Creative Offloading

Today I’m going to talk about something I learned in music school. It’s called “offloading” and it’s one of the reasons I was able to write 50 songs in 2020.

In songwriting you have these creative tasks: chord progressions, melodies, basslines, drum patterns, lyrics, sound design, etc. Offloading means to take one of these tasks and rather than generate it creatively, you offload it to a different source. This happens when you take a chord progression from another song, use a drum loop or MIDI pack, or anytime you load a preset. That’s offloading too since you’re offloading the sound design.

This is incredibly helpful for starting and finishing ideas. When you offload a task, you free up time and energy to focus on the next step. If you’re feeling uninspired, a drum or melody loop can be the kickstart you need. Rather than trying to create every piece of your music originally, it helps to decide what parts you want to write and what parts you want to offload.

You might hate the idea of offloading if you haven’t heard it before. It might feel like cheating. I used to feel that way, too. One of my buddies used to Google “Awesome chord progressions” and write songs that way. He even stole a progression from a YouTube ad. He wasn’t afraid to take inspiration wherever found it.

Over the years, I softened to the idea. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my biggest problem was my ego. I enjoyed being “creative” more than I enjoyed making songs. Offloading to me is about letting go of my ego and realizing that if I want to make captivating art, I need all the help I can get.

If you haven’t offloaded before, try offloading your least favorite part to write. If you’re a drummer and you love writing drums, offload the melody. If you love melodies and struggle with drums, offload the drums. If you’re really focusing in on sound design, design the sounds and offload the chords. For lyrics, you can even borrow rhymes. There’s a lot of possibilities and room to experiment.

If you feel guilty or think that it’s cheating, realize that it’s a collaboration. Pretend that your friend sent you the drum loop. They want you to use it. That’s why they made it, and honestly, that’s not far from the truth. Producer Com Truise said that sampling is “Collaborating at a distance.” And the big difference between sampling and using a loop (other than the legal difference) is that the creator of the Splice loop wants you to use it.

If you try to be 100% creative in every area of your song, you’ll write a lot less songs. And honestly, no one cares if you do “everything yourself.” They’ll only know if you tell them, and if you feel the need to tell people, then maybe you don’t believe in the song to begin with.

2020 Year End Review

I know one day doesn’t really mean anything, but for a lot of us it’s the end of a terrible year and it feels like things will get better. I certainly hope so. 2020 has been rough on us all, but today I want to focus on the good parts.

For me the best part of 2020 was exploding creatively. I wrote 50 songs this year and released 17 of them. That includes the Beat Station EP, Songs From Home, Finals Week, and two singles (It’s Fall, and Covidween). Starting in June I wrote two songs a week and was able to continue for most of the year. I broke the mental block of being precious about my songwriting and was finally able to write without second guessing myself and judging every step. My Beat Station challenge of writing only at the coffee shop pushed me in the right direction; I was forced to make those songwriting decisions in the moment since I couldn’t make them later.

After releasing Songs From Home I was excited to get back into demo writing. It was here that I took the “Finish a song even if it’s bad” mantra to heart. After spending so much time agonizing over perfect mixes, writing a lot and not judging the result was like medicine. One of the coolest discoveries of writing songs even if they’re bad is that sometimes a “bad” song will turn into a “good” song by the time you’re done. The reverse is also true, but that’s why consistent writing is so important. I always heard this advice, but only in 2020 did I internalize it.

I had the awesome opportunity to perform on KEYC in Mankato, a local news network. And I had my songs played on Keepin’ It Local 89.7, a show on the MSU radio station. They even played the entire Finals Week EP. How cool is that? I also got some press for Songs From Home from Mankato Life and Faribault Daily News. It was really cool to have my music played and recognized locally.

Perhaps my biggest accomplishment of the year was getting my Bachelors in Music Industry from MSU. I started my college journey in 2018 with a music theory class and later made the decision to fully enroll. My plans for 2021 are to write a ton of music, work with rappers and artists, and learn more about the licensing side of the business.

Thanks for reading my highlight reel of the worst year ever. Here’s to an amazing 2021!

Making a Lofi EP

This December I graduated college and I celebrated by releasing a lofi EP. I wanted something commemorative of the college experience, and what better way than by making chill beats to study / relax to? Not to mention, I love lofi. I dropped it during finals week in the hopes of attracting more student listeners.

I started the writing process in June. I know firsthand the annoyance of putting together an EP and not liking all of the songs. I usually handle this by releasing fewer songs or by writing more, but this time I tackled the problem upfront. I committed to writing 20 songs and only releasing the best. This helped me relax while writing since each song carried less weight. I wasn’t too hard about whether or not I liked what I had; my goal was to finish two demos a week, good or bad. This gave me more freedom to experiment.

After I had my 20 demos, I found several that I could eliminate instantly. They were good songs that didn’t fit the lofi aesthetic for varying reasons: too exciting, too high energy, too much dynamic range, and a few that I just wanted to develop into hip hop beats. Writing a lot of tracks made it easy to finish these ideas as they came along rather than scrapping them on the spot. Especially after I had a handful I liked, it was nice to write without any sense of needing it to be good or having it fit in a particular way.

I eliminated seven songs for genre reasons and one because it was a remix (Misty by Ella Fitzgerald). I wanted to have five to eight songs. There were some I planned to include from the start (Morning Dew, Breakfast Brew, Halloween Chillin), and for the others I relied on Instagram polls. I had eight songs selected, but as the deadline got closer I narrowed it down to five. I was on the fence about a couple and opted for quality over quantity. The project is only 9 minutes long, but I think I made the right choice.

I’m happy with the outcome and I hope you can enjoy these songs while studying, relaxing, drinking coffee, or watching the snow fall.

Finals Week Available Everywhere.

Synth Summer

In the Spring I took Electronic Orchestration, a class focusing on synthesis and sound design.  We would learn the fundamentals of sound, and after learning the basics, make our own patches.  Up until then, we had to rely solely on preset banks, mindlessly browsing for sounds that fit.  Presets are great, but if you want something specific, the search can be frustrating.  Knowing the basics and tweaking can help a lot, but I wanted to be able to build sounds from the ground up.

Of all the cool classes I’ve gotten to take, I was most excited for Electronic Orchestration. Unfortunately, due to covid-19, we weren’t able to continue as planned.  Our next step was supposed to be a deep dive into Native Instrument’s Massive, a virtual synthesizer, but since we weren’t in class, we didn’t have access to the school’s computers that had Massive installed.  The class continued with a focus on mixing and mastering.

When the semester ended, I declared Summer 2020 Synth Summer!  I would spend time each day learning about synthesis and practicing sound design.  (This didn’t start until June because I was finishing up my Songs From Home EP which came out on May 30th).  Once that project was done, I was eager get back into learning.

I began Synth Summer by browsing classes on Linkedin Learning (formerly Lynda.com).  I took Learning Synth Programming by Scott Hirsch, and then Massive Digital Synthesis by Evan Sutton.  The first class refreshed the basics for me, and the second was the deep dive I’d been waiting for.  I’ve had Massive for a couple years now, but my understanding of it was pretty basic.  Most tutorials on YouTube are way too general, don’t explain what’s actually happening to the sound, and skip over settings and parameters entirely.  There’s a ton of tutorials on making specific sounds, but they’re more on the side of telling you what to do, rather than explaining why these decisions are made.  Massive Digital Synthesis is the perfect Massive class in my opinion, not only is everything explained, but you’ve given a lot of ideas to experiment with on your own.

Digital Synthesis Massive

I’m currently reading through Massive’s manual, and trying to take it all in.  I’m far from an expert, but I’m improving and that’s exciting for me.  If you want to hear sounds I’ve made, I have examples in this video, or you can listen to this remix (all the main synth sounds are mine).  I’m excited to keep learning and making music!

 

 

Songs From Home: Quarantine Collabs

In March I had the idea to make an EP of music in response to the covid-19 pandemic.  With the stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines causing feelings of isolation, I wanted to celebrate what we still have.  The idea was to collaborate with artists remotely from the safety of our homes.

When the stay-at-home order was announced, I moved back to Faribault with my family, and it’s there I started writing.  I had a workspace, my laptop, headphones, and a MIDI keyboard.  In one week I completed six demos, five of which would eventually make it on the EP.  From there I announced my plan on Facebook and asked for collaborators.  I got a great response!

great response

Starting on April 18th, I released a song a week on Soundcloud.  I also made a video to document the making of each song.

Since my instrumentals were done, I mostly needed vocalists, so I wasn’t able to work with everyone, but I’m very grateful for the people I did get to work with.  Here’s everyone that helped on the project: Ocho (melody and lyrics for Life on Pause), Jacob Ross (bass for Life on Pause), Luke McGreavey (alto sax for Life on Pause), Anssi Tenhunen (voiceover for Infection Control), SMILEBRO (final drop for Infection Control), Matthew Ruff (melody and lyrics for House Arrest), and Mary Clare Stroh (melody and lyrics for Quarantine).  My awesome collaborators made these songs much better than I could have on my own!

The final EP will be released on May 30th with the final song: the long-awaited Covid-19 Rap.  For some reason, I got a lot of requests to rap about the virus.  If I didn’t do it on this EP, it probably would have never happened.  I guess we’ll find out if that’s good or bad.

Pre-save Songs From Home on Spotify.

Beat Station EP

My creative projects fell through the cracks during my Fall semester.  Understandably, I was busy with work and school.  Over break I knew I’d have a lot more free time to make music, but I also knew I’d waste that time without a plan.  Thus, the Beat Station was born.  My guidelines were simple: I had to write an EP of electronic music, but I could only write songs while at the Fillin’ Station Coffeehouse.  I could do mixing, layering, and tweaking at home, but not songwriting.

The main reason for this project was to help me finish songs.  I’ve mentioned before that one of my struggles is indecision in songwriting.  Only being able to write at a specific place helped me to hunker down and make decisions.  A lot of times I’d be working and think, “Oh crap, they’re closing in an hour and I won’t be able to come here for a few days.  I need to finish this.”  When a song is coming along, you want to finish it, but being able to work on it whenever you want makes it easy to procrastinate.

This was also a great excuse for me to document something.  My teachers always talk about the importance of documenting, but I never really did it.  Suddenly I had a story to tell about my songwriting challenge, and lots of opportunities for pictures and footage in the coffee shop.  I made three videos about the experience and lots of social media posts.

In retrospect, this challenge wasn’t ideal for my songwriting goals.  Since I was releasing an EP, not only did I need to finish four songs, I had to produce, mix, and master them. That takes a ton of time, and I wanted to focus more on songwriting.  Typically when I write an EP, I write more songs than will actually be included.  That way I can pick the best ones to release.  In this project I wrote four songs and released four songs, so I didn’t have room to curate.  Going forward, I may do something similar, but with the goal of finishing demos.  At the end of the writing phase, I can pick the best ones to produce and release.

IMG_20191223_141255_836

I went into this knowing I wouldn’t do it perfectly, but that I would learn what to work on for next time, not from YouTube videos or by sitting around thinking, but by doing it and seeing the results.  This turned out better than I hoped, and now I know how to improve.

Now available everywhere.

 

Deciding is Creating

I’m the type of person who wants to do a lot of creative projects, so many in fact, that the vast majority never get done.  A lot of times I just don’t know where to start, so I don’t.  What I’m learning again and again is that you need to be decisive to be creative.  Creating involves making a choice, and if we find ourselves unable to choose, we’re unable to create.

In my Music Promotion class, we were given a video assignment.  We had to make weekly videos, three to five minutes long, based on a prompt.  The prompts were short and open for interpretation.  I was excited to make some videos, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

If this had been a self-imposed project – like writing a song – I would have procrastinated and taken a lot of time to get the “best idea.”  Since this was for class, I had a deadline.  It forced me to make a decision and run with it.  It wasn’t so important what I chose, so long as I chose.  This resulted in me actually finishing projects in a timely manner.  As the saying goes, “Done is better than perfect.”

One of the best parts about music school is having assignments that push you to create.  Being graded is a great incentive, and you’re left with a product you’re happy you made.  Unfortunately, we don’t have similar incentives for projects outside of school, so we’re left to our own devices.

I wrote before that I have a lot of ideas, but it’s easy to have a lot of ideas and do nothing.  It’s the easiest thing in the world.  You get a false sense of satisfaction, thinking of all the great things you will do – someday.  In his book Anything You Want, Derek Sivers writes “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed.”  I have more unfinished songs than I can count,  but when I do finish one, it’s always a win.  Whether or not the song is good is less important than the fact that I’m finishing songs.  It’s practice for creative decision making.  

This is something I’m still working on, but if you want to write more songs, pick one tune and finish it.  It doesn’t matter which one, what genre, or whatever.  Make a decision, then it’s easy.

Getting Back Momentum

I haven’t posted in a hot minute, and it’s pretty clear I’ve lost traction.  I used to post once a week, but it’s been months since I’ve done anything consistent.  I’d like to put the blame on the fact that I’m taking a heavier load this semester, but the simple fact is I could be doing better.

One of the reasons I’ve failed is because I broke out of my routine.  Last semester I had a large amount of free time every Tuesday, and I spent it in the library working on my blog.  It wasn’t hard work – I liked writing and looked forward to it.  I would fill up my tumbler from Jazzman’s Cafe, find a lo-fi playlist, and hide away in a corner of the library.  I’d do my best to articulate my latest discovery or inspiration, and in doing so better understand it.

It’s hard to know why we stop doing things that make us happy.  You’d think we wouldn’t need to worry about it, but we do.  There will always be days where it’s easier to watch Netflix than work on a song, and even though songwriting will bring you joy, Netflix is easier in the moment.  In the short term it’s inconsequential, but in the long term it makes you miserable.  When I go a long time without creating, I’m just not as happy.  Sometimes that unhappiness can cause me to sink into the things that caused it in the first place, but the cure requires an effort on my part.  I have to get to work.

 

 

Why You Should Make To-do Lists

I’m a big fan of to-do lists, making a list of what needs to be done on a daily basis and holding myself accountable.  It does wonders for my productivity and stops projects from falling through the cracks.

Every week I’ve been trying to post a video and a blog post.  Since school ended, I’ve been missing weeks.  Somehow, with more free time, I’m getting less done.  I attribute this to the illusion of more time phenomenon, a phrase I just made up.  Basically, when you have a ton of free time, you don’t think you need to plan things out because you assume what needs to be done will happen eventually, given all the available hours.  But time has a way of slipping through our fingers, and only in retrospect do we notice it was wasted.

When I’m working on a project, I break down what little bit I can do each day.  For instance, when planning a video for a song I already know, all I have to do is practice it a few times daily.  It’s the same when I’m planning to record.  I just practice my part to a metronome every day leading up to the day I record.  It’s incredibly easy to do, but greatly improves the outcome.

Make To Do List

In his book, Keep Going, Austin Kleon writes, “A little imprisonment – if it’s of your own making – can set you free.  Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life…” (20).  My advice to anyone starting a to-do list, start small.  It can feel great to write a bunch of stuff down – imaging yourself as an unstoppable, productivity machine – but don’t overdue it.  It’s better to have a small, completed list than a large, unfinished one.

That being said, don’t be discouraged when you fail.  You may find that you “weren’t modest enough in your estimation,” to steal a line from Jordan Peterson.  A good strategy for me is to put down the bare minimum of what needs to be done, but then make a secondary “If there’s time” list.  Anything on the “If there’s time” list is strictly optional, and considered extra.  That way, I accomplish more if I’m able to, but if I’m not, I won’t lose momentum.

Making lists, modifying them over time, and finding what works is helping me know myself.  I’m not great at it, but I’m getting better.  Even when I fail miserably, I still get more done than I otherwise would have.  Failure is a part of the process, and shouldn’t be discouraging.  We are still moving forward.

 

Works Cited

Kleon, Austin. Keep Going : 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. New York, Workman Publishing, 2019, p. 20.

Are You Too Old to Make Music?

  It’s pretty common for people to believe that there’s a time limit when it comes to making art.  “If you haven’t done it by x, then it’s not gonna happen,” as if these things had expiration dates like milk or something.  We romanticize the past, particularly when it comes to what we didn’t do that we should have.  It’s painful.  Rather than cut our losses and do it now, we believe in a magical time that no longer exists.  “Well, it’s too late.”

I’m not talking about “making it” in music, but that could be a separate discussion.  I’m talking about someone who wanted to play guitar, write, or draw their whole life but never took the chance.  They were too scared or too busy to start, and now they’ve reached a point in their life where (in their minds) it’s too late.

When I was 26, I started piano lessons.  All my brothers took lessons when they were younger but I never did.  I could’ve gotten a book for “older beginners,” but I picked up a kid’s book instead.  It was filled with cartoons and short pieces like “Let’s Go to a Party” and “Dinosaur Stomp.”  It was pretty fun, actually.  I definitely wasn’t too old, but you might be wondering about someone who’s older.  We’ll imagine they’ve never played an instrument before and today is their first lesson.  They’d have to learn their notes, practice fingerings, and talk about boring stuff like tuning and posture.  It can be daunting to begin and the slow process is why so many quit.

Adults haven’t had to deal with the growing pains of learning a new skill in a long time.  They’re used to being capable, so to fumble over a piece of music intended to teach children can feel embarrassing.  Who wants to struggle at something most people master at twelve?  That being said, it’s absolutely worth the trouble, and I believe anyone who’s physically able to, regardless of age, can be creative.  As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.  So do it.”

My advice for the older beginner is to put in the work, and be humble.  No matter your age, it’s not too late.