The best way to improve your production skills… produce!!

music production is like any other skill… if you practice it regularly, your knowledge and ability to perform the skill improves and builds on itself

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I’ve always been a big believer in continually educating yourself in any kind of work or hobby you’re involved in.  In my case, with regard to music, even before I started writing and producing full time, I tried to continually improve my knowledge through reading and more recently tutorials on YouTube.  I’m a big fan of, and subscriber to Sound on Sound magazine… which I think gives really good practical advice, and often comes from guys who are already highly skilled in the craft.  But for all the quality articles I’ve read, and videos I’ve watched over the last 20 years, my skills didn’t improve nearly as quickly as they have over the last 10 months… i.e. by just writing and producing every day.

I recently read an interesting interview with DJ/producer Patrice Baumel (who has a great mix CD out as part of the balance series).  In a similar somewhat vein he said ‘I have learned more in a 30 minute one-on­-one session with a successful producer than in a 6 month production class costing me thousands of dollars’.  OK, the opportunity to get tuition direct from a top notch producer is not something that everyone is lucky enough to come by… but immersing yourself in writing and producing everyday gives you the chance to really focus your learning and hone skills to a fine level (albeit at a slower pace, and with more trial and error than learning directly from an expert).

In my own case, there’s a few general things I’ve noticed have really improved during the year…

  • My ‘ear’ for identifying things has improved a lot… i.e. I find it much quicker to identify things that are wrong-sounding, or stick out in a mix.  I think I’ve got a lot better at hearing individual elements within a mix of instruments rather than just hearing them as an ensemble.
  • You get a much better understanding of the tools you’re using (DAW platform, plugins, hardware devices), meaning that when you need to get a task done, make a change, find a new sound, etc… you can more quickly know the right tool/technique to use, and how to use it.
  • You develop routines for common tasks and templates which serve as starting points for things you do regularly.

And more specifically, things that I’ve found have improved a lot…

  • On the aforementioned point about developing routines for common tasks, the most apparent for me is with setting up reverbs within a mix.  When I was only producing in my spare time, when I came to setup reverbs, the last time I had done that could have easily been more than 6 months ago.  This meant I usually started from scratch with regard to individual settings on reverb plugins, and deciding what types of reverb to put on different buses.  This year however, I go through the process of adding reverbs to a mix at least every couple of weeks, so I’ve been able to develop templates for mix buses, and default plugin settings for common reverbs I use.
  • When it comes to mixing, if two sounds have a frequency range that’s conflicting, I’m usually able to identify the problem layer quickly, and just from listening to the mix.  6-10 months ago, it required a lot more trial and error of muting and testing various layers in combination, and hence took a lot more time.
  • I find I’m able to do EQ corrections a lot more quickly… as in zeroing in on the range that needs to be boosted or cut within 10s of seconds, rather than lengthy scanning of the whole frequency range with a parametric filter (and hence taking minutes).
  • Getting a better understanding, and expectation that good production is not so much about one application of some ‘magic’ fix-all effect, but rather the combination and layering of many small changes than can be quite insignificant in isolation.  I.e. I used to read Sound on Sound articles by producers who’d worked on major commercial releases… I’d see their lengthy chains of complex effects on a single element of a mix and think it was overkill and possibly a bit unnecessary.  While I’m still not at the stage of having effect chains 10-15 VSTs long, I do find more that on a major element within a mix, I’ll often have 6-8 effects, but each making a very subtle change.  The individual changes can be small to the point of being hard to hear on their own, but the whole chain in combination makes a significant difference.

I guess what I’m trying to get across, is that music production is like any other skill, in that if you practice it regularly, your knowledge and ability to perform the skill improves and builds on itself.  Being able to produce music full time for many months has allowed me to improve my knowledge and skill more than I ever expected.  If you ever get the opportunity to dedicate yourself to creating music full time (even for just a couple of weeks)  I’d really encourage you to take (or make) the opportunity.

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