Getting Started With Music Production
Podcast Interview with Reuben Samuel from Mile High Sounds
Listen to the interview recording
Music production is a topic every DJ should know at least the basics about. Understanding how tracks are made helps to anticipate their timing and progression and makes you a better DJ. It also allows you to start making your own tracks which opens a whole new world of opportunities.
You can do it just for fun and express your creativity. You can produce tracks and include them in your sets. I had a customer walking up to me during a gig and requesting a track I produced (NuOneForYa). One of the best song request I ever had!
Apart from having fun and spicing up your sets, getting started with music production could be the beginning of a DJ superstar career. Most of the guys rocking the festival main stage, cashing in six figures per gig got there because of a successful releases. If this is the route you want to take - keep reading (or listening).
Meet Reuben Samuel: Producer, Teacher, DJ
I have quite a bit of experience with music production and sound engineering myself, but for this podcast I decided to partner up with a very skillful friend of mine - Reuben Samuel: DJ, producer, teacher at and founder of Mile High Sounds. He is a certified Ableton trainer and has a lot of experience in music production. Our talk brought up quite a few gold nuggets summarized in the resources section below. Have fun listening (or reading)!
Ableton Live Intro production software
Deep Listening Video (coming soon)
loop masters (free starter pack)
Production software FruityLoops (now called FL Studio)
Production software ProTools
Production software Logic
Focusrite Scarlett Soundcard
Virtual Instrument Massive
Virtual Instrument Sylenth
Virtual Instrument Serum
Book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"
This is DanoEF from TDJC Traktor DJ Course, and today I have the honor to be guest at Reuben Samuel place - Mile High Sounds. He is the founder of this teaching centre and production studio. Reuben is also a DJ - I would say he is Mr. Music 360. It would be a pleasure to pick his brain about getting started with music production for DJs.
As we all know many big shot DJs out there are actually producers, they got there because they had some track in the charts, and because they had success with the track they produced. For those of you who would like to follow this route, and maybe start your own productions as well, I thought it would be a good idea to speak to “Mr. Ableton”. He will obviously have some hints for us on how to get started. Reuben, Just a few words about what you do here at Mile High Sounds.
Hi Dano. At Mile High Sounds we do everything audio and music related. We look at people that have very basic needs, or maybe very advanced needs. We can take a project from any stage along the production line; it could just be a basic riff. A student might come in and have difficulty with making the drum sound fatter. They might have problems with completing their song. They might have problems with developing their ideas further, and this is where we usually step in and help. Guide them and pinpoint where along their production process there might be ways to get over that hurdle and move forward with their productions.
That sounds great. We all could use this kind of help I guess. So let’s say I was trying to get started with production. I would come to you and say “you know what, I know a bit about DJing, I bought myself a Traktor Controller and I want to start with production.” What would you tell me?
"I would like to know what your musical influences were, where you’ve come from"
I would first want to know a little bit more about you. If you played some instruments when you were younger, or if you still do currently play instruments. I would like to know what your musical influences were, where you’ve come from, how you’ve developed as a DJ. You could be a DJ that just started or you could be a DJ that’s been playing for a long time, but it’s still interesting to know where it all came from, how the passion is fielding and so on. Because that also is a decider on how your production will be shaped in the future, and where you might want to take your influences and package them into how people may want to hear what you have to offer.
Yeah I think that’s where we come across the topic of musicality. I think it comes into play what’s my musical background, how much do I know about music, right? It would be a big part of the whole picture how much I know about music theory, playing an instrument and knowing about scales, harmonies and rhythm.
Deep Listening- Learning By Analysis
Definitely. A big part of learning about how to make a full song, how to arrange something, is also understanding how a lot of your favorite songs are put together as well. And one of our components and models we do is known as Deep Listening, where we would time stretch a track and put it into the grid in Ableton Live, and listen to it literally from the very beginning to the end and break it up into sections of what’s happening in every bar.
From the beginning you would identify what instruments were used in the production, and then we would look into what happens when and why. What elements come in such as Cow Bells, which are everyone’s favorite. Closed hats, why do open hats happen after 16 bars? Why is there a riser at this point? Why is there a breakdown? What led up to that breakdown? And when everything built up and then drop later, why was there a change in feel and energy and so on. So we would look at that pretty much as a handwritten grid and that really helps people transforming their ideas into a digital audio work station, such as Live or Logic or any other program.
We are already getting into the music production theory and skills I guess, and that’s a really wide topic to talk about how tracks are built, the whole world of sound design and arrangement. That’s something to cover in many hours I guess.
First of all we need hardware and software. So let’s just cover these two briefly. What would be the most reasonable start set-up?
Getting Started With Music Production Without Going Broke
I think there’s a misconception that you need to go and get the latest drum pad, or the most full-fledged version of software. Even if you’re not a DJ you can literally pick up a copy of, say Ableton Live Intro. It gives you 8 tracks and limited effects, but I mean you can still get into the very core of what makes music production possible which is working with blocks and actually structuring your track, and developing an idea. So for example if you wanted to get in straight away, you could get a copy of Live Intro for example. That’s about $99US dollars and you can do all kinds of things.
You can do pretty complex mash ups, and you can do real edits, you can do voice over recording. You could take an existing vocal lead, you could put drums and base, and pads, and that’s only for tracks on its own. So you can really do a lot with the basic software.
There's Nothing Wrong With Getting Sample Packs
Rather than reinventing the wheel if you’re going to create or recreate a genre that people have gotten used to certain sound elements, for example DeepHouse like classic MS20 “boom boom” kind of sound to it. Rather than sitting there for 4 hours and trying to figure out how that one particular tone is made, there is nothing wrong with going out and getting some sample packs that help introduce you to how to place that block in the context of a song.
You can work it out by listening to how a song is made. As I mentioned before - deep listening. You can see where the beats are, where the beats remove themselves, what comes in when the beats remove themselves, and you can actually look at production from a top down approach, rather than left to right which is what we typically do.
There are a lot of free packs, Ableton Live Lite version for example. Or you could hop on a website like LoopMasters - we’re actually in partnership with them where we can hook you guys up with a free starter pack as well.
Talking about monitoring: Headphones help. Even a hi-fi can help but I just generally recommend against using a PC speaker, mainly because it’s only so much that a PC speaker can produce. A laptop speaker is very tinny and you won’t quite understand what’s happening with the sounds you put together.
The more you can spend on the speakers or headphones, the better. But a decent pair of DJ headphones would do for starters right?
It’s good to get familiar with your palette, just like a
Yeah definitely. Also before you get into how things sound from a fidelity point of view, it’s good to break down the process as well. I think understanding what sounds are like, and what they sound like on their own is definitely a good thing to separate from how they sit in the very beginning. It’s good to get familiar with your palette, just like a painter would choose a medium and so on. They would want to know what they have at their disposal, before they get in there and start to get busy.
Get familiar with the colors.
Yeah. Having said that the more advanced you get, the more aware that you are that you can literally pick your medium knowing what the end product is going to be, and that of course comes with time.
Do we need a keyboard?
"I’ve made some pretty horrible tracks on the airplane"
Not necessarily no. You can actually program beats and baselines and so on with your mouse and your computer keyboard. Of course a computer keyboard doesn’t feel great when you play it like a virtual piano, it doesn’t have velocity which is how hard instruments respond to pressure, but you can definitely get by. I’ve made some pretty horrible tracks on the airplane, but having said that I’ve sketched ideas in the airplane and I’ve brought them back. I’ve had times I’ve had hardware fail on me before but I have still managed to finish everything on the computer.
But the musical keyboard would help and I think they go for a few bucks right.
Definitely. You can get 25 key, 49 key, 61. A 25 key keyboard these days comes with plenty of knobs and faders, so you can assign your favorite effects and hear any tracks you like. And start to emulate what you enjoy about those genres and so on.
Yeah. So the hardware is covered: we have (maybe) a keyboard, a headphone, some kind of PC software - Ableton first choice.
I mean people start with FruityLoops as well. They are all very advanced softwares and it really comes down to the process. I personally find that I work very fast in Live, based on how it’s got 2 methods of composition. You’ve got the session view and arrangement view, which I’ll drop in some links to demonstrate what the differences are between them. But yeah it’s all about speed.
"When you’re stuck on an idea in the creative process and you spend too long on it, you start to loose passion"
Time is getting very precious these days, and sometimes when you’re stuck on an idea in the creative process and you spend too long on it, you start to loose passion in that particular project. That’s something that I used to get very sad about and that block has been lifted for me. Having more options to approach a hurdle is definitely better.
Live already comes with a decent set of material and resources to work with.
After software and hardware we still need the stuff to work with right? We need our paint, we need the samples, the instruments, and all this is also part of Ableton I guess. We have a lot of stuff to work with to start with, we don’t have to go out and buy instruments and sample packs. We can, but Live already comes with a decent set of material and resources to work with.
Yes. So depending on which version of Live you’d get, you’d get a different library set and effects and a starter kit of instruments as well, which are located in the packs. Which I’ll also drop a link to so you can see a comparison between them all, but you will find that there are a lot of producers that have a particular instruments in mind, when they want to produce. They might immediately think: Sylenth is what I want, so they might want to make very minimal tracks. And again the Live Lite version would work. They could use Sylenth as a VST or an AU, and that would be their main instrument in that case. In which case you would not be relying on the built in instruments of Live, you might add on Massive from Native Instruments and so on. Serum is very popular now.
"You could do an entire track out of samples"
But you definitely don’t need to go too crazy with instruments to actually get an arrangement done. You could do an entire track out of samples, that’s been a very, very common practice thing for many, many years since even the first trackers came out. That combined with perhaps recording organic instruments, someone could be just playing a guitar. You could put that into Live, you can time stretch it, make it fit really well, you could sample it, you could get a vocalist on there, and already your track is starting to sound very organic.
So whenever somebody plays a real instrument they can always sample it, record it, and start working with that inside Live also.
Exactly. Yeah and literally takes 5 seconds to drop in a sample and map it to your keyboard and start playing it rhythmically as well. So you can really expand everything with samples too.
So this covers everything we need to get started, and after this I think it’s all about skill.
A power socket 🙂 And of course like I mentioned before: recording. You may want to look into getting a sound card and a microphone. There are relatively cheap entry points to that, usually in the 100-150 USD range. Focusrite is famous for its Scarlett, the 2 in 2 out. So you could have like one microphone and one guitar input.
"It takes many years to create an overnight success."
Once you have a way of getting sound into your computer from the outside world, you’re pretty much sorted and again, you may want to add on things to your studio set up. It doesn’t have to be a case where you buy something and it becomes redundant later, just because you made a budget choice. The quality has improved a lot compared to 10 years ago, and it is perfectly fine to use that sound card again in the future with a more powerful set up.
And as soon as we have all this together the only thing we need is learn, learn, and practice and analyze.
"People don’t actually see the studio hours that were put in before that even became possible."
You definitely have to put in the hours. There is a common misconception that just because a producer suddenly is touring the festivals, within a month of what seems like their first release. People don’t actually see the studio hours that were put in before that even became possible. The hundreds of tracks that are not mentioned before leading up to that very release that got them on to the main stage.
It takes many years to create an overnight success.
Exactly. I mean there is the ghost producer thing but we’re not going to get into that today, we’ll save that for a separate.
I think a good approach would be to just take your favorite tracks and look at them very closely. Analyze the bar structure, the intro, the extro, all what’s happening, how the different layers play together, all the phrases, loops that you have, the 8 bar phrases, the 16 bar phrases. As soon as you get a grip of all this, I think you can develop quite fast and apply this new learned stuff to your own productions.
In fact I’d be more than happy to send you a link over to a video I’ve done, where I explained deep listening and my process to it.It’s really short again it’s a concept you can apply, to any work station that you currently use. You can know the bmp of a track drop it into ProTools for example. All I’m doing is helping people listening to sections, I might play sections over and over again but while I do that, I will write down exactly what parts are being heard, and get people to really hear them. Then put markers in throughout the arrangement.
"Start picture a mind map of what’s happening."
So for example a track would start with maybe a kick drum and a clap. I would write BD+ CLP. And then if a closed hat comes in, I would put on the next mark. I’d say ‘after 8 bars plus CH’ which means closed hat. Then if the break down would have come I might put ‘-PD (breakdown)’ just to indicate that’s happening. And then if a rise was coming I would put ‘rise (8 bars)’, and then you could actually start picture like a mind map of what’s happening.
This topic is so big. We could go into so many directions now. We could go into sound engineering, we could go into mastering. We could go into sound shaping, EQing, compression, and all the tools you can apply. I mean its endless right. I think we scratched the surface of everything so far, and we can provide some links for people who want to dig deeper in certain directions, to be able to do that.
This could be the introduction to a lot of other things we can start to cover.
"I guess everyone should know the basics about scales,
harmony and rhythm"
We could take a closer looks at the deep listening part, of course arrangement, music theory. I guess everyone should know the basics about scales, harmony and rhythm. Then sound engineering and mastering. And after all this is done and let’s say my track is now ready and polished - what now?
Well what I would usually say at that point is ‘well you should thought about that earlier’. All that work and you don’t have a plan.
You have this amazing track which you love so much, and now what?
Exactly. Now you have this amazing track which you love so much, and now what. I mean yeah you have social media, but I think it only goes so far.
Yeah every platform needs to be explored, but most importantly a plan needs to be devised of where you’re going in the first place
If your goal is to make your music production effort a passion project, well good. Establish that from the very beginning. Then you would just be really, really happy with improving yourself. But the great thing about targets is that you really do strive to improve yourself in areas, that maybe causing you to fall short of reaching that goal.
So for example maybe getting signed to your favorite label, one may assume that ‘oh my track isn’t really ready for that label’. And what happens? They never send it. If they never send it they will never know.
Yeah of course you got that pretty high chance that you won’t get a response, but if you do – my goodness! Maybe you’re on to something! But that doesn’t just mean being the most amazing producer and sit in your room, and don’t call anyone, and don’t hang out, and don’t take in the scene. If you don’t do that you’re definitely not going to get any results.
Exactly. ‘Begin with the end in mind’ is one of my favorite sayings from Stephen Covey. I think this would be very helpful as soon as you sit down, and once you start producing you know where this is going.
Is this for fun or is this actually a career? Is this supposed to become something to get you somewhere? So then I would picture the end first.
Let’s say I have a favorite label I want to be published on. Or I have some festival where I want to play, or whatever it might be. Picture this and then start moving towards this direction, and then stuff will fall into place. I did hear an interview of a guy who submitted 136 demos to his label before he got published.
It’s a big number to keep in mind because I remember sending my first demo many years ago, and I got so frustrated by the rejections. I stopped doing that and it was silly, because it definitely takes more than 1 or 2, or 3, or 10 demos to go somewhere before you get any attention, and any feedback.
Definitely. I think it’s also important that if you are going to have a goal in mind that you also enter into the process with an open mind, because after all those 3 years of trying you might find that maybe you’re going in a different direction. You need to embrace that because that can actually be the reason why you took that journey in the first place, to find your calling.
Exactly. Changing directions is part of the process. Sometimes we just have to get there first, before we know ‘oh this is actually maybe not what I want’. Maybe I want something else, or maybe just want to change my target a little bit. But yeah - it takes the work, and it takes the process to get there.
So I guess we just round up here. This could be the start of a series of sessions I could imagine, but let’s see where it goes. Thank you very much Reuben!