For producer, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, and member of NYC’s Discwoman collective stud1nt, making music is not simply the act of turning on a computer and pressing some buttons, but rather a process that benefits from active decision-making.
Having spent a lot of time thinking about how best to utilize creative energy and spread this message to others, the NYC native leads a number of workshops to help fellow musicians dive deeper into the art of production. In line with the principles of the Discwoman collective, these workshops put a specific emphasis on educating young artists from groups that the electronic music industry often overlooks, such as women, artists from the LGBTQ community, and people of color. Native Instruments sat down for a lengthy chat with stud1nt to discuss everything from where to start with a track, how to stay focused while mixing, and what to do when you think a song is ‘done’.
Knowing how to start can sometimes be the biggest hurdle when making music. How do you approach creating something from scratch?
When you’re first starting a track, you should try to not filter yourself. Just generate as much content as possible and don’t worry about the arrangement, mixing, or fine details. There is a step for each part of a production, and the first one is just creating and getting all of your ideas out there. There’s a tendency to judge the content as it’s coming out, but while you’re in that writing phase, it’s important to just go with it. You just have to do the thing without thinking about the thing you’re doing.
If you’re someone who is starting out in production and have absolutely no idea where to begin, just listen to a song you like and try to focus in on an aspect of it that sticks with you—something that really resonates. It could be anything, but start with your focus on one thing that is super simple, and then see what you can tease out from there.
How do you get into that mindset? Do you think practicalities are important – having a comfortable workspace, turning off your phone, etc?
For me, one of the biggest things that helps is that I have my studio set up before I get in there. Those things can become physical roadblocks to actually creating music. I think it can be really helpful to do some small things ahead of time, like having a template in the DAW you use or having everything labeled on your mixer—so that when you’re excited about an idea, you’re creatively ready to go.
I definitely recommend being in private, where you are not prone to being interrupted, so doing things like putting your phone away is important. You need to dedicate the time and commit to the fact that you are going to spend this time alone focusing on music, and be okay with that. There are going to be times where the active part of your mind may get bored in that environment, but committing to being there a certain amount of time is good.
I also have this engineer’s notebook with grid lines, and I use it somewhat in the same way that Ableton has grid boxes
What do you do when an idea comes to you and you’re not in your studio?
If I have a melody or some lyrics in my head that I just need to get down really fast, I’ll record a voice memo on my phone. And I have this field recorder that I bring with me and use if I hear something that I want to sample, or something that reminds me of an idea I’d like to try. I also have this engineer’s notebook with grid lines, and I use it somewhat in the same way that Ableton has grid boxes: when I have an idea for a rhythm, I’ll shade in the little boxes according to how I might want to write it out in Ableton.
When did you develop that technique?
When I began making music in college. If I find a song where I’m interested in how producer or composer has set things up, I’ll listen to it and use the little boxes to write in things, like when certain parts come in and out of a song. It’s very helpful for me to visualize it. I think when you listen to something, it can be really hard to break down if you’re just listening through, but if you try to take it apart piece by piece, that just makes it much easier to think about questions like “How is this person creating dynamics in this track?” and so on.
In our recent Block Busters article, you mentioned that imposing limits on yourself was an important part of your production process. What kind of limits do you put on yourself when you are creating?
For instance, I’ll limit myself to 30 minutes for trying to create one 16-bar loop using just four different sonic elements. Or, I’ll only spend five minutes tweaking a certain sound and then I make myself move on. All of which is in an effort to make sure I don’t get stuck in an endless loop of continuing to work on the same things over and over again, after which they still don’t sound ‘right’.
When you talk about limiting your time for different parts of a song and keeping yourself on a schedule, are you literally setting timers to keep track?
I set timers and I’ll write down what I want to do ahead of time so that I can put myself on a specific schedule. I just don’t know how else to hold myself accountable other than setting an alarm and once it goes off being able to say, “OK, I’m absolutely done with that now,” and move onto the next task.
Have you found an ideal length of time that allows you to focus on creative tasks like creating a drum beat or EQing a kick drum?
In terms of EQing things while still creating, that’s the sort of task I’ll limit to ten minutes.
With mixing, after 20 or 30 minutes, I have to take a break, because if I don’t, I’ll just stop hearing things and processing them.
believe in yourself, believe in what you are doing, believe in what your friends are doing
It sounds like you encourage approaching production in phases: “writing”, “arrangement”, “mixing”, and so on.
There are times where I’ve made something in a day—maybe not completely mixed—but I’ll have it arranged and generally sounding how I want it. But usually it happens over the course of some time. For example, when I was rescoring The Holy Mountain, it took two months to complete, and I had to be pretty rigid about moving on from certain pieces of process. There has to be a point where you just accept what you’ve made. It’s important to give those phases their own time and space and a different kind of creative attention.
At what point do you consider a song done?
If I’m in the mixing phase and I just keep trying to fix the same four or five things over and over, then I feel like the song is at the point where I’ve taken it as far as I can. From there, maybe I’ll take it and get some feedback from someone else, which is really essential for me. When I was first starting out, I would send stuff out to my friends way too soon and want feedback fairly instantly, but now I generally try to get feedback when I feel like a track is almost there, it just needs one or two more things.
Lastly, what do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting to make music?
I would just say that it is easy to feel like the stuff you make when you are first starting out is basic-sounding. But now, when I actually listen to the stuff I made in the beginning, it was pretty weird in this cool way, so be a little more gentle with those ideas.
There’s this myth of these lone creative geniuses who turn on a computer and instantly create a masterpiece, and that just doesn’t happen. For every 1,000 pieces of trash music that you make—if you get one gem out, that’s fine. There’s no rush, there’s no timeline you have to be on. As corny as it sounds, believe in yourself, believe in what you are doing, believe in what your friends are doing, and surround yourself with people who can give you feedback, be positive, and do the same for them. I feel more strongly about that than any technical advice I could possibly give.