Thanks to modern technology, an aspiring artist no longer requires a high-end studio or a room full of instruments to produce a song. But while music production software has helped lower the barrier to entry, it still takes something special to stand out in a crowded market. As part of our Song Start educational series, Spotify sat down with production duo Take a Daytrip and producer ULTRAGABE to learn more about finding your footing as a producer, creating beats, working with artists, and understanding the basics of a studio setup.
Take a Daytrip’s Denzel Baptiste described the modern producer’s role as a song’s “project manager,” wearing different hats depending on the situation.
“Sometimes it's us making a loop and sending it to someone,” he explained. “Sometimes it's sitting with [Lil Nas X] for like two years straight and helping him grow as a person and allowing that to be reflected on to songs in the most seamless way possible. Sometimes it's meeting an artist on the first day and creating that moment and having a song come out of that.”
Wherever a producer is in their career, there are a few basics to know about equipment. ULTRAGABE broke down a few of his recommendations, encouraging music-makers to find a laptop with a solid-state hard drive and at least 16GB of RAM to make for a smooth workflow. He also pointed to the need for a reliable – if not necessarily fancy – speaker and headphones.
“At the end of the day, your instrument is the speaker,” he said. “You're creating and mixing the sounds and putting them together to translate to a speaker. Getting a speaker or headphones that you feel you can trust and are telling you accurately what's happening is really what you want to look for.”
ULTRAGABE’s brand recommendations for speakers include Yamaha, JBL, and Kali Audio, all of which offer an array of options that can deliver good quality at a lower price point. He also encouraged producers to listen to music through many mediums, with laptop speakers and cheap earbuds giving you a different perspective of how consumers will experience your finished product.
Most audio production is done in a digital audio workstation, or DAW, with programs like Logic, FL Studio, Ableton, and ProTools standing as some of the industry’s most popular programs. Both members of Take a Daytrip said Logic is their go-to DAW, but noted that the choice comes down to “how you like to work” rather than what genre you’re working in.
No matter which program you’re using, what’s most important is knowing your tools. ULTRAGABE pointed to two DAW plug-ins that he thinks are vital for any producer to understand: EQ and compression. EQ allows a producer to adjust the volume level of individual frequencies, while compression narrows the dynamic range of the quietest and loudest parts of a recording.
Many producers learn to create music without any formal training, but Take a Daytrip thinks understanding instruments and music composition is a major creative advantage. The duo’s David Biral said they rarely use MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) keyboards outside of creating drum patterns. He thinks the rawness of live instrumentation gives their beats a unique edge.
“Even when we're quantizing audio files, we deliberately leave things a little intact from how we originally played it,” he said, referencing the process of translating a recorded instrumental track into a digital replica to remove imperfections.
Biral said most of their beats start with keys, followed by drums and other instruments, but noted that pre-made loops can also be a great creative jumping-off point. “Sometimes that's a nice restart when you're in a little bit of a creative rut,” he said.
A deeper knowledge of production tools and music composition can also help when working with artists who may not have a lot of studio know-how. “The best experience that we have working with artists is when they have a strong opinion on what they want,” Baptiste said. “But if you don't have a good, full knowledge of production terms like compression and EQ, [letting them communicate] it in an emotional way works well, because then it's our job to interpret what that means.”
Biral encouraged producers to “have patience” when working with newer artists, especially because relationships forged in the early days of a career can pay off down the line. “That's no excuse for us to not be able to understand what they're saying and not be able to deliver it,” he said. “If we're not able to deliver it then there goes the song.”
Whatever your setup, ULTRAGABE told budding producers to think about any equipment limitations as a challenge. “Putting self-imposed limitations on yourself is actually a really great creative method that can help you come up with solutions that you normally wouldn't have solved if you had all the tools that you needed,” he said.
Take a Daytrip, meanwhile, underscored the importance of checking your ego at the door.
“It’s extremely dangerous to develop a mindset where you think you're better than someone, because at some point, someone always comes along the way and creates something new,” Baptiste said. “At the end of the day … there's a whole [business] ecosystem that is moving along with this music that is being created, and you have to be able to interface with all of it.”
To learn more about creating and recording demos, check out Take a Daytrip and ULTRAGABE's Song Start podcast episodes below: