Music Production Musings 3

Unlike the last two “lessons” post, there is no unifying theme to these ideas. These are just random thoughts that I jotted down over the last year while I was working on tunes. Hopefully you can find something useful in one of these savory thought nuggets.

1. Instant inspiration

When I need to work on something fresh, I’ll take a song that has already been somewhat fleshed out and start a new unrelated song section using the same set of plugins. I might keep a drum part or bass line from the original song to use as an anchor, and I’ll try and build something new in one or two sittings. Since I’m “restricted” to the plugins already in the track, I’ll spend no time patch/plugin hunting. The entire time I’ll just be writing music. It’s most often a cathartic exercise, and occasionally I’ll write something worth keeping. I could either fold this new part back into the original song, or use it independently.

2. Focused song writing

When I’m trying to write a new melody line for a tune, I’ll create a loop in a song section and start jamming. As soon as I play something interesting I’ll stop recording and drop whatever I just played in the section. I’ll tidy up the bad notes and off rhythm, and then play around with the notes in the midi editor. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m an abuser of quantize. I used to just jam on the loop for like 20 minutes and then scrub through the entire recording until I found the interesting ideas. This new approach is way more efficient way to make progress on a song (though maybe not as fun as the endless jam approach). I may do several passes in a section to see if I can create a few different melodies, but I often stick with my first idea and move on.

3. Fermenting

As of late, I’m letting finished songs sit idle for long periods of time – like 6 months to a year – before revisiting them. Then I’ll have fresh ears, and am much more willing to modify (and hopefully improve) the song. Similarly, it’s fun to go through unfinished songs that I haven’t looked at in a while and re-evaluate then. Often I find a single section in one of these songs that I think is strong, and throw the rest of it away. I might try to meld this section with other cannibalized song sections. I love the challenge of trying to connect two unrelated song sections together – transposing sections to related keys and trying to find a way to make interesting transitions from one section to another.

4. The hustle

The vast majority of opportunities for your art are not handed to you on a silver platter. When there’s a musician I want to rope into playing on a track, a producer that I really want to meet, or whatever – I find a way to make the connection happen. It’s showing up to gigs early or staying late after a show to make an introduction. It’s knowing when a person of interest is going to be at a place and finding them. It requires good timing, confidence, humility, and friendliness. Like anything important, there’s the risk of failure. In the long run, you rarely regret trying, where you will almost always regret not trying.

5. The whole story behind the music

I recently had a recording session with a violin player that I thought went really well. Upon reviewing the material, I found that I wasn’t happy with the way things were recorded – the phrasing and dynamics of the recorded parts didn’t sit well with me. I initially got depressed since I thought I had wasted my time. Later, I remembered that the recording session was necessary to clarify what I wanted the violin parts to sound like. I’m confident that during subsequent sessions, I’ll record the parts the way I want them. I’ve been through this experience many times. It just takes a lot of time and patience. Listeners to my music have no idea how many failures and changes I made to these songs before they hear them. Moreover, they don’t care (and I don’t blame them), much like you don’t care about the many edits I made to this post. Looking back, I don’t remember the painstaking hours I spent obsessively tweaking my tracks.

6. Letting tunes ferment

When I released my last album (Soulful Filling), it was the first time I had no lingering doubts about a release. Almost two years later, I still feel the same way, which is sort of astonishing. I know I’m not going to be able to do it with every release going forward, but I now know it’s a goal worth pursuing. Currently I have a dozen or so tracks taking shape with a similar enough vibe, so I started mentally assembling the track order of a new album. When I looked at what would comprise the next album, I knew that I wasn’t going to feel as good about it as I had about Soulful Filling. So I removed any tracks that I had doubts about from the track list. I can always release them as bonus tracks. Of course this advice could easily be taken too far. There’s no need to be paralyzed by quest for perfection. The goal of an artist is to constantly grow and improve – so I’m not hoping that this next album is the best album I’ll ever release. My goal is to release something that I believe I will have few regrets about a couple years later. Set your bar high, but not out of reach.

7. Making progress

Previously, I mentioned that I always iterate through tracks to reduce frustration. Another thing to add to that is that when I open a track, I always try to either add or modify something before closing it. This helps me feel like I’m moving it forward, even if I abandon it later. Unless I’m really in the zone working on a song, a music session will last about 20-60 minutes (my free time is pretty limited these days anyways). I’m pecking away at these tunes, but I don’t care. I used to get so lost in my obsession to produce music that I forget I make music because its fun and emotionally fulfilling. Its important to not to lose sight of this.

8. Self mastering

I’ve self mastered all 5 of my albums. I am by no means a mastering jedi – infact, I’m quite an amateur, with almost zero training in the subject. I sent out my second album to get mastered and was totally unsatisfied with the result, so I figured it would be better if I just did it myself. Its a terribly painful and tedious process, and I’m not very good at it either. The best thing about mastering your own tunes is that I inevitably always find mistakes in the mix along the way. This is invaluable. So even if I send out my next album to get mastered by someone who knows what they’re doing, I will always do a first pass so that I can hopefully identify all the mistakes in the mix.

9. Ableton Live

Little magical musical accidents sometimes occur in Ableton Live. As soon as I have a set of clips that are working well together, I lay them out in the arrangement view. I’ll create a loop for this section in the arrangement view, and then add new parts back in the session view. By default, the last clip recorded in live will playback when I hit play in the arrangement view. When I move to a different section of a song, the last thing I recorded will automatically (and non-intentionally) play in the new section. Occasionally it will sound inspiring (though never spot on). So I’ll investigate, reorganize the melody and rhythm of the clip so it works in the new section, and BAM, new unintentional part to the song that may even help connect two sections together.

Please let me know if you found any of these useful, or if this post reminded you of other lessons you’ve learned along the way. . .


Gavin Brown (Stargame) » 19 Dec 2010 » Reply

Well, I’ll say that I really enjoy your advice for music things. I usually check your blog two or three times a month, and I really like hearing about your child, family, and the like. It makes me happy to see that marriage still has value in this day and age, and to me, you are a good (if not a great) example to many of the value of marriage. I love hearing about your experiences with your wife, and I’m really grateful to see that you two are happy, even despite every difficulty that you face. I’m impressed by your love for each other, and I was especially grateful for your story concerning your wife’s childbirth. You are really quite a good writer, and it was a beautiful, wonderful thing.

But I’m getting sidetracked. A lot of this is really, really comforting for me to read, because I’m a little alone where I live, musically speaking. I don’t know any other people where I am who have skills with electronic music, and I grew into music with a best friend of mine, who I now live about a thousand miles away from. So I sometimes get discouraged by the difficult things with music. I get discouraged about making music when I think “I’ll only have an hour to work on this.” I’m doing what I can to fill my daily schedule as much as I can, and I’m not fully used to working on music for only an hour a day or so. I get so discouraged by this that I’ve left songs on my computer for months without touching any sort of music. I can totally get what you mean by mastering xD I really have a hard time doing that myself, and I’m only just learning how to do it. It’s comforting to see that someone else has these problems, and either knows how to deal with them, or learns how to get past them.

I’ve learned a fair number of lessons about making music that have helped me in the five years that I’ve been composing (though I still have a lot to learn), but I can’t seem to think of any right this instant. Probably the most useful thing I’ve learned is to have patience. There has been many a song that was turning out great, but I got discouraged by the difficulty of working on certain aspects of the song, and stopped working on it, leaving it as a beta song. I’ve had this happen with a number of songs that could have been great, and I almost always regret stopping work on it. The difficult parts can always be fixed, even if it seems like they can’t. All it takes is a little bit of patience, and a willingness to work on the track everyday. I think I need to take your advice on picking at the song everyday. That would help me quite a lot. Thank you very much, General.

Will Godfrey » 22 Oct 2011 » Reply

One thing I’ve learned about inspiration is that it can often come at 3am, so I have my kit set up for ‘instant-on’ to a basic recording setup. A cheap voice recorder by your bedside is a good idea too!

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