Creating Computer Music

A while back I wrote a blog post describing 6 lessons I learned about creating and distributing music on the internet. More than one person wrote me to say they were disappointed that the lessons didn’t touch upon the process for actually creating electronic music. So now that I’m back on vacation and had some time to ruminate, I’m going to try to jot down a few things I’ve learned about creating computer music. Please bear in mind these lessons are deeply rooted in personal opinion.

1. Pick a Tool and learn it.

All music creation software is going to have strengths and weaknesses. All the major sequencers – Live, Cubase, Sonar, Fruityloops, Reason, etc – have a huge group of loyalists and detractors. The reality, especially when you are just getting started, is that it doesn’t matter much which tool you pick. They all provide the basic functionality required to create music. What really matters is that you spend a lot of time learning the software inside out. They are all extremely powerful and versatile tools, full of innovation and nuances. It will take a lot of work to understand how to bend a sequencer to your will. Discover its limitations, and learn how to work around them. Amazing music has been created on all of them, so you know that it’s possible for you to do it too.

2. Don’t become a collector of software

I’ve discovered that I’m much more productive when I have limited resources. Don’t become a collector of sequencers and synth plugins. It’s so easy in this day and age to either download tons of freeware software or steal commercial software. Buy a sequencer, and play with the built in synths for a while. There are “lite” versions of all major software, and if you are just getting started with computer music the “lite” version will provide you with ample functionality. If you spend your hard earned cash on software, you’ll be more inclined to use it to its maximum potential.

Try not to go on a buying spree of synth plugins, because you’ll never dive deep into the potential of the plugins. It takes time to just become familiar with the presets of a synth. I’ve definitely gone on some synth buying benders, and became much less productive as a result. It’s great to have powerful tools at your disposal, but you need to be familiar enough with your tools to know when to actually use it.

3. Learn the foundations of electronic music

I think it’s extremely important to understand the basics of analog and digital synthesis. Even if you are planning on just using synth presets (as I do for the most part), you’ll want to know how to tweak a patch so it sounds just the way you want them to. I was lucky enough to attend Oberlin college where they offered advanced curriculum in electronic music. Everything essential I learned in the first semester: How to construct sounds on a analog synth, how to build patches on a sampler, how to route and modulate the sound signal, etc.

I think Reason is the perfect software to learn all these concepts on. The software is built just like a giant modular studio, where all the components and the way your tie them together mirror their real life equivalents.

4. Finish a Song

Not long after you get started, you’ll start creating little song snippets that you enjoy playing with. Eventually you’ll flush some of them out so that you have really awesome little song snippets. The real challenge is to create a full song from a song snippet. This is a daunting and often elusive task. So my advice is make a full song out of that snippet, even if it’s  crappy and super repetitive.  It just needs to have a beginning and an end.

The sooner you are confident that you can create a whole song, the sooner you’ll build the confidence that you can do it again. Otherwise you’ll be spinning your wheels indefinitely on lots of little song snippets.  Once you have a complete song, you can always improve it. So . . .

5. Improve your songs

Find a good set of critics. People who you can listen to and take criticism from. It’s important to learn how to take negative feedback. You don’t always have to agree, but an objective set of ears often has a lot of value.  Learn to differentiate from constructive criticism and mean spirited bashing. Its much easier to be a critic than a creator. All artists must learn to grow a thick skin, because almost everyone who is not you doesn’t appreciate your art.

Most listeners attention span is very short, so learn to trim the fat from your music. I’m always going back through completed tracks and finding measures which I can delete. It can be difficult to throw away some of your brilliant output, but songs are usually stronger when there’s less filler and more substance.

I personally can’t stand repetition in electronic music. I’m always looking to make variations in tracks so that it never feels like its constructed on repeated loops. I like to either create slight variations in note patterns or automate filters to keep repetitive parts interesting to my ears.

On the flip side, I’ve also learned to not over obsess over the details in a song. I self master all my own music, which is a huge, painstaking effort. I know a professional would do a much better job than I do, but the process of mastering a song usually reveals mistakes in the mix. At some undefinable point during this process the returns from tweaking a song starts diminishing. When a song sounds pretty much the way I want it to, it’s time to move on.   

6. Iteration

I’ve discovered that I work best by iterating through songs. After finishing an album, I’ll start from scratch. First I’ll create a new song. I’ll work on it a little bit. As soon as I start to become frustrated with it, I’ll create a new one. When the second song becomes less fun, I’ll go back to the first song. If no inspiration hits, I’ll return the second song. If nothing there, I’ll start a third song. And so forth. Always iterating through the songs, starting from the first one. I’m not super strict about this, but generally adhere to it.

After I have four or five songs that I’m working on, I’ll start filtering the tracks. I’ll listen to each one and put them in one of three folders – “likely”, “maybe”, “unlikely”. I’ll inevitable only work on the songs in the “likely” folder. And I’ll iterate through those tracks, creating new ones when I’m frustrated with the ones I’m working on, and when I have enough tracks I’ll filter them again. And so forth.

I used to not do this. I’d bang my head against a song until I couldn’t take it anymore, and would often be in a dark mood until I’ll could push through. I’ve learned that if I’m working on a bunch of songs simultaneously, I’m much fresher to the material when I revisit it. I know this advice seems to contradict with the “finish a song” statement – but there’s a big difference to having a whole song mapped out and from it being done. I also have the confidence that I’ll finish a song cause I’ve done it almost a hundred times. It took a long time to build that confidence.

Since it doesn’t cost anything to keep the songs from the other folders around, you don’t have to throw them away. One day they may become handy where you need a section for a song that you are working on. I often construct songs by taking two song snippets and figuring out how to seamlessly meld them together. I enjoy the challenge by taking two unrelated songs and figuring out how to blend them together. A good example of this is “starry” – the A and B sections were two unrelated song snippets. I massaged the B snippet to be in a related key to the A snippet, and eventually fused them together. Booyeah.

7. Frustration is part of the process

Great art always takes great amounts of work. I’ve now finished five albums, and what I’ve learned is that the pain and suffering you endure to create your music is what makes it so good. It’s the curse of having high standards.

I’m always working so hard to finish an album, but after it done, I become a little lost. If you are playing lots of gigs to support your music there’s lots to look forward to, but if you are mostly a composer like myself, it can be a big letdown. I’m starting to appreciate the process more than the end product. As I’ve gotten older I’m starting to grasp that life is about the journey, not the destination.  Don’t rush the process. Without frustration there would be no fulfillment.

8. Collaborate

The advantages of computer music over a band is that you are in complete control of everything. The disadvantage is that you often get so stuck inside your own head that the music never evolves. To grow as a musician, you have to play with other musicians. Computer music is often a solitary art form. I think its important to find some other people that you can collaborate on tracks with. To work with a someone who has a different perspective or skill set is always a learning opportunity. I believe if  you find the right musical partner(s), 1 + 1 = 3.  As soon as I started using Live (instead of Reason), I started working with other musicians, and it propelled my music way farther than I could have taken it alone.

9. Dissect music that inspires you

Start picking apart the songs that you love. Learn how to play their melodies. Figure out what the chords progressions are, which can often be derived from the bass lines. Count out the rhythms. Make a .wav file of the song so that you can import the song in your sequencer. Then you can loop parts, even slow them down, until you understand how they are constructed.

First focus your attention on all the sounds that are at the front of the mix. After a while, tune those sounds out and listen to all the subtle sounds in the back of the mix. You want to learn to be able to focus on song and hear individual tracks in a mix. It takes lots of practice and concentration.

When I run across music that truly inspires me, I usually go through a couple phases. Soon after the joy of discovering such amazing art wears off, I’ll get depressed, because I’ll never be that talented. This is closely followed by jealousy. Eventually, maybe a couple days later, I’ll be able to celebrate it again. Ok, so I’m moody. Be glad we’re not married.

There are always going to be people who are more talented than you are. That doesn’t mean that your art has no value. Use the people who inspire you as teachers. Or break into their house and set their couch on fire. Your choice.

My approach to composition

I’m an improviser at heart. I’ll just hit the record button and jam with myself on a piano or rhodes until I hit upon an idea that might be worth revisiting. Then I’ll play around with the idea until its time to re-record it with a metronome to determine its actual rhythm and tempo. This will be the starting point for my new song. Then I’ll start flushing out this idea a little bit. Sometimes this initial idea, which is the launching point for my new song, will be removed along the way.

The way I compose music is akin to chipping away at a block of stone to create a statue. I tend to mold rough ideas into fully fleshed out song segments. I go over parts endlessly, tweaking this and that until it achieves the sheen that I want. I don’t often know what the end goal is, but I have the confidence that a good idea will eventually blossom into it’s potential. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but I can usually tell when an idea is worth pursuing.

In conclusion

I like pudding. One day I’d like to bathe in it. What a glorious day that will be.

I also like comments. Feel free to leave me feedback so I can learn how you resonate with my perspectives.



26 comments

dw » 26 May 2009 » Reply

Some good tips you’ve got there.

Thanks,

dw

Koush » 27 May 2009 » Reply

Wholeheartedly agree to points 1 and 2. I think it’s the abundance of resources that keeps us (well, at least me!) from really learning a software end to end. By the time I download a plugin and take it’s presets for a spin, another shiny new one catches my eye.

I’m now off reading the manual of the stuff I own! Thanks for the advice.

bduffy » 27 May 2009 » Reply

Great article, Generalfuzz! I was kind of surprised to find that each and every number is a problem that I face in my day-to-day music making, and that alone is encouraging. You’ve posed some elegant and simple solutions to the challenges we face. Thanks so much! Great work!

flur » 27 May 2009 » Reply

great article.
i actually will try this two-snippet-blending-thing soon.
it´s very honest what you wrote about frustration/jealousy. and it´s so true. 😉

cheers

flur » 27 May 2009 » Reply

i just downloaded your “soulful filling” album and am listening to it right now.
i´m blown away from all the subtle sounds in the first track. your music is amazing.

KeyOfGrey » 27 May 2009 » Reply

Great tips. I often fall into the trap of downloading tonnes of samples and synths. Thankfully I usually catch myself in time, and get back to actual music creating.

Kial » 28 May 2009 » Reply

even for someone that has been making computer music for a decade this is a great list. you really hit on some points that I can identify with.

Starry is sweet and chill….Nice work!

pvision » 28 May 2009 » Reply

Pudding!

Draconum » 29 May 2009 » Reply

I think it is important to note that using the same software forever can lead down a path where you are constantly doing the same things. You make a lot of habits. This can be good if you are only interested in making one kind of music, but if you want to expand your horizons a bit and try making something you’ve never made before, sometimes staring at the same gray grid can be an inspiration-killer (I say this as a user of FLStudio for roughly 6 years). The upside, of course, is that knowing your software means you spend less time figuring things out, but sometimes having to figure out how to do something causes you to do it in a new way you wouldn’t have otherwise :)

I just switched to a ReNoise/Ableton combo (compose loops/patterns in ReNoise, export to WAV and import into Ableton for sequencing) after having used FL for years. It’s a bit of a step backward for the moment in terms of productivity, but it is causing me to do things in ways I didn’t think to do them before.

pneuman » 2 Jun 2009 » Reply

Thanks for this post — I’m just getting back in to producing my own music again (for the first time since high school), and I’m sure that your suggestions are going to come in handy. I also grabbed your “soulful filling” album, and I’m really enjoying it, so thanks for that too!

I can really relate to the post that you linked at the top of this one as well. I’ve been throwing links to my latest track at everyone I can, and I have to learn not to get too offended if they don’t bother to download it or give me feedback :)

Sonixphere » 2 Jun 2009 » Reply

Great words of wisdom! I have been looking for something like this for a while. Not too many musicians take the time to help out the ‘little guys’! By that I mean ‘beginners’. Thanks so much for putting this out there! I have a lot to work on especially the finishing a song and iteration part so I think I’ll just get right to it!!

dot tilde dot » 2 Jun 2009 » Reply

another point from me:

always save versions when making a pivotal decision. start by saving as “song-name-01”, so that more than ten version files will sort nicely.

somebody told me once to never use an eraser when composing with pen and paper, but to strike out mistakes and write the whole bar(s) again. he had a point.

thanks for the writeup.

.~.

puffer » 4 Jun 2009 » Reply

GF, Thanks for this. Great as always.

I’ll add this: Set up your “studio”, whether it is in its own room just a laptop, to be ready to go. Templates, effect chains, sample drives fully organized. check your cables, clean up your workspace, get rid of equipment or software you never/rarely use. Get a patchbay if you have outboard. When you sit down to make music, it’s better to go 0 to 60 in a minute or two rather than putzing around setting stuff up, searching for something you need, plugging and re-plugging cable.

monster under bed » 5 Jun 2009 » Reply

Great list, and good comments. I’ve experienced almost every one of these items but reading them in this clear concise manner is interesting and encouraging.

I did #1 and went from Fruity Loops to occasional light Ableton use and Cubase for multitrack recording. I could learn a lot from exploring one more thoroughly.

I am definitely guilty of #2. In 2004/2005 I was the epitome of this, and although I recorded one CD afterwards, approximately my 6th or so in almost 20 years, since then I’ve felt overwhelmed with the modern technology and limitless possibilities (and VSTs), and spend most of my time at the acoustic piano. I’m hoping to return for some more electronic stuff soon.

#4, 5, 6 gave me the most new things to think about.

So thanks!

Jim P » 8 Jun 2009 » Reply

A lot of your suggestions translate to the world of writing as well, suggestions of process. You may have missed one. For writers, that would be reading other’s works. For musicians, I’ll bet it’s important to be listening as well. Especially between projects.

Krishna » 24 Aug 2009 » Reply

Thanks for this post!! It’s such a relief to know that we all go through more or less the same process from utter frustration to sheer fulfillment and that feeling worthless, lazy and frustrated is all OK! 😀
Also, I will remember to stick around with one software long enough to be able to understand what it can and cannot do.
Lovely post. And great track- starry night.

XOXO,
Krishna

jim » 21 Sep 2010 » Reply

You’re such a wonderful person. thanks a lot 4 those amazing tips and music.

Baristha » 2 Mar 2011 » Reply

I like pudding too….really …your choice is great….

Dustrick » 20 May 2011 » Reply

Hey, cool. I think I remember hearing from somewhere…maybe just Pandora. In that past year I have won a 1st gen iPad and just a few months ago, they came out with GarageBand for iPad! I have since created at least 4 songs that I am really happy with and have posted them to YouTube. Just a few days ago, I got an upset comment from a person with a similar name to mine, “Dustrickx”. He went on about how he was a mix of this and that and that he’d been using the name for 10 years. I replied telling him that I’ve been using MY name for FIFTEEN years and that I have seen a few others with the exact same spelling and have not gotten upset at them. NEVERMIND THE RAMBLING, sorry, HAHAHA! Thank you for the tips, they will definitely come in handy.

Zoë Blade » 17 Apr 2012 » Reply

Good advice, thanks! It applies to hardware just as much as software, too. There’s a big difference between being a synth collector and an actual musician, and it requires reminding yourself every now and then which one you are. :)

Mickey Karbal » 17 Apr 2012 » Reply

Great Great article… Your Dissect music section nailed it in my opinion. I am quite moody as well, but then a week later i will probably be happy again. Thanks for the article

Mickey Karbal » 17 Apr 2012 » Reply

@Draconum
I hear that… Been on FL for about 5 or 6 years too, but i disagree… I think i can make new sounds and different styles of music daily… I do agree that FL is limiting me in certain aspects that say, reason or ableton would not… I plan on switching over this summer, but overall i think knowing the in’s and out’s of a program, and using it for years does not necessarily limit your style

Shawn » 10 Mar 2013 » Reply

This is an awesome and very well detailed article touching on subjects that are barely touched yet are so important and crucial. Thank you very much and I love your site. I found out about you from a HTML5 audio visualization project on Firefox.

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