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!

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.

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!

 

 

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.

 

 

The Importance of Making Demos

When I thought about demos, I used to imagine a shittier version of the final song: badly recorded, unedited, and with a sub-par performance.  I used to label tracks “demo” when they weren’t up to snuff.  It was never planned; f I was embarrassed to share something I made, I used “demo” as a qualifier, thereby excusing all mistakes.

Nowadays I have a better grasp of what a demo is.  It’s a rough take of the  finished song, not intended as a final product, but a necessary step in the creative process.  All the essential elements are there, and the arrangement is done (to the best of your ability).  When you listen to the demo, you’ll hear how all the parts work (or don’t work).  You’ll discover what sections feel too long or too short, if the drums are meshing with your guitar, if there’s enough contrast from verse to chorus, if the bass guitar is boring, or any number of issues.  

There are some things you simply won’t know until you hear them in context.  These are changes you want to identify before final tracking.  When making a demo, you’re not concerned with guitar tones, what the best mic is, getting great takes to edit, or editing at all.  Your goal is to get the idea down, have it sound good enough, and learn from it.  How will the final song sound?  Once you have a better vision of what the song is about, going into the studio is fun because you know exactly what you’re going to do.  It takes a load off your mind, and then you can spend more time experimenting with tone, knowing you won’t need to come back and re-record.  

Even if the song is just guitar and vocals, I still recommend making a demo.  You’ll be surprised at what you hear when it’s playing back.  It’s counter intuitive, but while you’re playing you don’t notice everything, and the demo can reveal what to fix.

I’ve recorded songs with and without demoing first, and I highly recommend it.  There’s always the occasion where my original demo was spot on and I don’t need to change anything, but that’s usually not the case.  Most of my demos have been pretty bare bones, but I’ve found that the better the demo, the more you learn from it.  That being said, don’t be a perfectionist.  Make the demo, make it pretty good, and move on.  Keep finishing.

Luke Smith – Chasing Ghosts (New EP!)

When compiling songs for this EP, I wasn’t only looking for songs I liked.  I wanted the songs to have a central theme.  I’ve said before that albums are like a time-stamp of when they’re made, and I wanted to document a lot of the positive change that’s been happening to me over the last two years.  Together, these songs chronicle positive experiences and lessons from a specific time in my life.

Originally, I had a picture of just the piano and guitar for my album art, but for the final version I added the ferret.  Why a ferret?  Well, my previous CD had a picture of a dog on it, which was based on this picture of my friend’s dog smiling at the camera while I performed.

infamous dog picFade Away - FRONT

One of my other friends owns ferrets, and she always said I should put her ferret on an album.  I wasn’t going to initially, but since she’s moved back to town, she’s been to just about every one of my shows, so she’s earned it.  I’m actually really happy with how it turned out.  Her ferrets are pretty photogenic, and they even have an Instagram.

FerretModelsCroppedChasing-Ghosts-bandcamp (1)

My previous EP was professionally printed using Copycats, a media duplication company in Minneapolis, but this time around I decided to go the home-made route.  I burned the CDs from my laptop, and for the artwork I used this company called Avery.  They allow you to upload your design onto their template, and with their custom printing paper I made CD stickers and CD inserts.  This was perfect for me because I knew that most people wouldn’t buy CDs, but a few people would love them.  I could accommodate those few without having to order a lot of product I didn’t need, and I can always make more later.

This is my third independently released singer-songwriter EP, and I’m always trying to improve.  I had these songs professionally mastered by a friend of mine, and distributed through CDBaby.  That means they are available on Spotify and iTunes as well.  I hope you enjoy this.

All songs written, produced, and performed by Luke Smith.
Mastered by Anssi Tenhunen.
Artwork by Phillip Lasfroh.

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.