How to Keep Improving at Music Production

The music we make is a product. When producing it we try to do our best (especially when you are offering a service, such as mastering, for a client). Our goal is to do as well as we can, focusing on the skills we know better. 

This is not bad, but it encloses a big problem: we make fewer risks. We tend to do that because risks carry mistakes with them. However, though it may seem counterintuitive, mistakes are good, as I’ll explain later.

That’s why we shouldn’t always be in this state of perfect performance. Instead, we should find a balance where we also dedicate time to learn

And by learning I mean doing activities with the main and sole goal of improvement (finding the best way to teach yourself how to make music takes time, especially if you are a beginner: if that’s the case, just focus on learning the basics and look for general tips). 

This can mean either mastering your known skills or learning new ones. For this, you will need some good resources for learning new techniques. And with the technology we have these days, learning is now easier than it has ever been. 

But be careful, don´t lose too much time trying to find the perfect source of information, and don’t spend all your savings on an expensive course. Start simple and confident. 

Some excellent starting points are blogs (or even there are very good Reddit threads), YouTube videos, reading the manuals of your plugins and hardware, free online courses (on websites like Coursera, Skillshare, Udemy, Mooc), and reading books. 

I find particularly useful a free music practice site called Soundgym. It has some games specifically designed for musical ear training. Quiztones is a very good app for that purpose too. Also, you can watch your favorite famous producers (some of them regularly do live-streams where they show exactly how they produce). You’ll be surprised how many of them are self-taught (you don’t need a certificate to be professional at music).

Nevertheless, just consuming this content isn’t enough. As a musician, you still have to practice those skills in order to incorporate them into your productions, if you want to get better.

Music laptop ableton in bed

How to Practice Music Production

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle shares a look at how we build skills at a rapid rate. When he defines the concept of Deep Practice, he explains that struggling right at the edge of our abilities is the best way for us to learn: by taking ourselves to that edge consistently is where the fastest learning comes. This may be a slow, hard, and awkward process, but it’s how we learn and how we build our skills. 

Then, how can I apply this deep practice to my workflow?

First, you may want to schedule time for practicing. It might just be 15 minutes a day, or 30 minutes every other day, or whatever suits you the best depending on how much time you’ve got. 

During that time you should focus on one new skill that you want to learn or an existing one that you want to improve (just don’t choose a skill that you’ve already mastered: if you are a beat-maker, try for example expanding your knowledge and make a fully-produced record, which is different from making beats). 

The electronic music production and audio engineering world is immense and there are endless techniques and practices that you can learn. Just ask yourself what technique or concept you want to learn and dedicate an entire session (or even several sessions) just for practicing and experimenting with it.

For example, let’s say you want to learn how to use multiband compression. What if you open a new project and apply multiband compression to everything and see what it does? Then, once you’ve learned the effect, you can start using it more subtly. This way you’ll have an effective music practice.

You can even plan out the things you want to learn. For instance, you can learn a new plugin on Monday, compressing drums on Tuesday and Wednesday, and so on.

Or, if you already had an introduction and know the essentials, you can go more specific, and look for strategies on things like how to use FM in synthesis, how to warp samples in FL Studio, how to program drums or how to use Grain synths (or delays).

Or even, and this is what I did just after I bought Ableton Live 10, you can just learn how to use a new plugin every day. I did that for two months and I ended up knowing how to use every single native plugin of this DAW software.

If that technical skill that you want to learn is too big, you can dedicate an entire week to it (or even two; if you do more than that, you might overwhelm and get bored of doing the same thing over and over). Just use these practice sessions to focus completely on it and learn exactly how it works. 

This might be a bit painful since you are forcing yourself to work on things that you are not used to. But in the end, you will be a much richer producer and you’ll have a lot of resources and tools to solve problems (and music production is largely about solving problems).

The learning-practicing ratio

As I said earlier, you can’t just spend all your time-consuming tutorials. Even though it’s important to be constantly learning unfamiliar things, you will never master those if you don’t practice them. 

Then, you have to decide how much time you will spend on each of them. I’d recommend scheduling one day of the week to work on intensive learning (that meaning to focus and to take notes) and use the other days to practice what you’ve learned. If you don’t like that way, you can just start with the famous 80/20 rule, meaning that you’ll use 80% of your time practicing and 20% learning.

blue neon music studio

In-Studio Learning

I hope I have made it clear that you have to practice in order to become a better music producer. There are not huge music production secrets. The real learning happens in the studio (or in your home studio), when you are actively making music, and not just passively consuming a tutorial. Now I’ll explain how you can improve your music production by making music, making your own songs: that way you are expanding your portfolio while you actually keep learning.

Make mistakes

Making mistakes is the only way for you to realize what’s going wrong with your production. This can be a number of things; it can be either a lack of skills in songwriting, music theory, mixing, mastering, etc. or a misunderstanding of some of them.

For instance, let’s say you just started to learn how to use compression. Most of us at first don’t really know how this tool sounds. Then, what if you take the compressor’s settings to the extreme? Slam your kick drum through the compressor and make it sound horrible (however, compression is highly used in EDM production for making the drops sound more epic).

That way you’ll begin to understand what effect it has and, as you get better, you’ll start to notice even extremely minor effects with this tool. 

Therefore, even though it’s important to keep learning, reading, and watching tutorials, consider spending more time making music and making mistakes.

One highly effective tip for finding these mistakes or issues (or whatever you want to call them) is to use reference tracks.

Comparing your track with a professionally produced one can be a complete game-changer if you do it well (that meaning using the correct track, and not the first you found). 

That way you can compare it and imitate a lot of aspects of the production in your own track (like tonal balance, stereo separation, and even the energy of the track).

Then, when you realize that you have made a mistake, you may need to look for help on the internet to solve a specific issue that you have with your production and you don’t know how to deal with it. When you solve it, that solution will probably be stuck in your memory forever.

Take, for instance, my own personal case. As a dubstep producer myself, the drops I make have to be extremely powerful and energetic, like Skrillex does. And I mean extremely powerful. 

At first, I thought they actually were that way. But then, I started using reference tracks, and my entire vision changed. I realized how my drops sounded so weak next to those top-quality tracks, and I got frustrated since I didn’t know how the hell they achieved that without sounding distorted (even though some artists do – but it’s an artistic choice) or messy. I wondered how Virtual Riot got those clean sounds that were at the same time so powerful.

Then, I literally googled “How to make a powerful dubstep drop”. Since then I started learning about layering, multiband compression, stereo separation techniques, etc. and as time went by, I managed to learn that particular technique of making an energetic drop.

piano

Get feedback

Another brilliant way to be aware of, and even solve, these mistakes is to get quality feedback on all of your productions. You have to send your track to people that are very good at production (or at least at what you think you are lacking); they don’t necessarily have to be professionals. You can ask them for a specific field you are insecure about, or just ask for general feedback. 

They’ll tell you where your track is lacking. This may be an easy thing that you can fix (such as turning up the volume of the kick drum or raising the highs of your lead), a thing that you can ask this person how to solve (for example, if they tell you that your mix sounds muddy and you ask them how would they fix that, they may tell you “just lower the volume of the elements in the mid-low range), or something for which you must develop a new skill in-depth (such as compressing your drumsmastering your track, or synthesis).

You have to be conscious of this feedback and I’d even tell you to write down every piece of advice you receive. If you take this step seriously, you get a lot of feedback and want to go further, you can even create a spreadsheet to keep it organized like this:

Songwriting

Too common, overused and boring chord progressions.

Solution: try using maj7 chords and search for or create new progressions.

The hook is too complex and it’s not catchy.

Solution: try writing a simpler melody. Show it to someone and ask them if they can sing it.

Mixing

The audio is muddy and the mid-range elements are not easily distinguishable.

Solution: get rid of some elements of the mid-range. If the problem persists, find out the element that causes it by muting every instrument one by one.

The drums are not punchy enough, and they don’t cut through the mix.

Solution: side-chain the louder elements of the mix. If the problem persists, use a compressor or a transient shaper.

Mastering

There’s too much compression or limiting, so the dynamics are completely smashed.

Solution: turn down the limiter and maybe learn how to compress a track with saturation (especially on tracks that have very sharp and loud peaks).

Note: if any of these solutions that you wrote down don’t solve the problem, then you should ask for help or look on the internet if there’s someone that can teach you how to. Anyway, some problems require a deep knowledge of a specific technique, which may take you a lot of time to learn (even years).

That way, next time you dedicate a session to, let’s say, songwriting, you know exactly what to pay attention to, and you know what actions to take.

Release a lot of music

When you are just starting, or even if you are an intermediate producer, sometimes in music it’s preferable quantity over quality

You have to release tons and tons of music to the world so you not only get a lot of feedback and good advice but also you will unconsciously get better as a producer since you are more likely to realize your mistakes when the track is finished and public than when it’s not

You don’t necessarily have to write a song every day, but do stick to a consistent schedule (maybe one song every week or month). You’ll be amazed by how many errors in your productions you’ll find when listening to them after months (or even days!) of finishing them.

The Loop

As you can see, here we created a system for improving your music production; a loop that every time it repeats, you get a little bit better (even if you don’t really notice it at first, but listen to your current music a year from now, and you’ll see how much you’ve learned).

That way, first you finish songs (a process in which you’ll make mistakes), then you release to the world, you get valuable feedback; you look for ways to solve it, and you go back again to making music applying what you learned from that feedback (using a system for it that you may have created). Every time you repeat this loop, you will be taking your song production to the next level.