The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for Becoming a Great Producer

Sam MatlaGeneral%s Comments

great producer

There’s one thing that every music producer desires, regardless of whether they view their craft as hobby or profession.

Progress.

We all want to improve. We want to make better music, not only for other people to enjoy it, but so we can gain access to the joy that comes from progress.

That’s what this article is for. It’s a guide to progress.

A lot of the advice I give is opinion, so take it with a grain of salt. It’s simply what’s worked (and is working) for me and many others.

Update: I’ve created a printable worksheet that goes along with this article. Click here to download it.

 

A) You never stop learning

Music, like any other creative discipline, features an endless array of techniques, rules, concepts, and tools that can take years to understand, let alone master. Beyond that, you start to learn through self-experimentation; taking alternative approaches to tasks, discovering new tricks and finding out how you work best.

There is literally too much to learn in a lifetime. You have the opportunity to improve and expand your knowledge till the day you die.

And for those of you who don’t believe me, or think they’ve learned everything there is to learn, why not take a look at the attitude of highly successful music producers and composers? Do you think Hans Zimmer has decided that there’s nothing left to learn? What about Dave Pensado? The deeper you get into your craft, the more you realize there is to learn.

B) You work out what you need to know

Someone once told me that the best way to learn something is to give it a purpose. While learning something for the sake of learning something is fine, when you need to apply what you’re learning to a project, you tend to be more committed to learning, and you’re also likely to pay more attention to what you’re learning.

For example, you study up on jazz chord progressions because you want to incorporate a jazz-like bridge in your next track. You want to incorporate elements of neurohop or dubstep in your progressive house track, so you learn a new sound design technique.

C) You need to find your why

Finding your why is important. Not only does it help with staying motivated, but it keeps you focused on where you want to be as a producer.

I can’t tell you what you’re why is. You have to work it out for yourself.

Are you producing music because it relaxes you? Simply because you enjoy it? Because you want to become world-class?

D) You need to develop your passion

If you’re in this for the long haul, then you need to build up passion.

Why?

Because there’ll be times where you feel like quitting; that music isn’t really for you, or you weren’t cut out for it.

You develop your passion by listening to good music. Music that inspires you, music that makes you want to produce.

And please, if you want to get the most out of it, listen attentively. Make listening to music a task in itself.

E)  You need mentors

You need to get help from people that are above you in terms of skill and knowledge. There’s no real substitute for having a direct mentor (someone who you can talk to and ask questions IRL), but mentors also come in the form of:

  • Books
  • Tutorials
  • Other music

Most people are too scared to find a direct mentor. The truth is, producers love to help each other out. Don’t be afraid to ask, but don’t take the cold call approach either. Build relationships, help them out, and then ask for advice in return (see KK for further help with this).

 F) You find spare time

Music production takes time, and time isn’t the easiest commodity to get your hands on.

But the truth is, 99% of you have spare time. If you’re serious about music production, then you’ll find time. If you’re working a 9-5 job and watch 10 hours of TV a week, don’t tell yourself that you’re too busy to produce.

In saying this, keep your priorities straight. Your family comes first, as does your health and financial security.

G) What if I have no talent?

Talent doesn’t mean anything when put up against effort and drive. If you feel like you don’t have talent, start earning it.

If you need to be truly convinced, read Robert Greene’s Mastery.

H) What if I’m not motivated?

Go back to C.

Take a one week break from production.

Sleep, get some Vitamin D, talk to people, and quit feeling sorry for yourself.

Read: 5 Things to Do When You’re Stuck in a Creative Rut (Or Unmotivated)

I) I never have fun when producing

Go back to C again.

If music isn’t paying your bills, then stop taking it so seriously. Creativity only works in a state of flow and enjoyment.

Collaborate with others.

J) How do I come up with ideas?

If you struggle to put down ideas, you need to develop your idea muscle. Come up with 5 ideas every day.

Work in the open mode. See John Cleese on Creativity.

K) How do I become more creative?

Keep your creativity primed through habit, build habit through consistency, and develop the necessary skills to put bring your creative ideas to fruition.

Read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.

L) Where do I find inspiration?

First, you go back to C and find your why, then you work out what inspires you, and then you consume more of what inspires you.

Music will be among the list of things that inspires you, so listen to it. See D.

Dig deep into your emotional side. What’s currently affecting you? What are you excited about? Turn it into music. You’ll work out how.

Read 30 Ways to Find Inspiration for Your Music. 

M) What books should I read?

Video tutorials are fantastic, but you’ll often find more value in a book. Here are a few must reads:

I also recommend reading a guide I made called The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. At some point, you’re going to encounter creative struggles, and this guide will help you overcome them.

Books that aren’t about music production, but will help regardless:

I recommend digging into textbooks for certain topics too, for example, the Master Handbook of Acoustics is worth picking up if you want a technical understanding of how audio works. Books like these aren’t necessary for you to make good music, but can certainly help.

N) What tutorials should I watch?

Let me put this straight. There are good tutorials, and there are bad ones. The top 5 YouTube channels I recommend are:

There are plenty more, but for the sake me wanting you to finish reading this post, I’ll leave them out (just ask in the comments section if you need extra).

O) What websites should I visit?

Other than this one, you should visit:

Just remember to balance consumption with production. The real learning happens inside the DAW.

P) What if I’m not seeing any progress?

Keep pushing through.

If you start eating healthy and going to the gym, you won’t notice progress every day. The same goes with production, you may not see progress rapidly, but when you look back on your work in a couple of month’s time you’ll notice the improvement (only if you’re learning and focusing on improvement).

Q) What gear do I need?

You only need a computer, DAW, and a decent pair of headphones. Anything beyond that is helpful but not a necessity.

Gear isn’t going to help you improve, but it may make life easier. Having a pair of monitors for example may allow you to hear things you wouldn’t normally, and owning a MIDI keyboard may help you get ideas down quicker.

For gear recommendations, read Starting Electronic Music on a Budget.

R) I’m new. What should I focus on first?

Learn basic music theory if you don’t know any, and then focus on making as many songs as possible. You aren’t going to create a masterpiece after 2 weeks, or even 6 months of producing music. All the data shows that quantity beats quality, so get busy.

If you already know basic music theory, learn how to arrange.

S) How do I learn arrangement?

Learning mixing, mastering, or sound design is pointless if you don’t know how to properly structure a piece of music. Learning how to arrange should be your number one priority aside from basic music theory.

The best way to learn how to arrange is by copying other music. Drag songs into your DAW and place markers where things happen (e.g., intro, build-up, breakdown). Do this 20 times and you’ll start to see recurring patterns.

Additionally, try remaking tracks. This is rather difficult as a new producer but highly rewarding.

T) What if I can’t finish anything?

Sometimes the last 10% is the hardest. It’s easy to get stuck in the non-finishing trap, starting a new project every day but not following through with it.

What you need to do is get used to finishing again. Produce something basic and see it through to the end. Work as fast as possible, then repeat. Build the habit of finishing.

Conversely, know when not to finish. Some ideas just aren’t worth the effort. Be as objective as possible when judging whether a track has potential or not.

U) Should I switch DAWs?

Only if you can name 5 good reasons for doing so.

Great music is made in every major DAW. If you keep switching then you’ll inhibit progress. With that said, a switch can often lead to new creative frontiers and boost workflow. Make sure you’re switching out of a desire to improve and/or work faster, not out of boredom. Switching DAWs won’t fix that.

V) Should I learn to DJ?

DJing helps with production in certain ways. You learn about track arrangement, you know which type of tracks go with which, and you know what works and what doesn’t in a live setting.

I highly recommend learning to DJ, not only for the transferable knowledge it offers, but also because it can help you financially.

Live performance/DJing is a natural path for the producer. At some point in your career you’ll probably be asked to play somewhere, so it’s best to learn as soon as possible.

W) Do I need to play an instrument?

To produce good music? No.

Does it help? Yes.

I played drums and guitar for 4 years before learning how to produce, and it’s helped a lot. Being able to compose music outside-the-box does wonders for creativity, and knowledge of your instrument can be practically applied in the DAW. For example, if you’re a drummer you’ll have an easier time programming a natural and realistic sounding drum loop compared to a non-drummer.

X) How do I stay focused?

Set a clear task, turn off your phone, and download Anti-Social and/or Freedom.

Y) What should I do when I can’t produce?

There’ll be times where you can’t produce because you either don’t have headphones on you, or don’t have a computer around. Maybe you’re on vacation or something.

If you do have a computer, but no headphones:

  • Organize your sample and plugin library
  • Create a template with all your routing and channels sorted to speed up workflow later on
  • Read articles

If you don’t have a computer present, you can still make progress. Read one of the books you (hopefully) purchased from the recommendations above, or simply spend time relaxing. Not every waking minute needs to be focused on music (see priorities under F).

Z) How do I get past writer’s block?

According to prolific writer Neil Strauss, it doesn’t exist.

Change your mindset.

AA) How can I have higher output?

Through practice and avoiding perfection.

Perfection is what keeps you on a track for months, this isn’t the ideal route for rapid progress. Higher output requires you to move fast and ruthlessly.

Why would you want higher output? It helps you improve faster. 

Tip: time yourself. Produce a track in 3 hours or less.

BB) Should I focus on my strengths or build up my weaknesses?

Both.

You’ll naturally have to work harder on your weaknesses in order for them to catch up to your strengths. For example, if you’re great at mixing down a track but lack competence when it comes to sound design, then your mixing efforts aren’t going to cover that up.

There’s a debate here on what’s best. I personally think being diverse and well-rounded beats specialisation. However, it depends on your goals. If you want to be known as a sound designer, and sound design is one of your strengths, then push that to its limit.

CC) Is “X” necessary for my success?

No.

Unless X = hard work.

DD) Should I stick to one genre?

From a marketing perspective, sticking in one niche allows you to build a stronger connection with your audience, one of expectation and trust.

From a production perspective, working in different genres allows you to develop skills you wouldn’t normally need to use. For example, the difficulty of mixing drum and bass compared to a minimal house track.

You can still market yourself as a multi-genre producer (look at Mat Zo), but if you’re really worried then why not use a second alias?

In the early stages, don’t limit yourself by sticking to one genre. Once you’ve got some releases behind your belt, you’ll know what the answer is.

EE) Where do I find vocals?

Find local vocalists first. Ask friends, mutual friends, relatives, and random people on the street.

If there aren’t any good singers locally, head on over to Soundcloud and start browsing. Type in tags like, “vocals, vocal practice, vocal cover, etc.” Then get in contact with artists you like.

Alternatively, make a public request. If you have a big enough following on social media then you’ll have artists jumping at the opportunity to work with you.

FF) How do I develop a unique style?

Style comes through taste. It’s the tiny little preferences that add up over a whole track and wala! You have your own style.

It normally takes a few years to develop your own style. For some it may take less, others it may take more.

Read: How to Develop Your Own Unique Sound

GG) My mom/brother/friend says I’m wasting my time. What do I do?

Ignore them.

HH) How do I deal with competition?

Use it as motivation to improve, and realize that music production really isn’t a competition. You’re doing it for you first and foremost, and if you have dreams of making it big, don’t worry, there’s room at the top.

If you are dealing with competition at the moment, it’s probably a good time to refer back to C and find your why.

II) When should I send my work to a label?

A long time after you think you’re ready.

Labels are highly overrated, and while it’s nice to see your song on Beatport and iTunes, self-releasing often pays off far more in the long run (genre-dependent).

Tip: if you think your work is ready to be sent to a label, compare it to the label’s recent releases. Does it hold up in comparison?

Extra tip: avoid small labels that are blatantly low quality. If they use MS Paint for cover art on releases, move on.

Listen to my interview with Revealed Recordings (Hardwell’s label) label manager Sebastien Lintz here.

JJ) How can I get proper feedback on my tracks?

If you’ve found a direct mentor, then use them. Ask for critical feedback, and welcome it.

If you can’t find a mentor and you’re looking for quality feedback, check out Songvice and/or Audiu.

KK) How do I network?

Read this post about building connections with other producers, and Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

LL) How can I make a living as a producer?

People often argue that there’s no money to be made in music production. I strongly disagree. Here are a few ways you can make money after spending a good amount of time honing your skills:

  • Simple audio jobs (podcast editing, volume balancing, etc). Visit oDesk, Freelancer, Elance.
  • Film, commercial, and game production. Get in contact with media companies and start building a portfolio. Start with independent flash game developers.
  • Ghost production. Yes, I went there. I’m not encouraging ghost production and nor am I saying you shouldn’t do it at all. It’s a way to make money as a producer.
  • Selling products and services. Create sample packs, sell presets and templates, offer coaching, etc.
  • Performing. Build up an audience and start getting in touch with local promoters and clubs. Start small and build your way up.

A note about working for free: you’ll be tempted to do production work or live performance work for free, in order to build trust with the client. Avoid this unless it’s guaranteed to benefit you in another way (reputation, promotion, etc.) If you work for free, people will take advantage of that.

You’re also likely to undercut yourself, so charge a little more than you think you should.

MM) What should I do now?

If you actually read this post and didn’t just skip down to the bottom, then you should have a ton of things to do. Go find a mentor, buy a book or two, and get yourself in the studio.

New Producer?

EDM Foundations is the course for you.

It’s simple, to-the-point, and action-oriented. You won’t spend hours trawling through dry theory videos, you’ll be learning as you go.

By the end of the course, you’ll have finished 4 songs, including one original that you can share with family, friends, and the world.