One of the biggest pitfalls that producers fall into when starting out in music production is focusing too heavily on the latest and greatest piece of brightly lit technology. The new fader-packed contraption that is definitely going to speed up our workflow, improve the quality of our productions and, ultimately, create our best work yet. In fact, this isn’t just limited to rookies, it’s a constant battle for us all, even the best, including pros.
Take it from me, save your cash. You don’t need it. It won’t make you better and it definitely won’t improve your workflow – in fact most of the time quite the opposite is true. When I started out and I got my first paying job as an engineer (heck, I was on a salary which is even more crazy when you consider the state of the industry at the time, let alone now), it was all too tempting to invest my hard-earned notes into the latest sparkly MIDI controller, sample pack or softsynth.
After all, if I wanted to compete with everyone else, surely I needed the same tools? All that time watching product review videos, convincing myself that a particular device or sound would change my work, or the way I worked, exponentially. With these new fangled devices improving my methodology, I’d have everything I needed to finally create perfection in my own music production.
I bet using a Launchpad would set my writing free, or a real Eventide reverb unit would give me ‘that’ sound. Excuses, excuses, excuses, with a side of procrastination, and a full serving of myth and self deception. Take a long hard look in the mirror and address the desperate soul that stands before you.
Confronting the truth
Allow me to let you in on a little secret…YOU WILL NEVER BE TOTALLY SATISFIED WITH ANYTHING YOU WRITE. Once you confront this fact, writing becomes a whole lot easier. To the same extent, if you are indeed satisfied with your own music production standard, then you’re Kanye West, and good luck to you.
In all seriousness, it’s ok that you’re not totally content with your latest track, or that Future Garage smash you made last year. It’s totally normal. We’re producers. Most of us are OCD perfectionists who will never totally be happy with our work and torture ourselves relentlessly – you’re not alone, welcome, join us, friend.
The bitter truth is that the only sure fire way to get better is to FINISH WHAT YOU START. Bounce it out, bag it up, upload it to SoundCloud and move on. Trust me, I’ve been there. For a number of tried and tested techniques for getting over this mental hurdle, check out my post keep a lookout for an upcoming post.
Real investment in your music production
The best possible thing you can invest in is yourself, and this process takes nothing but patience, perseverance and unavoidable hard work. The best (and highest value) equipment that money absolutely cannot buy is stuck to either side of your head. Your ears need time to develop, and should be given due care and attention. Take the time to actively and consciously improve your analytical listening skills, as this investment, much like compound interest, will reward you exponentially in the long term. There are many fantastic guides and tutorials on ear training. As a starting point, check out Dave Pensado’s introduction to ear training, specifically from a music production perspective.
Alongside this, I strongly recommend investing in high quality monitors, and I don’t mean your screen(s). Second to your ears, speakers are one of the most powerful tools you could wish to acquire, not least because they can stay by your side throughout your career if you take good care of them.
As an aside, your room is arguably even more important than speakers, but I recognise that most people may not be able to customise this space a great deal. Unfortunately, we live in an architectural world of parallel lines where we are likely to be contending with standing waves, flutter echo and a host of resonant frequencies. With some research, however, these can be reduced. Take a look at Sound On Sound’s article for a great introductory insight into acoustic treatment.
Unless you’re firmly sticking in the analog realm and you’re a turntable enthusiast (which, by the way, I have nothing but complete admiration for), you’re going to need a decent DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). But this shouldn’t have to set you back a great deal – there are even free solutions on PC, such as Reaper, and starter ‘express’ programs such as GarageBand on the Mac end of the spectrum (you’ll need to invest somewhat to get that far though).
Personally, my weapon of choice is Logic Pro. When I was starting out in music production as a student, this was the software that felt most intuitive to me, and it’s where I’ve always naturally gravitated towards. I’ve used Ableton as a compositional tool, but predominantly as a live solution, and I’ve recorded countless professional sessions with Pro Tools. In actual fact, from a recording perspective, I love PT. It’s solid, and they’ve always nailed audio, but it’s always been pretty darn pricey (at least you’re no longer tied to their hardware, though).
However, Logic is just £149.99. It is £149.99 and it literally comes with everything you could need to make an incredible production. If you can’t make a good start in production using only the stock tools in Logic, then there’s little hope. I’m pretty sure Rick Rubin would have been overwhelmed if he had access to such a huge library of tools back in the days of NWO, or that George Martin would not have known what to do with himself if he saw in front of him the myriad of stock modulation effects that we have access to today.
For any additional purchasing, ask yourself one simple question: “Will this thing actually improve the quality of my productions?”
Now, I hear the sonic argument, I get it. Outboard gear, and to a certain extent, software, can greatly improve the actual sound quality of our music production. There is no denying the fact that an 1176 can give you an awesome vocal sound, or that a Red 1 will provide some wonderfully tubey goodness (if you know how to use them). But you don’t need any of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love gear and I always will. But you don’t have to have it. Did James Holden record all of his samples with a Telefunken? Nope. Did Brian Wilson have Pro Tools at his disposal for all those vocal arrangements? Heck no.
I would even argue that some of the greatest music of all time was created precisely because of these technological limitations. Rules are good. Set some boundaries. Just because anything is possible, doesn’t mean it should be. It’s a case of analysis paralysis. Decision fatigue. You’ll go round in circles. In fact I bet you have a folder packed full of tracks right now that are doing just that.
Morgan Page achieves his creamy vocal sounds with an M-Audio Sputnik. Granted he’s got an army of plugins, an SSL summing mixer and a whole host of additional processing I’m better off not thinking about, but ultimately it comes down to what he’s putting in. He takes a great deal of care in selecting the right vocalist for the track, and he works with them for hours on end to get the perfect take. He takes the time to harmonically tune every element of the track and remove unwanted frequencies, from kick drum to guitar string.
What about installation? Third party software is the absolute last thing that you want when it comes to using additional gear. A simple search for Novation’s ‘Automap’ will reveal a whole host of frustrated reviews and forum queries from unhappy customers (me too, I admit it), criticising their less-than-automatic experiences. And that’s one of the best options out there…it’s scary.
On top of installation, third party products add even more layers of complications and variables, including updates (or lack thereof), bugs and obsolete support. Every time Apple release another OS update I nervously evaluate my plugin collection and research the findings of those brave (or perhaps naive) early adopters who leap foolheartedly into a potentially nightmare-inducing plethora of version conflicts, bugs and authorisation errors.
Diamonds in the rough
There are exceptions. Ableton and Akai’s APC controllers can be a real treat, especially for live work. Quite literally plug and play. I’ve always envied the workflow of a number of Ableton producers who appear to seamlessly create and perform their tracks on the fly, while recording the entire arrangement ready for editing and mixing (albeit mostly in official promotional videos).
Sadly, however, these nuggets are, for all intents and purposes, bespoke to Ableton users and few and far between. Moreover, many novice producers may not be prepared, or able, to commit to the substantial asking price for the full Ableton Live Suite. There is, of course, an introductory version, but you’re pretty darn limited with three software instruments.
Tidy desk, tidy mind
I’ve sold almost everything. I have one of the most minimal music production setups you could imagine. I realised that all that stuff was getting in the way of me achieving the very point of this mission, the reason I did any of this in the first place – making actual music.
My current rig just works. It’s up and running within seconds (including machine startup) and ready to go. If I have an idea, I don’t need to wait. It’s game on. I am at one with my machine, bordering on an almost worryingly efficient transhumanist coexistence.
The ultimate truth of the matter is that the only way to get better at production is to produce. Produce over and over again, creating garbage track after garbage track until you hit upon something that sounds a little less garbage than the rest.
So go forth, cast off the shackles of our consumerist society and stick with a handful of solid, sustainable music production tools that will provide you with a firm foundation for your development in the field. Your only limitation is your own creativity, and the enemy of creativity is distraction. Put your credit card away and don’t fool yourself.