How long would it you take to learn music production and produce your first music album? What are some of the stages and steps in such a journey? And what are some practical lessons and tips I uncovered as a noice music producer going from zero to album?_
The short answer to the first question is that it took me roughly 500 hours of dedicated focused attention to learn, create and produce my first music album, Take Life Chill. To the second, I believe there were roughly 4 phases or levels spanning about 2 and half years.
What were my biggest lessons or advice to music producers including myself? In order to learn to make and produce music, you need to be making music. Everything that isn’t making music or active skill building is likely just procrastination and/or an illusion of competence. My second biggest lesson is that music production should be fun and you should strive to get into flow and stay in flow.
Beyond these highlights, there is a lot of nuance, self-doubt and frankly uncertainty developing the skills and mental models to produce any kind of creative thing. Whether it’s learning a foreign language, developing software or design skills for a tech job or startup or, as is the focus of this post, learning music production to make songs, the journey to become a capable expert is challenging. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning music production, but there are some best practices or at least my best practices that might be helpful for anyone pursuing similar goals.
In this post, I want to share my end-to-end personal music production learning journey.
My hope is that it can help and enable other creatives and music producers on their journeys. Your own mileage and personal journey for music creation may vary but I wanted to share mine.
This post is divided into a couple parts.
Part 1 is a “map” of my learning journey. This journey traverses across my entire learning and music creation progress from my first days noodling in Garageband at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown to a middle period (of skill-building, playful exploring and creating music) to finally active song writing and releasing my album “Take Life Chill”.
In Part 2 or conclusion at the end of the post, I’ll share a list of key tips for music producers. Basically, what I learned and key lessons and tips for myself and others who are constantly striving to learn and grow as music creatives. While my story might reflect a certain kind of “success” at least in terms of the final output of creating decent songs, there are several things I probably would have done differently. There is definitely one or two things I need to remind myself as music producer, namely to be a music producer, you need to be producing music.
NOTE: This post is intended as a kind of “note to self” from my current self to my past one. It’s intentionally long form in order share as much as context and perspective as I could. Take what you can and adapt. If something doesn’t resonate, drop it. Regardless, I challenge you (both you of my future self and you as an external other) to think about the “meta” level in pursuing something so personal as making your own music. If you pursue or adapt any of this pursuit, please drop me a line. I’d love to hear how it goes as well as of your own suggestions and recommendations.
A Map of My Personal Music Production Learning Journey
Let’s start with a visual representation of my music journey.
At the beginning there is my classic founder story of “I was stuck in lockdown…” and at the end is my first produced EP, Take Life Chill, a collection of 6 ambient music for work, relaxing and focus. Looking back at my actual logs and artifacts, I can breakdown my music production into 4 phases:
- Phase 1: Discovery, Initial Curiosity and Playing
- Phase 2: Skill Building and Playing
- Phase 3: Doing and Exploring
- Phase 4: Song Writing and Album Production
Phase 1: Discovery, Initial Curiosity and Playing
TLDR: COVID Pandemic lockdown prompted me to try music production using Garageband and eventually led to a discovery phase with tools like VCV Rack and Auxy.
A Few Lessons from Phase 1:
- Making music is fun. Never forget to be playful and seek enjoyment.
- It’s never too late to learn something new and get better at it over time. You don’t need a degree in music to be a musician.
- Don’t be afraid to just explore and try. Stay curious.
First off, I’ll admit that creating music isn’t some passion or hobby I’ve had long harbored since I was young. Prior to early 2020, I had never “made” music before. At least intentionally. In fact, besides being a self-taught computer programmer, product designer, and polyglot, I was pretty naive to anything related to music production. While I have scribbled poems during my youth and had been force-fed some parent-induced piano lessons in my early teens, I had never “written” a song or produced music in my life. Prior to this learning and creation adventure, I hadn’t cared much for music besides listening to music and going to the occassional concert, which was admittedly was quite infrequent since I was living in China.
There is a somewhat cliché narrative we hear around goals, especially at the end when someone is getting their Olympic Medal, Grammy or other peak achievement and that is “What got you started with X?” The goal achiever then retells where and how they got started as well as often who influenced them. In the movie version, we often then fast-forward through a montage of training and progress to the final competition. While the starting of a journey is important, I’d argue that these goal narratives often leave out the grind of the in-between and the slow but progress narrative of pursuing a goal.
In my own case, I stumbled into music production in the first weeks of COVID-19 Lockdown. Stuck at home, I opened up Garageband on my MacBook Pro and, guided by a friend, started creating. Like many Apple products, the user interface of GarageBand was intuitive and instruments and sounds it included were easy to get something musical going. With GarageBand, I almost immediately created something that I amusingly found pretty decent to my own ears. Even after only an hour or two, I had made a “song.”
With Garageband, I could play at music production. For me, this playful and flow-inducing aspect of music production has been key to my journey. I’ve learned a lot of different skills including Chinese and computer computer. Many of these learning were extremely hard and demanded tons and tons of work. There were also rarely that fun in the learning phase. It’s quite amazing to finally speak a foreign language but I generally did not find the process from learning your first words to finally reaching fluency to be fun or playful; it was hard work. With learning music, there were definitely challenges and hard things to learn, but one of the great joys of learning music production is just how much fun it is.
These first couple play sessions in Garageband led to my first investment in music tools, specifically my first Midi keyboard. Basically a midi keyboard doesn’t produce sounds on its own but, by connecting to software, it allows you to play notes on the device which the software can then play. Having a little plug-and-play midi device meant I could use the keyboard to play notes and use software to capture those notes to create sounds. My first purchase was a $99 AKAI MPK mini, which has a little 26-key keyboard along with 6 drum pads and 8 dials. While I now own a few other devices, this little keyboard remains my main input device for music creation at home and when traveling.
I highly recommend getting a starter Midi keyboard and integrating it into your default setup and workflow. Having a single device ready to go removes many of the creative barriers to showing up and starting.
Two additional purchases are pretty essential for most beginning music producers, namely a decent set of headphones and an audio interface. An audio interface allows you to record audio in, namely via a microphone, guitar or synthesizer. Audio interface enables you to send audio out to your studio monitors or speakers as well as listen using your headphones. There are numerous choices, but I ended up with Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 as my starter audio interface and Sony MDR7506 as my starter producer headphones.
With a decent set of headphones I started to look the part as a DJ or music producer too. Headphones made my creation experience more immersive and saved my loved ones around me from suffering during my sound discovery phase.
Over the next 6 to 9 months and the heart of a pretty scary period of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Los Angeles, I continued to play and explore music and music production. I started to watch a lot of videos about music production and read various articles on approaches and gear.
I’ll admit looking back that, instead of doing and skill building, I fell into a learning fallacy. I started observing others doing the skill I was pursuing, rather than doing it myself. YouTube can be a great place to learn, but it’s largely built to entertain. I spent a lot of time “observing” others make music and followed endless online discussions on things you might want to buy to make music. Fortunately, as a minimalist and relatively anti-consumeristic, I managed to stay away from too much early buying. But it was an easy time-suck watching videos on gear comparison and superficial music production tutorials.
One benefit of watching hours of free videos on music production is that gave me a lot of examples of others who had built up skills to make music and gave me a sense of the music production landscape.
Besides Garageband, I stumbled into a couple different tools and approaches during my early discovery phase. As a software developer and designer I tend to spend a good deal of time on my computer. So, hoping to spend less time on my computer, I was initially quite drawn to iOS or app-based music tools. My two initial favorites were:
- Auxy on iOS
- MiRack (iOS) / VCV Rack (desktop computer)
Auxy (https://auxy.co/) calls itself “A Studio in Your Pocket,” and I think that label largely fits. Initially released in late 2014 and still regularly updated and maintained, Auxy provides a very easy to use and intuitive interface for creating electronic music. You can select between either a drum or a synth instrument. Drum instrument let you use pre-built drums or create your sample-based drumkits. Synth instruments uses Auxy’s sound engine to enable you to create some pretty classic electronic sounds and vibes. Whether you use a drum rack or an instrument, Auxy then allows you to input different notes or “hits” on a grid or sequencer. You can then combine a series of sequences to create a loop or even a full song. By combining different drums, samples, instruments, and audio effects you can create some pretty nice sounding stuff. Additionally, Auxy lets you export your initial creations for additional work and polishing in Ableton and a few other DAWs.
Personally, besides just creating and jamming, I used Auxy pretty heavily while I was learning and studying about drums and drum patterns. Whether it’s electronic music or pop, drum sounds and drum programming/sequencing are the key components for the creating the groove in nearly all modern music. Using an old drum programming manual from the 1990s for drum sequencers as well as online resources, I programmed in various recreations of classic drum patterns into Auxy. This helped me to hear and understand key patterns for drums. It was also just a really fun way to make music too.
[If you are interested in hearing an example I created entirely with Auxy, listen to Venice Canals Beach House Jam on Soundclound.]
There are nearly endless paths you can take when it comes to music creation. Besides Auxy and a few other apps, I ended up on a pretty extended dive into generative music and modular synthesizers, in particular what is commonly referred as “euro racks.”
Generative music refers an algorithmic approach to music creation that was popularized by Brian Eno to describe music that is ever-different and ever-changing. Essentially you program evolving patterns such that the sounds are always changing and overlapping to create new sonic experiences. Often the time lengths differ too meaning the patterns intersect in unique ways over time.
Modular synthesizers or “modular” allow you to create your own custom synthesizer by buying and assembling it piece-by-piece. Then you patch or cable together those elements in different ways to create a unique instrument or sequencers. Historically you would buy a music synthesizer like a Roland or Moog that came with pretty well-defined circuitry such that, while flexible, still let you only do certain things. Euro rack is a standardized hardware modular synthesizer format that has resulted in over 15,000 modules available from more than 1000 different manufacturers.
Much of my early interest in modular likely stemmed from my general interest in electronics, hardware and computers, but frankly modular synths came with a pretty heavy price tag to just get started, likely a few thousand dollars to just get started.
Fortunately, especially for my bank account, I was lucky that there exists a digital emulation of hardware modular synths that is free and open source called VCV Rack (on Mac and Windows) or MiRack (on iOS). Many of the modules you can buy in hardware have software recreation in VCV Rack, making it possible to create your own euro modular rack for free using hundreds of different modules. Besides exploring aspects of generative music, VCV Rack taught me key hands-on fundamentals on how sound synthesis works and how to design sound end to end. Using free patches I found online, I could quickly get an initial sound pattern to then tweak and play with (as well as learn from). Over time I created several patches where I’d then spend hours just tweaking and listening to epic evolving soundscapes.
[If you want listen to two examples of generative music I created primarily on VCV Rack or MiRack, check out Ronin Pauses (to Mediate in Manor’s Forest Park) or Wandering Ronin along the Middle Mountain Pass on Soundcloud. Both are pretty ambient, chill, sleep, meditation or relaxation music.]
A Few Key Tools of Phase 1:
- Garageband - free music production software available on any Apple computer
- Auxy (iOS) - a fun on-the-go iOS app for music production (subscription-based)
- VCV Rack - free, open source software for sound synthesis based on hardware gear
Phase 2: Skill Building and Playing
TLDR: Choosing a professional DAW (Ableton Live) triggered a new phase of skill-building for me around several key music production tools and essential techniques. Though it takes hard work, mastering your DAW is fundamental for any (new) music producer. New gear, play and continual trial and error on my DAW led me into making new songs and eventually to releasing my first tracks to share on Soundcloud and YouTube.
A Few Lessons from Phase 2:
- Master your DAW since it’s foundational to modern digital music production.
- Research and create your own music production learning path.
- Commit to regular time for your music habit.
- Continue to prioritize creation and play but embrace learning key music production concepts and techniques through hard work in order to slowly and progressively improve your abilities and mental models.
Oftentimes it’s difficult to point out exactly where a learning journey transitions to a new phase. For example, it’s impossible to say when I transitioned from a beginner to an intermediate or an intermediate to an advanced Chinese speaker. I definitely knew when I could fluently order food in a restaurant but later leveling up are hard to piFortunately, when it came to my music production journey, there was a very obvious and significant transition for me and that was before-and-after Ableton Live.
When it comes to music production, your primary tool is your DAW or Digital Audio Workstation. A DAW is a piece of computer software for assembling different patterns of (MIDI) notes and recorded sounds into a complete song composition. A DAW often includes its own software instruments called VSTs or “Virtual Studio Technology”. You can also use separate VSTs provided by different providers and companies. These VSTs essentially allow you to have a huge range of instruments and sounds recreated digitally.
Besides composition and instruments, DAWs give you access to audio effects, like EQ and reverb, to further sculpt sounds. In the end, a DAW enables a music producer to bring together different notes, sounds and effects into a final song you can export to share and release. In my own case, after multiple months noodling on different music making methods, I was looking for a tool to give me more capabilities as a music producer. I was looking for a professional DAW. But which DAW?
Unfortunately, like much of the music space, there are lots of choices on software and gear, like your DAW. Garageband, which was my free entry point into music production is an example of a DAW. There are many popular “professional” DAWs like Apple’s Logic, Ableton Live, FL Studio, Cubase, Bitwig, Studio One, Reaper, etc. This blog post is not the space to debate which DAW is best for you, but for me after watching dozens of music production tutorials, at the end of 2020 I decided to “gift” myself a free a trial of Ableton Live.
Ableton appeared to me to be one of the most utilized by the producers I was following and was a good fit for the type of music I wanted to produce too. While it does have some unique features (namely the session view), Ableton Live offers much of what you’ll find in any of the most popular DAWs, like a midi piano roll, good VST instruments and lots of high-quality audio effects. Beyond that, I felt like there was a huge repository of Ableton tutorials and guides online to help me.
While my initial discovery phase around music creation was about play and fun, I was pretty limited by my tools. There were many things I just couldn’t do with GarageBand or Auxy. By properly learning and utilizing a DAW like Ableton Live, I was entering into the realm of much more professional and sophisticated approaches to music production. Not only would the end result of my music production be higher quality in terms of sound output, I would have a lot more tools, choices and techniques to leverage during the production process.
In my past learning adventures, I had fallen into the learner’s trap of constantly looking for the perfect book to learn X or best online course to build Y skill. I would blame my lack of progress on my starting materials. Even though it can be useful to find great learning resources, there is rarely anything perfect or best objectively-speaking. Much like seeking better productivity software or a To-Do list app, there are diminishing returns constantly switching tools and trying out different beginner learning resources. The cost of switching is time consuming and wasteful as well. It’s ok to try a few things but eventually it’s best to pick one thing and focus on working your way through it. For me, I picked Ableton. Tried it for a few days and loved it. I’ve stuck with it since. It’s tempting to switch but I constantly remind myself to level up with what I have rather than seek novelty in a new tool or toy.
Unfortunately learning a DAW and many other music production skills and techniques is hard. In fact, looking back on any learning and skill building journey requires you to recognize that there will be stages where you simply need to put in the time and hard work to get the skills and abilities you need. I’ve practiced and written pretty extensively about my journey hacking foreign languages where I describe some of my learning techniques I use like flashcards, spaced repetition learning (SRL) and seeking advice and guidance from other learners on what to prioritize on your learning path.
Since I knew that getting good at Ableton Live would be key to leveling up and making better songs, following a few trial days, I decided to dedicate about 6 or 7 weeks to actively learning Ableton. I bought a book and online course and worked through the basics, fundamentals and a selection of the advanced topics. I probably could have achieved the same results with free YouTube videos and blog posts, but I personally find the small investment and $$$ in a class or book forces me to utilize a paid resource and actually learn.
Basically spending money acts as personal commitment to use it (i.e. get my money’s worth). This is something I’ve used extensively for my language learning and coding studies. By buying a course, I feel a sense of commitment and end up showing up and learning.
Beyond this initial mastering of intermediate usage of Ableton Live, I’ll admit that I was pretty confused on what next. Even when I started learning music production and sound synthesis I got pretty overwhelmed by the number of concepts, ideas and techniques I would have to learn to become a “professional” music producer. So based on the high bar of mastery, I largely considered myself a “music production learner” for a long time. A beginner’s mindset can be a good thing at times since you give yourself a break on perfect, just embrace a little bit better every time, and show up and play.
So how did I find my next’s? Similar to how I approached successful language learners and followed or adapted their path to foreign language fluency, I looked for online resources to give me a list of essentials. In this case, I ended up stumbling into a few online courses and deep dive books to orient my own learning path. For example, I pages through the table of contents in textbooks and looked at course syllabuses from Berkelee and Point Blank Music School to get started. From those resources, I identified three big basic buckets of skills I should have as a music producer:
Mastering your DAW (i.e. Ableton Live) - Already an area I was focusing on.
- Sound Engineering (i.e. Recording) - Since I wasn’t planning to record vocals or instruments just yet, I could skip that for now.
- Music Composition, including Music Theory
Additionally I found several references related to learning Sound Synthesis, Sound Design, and Mixing/Mastering.
Unfortunately all of these courses were structured around pursuing learning over multiple years, which I didn’t have or want to invest. I wanted to “hack” my music production learning or at least make faster progress towards my intended output, quality songs. So instead of forking out thousands of dollars and pausing my career to enroll in one of these programs, I simply cherrypicked what I considered the most relevant and useful topic for my own skill building path. In my learning journal, I noted the following:
- Improving my Ableton Live DAW Skills, i.e. Sampling, Automation, Mixing Tools (EQ and Compression) and Finalizing the Mix / Mastering
- Song Composition: Rhythm, Harmony, Melodies, etc.
- Finish Music Theory COURSE towards goal of understanding notes that sound generally good together
Beyond these 3 areas, in my learning log, I also recognized that I wanted to further my journey around:
- Sound Design: Basic Music Synthesis
- Advanced Music Synthesis, inc Modular Synthesis
- Advanced Mixing and Mastering
Admittedly this was a pretty ambitious list. I then did some initial “meta” research (limited to 1-3 hours) to find and identify learning resources, videos, articles, books and courses on many of these key topics. I then created a huge list of individual topics and resources. I worked through them one-by-one and somewhat haphazardly over the next several months.
Along with up-ing my music production skills, I elected to complement my composition and song writing skills through learning an instrument. In my case, I surpressed my childhood demons around learning piano and started some regular piano practice using a piano learning app (Simply Piano). Simply Piano and similar apps provide adaptive feedback as you play to help you immediately recognize your mistakes. They also provide a progressive path to piano skills towards playing simplified pop songs. It was fun too.
Finally beyond identifying what gaps I had and what skills I should build, I made one other key commitment and that was spending about 5 to 10 hours a week on music production jamming and music learning. Basically several times a week I would dedicate 30 minutes to 2 hours learning and doing, practicing and creating my music craft. Regardless of my life situation, I would show up and put in a bit of work on music (and by extension hopefully make progress). In support of this time commitment and topical skill building, each week I would check my time spent on music during my weekly review and set weekly objectives related to my giant list of skills and learning topics. 5h of music has largely been a standing weekly goal I’ve had for 2 years straight, and, much like the law of compounding interest in investing, I found compounding return on my music studies too.
Looking back, I’ll admit that my approach ended up a bit more “learning for learning” than I wish it had been. While all of the skills I worked on are and were important, I unfortunately pursued them in a somewhat conceptual and disconnected way from the actual abilities I would have most benefited from. As a learner, while it’s somewhat good to learn certain music production techniques conceptually, it’s even better to learn them actively and practically. Put another, your learning should be as tangibly connected to the thing you want to do. If you want to get good at speaking Spanish, you should prioritize speaking Spanish rather than playing at learning with Duolingo. When it came to music production, I had biased my learning at times to concepts, rather than deliverables and skills I can enact. This point was made famous by Feynman Method, which you could summarize as:
- Try to Teach What You Study,
- Fill in Gaps (uncovered when you can’t teach or do),
- Repeat until Mastery as Teacher.
I also believe my music production studies in this phase failed due to pursusing forms of learning that gave me the illusion of competence but didn’t challenge me enough to actively test and improve on the target activities themselves. As I wrote about in Learning How to Learn, the illusion of competence describes a kind of bias or mistake many of us as learners fall for when we study a topic where certain learning activities (like highlighting or re-reading) feels like a good way to learn but they don’t actually challenge us enough and doesn’t force us to practice what we learn. Put another way, while it’s good to know OF and ABOUT the tools and techniques of music production, it’s better to actually know the skills and have those capacities. In retrospect, I would have learned faster and in more applicable ways if I had better linked my skill building studies to actual music production doings. Essentially I needed to limit my time spent watching videos on YouTube that were more entertainment and less active learning. I wish I had put in more time doing and less time watching others doing.
Along with a range of skill-building, I continued to create song demos and new tracks primarily but not exclusively with Ableton Live. In addition to my preferred DAW, I bought and tried a bunch of additional song creating devices and software. For example, I bought my first hardware groovebox and sequencer, Novation’s Circuit Tracks, which I spent many hours learning and playing. I also got my first hardware synthesizers, like an Arturia MicroFreak. I also bought and tried various VSTs and apps. While some apps or things I bought I only used for a few hours, many of them gave me new ways to play at music and discover hands-on learnings about music and music creation.
I’ll confess that I have bought some music gear and VSTs I don’t use as often I wish, but in my internal mental math, I often think if I buy a device or software for $100-200 and play and use it for at least 10-15 hours, then I got my money’s worth because it meant I spent like 10-20 dollars an hour on myself towards actively doing my music. So assuming you use a piece of software a few hours and cost isn’t too high (under 200 ideally), then I think these investments are worth it since it keeps you active, learning and doing. We don’t think negatively about buying a private teacher or tutor, so you shouldn’t feel bad spending 10 dollar an hour using a new device that helps you get better at a skill or passion.
A Few Key Tools, Resources and Tips of Phase 2:
- Ableton - paid DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) used by professional music producer. I have not once been disappointed with Ableton as my dedicated desktop DAW.
- Various Online Tables of Contents and Course Syllabuses on Learning Music Production and Sound Engineering. Google “Music Production Degree” to find some examples.
- Novation’s Circuit Tracks - a budget-friendly hardware groovebox and sequencer that invites play and jamming
- Arturia MicroFreak - a budget-friendly hardware synthesizer with a wide-range of sound design capacities.
Phase 3: Doing and Exploring
TLDR: At the end of the day a music producer is defined by actually producing songs. You don’t get any awards for just wearing the badge. Personally, “music producer” wasn’t an identity I was seeking but actually making songs I liked to listen to and wanted to share was. In order to improve as a music producer, you gotta do it regularly and get feedback, both with your own ears but also from other perspective. Unless you intuitively know the type of music you want to create, unfortunately finding a genre you resonate with and want to produce for is an added challenge. In my case, I benefited from exploring a range of genres and producing a wide-range of initial (terrible) songs that ultimately led to me to two unlocks: first, I need to shorten and sharpen my initial song production flow (i.e. routine of starter steps and build templates); and second, I should focus on “finishing” songs according the development stage of that song.
Unlike my passage from Discovery to Skill-Building, it is less obvious when I shifted into Phase 3. For me, this new phase was defined by active Music Production Doing’s and Exploration, meaning I progressively began to focus more on actually making songs and less and less time was on learning and skill-building.
Unfortunately, while I had many of the basic skills and tools to make high quality songs at this stage, two significant challenges remained:
- Making better and better original music, i.e. Doing
- Figuring out my style, what kind of songs or which genre(s) I wanted to produce for, i.e. Exploring different sounds to discover “my” sound and vibe for my music.
Additionally unlike Phases 1 and 2, there really wasn’t much of a “guide” for me to follow now. The beginner phase of initial curiousity and the intermediate phase of skill-building are both well-defined markers on the learner’s journey as a music producer. Many videos, books and articles can provide useful starting points and good resources in the initial phases as a beginner and intermediate skill-building music producer. In fact, if you want to make a song in X or Y genre there are lots of people that can give you tutorials and guides, but what if you still consider yourself a so, so producer? What if you aren’t even sure what music you “are”? In this state of mediocre pieces of work and signfiicant self-doubt about “your” musical style, what can one do?
In my opinion, this Phase 3 of my music producer journey represented a hard fork in the road. I’d largely lost some of the joy of simply creating for creating and learning for learning. Looking at my time logs I was spending less time on music regularly too. Admittedly in retrospect, I was in the “wilderness” of uncertainty and complexity as a creative and learner. Creatives, even experienced and successful ones, all encounter some aspect of this valley of doubt in their creative projects. Doing some new and unique is hard. At this point, I didn’t know what I wanted to create and didn’t even really know where I should focus to improve either. This was normal to some extent as an artist but it was still troubling nonetheless and I was demotivated.
Compounding this uncertainty was a certain degree of distraction and misalignment I found watching various videos online from other music producers on YouTube. YouTube has several music producer “celebrities” who do an amazing job creating songs and tracks with a huge range of gear. It’s inspiring to see studios filled with gear and a near endless sea of synthesizers and instruments. They also seem to be able to whip up a song in the space of a 5, 10 or 15 minute video clip. This obcession with gear can quickly spiral into a belief that your abilities as a music producer are limited by your lack of gear. I personally fell into this trap somewhat at various points. I had points where I wasn’t regularly using my DAW Ableton and was trying to make music with VCV Rack, Circuit Tracks, Teenage Engineering PO-33 KO! and selection of other hardware-based instruments. I could get started and make bits and pieces but I rarely finished anything beyond my own listening and playing in the moment. Looking back, I was procrasting to some extent. I was staying in the early learner phase with new stuff instead of mastering to finishing.
Even though I had a lot of the basics and advanced skills to produce music, I also began to see lots of gaps in myself too. I had a kind of inferiority complex wherein I wanted to keep learning until I had “enough” skills to be really great. There is so much amazing music to listen to that you’ll inevitably ask yourself, when will my music ever measure up to my peers and the classics I listen to?
My music learning log of notes attests to these doubts via monthly dumps on topics I “should” learn and tools I “should” master as I built up a pretty wide-range of things I had tried too. Moreover a question I saw again and again was What kind of music do I want to produce?. This concern further hindered my ability to just make music. Instead I ended up obsessing about what music to make and with what gear and skills. I was in my head about doing rather in flow actually doing.
Looking back, I realize that I didn’t quite understand that the path of learning to be a music producer is quite different than say learning to speak a foreign language or training for a marathon. While those two examples are all about skill-building and readiness to do a specific thing, music production is a creative artistic act. You can’t just do all of the gestures to build the skills and expect to be the artist. To be an artist means iteratively doing the thing itself towards expressing yourself and improving on what you are doing.
Personally being a so-called “music producer” wasn’t an identity I was aiming at. What I was aiming at was making music and songs I liked to listen to and hopefully were worth sharing with others. Unfortunately I just didn’t know what kind of music to create nor what kind of music producer I was either.
I believe as music producers we need to embrace the “wilderness” of uncertainty and complexity that comes after initial skill building. No one was going to tell me what type of music I should make for myself or for others. No one was going to provide a step-by-step guide to finding my genre and improving my sound to my “good enough” perfection. As disheartening as that is, this reality of your musical self undefined can also be freeing in a way too, because it means no one else gets to define your authentic style and genre except yourself. And, by extension, as you produce your own songs you get to discover your own sound.
Unless you intuitively know your type of music, unfortunately finding a genre to produce can be a challenge. In my case, I benefited from exploring a range of genres and producing a wide-range of initial (terrible) songs. I just tried making stuff. I listened to a lot of different songs and genres and those that resonated with, I tried to make something similar or in the same vibe. One of the benefits of music production compared with say foreign language speaking is that you get to use your own taste and listening to judge what you produce. By actively listening to various genres, you develop a feel or mental model for good sounding songs in a genre. You can then use that taste and genre perception to evaluate your own music and improve. In order to improve as a music producer, you gotta do it regularly and get feedback, both with your own ears but also from others.
In turn, by producing songs you get better. By listening to a range of existing music, trying on aspects of it and reproducing core element of it anew in your own way in your own songs, you find your own genre and you get to become your own music artist along the way.
While other artists and music producers can offer tips and guidance, we as creatives and music producers must embrace our own journey. To evolve and transform yourself as an artist you can’t avoid uncertainty and doubt. As existentially scary as it sounds, you largely need to and must forge and forage your own path as a musical creative. No one else can do this for you.
During this phase, there were many paths pursued and things tried but I believe I eventually reached two key “unlocks,” namely first, I need to shorten and sharpen my initial song production flow (i.e. starter steps and templates); and second, I should focus on “finishing” songs.
As a music producer we have a lot of potential decisions to make from end-to-end in producing a song. Creating templates and developing specific instruments essentially removes certain wide-open choices and gives you a reliable default choice to get started with. In my case, I developed initially one core Ableton Live Template for Electronic Indie Music which I used and developed extensively. I subsequently created a few other genre-specific templates and custom instruments to help initiate a new song. With these templates I could quickly get up and running on a new song in less time and with less choices to make.
Finishing to some capacity can be hard as a creative. It’s easy to always see imperfections and areas to improve. This comes from our own self-doubt as well as knowing there are endless songs we can compare with that are inarguably “better” than what we are working on. I’ll admit that I have also struggled with finishing songs in various ways. I fail to finish a song as a starter and fail to finish a song to share and release. Over time I’ve come to realize that the faster I can shorten my initial and later production cycles towards delivering a complete track, the more satisified I become with my creative process. At times the songs I initially finish aren’t great but at least they are finished so the songs themselves and myself as artist can move on to new creations or later revisions on those initally “finished” tracks.
There are various ways to better pursue finishing tracks and arguably it’s still an area I am working and growing into. Personally I find having an inital song production routine and checklist helps me get started and finish enough pieces in order to capture a core musical song idea. Ableton Live makes this easy for me since I can start with chords, bass, melody or even drums and then add each element one by one using the session view. This allows me to build an 8 to 16 bar loop. Normally this takes me 30 minutes to an hour when I start to feel my energy waning. I could easily stop here with just a loop but I’ve come to realize that if I lean into this moment and try and convert these 5-10 instrument tracks into a song arrangement in another 10 minutes or so, the end result is basically a finished song demo. The added benefit is that I have a song to export and relisten to as well as to potentially share. In turn I get the satisfaction of having “finished” to an extent too. I’ve finishing an initial song demo, which is good enough way to look at the first steps around any song.
[Note: While there were numerous unreleased songs I made during this phase, two that did emerge and merited in my mind to share were Islands In The Sky - LoFi Piano For Sunny Day Relaxing and Hypnotic Falcon which were both released on Soundcloud.]
Ultimately Phase 3 for me was a challenging moment since I felt pretty lost in terms of what kind music I wanted to create as well as I had reached a certain set point or plateau of music production output that I still considered pretty mediocre. There weren’t obvious steps to follow or guides to pursue. Here are some tips for myself and others facing this moment.
A Few Lessons from Phase 3:
- After initial curiosity and skill building, a degree of despair and uncertainty about what’s next as a music producer and creative is normal and expected.
- Avoid trying (and buying) new tools when you’ll get better rewards and ROIs leveling up the tools you already have.
- Embrace showing up and trying. Prioritize “Do” over “Learn.” You are now at a phase where you should only spend 10-20% of your time learning and most of your effort should be on the doing.
- Develop a modifiable and adaptable routine of steps to produce a song demo. Your steps may change but finding and developing a list of steps you can follow to finish a song fast can be a useful enabler.
- Create and use templates to help you get started, frame your initial sound choices, and shorten your setup time to getting started. Having a template to start from can be freeing to your doing.
- Actively listen to songs, artists and albums in order to identify sonic characteristics, patterns and things you like. Then try to reproduce.
- Explore different sounds, genres, instruments, etc. with an open-mind and have fun.
- Aim to improve so you make music production decisions faster and finish songs sooner too. When in doubt trust your ears, your taste, your preference.
Phase 4: Song Writing and Album Production
TLDR: Following a period of curiosity and skill building, I struggled through a period of uncertainty. I was in the creative wilderness uncertain what to do next and what style or genre fit “me.” At that moment, I was nudged to pursue the most important activitity and output for any music producer: producing a song and then another. This unlock led to a singular focus on song writing, a collection of song demos and eventually a diligent process reviewing, reworking and finishing my first album.
In early March 2022 which was roughly two years after starting to “play” with music production, I was feeling a certain amount of doubt. In one journal entry around that time, I noted all of the things I’d bought including a new midi controller, digital piano / midi keyboard and some synthesizers, but in that same entry, I wrote:
I’ve created quite a few little riffs and song starters but been over 3 months since I’ve released or finished any tracks. Frankly a couple days ago I relistened to my current work-in-progress and it was quite underwhelming.
I had roughly 20 or 30 song demos that I found listenable and maybe 5 or so I’d released via Soundcloud or Youtube. I was content with my progress to some extent but uncertain what was next. I was “plateauing,” meaning I had reached a certain baseline skill level but wasn’t able to evolve to the next ability level. Plateau-ing is a common characteristic in any kind of learning. Much as I had done in my previous language learning and coding studies, I sought out other experts and succesful achievers who had not only done the thing I wanted to do but written a book about doing it. In this particular situation I somehow stumbled into a book that helped me recognize some of the creator fallacies I was stuck on and provided a pretty singular answer. The book was Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back and his key lesson was simple: “No one writes songs—plural. They write one song, and then another.”
Tweedy was part of the group Wilco and had written many of well-known and popular songs. In his book, he demystifies much of the ethos I and many of us have built around being a songwriter and artist. He repositions music creation as a craft. He provides numerous insightful tips towards becoming the song writer and producer I aspired to be. Whether you are an aspiring music producer or just a general creative doer, the book is well-worth reading for it’s articulation of artist as an active verb, rather than state of being. It’s filled with great quotes that I continue to look to and still influence my process now and many of the key points I’ve written in this post. Here are a few goodies I highlighted:
- “‘Process’ is also the only name I know of for whatever series of contortions and mental tricks we have available to lose ourselves in when we create…In the end, learning how to disappear is the best way I’ve found to make my true self visible to myself and others.”
- “To me, process is whatever act you can engage in, whatever steps you can take, and whatever device you have at your disposal that you can use, together, that reliably results in a work of art.”
- “When they’re well constructed, finished songs often sound effortless, and I’m here to tell you that takes work. “
- “Just let a song be itself.”
Beyond these pithy points, Jeff Tweedy reminded me that music writing and creating was about one thing and one thing alone: writing songs one by one. This was again (as has been one of the biggest and most repeated themes in this post and what I found in my own learning journey) about the need to priorize doing. To be a music creator is to create. Everything that isn’t producing song is likely some form of procrastination or avoidance of doing something that we fear won’t measure up to our expectations.
To continue on my path as a music producer I had to become more singular focused on dropping all of the pretenses about readiness to write songs and just show up and write them and record them. As Tweedy puts it, “Most of the time, inspiration has to be invited.” I was ready. I just need to show ready to write songs and hope inspiration, flow and core musical ideas showed up to the party too.
While I continued to explore and play, I priorized “music production jamming” as my primary activity. Each week over the next couple months at the end of my day often following a workout or exercise, I would simply clear my desk, open up one of my main Ableton Templates and try to create and produce a song demo in a single session. Sometimes I wouldn’t and couldn’t manage it, but now having recognized that it was an output and volume game of showing up and trying, more often than not in 30 minutes to 2 hours I was able to create a song or riff.
Leveraging my Ableton DAW skills, prebuilt instruments, a simple routine and often times a random vague starter idea or key choice I showed up several times a week and had several songs to show. This cycle and music habit continued for several weeks and I slowly assembled dozens of new songs. During this phase, I found a genre (melodic ambient music), a process and a “groove” to my music production. Out of the early part of phase came about 3 or 4 “nearly finished” songs I really liked and shared it with a few friends. The positive feedback I got, especially from a fellow music producer, inspired me to take a bold next step and set a new goal.
On Wednesday, June 8, 2022, for whatever arbitrary reason, I decided to give my music creation project a name.
For much of my individual song creation journey I’d used a random adjective with a animal name to title early song demos. In fact there is even a website that will generate a bunch of options here. As I finished a song demo I’d visit that website and find an adjective and animal to gift my new songs with a starter name. Less thinking about the name and flowing in the moment seemed best for me. Better to finish with a funny name than not finising at all.
Somewhat random and somewhat inspired by the genre of the best songs I’d made, I called the project and my stage name Stellar Mammals. For me a “Stellar Mammal” represented a weird wink at our astral and celestial potential as well as funny idea that our fellow mammalian brethren like whales and sea lions might join us in pondering at the stars. For lack of a better option, I decided to pick a name. Stellar Mammals was born (or at least committed to one day being born)!
Moreover, looking at this as a startup entrepreneurial project I quickly went ahead and in one evening set up a few of what I considered the logistical, internet necessities that go with any project, namely I registered @StellarMammals social media accounts, bought a domain (StellarMammals.com) and even designed a first logo and landing page.
Within days, I stopped calling myself a music producer to-be or music creator in-training and set a new goal for myself. I was producing and going to release my first album or EP. My specific or “SMART” goal was to write and produce somewhere between 4 and 8 songs that more less would fit together as a mood, genre and/or listening experience. I was originally aiming to finish by the end of the summer. I was working on an album!
I jotted in my journal what I called “A Few Album Genre Guidelines”:
- Mood: Relaxed but pensive
- Eclectic Drum Hits
- Sometimes Drums / Groove but sometimes not
- Strong Chord Progressions
- Lush pads and atmospheric drones
Stellar Mammals “Lead” Instruments:
- Ambient Background Sounds from Nature
- Bright Sound
- Evocative themes and emotional tones
Obviously your mileage on such an act of intention-setting might vary, but I found that defining a clear frame around what I wanted to create was incredibly freeing. I had a “genre” I wanted to pursue with some clear vibes. In the back of mind, I had elected to cut off areas I didn’t quite have the skills for too, like writing and recording vocals. My album was going to vaguely try to be whatever those early songs were reaching towards and framed by those guidelines of genre characteristics. Additionally, I surmised that ambient chill msuc would be more approachable and acheiveable for me to create as a new music producer. Over the next couple months, armed with a clear goal and these intentions, I continued to write a few new songs while rewriting and polishing a few of previosly created tracks.
Finally, by early August, 2022, I had six songs that were “finished” in their core musical ideas, arranged and ready for the next round of production work. I was ready for feedback and another round of reworking. At this stage I sent over demos of these tracks to a couple different friends and one or two music producers. I took a break and distanced myself from the work for awhile. In general, the response was positive, and one or two music producer buddies sent over some very precise song-by-song feedback.
Using the specific feedback, in early September, I relistened to each track one evening and created an actionable section for each song in my album production notes like this:
- Song Name
- [Link to version in cloud storage]
- STATUS (i.e. Needs Work / Pending / Finished)
- FEEDBACK (External) - List of points to consider
- FEEDBACK (Personal) - List of possible changes, ideas and reflections
Having these tangible and actionable notes removed some of the ambiguity about the work I could and should do. I had a list of items and over the coming days I took a few hours on each song to rework the track based on each point of feedback. Most of the feedback I made an attempt at implementing to see if it improved the song. Some things didn’t seem to work or improve the songs so I dropped the attempted changes. I subsequently relistened to the tracks on my studio monitors, a basic speaker, and different headphones to see if there were any noticable auditory changes to make it more amendable to different speakers and listening experiences. I gave myself a chance to hear anything that I might want to do to significantly better the song.
By mid September I had finished releaseable versions of all of the tracks for my first EP. All that remained were several logistical steps, including:
- Designing a cover
- Setting up a music distribution account. In my case, I used DistroKid, which is a subscription service that makes it easy to distribute your music on Spotify, Apple Music and other platforms all around the world.
- Uploading my songs
- Waiting for review and release
- Preparing my artist website at StellarMammals.com
Finally, on September 24, 2022, I released my first EP, Take Life Chill, with 6 original tracks and 22 minutes of original music on Spotify and other platforms. I sent a few messages to friends and family, including friends in China on QQ Music and celebrated. A few day later I published my album notes.
One of my happiest moments was just a few days later when I said to my Google Smart Speaker, “Hey Google, play Stellar Mammals on Spotify” and lo and behold it started playing my songs.
After nearly 3 years and 500+ hours of production learnings and doings, I had learned, written, produced and published my first music album!
A Few Lessons from Phase 4:
- You don’t write songs. You write a song and then write another.
- Commiting to song writing at the start of this phase was a game-changer for me as a producer. Basically it removed much of the internal dialogue about next steps and insecurities and made it pretty singular: Show up and produce songs. Rinse and repeat.
- Once you have a bunch of initial songs, ask yourself: Are these songs worthy of trying to finish for release? If not, keep writing more songs. If they are, consider draft a list of intentions and guidelines.
- At a certain point, gift your project or your persona a name. Naming is powerful. In my case, naming what I was doing “Stellar Mammals” was freeing and gave me a focal point to push onward.
- Eventually set a goal. Make it specific and try and put a deadline to it. For me, once I had a bunch of initial songs I set a goal of finishing my album by the end of the summer. While I didn’t quite hit the deadline, having a deadline was a forcing factor and made me dig in during the final phases. Goals, if properly set and tracked, can be enabled.
- Consider separating your final album production phase into a few buckets. For example, aim to first finish rough demos. Share with others and using your evaluative, critical mind, create a list of point by point feedback. At a separate moment go back to that list of feedback and try and implement the suggest changes. Rinse and repeat.
- Take notes so have a log on the status of things, captured feedback and changes you make. Consider journalling at time to record your thoughts and feelings as well as to remind yourself of what you care about.
- Remember that, even if you feel the pull of continually re-working your art, it is ok to let go of your art as finished and shareable. As is often quoted, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Just let your song and music be.
Conclusion: My Personal Music Learning Lessons
In this post I shared my four phases of my music production journey from discovery to skill-building to practice/doing to final song writing and album production. Ironically this corresponds well with my own take on learning how to learn and previous language learning efforts and coding pursuits. I provided a narrative of my own specific steps and struggles as well as some Do’s and Don’ts for music production learning and doing at each phase.
Breaking down any learning and creative journey into stages and parts is somewhat arbitrary and built into providing a narrative, both to tell a story for others and to form a narrative of our own self-narrative. Along my path to producing and releasing my music there were hundreds of small steps. So far and in retrospective, I’ve found in my own music producer journey broadly two overarching parts. Initially it was the primarily “learning to learning” part during phases 1 and 2. This was about curiosity and learning skills. The next part was a creating-focused part where I focused on writing songs and eventually finishing songs and album.
One of the bigger hurtles I faced was somewhere in the middle and revolved around my own misperception about what was needed next in learning to be a music producer. Unlike language learning, as a creative, I needed to evolve and transition from learning and skill-building to active creative doing. This was a period of self-doubt and demotivated lethargy as I struggled find, define, and create my own genre. Looking back, I realize the best anecdote to doubt and lack of self-definition turned out to be action, showing up regularly and creating and producing songs.
So what did I learn that really mattered? I discovered a number of useful lessons about learning and making music during my music production journey and eventual album creation. Throughout this post I shared many individual points (some repeated). Here are my top tips for anyone approaching music production:
- Make songs: Your first and most reliable action item should be jamming and making songs.
- Make it playful. Have fun. If you aren’t enjoying it, why are you doing it? There will be struggles but you should prioritize fun and play throughout.
- To learn to make music, you need to be making music. Everything that isn’t making music likely might be just a form of procrastination.
- Just make songs. Apologies for repeating this but making music really is the singular thing you should be doing.
- Trust your ears. Have taste. There are endless tips, articles, youtube videos, etc. on how you are “supposed” to do things when it comes to music production. These can be helpful at times, especially when you know little to nothing, but so-called right practices can also add FOMO and confusion to your own decision making, self-confidence and taste when it comes to music production. So, when in doubt, make music production decisions based on what sounds good to you. Trust what you like hearing!
- Get good at your DAW (digital audio workstation). Leveling up your ability to use your computer’s music production tools is essential as a music producer. Avoid trying a new tool or plugin or whatever when you should be mastering your main DAW and its core capacities. Investments in DAW skills, workflows, templates, etc. will pay dividends in how fast you can make songs, get sounds you want and finish work.
- Work hard. Music production is a combination of technical skills and creative capacities. You have to put in the hard work, time and persistence into learning several hard skills. Examples of important but hard skills to learn include DAW (see above), basic to advanced sound design, audio effects and chains, basics of music theory, and playing instruments, including software ones.
- Music Habit. Do your music thing regularly. Ideally daily. Otherwise strive for at 3 or 4 times per week
- Try different ways to “just get started”. I believe that “feeling inspiration” is a challenging expectation when it comes to being creative. You can’t wait for inspiration. Instead, focus on just getting started. Try to explore sounds, do a pomodoro (i.e. 25 minutes of focused work), tweak a template, create instruments, drop in a sample, play on your instrument/keyboard or whatever to just get the juices flow and doing the doing. Getting going is often times the biggest challenge. So find a selection of getting started “hacks.”
- Separate your learning and building skills from actually making music. Though you will need to learn stuff and explore, your default setting should be making music. When in doubt, be making music and jamming.
- Rule of Thumb: Spend 80-90% of your time making music and limit “learning” to under 10-20%. This ratio will change as you build your skills and initially it be more learning heavy until you’ve leveled up core capacities and built out your music production approach.
- Have fun. Stay in flow. Personally I’m a huge believer in maintaining a “just get started” mentality, facilitating happy accident, and then focus on getting into flow state that can extend into longer creative sessions. When in doubt just do one thing for fun and see if takes you into that flow state.
- Just make songs. Every time you aren’t doing the thing, it’s worth asking yourself: Are you procrastinating? Are you doing shallow or fun music stuff because you are afraid of the doing. It’s worth repeating that more than anything I find that making songs, tracks and demos should be where most of our time and energy as music producers should go. Even if individual tracks suck, the repeated attempts at starting new songs and finishing songs will push you to improve and level up.
Aristotle said that there are two broad categories of activities that may make life meaningful: telic and atelic. Telic activities are those with ends or “telos.” These might be thought of as goal-directed activities, like writing a novel, learning Spanish or completing a marathon. By contrast, atelic activities are things we enjoy for their own sake, meaning we enjoy doing them in and of themselves. These are non-goal-directed activities, like hiking, meeting friends, walks, listening to music, etc.
In my experience, a music production learning and creating journey carries both characteristics and both types of activities. For me, unlike previous goal pursuits like learning a foreign language, each and every music production session has been primarily and intrinsically fun and playful in the present moment. Music listening, jamming and creating is fundamentally telic or joyful in the doing. Music creation can be incredibly flow-inducing too.
There are key parts of music production learning journey that are not easy but require you to be tenacious and gritty as you learn various tools and skills. Whether this is mastering your DAW, learning music theory, improving on a music instrument or developing capacities in various music production techniques and your mental models of genre and “taste,” this steps take hard work and a goal-directed mindset. Many times even these challenges in learning can be fun too. Challenges are a key aspect to reaching flow. Additionally, over time, our “momentary” music creations and learning by doing can contribute to “telic” or end goal pursuits too. In my case, this lead to first creating decent enough songs to share and iterate on. Eventually it built up to a collection of songs to release as my first album.
Whether you pursue music production for the end-in-itself (the “atelic”) of play, joy and flow in the moment or for end-to-be-aimed-at (the “telos”), anyone can learn to be creative in music production and write, record and produce their own songs. Just remember:
- You don’t write songs. You write a song. And then write another one.
Thanks for reading and hope these notes and thoughts can help others on their learning and creating journeys, whether telic (for the end) or atelic (enjoyment for the present).
About Me: I’m a lifetime learner who is self-taught and fluent in French and Chinese, computer programming, product design and digital marketing. I am a long-advocate and practioner for the quantified self and self-tracking in general. I write and blog regularly about technology and personal development on my blog www.markwk.com.