to find a decent collaboration partner.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when choosing a collaboration partner.
The first is that you generally want to choose someone at or around the same skill level as you. This sounds harsh, but if you’re collaborating with someone who’s years behind you, then you’re going to get frustrated and likely won’t get much out of the collaboration. (Of course, if you’re collaborating in order to help someone out, it’s a different story.)
It also helps to know the person you’re going to collaborate with. It’s not essential, and you don’t need to know them like your best friend, but it’s good to have a few informal conversations first.
That means that it’s a good idea to build the relationship before asking to collaborate, which you should really be doing anyway.
So, how do you find people to build a relationship with and eventually ask to collaborate on something?
I’m a big proponent of local collaboration for three reasons: it’s fun, better ideas come out of it, and you’re not alone (sitting in a studio/bedroom all day by your- self does get to you).
One way to find people in your local area is to go to producer/music meetups. They aren’t in every town, but if one exists in yours, then check it out and talk to a few people. You can use a site like Meetups.com to find them.
The second way is to ask on forums, particularly Facebook and Reddit (r/edmproduction). There are numerous Facebook groups out there, some that are location-dependent too. If you live in London, you could search for “London Producer Group” and see if anything comes up.
Also, go to events. Club nights, producer workshops, conferences, you get the idea. Going to such events is a great way to network with people, and if alcohol is involved, it’s much easier to convince people to collaborate with you (I’m kidding, of course).
Finally, ask your friends if they know of anyone who makes music. This is more helpful than you think. I grew up in a small town of 10,000 people and thought I was the only one who made music until I was talking with a friend who mentioned their cousin was a producer.
I touched on Facebook groups above, but I want to expand on them a little bit because I think they’re one of the best ways to connect with other artists and perform collaborations.
With many of these groups, you can straight up ask if anyone wants to collab. Something like this will do:
I’m looking for someone to collaborate with me on a [insert genre] track. I’ve already got a basic idea (private Soundcloud link to the idea).
I’ve been producing for X years and use [Insert DAW of choice].
If you’re keen, please flick me a message.
To improve your chances, make yourself known in the group before posting something like this. Comment on posts, answer questions, provide feedback, and become part of the community.
Once people know who you are, ask to collaborate.
Soundcloud is a great way to find collaboration partners because you can immediately judge someone’s skill level (and also how big their reach is if that matters to you).
There’s no ideal strategy here. I’d recommend first looking through your followers. Listen to their music, and if there’s an artist you like, flick them a message on Soundcloud and Facebook (or email if they have one advertised) and start having a chat.
A final note
While I do think it’s a good idea to build the relationship first, if you want to collaborate straight away, you should.
In fact, if you haven’t done a collaboration before, this is exactly what I recommend. Don’t be afraid to ask people straight up if they want to collaborate— someone will say yes eventually.
The question most producers ask when it comes to workflow and collaboration is “how should the work be split?”
After all, if you’re the one doing most of the work, you feel like the project is more yours than theirs. If they’re the one doing most of the work, you feel guilty.
Before I run through some workflows you can use, please note that it’s impossible to split the work 50/50, and to attempt to do so is missing the point of collaboration.
Creativity and ideas can’t be quantified. If someone does 60% of the hours on a track, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve contributed 60% of the value, so don’t worry about trying to find an exact balance.
Local collaboration workflow
I would suggest that you don’t lay out a structure, at least initially, for local collaborations.
The reason being that there’s an incredible amount of spontaneity and creative buzz that exists when two or more producers are in the same room. You need an element of freedom, of carelessness, to play around and jam.
The same could be said for online collaboration, but as I’ll get to in a moment, that requires a little more structure.
So, at the start, don’t worry about how you’re going to manage or split up the work. Just come up with ideas together. Play around with stuff. Share thoughts. Laugh.
If you find midway through the project that things are becoming tense or messy, and you’re not getting much done, then a workflow may be necessary.
For local collaboration, I recommend splitting up the work by task (one person creates a melody, the next creates a chord progression and so forth). However, a better workflow can be the Couch & Operator workflow.
The Couch & Operator workflow
The couch & operator workflow sounds a bit stupid, but it’s an effective way to collaborate especially when one person is an “ideas” person while the other is more technically proficient or faster in the DAW.
It’s simple: one person is, more or less, hands-off: they’re listening attentively, sharing ideas, making suggestions and tweaks. The other person is doing the physical work: they’re implementing the ideas, making the tweaks, and so forth.
This is how a lot of music production happens at an elite level. I guarantee some of your favorite producers will hire people to actually do the legwork while they provide the creative input.
Note: You obviously don’t need to sit on a couch to do this. I recommend sitting in a chair right next to your collaboration partner (or for them to do so if you’re the technical person).
Online collaboration workflow
Online collaboration typically involves two people working on a project at different times rather than simultaneously. There’s less chance for serendipitous discovery.
As such, it’s a good idea to have a workflow in place from the beginning. Here are three workflows I recommend:
With the strengths workflow, the work is split up between each collaborator based on their strengths.
Let’s say you and I collaborated. I’m good at writing melodies and structuring a track for maximum tension and energy, but I fall short in the areas you excel in: mixing and sound design.
So we split up the work as follows:
- I begin by coming up with a melodic idea, which I send over to you for feedback. You make some suggestions, then I make some edits and add a chord progression underneath.
- The sounds I’m using are bland, so I hand the project over to you for a few days to work on the sound design. You might also add a drum section and bassline during this stage (the point is not to be rigidly structured but rather split up the processes on a macro-level).
- You hand the project back to me for structure and arrangement. Perhaps we have a Skype call during this stage to discuss ideas and make a few tweaks.
- I hand the project back over to you for final mixing.
By doing this, we’ve both leveraged our strengths. It would be silly for me to focus on the mixing and sound design while you write the melody and work on the arrangement. By not focusing on our strengths, it would do nothing but slow the process down.
But Sam, shouldn’t I focus on improving my weaknesses?
Only to a certain point. Music production is too large a field to become good at every facet. After all, some people devote their whole lives to studying the nature of synthesis, which is merely one component of sound design, which is one component of music production. Get your weaknesses up to a reasonable standard where they don’t inhibit your music, but don’t try to become great at everything.
One important thing to consider when following this workflow is that you and your partner must be upfront about your skills. Typically your existing music will showcase your skills—it might be well composed but badly mixed—but it’s important that you let each other know what you think your strengths and weak- nesses are so the work can be split up effectively.
It’s also important to not fall into the trap of closing yourself off from your part- ner. It’s easy to assume that because your strength is writing melodies and your partner’s strength is mixing, that you shouldn’t come to him for his thoughts on the melody you’ve written for the song. Always ask what he or she thinks. Just because someone can’t write a great melody, it doesn’t mean they don’t know what a great melody sounds like.
Linear split workflow
If you and your collaboration partner are fairly well matched in terms of strengths and weaknesses, and you’re up for a challenge, then I recommend splitting the work in a linear fashion.
It’s simple: you work through the track, left to right, part-by-part.
Again, if you and I were to collaborate, I might work on the first 32 bars, then you might take what I’ve done and written a 16 bar breakdown before handing it back to me to work on the first chorus.
This workflow is challenging, but it’s also a great way to promote creativity. Why? Because obviously the ideas that enter your head after listening to the 32 bar intro I’ve made will be different from the ideas I hear in my head. You might take the track in a better or simply different direction than I was imagining, and then when you send it back, I hear something different than where you were thinking of taking it.
This sounds nice in theory, and it is when it works, but this disparity between vision and ideas can lead to a lot of frustration. It’s important that you and your collaboration partner are open to change, especially in the early stages of the track.
Later on during the project, it becomes necessary to communicate and start working on it together instead of part-by-part. Different ideas and directions are helpful during the beginning stages, but harmful closer to the end of the project where the vision is clear.
The task-based workflow is effective because it leverages cloud technologies (Splice, Dropbox) that allow us to work on the same project with ease (not having to send large files back and forth).
You both work on the project in parallel, making tweaks and adjustments where needed.
For example, your partner sketches out a basic arrangement. You like it, but you feel that a few changes should be made, so you tell your partner you’re going to make those changes. You save as a new version after making the necessary changes, your partner likes most of them apart from a few, so he/she tweaks accordingly.
If you wanted to take this approach one step further, you could create a task list. It could be a shared Google Doc where you write down what you think needs to be added or changed. You and your partner can go through and tick off the items.
Some people dislike this overly structured way of working, but it can come in handy when it’s crunch time.
Another simple task: Find a collaboration partner.
You’ve read up on collaboration, its benefits, and how to do it well. Now it’s time to actually collaborate with someone.
I’ve already given you some tips for finding collaboration partners, so put ‘em into action!
Collaboration can multiply your growth as a producer – it’s no secret. But you need to nail your workflow as a whole in order to make better music.
If you want to do exactly that, check out our book: The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity