It Takes Practice

This Summer, I started teaching guitar lessons. It’s been interesting learning guitar again through beginners’ eyes and hearing their perspectives. A variation of this question comes up again and again: “What’s the secret?” When they’re struggling, beginner’s tend to think that they’re doing something wrong; they want a quick tip or trick that’ll resolve everything.

The answer I give rarely satisfies them, but it’s the only answer that’s true. “There’s no secret. You just need to keep practicing.” Practicing new material can be frustrating because we’re constantly rubbing up against our own limitations: hitting wrong notes, missing rhythms, and having to work on the same parts again and again. It can be a daunting process, but it’s how we grow.

Audio production and mixing is one of those areas where it’s tempting to think you can just have someone explain it to you and you’ll be able to execute it perfectly. Afterall, mixing is more of a technical skill. You’re turning knobs; you just need to know what everything does and then you’re good to go, right? Wrong. It’s more of an art than people realize, and an ear for mixing needs to be developed just like a musical ear.

This concept also applies to genres. Someone can absolutely crush it at lofi, but when they try to make EDM, they struggle. This comes from a lack of experience in that genre. There’s definitely mixing and sound design skills that carry over from genre to genre, but when writing in an unfamiliar style, you’ll have a lot of new questions. I often hear people say that they are bad at a particular genre. They accept it as an unchangable fact about themselves, when in reality they probably just haven’t practiced it enough.

So whatever it is that you want to improve about yourself, there is no secret sauce that will make everything easier. I only have one tip to give you: it takes practice.

Making a Song List

I’ve always considered myself a songwriter. It’s what excites me most about music! I love being creative and writing songs, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I started taking my craft seriously. I went from averaging one song a month to two a week. As I started writing more and more, I wanted to make a comprehensive list of my songs: a document listing the names and dates I wrote them.

What I did is simple, but effective. I used Google Sheets (which is free) and entered the names and dates of my recent songs. There were several open cells begging to be filled, so I included BPM, key, and genre.


Charting a song’s data was a great reward for finishing, and I never wanted to break my streak. Also, I noticed trends at a glance, like how much I loved writing in the key of C, that I wrote a ton of hip hop, and that I frequently used Bedroom Beats 2. These aren’t bad things, but if I felt like my sound wasn’t evolving or I wanted to do something new, I knew what changes to try.

Later on I started tracking what I offloaded, including where it was offloaded from, and the name of the sound if it came from a sample pack. You can go crazy with a list like this, adding chord progressions, modes, the alignment of the stars, and anything else you want to track.

If for no other benefit, I recommend keeping a list to hold yourself accountable. “Write more songs” is a hard goal to follow. “Write a song a month” is much better. You don’t have to quadruple your output, but you should challenge yourself and do more than you did yesterday. Going from a song a month to two songs a month is good progress. Don’t measure your progress against others, but only against yourself. Now working from a new list in 2021, I have a clear goal: write more songs than 2020.

Pre-save Summertime! Coming out September 10th:
https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/latenightluke/summertime



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.

My Musical Goals: 2021

I’m sitting in a room at my parents’ house right now, and I just finished a beat. I’m moving out soon and much of my stuff is packed. I’m listening to Tycho on headphones (Epoch). He’s been my go-to writing music ever since I started this blog in 2018. Since then, I’ve learned so much, and there’s a lot I want to accomplish. Here are my musical goals for 2021.

1) Be a singer-songwriter again. I started performing as a singer-songwriter in 2013, and because of the pandemic, I barely played in 2020. I found myself writing less for my singer-songwriter name and focusing more on beats and electronic music. I love writing electronically, but I want to come back to guitar and voice, too. There’s something personal and uniquely expressive about playing guitar and singing. In general, I want to sing more.

2) Collaborate with other artists. Working with people on Songs From Home was a really cool experience. I loved hearing my instrumentals come to life and the surprising directions they went. I haven’t worked with a rapper since 2014, and I really want to change that. I’ve been stockpiling rap beats and in February I’m going to start reaching out. I’m not trying to sell anything at first; I’ll be DMing talented locals with free beats and see if there’s any interest. In the future, I’d love to work with all kinds of singers and musicians.

3) Create consistent content. Every teacher, vlogger, YouTuber, and Gary V will tell you about the importance of content creation. I’ve done the random Instagram post, blog, or video, but it hasn’t been consistent in awhile. In 2018 I released a video and blog post every week for months and that was awesome; I want to return to that level of output. My goal now is to make a weekly YouTube video and take clips of it for microcontent on Instagram. I’m hoping to slowly build a following and get better at consistent creation.

4) Get an internship / volunteer. I graduated with my Bachelor’s of Science in Music Industry, and now I’m ready to be rich! And by rich I mean gainfully employed (but first, an internship). In my projects class I focused on the licensing side of music, but recently I’ve been interested in non-profits like Musicians on Call and the Harmony Project. I’m also excited for volunteer opportunities like working at Big Turn Music Festival. There’s a lot of people that need help and endless ways to get involved.

Whichever way I go, I’m excited to learn more about these fields and be part of a world I love. Thanks for following my journey!

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!

Covid-Class

I am in my final semester of college, and what a semester to go out on. I keep thinking that if I had graduated in the spring, I would have avoided a lot of hassle. At the same time, it’s a unique experience not everyone goes through. I have mixed feelings.

I’m a senior in the Music Industry program at MSU Mankato, and a lot has changed. Some classes are online, others in-person, but most are “Hyflex,” meaning students can decide whether to attend online or on campus. There are signs everywhere with slogans like “Maskup Mavs,” and reminders to social distance. It reminds me of propaganda from Fall Out or Bioshock (which makes it kind of fun).

Strangely enough, these guidelines are actually making my final semester easier. Because so many of my classes are online, I’m only on campus one day a week. This has allowed me to temporarily move back to Faribault. My expenses are down, so I can work less and focus on school.

While in Mankato I was working 30 hours a week and taking 17 credits. I didn’t have the time or energy for personal projects, so my creative pursuits took a backseat. Now that I have more free time, I can do well in classes and be creative. I know this year has been hard for most people, but for me it’s been a blessing in disguise. Since June, I have written more songs than I had in the past year, and this extra time has really forced me to prioritized what I want. There’s no excuses left for me, it’s either do the work or don’t.

I’m looking forward to what this final semester brings, and what adventures await me. I’m grateful to be where I am and I have a lot of hope for the future.

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!

 

 

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.

 

I Moved to Mankato

As many of you know, I’ve been going to MSU Mankato since January of 2018.  I’ve been living and working in Faribault: making the drive to class a few days each week.  I started slow with just Music Theory II, then took Activities in Music Industry and Songwriting 1 the following semester.  I liked my classes a lot and felt I was learning exactly what I needed to.  My last semester was three classes plus guitar lessons, and I was happy to hear some major improvements in my songs.

Because of the commute and my work schedule, I haven’t been able to take a full load.  This has been frustrating to say the least, and the lengthy commute – made longer by the Minnesota blizzards – meant more time on the road and less time making music.  Because of this, and wanting to be more engaged in the community, I decided to move.

It wasn’t an easy decision.  I actually tried really hard to find a schedule that would make staying in Faribault sensible, but I couldn’t find one.  I’d been living with two guys that were good friends, the rent was cheap, and my family was a two minute drive away.  I was pretty sad about moving to be honest, but now that I’m here I know it was the right choice.  Let me tell you some things I like about Mankato (so far).

I live two blocks from a coffee shop and a used book store!  Well, I live near downtown so there’s lots of places I could mention, but those two I was most excited about.  I’m probably just romanticizing the idea that I can walk over and get a cup of coffee and smell old books whenever I want, but it’s always been a dream of mine.  What’s more relevant to this blog is that I’m within walking distance of Pub 500, and they host an open mic night.  I’ve only been once, but I’ve already met some cool, local musicians.

I’m also excited to be able to go to shows without having to drive forty five minutes.  The Coffee Hag hosts singer-songwriters, and the What’s Up Lounge a variety of acts including rock, indie, and hip-hop.  And for bigger artists, there’s the Mankato Civic Center.  I’m sure there’s other venues and events as well that I haven’t discovered yet, but I’m hoping to learn it all.  I want to meet more people, make more music, and be part of a great musical community.

Spring (2019) – Semester Wrap-up.

This semester I took Songwriting II, Musicianship II, Practicum in Music Industry, private guitar lessons, and Concert Attendance.  I had a lot more on my plate this time around, but I only had to commute to school two days a week.

Songwriting II was my favorite class.  We learned mixing techniques, made demos,  and got lots of feedback.  Class was split pretty equally between the classroom and the studio; the main way we learned was from our own projects.  A student would bring something in and we would learn to edit, track, or mix whatever it was.  I found it helpful because a lot of what I learned was stuff I didn’t know I was doing wrong.  For instance, when recording bass, you want the initial sound to be kind of thin and not have a lot of low-end.  The reason is that it’s easy to add bass frequencies later, but more difficult to take them out, and once you start taking frequencies out it messes with the tone you had going in.  These are things you wouldn’t know unless someone told you.

Musicianship II was an ear training and sight singing class.  We learned to sight sing solfege in major, minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor.  If you don’t know what solfege is, it’s a system of syllables relating to scale degrees.  You’ve probably heard this song from the Sound of Music that explains it.  Class was okay, but our time wasn’t utilized all that well.  It felt like we didn’t have a lot to go through, so about half the class was the teacher joking around.  I’m not criticizing him necessarily, we were well prepared for finals and all that, it’s just that the curriculum wasn’t demanding so we had time to kill.  The most useful part for me was getting a better understanding of modes and how to use them.

Practicum in Music Industry was like a weekly TED talk.  My professor was always enthusiastic; he talked about current trends, music news, and volunteer opportunities.  He is a firecracker of optimism, and has the stories to back it.  He’s worked with Prince and has taught countless successful students, so his fervor is earned.  This class wasn’t hard, but it was uplifting and I looked forward to it.  The only assignments we had was to usher two times, and volunteer for 16 hours.  The volunteering could be done with more ushering or with other music events.

My private lessons were all right.  Not very challenging, but still useful.  Concert Attendance was kind of a hassle to get done, but that’s mainly because I live out of town.  All in all, a pretty good semester.  Here’s my final EP for Songwriting II.

I’m having a bit of an identity crisis with my music, so I decided to write two electronic songs and two singer-songwriter tracks.  I’m happy with how these turned out, but since this was finished around the same time as Chasing Ghosts, I haven’t been promoting it.  These songs are more about exploring sounds and finding out what I want to be musically, whereas Chasing Ghosts was a defined statement.  That being said, I like these songs, and I’m happy to share my journey through them.  I titled it Mankato Tapes, Vol. 1, and I plan on making successive volumes.