Budding music producers often find themselves looking for the elusive secret trick that the professionals (be it producers, mixers or mastering engineers) hide close to their chest, and that is the ultimate thing separating the beginner from the chart-topper. The answer always is that there is nothing to it besides the boring dog’s work, the perseverance to sit through hours of trial & error in the studio, the what the Germans so aptly call Sitzfleisch — essentially banging your head against the wall long enough until there’s a hole.
While I fully appreciate this sentiment, I feel there is actually one general tactic that I see leads people towards success in the studio (and far beyond).
It is the tactic of careful preparation for the actual creative process / the mixing / the mastering.
I feel there is a slightly over-romanticised notion that creativity must emerge and happen spontaneously, in a sudden-flash-of-inspiration-way, and that engineering this delicate process is compromising the holiness of art creation.
I’d like to contest this idea and rather propose that, on the contrary, the prep work will facilitate your flashes of creativity, and will ensure that they end up being usable piece of work in the end. (Think of all the promising demos made in a rush that ended up being unusable because you had used bad-quality sounds or badly-recorded instruments.)
Let me lay out a couple of concrete examples of the above concept of ‘prep-work for creativity’ in the studio:
—Many electronic music producers separate their work into sample-creation & sound-design, and actual music-writing sessions. If your music is based around sound-design, this approach makes a lot of sense. Not only will you be less likely to hit a wall during arranging, stuck for hours synthesising a fitting sound— you will also end up crafting a unique sonic imprint to your music. To kickstart new song ideas, you will end up relying more on this custom sample-bank, rather than throwing in a Splice sample. To be sure: we are all different creatures, and maybe you thrive on switching modes from sound-design to arranging on the fly. But if you repeatedly find yourself getting stuck in the process of creating music, consider the above approach of separating the two processes.
—A more high-level extension of the above tactic is simply creating templates. Again, some people prefer the ‘blank-slate’ approach of starting everything from scratch, but to me this can trigger an anxious feeling of too many options. By taking some time off to create a mixing / production template with your favourite plugins and plugin chains pre-loaded (possibly bypassed if you like going big like I), this can focus your work, and effectively be the deciding factor between finishing music, or forever deciding on a ‘direction.’
—If the above suggestions appear irrelevant to you because you are more of a hands-on producer who plays physical instruments and then produces and mixes these recordings, there are still ways to apply this prep-work principle. An obvious one is to have things patched up and instantly ready to go. Arranging your workspace so that everything is within arm’s reach can be critical. I keep hearing iterations of the following story from producers around me: “I have physically moved this or that synth, or this mic from my main table to the side table.. and have not used it since; it’s been 5 years now.” Think about it..
To sum up, I think powering through the prep work will pay itself off in the form of more, better-sounding (and actually finished) songs, mixes, and masters. If you like the feeling of slight looseness and mild chaos, and you are getting results this way, please happily disregard everything I just said. But if you find yourself struggling to either start ideas, or you get excited starting ideas but get stuck finishing them, try doing a bit of the axe-sharpening groundwork first, and witness things improve.