Thoughts on Producing Music When You Have Other Stuff to Do

08/02/2020

So a little while ago I produced and released an EP for the first time, and I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts about the process and what I'd learned (as much for my own future reference as anything else).

Intro

I'm certainly not an expert on production techniques, and there are already many people that do a great job of writing technical posts about things like the details of mixing and how to use your equipment effectively, so in this post I just want to go over some more abstract ideas that have changed the way that I approach production since starting.

I'm definitely not trying to dictate how you should approach your work, and if you do this sort of work full time then this post probably won't be very relevant for you, but these are just some ideas that I've found to be useful to think about.

What I've learned

Professionals have different priorities

One of the best ways to improve your production, mixing, or writing skills is to read articles and watch videos from great producers. Youtube is full or these videos, and companies like Waves and iZotope are constantly producing more.

Content like this is a great resource, however the people that produce these videos are often professional producers or mix engineers, and so very likely have different priorites to you as someone working on music in their free time. Maybe this is obvious, but it took me a while to realise this, and once I did it really helped me focus on the things that were most useful to me.

For example if you're a professional spending 35 hours a week mixing, then it might be worth your time to figrure out which LA-2A emulation sounds marginally better for different types of source material. But if you only have a few hours a week, that time is probably better invested in getting your sound design, arrangement, and other creative elements to be their best. Which leads me to my next point...

Focus on the things that make you different

I think it's sometimes useful to think of producing music on a limited time budget as a game of figuring out which parts of your process add the most value, and spending most of your time on those before working your way down to the lower value parts.

Find ways to cookie cutter the lowest value tasks, for example by developing a selection of templates and presets for tasks that are broadly the same in most projects. This should allow you to spend the most time on those high value tasks that make your music different to everyone else's and define it as uniquely yours, and spend less time on the details that aren't adding value.

For example, the melodic elements are often most important to my music so those are the ones I prioritise. While elements like the kick and snare are important, they're not what defines the style of my music so I generally work from a few presets that I develeped for these and just tweak them to fit a given track. This way I can use my limited time on the things that matter the most.

In summary, whenever I'm working on a project, I'm continually thinking about whether any given part of the process is something that I enjoy or is something that delivers results. If it doesn't tick at least one of those boxes, then it's something that I need to find ways to spend less time on.

Your DAW's native plugins are probably good enough

This one is pretty self explanatory, but most DAWs come with some great plugins to get you started, and 99% of the people listening to your work are probably not going to notice if you used Logic Pro's API EQ emulation rather than the Waves version. Again I think this comes back to spending your time and money on the things that make the most difference.

Fix your workflow

This was one piece of advice I heard over and over again but am honestly still struggling to apply properly. I think there might not be a shortcut to this one other than just putting the time in and slowly refining your workflow as you figure out what works and what doesn't.

One point I would like to make is that I had the misconception that the perfect workflow was one that you could follow like a checklist and have it always result in a great product, but I've found that the process is often an exploratory one, with no clear way to get from A to B. With experience I guess you get a better feeling of which way to head, but the process of producing a track is an exploratory one with no clear route to the finished product from the start.

Enjoy the process not the product

This final point for me at least is the most important. For a while I neglected to enjoy the actual process of exploring sound design, arrangements, and discovering new techniques, and only valued the product at the end. This view of the process in the end makes it all feel like pretty hard work, and doesn't produce good results.

Conclusion

I imagine some of my ideas mentioned here will continue changing as I keep working on music and get a better idea of what works for me and what doesn't, but I hope you find some of these ideas useful to think about. Even if you find that a contrary approach works better for you, I think there's value in having thought about some of these ideas and came to your own conclusions.