Friday, January 21, 2011

The Real Life Of A Musician

I read a great quote a long time ago that said ‘a musician doesn’t do just one thing, a musician does many things’. Great words of wisdom. Unless you’re lucky and hook onto something immediately, you’re going to end up doing a lot of things to make ends meet and ultimately become successful in your career. Instead of just going out there and just getting 'any job to pay the bills', it may be in your best interest to really think about what you want to do and how to go about getting there. Something that you should take into consideration when trying to figure out how to get into the industry is (oddly enough) 'industry related' jobs. These are better than your regular run-of-mill jobs because a) in some cases be a greater source of income than your standard part-time wage b) it may be something you're already skilled at, and most importantly, c ) it may create excellent opportunities that take your music career to the next level.

A Little Of This, A Little Of That

For example, you may start out in a band and end up becoming the ‘go to’ sound person when setting up the PA. You may end up being the most knowledgeable when it comes to recording and mixing. Or, you may be the person who takes care of all of the PR and social media chores. You may end up being the web person; taking care of all of the updates and coding. Whatever it is, these can all be potential sources of income. Gaining some expertise in these areas and using them in the music industry is a great way to get a foothold in the industry. Once this happens, you automatically become surrounded by other musicians and industry people. I don’t know how many musicians I’ve met who had they’re big break by knowing the right person in the industry; often through the oddest circumstances (e.g. I helped this guy with his website and his uncle happened to be in the industry). There have been many composers who got the gig because they were ‘already there’ e.g. working at the company at another position (that's why becoming an intern can be so valuable). Or, getting to know industry people from just getting another job (e.g one of aforementioned skills) within the industry. You get a job somewhere in the industry and suddenly, you’re there right in the middle of it all.

The List

Here are just a few of the things that you can do to make some money and may help get your foot in the door:

Teacher / Educator
One of the best things that I’ve done is teach. Not only is teaching rewarding, it can be financially rewarding. You can make much more money teaching than most part time (or even some full time) jobs. It also helps in your own development, because trying to explain a concept to someone else really helps clarify the concept in your own mind. Teaching can be a great (and usually reliable) source of income. You can work for a while, go on the road (or whatever) and return at almost anytime. It''s also a great source of networking within your own community. Working at a local school or college, you learn about all of the extra community affairs and shows going on. It's easy to get involved and meet tons of people. Most musicians I know have taught at one time or another.

I firmly believe that every musician should go on the road, or at least perform on a regular basis. As far as musicianship goes; nothing is better for your development than performing with a band. Performing is beneficial for all musicians no matter what else you may be doing. If you're teaching on the side, this is a great way to get new students and to showcase your talents. Nothing gets students more excited than seeing their own teacher up there showcasing their skills. Performing is also one of the best ways to network. Everybody wants to be part of something cool, and shows are cool. If you're performing on a regular basis, always let anybody you come in contact with about your shows. There are so many musicians out there; having a great live show is a great plus and sets you apart from all of the 'non-performers' out there.

DJ / Remixer / Laptop Musician
I got into this unexpectedly and was very grateful for the experience. It added a whole new dimension to my music career.There are many facets: DJ'ing, VJ'ing, remixing, laptop musicians, MC'ing etc. Of course DJing is a great source of income and may be a way to showcase your own tracks (some DJ"s feel that it's poor taste to play your own tracks) and network within that community. Most DJ's develop their own style and sound. Remixing has become part of the skill set; adding another dimension to their career and another potential source of income. DJ's also become producers in their own right. Some DJ's are more laptop musicians with a whole new generation of 'Ableton Live' specialists gigging out there. The digital music scene has become another whole section of the music industry.

Studio Work
While not the same as before the home studio revolution, studio work can be another source of income. There are tons of people with music software wanting to create tracks, but then finding their 'VST guitar simulator' just isn't cutting it. If you work with a lot of musicians, and money is scarce, you can parlay your musician skills into getting them to do some of your work too. Like we've talked about here, musicians are usually well versed in a number of areas. Find out what the other person is skilled at and see if you can trade your musician skills for their internet/mixing/whatever skills. Beware; be absolutely clear about these things before you go in. It'll save you headaches, misunderstandings and arguments later.

Mixer / Engineer
Like mentioned above one thing that is widely available to most musicians is recording software. What most musicians don’t take into account is the learning curve involved in using that software. Not only is there the learning curve for the software, there is the engineering and mixing. Anyone how has spent anytime in a studio knows how hard it is to get your demo sounding great. There are some many facets that need to be taken care of. If you’re good at mixing it may be a great source of income. Most musicians need a good engineer and/or mixer. Again, be clear about your fees and what you're responsible for up front. Most people like to come back numerous times, with numerous changes and revisions, asking you to redo it/touch it up without paying you any extra for your time.

Professional sound
If you’re spent any time on the road, you’ll know all of the trials and tribulations of live sound. Being knowledgeable in this area can be another area of potential income. Look into local live venues that have live music on a regular basis, there always seems to be a need for someone in this area.

Music Sales
Another standard for a lot of musicians. This is another source where you may be a pro in this and not even know it. Music sales is also a great source of networking because you eventually get to know almost every musician and industry professional in your area. It's a great way to network with other musicians because you literally meet tons everyday. It doesn't take much time before you know have a dozen like minded musicians that may be potential band-mates or a source of gigs..

Songwriter / Composer
This is something I generally do all the time depending on the other things that are going on in my life. Depending on what you want to accomplish, this is something that you would be doing on a constant basis anyway. Always think about how to use these skills to make money. It probably won't be your sole source of income for a while, but it has to be maintained and updated/revised constantly.

This goes along with the writing but in this case, it's writing specifically for an artist. This also involves getting the right songs and right sound. It involves all of the aspects of business. This is another aspect that will take some time to get steady work going. The key is to start working with other artists and start producing as soon as you feel you're ready. It's a learning process like any other and will take some time to learn all of the ins-and-outs of the job. Be patient, and try to get work and  your name out there whenever you can.

Like many musicians I know, this is something that I’ve never been very good at; yet it’s one of the most important things you can do as a musician. If you think that this is just for artists releasing material, you’re wrong. We’re all in a constant state of working and looking for more work. Whether you’re a gigging musician, songwriter, teacher, or a band on tour, it’s always important that you are connecting with other people. This is something that most musicians don’t take seriously enough yet it’s one of the greatest resources of getting ahead in your career and making money. If you're good at this, the industry always needs these kinds of people. There are always positions opening up for outgoing knowledgeable people to help with marketing and PR. A lot of them may be internships or low pay but now always. Either way, it's a great way to meet tons of people in the industry.

Music business/Management
This is a something a little different than the marketing. This means taking care of the business and administration. One of the great things a publisher does is take care of most of the administration for musicians. These things can be quite involved and time consuming. There are copyrights, correspondence, and a million other things that must be taken care of on a regular basis. This (along with marketing) is arguably where musicians suffer the most in terms of skills. Like marketing skills, if you've got 'em use them. I know a few people in the industry that do this type of work and they always seem to be working. Like every other area of the industry, companies are always looking for hard working, outgoing people.

Lecturer / Industry Pro
This is a bit different from teaching in that you become a lecturer or a ‘expert’ in a particular area. While this isn’t something that you would start out doing, you may find yourself being knowledgeable in a certain area and may use that to help other musicians. There are many of these 'self proclaimed experts' online so setting yourself apart from the wannabees is something valuable. You don't have to be an 'industry veteran' either. Lecturing on software (e.g. how to use Ableton Live) and/or gear, music styles, are other areas where this may apply. A successful blog, is also a great outlet for this. I know of other musicians who work for various music supply companies, traveling the world, promoting certain products.

Web Stuff
This is a huge subject. It has all of the website/coding/etc issues but also all of the other things that go along with maintaining an internet presence. A couple have been mentioned before: social networks, marketing, website creation/maintenance, graphics, video, etc. All of these need to be created and maintained on a regular basis. These days they're also incredibly invaluable because it's something that every musician needs and pretty much has to do. Sure, all of the tools are out there but there's a learning curve and keeping it all updated and relevant is an ongoing task. 

It's All There

Yes, there are a ton of things on this list and there are tons more! It's easy to get too wrapped up in it all and lose sight of why you're here in the first place. You may to do a majority of things on this list at one time or another. Pick the ones you're best at. The ones that you can do without taking too much time away from your primary goal. If there are things on this list that you need but are unskilled at or reluctant to do, try and find a way to outsource that skill. It's the best of both worlds where you can spend the majority of your time working on the things you love best and are most important to you, while letting others take care of the rest.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Which DAW Should I Use?

When it comes to music software, there are a ton of different options out there. While it seems like there's a mountain of software to learn, most applications actually follow the same type methodology. Most DAW's operate basically the same with variations in functions and features. Then there are other types of software that don't fit our definition of a DAW but 'specialize' in specific approaches and functions. We've talked about the basics before here. Today we're going to discuss the similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses of the various applications.

Most of the time we refer to music applications as DAW's but this can misleading, and in some cases just wrong. Some of the software is geared more toward either working with loops, with soft-synths, and/or just creating 'beats' ('beats' implies not only the beat but the instrumentation (and basic harmony). Some work specifically with score, while others are meant to provide backing and play-along tracks.

What's A DAW?

The official title is 'Digital Audio Workstation'. There are a few things that make the difference between a software program and a DAW. First of all, it has to be able to record audio and MIDI. It has a built mixer and various forms of connectivity through the program. Most (if not all) DAW's now come with built in VST instruments and plug-ins to varying degrees. They all now include automation, group channels, MIDI channels, FX sends and returns, audio and MIDI editors,  and various built audio processing. Some software programs (like Reason, FL Studio, Band-In-A-Box and others) don't follow these criteria; even though they have other features not found in 'regular' DAW's. Other programs (like Ableton Live, Sony Acid) started out just working with loops but have developed into much more. Some producers now use these as their primary DAW.


It's really just a question of work-flow. The thing that differentiates all music software is the features and how the interface is laid out. Reason can't record audio; which you would think would be a big drawback but it has a very intuitive interface which is great at creating beats, and trying out ideas.. Ableton had the same thing going for it when it started. It now has a ton more features but it's still very easy to get going on a track; just drag and drop. DAW's on the other hand are usually quite complicated. People complain about this but it's pretty much the point; you want your DAW to do a ton of things for you, and to make all of these features work the program needs to have some depth. That said, they're usually all laid out in exactly the same manner. You have a track window that has all of your tracks laid out vertically showing all of the activity and basic track info. There's also another mixer window that has the traditional mixer laid out showing all of your tracks in horizontal rows. 'Loop' programs (like Ableton and Acid) forgo the mixer layout and focus more on different track views. Reason and FL Studio have the mixer and track view but not exactly the same 'two window format' as the traditional DAW.

Which One For Me?

So which do I want to use? You know that there's learning curve with any software so you're hoping to pick the right package right from the get-go. While there are differences, each one has it's own strengths and weaknesses. Some are better suited for certain applications than others. Here are a couple of standards that you should know and then you can pick from there.

The Standards

The standards are of the 'regular' DAW's that we all familiar with. The most well known ones would be Logic, Cubase (or Nuendo), Sonar, Reaper, Digital Performer, Audition, Propellerhead Record,  and Samplitude. Logic is the standard on the Mac. That along with Digital Performer are only available on that OS. It's also extremely popular throughout Europe. Pro Tools is the defacto standard for post-audio, and professional studios. Programs like Cubase and Sonar are popular with different groups of producers in all types of styles. The difference between Logic, Cubase et al. is really in the various features and extras included into the work-flow. For most, it's really just a matter of personal preference. For example Logic has more plug-ins right out of the box than any other program. Digital Performer is great manipulating different tempo maps into your work-flow. Nuendo has great post production features. Sonar has recently come out with a new upgrade that includes many new features. Reaper has almost all of the features of the major players yet at a fraction of the cost (incredible value for your money). It also takes very little CPU compared to the others. Pro Tools has arguably the best plug-ins and connect-ability but comes at a high price. However, Pro Tools now works with virtually any soundcard; proprietary hardware is no longer needed (a big plus).There are also now a ton of other programs available (like Traktion, Studio One) that are on the market. Some of these come packaged when you purchase the manufacturer's hardware so there's no need to spend extra on a DAW.

The Rebels

The rebels would be the ones that don't neatly fit into our definition of a DAW. These would include programs like Ableton Live, Sony Acid, FL Studio (aka Fruity Loops), Propellerheads Reason, and Garageband.  These programs are really popular with DJ's, dance and hiphop producers because they meld into their work-flow quite nicely. Most have all that is needed (tons of sounds, synths, drum machines, loops, presets) to create a finished track from scratch, without the need for any other plug-ins or instruments. Garageband has become standard for a lot of users because it's built right into the Mac OS. Ableton Live is popular with sound designers and composers because it's very effective at manipulating audio. It has so many levels of automation that you can pretty much automate anything. These programs usually have functions and features which aren't found in your typical DAW.

Notation Programs

Another type of DAW is the notation programs. These are used by composers who are used to the score layout more than the typical piano roll. The two best known are Sibelius and Finale. While most DAW's have built in score capability, they don't compare in depth and features as much as these. Notation programs make it easy to see your whole arrangement like you would on a printed score. Some of them have extra features like 'auto arrange' which will take a basic piano arrangement and turn it into a string quartet or a full blown symphony if you like. Although very useful once you get to know the program, most of these suffer from having a huge learning curve. They also suffer from some limitations as far as plug-ins, recording and mixing features.

We're Jamming

Another type of software program is 'jamming' or play-along software. The most notable of these is Band-In-A-Box but there are others. These have built in styles and templates that mimic different genres of music. For example; want to jam some blues? There are a number of built in styles and songs to jam to. It's very easy to change the key, tempo or arrangement. You can even create your own styles and use them over different chord progressions. Since these have to change so many parameters, the tracks are all MIDI generated. There now includes various loops to make your track more realistic but most of the tracks use your built MIDI sounds.

Which Ones Do I Prefer?

Over the years I've pretty much tried every one of these products (except Digital Performer) at one time or another. I like using dedicated DAWs like Logic, Cubase and Sonar because they're easy to work with (once you get over the initial learning curve) and pretty much have all I need. Each of these have their little niggles (and features) that I've hated (or missed) when trying out another.While Pro Tools has great connectability and is pretty much the industry standard, I find the other DAWs more intuitive when putting tracks together. At the same time, I find the other programs irreplaceable in their own ways. I use Ableton for quickly putting together ideas, manipulating audio and creating beats. I find I come up with completely different ideas than I would have using my regular DAW. I use Reason in the same way. I also love using jamming software. Taking a standard blues progression/jazz tune/whatever and putting my own changes in makes a great starting track in no time. I always end up importing these files into my dedicated DAW, ripping it apart until I come up with something that I like. I always end up importing the files from these programs into my dedicated DAW. I try to keep all of the different files together but having it all imported into my DAW, it can be archived properly. The same goes for notation software. For creating symphonies, there's nothing like seeing the printed score right in front of you. If you're working this way, then go to a DAW and try the same thing,  you may be disappointed in the results. Because of the limitations of the program (plug-ins, instruments etc.) I always have to export it into my DAW to polish off the arrangement. While this may seem like too many steps for most, I find that it's the best of both (...many worlds).

The More The Merrier?

The truth is that most producers I know have gone through a couple of different programs in their professional life. Sometimes, you'll start with one program and migrate to another. Some people I know started out with one program and have pretty much stick with it. I've found that it's best to use one DAW a majority of the time. This way you get used to the program and use it without thinking too much. This lets you get down to the business of making music and not spending your days trying to tweak software. I also find that when trying out other software programs, new ideas and sounds just pop up. It's always good to have a couple of different tools at your disposal. Also when working in different genres (eg a dance track as opposed to a guitar/vocal track, versus a full blown symphony) I use different programs.

In The End

In the end it really becomes a personal choice. It comes down to what style of music you create, what your work habits are and what you want to accomplish. One good way to see the problems with any program is to go on the various forums (just do a search 'your DAW' forums) and see what people are talking about. You'll see some issues that people are having on a regular basis as well as some features that you may not know about. Many users will go into detail about how one DAW is better than the other; just do your research and make your own decisions. Also, if you work with a group of musicians, it's usually best to get the same DAW so projects can be exchanged with little effort. There is an exchange format but it's still unreliable; some setting will get lost. One major drawback with most DAW's (that they never seem to address) is the fact that they're not backwards compatible. That is, if your friend started a project in the newest version of your DAW of choice, odds are you won't be able to open up the file (in your older version) until you've updated your software too. Another caveat, is updates. Most users will tell you to always update your software. While this is a good idea for small updates, I find it's not always best when dealing with major updates. New versions usually have great new features but they will often take features away (that you found irreplaceable), and the new version (with all of it's bells and whistles) will usually tax your system more. If you have an older computer, you might want to keep working with the DAW you have until you can upgrade your entire system. It's always a let down when you see your old projects (which worked fine on the old version), now max out your machine. Also, there are always some bugs with every new version.  Above all, find something you like, then get to work!

*Disclaimer: These are all just personal views. I have no affiliation and receive no compensation from any software provider.