One Year Of Learning Music Production

Midi Keyboard

Over the last year I’ve been learning about music production. I have a bit of experience from some DJ work years ago. That was mostly editing and mixing music rather than creating new songs though. One year ago I downloaded Ableton and decided to put some time into learning to make my own music. While I haven’t made it as far as I would have liked I still learned a ton over the last year. A song I made recently is at the bottom of this post if you’d like to hear what the end result was.

Learning music production has breakthroughs of excitement along with long stretches hopelessness. You’ll be stuck for ages but then discover a new technique or sound and that knowledge keeps you motivated. Consistently making things, no matter how small the progress, seems to be key to improving. I was very fortunate to have a good friend also making music. He setup a studio in his spare bedroom and we tried to meetup for an evening every week to work on music. While 2020 threw a wrench in collaboration, the studio sessions last fall and winter helped me create a routine around making music. I would highly recommend trying to find somebody to learn alongside. You’ll be more motivated if you have someone to show your work to. It also forces you to spend more time to keep up to each other as you each learn new techniques.

At the very start of the year I was using stock Ableton sounds and creating very basic beats. I found it exciting early on to be able to create anything. Even if it wasn’t anything considered good by anyone else. After a while though it starts to get frustrating when you realize the limits of what you’re making. I started to recognize the short loops I was making were a long way from a complete song.

The first breakthrough came when introducing more samples. Splice is a great resource for this and the most commonly used. At the start I hesitated to use samples. Is it your song if you’re taking a sample from someone else? Soon, after many tutorials it became clear sampling is a core component of making music. As a beginner it was also a huge jump in the quality of music I was making. I could take a drum loop and combine it with a piano sample by someone far more talented than myself and make a song. Samples allowed me to spend time learning arrangement and how sounds work together.

It was crucial too lean on samples to continue making progress. At a certain point though you will likely realize you can’t always find the sample you need. A sample may work for a small section of a song but the rest of the song may need something more unique. For me this point seemed like a pretty huge step backwards in progress. I’d become accustomed to what I could make with samples. Writing my own melodies was a challenge and they sounded nowhere near as good as the samples I had been using. This is where things transitioned from learning the tools to actually learning music. I don’t think music theory an essential starting piece but there comes a time when you’ll need to learn some of it. To be clear I still have a very long ways to go on this aspect but I’ve started to pick up some of the fundamentals.

Once I had enough knowledge to put together a song things bounced back a bit more to the production side. While your early work might sound okay it doesn’t sound like a finished piece of music you’d hear on the radio. This has a lot to do with how the sounds are actually processed. The initial recording may be the sound of an instrument but the finished product has layers of effects and compression on top of it. There’s a ton of great tutorials on this usually categorized as mixing and mastering. I found a lot of trial and error following various tutorials useful here. Every now and then you’ll come across a technique that makes you realize how a piece of music you know is made. Each new technique brings you closer to the sounds you’re used to hearing.

It’s been fun experience learning and I would recommend it. Be patient if you aren’t making music that sounds as good as you’d like it too. I’ve learned a lot but my biggest weak spots are in music theory and playing actual instruments. I’ve been playing a bit of guitar and I think becoming better at that will be a huge step towards writing better songs.

A couple months ago my friend Zach, the one with the studio, let me remix a song from his first EP. I wanted to try putting together everything I’ve learned to see what a years worth of work had resulted in. For the remix I kept the vocal and the basic structure of the song. The beat, instruments and all the mixing and mastering are by me. It used one sample (the bass line) as I loved how it worked with the rest of the song. Here’s the final result:

Ian Smith · Let It Go Remix