This is a guest post from Will Darling. Download his free “speed learning” checklist here.
Getting good at anything takes time and effort, and music production is no different.
But it’s not just about the amount of hours you spend making music. It’s what you do during those hours that matters.
We’ve all heard it from our parents or teachers: “Work hard and you’ll achieve your goals”. It sounds noble, but that statement is only a half-truth: The hard work has to be smart work.
Hard work without intelligent, deliberate direction doesn’t just keep you where you are – it’s actually worse than that. It saps you of energy, passion, enthusiasm and your most precious resource – time. This means that learning fast is not only preferable, it’s actually essential, because if we stagnate in our skills we’re more likely to become dispirited and give up.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips for shaving time off your music production learning curve:
#1 – Stay humble, stay hungry
This is the motherlode, baby. It’s the overarching mindset for becoming a better producer that underpins all the others.
You have to have a burning desire to get better. You also need to be super-critical of your own work, be brutally objective about it, and commit to constant improvement. This isn’t the same as perfectionism, however, which can stop you from ever finishing tracks (hint: perfection isn’t possible) – It just means a commitment to making each track better than the last.
What works for me is to imagine a future that really excites me, write down inspiring, motivating goals, review them daily, work towards them and surround myself with ambitious people and friends that support my goals. I used to be an apathetic person, but learning and practising that overarching technique changed my life for the better, as well as my production skills.
Staying humble (open to learning), and hungry (eager to learn and improve) is the basis for rapid improvement.
#2 – Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is what’s needed to make the most of your time producing music. It involves working out exactly which of your skills is the bottleneck in your music, and focussing relentlessly on improving that skill.
This can be hard to do on your own. We often don’t know where we’re lacking (as we don’t have the experience). This is where external feedback is important (ideally from mentors with more skill than us).
It’s very tempting to stick to what we’re good at because it’s easy and enjoyable, and music production is full of these little plateaux: You get good at programming drums, so you focus on that because you enjoy it (meanwhile, your melody-writing sucks), or you’re good at writing melodies, so you neglect your mixing skills because coming up with riffs and harmonies is easy (and fun).
I’ve done it before –and still do it to this day until I catch myself – but in the long-term it leads to stagnation, which leads to discouragement as improvement grinds to a halt. Not fun.
#3 – Network
Getting out there and meeting other like-minded people (or even making contact online) will expose you to new ideas, potential mentors, potential studio partners, and a whole world of possibilities that sitting in front of your DAW just won’t afford you.
The best option I’ve found is to attend industry events…you get the chance to meet other people learning about music production, BUT you also get to meet experts and professionals face to face, or sit in on masterclass lessons. On a more frequent, local level, if you live in a town or city, there might be existing groups that you can meet-up with.
If you live out in the countryside (like me), actively reaching out to people online in Facebook groups, subreddits (like https://www.reddit.com/r/edmproduction/), or email can be a great way to forge new friendships. Read blogs and engage in the comments.
#4 – Find a mentor
Imagine two people in a swimming pool. The first is treading water – furiously paddling to stay afloat and learning how to swim from scratch, expending loads of energy and getting no closer to the other end of the pool. The second has a coach, shouting out instructions and corrections from the side, and before you know it he has swum three lengths of the pool in front-crawl, using the same time and energy as the first guy. They’ve both worked just as hard, but the second guy has swum three lengths of the pool whilst the first is still flailing around in the same spot. The second guy has also improved as a swimmer.
Who’s more likely to get dispirited and give up on his passion: Guy 1 or guy 2?
Exactly. This is why finding a mentor is the jet-fuel in reducing your learning curve.
Books and podcasts are one useful form of mentorship, but they lack the personal feedback required to help determine where improvement is needed (see: deliberate practice). That is why “in-person” mentorship is undoubtedly the best, but the second best is taking part in an online course with feedback built into it (check out Workflow Foundations). With a course you also get the added benefit of a supportive community which one-on-one mentorship generally lacks.
John Lavido recently wrote a post that has some great advice for finding a mentor…check it out here.
#5 – Develop your mindset
Not only should you educate yourself in music production, you should also take the time to upgrade your thinking in general. If your music production skills are like an app, then your mindset is the operating system that the app runs on. We all like to think we know how life works, but in my experience, the second we think we’ve got it figured out we’re in dangerous territory. This goes back to the “staying humble” point. Developing new ways of thinking gives us many benefits, such as:
- An ability to receive (and give) criticism without making it personal
- Confidence in seeking mentors
- New ideas for music production
…and countless others.
I’m a pretty busy person, and day-to-day don’t have much time for reading, but I’ve built a system that helps me (see Point 9): I wake up when my girlfriend does, and she goes and has a shower. I then read a mindset book for 15 minutes ’til it’s my turn for the shower. Not only that, but I listen to podcasts whilst I’m doing other, mundane tasks (walking to the shops, cooking, etc.).
#6 – Analyze music you love
You may have heard the term “standing on the shoulders of giants”? Well, you should definitely do that! Analyse the elements of what makes the music you love so good, and apply those techniques to your own music. Better still, try to recreate a track you love! When you’ve learned what works (and determined why it works), you can then shake things up and add your own twists.
Listen to your favourite producers and compare your music side-by-side. Don’t feel bad about not hitting the mark early on. Understand that sucking is an essential part of excelling and that even your favourite producers were once at the level you are now.
How to: I bring in the song I’m going to analyse into Ableton, match the tempo of the project to the song, then create blank channels for each element, looping the busiest part of the tune and slowly picking it apart. I then label each track I’ve created, and split the clips up into different sections (labelling then “intro”, “break”, “drop”, etc. Here is an example of a track analysis.
#7 – Stimulate your mind elsewhere
Focusing too much on one subject day in/day out will lead to burnout. It’s an ineffective way to learn.
If you’ve had a really good, focused and productive deep learning session, switch to another area of life. If you break apart the word “recreation”, you’ll see it’s literally “re” and “creation”; it recharges the creative batteries so you’re next session can be as effective as possible. Slogging away for hours and hours is rarely a way to learn faster.
Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule; you might be absolutely on fire and should roll with it, but it’s easy for effectiveness to rapidly drop if we focus for too long at a time.
#8 – Focus—remove distractions
It’s a nice idea, but in this world of electronic devices created specifically to keep you distracted (iPhone, anyone?), this can be harder than just closing the door and getting to work. Not only is your smartphone out to grab your attention, but the device you actually use to produce music on (i.e. your computer) is also a distraction-machine.
Deep learning requires full attention, and nothing will get you out of the zone faster than the “ting” of a new message, or the chime of a new email.
Rationing your time and setting deadlines can also help you focus: You may or may not have heard of Parkinson’s law, but it basically states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can achieve when on a tight deadline.
How to: There are a few practical things you can do to help your cause. I recommend a Chrome extension called “Facebook Newsfeed eradicator”. It turns off your Facebook news feed, but still allows you to post. I also use a free desktop app on my Mac called “SelfControl”, that allows me to block access to websites of my choice for a predetermined amount of time. I generally set it to block Facebook and Twitter for a two-hour stint, so I’m not tempted to procrastinate.
In terms of my smartphone, I set it to “do-not-disturb”, and also set a timer for the amount of time I’ll be producing for, so I don’t even need to keep checking the clock. Sometimes I’ll also set my computer to “do-not-disturb”, meaning I don’t get reminders or calendar notifications (note: Remember to turn off “do-not-disturb” at the end of your session! I’ve missed some important emails and calls by failing to do this).
#9 – Use systems (rather than willpower)
Willpower is overrated. Help yourself by building systems that will support your goals and learning habits. There are a few options when it comes to building systems to help learn.
Here are a few:
- Use a calendar. Pre-plan and commit to time being spent learning, or time spent with a mentor. Yes, sometimes you’ll have to be flexible, but it’s a good base to start from. If someone else is relying on you, this can help too.
- Produce music in a place where there are fewer distractions. The best music production work (and learning) I’ve ever got done is in the local library! I can’t make tea, can’t watch Netflix (against their internet-usage policy), so it’s a system that accounts for my lack of willpower.
- Use alarms. On two days of the week, I have an alarm set-up for 6am; an hour earlier than usual. This is to write. I have my laptop waiting in the other room, and all I have to do is stumble in there and get cracking. I don’t think about it because I’ve already got the system set-up to help me.
As a current example, I’m writing an 5-track E.P with a singer at the moment. He’s busy and I’m busy, but we’ve pre-committed to meeting every Wednesday afternoon for the next few months to get it finished by December 1st. The goal is there, the time and place is agreed, and we both have our calendars blocked out at that time each week.
#10 – Music theory
Learning a bit of music theory is not to be underestimated. It might seem that it’s not as important for EDM producers as other musicians, and – whilst there is an element of truth to this (i.e. you CAN produce good tracks without a knowledge of music theory) – it’ll most likely take a lot longer, be a case of hit & miss, or you’ll be restricted to using pre-made sample loops. Either way, your ability to compose will be greatly limited.
There are a lot of good quality music theory courses on the internet you can take that will really help. I’m currently developing one specifically for electronic dance music producers (to be launched in June), which you can find out more about here.
There you have it! 10 tips for shaving the time off your learning curve. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, getting good at music production does take time (luckily it’s fun!), but implementing these ideas can seriously reduce the time it takes to produce professional quality music.
Download my free speed-learning checklist below, keep it close to hand, and refer it to it whenever you find yourself stuck in your progress: