Over the past fifteen years or so I have made music in all sorts of forms. It is hard to believe that I have been "making" electronic music for fifteen years now and in that time I have seen the stupendous rise of music making software come and go. I have also seen the barrier of entry for new musicians become better and better every year. There truly has never been a better time than now to be a person who wants to make music. The tools are affordable and cheap.
Perhaps it is the grizzled veteran in me now, but I do find a bit if exhaustion when browsing online communities and reading the posts from people who are just getting started. I am sure to some degree I was just as annoying as some of the people I find online now, but I have this weird sense that the new music makers have a paranoia or perhaps fear of really diving into the music creation process on their own and just figuring it out. Nothing makes me cringe more than when I read a post that has someone asking "how do I make this sound from XXXX song". Man, just dig in there and figure it out, or make your own sound.
It made me think about the common discussions I have with people online and I decided I would summarize them into a cheesy buzzfeed style top ten list. So here are my top ten tips for all the new artists out there who are getting started (and those who aren't).
1. Make your own music.
The #1 thing I would say to everyone out there is you gotta make your own music. Stop worrying about trying to making a sound in a genre or like another artist who has made it. If you ask yourself what makes the biggest and most well know acts in the world who they are, I think the answer is that they have a definitive sound. One can almost instantaneously recognize a Daft Punk or Chemical Brothers or Orbital song as soon as it begins playing and that is because they have developed their own sound. As an artist you can certainly try to copy a song and then when you fail to do so, make it your own and make it something wholly yours.
2. Learn on hardware if you can. It isn't more expensive and ditch the PC.
Hardware has never been cheaper and old hardware has never been better. I know this won't be the popular opinion, but go out there and buy a couple of groove boxes and start making music on those first. The entire Volca series can be purchased for under $500. Old electribes can be had for about $100 a piece. Old MC series groove boxes can be bought for under $200 and the mother of groovebox workstations, the EMU Command Stations can readily be had for around $250.
Hardware is just simply going to make it easier to learn the basics of synthesis in my opinion. Signal paths are clearly laid out and the hands on nature I think just connects with the brain in a much better way. If you move on from hardware or move on up, it has a resale value as well that software just doesn't. Buy some groove boxes and disconnect yourself from the distractions of the PC when writing your music. To this day my favorite synth to work with is my simplest one.
3. Don't be afraid to use old equipment or software.
The newest DAW's that are out on the market are amazing. Some of the features that they have truly are impressive, but with that list of features comes complexity. These workstations have years, sometimes decades of history behind them and in many cases the users have decades of history growing with these workstations. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you choose to use an older piece of software. With luck you can hopefully find a license key that is fairly cheap used on eBay or craigslist or something like that. Chances are that that piece of software, even as far back as ten years or so can make all the music you want it to, especially if you are in the Windows world where backwards comparability seems almost indefinite.
This also goes for hardware and almost doesn't need to be said based on my #2 post above. The gear still works and it still can create amazing sounds.
4. Learn that you may not be good at making the music you like to listen to.
I love dance music, especially trance. For years I spent a lot of time and effort trying to make it and it took me years to figure out that I am just not good at making it. Sure, I have had a couple of nice pieces here and there, but my strengths lie in other styles and genres. Take your shot at making your favorite genre, but don't be put off at creating music just because you aren't good at your favorite genre. Hell, you may find you aren't even good at making electronic music in general, but come to embrace what you are good at. It could be something as off the wall as sound design, film scoring, country/folk music, or simply creating patches for synths. You are still creating.
5. Put in the time.
I am a huge culprit here myself. To get good you have to put in the time. Almost no one sits down and writes music brilliantly right away. If you are younger than 20 then you probably have more time to write than you realize. Making music is just as involved as learning an instrument. You may not realize it, but that three hours a day you are spending on learning Tracktion or that synth is worth it and counts as if you were practicing an instrument. What you put in you will get out, but don't expect to sit down for an hour a week to get it right. Hopefully though those three hours you spend every night after work or school is a lot more enjoyable than learning to play rudiments on a piano or guitar.
6. Read the manual
I get it. You want to fiddle your way through your gear. I do that too, but manuals are mostly really good these days and for the ones that aren't there is usually someone on a community somewhere that has written a better one. And I am saying here to actually read the manual, not watch a YouTube video. Don't bounce back and forth between the DAW or hardware and the video to noodle around. Just sit-down and read it like a book in a quiet corner. Trust me on this, you will retain a lot more of it. The manual for my Command Station was over 200 pages and I read it cover to cover and I know that instrument better than any of my others.
7. Compression is like makeup, if you notice it you've used too much.
I love this quote and I can't remember where exactly I heard it. Compression is the the Photoshop to today's modern music. It is an incredibly powerful tool and can do a lot of good. It can though very quickly do a lot of bad and too often I think musicians of all genres of music latch onto compression when writing their music. Sidechain compression is cool and a bit of a trope in modern EDM, but it has it's place, but I would actually go so far to say that you can ignore compression almost entirely when creating your music. It will help you to learn how to to get instruments and sounds to sit better together with each other. I learned this as I transitioned from software to hardware. I don't have compression on each track, but I do have EQ, filters and my sound design capabilities to get sounds to sit together nicely. That takes me right to my next point.
8. Artists don't have to be mastering engineers.
For some reason electronic artists feel the need to also do audio mastering on their tracks. That is great if you can do it, but no other genre expects that from their artists and to be honest, I would rather have someone spending their time making more tracks than trying to perfectly master an existing track. Mastering is a whole different world and the tools are largely very different than would someone would normally use for mixing and recording. Forget about mastering your track. Mix it and normalize it and be done with it. If you have proper EQ and levels on it, someone can just turn the volume up on their listening device if they need it louder. If you think your track is that good, then pay to have it mastered. It is very cheap these days. If your track gets signed for some reason, congratulations, chances are the labels will want an unmastered copy so they can master it themselves.
9. Don't be concerned with what is "Professional".
This covers a whole gamut of ideas from the way you physically look to the way your music sounds to the tools you use. Don't choose to use Ableton Live because everyone does and they claim it is more professional. Use the tools you want to use. If they achieve the sounds you want, then the conversation is over. At the end of the day the only thing you really should be concerned with is what gets you to make more music and what works with your workflow. If that happens to be Ableton Live, then great, but if it happens to be a Roland MC-303, then don't let anyone tell you that it sucks.
10. Ask yourself who you are making the music for.
There is no right or wrong answer to this one, but I think it is important for all musicians. Everyone has different end goals for this creative process. Some want to make a profession out of it, some want to use it has a hobby. Some may use it as an escape, while others may use it as a release. Whether you put all of your music on on the net for free, or you sell it, or you don't release a single piece of music publicly, don't let anyone tell you there is a wrong or right way to making music.
One thing I have come to realize over the years is I hate communities who focus on providing critique of other user's music. I understand from a technical perspective how people want advice, and that is valuable, but too often opinions of music boil down to personal preference on what was created. How anyone can critique another creative endeavour boggles my mind. Most people have no idea what the personal story behind a song may be. The fact that someone were to tear it down or make claims that it may not be commercially viable misses the point, unless the song is specifically written for that target.
Just write your music and get the feedback if you want it, but don't be consumed on getting feedback for your work. Those communities are an echo chamber and it is just musicians listening to other musicians. Don't let it be the end all be all to your music end goals.