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Four tips for getting started as a new music producer

Mixing desk

First, a little history. The title of “Music Producer” originates with the position of A&R – artists and repertoire – a music industry role developed in the 1940s and 1950s. The A&R man was a record company employee who sought out talent in the form of both performers and hit songs. He was a money guy as much as a music guy.

The role evolved into that of producer as the industry matured. In the 1960s, the producer became a creative force as artists like The Beatles represented both performance and songwriting. George Martin likely defined the classic producer identity more than anyone.

In the contemporary urban era, a music producer is now anyone with access to recording software and beat making apps. That’s to say, potentially everyone is a producer. Technology is in a place where one no longer has to be a musician, in the sense of playing an instrument, to make music. Computer control surfaces emerge as performance vehicles in their own right. Never before has making music and sharing it with the public been more accessible.

The biggest barrier for most who want to take the producing plunge is: “Where do I start?” There’s no formula. Throughout the history of recorded music, many of us simply stumbled into it. Now, though, with so many options in equipment and software, the luxury of choice overwhelms. Here are 4 thoughts to keep in mind as you develop the work style that fits you.

Work your platform

It doesn’t matter if you start with a $5 GarageBand app on your smartphone or a $100,000 Pro Tools studio. Master your platform. Know how to work it and get to the point where you know it like the back of your hand.

A carpenter’s tools shouldn’t get in the way of the piece being built, and it’s the same when you start creating music. Here’s a secret: most of the people out there who call themselves producers are really gadget collectors.

They have all the major music making platforms on their computers. They tinker with the latest virtual instruments and plug-ins and form very strong opinions they’re all too happy to share. Know what they don’t share though? Music.

They’re too busy tinkering to actually create. They know all the systems, sure, but they know none of them intimately. Harsh truth of the music industry: it doesn’t matter how you make a hit, only that it’s a hit. Now, “hit” for some may be a song their mom likes while for others nothing less than fame or fortune will do.

Either way, you need to know your tools instinctively. You want results, not toy collections.

Know what you don’t know

If you’re afraid of learning, turn around and go home now.

The other truth of your chosen platform is that you’ll be limited by it. Ideas will come and your hardware and software will fail you.

That’s when to read, ask questions, go to music stores, check out shows, whatever it takes to move forward and achieve your vision or nail down that sound. It could be in your software already, or available through a plug-in or add-on.

You may come to the realization another platform is better suited to your workflow. The truth is you can’t compare between platforms without hefty experience with one. It’s like standing in the produce section in front of 10 vegetables you’ve never tasted and picking your favorite. You build knowledge on a base of knowledge. You must find out what it is you don’t know to grow as a producer.

The same rule goes for the music industry as a whole. Especially with technology advancing, the music industry is changing fast. 2017 will be a lot different than 2016.

Collaborate

This is another essential learning element. No one fades faster in the music biz than the guy who knows it all and has nothing left to learn from others. Stretch yourself. Go beyond the boundaries of your favorite genres and move outside your usual crowd of music makers. Haven’t got a usual crowd of music makers?

Get one! Other musicians bring fresh (to you) ideas. They will look at your music in a way you can’t. Don’t be threatened. Open your mind and remember that every idea they give back to you came your inspiration in the first place. Side note: making music with others can be damned fun.

Listen, listen, listen

There’s a saying that goes, “the more you love music, the more music you love.” Yet, in this day and age, it’s very easy to hear no music at all outside of very tight playlists. As a music producer, there are worse things than being recognized as the definite artist inside a very tight playlist. But you’re new to the game. Don’t limit yourself to listening to a genre that already has masters. Get out there and spin the radio dial. Look at hits charts and listen to those songs. Find music that’s miles from any chart and listen to that.

Look to corny and square music. A brother-sister duo from the 1960s and 70s, the Carpenters, put out some of the most sentimental schmaltz going in the middle of the rock era, yet their music usually packed more arranging ideas in an 8-bar phrase than any entire song on today’s top 40. Dare I say it? Listen to your parents’ music, your grandparents’ music, even your kids’ music.

Western music is built around finite scales of 12 notes, usually used in groups of 7 notes at any one time, divided into major and minor scales. Indian music, for example, uses a similar 12-note octave, but it has no concepts of major or minor. The point? There’s not one way to make music. We all start with the same subset of notes. It’s how you put them together that defines you as a music producer. Borrow heavily from other music. It will inform, advise, and ultimately, shape what you create. Let it all sink in. Somewhere, in the recesses of your brain, it will scramble, mix and mingle, and, with a little luck, the best of everything will emerge in your latest production. Happy mixing!

Photograph by Unsplash

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