Through a series of sheer miracles, lately I am spending a lot of my day producing music. I love producing music. I should always have been a music producer from the beginning, but I started in earnest very late. That’s ok. That’s how I started being a painter, too. Been there. Done that. I think I can cope with the doubts and the fear. I think I can fend off the critics and the doubters, who undermine your self confidence and leave you wondering why you’re even trying. I prepared for this time for a long time. I accumulated a lot of the things I need and a lot of knowledge. I’m ready.
The issue I have is that, because I work alone, Mike Oldfield style, I constantly find myself in front of the DAW without the first clue about how to do what it is that I am trying to do. I am climbing a very steep learning curve. This can absorb inordinate amounts of time.
What I know about music production is that you can’t afford to get bogged down, or you never finish. I want to get a high standard of production finish in my work, but there are endless options and opportunities to burn time, getting you no further forward. It’s easy to spend hours and hours and yet produce nothing.
I had been diving into forums, emailing and Google searching whenever I got stuck and that gets you some clues, but ultimately you have to play with what you are trying to do, try some experiments and just plain old figure it out. Some things yield answers, others leave you flummoxed. Here’s where I think I am becoming smarter. Instead of letting the obstacle grind production to a halt, I’m finding ways to move forward, despite being stuck. Let me explain.
I think it’s important to get a gestalt of the track you are making as quickly as you can. I already plan out my production in pre-production, so that I have a map of what is going to go where and what it should sound like. I make all those decisions in my imagination and write a plan, if you will, of what I need to do in the DAW to bring my piece to life. Along the way, I have the right to change things that aren’t working or to follow serendipity, but the map of the track that I draw before I start serves me well.
I also spend time in the song writing phase independently of music production. I close the DAW and write songs on paper (well, the computer, but not by recording production ready sounds!). I do the same with selection of sounds from the sound library I have managed to accumulate and curate. I search for my sounds, audition them and then note their file locations, so that at production time, in the DAW, I can go straight to the sound I previously wanted to include in the piece I am working on and simply drop it in. This allows me to set limits on the time I spend searching for sounds and lets me maintain momentum, when laying the tracks.
The DAW is a tool that offers infinite options. You can change just about anything, any time. The advantage is that it’s never too late to go back and tweak the timing or the sound of something you placed in your track, or replace it altogether. The disadvantage is that you are tempted to try all one billion available options, before you place the next element, or finish the overall sound of the track. That’s a trap. Here’s how I avoid it.
I have a list that I keep, alongside my production, which is like a snagging list. If I can’t solve something in my music production, or something displeases me and I need to go back and change it, or if something niggles at me about what I am hearing, instead of spending distracted time hunting each issue down as it arises, I plough ahead with the rest of the production and write the things I want to go back to fix on my production issues list.
Here is my production issues list:
As things bother me about my track, or ideas occur to me for improvement, or as I notice things that need fixing, instead of diverting my attention at the moment they occur to me to dive into the DAW and make the changes, I instead list them on my production issues list and forget about them, for the moment. I carry on track-laying, or whatever it is that I am doing to get to a finished track. Nobody else will understand what’s written on my list. They’re just personal aides de memoir that I can return to and instantly remember what I was bothered about.
Then, when everything I can put in place on my track is there, I go back to the list and work through it. I can even work through it, when inspiration fails or I am feeling tired. Nothing stops me from experimenting, whenever I want, but it is good discipline to lay as many of the musical parts as you can down and then see if the issues you listed are still even relevant.
After track-laying is finished, I keep the production issues list running, so that I can list issues that occur during mix-down and also when mastering. Deferring the things you can go back and fix later enables you to keep focused on the task at hand, make progress according to your production plan and not get sidetracked, fiddling with options infinitely and indefinitely.
It also gives you time to think about solutions and to research what you need to learn to accomplish some of the fixes you want. The nicest thing, though, is that the faults in your track don’t fill your consciousness. Your perfectionism is disarmed and you can think about other parts of the production, because you have acknowledged the faults, parked them and you know that you will go down your list of flaws later, looking for solutions. You don’t have to let an obvious flaw in your work continue to distract your thinking. You can keep working, even though the flaw is still there (for a while). In any case, I frequently find that something I wanted to fix turns out to be something I end up just taking out, because it doesn’t add enough to the track to be worth the candle. Simple.
I don’t know if all music producers work this way. I bet they don’t. As I am finding my way in music production, building on the knowledge I already have and adding to it, because of all the new tools that I have available, I am learning to invent my own process, so that I reach a good compromise between getting the music made at all and making the music good enough to keep me happy. The production issues list is part of my process.
I actually borrowed the idea from my oil painting process. When painting a portrait, over several sittings, I tend to keep a track of the things I wanted to correct in my painting in a list, so that I can start the next session with a plan of remedial work, before making further progress on the subject matter. That snagging list serves me equally well in portrait painting and music production.
I hope you find using a production issues list a helpful addition to your music production process.