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There's a saying among professional writers, clichéd but true: writers write.
This could easily be applied in many disciplines, and music production is no exception. The biggest difference between a hobbyist musician and a pro is that the pro builds music on demand. It's easy to work when you're inspired by an amazing idea. What's not so easy is working consistently, whether you're inspired or not. To that end, the most practical solution might be to create conditions where inspiration and ideas readily bloom. The best way to get there is practice: writing, recording, and producing music all the time and working hard to get really good at it.
Most of us have a few obstacles in the way. These might include a demanding full-time job outside of music, family obligations, all of the minutia of getting through the day.
Here are ten tips to keep things in balance, complete your projects, and keep writing.
The world is full of music and sounds waiting to become music. Ever hear a mechanical tone somewhere and say, “hey, that’s a D”? Ever start building a beat to the click of turn signals at a stoplight? Hearing these sounds in our environments can inspire new ideas, tones, and rhythms. With modern devices and recording platforms — and seamless workflows to link them all together — it’s easy to import interesting found noises into your work. If you’re using microphones, keep that record button down. It won’t cost you much, and you might just capture an insane improvised riff, a gnarly furniture squeak, or the drummer’s dirty joke and decide to memorialize that moment. Meanwhile, listen to tons of new artists. Spin inspiring old favorites. Music has to go in for music to come out. And don’t limit yourself to your own genre or medium. Go to the theater. See a movie. Watch a dance recital. Artists in other mediums could become some of your biggest influences.
Whatever your instrument of choice, you’ve probably found yourself repeating patterns and playing the same licks over and over. Breaking out of these ruts periodically will keep your writing fresh and prevent ruts from forming again. A simple and powerful musical phrase might be only one percent different from a trite and boring one. One way to smash your own conventions is to pick up a new instrument. If that’s not an option, go to your music theory book to play around with new chords or scales. And don’t be afraid to look to the music of other places, cultures, and traditions for inspiration. Incorporating the tones and rhythms of Indian, African, or Latin styles can bring a new angle to your compositions.
Musical ideas can come at any time, so you’d better be ready to record your thoughts before you lose them. The more you get into the habit of creating, the more ideas will visit you. Beats and rhythms can be hard to notate and are easy to forget when the world distracts you. The smartphone, with onboard video camera or audio recorder, is a gift to songwriters. Ten seconds of singing or beatboxing into a phone could be the beginning of your best work ever, so don’t let those ideas blow away.
Your music space might be full of live instruments and amps or it might just be a chair and a tablet. Either way, it needs to be cozy and efficient and should be located where you won’t constantly be distracted. Musicians who do a lot of microphone recording tend to finish up with a cluttered mess of cables, mic stands, and amplifiers after a session. A studio is like a kitchen: after a good meal, somebody needs to do the dishes so you can cook again next time.
A studio is like a kitchen: after a good meal, somebody needs to do the dishes so you can cook again next time.
Recording artists in long-term relationships are familiar with questions like “how late will the session go?” or “when will you be home from that gig?” Creative processes are unpredictable. You never want your spouse or partner to feel like there’s a competition, so you’d better keep that partner happy. Making date nights, day trips, and cuddle time a priority will ensure that you can disappear into an open-ended studio session now and then with no static. It might even inspire a heartfelt love song!
That cell phone video clip isn’t a song yet — it might just be a verse with one vocal phrase. There needs to be a chorus, a bridge, maybe some sort of funky breakdown. If there are lyrics, you need to know what the song is about before you can finish writing it. A good piece of music should evoke something: an emotion, a time, a place, a person. Listen to your ideas in quiet surroundings and meditate on what that music reminds you of. If it turns out to be nothing, then it may be time to move on to another idea. Music is about feeling, so if you can’t bridge that gap from a cool riff to an evocative piece, be ready to toss that track in the bin.
A good piece of music should evoke something: an emotion, a time, a place, a person. Listen to your ideas in quiet surroundings and meditate on what that music reminds you of. If it turns out to be nothing, then it may be time to move on to another idea.
In a movie, there are lead actors, supporting actors, and extras. All play their role, but the lead actors have more screen time, more closeups, and a lot more detail. In your recording, the elements way back in the mix like the tambourine, handclaps, or strummed acoustic guitar might just be extras. The most important instruments or vocal tracks in your mix are your “cardinal voices,” your lead actors, and should be treated that way. Your lead vocal is almost always a cardinal voice. Maybe you have an exceptional drummer, a brilliant lead guitarist, or a piano track that’s crucial to the mood of your song. Respect these voices — give them more detail in the mix.
One way to do this is to experiment with mic locations. A guitar cabinet might have a mic in front, in back, even resting on top. A vocalist could be singing into two different vocal mics, with another one across the room for depth or to capture more of the nuances of a performance. Even the best mics are poor excuses for ears, so trying different setups and locations can increase your chances to capture brilliance — just watch out for phase issues when you get to mixing! Ideally, any carefully recorded performance should be great to listen to without other tracks. If you have two or three of these strong cardinal voices and honor them, your song will mix itself.
The blessing and curse of digital environments is that the ability to layer tracks is almost boundless, limited only by the constraints of your processing power. Have you ever gotten so dizzy mixing dozens of different tracks that you’ve just muted most of them, only to find the song sounds better without all those extras? It’s easy and fun to keep composing on top of your work and creating more density. It’s also easy to go too far. On some songs, keys and vocals might be all you need, especially if the rest of your work tends to be busier.
Music should be fun. Frustration does not help you make music. All of us experience hardware and software issues, difficulties nailing a good performance, and obstacles achieving the amazing sound in our heads. When you start swearing at your equipment, it’s time to take a break. Walk out the door…before your laptop goes out the window!
Finally, you’re done. Your song is strong, your mix sounds amazing in headphones. Now, sleep on it. Step away from the work until it’s no longer ringing in your ears. Next, take your song with you and test it out wherever you can. There may still be room for improvement. How does your work compare to stuff you love? Is more mastering needed to reach the next level? How does it sound in the car? On a boombox? On the tiny speaker in a phone? Make sure it works where people will hear it.
As with any pursuit, confidence is a factor. Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do something great, it’ll be easier to do it next time…and the next. You’ve most likely already taken this journey as a singer or instrumentalist, achieving proficiency. Now the studio is your instrument. Creating rituals and conventions for yourself will quicken your process and train your mind to readily enter that magical creative zone. It takes deliberate repetition to create new habits.
Let's make a habit of creating amazing music!