Recently a discussion on the Ableton forums about what daily routines people should do in order to become a better producer got me thinking. What sort of things could you practice if you wanted to become better at writing songs? Especially if you’re always getting disappointed when comparing your songs to those of your favorite artists?
It almost seems like too vague of a question, since the role of “producer” these days can encompass so many different skills (musicians, mixing, mastering, arranging, etc). I’m a firm believer in practice and repetition as a means to perfecting one’s skills, regardless of what those skills are. Do something often enough, and no matter what you’re going to get better at it. Of course how quickly this comes will be different for everyone, and that’s the difficult thing. Some people learn certain skill sets really quickly, almost as if they were naturals at it. While other people struggle for years with even the basic concepts and techniques.
I think however that there’s one thing that everyone needs to do in order to write better songs, and that’s to actually finish songs (tracks, whatever you want to call a completed piece). Sounds obvious I know, but I think a lot of people get discouraged and quit way too soon in the production process. Sure starting with a really solid hook or idea is important, but so is how you take that idea to completion. Vastly different skills here. For instance, a lot of people get stuck in the “loop mode”, where they have a good idea for a groove, but can’t turn it into a song, something I addressed previously in this tutorial:
Or worse, they get discouraged when comparing what they’ve labored so hard on to their favorite CD or album, and it just doesn’t sound as good. I mean, you have to be realistic, you’re just starting out and you’re comparing the work of a beginner to that of a pro. If things like that discourage you from actually finishing one of your songs, then you need to fix that situation. A lot of people will disagree, but I actually find that I do my best work when I take breaks from listening to other people’s music while working on my own.
Sure listening to your favorite music can be inspiring at times, but creating art in a vacuum can also help you to find your own voice, your own style, and remove a lot of distractions or feelings of failure. It helps prevent you from copying another producer’s sound, melodies, beats, whatever, even if at a subconscious level. Most of all, it helps keep the process fun and exciting for you, and you’re going to be more inclined to actually finish your songs if you’re having fun. This is very important, because you’re never going to be really good at writing tracks, unless you keep practicing writing tracks. And that means all aspects of what goes into making a track these days, where one person is wearing so many different hats in the studio.
But more than that, it’s not until you finish a song that you’ll gain any form of objectivity back about it. When you’re in the middle of the creative process, you’re deeply in tune with what it is you’re trying to convey. This means all the nitty gritty details that go into making a song, each and every little sound. But when you’re finished with a song, and have gotten out of that headspace after a couple of weeks, it’s often very easy to hear the areas that need improvement. Or recognize what things you did worked very well. You’re able to listen to it as a completed piece, and see the overall big picture. This is important, because this is how everyone else will hear your song too. It’s never going to be the same as listening to a piece of music for the first time, but as musicians and producers, it’s the closest we can come to that level of objectivity.
When you get to this point though, avoid the temptation to endlessly revisit and tweak your song if you hear things that need fixing. Sure, if there’s some glaring obvious issue, then by all means correct it. But you have to move on and accept that this song is done, and use what you have learned in the next song. Because no two songs you write will be exactly the same (I hope!) and it’s the process of applying your observations to a new track where the real skill comes out.
Anyway, the crux of the matter is simple: if you want to write better songs, you need to finish as many songs as you can. Be honest with yourself. If you’re a beginner, you’re just starting out and have to accept that you have a lot to learn still. There’s no magic tip that will instantly make it easier or better sounding, that comes with practice (sorry, side-chaining won’t solve everything, hehe). So put distractions and negative thoughts out of your mind, and just focus on having fun and creating as many songs as you can. I guarantee if you do this enough, you WILL achieve the professional sound you’re after.