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The 5 Stages of an Electronic Music Producer

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When I first got into production, I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know what I was supposed to learn or what I should focus my time on. What I wish I had during this time was a basic blueprint – a roadmap of what it takes to go from complete beginner to competent artist.

If you follow the outline and recommendations on this page, I truly believe you can shave months if not years off the time it takes to go from beginner to expert.

As you journey through your life as a producer, you’ll progress through 5 stages:

  1. Initiation
  2. Exponential Learning
  3. The Dip
  4. Proficiency
  5. Mastery

Some of you might be at stage 1—you’re new to production and have no idea what you should be doing. You might be at stage 3 struggling with creative problems. Whatever stage you’re at, there are key things you should be focusing on and thinking about.

Stage 1: Initiation

Quote Greene

Time: 2-4 months

For most people, this first stage is one of excitement. You’ve (hopefully) learned that it doesn’t take half-a-million dollars worth of gear to make electronic music, and you’re eager to get started and put a track together.

Amidst this excitement, there’s a desperate urge for answers to what should be basic questions. What software should I use? Do I need to buy any special gear? What should I learn first?

The way I look at it, for the first few months, there are three things you should focus on.

1. Choose & learn your DAW

One of the biggest hang-ups for people wanting to get into electronic music production is Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) choice. If you’re at this stage, you probably already know the names of certain software, particularly the popular ones such as Ableton Live, FL Studio, Cubase, and Logic Pro.

The question is, which one should you pick?

There are a few things you have to realize if you’re in this position:

  • The time you spend stressing over which DAW to pick could be better spent learning production.
  • There is no “objectively” best DAW. It comes down to preference. All mainstream DAWs have the capacity to output great music.
  • You can always switch DAWs later on if you feel the need to.

While I don’t recommend stressing over the decision, it is a good idea to take some things into account when choosing a DAW, namely:

  • What do your friends use? If you have friends who make music, it’s a good idea to choose the same DAW as them so that you can learn from them as best as possible
  • What’s your budget? All mainstream DAWs cost money. You’re going to have to invest in one. However, they’re not priced equally. If you’re on a tight budget, you might consider Reaper or Ableton Live Intro. If you can afford to drop a couple of hundred, FL Studio, Logic, or Ableton Live Standard are all good choices.
  • Other considerations: Do you eventually want to perform live? Ableton Live might be worth looking into. Are you looking to do complex work with industry standard software? Pro Tools is a good pick. If you have any preferences along these lines, make sure to consider them when choosing a DAW.

The best advice I can give you is to just pick one and start working with it. It shouldn’t take you longer than a day to choose a DAW. If it does, your priorities are way out of line.

Two of the most popular DAWs, FL Studio and Ableton Live, have trial versions that you can download and play with for free. If you’re not willing to drop a large sum of money just yet, download either one of the trials and get started.

Again, don’t waste time choosing a DAW. Just download one and get started. You’ll thank yourself later.

Do I need any other gear?

The question a lot of people ask during the initiation stage is whether they need to buy anything more than a DAW.

There are two answers to this, the absolutely true answer, and the common answer.

The absolutely true answer is that unless you don’t have a pair of headphones or computer speakers (i.e., you’re only working with laptop speakers), then you don’t need anything else. You can learn how to make music with a laptop/desktop and a pair of Apple headphones. Really. I started on a pair of $15 computer speakers.

The common answer is that you need at least a decent pair of headphones and maybe a MIDI keyboard. A decent pair of headphones should invariably be the next item on your list if you find that making electronic music is something you want to keep doing.

If you do want to buy some gear and you’re not sure what to pick, I recommend reading this article I wrote called Starting Electronic Music Production on a Budget.

Learning your DAW

Having downloaded a DAW (or trial version of one), it’s tempting to get stuck in straight away and start making a song.

Doing this will result in confusion, frustration, and if you’re not careful, you may decide that making electronic music is simply too difficult so you’ll give up.

Your number one priority after downloading a DAW is to learn how to use it. The best way to do this is to read your DAW’s manual. If you’re not much of a reader, search YouTube for [DAW NAME] beginner’s tutorial or How to use [DAW NAME].

2. Experiment (Play)

After getting acquainted with your DAW, then next key thing you should be doing is experimenting, or “playing.”

The only objective here is to have fun. Sure, watch a few YouTube tutorials, learn a few things, but above all, experiment. Learn how to put down a basic drum beat. Try recreating the melody from whatever song is stuck in your head.

Do this for a couple of weeks.

3. Create your first song

The final step in the initiation stage is to make a song, from start to finish. Don’t worry about how you think a song should be made, whether there are any rules or not, simply make something that’s 2 or more minutes long, and call it done.

This is an essential step. You must get into the habit of finishing music as early on as you can. Otherwise, you run the risk of not being able to finish music later on down the track.

You may feel the urge to show everybody your creation. You might feel it’s time to create a Soundcloud account or post your track on YouTube. Though there’s no intrinsic harm in doing this, I don’t recommend it. It’s a distraction, especially in the initiation stage.

Stage 2: Exponential Learning

quote leo

Time: 6-24 months

Stage 2 is where the real fun begins. You start getting the hang of things, and every track you make sounds better than the last.

This stage takes quite a while. Typically it will take 1-2 years to get through. For some people, it may be shorter, especially if they have the freedom to put many hours in. For others, it may take longer than two years.

Stage 2 is titled Exponential Learning because that’s exactly what happens. You acquire knowledge, develop skills, and improve as a producer at exponential speed. Here’s an illustration (I know the line is not an expontential curve, but you get the idea):

exponential

It’s an exciting time in your journey as a producer for many reasons. Your eyes are opened to some of the possibilities or the limitless freedom that electronic music production presents. You listen to tracks you made a few weeks earlier and notice how much you’ve improved since.

During this stage, at least in the early months, you’ll be improving week over week if you put in the effort and follow the 4 key disciplines I’ve outlined below.

Key discipline 1: Learning the fundamentals

In stage 1, you probably watched a few tutorials and read some articles. You might know a thing or two about music theory, and you might have an idea of what an EQ does.

However, now it’s time to knuckle down and gain a basic understanding of a few fundamental concepts, namely:

  • Music theory
  • Structure & arrangement
  • Mixing

I’ve put these in order of importance starting at the top. It’s important to note that these concepts run deep and wide, and you can spend a lifetime learning about mixing and audio alone. Unless you have a good reason for going beyond what’s essential or basic, I highly recommend you keep things simple and relevant. Learning complex jazz music theory probably isn’t required right now if you’re just wanting to make a few techno tracks.

Music theory

Music theory is absolutely fundamental despite the numerous successful producers who don’t know it at all. Electronic music production differs from traditional music composition and production in many ways, but it’s still music and, therefore, relies on the same fundamental musical concepts. Not learning music theory earlier is one of my biggest mistakes.

Here’s what I recommend for learning basic music theory:

Structure & arrangement

Structure and arrangement comes secondary to music theory, as there’s no point in knowing how to arrange musical ideas if you don’t know how to create them in the first place.

Fortunately, electronic music follows a predictable and standard structure, so it’s not hard to pick up the basics.

Here’s are two resources I recommend for learning basic structure and arrangement:

The best way to learn structure and arrangement is to drag songs into your DAW and study them. Pull them apart. Steal the basic structure from an existing track and use it for your own.

Mixing

No one wants to listen to a well composed and arranged song that sounds like it’s coming out of a tin can, which is why grasping the fundamentals of mixing is important.

Here’s what I recommend to begin with:

If you go through all these resources, or even just a few of them, you’ll have a sufficient level of knowledge to practically apply to your work. Remember, no amount of theoretical learning can replace real practice, so be wary of the balance between the two.

Key discipline 2: Finish fast and finish often

“As Ira Glass so famously put it, the best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.” – Herbert Lui, Why Quantity Should be Your Priority

One trap that a lot of producers fall into in stage 2 is the perfection or masterpiece trap. They think that they must create amazing work—that they must focus on creating masterpieces.

Having a perfectionist attitude in stage 2 is not only an inhibition to learning and progression, it also destroys your self-esteem. Why? Because even if you were to set the perfect standard for your work and achieve it (which isn’t likely), you’re progressing at such rapid speed that you’ll be disappointed in your “masterpiece” a few weeks later.

What you should focus on instead is finishing. Not just finishing, but finishing tracks as often as you can.

When I was in stage 2, I’d finish tracks in a day. They didn’t sound that great, but I learned something new with each project. You have to focus on quantity during this stage, because if you do, quality will inevitably go up and you’ll learn much faster than you would otherwise.

Key discipline 3: Diversity & further experimentation

During stage 2, it can be tempting to pigeon-hole yourself into one genre or style of music. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I do recommend you experiment with as many different genres as you can.

Why?

Because you’ll learn quicker. For example, I started out making dubstep and picked up some valuable skills such as drum programming and sound design while doing so. I then ventured over to drum & bass and developed my drum programming skills even further. For a while, I made techno and house, which taught me a lot about groove. Nowadays, I mostly make trance and progressive house, but the skills I gained from experimenting with other genres still come in handy.

So, if you feel like making genre X, then do so. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t.

Key discipline 4: Gathering feedback and building relationships

At this stage, many producers start thinking about how they should brand and market themselves, how to gain more Soundcloud followers, and so forth.

This is nothing more than a distraction, and if you’re currently stuck in stage 2 then trying to make a name for yourself is a futile effort.

While you shouldn’t be spamming forums and the comments section on YouTube videos telling everyone you’re the next Martin Garrix, there are certain things worth doing outside of your DAW that will set you up for future success and also allow you to learn and progress faster.

The first thing you should be doing – having finished a few tracks – is gathering feedback from people. It’s important to get a second set of ears on your music so you can learn what your weak points are and if there are any ongoing problems with your music (your low-end might consistently too loud, for instance).

The second thing you should be doing is building relationships with other producers and people in the industry. You should do this irrespective of whether you want to build a career in music, mainly because the opportunities that come from simply knowing people are invaluable.

If you want to learn more about getting feedback from people while simultaneously building relationships with them, I recommend listening to this interview I did for Levi Whalen’s The Dance Music Maker’s Podcast (skip to 48:00 if you just want to listen to what Levi and I have to say about feedback and connections).

Stage 3: The Dip

quote press

Time: 6-18 months

Stage 3 is the most difficult part in an electronic music producer’s journey. If you’re lucky, as in, you’re a part of the 1%, then you may not go through stage 3.

But you probably will go through it. Most people do. In fact, it’s the very reason I wrote The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity.

The unfortunate reality is that most people give up when they reach stage 3. Production starts to become much more difficult and seems more time-consuming. You sit down to work on something and end up procrastinating—doing something else that’s easier.

Fortunately, stage 3 doesn’t last forever, and there are ways to progress through it faster.

1. Deal with overwhelm

The first thing you must do if you find yourself in “the dip” is learn to deal with the feeling of overwhelm.

Feeling overwhelmed is pretty much guaranteed if you’re stuck in stage 3. You might feel overwhelmed by the fact that you’re not producing as much as you used to, or simply by the sheer amount of work involved in putting together a decent track.

Whatever you feel overwhelmed by, you need to reverse that feeling and get on top of it. There’s an age-old productivity technique that will help you do this. It’s called breaking big projects into small tasks.

For example, if you’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work involved in putting together a decent track, then break it down into small parts. First, focus on only the melody. Once that’s done, you can move on to the next thing. This is how you deal with overwhelm.

2. Figure out your objective & motivation

One of the main reasons people give up during this stage is that they can’t find the passion they once had for making music.

Passion keeps us going. There’s no denying that. But at times, it can be hard to feel it or notice it. Because of this, it’s important that you figure out two things: your next objective, and your overall motivation or reason for making music.

Your objective might be that you want to release an EP. That’s the next “big thing” on your list, and that’s what you’re actively working toward. But an objective alone is not enough, you need an overarching reason or reasons for making music.

My reason for making music is twofold: first, I make music because I love it, and second, I make music because it helps me teach other people to make it. During times where I feel frustrated with music and don’t feel like I “love it,” I fall back to the second layer and remind myself that there’s more than one reason why I make music.

Once you have an overarching reason, working through dry periods where you lack inspiration and creativity become much easier.

3. Learn how to overcome creative problems

The third thing you must learn in this stage is how to overcome creative problems. You will encounter them—everyone does.

There’s too much material on the topic of creativity and creative block to include in this post, so here are some links to books and articles on it:

Also, if you want to shout me a few coffees, then my book might be helpful too.

4. Be consistent and patient

“The hard thing is to stick to things when you have outlived the first interest, and not yet got the second which comes with a sort of mastery.” – Janet Erskine Stuart

Despite all efforts to overcome creative block and the overwhelming feeling of not getting enough done or not doing your best work, stage 3 is inevitably going to last a while.

It’s a natural part of an artist’s journey, one that can’t really be avoided. You have to learn to live with it for a period of time before you come out the other side and enter stage 4.

There’s no magic trick or tip that will make stage 3 comfortable. It is inherently uncomfortable by its very nature—it’s a constant struggle. This means that you have be consistent and patient.

Consistency matters because, without it, you’ll never progress through stage 3. Consistency means building habits, and habits help you push forward when inspiration is nowhere to be seen. During stage 3, it’s a good idea to get into a consistent rhythm, to set up a schedule of sorts. For example, you might decide to commit to producing for 30 minutes per day, no matter what.

Patience is also important. You have to understand that while stage 3 doesn’t last forever, it’s not short. Even if you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, you need to firmly believe that it’s there and wait. (However, don’t wait while not doing work. You won’t progress through stage 3 without putting in effort).

Stage 4: Proficiency

quote einstein

Time: 2-5 years

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where stage 3 ends and stage 4 starts, mostly because there’s a fair amount of overlap.

But you’ll know when you’re out of the rough. Stage 4 is the final stage before mastery, which means that while you should still be actively learning and progressing, your work is starting to hold up in terms of quality.

Now, stage 4 typically takes years. It’s important to understand that I’m talking about the time it takes to go from being proficient to a master of the craft. Most people acknowledge that it takes approximately 10 years to become a master in any field, with the definition of a master being “world class.”

So, while I’ve noted that stage 4 takes 2-5 years to progress through, that does not mean it takes 2-5 years to become a good or even great producer. You can easily build a career at stage 4.

Key discipline 1: Advanced learning and remaking

By this stage, you should have a deep understanding of fundamental concepts and a “big picture” view of how different concepts and disciplines interact with each other.

But it’s time to go even deeper. At this point you’re starting to further your strengths, and bring up your weaknesses. Learning complex jazz music theory now is far more appropriate than in stage 2.

Advanced learning is all about going deep into topics. It helps to start with your strong points, because, at the end of the day, music production is too diverse a field to become a master in everything.

If you’re into sound design, you might delve into the physics side of it, learning why certain waveforms sound the way they do. If you love mixing, you might decide to intern at a studio or read some textbooks on audio. You get the idea.

Remaking

There comes a point where you’ve learned most of what’s necessary from books and videos, and you need to go beyond the “general” advice and gather more nuanced ideas and tricks.

The best way to do this is to learn from other artists who are at or above your skill level. Given that everyone is unique and has unique thoughts, it follows that their music will be unique in one way or another.

How do you learn from other artists? You study their music. Better yet, you remake it. Remaking forces you to listen attentively. It forces you to try out new ideas and solve problems. It forces you to think about what you’re hearing and how it’s made.

Key discipline 2: Collaboration

Another thing that’s beneficial to focus on during this stage is collaboration. This could be working with another producer, vocalist or musician. There are many reasons why collaboration helps:

  • You pick up tricks and tips from other artists and producers
  • You learn to work well with other people and communicate ideas
  • You learn how to make compromises
  • You build relationships with like-minded people
  • You build your brand by leveraging other’s audiences/fanbases

There’s really no excuse for not collaborating. If you live in an area where no one makes music, you can either collaborate with someone over the internet or move. If you don’t know anyone on the internet who makes music, stop being lazy and join the EDMProd Artist Community, post a question asking if anyone wants to collaborate with you, and get busy.

Key discipline 3: Career paths

I’ve tagged this as optional because I know not everyone wants to build a career from music production. You might love your day job and just want to make music on the side.

But I’m willing to bet most of you reading this would like to build a career out of music if you could. Despite what people say, there are actually many different career paths available for the skilled music producer. You could:

  • Build a career as an artist
  • Do freelance work
    • Audio editing
    • Sound design
    • Ghost production
  • Get into film and commercial work
  • Teach music production
  • Create sample packs and other products

Obviously there are many more jobs than just those, but that should give you an idea. Headlining at Ultra is not the only career path.

The other thing that must be noted is that most people who reach mastery do so because they work full time on their craft. If we use the 10,000 hour rule as a starting point (and I don’t care whether it’s scientific or not, it’s a good rule of thumb), then over 10 years, you’d need to put in 3 hours a day.

Putting in 3 hours per day while holding a 9-5 job is not easy. You can reach stage 5 producing music “on the side,” but it’s certainly not easy.

Stage 5: Mastery

quote sheehy

The final stage is one that very few people get to. Mastery, as commonly defined, is when you’ve practiced your craft for so long that it becomes almost a completely sub-conscious act. You produce music effortlessly.

In my mind, some “masters” of electronic music production would be people like BT, Above & Beyond, Mat Zo, Koan Sound, and so forth.

Please note that I’m not in this stage, so anything I recommend here is purely from a point of observation and what I think should be done during this stage.

1. Deep experimentation

When you’ve mastered your craft and everything you make is quality, it’s time to innovate.

Deep experimentation is about throwing preconceived notions and “the standard way of doing things” out the window. As a master, you start to question underlying assumptions you have about production processes. Is this really the best way to do things? What if I did it this way?

The master can afford to experiment in such a manner and get away with it because he understands the rules so well and he knows what will likely happen if he breaks them. The intersection of various facets that music production features is so clear to the master, which is why the experiments he comes up with are far more likely to succeed compared to the proficient producer or stage 2 producer.

Often, this will lead to breakthroughs. Maybe it’s a new mixing technique or method of composition. Maybe it’s a new form of song structure. Music is ever evolving, and masters are the ones who push it forward the most.

2. Branching out

Having reached the point of mastery, you might start to look for new challenges in related fields to music production. For example, you might decide to rigorously study acoustics or classical music, both of which will have bearing on your abilities as a producer.

You branch out into different fields not just because they help you as a producer, but because of pure interest.

3. Becoming a leader

Finally, as a master, you’ll probably become a leader unless you’re a recluse. Maybe you pioneer something, maybe you develop a new genre that becomes popular. Who knows?

What’s certain is that stage 5, the mastery stage, does not end. There is no stage 6, there is simply mastery and that’s it.

Even the master has to keep learning.

Conclusion

Going through each of these stages takes a long time. A lifetime, you could even argue.

But is it worth it? Is it worth going through the dip and experiencing intense creative struggle? Is it worth spending hours of your time learning?

Only you can answer that. I know what my answer is.

New Producer?

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