The internet is saturated with open access YouTube channels, websites, and blogs (*ahem*) that offer free music production advice, including tips for dialing in guitar tones, vocal lessons, recording, mixing and even the mysterious art of mastering.
While it seems like there is enough information freely available out there to turn any beginner into a big league pro, this seldom happens—we don’t see droves of teenagers putting people like Chris Lord-Alge, Dave Pensado or Andy Sneap out of work.
From my experience, there are two major obstacles to learning music production on your own.
First of all, there is no secret technique that you can learn to instantly transform yourself into even a competent producer/engineer (let alone one of the elite). It takes lots of doing, experimenting and failing to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and this where unholy levels of frustration can build up.
Second, without the personal guidance of a mentor, the road to mastery is traversed more slowly and mired with setbacks, frustration and discouragement. Not surprisingly, many beginners just give up.
There’s certainly no shortage of information available to you, and a lot if for free.
Everywhere you turn online there is a new music guru staring eagerly at you from the backdrop of their project studio.
What advice should you follow, and how can you start making some real progress?
The answers are to filter out the bullshit, learn by doing, identify a teacher or resource who knows what they’re talking about, and finally, don’t allow yourself to get hemmed in by “rules”.
Cut Through the Crap
If you dive into the countless YouTube videos or web articles on music production, you’ll be pulled in so many different directions that you’ll quickly become overwhelmed and wrongly assume that this stuff is far too technical and no fun at all.
You may find yourself thinking things like:
- “This guy puts his compressor before the EQ but the other guy puts EQ before the compressor, which is the right way!?”
- “Why does this article talk about stacking compressors on vocals? What the hell are they doing? And why is there a distortion plug-in on there?”
- “I already released some music but didn’t use a high-pass filter on my rhythm guitars, does that mean my songs are garbage?”
- “Locking your drum tracks to time supposedly takes all the groove away but this article talks about the metal production pros spending hours editing drum hits to perfect timing, wtf …”
- “This guy says I really, really need this $300 tape-saturation plug-in if I want my vocals to shine, but this other video I watched says all you need is stock plug-ins …”
It’s really confusing out there because there is no single, right way to do something.
To add to that, may people are just as concerned with selling you something as elucidating knowledge.
These gurus, teachers, and talking-heads are only communicating their own personal approaches that have consistently worked for them, on their preferred studio set-up and favorite pieces of gear (or gear someone paid them to endorse).
Here’s what you do—look for the content and tutorials that are going to give you the understanding of the tools of audio engineering. With understanding, you can attack any issue and arrive at any desired sound.
Really knowing your tools forms the foundation for crafting your sonic masterpieces, and that’s why I am piecing together my Music Production 101 series for you, but understanding is just the first step, you have to apply (and apply and apply … ).
Get the Mileage
There’s no shortcut here—you’re going to have to record and mix and fail over and over again.
You’ll spend hours and days on a mix, only to hear just how puny and dull it sounds when it plays right after a professional release.
While you can follow some of my tips, like Getting Your Tracks Louder without compromising the quality, you’ve got to put in the time, train your ears, and hone your understanding.
But never give up!
One day, things will just suddenly begin to click, but you can get to this golden point of music production revelation a lot faster if you have someone guiding you.
Find a Virtual Sensei
Don’t struggle in solitude—you need guidance.
If you’re fortunate enough you can find an opportunity along the time-honored “internship at a big studio” path, but the majority of people interested in learning music production won’t have any luck.
I’ve tried several times to land an internship and as I got closer to age 30 with a wife, kids, and a full time job outside of music, the idea of making coffee for some curmudgeonly old audio engineer in exchange for the chance that he “might” allow me to touch his analog compressor, was less than alluring.
I knew I could put in the time, study everything I could get my hands on, and I would make progress. However, it was a slow and painful sort of growing (and still is—I’m always improving).
Luckily for us, there are some real gems out there in the vastness of online music production advice.
Here is a short list of some production gurus or resources I personally respect. Many of them have free content you can dive into right now, others will also offer paid courses, books, videos or one-on-one tutorship packages that you should strongly consider purchasing if you want to level up:
- Glenn Fricker of Spectre Sound Studios
- Unstoppable Recording Machine / Nail the Mix
- Graham Cochrane of Recording Revolution
- Ian Shepherd of Production Advice
- Steven Slate of SlateDigital
- Jordan Valeriote of Hardcore Music Studio
- Musician on a Mission
A good teacher’s job will be to expand your awareness of the common production issues, workarounds, and pitfalls, as well as to help you gain that all-important, deeper understanding of all the tools at your disposal to overcome those challenges.
It’s up to you to learn to adapt that understanding, and to realize that there are no hard-and-fast rules, no protocol or no recipe to follow!
Rules are for Fools
When I first started learning to produce music, I had the idea that there must be some concrete rules that professionals followed that got them consistently high quality productions every time.
Perhaps there was a worldwide consortium or league or association of audio engineers where they defined certain criteria that had to be met for all professionally produced albums (hey, I was only 17 years old).
What you’ll find as you set out into the internet to find production advice is that, no two producers or engineers do things the same exact way.
These producers have found their own paths to the coveted “pro sound”, and it probably came with a ton of hard work, consistency, and failing in between.
Find Your way.
I take the Bruce Lee approach to developing any skill, especially in the arts.
What does that mean?
Well, Bruce Lee refined his own martial arts approach by taking the techniques and aspects that worked best for him from all kinds of different fighting styles (kung fu, boxing, judo, etc.).
He followed no rules, adhered to no dogma, and discarded any technique that proved useless in a real fight or didn’t personally feel compatible with his own unique fighting style.
Even if a 100-year old grand-master from the Shaolin Temple said “do it this way only”, Bruce would use whatever way worked for him.
Do the same when learning music production, and keep this in mind when you navigate the oceans of music production advice out there.
Anyone giving you “the rules of EQ and Compression” is full of it.
You’ll find that any of the recommended instructors I listed above will tell you the same—there are no rules.
Although I’m no expert, I’ve done my homework and failed many times before figuring something out. I like to give you a deeper understanding of what a device or technique does, and you figure out how you want to implement it to get the sonic quality you’re after.
You’ve got to get the understanding first, without that, you’re doomed to suck.
Secondly, you need to apply that understanding. Produce your own music, offer to mix a friend’s project, even try producing tracks outside of your own genre just for fun and to experiment with different sonic pallets.
Identify a good series of courses or one-on-one digital instruction from someone who isn’t just trying to sell you gear or regurgitating “mix recipes” or “cheat sheets”.
You’ll be investing a tremendous amount of time, even if you want to forego paying for instruction, and instead hang on to that cash to fund your dire case of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
Make sure the time is well spent and you’re hanging on to what is working and forgetting other things that aren’t clicking for you.
It really comes down to knowing how to use all the production tools and gadgets to bring the sound you hear in your head to life, and to do that consistently and with as little struggle as possible.
There are many paths to being good at music production, so start yours and stay the course!