“If it only took information to be successful, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs”
– Derek Sivers
After spending over 20 years writing music, I’ve found that progress is not linear. It’s more of a zig-zag through various stages of your career as you learn, grow, make mistakes, forget, and repeat. Certain concepts take years to understand and apply. So how can you waste less time and learn more effectively? How do you master the information and apply it to your own work? How do you make concepts stick, rather than re-hashing the same lessons and making the same mistakes? Over time the tools of the trade change and you’re always going to need to learn new techniques. Let’s explore several ways to improve your learning process, through intention, encoding, reduction, journaling, and repetition.
Information alone is not enough – you need the intention, discipline, relevant situation, and clear desired outcome to apply the knowledge. I used to create a blank session to experiment with a technique, like mid-side EQ or compression, but it’s usually a waste of time because it’s not an active session and the information won’t stick. Try to apply techniques to a real world scenario rather than doing it as an exercise. It’s the difference between learning a language by living somewhere, rather than following a textbook exercise. When you are clear about what task you want to accomplish, the path is much easier. Troubleshooting is the most important skill in the studio. For instance, maybe you want to remove the peaks from a drum transient to save some headroom in the mix – so you explore some options with limiters, bit crushing, or compression. You apply the treatments, A/B the result (making sure to match the gain), and determine if the techniques accomplish the goal. On the creative side, maybe the bridge in the arrangement isn’t adding anything, so you experiment with making it more of a departure from the song, or removing it entirely.
Encoding is the most critical stage. How do you capture and store the information you’re learning? Are you absorbing the information through YouTube videos
w/ screen captures (visual/audio), podcast interviews
(audio), or blocks of text in a manual
? How are you digesting this information? It will last much longer if you are highlighting, earmarking, writing in the margins, jotting down notes, rewriting them for clarity and legibility, and compiling highlights for later. I’ll often handwrite notes and then type them into Evernote
How do you learn best? Everyone generally falls into seven categories of learning: visual/spatial, aural/auditory/musical, verbal/linguistic, and physical/kinesthetic. Most people are visually focused. The more you can combine multiple learning types, the less you will forget. I’ve found that I learn the most through in studio collaborations and YouTube videos.
Many memory champions use “Memory Palaces” (or Method of Loci) to memorize items like a deck of cards or sequence of numbers. They attach novelty to memories, visualizing them in a 3D space, and store these items in virtual “rooms” that they walk through. It’s a very effective technique if you have the patience and imagination. You can also attach novelty through mind mapping (drawing a non-linear map of connected ideas), and mnemonic devices like acronyms and rhyming, to remember steps in a technique, notes in a chord, or string order on an instrument. You can also use “muscle memory” to spatially remember where an object is in the studio.
Reducing complexity is crucial for fast learning. You don’t need to learn every scale, chord, and progression, just like you don’t need to use all 88 notes of a piano. Start with three powerful chords for a progression, then choose a melody with 4 or 5 notes that weaves between them.
Use chunking to simplify technology
. Many people are intimidated by the rows of knobs on a mixer or synth, mistaking it for a cockpit of an airplane – but if you think of sections
of a synth: filters, envelopes, LFOs, modulation, oscillators, it’s easier to group the knobs into areas and understand their function. When you understand the basic archetype of a synth, you can apply this knowledge to other synths – hardware or software.
Simplify the units:
One aspect of both hardware and software that overcomplicates things are the units
. Are you nudging the audio in samples or milliseconds? Pitch-shifting in semitones or steps? Take advantage of software like musicMath
to quickly convert units and stay in the creative zone, using a more musical vocabulary. Try EQ’ing in root notes, thirds, fifths, and octaves rather than just frequency numbers. Think of the spectrum as one big keyboard.
Learning and growth doesn’t happen without reflection. Get the 5 minute journal
(app or hard copy) to quickly document your day and set you up for success. Use to-do lists to clear out your brain and stay on track. Use Morning Pages (see The Artist’s Way) to vent your emotions and construct your future. I use Wunderlist
to keep track of techniques I want to try and ongoing audio questions I can’t figure out. If you don’t measure and document your journey, you can’t gauge your progress.
Without regular application of a technique, it will disappear. Set reminders, create mix check-lists (with questions like – Is the chorus big enough? Is the mix balanced? Is there enough contrast between the sections?), and keep moving forward. Keep pushing your comfort zone and experimenting with new techniques.