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5 Music Production Challenges to Sharpen Your Skills at Home

by Daniel Dixon, iZotope Contributor February 4, 2021
Try these challenges to sharpen your skills

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Like many people around the world, we music producers are staying at home. 

Without the excitement of usual musical events—like going to the studio, seeing a live show, or performing live yourself—you may be feeling less creative than normal. 

And that’s OK! We went ahead and put together five music producer challenges that will jumpstart your creativity and level up your skills. 

From simple instrument-level challenges to more advanced song reconstructions, there’s something here for everyone.

1. Sample sounds from a new source

When you’re feeling uninspired and want to get the creative juices flowing, samples offer a wealth of good ideas.

A single chord or rhythmic section is often enough to inspire an entire track, so I encourage you to explore either your own libraries or seek out something new to sample that you haven’t before.

You may already have an account with a service like Splice Sounds, but there are also lots of free sample libraries if you want to save a few bucks:

  • Free Music Archive: An endless collection of free “high-quality, legal audio downloads directed by WFMU, the most renowned freeform radio station in America.”

  • Legowelt Sample Packs: Functional sounds from synthesizers and drum machines, both old and new.

  • The Sounds of NASA: Historic samples and soundbites captured in space.

  • BBC Sound Effects: Recordings from the British public broadcaster available for “personal, educational, or research purposes.”

2. Produce a genre you’ve never produced before

Nowadays, it's not uncommon for artists to hop between genres with each song they release. Listeners also have varied tastes and will jam-pack their favorite playlists with music spanning multiple decades and styles.

All this makes it more important than ever to be able to adapt musically as a producer, and nothing helps develop this skill more than producing a song in an entirely new genre.

  • If you are a hip-hop producer, try your hand at house music, drum ‘n bass, or other styles of electronic music. You’ll find that your low-end and sampling skills transfer well to dance genres.

  • If you produce hard rock or aggressive guitar-based music, take off the distortion and heavy compression and explore softer, quirkier styles of rock. The opposite works too.

  • If you produce instrumental music, download an acapella track (or record your own) and craft your next beat to support it. You’ll be surprised at how much you need to strip away to make room.

3. Recreate a well-produced song

Re-creating a great piece of music will teach you a lot about what a song needs to capture people’s attention. Point Blank Music School has some excellent live “deconstructions” for inspiration.

If you take on this challenge, here is a basic structure you might want to follow:

  • Download a track you admire. If possible, search around for the multi-track mix—some artists make stems available for remix competitions. Make note of the BPM and key. 

  • Write out all the instruments you hear in the song, as well as a visual or timecode of when they come into the song. Find sounds and VSTs within your own DAW that will bring you within sonic range.

  • Drag the song reference into your DAW and add markers for song sections as well as notable song moments.

  • One instrument at a time, go through each section and re-create them with your own sounds and instruments. Try to get as close to the original as possible (easier said than done!)

  • Add in all the sound effects, automation, and details that tie the song together.

Recreating a song is a long process, but most of us have extra time to spare these days, so I strongly encourage you to do it. There is so much to learn from the greats and this is a literal way to soak up their knowledge.

4. Produce for a mood

With streaming services becoming the default way for listeners to get their music, “mood” and “context” are popular ways to organize songs.

If you visit Spotify, for example, there are playlists for general activities like working from home, cooking, and parties, but also specific playlists for rainy days, driving at night, feeling sad, nostalgia, and more.

Spotify Synthwave Drive playlist
Spotify Synthwave Drive playlist

Think about the kind of music you produce and how it could fit into a playlist mood or context. Check out some of those playlists on your preferred streaming service to get ideas about tone, instruments, and feel.

Then, get to work! Producing with a specific mood in mind can make production much easier—it sure beats staring at an empty DAW.

5. Livestream your music production

Live-streaming has been popular with gamers for years, and now, the music industry is taking notice.

With more people staying at home, lots of artists are creating live streams to temporarily replace concerts. This can be a great opportunity for you to build and engage your fanbase, as well as demonstrate your chops to an audience.

A few ideas:

  • Borrow from the approach taken by Splice or Boiler Room’s “Crowdsourced” series and have people send in sounds that you use to build a track on the fly. 

  • Take a blindfolded sample-based approach like Rhythm Roulette.

  • Remix an existing song live or demonstrate how you made one of your own productions.

This challenge is really two challenges in one: creating for a live audience and setting up your studio for a stream.

The takeaways

There’s always something new to learn with music production. Take the extra time you have now to hone your production skills so that you have more to offer later on. And if possible, document your production process and share it with others. You’re not the only one who’s eager to learn new techniques and tricks...

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