Where to find the best info online and break through the learning curve, even if you’re just starting this year
MARCH 7TH, 2021
If you skip around, it can take years to learn even the basics of music production — but you can learn much faster if you stick to what works! Let’s dive into several ways to shortcut the learning curve that you can do today, completely free!
1. YouTube production tutorials
If you’ve been studying music production for more than a day, you’ve probably searched for some instruction on YouTube. There are some incredible teachers out there — but there are also some … less than stellar ones. Let’s go over how to tell the difference at a glance so you waste as little time as possible.
Your first instinct might be to look at the number of subscribers — and that’s actually not a bad first step. Andrew Huang and Seamlessr are both great; Andrew focuses on quick, simple breakdowns, whereas Seamlessr goes deep into digital audio theory. It’s helpful to have both approaches when you’re learning! Generally, someone has 100,000 subscribers, that means a lot of people find value in their guidance and input and repeatedly come back for it. But there’s an important followup question you should ask yourself: Who is finding value in these videos? And to discover that, we turn to … the comments section.
This is where you’ll get a sense for the community’s interests, skill level, and attitude toward the art and practice of music theory. If people are articulate, leaving thoughtful feedback, and generally seem nice, it’s probably worth staying to learn from the YouTuber in question. But if their community is toxic or refuses to participate in productive conversations, it might be a reflection on the content creator (and so you should look elsewhere to learn theory). Here’s a great tutorial from Larry Ohh on how to create better arrangements — notice how supportive and engaged the commenters are. That’s even more telling than the size of the channel!
Once you’ve vetted a bunch of channels and selected just a few to learn from, start consuming their content as quickly as you can and applying what they teach. Put the ideas into practice and see if they help you; if not, move onto another YouTuber! Aim to spend 3x as much time on practicing as you do watching and reading, if not more. Practice is how you solidify what you learn, and it’s the only way to master anything!
2. Applying what you learn in articles (like this one)
It’s no surprise that we think articles are one of the best tools for learning music production! But until you apply the information you learn, your work isn’t finished. Let’s dive into what to do once you’ve finished reading.
First, skim the whole article, paying particular attention to the subheadings. This will help you size up the article and see if it’s something that’s even going to help you improve your understanding of music theory in the first place. If it is, read through the entire article once. Make note of anything you’d like to use, and then go back to those sections.
If the info is good and you trust the source, test out any exercises they recommend without question, as long as they don’t take super long to complete (and aren’t weird / unethical / unsafe). Focus on completing the exercises and seeing how you improve rather than debating with yourself — you’ll save a lot of time that way.
If they challenge you but make you feel more confident by the time they’re completed, fantastic! Do it again, or some variation of it, until you can practically do it in your sleep. Try reading the article again when you’re done, because something may suddenly click in a way it didn’t before your practice session.
3. Timed production assignments
This one is especially fun to do with friends! See if you can get 1 to 3 people to join you and this might be one of the most fun things you do in your music career. Don’t worry if your network is too small though, you’ll still learn plenty by doing this solo; for simplicity, we’ll press onward assuming you have a small group.
Decide on a start date and set a 24 hour limit. Within that time frame, everyone must write, produce, mix and master 4 songs that will all go into a single album (i.e. 3 people would end with a 12 track album). While not necessary, you should try writing each in a different genre as the variety will help you grow faster. Announce on social media that you’re doing it, in order to force yourselves to stay accountable and finish the exercise.
Sort of like this, but with more songs!
Agree on a start time and GO! One song might take you 6 hours, while another might only require 2. They won’t be perfect (some might even be terrible), and that’s great. Right now, you’re only focusing on speed, not quality. You can polish at the end if you have time. Share your tracks with the group as you finish them, because someone else’s will probably give you inspiration for your next one. If you’ve never imposed such tight time constraints before, this will probably be uncomfortable — as long as you still feel healthy mentally and emotionally, keep going! Getting your beats down first can help you move faster — and when you need to go this fast, a tool like UJAM Beatmaker 2 is invaluable (and there’s a free trial available, which you can start shortly before your start date). It’s an amazing feeling when you finally finish.
Exactly 24 hours after starting, have everyone listen to each song together and offer feedback. After you get through all of them, discuss how the experience changed how you think about music production. You’ll probably find that you’re amazed how fast you were able to write, and you’ll be less likely to battle with yourself the next time you start a project. When writer’s block isn’t an option, it has no choice but to disappear!
4. Get as much feedback as possible
Don’t wait to grow your audience until you feel you’re “good enough” — the sooner you step outside of your comfort zone and open yourself to both praise and criticism, the faster you’ll learn music production. Speak Seth Godin has an excellent short article on this concept, titled Fear of shipping. If you have the chance, ask a pro for feedback on some specific aspect of the production. For example: “Do the kick and snare cut through enough? I wonder if the sidechaining is a bit too strong, but I like how you did it in your song ____ and tried to emulate that.” You can ask a couple things, but if you’re specific and show that you made an effort to answer them yourself, you’re far more likely to get a positive response.
But there’s another form of feedback that’s arguably even more useful: your listeners! If people tell you what they love about your music, you’ll know what they want to hear more of, and more listeners will flock to you. When people don’t love what you create, answer comments asking for specifics — implementing changes based on critiques is so important for learning music production quickly, which is why you want to release music from the very beginning. Read our article 6 Ways to Promote Your Music and do everything in it from the very beginning! You’ll grow your following and your skills simultaneously, and your fans will love seeing you improve over time; you’re bringing them along for the journey, and people love that.
5. Recreate a song you love
This is probably the most challenging exercise you can do as a music producer, but it pays dividends for your skill development. Drag a favorite instrumental electronic song (this won’t work for acoustic songs) into your DAW and attempt to recreate a 30 second portion of it as exactly as possible, down to the smallest detail. It’s essentially impossible to succeed, even if you’re highly experienced; your only goal is to see how close you can come.
Try to figure out what synths the producer used and how each patch was made. See if you can recreate the kick and snare by layering samples you already own. Analyze the distortion, compression, delay and reverb used on the different instruments. This process gets comically frustrating very quickly, so set a time limit that’s short enough to make you feel uncomfortable, yet long enough to give it a good shot.
Here’s a great example of this process, and it should give you a good idea of how to get started:
Get as close as you possibly can in this limited time. Don’t do this for a track where you can find a production breakdown. The temptation to watch it will be too great if you start to struggle! There’s no safety net in this exercise by design — it forces you to become more creative and resourceful.
By the end, you’ll know your gear better because you’ll have to use it in ways you’ve never had to. Your ear will be more developed. Most importantly, if you do this a few times you’ll start to become more confident that you can write anything you want!
When you don’t have a path laid out for you, music production can seem like an impossible skill to learn because of all its component parts. This guide should make the learning curve much more manageable, especially if you feel stuck right now. Try out the 5 suggestions and see how they help you! Some of them are designed to push you outside of your comfort zone to grow rapidly as a producer, while others you can do with much strain. There’s a little bit of everything here, and you’ll gradually discover what helps you the most so you can shape your own path as a music producer. As always, most importantly: have fun!