5 Common Denominators of Successful Songwriters, Composers, Producers and Engineers
By producer Gary Gray of the New Artist Model's Lucrative Home Studio
In music, success can seem very elusive. Some songwriters, composers, and producer/engineers just seem to attract success, while others struggle along, fighting an uphill battle, going nowhere but down.
The truth is, success in music comes to those who are working HARD & SMART, and from my observations, the most successful individuals have mastered the following 5 common denominators. Let’s go through them one by one.
1. Regardless of their experience and knowledge, they all share a humble yet voracious appetite for knowledge.
The best songwriters, composers and producer/engineers are willing to say, “I don’t know what I’m doing, can you help me with this?” They are willing to listen and learn without asserting their own self-worth or ego.
And most importantly, the most successful songwriters, composers and producer/engineers take what they learn back to their own home studios and put in the time to EXPERIMENT ON THEIR OWN – thereby learning their craft in detail.
One of the key things you will learn is that there is a SCIENCE and an ART to music and music production. You can learn the science of how to construct a song, or how to add reverb, but if you don’t take the time to experiment and discover your preferences in applying those things, your work can end up sounding robotic and lifeless. True success comes when you combine both science and art.
I learned this lesson first hand while teaching interns – graduates of audio engineering, fresh out of universities. These graduates, who you would think would be extremely competent, actually felt that their creativity had been somewhat squashed in school.
For this reason, though I can and will teach techniques, secrets, tips, processes, how-to’s, and how-not-to’s, etc. – I encourage my students to take these scientific gems of knowledge and APPLY THEM! TURN THEM INTO ART – THEIR ART.
And the only way to do this is to put yourself in the driver’s seat in your own home studio and EXPERIMENT – FOR HOURS, not minutes. If you think there is a short-cut, there isn’t. My best students from around the world adjust their lives so that they constantly keep this point in as a priority. HOURS OF EXPERIMENTING – HOURS OF DOING. It’s that important if you want to be successful.
Don’t ever give up when the going gets rough. I went through years of “Trial and Terror.” I’m sharing what I know so that you don’t have to do the same. I sit here with a thriving business, with clients like Disney and 20thCentury Fox right out of my Home Studio. I produce and engineer and orchestrate for clients all over the world, many of whom are extremely successful in the music industry. I did it by observing others who were successful, getting mentored whenever and wherever I could, and by DOING IT MYSELF – EXPERIMENTING ON MY OWN FOR HUNDREDS OF HOURS. But I didn’t have a compiled list of how to do it or a workable system at first. I had to work it out. And now that I have, I’m sharing it with you so that you can avert the pitfalls and wasted time I went through.
So, believe me, you can do it!
Just like production and engineering, there is a science and an art to running a home studio business. I’ve consolidated by 4 best pieces of advice for home studio owners into a free ebook that you can download here.
2. Successful songwriters, composers and producer/engineers consistently listen to LIVE music.
A little disclaimer before we get started. While listening to live music is important, never subject yourself to prolonged direct listening of any sound source louder than 85dB. This will cause your hearing to deteriorate and is counter-productive to being a great songwriter, composer or producer/engineer. I suggest using ear plugs that conform to the shape of your ear. These protect your ear and actually allow you to hear a well-balanced mix.
Listening to LIVE music keeps the REALITY of what you are doing at the forefront of your mind. When you see a song performed live you can physically see the emotional spikes and drops in the audience’s reactions. Take note of these moments and learn how song elements, arrangement elements and production elements come together into a presentation that really engages and immerses people.
As a songwriter, composer or producer/engineer, listening to live music allows you to mix with more confidence and accuracy than if you just hole yourself up in your Home Studio and never get out and experience music. This point cannot be underestimated.
In fact, if you can, I recommend you do as much LIVE MUSIC MIXING as possible. Even if it’s for your friend playing solo guitar and vocals at the neighborhood café. The BEST studio producer/engineers I have met have experience mixing live sound, and continue to do so whenever they can.
Because when you’re mixing live, you’re forced to work quickly. You need to identify the single most important mix element to fix at any given moment, and you can see exactly how your changes affect the emotional levels of a piece of music. You will definitely notice an increase in the quality of your mixes, and just as importantly, you will find yourself completing projects much faster.
3. They understand that becoming a great songwriter, composer or producer/engineer and making it in the field of music requires interacting with other humans.
Music is a people industry. This cannot be overstated. And the more you can get out of your home studio and meet other songwriters, composers or producer/engineers, the more successful you will be.
I actually have a motto I live by, “I’m Either Networking or Notworking!” It’s very easy to get wrapped up in what you’re doing and never actually leave your home studio. But that motto alone has gotten me more opportunities than I can count. It’s how I was able to meet Rock-and-Roll Inductee, Multi-Platinum Singer/Songwriter Marty Balin – a connection that led to me orchestrating and co-producing his solo album. When the album was finished, Marty sent me a check with a note: “Gary Gray is a master. His orchestrations fit my songs like a second pair of pants and made them 10 times better!”
It was how I met and was mentored by Phil Collins, Quincy Jones, Phil Ramone, Jermaine Jackson and other greats in the music industry.
So get out, network FACE TO FACE, meet other songwriters, composers and producer/engineers, and take the time to talk to them.
I have found that the very best connections come out of relationships that start with giving. Networking is not about demanding what you need and expecting people to help you. Instead, ask people what they need and DELIVER IT. THAT’S how you stand out in people’s minds.
4. They compare their productions with commercial productions they admire and respect.
Producing quality music is not accomplished by flying blind. The most successful songwriters, composers and producer/engineers understand the value of comparing their music to commercial recordings, a technique called “A/B’ing.”
A/B’ing is a method of comparing your track to commercially successful reference tracks that are similar in certain aspects (the similarities could be the overall sound, genre, arrangement, instrumentation, etc). For example, you could be referencing the kick drum sound, the guitar tone, the low end of the mix, or even the overall emotional level.
There are many different ways to A/B that I have developed and that I teach in my online course, the Lucrative Home Studio, but for today, let’s stick with the number one most important system of A/B’ing: “Checkerboard A/B’ing.”
To create a Checkerboard A/B file, you “checkerboard” about 5 seconds of your track and 5 seconds of a reference track over and over.
Set up a loop around the area of the mix you are working on. Hit play and make adjustments to your mix as you listen to your mix alternating with the reference track. You will be amazed at how much better your mixes will turn out when you use this incredible A/B technique. It’s truly awesome to receive success stories from Home Studio owners all over the world as their confidence increases and their careers take off as a result of this one technique!
This next step is to export the “Checkerboard A/B” file and listen to it through your laptop speakers, with earbuds, in your car, and anywhere else you think the average music fan may listen to music.
The key to successful A/B’ing is to remember that you’re not trying to MATCH your reference track artistically. What you’re doing is comparing the QUALITY of your track to the QUALITY of your reference track. You may notice your track is way too boomy in the low end. Or perhaps your high-end sounds a little too bright and annoying. Or maybe you’ll discover areas of your track that just feel sparse. You can also compare individual elements such as snare to snare, vocal to vocal, etc. And if you can find pro mixes that have been broken down to stem files (something I supply with my online courses), then you’ll have an incredible opportunity to A/B your individual mix elements to individual elements from successful commercial mixes.
5. They rid their environment of distracting and negative situations, people, and surroundings.
This is extremely important to your success. You are dealing with an invisible subjective art form open to criticism and opinion from every nook and cranny in your life. Some of the people you play your tracks for all of a sudden become an “experts” and “authorities” when you ask for feedback.
If they are a positive person, you get positive, constructive feedback. But watch out – you can slow down your career and even stop it cold if you surround yourself with negative, destructive individuals who use the opportunity to “give you their feedback” by artfully slicing and dicing your enthusiasm and energy, sometimes without you realizing what is happening. They can pretend to be your “friend” and say they are only being “honest.”
When it comes to your success, the hell with those kinds of individuals! Get them away from you as necessary and appropriate. The further away the better. Sometimes you must deal with them because of life situations and dynamics. If so, be sure to keep them out of your inner circle.
Once the negatives are gone, focus on getting rid of distractions. Then you can focus better. All great producers and musicians are extremely focused and work on one thing at a time; “multi-tasking” is an unfortunate word that has made its way into our culture. Do one thing at a time and completely focus on that one thing. Yes, you can do several things within a certain period of time, but you are only working on one thing at a time.
When you rid yourself of negativity, distractions and focus on one thing at a time – look out world! Your confidence, your life and your career will really take off!
Gary Gray is the teacher behind the Lucrative Home Studio online course. He’s an award winning composer, producer, and engineer, and has produced multiple projects for 20th Century Fox, Disney, Hollywood Records, A&E, EMI, CBS and many others in his home studio.