Learn how to produce better music without spending more money on plugins and gear.
Learning music production takes time, but there are a couple things I’ve picked up over the years that have really helped accelerate the growth of my music. These are either things I’ve learned through experience or that other producers have shared with me. I thought really hard about what had the biggest immediate impact on my production skills, and stuffed everything into one article for you.
1. Work With Specialists
Trying to take on every aspect of the music production process yourself is definitely possible, but you’ll see better results if you work with people who specialize in the areas that you’re weak. For example, I can’t write lyrics to save myself because that’s not something I spend my time doing. I haven’t put in the hours to become good at it. The same goes for singing. I’m a terrible singer, so I’m not going to sing on my own songs.
Obviously, if writing lyrics and singing is something you want to get better at, it makes sense to practice. Nobody starts out great at anything, but if that’s not something you have any interest in, don’t bother with it. Focus on improving in the areas that you find interesting.
I’ve always really enjoyed the technical elements of music production, which is why I primarily work as a mixing and mastering engineer—this often involves organizing arrangements so that they work well, along with sound design, so I’m quite capable in these different areas.
When I’m writing a song, and I decide I want vocals on it, I immediately know, “Okay, I’m going to have to find someone to help me out with this.” I might have a rough idea for vocals, but to put together something that sounds polished and professional from a songwriting standpoint, I’ll need help from someone who specializes in writing lyrics and singing.
There are plenty of places to find people to work with online. You can join the Black Ghost Audio Facebook Group. You can look for collaborators in different music production subreddits, or if you want to hire a professional, you can check out a freelance website like SoundBetter, Melody Nest, AirGigs, or even Fiverr. These websites let you hire vocalists, instrumentalists, audio engineers, and pretty much anyone you need to help pull your project together. I’ve linked to some of these resources below if you want to check them out.
2. Use Audio Loops
For the longest time I was very much of the opinion that using audio loops was cheating, it detracted from the art, and all this nonsense. Eventually, I got to the point that I could program pretty much any drum arrangement or melody that I heard in my head so using audio loops quickly became a great way to just save time.
When you can’t do something, it’s almost like you want to prove to yourself that you can do it, which is great, but when you can do something, and you’re trying to churn out a product, you’re going to try to save time any way that you can, while maintaining the quality of the music you write.
If you’ve got a project deadline to meet tomorrow, you’re not going to sit there programming some super intricate drum arrangement, when you can just lay down a cool kick and snare pattern, then look through Splice or Loopmasters, and layer in a groovy percussion loop.
When you produce music for yourself, for the pure enjoyment of it, the focus is very much on the process of creating music, as opposed to the final result. I think this is probably why people feel like using loops is “cheating.” You’re cheating yourself out of the experience of producing music by trying to reach that end goal sooner. If you feel like that, then don’t use loops. You can do whatever you want when producing music for fun. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to finish a song.
Now, when the goal is to actually profit off of the work you create, the music production process takes a backseat to the quantity of the work you produce. The people paying for your work don’t care about what went into the creation process, they just want to hear the results. It doesn’t matter to them if you synthesized every track in the song from scratch, or built the whole thing using audio loops. If it sounds good and it’s what they wanted, you did well and you’re getting paid.
This behind the scenes look at things may not be as picturesque as you expected, but it’s the reality of working as a producer taking on freelance work. You’re expected to produce results in a timely manner for clients, and audio loops are a helpful tool you can use to do that.
3. Copy Other Artists
When you’re just starting out, copy other artists. I’m literally talking about rewriting songs you like from the ground up—the melodies, the harmonies, the sound design, everything. This is going to give you an inside look at all the arrangement techniques your favorite artists are using.
Obviously, you won’t be able to upload these songs anywhere because they’re not yours, but you’ll gain a lot of valuable production techniques along the way that you can apply to original songs that you produce in the future.
When doing this, you’re probably going to run into a lot of roadblocks while trying to figure things out, but that’s the point. You hit a wall, you find a solution, and then that solution sticks with you. Over time, all these challenges you’ve faced and overcome sum together and make you a better producer.
A lot of people are worried about sounding like other artists when they do this, but I don’t think that’s really a concern. If you’re borrowing production techniques from different producers, being influenced by a variety of music, and bringing your own ideas to the table, you’re going to develop your own sound.
4. Use Call and Response
The most interesting conversations to listen to involve two people communicating back and forth, progressing the conversation forward. Music works in very much the same way. Part of a musical phrase will call out and prompt a response, while the next section of the phrase will respond and provide closure, or leave the conversation open-ended to progress the conversation forward even further.
Lots of new producers end up writing these melodies that seem to just drone on and on, and that quickly become quite quite boring to listen to. When you don’t embed this concept of call and response into your arrangements, in one way or another, people lose interest.
The two primary ways that I like to make use of this call and response concept in my songs is through the musical ideas I choose to use, and through my sound selection. The video above contains two audio examples demonstrating call and response at 5:08.
If you find that you’re always adding new sounds to your songs to try to make them more interesting, but they just never really hold your attention like they should, it’s very likely that you just need to integrate more call and response into your songs, either within the melody lines you write, or the way in which different elements in your song communicate with one another.
5. Rely on the Rule of 3
There are no “rules” when you’re producing music, and you can do whatever you want, but I don’t have a better name for this tip so I’m calling it the rule of 3. Most people are only really capable of focusing on a few different musical ideas at a time. When you’re writing a song, decide what the 3 most important components of the song are. Typically it’s your drums, a melody, and some kind of harmony. If you strip a song down to these three main elements, and it doesn’t sound good, adding more stuff isn’t going to help. The foundation of your song is broken.
You might be thinking that I’m referring specifically to singer/songwriter style tracks, but this goes for extremely complex EDM songs too. At any point in time, when listening to tracks by artists like Virtual Riot, Barely Alive, Kai Wachi, or other people that seem to make use of these really dense arrangements containing a bunch of different sounds, you’ll notice that there’s almost never more than 3 primary elements at any given point in time.
There’s usually drums, a main synth, and then some background harmony synth playing. There may also be some steady low-level riser in the background, or FX sprinkled in, but these aren’t necessarily foundational elements of the song. The main synth might change every two seconds, but the thing to keep in mind is that the main synths being used aren’t playing all at once—they take turns in the spotlight, calling and responding to one another.
If your songs sound like a muddy, jumbled mess of sounds, start making use of the rule of 3 and see how it goes. You’ll likely find yourself spending much more time on the foundational elements of your songs, which will have a significant impact on the quality of your music.
Bonus Tip – Focus on Quantity, Not Quality
This is a bonus tip because you’re not going to benefit from it instantly, but over time, you’ll see results. Focus on quantity, not quality. When you’re just starting out, your music is not going to sound refined by any means and the only thing that will fix that is producing a ton of music.
You want to take your songs as far as you can given your current abilities, and instead of obsessing over little imperfections that you can’t figure out how to fix, just wrap up the project and move onto the next one. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to work through problems that you encounter, but there will be situations where you get stuck and simply don’t have the skill set, yet, to take the song further.
Instead of spending 3 weeks trying to take one song that last 10% of the way to the finish line, and perhaps not even getting it there, you’re much better off spending that time writing 6 new songs. You’ll learn a bunch of stuff from producing those new songs that you didn’t know before, you’ll develop your skills, and have much more content to show for it.
So at what point does it make sense to start focusing on quality, rather than quantity. Well, a lot of people say you need to write anywhere from 50-100 songs before you develop the skills necessary to produce really complete and cohesive tracks. This obviously varies from person to person, it depends on how much previous music experience you have, and how technically complex the songs are that you’re writing.
Although, I’d agree with those numbers and do a pretty serious evaluation of your music after writing about 50 songs. At that point, try investing your time and resources into creating a really put together and complete track. You know, hire a professional vocalist, gather together the people you need to pull your project together, and really put some effort into a track that you’d be proud to add to your portfolio.
If it completely flops, maybe hold off on investing that much of your time and energy into a single song for a little while. Mass produce more music, build up your production skills, and then have another go at it. As you force yourself into the habit of working quickly and completing songs, the quality of your music is naturally going to get better so at a certain point, the line between quantity and quality will kind of fade away.