Last year marked my 20th year releasing electronic music as an artist.
I started dabbling with electronic music and made my first tracks already back in 1996. But I started releasing music to the public in the following year. Back then I was using tracker software to make music and I ran a tracker scene label called Rebound. We released more than 100 tracks as free downloads within a timespan of about 4 years.
My first commercial releases started happening around the year 2000. At the same time I began transitioning away from trackers into more sophisticated software and equipment. A lot of music and a lot of releases and projects kept happening. A few years later I started DJ’ing. And that is the road I am still on. I have stopped counting, but I think by now I’ve released music on about 50 different labels. This includes some that I highly admired back in the day when I was first starting out.
So – wow – 20 years has passed! As I’m looking forward to the next stretch, I decided to jot down some thoughts about some of the most important topics this craft of making music has made me wrestle with so far. I still struggle with many of these. I’m writing this article for you, but also to serve as a reminder for myself of things that matter. In no particular order, here we go.
Information that is not converted to action is worthless
To always keep learning is essential. But information that doesn’t lead to action is useless.
In other words, in order for you to move forward with your goals there has to be a balance between learning and doing. I love learning and my balance is still probably offset too much on the learning side of things. With all the free information available these days it’s all too easy to get bogged down into a consuming frame of mind. It takes discipline and good habits to push yourself to actually do something with what you’ve learned.
My mantra for the coming year: study less, do more.
Reduce and simplify
I have a tendency to drift from one thing to another with great energy. This has it’s upsides but also leads to a lot of complexity and unfinished business. I have to continuously fight this tendency in order to get anything done properly. One of the best tools for me in this battle is simplifying and reducing.
I am always looking to simplify the processes I am working with in order to be able to focus on what’s important and move things forward. This involves removing anything unnecessary so to that the necessary may speak. Sometimes it means quitting some things entirely. As an example, I recently made a difficult decision to quit doing my monthly columns and videos for Computer Music Magazine in order to make time for this blog again.
It’s really about shifting the way you think towards finding more simplicity and efficiency in everything. It can be very gratifying. And it can bring you a lot of focus and clarity.
Get your hands on the music
This is something I’ve only realized in the past few years. The creative part of my music making process has since become more and more hands on. As humans we have evolved to use our hands. There have been a number of studies on hand-brain connection, showing how different ways of using our hands can actually change the way we think and feel. A lot of great masters of the past have realized the hidden power in this. Einstein, for example, liked to take breaks to play violin when he was working on his theories.
In practice for me this currently means using more hardware equipment to create music. Instead of staying sedentary with just the keyboard and mouse and locked into the computer screen, I am playing around with a number of devices. As a result, the way I make music has completely transformed. I am enjoying it more and not getting frustrated as often (it still happens, of course). I am confident that having my hands involved in the process of making music again plays a role in this.
Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration
To be inspired is a great feeling, but you don’t always need to feel inspired in order to make good music. In fact I think (and I am not the first one to say so) that inspiration is for amateurs.
Sometimes you just have to kick yourself and get to it anyway. Quite often something good will come out of it. As you get going something happens – maybe a good musical idea comes to you in the process by accident – and suddenly you feel inspired again. Action and motivation go hand in hand. Knowing this, you can use disciplined action to fuel your motivation even when you’re not feeling particularly inspired to begin with.
Automate backups and set up a process for archiving your work
The thing is, all hard drives fail sooner or later. If you trust yourself to do backups manually… You are simply waiting for a disaster to happen.
I’ve suffered gravely in the past for this. I’ve felt greatly relieved ever since I created a strategy for automating my backup process using tools such as Carbon Copy Cloner and Backblaze (partner link).
I won’t go into more detail here since I have written about it before at length in this blog post. If your digital work and life is important to you, do yourself a favor and automate your backup process!
Collaboration is power
I’ve been collaborating a lot ever since I first started making music. I have always mostly collaborated over the internet. I like the way it gives me time and space to think and try things out also on my own. Having said that… In the right conditions and with the right people, getting together in the same room to create music is surely a great experience.
Collaborating for me has always happened instinctively. But in the past years I’ve began thinking about why I do it more and discovered there are in fact many benefits to collaborating. First of all, it keeps me accountable to someone other than myself. I have always had a problem of not finishing a lot of what I start. Collaboration helps me get things done and finish more. I’ve also learned a lot from others when collaborating. The process teaches me new ways to look at things.
Collaboration is also simply just a great way to socially interact with other likeminded people. We all need that interaction in our lives.
Intuition is a curious thing and difficult to pinpoint. But if you can develop and tap into it, it is an invaluable resource that puts you ahead of the curve.
There is a whole chapter dedicated to this topic in one of my favorite books, “Mastery” by Robert Greene (partner link). Here is a quote from the book:
All of us have access to a higher form of intelligence, one that can allow us to see more of the world, to anticipate trends, to respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance. This intelligence is cultivated by deeply immersing ourselves in a field of study and staying true to our inclinations, no matter how unconventional our approach might seem to others. This power is what our brains were designed to attain, and we will be naturally led to this type of intelligence if we follow our inclinations to their ultimate ends.
How do you then cultivate intuition? It is the accumulation of a lot of meticulous learning and a lot of focused work. Slowly over time your mind builds up this subconscious network of neural shortcuts and connections – a sort of synthesis of all knowledge. It allows you to “just know” what needs to be done in different situations. Often without really even knowing how to explain it in words.
Study and practice all the different aspects of your craft relentlessly. Think about what are the areas that you need to improve the most and work on those. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. But every minute you put in makes you better.
Study manuals carefully
These days I spend a lot of time reading manuals for the equipment and software I own. I even often times check out the manual before deciding wether I should buy something or not. Besides the usual technical info that you need to be aware of, there are often some valuable nuggets of information that give me fresh ideas for my work.
You are wasting a lot of potential in your investments if you’re not studying the manuals, so get to it!
When making music I try to create something that envelops the listener completely and transports them into a different world. It does not necessarily have to be massively deep, ambient or anything like that. What I’m talking about is creating something that is distinctive, personal, bold. Your own and therefore different to what others are doing. To create worlds is the best way I can put it.
Leverage habits and routines
Habits are your brain’s way to automate things. There are good habits, bad habits and neutral habits. Wether you like it or not, you are living a lot of your life on autopilot. Having accepted this… We can see that the more good things we automate and the more bad habits we shake the easier life becomes.
Routines, then, are chains of habits. They can help me enforce new habits and pace my day so that I stay on track better. For example, I have a c morning routine that involves things like some light exercise, coffee, SAD light treatment (we get very little sunlight over here in Finland during the winter months and it gets to me), getting the nutrients I need to function properly and so on. This routine is the same every morning. It makes sure I’m consistently getting a decent start to my days without having to think about it or spend extra effort. In fact during my morning routine I am already beginning to focus in on the day’s work.
Your mind expands or shrinks like a muscle
Your mind has so much potential… but if you don’t use it and challenge it, this potential will never be realized. It’s exactly like training your body. That’s why I try to push beyond my comfort zone and even face some fears every now and then. Putting myself to the spot keeps me in touch with the reality and forces the mind to stay sharp.
The challenges don’t always have to be big either. Example: Right now it’s almost midnight and I am really tired, but I challenged myself to write one more paragraph. Sprinkling in small challenges like these throughout the day can be extremely beneficial in the long run. It will help stretch the limits of your focus and will power.
Invest in (and learn about) acoustics
You can have the finest speakers in the world, but you will still be playing dice with your mixdowns if you don’t pay attention to the acoustics.
It is often said you should look at the value of your speakers and spend the same amount of money on acoustics. I think this is oversimplifying things, as there are so many variables in each situation. If you’re starting from nothing, there’s a lot you can do with very little money. Especially if you have the means to build things yourself. But if you do have the spending power… Using it wisely on acoustics is easily one of the best things you can do to improve the sound of your music.
I currently have 14 bass trap/absorber/diffuser panels (from GIK Acoustics) installed in my studio. I would happily put in many more if I had the space.
I’ve been using the Sonarworks correction software for a couple of years now. Sonarworks automatically compensates for the problems in your room’s frequency response based on very detailed guided acoustic measurements. This has considerably evened and tightened the bass response in my studio. In fact switching on the correction feels like switching on a subwoofer which doesn’t exist (disclaimer: I am also commercially affiliated with Sonarworks).
Before spending any money on acoustics it’s important to learn about it and design the right way to approach your scenario. My #1 tip is to go watch everything on the Acoustic Fields YouTube channel. Seriously great information.
Plan time, manage tasks and set reasonable deadlines
I have not always planned properly or spent time on task management. But whenever I did, I got more done. I try to keep this very simple though. I have experimented with different systems but keeping it simple and easy seems to work for me best.
Currently I pretty much only plan the big, most important tasks. The ones that I know I need to do in order to move my goals forward. All the small stuff then happens in between without too much effort. If it doesn’t, I need not to worry about it much anyway, because it’s the big stuff that counts for most of my progress.
Embracing deadlines, wether real or artificial, is another tactic that helps to make things happen. I have not had great success with setting artificial deadlines for myself, but I know some people have. I will keep trying with better discipline.
Learn about the industry
I was very misguided about how the industry works when I first started releasing music commercially. This is probably the case with most young people who go through the same process. That’s all well and good, but there are different ways to take things from there.
I did not spend much time studying how the industry works until much later (and I still have lot to learn). I have definitely suffered for it. Also, the world has changed rapidly since then and we now have tons of different opportunities to make a living in music. You just need to find out about them and figure out what works for you. To get good education on these things is of paramount importance. There are some great podcasts out there on these topics – the Music Growth Talks podcast to mention just one.
I’ve learned not to worry about taking something I like and making it my own. Of course I am not talking about copying entire pieces of music or other people’s styles (that can be great practice though). But I’m not afraid to steal more subtle ideas I like.
Musical ideas are nothing without their context. And even if a track I’m doing sounds too much like someone else in the beginning, I trust the process. By the time I’m done it will sound like my own. I know upon hearing my track someone else will use some idea from it in their own project. That’s the cycle of art and life. That’s the way it should be.
Invest in tools and education
You can get a lot of stuff for free and you can certainly learn a lot for free. But there are certain things that are worth paying for. Some of these things include good speakers, good quality DA and AD conversion, acoustic treatment, good hardware equipment and the right software. One should not also forget about investing in good quality education. There are people out there who have figured out so much and have laid it all out for you in the form of courses and books. Make sure to leverage that.
Watch the volume
I wrecked one of my ears in 2004. My hearing itself is fortunately fine, but there are certain frequencies that cause very unpleasant clicking and popping sensations inside my ear. I used to have tinnitus as well for a long time. Over the years it has thankfully stopped but it does come back momentarily if I stress my ears too much. We are all different and some people can take loud music better than others. But it’s not worth risking it.
Use good earplugs when you go out to gigs (molded ones are great). Maintain moderate monitoring levels in the studio. Be especially careful when you are out and about with headphones and earbuds. The ambient noise (especially in a city) can cause you to turn up the volume way too high.
Forget about making something perfect
Perfectionism is a huge trap and a false mindset that will only lead to more self doubt and getting bogged down in your project. Momentum is more important than creating something that is seemingly perfect to you. I’ve seen too many talented people fall and even quit music entirely because their perfectionism would not allow the momentum to get going. Indeed I often struggle with perfectionism myself, too. I think the issue is amplified in today’s world that is full of possibilities and opportunities, allowing us to dwell on things endlessly.
This is the rule I try to follow: Rather than trying to create perfect music, focus on becoming better at the act of creating music.
For me this involves things like learning to finish (and to make the decision that something is finished), focusing working on the right things at the right time and designing my workflow to fuel the process – for example by introducing certain restrictions in the process in order to force myself to stay on track and keep moving forward.
I have written about perfectionism before – click here to read the post.
Learn to say no
Time is a finite resource and the most valuable currency we have. It is an essential skill to make time for the things that are the most important to us.
I am a sucker for novelty and love jumping into new things. I’ve definitely suffered much because of that. Over the years I have become better at refusing to participate in everything that comes my way.
I have also had to learn not feel bad about not replying every email and message I get. It’s unfortunate, but to stay on top of it all would require too much time and mental resources. In the end I hope the good people who hit me up are better served by me rather putting my time and attention continuously into working on the blog and my music.
I’ve also learned to say no to other things in life that I may want to do in order to get my work done.
Take care of your physical wellbeing
The older I get (I am 37 now) the more important this has become to me. Right now in fact I am proud to be in the best overall shape of my life.
However, I don’t just care about health because I’m becoming older. I do better work and am more productive when I’m in a reasonably good shape and balance. I think it’s important to emphasize the word balance. It’s about getting some exercise, yes, but also enjoying life, eating well, getting enough rest, shaking addictions and not stressing yourself out too much with other things in life (especially the things outside your control). Balanced health will translate into everything you do – including music.
Here’s to the next 20 years, let’s do it!