Music production is a skill that takes time and practice to hone. It is a difficult process that requires a holistic approach to learning. With the right attitude it can reap great rewards, both creatively and financially. It is easy to sit down in front of the computer and put together some beats, but taking it to the next level requires time and effort. We have compiled some simple ways to improve yourself as a producer and make better music, that will apply to both beginners and pros alike.
1. Learn Some Music Theory
Although it can seem quite daunting, having a grasp of even the fundamentals of music theory can greatly enhance your compositions. Understanding the basics of tempo, time signatures, different keys, major/ minor chords, chord progressions etc, will make you a more effective in translating your ideas into music.
You don’t need to be able to read sheet music, but an understanding of these principles, and how they are applied within your DAW, will help in making composition both easier and more informed. Even something as simple as recognizing what key your music is in will advise you in other aspects of production, like drum tuning and EQ.
There are lots of tools within most DAWs that will immediately become more useful with a fundamental understanding of music theory, particularly in the case of Ableton users, like midi effects. It is also true that having a knowledge of how something is ‘traditionally’ written will give you a platform from which to do it ‘differently’.
2. Get The Right Equipment
Apparently everybody needs a 303. As much as I would like to agree with this, it’s not true. Buy the gear that is right for the music you want to create, and more importantly for you. There is no point in sinking money into a Korg MS20 if you have no intention of learning any synthesis. You wouldn’t buy a guitar if you weren’t going to learn how to play it. This money could be better spent on something that is useful to you.
Work from the essentials up. If you are going to be DAW based then make sure you have a computer, a DAW and some way to listen to the music you are creating, be that an interface with a set of monitors, or simply headphones. Seems obvious I know, but you would be surprised. If you feel you are improving and you can afford it, then upgrade or expand your studio. You could have everything listed on Vintage Synth Explorer, yet without any way to record or even output the sounds they make, there is no point in having them (unless it is an investment, but that is something completely different).
It is important once you purchase equipment that you learn how to use it, again this may seem obvious to most, but you will find some people do assume that purchasing new gear will result in better music productions with no work involved. Find out if the new sound you want to create is achievable utilising your existing gear and find out the limitations of each piece of equipment before making an upgrade. This may come across as a way to save money but, in the long run, an in-depth understanding of what each piece of equipment you buy (or potentially buy) can and cannot do will make you a better producer.
3. Analyze Music You Like
You like certain tracks for a reason. Try to identify what these reasons are, both musically and from a production perspective. What makes this music interesting and how can you apply these techniques to your music. This is not copying, it’s called inspiration. Everything in the arts is in some way derivative so don’t let it hold you back. As you progress in your understanding of music theory and develop as a producer you will take more and more from the work of others.
Spend time working out how artists create the sounds that make their music interesting, what production techniques they use and why. It is important when analysing the music of others to always ask ‘why?’. Understanding why other people do what they do will make these thing useful and applicable to your own music.
4. Think Like A Band, Less Is More
There is a reason why the four piece band is such a popular set up. It works. Drums, Bass, Guitar, Vocals, or something to that effect. Try to apply this configuration of instruments to your compositions and you will find that you will firstly be forced to write better parts for each instrument, but you will make the mixing process a lot easier later on.
If your track seems boring it probably doesn’t need another synth line layered on top. If your Bassline isn’t deep enough it doesn’t need two more bass loops over it. Try to write well with a more limited arsenal of sounds and you will find you will both improve your skill at writing interesting music and gain a better understanding of how different sounds and rhythms cultivate one another. The same goes for effects, use them sparingly and effectively.
It is important to start with good dry sounds and then give them that extra 10% with effects. This is especially true for reverb, applying copious amounts of reverb to bad sounds will not necessarily make them sound good, will make your track muddy and difficult to mix well.
5. Maintain Good File Management
This is a long term practicality. I recently reorganised all my samples, mix stems, VSTs, presets, midi files etc and it was a nightmare. The older content of my hard drive was a mess. The samples were the worst, they were uncategorized and all over the place. Projects were missing files that had been moved and VSTs that had mysteriously disappeared.
Anyone who has been at this for any length of time has had at least one of these days (or longer if it is particularly bad), and it is something that amateur producers in particular will face. In a professional environment it is essential that good file management is upheld. What if a client wanted to revisit a track you had worked on a month previous? It is important to at least try and manage your files well from day 1. This can be as basic as having a folder for all your samples to go into, at least you know they are in there somewhere.
It is equally important to name your files (especially project files) in such a way that makes them distinguishable from ‘House2’, ‘asdsefig’ or ‘fridaydnb’. I find you often want to go back and work on earlier ideas, but you will create a huge amount of work for yourself if you firstly cannot find the project. Then, once you find it, half of the samples are missing from it and none of the plugins you used can be located. Try to have an understanding of how your DAW organizes files and work with that in mind. Covering your desktop with kick samples is just not how to do it.
By Sean O’Sullivan