A path to improvement?

If this has been discussed already please excuse the redundancy and direct me to the conversation, or really anything you think might be relevant or helpful.

How do you improve as an electronic musician?

When playing an acoustic instrument one can practice scales, learn to read music and interpret other people’s songs. Muscle memory, strength, dexterity and control can be developed through repetition and practice. There are clear paths that have been distilled for most traditional instruments such as a piano or guitar.

But when the physical constraints have been removed with computers, synthesizers, sequencers and automation, then what is an actionable, tangible path to improvement?

Is it a matter of repetition and time? Just do it? With a great quantity and high rate of production inevitably there will be some golden grains amidst the chaff?

Or is it the mundane technical knowledge of the functionality of a given DAW, module or synthesizer? How many random Ableton instructional videos does it take to level up? (sarcasm)

Or is it about making choices and honing an aesthetic? If so then how does one exercise discipline and direction to make better music?

thanks, bunny

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I think it is about assembling a trick bag of things that work for you. Certain patches, transitions, arrangement tricks, combinations of effects automation that work together, chains of effects, chord progression. This is the same as playing guitar where you might learn riffs, songs, techniques, strumming patterns or special chords etc. The more things you have in your bag and the more often you use them then the better you are at doing it.

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Are you mostly talking about playing live (with an audience or not) or about composing/writing with a DAW/etc. ?

For live playing, simply using the instrument a lot is what actually works for me. Whatever the instrument is, a small Casio keyboard and a few effects pedals, a bunch of devices connected to a mixer or a modular synthesizer. If your instrument changes all the time, though, it can become more difficult to learn…

Playing with other people is also a good way to refine/adapt these skills.

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Depends on how you quantify “improve”. Techniques/skills Vs musicality (arguably subjective). This year my music projects have been primarily designed to learn specific techniques. the output may not always sound great from a songwriting point of view, but I feel that acquiring a new skill is how I look on improvement. I must have some kind of goal otherwise I will end up either randomly patching or falling into comfortable, established practice.

In this community alone the LC®Ps and my only Junto track were great for this.

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I recommend not using Ableton.

I like taking music I enjoy listening to and try to recreate it with digital synthesizers and DSP effects. I also like playing instruments I’m bad at from a performance perspective then I play them into these processors.

I also have friends who ask for lessons in “music theory” then I tell them that I can do that but it’s pretty boring and they probably don’t really want to know it. But secretly I think it would be fun to tell them about fifths and fourths and minor seconds.

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Why do you recommend not using Ableton? Genuinely curious here :slight_smile:

Too many presets – -

Oh I see! But they seems to be fairly easy to ignore no?

On topic, I do agree that not relying on presets is helpful to improve and get better at sound design / synthesis.

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Presets are difficult to ignore. I made an Ableton thing once and that experience convinced me I would not do it again. It sounded like presets despite this recording be ing a “live” take.

https://soundcloud.com/lazzarello/live-digital

Spending time with your gear is key imho. When you know your stuff inside out, you will know how certain things sound like, which makes you more productive and opens up paths for further experimentation. Of course with some pieces of gear / modules / plugins will always change around. But I recommend defining some basics and learning to use them as good as possible.

Isn’t there a saying that you have to do something for 10.000 hours to get good at it?

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what works for me (self assessment):
. critical/analytical listening of one’s output and of others in the same field (not necessarily in the same stylistic niche but with similar tools and/or musical concerns).
. having someone with significantly more experience and a benevolent ear.
. reading (when existent) theoretical / musical writings of top tier composers and realizing the way they answer their questions is not so esoteric and most of the times it’s some “simple” concepts worked deeply and thoroughly.
. identifying your weaknesses and keep each one of them in mind, work through pieces expressly with the specific focus of addressing one or two of those weaknesses (for me at the moment it’s mostly structure, accepting repetition, flirt with attention threshold, deal with progressiveness on various parameters, and so on…)
. refining a set of tools that is open yet efficient, fosters and rewards exploration;
. be amazed by the qualities of sound (found, recorded, transformed, synthesized,…) (first things last, imho making electronic music is foremost a listening practice)

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In regards to presets, I think ultimately depends on what your goals. If you are trying primarily trying to be a sound designer or sound artists then presets are ultimately self-defeating. But if your goal is to write more traditional song-oriented music or write TV/movie/game scores on tight deadlines they aren’t inherently a bad thing - if overly rely on them in the finished work your music may be bland, but they can be useful as placeholders.

As someone who often leans more to the sound art/design side, I like to surf presets and deconstruct the interesting ones to get a better idea what a synth is capable of and how it works. Which I think leads to getting comfortable with the gear you’re using is a large part to improving if your primary focus is less on traditional playing and more on sound manipulation.

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i think it all depends on what one considers being a “good musician”. in my opinion you can practice your scales for 6 hours every day and while you will end up being very technically skilled, that doesn’t necessarily always (in my mind) equate to being a great musician.

in terms of being a better electronic musician, i think there are tons of ways to always be improving. studying the fundamentals of synthesis and growing your understanding of why a sound sounds the way that it does i think is really huge. when you know how to make, roughly, the sound that you’re hearing in your head for a piece, or how you would like a preset to be slightly different, it really improves your efficiency in composing. same goes for knowing what kinds of production / mixing decisions you want to make. and those are all things that you really can only learn with time spent experiencing all of them.

we have computers and modules and effect boxes and so on, but the basics are all more or less there. i think it’s wise to stick with some gear and not always be getting new stuff that you will have to put hours into familiarizing yourself with again. in the end i don’t think the gear that you use is what makes good music, so just get comfortable with what you like, and you will start making music and usable sounds that you’re happy with a lot more often.

and i think the most important but maybe the most abstract way of getting better at anything, but especially art, is just doing it as often as you possibly can. immerse yourself in it and get closer to finding what inside of you is doing the creating. you will always be learning things about the tools that you’re using and the way your mind is using them when you are touching them and making something happen. i do believe as you continue to truly just create, you will always be growing, and your work will improve.

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Not everyone gets along with every tool, but Ableton (and every single DAW/effect/module/synth/etc) can be used in very different ways by different people, and how each person thinks about a given tool makes a big difference. I personally am inclined to use Ableton as a big complex looper and don’t feel like I really consider presets in any way when I’m using it with external sound sources, and they’re easy to avoid for internal synths if you don’t want 'em. Playing guitar doesn’t mean everything automatically sounds like a Guitar Center ‘Stairway to Heaven’ solo :wink:, just as using Ableton doesn’t mean everything sounds like the Ableton demos.

@stripes good points remind of a few friends who are way more experienced than I am just at getting around their DAWs of choice, and that practice at really mundane things such as setting up tracks or basic mixing is amazing to see since it helps remove the various roadblocks to actually get the sound in your head into the recording medium of your choice. Same would apply if you were recording to tape or whatever.

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yeah, there are different measurements to quantify ‘improvement’
comfort, confidence, versatility and efficiency with ones instrument are definitely things which one can get better with. I would consider these things on the technical, physical side of the tech/musicality scale. As others have mentioned this probably comes down to time, familiarity and application of specific tool knowledge. I think this kind of learning is also related to the ‘trick bag’ aspect.
This is probably the most accessible way of improvement, and where i have made the most progress. I’ve gone from no technical knowledge at all (hmm, wonder what this knob does, and what is resonance?) to some basic understanding and proficiency. There is still much to learn (what is a wavetable and how does it work?) but once the basics are covered then what is the next phase?

There is subjectivity in ones appreciation of music and it varies with mood or listening context. But i think most people, musicians with a broad musical appreciation specifically, can differentiate between a ‘good’ song versus a ‘poor’ song. There seems to be some quality which transcends the subjective taste of the listener which makes for a ‘good’ song. At the very least, especially for other musicians one can appreciate that a song is well produced or that it conveys meaning or emotion successfully. (though in some ways this could be wandering off topic and this could warrant its own thread)

If one has a basic understanding of techniques and accessibility to quality tools with at least a basic level of competency in their use then what is the other side of the spectrum? How to go about improving in the 'musicality" side?

Ive found some value in ‘randomly patching’ and ‘comfortable, established practice’ in that through these i often discover something new or become inspired by something that i otherwise wouldnt have experienced. They also serve as a gateway into deeper production as they are something to do musically even when not feeling ‘inspired’. I would rather overcome the inertia to not produce, especially when i dont feel like it, by ‘practicing or randomly patching’

What are the LCRPs?

thanks, bunny

This community does Lines Community Remix Projects (equinoxes), and we also do Lines Community Composition Projects (solstices).

For the remix projects, anybody that wants to submits samples, which are collected and redistributed to all contributors. Then we get some time to make original tracks from the same set of samples. The resulting compilation is posted to Bandcamp, with physical CDs available at cost.

For the composition projects, we skip the sample distribution. Everyone submits original tracks for a compilation.

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There is a rewarding immediacy to using presets, some of which people with much greater skill than i have carefully crafted. Using presets shows what is possible and can inspire exploration. They help pass the fiddly phase of getting a sound just right to enable composition and layering of different voices into a song.
Though i can see the value of learning to make ones own sound rather than relying on the crutch of presets.

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Constraints are nice when they are conscious and reasoned. When they have a thought process behind them, a rationale.

But arbitrary rules? Meh. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” (if we’re talking about making music. different story if we’re talking about securities trading or something!)

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oh, ok, neat. thanks
i will look for the next one.

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Playing your instrument (electronic or not) with other musicians.

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