Practice, Practice, Practice.
Music production requires a wide facet of skills and depending on which end of the spectrum your particular interest or experience lies, specific skills will have been repeated more than others.
With that in mind, what are your approaches to developing those skills that are not as strong?
If you're in the fortunate position to be making records or producing artists regularly, you will find that there is no better way to develop your skills than in the heat of battle.
But what about the days or weeks when the phone's not ringing?
How do you keep your chops up?
Producers, mixers, tracking engineers and editors are no different to the performers we work with, and there is nothing worse than working with ill-prepared or practised performers. The same principle should be said for the many roles within music production or live sound, for that matter.
Live engineers are a fantastic example of forever being prepped and practised for any gig. Some of the best live engineers I know are always studying their asses off and preparing for gigs, regardless of size.
Practice as a concept is simple.
It’s the application of an idea or theory as described by the oxford dictionary; it's the act of taking a single process or concept in application and refining that and learning how the slightest variations can yield vast possibilities.
For bass players, it's improving the touch of their plucking hand; for drummers, it’s subtle foot control; for songwriters, it's refining a narrative with that perfect hook.
For producers, it's a collection of all of the above and simultaneously being a seamless DAW operator and perhaps being exceptionally well practiced on a particular technique or plugin.
The point here is not to overcomplicate the approach.
Pick a single element and refine it.
There's a myriad of books that I would recommend to assist here, and dare I say; they are far from music production-related.
However, they offer insight into the methodology of practice and more importantly, they have dismantled the notion that talent trumps all.
Don't get me wrong, there are certainly people with an immediately gifted skillset to build from regardless of artistic intent, sport or commerce.
However, the research suggests that there are very few overnight sensations in any field.
So, yes, talent indeed features but 99% of 'true' development has come from relentless pursuit, discipline, repetition and craft development.
So again, how?
Well, as mentioned above, it's about improving single elements that come together to create the final picture over time.
The other important aspect is to take your time and be genuinely intentional with every movement and mouse click.
There is no need to rush; it becomes hard to embed the new techniques into your brain if you rush through the practice routine.
For those of you learning an instrument, it could be as simple as finding a C minor chord in every position of your instrument and getting comfortable with the position, the timbre and where it's located on your instrument.
For producers whose primary instrument is their DAW, it could be to master a particular plugin and get familiar with the interface, saving the pre-set or setting out to automate every single function available.
This is how I learnt to get a better grasp on harmonic saturation plugins. I would pull up a kick drum track, route it to an FX return and destroy it every possible way until I had worked out what the plugin had to offer good or bad.
I would automate each feature, and once I had practised in parallel, I would try it next as a direct effect on the source track and repeat, just as I would practice arpeggios on the bass.
Aim for just 15 minutes each day and set a timer.
I found that after 3 – 4 weeks, I would start to look forward to the process, 15 minutes would soon turn into 45 minutes and then once I got an understanding of the plugin, I could begin to manipulate tones that I had in my head or heard on my favourite records.
From there, you learn to refine and micro tune the technique, and without a thought, you'll find that you have entered an ever-elusive 'flow' state, and that's when the fun factor kicks in.
The ‘when’ factor of practice is different for everyone, and it depends on people's life situations, families, work commitments, and other aspects. Still, regardless of your situation, the key is to start.
I leant to get up early while everyone was still asleep, and I could easily get in 15 minutes of practice uninterrupted with headphones.
When that didn't work for other reasons, I tried early evenings.
Either way, the point is, start and experiment until you find your mojo.
Start simple and set a timer for 15 minutes, no more and no less until you get a routine down.
The important thing is to stay consistent and not measure your practice sessions, especially at the start; the outcome is the process itself; the idea and keyword here is develop. Learn to develop your practice.
Set Goals and Plan.
This was the most important of all the aspects of practice for me.
There's a cliché out there about planning and failing, it eludes me as I write this; however, the point is, you need a plan.
You want to remove the thought process of what to practice from your head so that there is nothing but the routine of practice and the techniques you planned to practice at that time, once you sit down.
I tend to rough out a plan every Sunday for my practice routines.
For example, staying on the theme of plugins.
Monday – Try Noise Rectifier plug on a male vocal and listen to each pre-set. Try it both in parallel and as a direct effect.
Pick a couple of elements and experiment by automating different aspects of the plugin and get a sense of what can and can not be done with this plugin.
Tuesday – Do the above with a Bass guitar.
Wednesday, try it on a backing vocal that's mixed in with a lead vocal.
And so forth.
Again the key is to have already roughed out a practice plan and work on it for 15 minutes.
Weekly, Attainable & Overall.
Finally the above points on practice should now be conjoined with the goals you have set for yourself.
This will ultimately keep you on track.
There is already much literature written on goals and how to set goals etc.
I will say this.
Goals need to be attainable, realistic; hard enough to stretch your capability and easy enough that you can attain them.
I tend to have three types of goals that feed into each other.
I have a weekly goal centred on keeping me engaged in practice, which is to practice for a set time each day.
In this instance, I have an attainable short-term goal derived from the practice plan to learn the noise rectifier plugin.
And I have the overall concept goal, which to improve my sound design/mixing skills.
So with all of that, put on your Adam's headphones, or get in front of your favourite Adams monitors and get to developing your goals, set a plan of action and start your practice routine and watch your skill set grow right before your eyes.
Practice is not just for instrumentalist, singers, songwriters or athletes.
Progression can only happen over time, and over time you become a master.
Practice your DAW!
Matt Taylor is an audio engineer/producer and educator from Australia.
He has worked in studios around the world (Big Blue Meenie, (formerly Quantum Sound Studios) New Jersey Studio), after earning his stripes at Blackbox Recording with Brisbane's Guitar Uber-Producer Jeff Lovejoy (Powderfinger, Cruel Sea) and Aria award winner Magoo (Regurgitator, Midnight Oil).
Matt’s ‘Boosting Shapes’ Podcast features interviews with artists, audio engineers & music professionals and covers all aspects of the musical creation process.
His mixing suite utilises an ADAM Audio A3X and 2 x Sub 7 integrated monitoring system.