Everyone is a DJ these days. So what will make you stand out from the crowd? We all know the answer: you have to start producing your own tracks! Dubspot’s John von Seggern and Michael Walsh investigate how to successfully make the transition from DJing into production…
It’s a story many DJs know very well. After years spent learning how to move a crowd with sound, most DJs eventually aspire to produce their own original music. Producing original music can be a very daunting challenge though, especially at the beginning, and even more so if you don’t have any background or experience in playing an instrument like piano or guitar. If you’re a DJ and you’re just getting into producing tracks, here’s some tips to get you started:
Learn to listen carefully: break down the music you hear and identify its parts.
As a DJ, you are already an expert listener, experienced in identifying good tracks to play and how they might fit together in a set. As a producer though, you need to go further and start paying closer attention to the sections of the arrangement (the intro, the main groove, the breakdown, etc.) as well as the separate musical elements that make up the whole (the bassline, the hi hats, the kick and snare pattern, synth leads or pads, and so on). You need to be able to recognize all of these and how they sound so you will be able to create your own variations when you sit down to produce and know which part goes where. This leads to our next tip…
Follow an existing track as a model–this is how you learn.
Many beginning producers are able to come up with a catchy beat or riff but get lost when it comes to making an arrangement that works. One way to get better at this is simply to follow the basic structure of a favorite track in a similar style. Some producers will pull another artist’s track right into their sequencer and follow the general outlines of the other track while arranging their own beats and sounds.
Another related technique is to frequently compare the sound of your track to another well-produced track in the same genre while you are mixing, this helps keep you on point as far as the overall sound of your mix as well as the relative balance of parts (bass, drums, synths, etc.). This video from Dubspot instructor Daniel Wyatt explains a clever way to set this up in Logic Pro for example.
Recreate an existing track as closely as possible to learn what makes it work.
As a learning exercise, pull a track right into your DAW and figure out how to recreate all the parts yourself. Do this more than a few times and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an expert producer. As Dubspot instructor/course designer Steve Nalepa advises, “Deconstruct songs you like: figure out what the components are, and set about making sounds and movements like that!”
“DJs that are getting into production should try importing their favorite track into their DAW
and try to recreate it.” – Kero (Detroit Underground, Ghostly, Bpitch)
Some people might think that they should avoid copying others’ music in order to find their own original approach, but this only becomes a problem if you always copy one particular artist’s music. You should learn from as many different artists and genres as you can. Keep what you like and throw away the rest, this is how you will find a truly original approach. Perhaps this is what the 20th century Russian classical composer Igor Stravinsky meant when he famously said that “Good composers don’t borrow, they steal.”
Igor Stravinsky (d. 1971, best known for composing The Rite Of Spring)
In fact, this is how musicians in all genres have always studied and learned, by copying past models. Classical instrumentalists copy their teachers’ examples, jazz and rock musicians learn solos from recordings of past greats, and electronic producers listen carefully to classic tracks to figure out what makes them work.
Know your history.
As you advance your skills by listening to great tracks and trying to figure out how they were made, make sure to go back through the history of the genre you’re working in and know where the music came from. If you don’t know what came before, you might come up with an ‘exciting new sound’ only to realize that someone else already did the same thing five years ago and everyone is bored of that sound already.
“Know the history of the music you love. If you don’t know the history you won’t have a clear vision of its future.” – Drumcell (Droid Behavior, CLR)
Think about the flow of a DJ set as you work on your arrangement.
A great DJ always tries to tell a story over the course of a set, sequencing tracks in the right order to hold the audience’s interest and keep the dance floor moving. As a DJ yourself, this is a skill that you have already developed. As you start putting your musical ideas together and making your first tracks, you need to apply this sense of how music flows to your original productions. “DJs have an inherent understanding of flow from their experience keeping a crowd moving. Applying that towards your songs can give you an edge if you are making club / dance floor music,” explains Nalepa. Kero agrees, adding that “[Applying] key principles like breakdowns, EQing, changeups–just like when you’re DJing–can bring many dynamics to your track.” At the same time, as you learn to produce, you may well find that your live performance chops as a DJ improve as well as you gain a new understanding of how music works.
“DJing has trained my ear and got me listening to music in a new way. I feel that it helps us learn how to communicate better as well. Reading the crowd and being able to change the feel of the room instantly is an amazing thing.” - Nosaj Thing (Innovative Leisure/Timetable Records)
Learn some music theory
We know! This is a scary term and something you’ve been avoiding for many moons now. Get over it. Music theory isn’t as complicated as you think. But you do need to know something about basic chords and music structures in order to become the producer you want to be. You don’t need to be able to play an instrument well, but learning at least some of the basics on keyboard or guitar will also train you to combine physical actions with ideas (which is very similar to the zone of performance with DJing). “DJs get intimidated by the music theory. They psyche themselves out,” explains Nalepa. “You can do a lot with just a few notes–as you learn more build from there.” This ties into our next tip as well:
Keep it simple.
It is easy these days to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to us as producers: software, hardware, tips and techniques, music genres and styles, it is easy to get confused. If you’re feeling like it’s all a bit too much sometimes, try to keep in mind that some of the best tracks are based on the simplest musical ideas, and some of the greatest producers in electronic music history had only a few simple tools to work with to make their music. The pioneers of Chicago house and Detroit techno made most of their music with nothing but a few basic drum machines and sequencers but their music set the template for the contemporary EDM scene. “Acid Tracks” by Phuture, the first ‘acid’ track, was made with nothing more than two classic Roland boxes, a TR-707 drum machine and a TB-303 Bass Line, but it set the pattern for thousands of techno and trance tracks to follow.
As Kero puts it, “Don’t worry about having the best equipment or fancy software; focus on things like patterns and sequencing to recreate a track that you would normally DJ. Don’t get your brain lost in the technology; keeping things simple like producers in the past who made hits without the trendiest MIDI controllers is very important.”
Find a workflow that works for you.
Once you get a few tracks under your belt and you know the basic techniques of putting a track together, try to find a consistent workflow that works for you; this will help you be more productive and finish more tracks. Kero advises that “After learning basic song structuring and editing, you should work on learning a workflow that can be fun and effective and that can be repeated several times.”
For example, many producers find that they get more done if they divide sound design/creation and track production/arrangement into separate sessions and not try to combine them. These two sides of production involve different creative processes and both seem to go faster if you don’t mix them up. Spend a whole evening just making funky bass sounds, for example, and then use that as a pool to draw from next time you are making a track.
The important thing is, just keep working and making music regularly and you will start to hear yourself improve. As Moby told us in an interview last year, “If I spend 100 days in a row making music there’s a chance nothing will come of it. But if I spend 100 days not making music it’s guaranteed that nothing will come of it. So keep working.”
Have fun and be creative.
“If you’re not having fun you’re doing something wrong,” explains Kero. If you get to the point in a studio session where making music starts to seem more like work than fun, it might be better for you to call it a day and come back to the project the next day. When you get tired and you’re not having fun anymore, you are unlikely to accomplish anything really good anyway. Don’t be afraid to do crazy things and break the rules while you’re in the studio either, if you hold yourself back from experimenting freely you might miss out on some of your best ideas.
“You must give yourself the complete creative freedom to do whatever you want…and only start thinking about how people might respond to it when you’re ready to play it for them. So experiment and make mistakes and be imperfect…don’t judge what you are doing. Sometimes the best ideas come from mistakes.” – Moby
Go easy on yourself. Remember that it takes time to develop your production chops and find your own sound.
Learning to create music takes time. And while some of your DJ knowledge can be applied to the music production process, most likely there will be a lot of new things to learn as well. Learning electronic music production can be a steep learning curve at first, but don’t worry, it gets easier!
Dubspot blog editor John von Seggern has been producing and performing music with computers since his first DJ gigs in 1999 with his Hong Kong-based group Digital Cutup Lounge. Since then he has played techno at massive underground parties in China, remixed major Western pop artists for the Indian music market (and vice versa), designed orchestral electronic sounds and effects for the Pixar film Wall-E, and presented his anthropological research on music technology at academic conferences. He has authored two instructional books about computer music production and performance as well as the manual for Native Instruments’ popular software synthesizer Massive.
Dubspot blog editor Michael Walsh is a journalist, music producer, DJ and Dubspot instructor. He believes in open-source ideas and advancing the evolution of music by sharing ideas that push technology in new directions. As a catalyst and curator for electronic music, Michael was co-founder of Ritual Recordings, helped launch a series of turntablist records with Berklee School of Music, and has been a DJ for events including outdoor festivals in Nova Scotia, fashion shows in New York, and elite clubs in Russia’s Far East.