In early 2012, a friend pushed me into an awkward backstage conversation with Toolroom Records powerhouse Mark Knight. Toolroom was a big deal back then and I loved Knight’s productions, so this was my one chance to ask about his music-making process. What he told me surprised me, but over time I realized it was common advice for new music producers.
“Take a track you love and recreate it from scratch.”
As the daughter of a math professor who required I think critically about everything, this was too counterintuitive. Thanks to my upbringing, I believe formulaic thought is evil. The analytic, hard road to learning gives you a much deeper understanding of the topic you seek.
While this is true in theory, I regret not acting on Knight’s advice sooner. Like any topic, music requires a spring into action. To generate a regular flow of ideas, you need to practice. It’s difficult to translate inspiration or feelings into proper output at this stage because you don’t have the skills to do so. So, where do you turn for practice? Tracks you hear and love.
Don’t Get Stuck in “I Don’t Know” Mode
Instead of practicing, I went into years of tepid information gathering. I call this stuck phase “I don’t know” mode.
- I don’t know enough about music theory
- I don’t know enough about synths
- I don’t know enough about sound design
- I don’t know enough about arrangement
- I don’t know how to use Ableton
- I don’t know how to play the piano
Learning from a track you love teaches you valuable lessons about the elements of production and supplies you with hours and hours of practice. You learn to replicate by hearing and sketch out an arrangement, as well train your ear for melody, harmony, and rhythms. (By the way, if you also DJ, I found that this study helps a ton with mixing!)
How to Copy and Learn
- Follow a “how-to” course: I found it helpful to first take a step-by-step course that outlines every single element of a genre you like. This is going to feel yucky (well, at least it did for me because I wanted to make cool, unique things immediately…keep dreaming), but I cannot believe I didn’t do it sooner. It’s slow at first, but even after a couple sessions, I started to build tracks out much faster.Here is the “deep house” course that I read and followed step-by-step. They even have videos for those who are visual learners. Of course, you’ll find that everyone has their own process, shortcuts, tips and tricks, but as a beginner you likely don’t have your own workflow yet so this is a great starting point.
- Drop a track in Ableton: Now that you have some basics down from the how-to course, try to emulate a track you love in a similar genre. By looking at the waveform of the audio track, you can mark up what the arrangement looks like. Take notes on where certain elements drop in and out, where breakdowns happen, and so forth. Then, use your notes to build the skeleton of your track. Even if the sounds aren’t the same, the EQ isn’t right, and FX aren’t added, you can get pretty close. Refine these elements over time as you learn more things like sound design and automation.
- Use sample loops to learn parts like drums or baselines: Taking inspiration from Abelton’s new learning platform, I started dropping loops from sample packs into an audio track in Ableton (for example, a drum loop) and trying to recreate them as a combination of midi tracks. Now I just have an Ableton project called “Beat Scape Practice” I use for this purpose.
It’s All Still a Process
This is definitely something I’m still learning and have yet to do more often. Five years down the road, I’m finally acting and not passively dreaming about knowing all the things at once.