Getting music done – and how (just a little bit) iOS might help

shutterstock_77378896One of the upsides to starting the Music App Blog email newsletter has been the increased feedback and interaction I’ve had with some of the site’s regular readers. Having used the email list to throw a few questions at the subscribers, I received all sorts of interesting comments back.

Amongst these comments, a number of themes have popped out; for example, people wanting advice on building a recording setup based around an iPad, folks who struggle with MIDI and how it works between multiple apps, requests for guidance on a range of basic recording tasks in an iOS context and others with questions about integrating iOS devices into their live rigs. Hopefully, as the site develops, I’ll start to address some of these themes and/or questions now that – through your input – I’ve got a better handle on what might be of most interest.

However, one other theme that a few folks have mentioned isn’t just an ‘iOS musician’ issue but applies to any creative music process (indeed, probably any creative process, music or otherwise); problems with finishing a project.

I suspect this is something that almost everyone can relate too (I certainly can); how can you ensure that the nub of a musical idea that seems to have suddenly dropped into your brain finds its way to become the ‘finished’ article?

I think this is an interesting issue so, if you will indulge me with something that is a bit tangential to my usual technical iOS music fodder, I’ll share a few thoughts here on the blog to see if they resonate with any of the readership. And while much of what follows might apply to any musician (or, in a different context, to any creative artist), for music creation, I think the iOS platform can provide you with some advantages in terms of ‘getting it done’ (see, there is some iOS music stuff in here). I’ll come back to that towards the end of this piece.

Why we don’t get it done….

There are all sorts of reasons or excuses we use to justify to ourselves (and maybe to others if you already have an audience) why we haven’t quite yet finished that song or music project we have been working on. In a modern music production context, where a recorded song is often the finished product, perhaps the two most common ones are:-

  • If only I had piece of equipment X, Y or Z I could make better music.
  • If only I tweaked the EQ/compressor/synth patch/mix balance/drum sound/guitar tone/vocal effects a bit more I could get it to sound right.

Both of these are, of course, classic procrastination – displacement activities – and allow you to justify to yourself why you can’t quite finish the track and why it doesn’t (yet) compare to that of your musical aspirations (that is, tracks in a similar musical style by your own favourite artists).

There is, however, a more fundamental reason why we ‘fail to finish’ and the two common excuses mentioned above may simply be symptoms of this more fundamental reason. Using these excuses means we don’t have to acknowledge this underlying obstacle; fear.

I wrote it, I played it all, I recorded it but it sounds like s**t...  who can I blame?

I wrote it, I played it all, I recorded it but it sounds like s**t… who can I blame?

What I’m getting at here is the fear of saying ‘it’s finished’ because, once it is finished (a) it means we have to let it out there where others can hear it (and we might not like their reaction, whether that is a negative one or simply ambivalence) and (b) because it finally brings us to the point where we have to judge it ourselves; is this music we have created actually any good?

This fear is what Seth Godin refers to as the work of our ‘lizard brain’; that bit of our sub-conscious that is always keen to plant self-doubt and, one way or another, invent ways in which we can stop ourselves from succeeding by distracting or deterring us from the real task in hand.

Why you need to get it done

It’s an obvious thing to say but repetition of a skill or exercise makes you better at it. Malcolm Gladwell documented the science behind this as it applies to both creative and sports skills and summarised the concept in his ‘10,000 hours’ idea; essentially, if you practice a skill for 10,000 hours you are going to become very good at it (doh!). If that skill is the production of a completed piece of music, then the message is simple; write it, recorded it, release it (in whatever form that might take; friends, family or existing fan-base) – and then repeat.

The ability to finish something as subjective and personal as a piece of music – knowing when to stop – is a good thing to have or to develop. Even if that ‘finished’ thing is not ‘perfect’ (whatever that might mean in a subjective sense), it gives you a reference or target that you can beat next time.

So, if you see your music as something you are doing other than for self-gratification and you want it to have an audience other than your partner, kids or immediate family and friends, you need feedback – however painful or ambivalent that feedback might be – so you can learn from it and move forward. Criticism can be good if you bring the right attitude to it and use it to inform what you do next time.

What’s your excuse?

There are genuine reasons why we might all fail to get something done but, as often as not (and this can particularly apply to creative processes like music), the thing that really stops you getting it done is you.

Just another week or so of mixing and it will sound great.....

Just another week or so of mixing and it will sound great…..

Now, you can dress that up in ‘if only I’d had this piece of kit’ or ‘if only I’d had more time’ or ‘if only my piano skills were better’ but, ultimately, it’s your music. Nobody is going to do it for you and (unless you already have a significant fan-base) nobody else is going to care that much if you never get it done. And they won’t know whether they want to care until they hear it….

What this all boils down to is both simple and obvious. To ‘get it done’ you have to:-

  • accept (and embrace) that you are working within certain equipment/skills/time limitations in creating your art.
  • have the self-discipline not to let those limitations become excuses.

Bad thoughts, good thoughts

There are all sorts ‘bad thoughts’ you can have that – without the self-discipline described above – will allow you to procrastinate. By all means, succumb to those displacement activities – polish the cat or go through your spam folder from last year if that brings you much joy – just don’t expect it to help you write and record a better song; it won’t.

And endless twiddling with your tech is not the solution either. You (as a musician) might think the snare sound or synth patch on the latest radio hit could benefit from some corrective EQ but the average listener (that’s the thousands of punters who have already downloaded the song to make it a radio hit in the first place) don’t give a toss; they will be listening to the vocal, the groove and any instrumental hook/ear candy. It will be a rare listener indeed who thinks ‘I’d buy that track if only the snare was a bit tighter….’

So what about some good thoughts to help you progress? I don’t have a psychology PhD so I expect there are many, and more eloquent, answers than any I could offer here. However, perhaps the best one I can offer is simply to admit that the bad thoughts will exist. Acknowledge that – like the vast majority of us all – you have self-doubt about your creative musical skills. Accept that the bad thoughts are going to come (the lizard brain doing its thing), catch them, and use them to slap yourself in the face so you just go and get on with it anyway.

In the context of music creation, the other thought worth having is a list of a few of your favourite songs or albums that you know were created either with very limited technology or recorded in very short time frames. There are lots of examples that fit here, many of them belonging to ‘classic’ recording status. Whatever your own personal inspiration might be, these examples show that the music creation or recording process doesn’t have to be protracted or perfect. Something great can be created with either limited resources or limited time or limited both.

Polish a t**d

There is a well known phrase that you can’t polish a t**d. In many walks of life, this is probably true but, in music production, there are plenty of examples that defy this statement. How many hit singles have you heard this year where you thought ‘s**t song, great production’? Quite a few I expect.

If only my computer was bigger and faster this song would sound great....

If only my computer was bigger and faster this song would sound great….

Don’t get me wrong; the technical and creative skill that can be bought to bear in a modern hi-tech recording studio is a wondrous and powerful thing. But, if you have the choice, apply all this amazing technology to an also amazing song. Learning how to polish a t**d is a very useful skill but, given the choice, if you see yourself as a musician rather than an engineer, learning how to write a killer song is perhaps a better one – even if it is an infinitely more difficult and slippery one to acquire.

And while nobody can promise with certainty to teach you how to write that killer song, by the time you have done it for the 100th, 1,000th or even 10,000th time, the odds are you are going to get pretty good at it. But in order to do that, no matter how bad it might be, you have to finish the first one….

Why iOS music technology might help

I promised earlier that I’d finish by offering some thoughts about how working with iOS technology might bring some benefits in this battle against self-doubt and self-delusion….  so I better do that.

Music technology is a wonderful thing. It enables endless creative possibilities. That’s a good thing and, as a musician and music technology journalist, I’m more than happy to embrace those possibilities. But those endless creative possibilities are a double-edged sword; they let you make music that would be otherwise impossible but, without self-discipline, they suck you into an equally endless spiral of tweaking, experimenting and… well…. not finishing something.

Many desktop-based musicians regard iOS music systems as under-powered and under-featured. Compared to a desktop-based system, perhaps they are but, compared to what passed for music technology 10 years ago, they most certainly are not. However, if you want to take a more positive slant on iOS as a music production platform, that more restricted feature set might be described as streamlined; a (slightly) less than endless set of creative options to distract you from the real task at hand – getting the song/recording finished. The limitations that some might choose to look down upon can also be seen as an advantage.

Of course, the creative possibilities offered by iOS music apps are expanding very fast and I appreciate that, in reviewing the best of these shiny new apps, I may well be putting temptation in your way (yay, a new app to buy/learn rather than writing some music). However, if you want to blame me (or any of the other excellent iOS music websites) for your self-discipline issues, then go ahead – but it won’t get any music made.

What might, however, is the ease with which you can configure the contents of your iPhone or iPad. Just because you own all these brilliant apps, doesn’t mean you have to use them all or have them all installed on your device at any given time. There are all sorts of examples in the creative arts where the artist has deliberately set themselves some limitations to work within. This might be a limited time frame or limiting themselves to only a particular way of working or limiting themselves to a certain range of tools. Whatever the choice, those limitations are there to help focus the creative process and reduce the potential for distraction.

Your iDevice and your app selection allow you to replicate that approach. What can I create over the next few days while I’m away from home if I’ve only got my iPad and X, Y and Z apps? I usually work by using app A so what happens if I work by using app B? What’s the most simple set of apps I can use to capture my next song idea? Set yourself some constraints – both in terms of the technology and time – and then see what you can create as a ‘finished’ piece of music.

Me, myself, I

For reference – and the reason this topic resonated with me when a few newsletter readers raised it in their replies – is that I’ve been there many, many times myself with this battle between ‘good thoughts, bad thoughts’. Been there, done that, still do it every day, got the tee-shirt….

Unless you are a very rare individual, it’s just something you have to accept and expect. But accepting and expecting is actually part of the solution. Accept and expect with enough self-awareness and you can catch the bad thoughts as quickly as possible, spot when it is happening, and deny them the opportunity to waste your time and take you off track.

So I can’t blame anyone but myself?

Being able to blame someone else when something goes wrong (such as not finishing a song) is a tempting, convenient and comforting thing to do. But, much as we might all like to justify placing blame elsewhere (rather than finishing our song), this doesn’t really cut it. It’s not the A&R guy’s fault your song didn’t get finished because he didn’t want to sign you on the basis of your previous demo. It’s not the promoter’s fault your song didn’t get finished because he didn’t want to book you for a series of gigs based on your live show. Ultimately, it’s your music; if you want it finished, then you have to make it happen. It all comes down to self-discipline. And that means that you can’t allow yourself to find excuses not to finish.

And, when thought about in this way, it doesn’t matter if you have a scrap of paper and an acoustic guitar, a streamlined mobile iOS music production setup or a mega-bucks home/project studio built around a top-of-the-range desktop computer; if you don’t have the self-discipline to focus on getting it done (and don’t have the luxury of a producer cracking the whip over you to ensure you get it done)… well…. it won’t get done.

Write, record, release, repeat…. and keep learning from the cycle.

Do you want to create music or not?

Go on….  make a conscious decision to stop yourself from stopping yourself….   and just get it done.


PS I promise to be back in full iOS music mode next time :-)

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    1. Great article! We all need this kind of reminder now and then. Thank you…

      • Thanks Chris – unless you’re a very fortunate soul then yes, kicking yourself up the backside should be a regular activity. Most certainly needed at this end :-) John

    2. Dave Carter says:

      Thanks John. You hit the nail on the head. After I saw your newsletter question I threw a new Christmas song I wrote on the bus. I think you flipped a switch for me, time to start refilling my soundcloud. I’m looking forward to your tips for an IOS studio setup. Thanks for the not-your-usual-app-blog post!

    3. I know this strays a little from the mission statement ,but you can write as many of these as you like! I like the 10,000 hour theory,and I realise I have 10,000 hours experience in not completing the tune …..not really the skill I was looking to develop. But also like the idea is that all I need is to counterbalance that with 10,000 hours of finishing tunes.

      • Hi Steve… thanks for the feedback. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (linked in the text of the post) is a really interesting read…. and very sobering :-) Best wishes, John

    4. Baddcr / Synthpatcher says:

      Absolutely spot on, really refreshing to finally have a decent iOS music blog with proper well thought out posts that address proper issues and aren’t just a “oh this app was released today” App Store commission honey pots :-D

      Don’t worry about not being iOS specific, this is exactly the sort of thing we all need I think – more! More!

      I’ve been doing two things over the last 6 months or so that have been really helping with this:

      The first is finger drumming practice, good in and of itself, but it’s had the rather fortuitous side effect of really improving my virtual keyboard skills, being able to play in time really helps with song writing for me.

      Secondly I’ve been limiting myself to just 30 minutes to make a track, sure they are pretty rough, but I used to spend hours on the details without an actual idea in mind, this way I get to quickly throw down the idea and if I like it enough I will then spend the time with it.

      In the spirit of getting it out there, here’s the latest demo I did for ZenLizards iSEMbly patch bank, it is done with iElectribe for drums and all the rest of the sounds are from iSEM, Loopy was used for recording and live performance which in turn was recorded into AudioShare, it took less than 30 minutes. Comments welcome :)

      • Thanks for the kind words and glad the article hit a chord (doh!)….. Cool ’30 min’ track BTW :-) Creating these constraints for yourself is, I’m sure, an excellent way to keep things focused and productive…. and when there are as many tools in the box as a well stocked iPad or desktop computer can offer, it is all too easy to get distracted simply playing with the tools rather than making something with them….

    5. Great article, really hit the nail on the head when it comes to blaming lack of tools, or embracing a more limited workflow and just getting on with it. One of the reasons I love iPad music making is that even with the powerful tools we have, there’s still limitations on the platform. Rather than looking at this as a bad thing, I find it encourages me to trim away the fluff and focus more on developing the core ideas in my songs.

    6. I have certainly fallen into this rut. So often I come up with 8 bar pieces that I really enjoy, but then I don’t know where to go next, so I start something new. Or I’ll read forums/blogs about synth apps, download apps, read more forums and then realize, I haven’t written any music. I’m not one to make New Year’s Resolutions, but at the beginning of this year I decided I would do something with music every day. Whether it was to make a new sound, learn a concept in an app, or write music. Just get SOMETHING done and eventually move to fully finished music.

      It has really helped and I’ve now completed several pieces of music this year. Most recently I had the opportunity to write the soundtrack to some videos for a Christmas program. It has been a tremendous year as I’ve made it a priority this year to write music, learn an app, and try new things.

      The portability of the iPad has definitely helped in this. I’ve been able to write music or work on patches wherever I am. The iPad is a tremendous tool! I love how I can attach my 49-key M-Audio Oxygen or 37-mini-key iRig Keys as a fully portable music station.

      • Getting sucked in to always wanting the ‘next tech thing’ can be a distraction…. self discipline and/or focus (or call it what you like) is really the only answer if, what you really want, is to produce the music you hear in your head…. Hope next year is as productive as this one for for :-)

    7. Tomas Mozer says:

      Thanks John! Im sick of fidling with faders and turning knobs. Back in the days, prior to the ios revolution all i had was a free copy of CoolEdit and a toy like Sony drum machine. It vas the most creative period of my life. The limitations forced me to experiment and finding new approaches. I want to go back to that. Self disiplin is the word dude! Thanks again

    8. Luke Culberson says:

      Great article! Very well written and spot on.
      iOS music writing has greatly increased my productivity
      simply because it is more limited than desktop s/w. It’s very easy to
      get sucked into the marketing hype of the infinite features and
      possibilities of desktop s/w and completely lose the plot of writing great
      melodies and harmonies.

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