As with anything else, practice makes perfect. If you want to improve your music production skills, keep practicing. But practice doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over again. These 10 tips on how to improve in music production will help you get into the habit of practicing smart for quicker results!
1. Train Your Ear for Better Mixes
This is the first thing you need to develop – a good ear for music. Regardless of the style of music or the quality of the composition, learn to analyse a song’s mix quality. The mix quality of a song can be covered with five aspects.
This refers to the weightage or prominence of each instrument or element of the mix. In pop music for example, the vocals are the generally the most prominent element with the drums, bass, guitars and keys following, usually in that order. This usually refers to the volume levels of each instrument but could also refer to some of the other aspects of a mix.
This refers to the stereo image of a track. The stereo image is the placement of elements in the stereo (left/right) spectrum. When recording instrumental music, you will often hear some instruments playing slightly from the left and others slightly from the right. This is done to give a piece of music a touch of realism, as if you were listening to the band perform right in front of you.
Similar to Panorama, Dimension refers to the depth (front/back) of a mix. Most often, the drums and vocals “sit in the front of mix” while other elements like backing vocals “sit at the back.” These two effects are achieved by compression and reverb respectively.
Different instruments occupy different frequency ranges across the frequency spectrum. In most contemporary music, it is common practice to fill out every range so that the final mix sounds “full.”
Changes in volume are an aspect that is often overlooked in the quality of a mix. A dynamic song makes for an interesting listen as it keeps the listener guessing. There are of course exceptions to this, such as heavy metal and EDM.
2. Analyze Your Favourite Music for Composition Tips
When you become a professional in the music industry, one thing you need to accept is that your listening experience will change. You will need to develop an analytical ear when it comes to the compositional elements of a song if you want to improve at music production. As the expression goes, “all art is borrowed,” and this is true of music as well.
All your favourite artists were inspired by someone else, an artist that they grew up listening to that you are not aware of. But if you do discover this inspiration, you will probably find a lot of resemblance with your favourite artist’s music. Things like a particular melodic style or a certain kind of rhythm tend to stick with us as we grow and permeate into our own musical works.
It helps to start listening to your favourite music analytically to figure out what exactly you like about these compositions, what triggers the most dramatic emotional responses within you when you listen to these songs. You could even load these songs into your DAW and watch the waveform while you listen. This way, you can “see” how other artists arrange their songs.
3. Expand Your Taste in Music
Listening to your favorite music is a good way to understand what works musically. But it can lock you into a repetitive loop creatively and over time, your compositions may start to sound like reiterations of previous ones.
A great way to avoid this trap is to expand your taste in music. Start listening to styles of music that you haven’t really been interested in before, and try to see what makes them appealing to their audiences. You may also find overlaps between these styles and the styles of music you prefer listening to.
You should also listen to musical styles you dislike but are popular among other demographics to further open your mind. As a professional music producer, you will get clients that make music you don’t like and it is best to have at least a basic grasp of most styles of music before you get into the game.
In terms of your own compositions, expanding your taste in music will help you make your music more interesting with elements from other styles of music.
4. Cultivate a Workflow Rather Than a Signature Sound
When we start out as music producers, it is usually because we were inspired by an artist or a style of music, and we often fall into the trap of trying to always produce that kind of music. As a result, we tend to force things to fall in line with our desired style and the whole track itself sounds “forced.”
Instead of forcing things to fall into place, it is very helpful to allow things to fall into place on their own. Instead of trying to get that tune in your head onto your DAW, just empty your mind and start messing around with plugins and samples. In the process, you will almost certainly stumble upon something that sounds really cool. When this happens, you can put on your creative pants and try to make this cool thing you found even cooler. You can expand it into a loop or even a full section!
Once you have an expansion of the first cool thing, you will probably find yourself at another block. So start the process again. Mess around with your DAW until you stumble upon something cool again, and when you do, put in the work to make it as epic as possible.
Using this tip, you can make some amazing music without even having any ideas to start with – and that’s the beauty of it – why wait for inspiration when you can do it all on your own!
5. Allow Your DAW to Guide You
As with the previous tip, this one is meant to help you when you find yourself up against a creative wall. Say you’ve created an amazing four bass loop but are now stuck and you don’t really know how to move forward. You try to duplicate the loop and create a short arrangement but it sounds boring. You try to remix the loop for another section but you just seem to be making things worse.
This is usually because we try to force ourselves to continue in the direction that brought us success just moments ago. But this strategy can be counter-productive to making good music. Instead of trying to stay on this one path that worked for a while, try to see what the DAW can do. Literally ask yourself, “What would my DAW do?”
This may sound strange but it does work in helping you stay creative, and it’s a good way to surprise yourself with your own creativity! Producers have spoken about this on podcasts and have called the experience an almost cybernetic phenomenon, wherein they become one with the DAW and the music sometimes seems to flow on its own.
Achieving this state of “oneness” with your DAW will take some time and patience but it will come when you get comfortable with the workflow within the software.
6. Embrace Criticism Even if it Sounds Harsh
One of the hardest things about being a creative professional is criticism. The problem is that art is subjective, and when we put our heart and soul into a project only to hear someone drag it through the mud, it obviously doesn’t feel too good.
The popular opinion is to block out the haters and focus on constructive criticism. Haters or trolls will just try to be as insulting as possible while genuine critics will clearly state what is good and what is bad about your music in their opinion. These critics are definitely a very valuable resource to creators, especially during the humble beginnings. Their advice can help you make great music in no time at all!
However, there is something to be gained from the haters as well. Their intentions may be to just insult you and make you feel bad about yourself but you can still use their criticism to sharpen your skills. It is a tightrope act between gaining perspective and getting overwhelmed by the hate but it is possible. When your content starts to get more and more comments, you can limit yourself to one or two troll comments if you feel like you can take it. You can find diamonds in the dirt sometimes!
7. Collaborate with Artists with Different Levels of Experience
Collaboration is one of the best ways to improve your music production skills. Seeing how other artists approach a track that you are also working on, in their own unique way, can give you a whole new perspective to music production that you would never have gotten on your own.
More Experienced Artists
Working with artists with different levels of experience have their own benefits. A more experienced artist will teach you new things in an organic way that cannot be taught in music production courses even at the most expensive schools in the world. You can gain a ton of knowledge and experience from working with a more experienced artist.
Less Experienced Artists
Working with a less experienced artist can also benefit you if you spend some time working together in person. In this scenario, you have the opportunity to put on your teaching hat and help another producer improve at their own game. Apart from being a good thing to do on its own, teaching a less experienced producer can help you hone your own skills by reinforcing what you already know and perhaps building on it.
8. Collaborate with Artists Who Make Different Styles of Music
Another helpful strategy is to work with artists who make different styles of music from what you make. Regardless of their experience, just having a different sound to work with in your project can help you by bringing you out of your comfort zone and forcing you to alter your workflow and your perspective to get the best results from the collaboration.
Working with other artists is a great way to grow as a music producer yourself through “on-the-job” learning and getting yourself out of your comfort zone.
9. Create With Set of Limitations
Creative block can be one of the hardest things to overcome in any creative field, but especially in music production. In today’s world of DAWs, plugins and sample libraries, there are countless options to work with but this is exactly what causes creative blocks. So many options might seem like an ideal situation but in reality, it has a crippling effect on creativity.
A great solution to this is to set limitations for yourself before you start working on a project. For example, you could write a track using only samples. This doesn’t have to be just a bunch of samples thrown together, it could include samples used in sampler plugins. So you still have the option to design your own sounds, it’s just that your starting point will always have to be a sample.
Or if you’re feeling brave, you could write a track using only synthesizers (no samples at all). However, the caveat here is that you will have to design your drum samples as well. This could be a good exercise for your sound design muscles.
Other examples of limitations would be to limit the number of channels you use or to limit yourself to using only one plugin for all your sounds. If you channel your creativity towards the kinds of limitations you set, you may open some new doors for yourself that you would never have seen otherwise!
10. Practice Instead of Focusing on Releases
Too often when we want to make a name for ourselves, we dedicate all our music production time to making tracks that we intend to release. However, this might actually be a counterintuitive approach in terms of improving your skills.
What happens when you focus solely on releasing music is that you are always trying to please an audience that you don’t even have yet. You’re making assumptions about people’s tastes in music based on what other successful producers are putting out, rather than working on making your own sound unique and interesting.
Instead of doing this, it really helps to spend about half your studio time practising. You could make a plan to practise certain things on certain days or you could just spend the time messing around with your DAW. Go through your plugins without any intent and see which one catches your eye. Then without giving it a second thought, load that plugin and start playing around with it to see what happens.
Or load up a bunch of samples at random and see if you can edit them into something usable for a potential track. We tend to give sound design a little too much credit when it comes to the creative part of music production while editing plays an equally important, if not more important, role in the process.
These practice hours give you the chance to explore your tools freely, and to discover the joy of “happy accidents” – the phenomenon of stumbling onto something amazing that would never have happened if you were making a conscious effort. You’d be surprised how many hit tracks have a happy accident or two in them!
11. Do Other Things Besides Releasing Your Own Music
Releasing music and playing gigs are not the only way to earn money as a music producer. There are a ton of other things you can do that don’t involve streaming platforms and venues.
The first and most lucrative example is teaching. You can join a music school or even start your own music school in your town or city and teach groups of students the art of music production. Or you can teach one-on-one classes, either in person or online, as a freelance music production teacher. Teaching is a great way to solidify your own knowledge and expand on it when imparting it to your students.
Create Sample Packs
You can create sample packs and distribute them through your social media until you gain enough recognition to do so through a recognized company. This strategy will keep your sound design skills always sharp.
You can make video tutorials for YouTube on the things that you have learnt on your journey in the field of music production. This is also probably one of the best ways to get recognition since there are a lot of budding music producers who don’t have access to schools that teach music production.
Another great option is ghost producing – producing a track for another artist who will pay you for the effort and to release the track under their name. This is a great way to keep your overall production skills sharp because you will likely have to produce music to satisfy a client brief that will limit your freedom in making creative choices.