I’ve been taking music-making more seriously. You can find my latest tracks here - gravitronic on soundcloud.
How to get better at making electronic music
I feel like I’ve hit a breakthrough with music making. I used to record a track and not really know how to make my next track any better. I’d make 5-10 tracks yearly and not really see any progress, while spending huge amounts of time researching and discussing gear. I’d watch tutorials and read books on everything from sound design to music theory, and while these would add new techniques to my compositional palette, they didn’t make my songs much better (and burned a lot of my free time).
What made me actually see improvement was:
- Spend more time making music (~3 hours a night, most nights of the week)
- Follow a repeatable process for getting better
It takes time
The most important change was to spend more time making music. Not reading modular synth forums, not just “jamming”, but making music. In June, I convinced myself that every night I would start the night making music, and if I wanted to stop making music before bed that was fine, as long as I started with music-making. After a week the internal battle to just watch a movie or play video games got a lot easier. There was a really poignant twitter thread around this time, where someone outlined that once you get in the habit to do something, a huge benefit is that you can get “in the zone” much faster. I found this to be true. When I can do music each night, it gets easier and easier to get in the zone and get something done without wasting an hour clicking around first.
In the 3 months since I decided to take music more seriously, I’d estimate I’ve spent 200 hours making music. I still have thousands more to go, but it’s a start.
The other secret to my progress was that I built a simple framework for getting better at making music.
If you want to write better songs, deliberately practice writing songs.
The challenge was to figuring out a process for spending my time deliberately that would yield results. What I came up with is a cycle, breaking my practice time into four chunks.
The absolute key to this process is that you have to do all the steps of the process. Leave a step out and you likely won’t see much progress.
If you want to get better, you need a specific goal. Find 5-10 songs you really like from a genre you want to create. Critically listen to these songs - write a description of each component of the track, the mixing, the arrangement. Find similar samples. Watch a few youtube videos of people creating tracks in this genre. Do not spend more than a few sessions in this phase, or you’re wasting your time. You need to use a few new ideas or techniques in a new song in order to really figure out how to use them, and if you try to take on too many new concepts in the same iteration, it will be hard to finish your track without creating a mess.
Make a song
You have a target genre, and you have taken apart enough songs to have an idea of the key elements that define it. Time to put it into practice. When you’re first making songs, spend no more than 6 hours on a song. When your song is halfway done, do not give in to the fear that this is the last good idea you’ll ever have, and that it has to be perfect before you can move on. Your first 50 songs are probably not going to be great, and the faster you get 50 songs finished, the faster you will improve.
There’s a million different ways to build a song. I usually start with trying to get a good 1-bar drum groove going, then add 1 synth line. Then I build a rough arrangement, spreading the drum parts and synth line across 64 or 128 bars, adding and removing parts as it seems to make sense. Then I fill in other synth parts, other drum parts, make a few builds. Then I record the parts to audio, add FX, mix down. This takes probably around 10 hours per song for me right now, and I don’t think that spending another 10 hours at the end of the process would necessarily make the track much better.
At the end of this process, post your track on soundcloud. I don’t care if you create a new anonymous soundcloud account for this, just post it. You need to get into the habit of finishing things and releasing them, or no matter how good you are you’ll never consider yourself good enough, and never release any content at all. Post it.
Listen to your song back-to-back with some of the songs you love in the genre. Write down where you think you’ve nailed the style, and where you’ve missed the mark. Try to figure out what they’re doing differently than you.
It’s really hard to listen to a song you created with fresh ears. Find a producer group that fits your genre and participate in their feedback process. Most groups have a rule where you need to give feedback on other tracks before posting your track. This is not just busy work, it’s a great opportunity to listen to other people working on their craft, ask them questions, and give them ideas. Also look at what feedback they give each other as it’ll can often inspire you with new ideas.
That’s it - afterwards, start again at research. Where did your song miss the mark the hardest? Focus your research specifically on that aspect of songwriting. Rinse, repeat, and in time you will see real improvement.