There are probably as many ways how to produce music for the first time as there are producers. I highly recommend that you don’t do it like I did. I just kind of backed into it without a plan. People asked me things. I tried to help. Before long, I was producing. So . . .
What Is Producing?
If I sound less than certain, it’s because producing is a confusing thing. I’ve had the opportunity to sit in control rooms with a lot of truly great producers. Of course, I watched them closely to divine their secret production processes.
Sometimes they appeared to do nothing at all. Sometimes they controlled every detail. Some were supportive and some intimidating. Some wrote the songs. Some played on the album. Some spent most of their time on the phone. A few found ways to not show up at all.
In each case, these masters produced profoundly successful albums. In each case, they were a mysterious lot.
If I asked them directly how they did it, they would become suspicious and Yoda-like. If they answered at all, they used phrases like, “Years of experience.” Often they nodded their heads with knowing smiles.
But, one day, I discovered the key to unlocking the mysteries of the producer universe. It was simple. I asked them about their first time. How did they get started? They were all more than happy to spend expensive studio time reminiscing about days of old.
Here are a few of the secrets I learned. I call it . . .
The Spielberg Method
In the film world, the production job is called directing. The same type of mysterious geniuses captain the creative process. They pull great performances out of artists, capture them, and edit the pieces into movie magic.
They organize details, coordinate creative teams, and smooth egos. Or challenge them. They handle the budget, set deadlines, and shoulder the responsibility of delivering the finished product. The same skills a music producer uses.
What does this have to do with you? It’s about getting started.
Steven Spielberg borrowed his dad’s 8mm camera and wrecked his Lionel train set to make his first film at age 12. By the next year, he won his first film award for a 40-minute war story using his friends as the cast.
At age 16 he borrowed $500 from his dad and made his first independent film. The sci-fi adventure, called Firelight, was shown only once at a local theater, still making enough money to pay his dad back. It became the inspiration for Close Encounters. My point?
When Steven Spielberg began, he had all the experience of a twelve-year-old boy. I like to picture him running around like the kids in his later sci-fi thriller Super 8.
He was playing, experimenting. He imitated others, learning quickly by trial and error. This playfulness was a kind of focused dreaming about a reality that he was creating as he went.
As it turns out, Super 8 wasn’t actually about Spielberg. It was written by film great J. J. Abrams about his own teen filmmaking. Maybe we should call it the Abrams Method. But, whatever we call it, you can see the trend.
First and foremost, creative people create.
It would have been easy, at the time, to dismiss it as the fantasy of a kid. But dreams are powerful things. And most of our life-changing decisions are made without enough information. We have no idea how things will end up. We have a naive vision and hope.
But this turns out to be the best education life can provide.
If we try to prepare or wait until we know enough, then we delay beginning. And you don’t even understand the problems you will face until you begin. You would just have to take someone else’s word for it.
And that’s a terrible plan.
Because no one else has your vision or your specific talent and skills. No one else will ever do it exactly like you. By definition, creativity means not being the same as everything else. It takes a certain amount of courage and determination to be that kind of different.
You have to decide who you are and stick to what you do best. You can’t wait for permission or recognition to begin. You will never get it.
Do I mean that you shouldn’t get an education? Nope. I’m saying every day is an education. Steven Spielberg eventually went back to school to get a bachelor’s degree in Film and Electronic Art. But he did it in 2002, forty-four years after wrecking his first toy train.
Education supports your goal. It enables your goal. It is not the goal itself. Your first hurdle is deciding to begin.
“I’m a pah-ducer!” said one of my students on the first day of class.
Use What You Have
For Spielberg, that meant using a borrowed, inadequate camera. For you, this probably means a laptop with stickers on it or maybe a desktop PC. Some gaming PCs far outstrip the requirements of modern audio production. Whatever you have, it’s probably better than you think.
One of my students produced amazing work using GarageBand on her iPhone.
From my perspective, we live in a magical time. A single console I once used cost $1,000,000 all by itself. But now you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands on a studio. You don’t need a major label budget.
Today’s cheapest consoles have mic preamps that outperform the early Nasa-based op-amps in the MCI console that recorded my first Billboard chart album. Due to a wide variety of international factors, microphones are plentiful, sound good, and cost far less than ever before.
The gear is easy. You can order what you need and have it delivered to your door the next day. But the real surprise is the software.
Avid’s Pro Tools First is a digital audio workstation (DAW) that’s free and gives you 32 tracks with plugins, which is far more than I started with.
You can actually download an entire digital home studio right now!
Is that really all you need to get started learning how to produce? The surprising answer is, yes!
Don’t get me wrong. It’s really fun to play with the expensive stuff and you will want that kind of fun but first, you need to . . .
Focus On The Basics
The problem today is not a lack of information. It’s getting bedazzled by too much information. It’s trying to find “the secret” to making a hit. It’s too easy to get bogged down trying to decode some YouTube guru’s convoluted trick with expensive plug-ins piled like dirty laundry.
You need to learn how to record a sound. You need to learn basic mixing with faders and pan pots. You need to get the delay out of your headphones so you can sing in tune. You need to learn what an equalizer and a compressor do.
You need to tune your instrument. Learn basic song structure and music theory.
And you need to get good at it. So good it doesn’t occupy all your attention. So good that you don’t blow good takes with bad levels. So good it’s automatic.
Start by recording yourself . . . badly. There’s really no other way. Revel in the badness of it. Laugh at your attempts. And by all means, have some fun! That’s what this is about.
Once you get the core skills down, you can move on to production. Please, don’t wait until you know it all. You never will. Your next job is to . . .
Produce As Much As Possible
I know a few producers who hit precious metals with their first attempt. Yes, it’s possible. However, most of them began in obscurity with mistakes they would rather no one heard. But that’s not even the point.
This is a complicated, multi-faceted job with a lot of moving parts and what you really want to do is learn. Fast!
There’s no better teacher than experience and failure is the fastest path. Intentional, relentless attempts will expose your weaknesses. But it also reveals your strengths. Exercise them. Learn them. They will serve an important purpose which we will discuss in a moment.
It also gives you a predisposition to action. And that’s where the magic lies.
Iteration, repeating the process over and over again, is the secret formula of great producers.
Hit songwriters don’t contemplate for years until they imagine the perfect song. That’s not how it works. They write a hit among hundreds of other songs. Sometimes they don’t even know it’s a hit. They are just putting in the work.
The same principle applies to best-selling authors and artists working in all mediums. The creation, the play, is actually the practice that gets you to greatness.
Ask any talented musician and they will say the secret is practice. They do it over and over again. They build the muscles and program their brains until it appears effortless.
It happens quietly as you work. You gain confidence and speed. Without any effort, your brain will create production habits to speed you along. You will worry less about the details and have more time to think about the bigger picture.
In addition, as you try and learn, you will run headlong into the next giant step in your music production journey. You will meet people!
Work With Who You’re With
Today, thanks to technology, you have the option to sit at home alone and perform all production and business tasks by yourself. From idea to delivery to getting paid can be accomplished by your average mountain hermit or video gamer without annoying human contact.
Don’t fall for this dream.
As a creative introvert and aspiring hermit, I speak from experience when I tell you that every successful creative has a team. Read scrolling movie credits or the thank you pages in any novel. Listen to winners endlessly list names at awards shows.
Music is a people business. Production even more so. But this isn’t bad.
Remember I mentioned that massive amounts of practice reveal your strengths and expose your weaknesses? Now is the time to use this knowledge.
The producer’s superpower is knowing talented people to fill the gaps in their own abilities. The more people you know, the more superpower you acquire. You are suddenly free from the fantasy and burden of doing everything yourself.
You will soon find people who are better than you. Don’t be intimidated. Feel relieved. Build a community of talented people and help them. Then ask for their help and try to find the budget to pay them somehow. They will love you for it.
Yes, they will be trouble. Creative, talented people seem to thrive on it. But managing talent is a learned production skill. You can do it. Over time it will become easier and feel better.
Your reward will be superior music and more fun.
But start with people near your skill level. Trust is earned. The better you get, the more talented the people you will attract in time. And the people you meet early on will always be part of you.
This is about producing music for the first time. I’ve already held you up too long. You have a plan. Now is the time.
There’s plenty more to learn. There are plenty of problems ahead. There are many skills to be mastered. But you will never really learn until you begin.
Download a piece of software. Tune the instrument in the corner. Pick up your pencil and pad. Select a tempo. Warm-up your voice. Call your friends. Set up a mic. Open your laptop.
And press record.
Good luck and have fun!
Dark Horse Institute’s Music Production Program is a great way to take things to the next level when you are ready.