Last year I decided I wanted to bump up my production output. I couldn’t play any gigs (thanks, COVID), so why not write more music? I set myself the challenge of writing 20 tracks in 20 days. Full, finished tracks. Not little squiggles of ideas. Not sketches. Something I could put on SoundCloud, and a listener could play from start to finish. The goal behind this was to create a catalog of material that I could shop to publishers or release myself. I had a challenge, and I had an endgame. I could do this.
I set about it with all the bravado of an explorer taking on a new adventure. Swaggering into my studio on day one, I sat down to begin. And then the panic set in. Could I keep this up for 20 days straight and still walk the dog? What if I just couldn’t be bothered on some days? What if these tracks sucked?
Then I looked at my running shoes and realized Nike sums it up nicely: Just Do It.
It really is that simple.
By the end of the process, I’d learned a lot. Not just about the technical aspects of producing but also about what it takes to become better at your craft. And in writing this, I hope to inspire you and help you on your journey.
Practice Makes Perfect
Every day of the challenge, when I sat down to write a new track, I was plagued with the idea that it wouldn’t be good enough. Then it dawned on me that the only way to get better was to keep trying. Whether something is good enough or not is an arbitrary conception, so I tossed that benchmark out of the window and focused instead on practicing my craft.
If you think about it, learning how to produce music in a DAW is the same as learning a ‘traditional’ instrument. There are layers and layers of skills and techniques to learn, and the more you do it, the better you’ll become.
If you want to learn to play the piano, you don’t start with a Rachmaninoff piano concerto and spend your whole life learning it. No, you begin with, say, ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ and build up your skills and techniques one step at a time, and the same applies to producing.
So don’t get frustrated when your music doesn’t sound as polished as a Timbaland track. Keep working on your craft because…
Here’s the thing: perfection is the enemy of progress, and you’re holding things up by worrying about how listeners will judge your music.
At some point in their lives, everyone whose music you admire has made a crappy track. I’m not talking about the songs that maybe you don’t like. I’m talking about the hidden depths of their hard drive, wherein lurks a terrible tune or two.
We only see (or hear) a filtered version of artists’ output, i.e., what they’ve decided to put out into the world. Much like the glamorous Instagram influencer whose carefully curated shots hide the mess just out of view, the music that you hear and aspire to sound like has been through a melting pot process to get to where it is now.
I’m not advocating that you go ahead and make awful music. You want to make great music. But obsessing over whether something is good or not will prevent you from getting sh*t done. So allow yourself to suck and grow because you need…
Quantity Over Quality
The original intention behind my challenge was to build a new catalog of music to either release or shop to publishers. By day 10, I realized that some of the tracks wouldn’t make it past the A&R gatekeepers. Nevertheless, I persisted, buoyed up by a distant memory from my childhood.
I recorded my very first ‘album’ on a tiny boombox sat next to my trusty Yamaha PSR-32 (yes, folks; no line-in. Just the clunk and hiss of recording from a speaker). It was terrible*, and my production chops have since improved. But it was a start, and it helped me learn about the songwriting process. If I’d waited for the perfect recording opportunity, I’d never have embarked on my wild and wacky musical career ride. And I realized the same applied here: keep on truckin’ and keep on learning.
*I believe there’s a copy of the cassette floating around South West London. If found, please destroy.
Instead of attempting to create the ultimate fist-bump masterpiece, I focused on learning one new skill with each project. One day it was shortcut keys; on another, it was how to layer synths effectively. As I worked consistently, these new skills sank in, compounded, and became second nature. I reached Nirvana when I never again had to poke around to find the hotkey for ‘Capture As Recording.’
This strategy goes hand in hand with allowing yourself to suck. Giving yourself (and your music) permission to fail lets you have the freedom to experiment, and the more you explore, the quicker you’ll develop your unique sound.
If you want (or need) accountability, try joining a community that encourages creative output, like February Album Writing Month. Or announce on social media that you’ll be posting one new track a week for a year and ask your followers to hold you to the task.
The main thing here is consistency. Show up to produce music every day, and you are guaranteed to get better at it. And if you’re not sure where to start, try…
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants
I have to admit that I started running out of juicy ideas somewhere around day two. It wasn’t pretty. But I’d told my dog I’d do it and may have mentioned it to the wife, so I was being held accountable for my output.
There are so many resources for musicians it would have been a fools’ errand to do this challenge without using at least some of them. These resources go beyond YouTube tutorials or written blogs like the ones here on eMastered. I’m talking about finding inspiration in anything and everything. And that’s what I did.
Heard a song you absolutely love? Try and recreate it. I decided to reverse engineer a track (Met Him Last Night) to see what was under the hood. I looked online for a remake template of the tune and found this website that offers cover song templates with full vocals. I really got to see how the sausage was made.
It didn’t stop there, though. I tried using a reference track on some projects and picked one or two things to emulate. It could be the lush reverb, the compression on the snare, or simply the structure of the piece.
And don’t forget about loops and midi packs. While you need to be aware of any license restrictions on any samples or midi loops you use, they can be a helpful way to kick-start a stalled project or shift your DAW away from Empty Screen Syndrome when you just don’t know where to start. You can always replace or tweak the loops as the work evolves. For more ideas on how to use loops in your music, check out this post.
But getting a track started by mangling a loop is one thing. The hardest lesson I learned during the challenge was…
Crossing The Finish Line
I had to sit down one day and force myself to finish those orphan tracks, and perhaps the most valuable thing I learned throughout the challenge was how to complete a song. After all, that’s the only thing that listeners (and labels) care about.
So how exactly does one finish a track? Make choices and move on. Don’t spend forever fiddling with the snare drum sound. Is it pretty close? Great, move on to the kick. If you’re prone to severe bouts of The Tweaks, try printing tracks to audio to avoid the temptation of fiddling with the patch. But do mute and hide the original, you know, just in case.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step
So, commit to producing music on a regular, consistent basis. Anything helps, even 30 minutes a day. Have a game plan going into your session, so it’s clear what you want to achieve when you don your producer hat. Add a bassline here, some synth programming there, and before you know it, you’ll have a finished track. Then rinse and repeat the whole process.
Let the idea of perfection go, and let the flaws come rolling in. Lose attachment to the result and instead enjoy the process of making music. That is, after all, why you’re here, right?