Inspiration is needed but don’t mimic. Find your style that comes naturally to you. Actually, I don’t like the word style. I refer to it as instinct. Everyone’s natural tendencies are as unique as your thumb print. For instance, I’m physically capable of playing any guitar or piano part I compose, but I regularly hire and collaborate with other guitar players in the studio because I want THEIR instincts. You couldn’t guess my 3 biggest influences because what I create sounds nothing like them. If you want to make money doing this, embrace what you’re most insecure about. People fight those instincts for years trying to change them into someone else’s. Chances are high that those habits and instincts you’ve developed are exactly what will get you hired later, or it’s what makes you stand out as a solo artist in a market of constantly recycled sounds.
VST’s and plugins mean nothing on their own. The idea has to come from your mind first and then search for the software to achieve it best. In other words, don’t shop through software for musical ideas. A piece of music won’t end up with a cohesive identity that way, but spare parts. Melodies, lyrics, structure, instrumentation and even tones are all of equal importance. Melody strikes our emotion which compliment lyrics striking the same emotion (if there are lyrics that is.) Structure helps the brain comprehend what’s being said in an entertaining way, but also because you need to simplify a complex idea and make it listenable to it’s intended culture. Instrumentation is chosen because of the different dynamics, pitch registers and physical ability each instrument provides. As for tones, think of a book on tape. If Morgan Freeman was the one talking, the story would be more soothing for your brain to comprehend. Tone can be as unique as the tone color of your voice. I spent 6 hours on fine tuning the tone of a trombone section once because the treble was just a hair too annoying and threw the entire mix off. Ruined my Saturday, to be honest, but it was important. It sounded like it was being recorded in a totally different type of room separate from the others, which isn’t realistic. It’s like having two instruments with different reverb rates. That would literally be impossible if all the instruments were being played in the same room. The room would give off identical reverb depth to each sound, so it’s no longer realistic. Tone is just as important as the melody or the lyric or anything else. You can say something brilliant, but in a voice that doesn’t match what’s being said, it could be interpreted as stupid or unrealistic, or anything else other than it’s intended. It can literally make or break an entire idea.
YouTube tutorials are great to learn basic musicianship and software nuance only. If you’re learning an instrument, save some money and go through the 101’s on YouTube lessons, but it’s hard to grow past that without a human touch. People can craft their advice to your individual strengths and interests that a stranger online cannot. It’s the same reason why the federal government fails miserably at education. Humans didn’t evolve to need a one size fits all approach. We are not ants. We have unique experiences, unique chemicals running through our brains, unique physical handicaps, unique learning hurdles, and unique language comprehension. For example, I remember attending music school and listening to a dozen PHDs explain counterpoint and church modes and it just wasn’t clicking. I took private lessons over that summer from a young grad student and it clicked immediately. Still to this day, modes are the most useful bit of theory in my career. I exercise that knowledge daily. Granted he was a guitar player and spoke my language, but the point still stands. All it took were the same words arranged differently and my brain instantly re-wired. It’s almost like I felt all my neurons just shift and connect with other information sitting alone in a corner and the bigger picture was just there all of a sudden. That cannot come from the internet. As for software and hardware tutorials, you can learn the nuance of the them online, but the only thing that will truly make you productive with software is just doing it. You just have to get in there and mess around until you have it. Suck until you don’t. When I first bought PreSonus Studio One 3 professional, recording was 80% troubleshooting and 20% actually getting music down. You’ll never get rid of all troubleshooting when producing music on your own, but it’s certainly like 90/10 in the inverse now.
These days you don’t need advanced degrees, or have a record label budget, although they help, all you need is the work ethic and will to achieve the goal. Since there are no more gate keepers to the air waves, gear has never been cheaper in relation to quality, software is almost entirely intellectual property so there’s no physical good to distribute, there has never been a better time to be a musician. We started off as slaves to royal families and now anyone with talent can score a film that will be streamed on Netflix. Just 15 years ago everyone told me not to major in music, because the only thing I could be is a teacher. Technology has made that statement beyond laughable. The largest contributor to this is the massive change in how we consume video. Everyone streams from multiple platforms, most of which don’t have million dollar music budgets. There’s a slightly more debatable point I like to make and that is the younger generation has been re-introduced, and actually accepts, what would typically be called, Classical Music, more specifically, orchestral music. I wouldn’t call it Classical because cinematic orchestral music is very contemporary, so let’s just call it classical instrumentation. This has happened because of video. Think of Game of Thrones. Massive orchestral arrangement and two of the youngest generations singing the melody of a theme played by deep cinematic harmonizing cellos. I call it an orchestral renaissance.
This you will not find in a tutorial, or even advice from others, I believe. At least I didn’t. Only the experience of slaving away trying to match what you hear in your head, and fine tuning that process, will…Mixing is a subjective art while mastering is a science. They are too often lumped together. What’s most misleading online are the tutorials on EQ and mixing where someone tells their subjective preference as if it’s objective fact. No…I’m sorry, but the bass is meant to make the mix sound muddy on this part. There isn’t some magic industry standard mix or EQ out there. There are things you can do that make you sound amateurish, this is true, but if it’s on purpose, the listener should be able to tell. Mastering on the other hand, I don’t even do myself. I’m an artist and mastering is science, in my opinion, best left to audio engineers, and those online algorithms you can pay a subscription to use. There are some people out there that lean on the mastering process to give their mixes that little something it’s missing, but I personally don’t believe that’s wise. When I finish recording I mix everything EXACTLY the way I want it to be heard. I don’t want it touched at all, only louder. Well, louder and I want the dynamics exaggerated, which tends to come with the compression used to master. Putting limiters on every few intervals of frequency bands in order to get audio to industry standard volume levels and great depth without peaking, is a freaking science. So much so that I know people that run studios that essentially see their mastering chain as intellectual property and not a service being done to the track. Multiplatinum producer Michael Wagener is a friend of mine that fits this description perfectly. He’s most well known for making 3 guitars sound like 1,000 guitars. People now pay him to just run their track through his chain, which he activates by the flip of a switch. He’s produced Alice Cooper, KISS, U2, Jay-Z, Pink Floyd and many others. He’s the guy you go to if you can’t quite get something big enough. Not loud, but big. That, my friends, is a science.
Lastly, I want to bring up the most common sense piece of advice I wish I had heard in my early 20’s. SLEEP…Get some sleep. Learn to use sleep as a creative tool. People I collaborate with hear me regularly call it “fresh ears.” What I hear the next morning after a coffee is completely different from what I was hearing at 1:00 am when I forced myself to stop for the night. Your cognitive ability and insight is unreal in comparison to the evening before. I know you might think you don’t need much sleep, or that you function the same, but you’re wrong. Don’t ever submit audio to a streaming service, or to anyone that you want hearing it in a finished state, after like 5:00 PM. At that point, you should finish your day, get some good quality sleep, and give it some fresh ears before you put the nail it that coffin. It’s not going anywhere and neither is the internet.
Amendment from 2 weeks later:
Don’t be cheap. Buy good gear. Also, find a work around that fits your talent.