Starting and Finishing


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If you are like me, and a thousand more of us, we tend to be great at starting but not so great at finishing. And even if you aren’t great at starting, then I still think you may be able to relate. But if you’re a starter, you know what I’m talking about. You have a great idea—it could be a song, a record concept, consistently connecting with fans—anything, and you start it and you are stoked about it! Then, you get past all of the low-hanging fruit of your idea, and you get stuck, or your SOS (shiny object syndrome) kicks in, and you drop the ball and start chasing that squirrel. Before you know it, you have a bunch of unfinished, half started projects. Discouragement sets in and the excitement you had at the beginning of each of them is lost.

This is a vicious cycle and can (and does) rob you of all desire to keep doing what you actually love doing! I have experienced this most of my life, but there are things that you can do to get past this and actually start finishing what you started. I would be lying if I said it is easy, but it’s not. I have found that the first step is realizing that I need to be in it for the long haul and that I have to focus on what I was excited about in the first place. It also means learning to embrace failure as part of the process. Finishing at a slow and steady pace is better than blowing all your energy at the beginning and stalling half way.

I also realized that time is an excuse which is self sabotage in disguise. There are plenty of activities that take time to ramp up before getting into “the zone”, but I have found that music writing and recording, for the most part, doesn’t require a lot of prep time if you have a system, and more importantly, a process in place. 15-30 minutes is enough time to at least chip away at what you are working on, and do this over the course of a month, or even a week, you will see progress. I have applied this mindset myself to get past the point of me talking myself out of even starting, and it works.

Start by listing out all of the tasks that need to happen to finish whatever it is that you are working on. If any of the items on your list will take more than 30 mins, break that item down into tasks that will fit into 15 mins –  half and hour. Once you have your list, start by taking one item each day and getting it done. If you have tasks that you find difficult to break down, just work on that task for 15-30 mins each day until you do get it done. The idea here is to make small, manageable steps toward completing your objective. It can be mentally challenging because we tend to want to get things done quickly. This is especially true when we can see in our minds exactly what we expect to end up with, but our impatience causes frustration. But, stick to this process, and you will end up completing your project.

One aspect to this approach is that by taking smaller steps over time, you are able to reflect more on what you have accomplished each step of the way, allowing tweaks and improvements to be made along the way instead of having to hack things apart after you are too far along. This type of evolution can bring a whole new quality to what you are creating while reducing, if not eliminating frustration that comes with the pressure of trying to jam it all into 1, 2 or even a small handful of sessions. You may even find a mediocre idea turning into a gem you never thought possibly originally all because you gave your creativity time and space to breathe. Perspective always changes, at least a little, when you leave the project for a short period of time and come back to it a bit later.

This is just one of many different techniques and tools I have discovered over time that has had a serious impact on my productivity, and even more importantly on my satisfaction with my end results. I have been able to create more and better music in part by applying this approach. Nothing can replace honest effort, focus and persistence, but there are countless ways to reduce the friction, stress and anxiety that can come with serious creative work. I hope this has given you something to help move you closer to finishing your next song or record project.

If this has helped and you would like more ways to help get you closer toward building your musical empire, or just finishing that song you started a while back, subscribe below and I will send you more tools, tips and techniques you can use to get there.


Build Your Empire


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The Smart Musician story has been one of starts and stops, with no real consistency. This has been mainly because of my own inconsistency, but also because I have not been 100% sure of how to translate my years of experience into something that would be of value to other like minded musicians, something that has a direction, a point that is clear, and that has an understanding of who I am talking to. In the beginning, I was focused on the technology and gear side of making music and how putting thought into using it can greatly reduce the friction, stress and time spent focusing on preparing to make music instead of making music. I, along with my band mates, figured out how to make this happen and that was what I originally set out to share.

But that only goes so far, and does not encompass the full picture of what drives me—drives all of us—in making music in the first place. There is so much more than gear and tech. There is an entire world around our music making that stretches far beyond the music-making core. I suspect that very few of us make music with the intention of not letting anyone else hear it; no, we all want to share it—music is an expression, a communication, a language—all of which is used to convey something to someone else. To do this, we need others to share our music with; we need venues and platforms from which to share our music. There are also opportunities to get compensated for our music, whether live or recorded. To do all of these things, musicians need to structure and approach their activities as a business. The days of talking about “selling out” are over (those conversations are simply rooted in jealousy and insecurity, anyway).

As I enter the next phase of my music life, career, I am setting out to build my own music empire. This won’t necessarily look like what you would see as an empire, but it is what I define it as. You should be doing the same thing. This isn’t about domination over other fellow musicians, but building your communities, networks and platforms for sharing and distributing your music and everything around it. It’s time to define what that is, what it looks like right now, knowing it will change over time. It also means excepting failure as normal and embracing it as a learning opportunity, and actually taking that opportunity to change and improve. This effort looks and feels overwhelming, because it is. But, the alternative is to have your music not be heard by people that may truly be moved by it.

This is not about big record contracts, arena tours and least of all about what people think of you. This is the greatest time in history to be alive when it comes to the opportunity that is available, which not long ago was out of reach for 98% of us. It also means that there is a lot more work, more hustle required to get things rolling. It is about volume, about content. Music is our content—we need to be pumping out more music, more frequently, and sharing it while building our fan base, our communities. It’s not about one huge payoff, but multiple small streams of revenue. It’s about learning all aspects of the business of building your empire, learning new skills—from marketing to recording, and maintaining control over your creation.

All of this is what goes into the making of a smart musician, so this is the direction I am heading with this thing. I have had a podcast that has been on the sidelines, this site which has been sporadic, and the usual platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, all of which have little or no real content. My objective is to get the content machine running so I can share my experience, what I know, and also what I am learning as I work on building my music empire. I will be sharing music that is created along the way, too. It is my hope that you will get something out of this, at least small nuggets that will help you as you build your music empire, and then share what you learn along the way.

Here’s to making music, and building your own personal music empire!

Quick Songwriting Tool in Studio One 3


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If you’re at like me, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to get songs materialized quick enough. I am working on the first 5 tunes of a project and have the ideas charted in my Moleskine notebook and lyrics in an Evernote notebook (my hybrid songwriting tools). I have a songwriting process that I will get into in more detail in a future post, but I just learned about a feature in PreSonus’ Studio One 3 that just took my fairly efficient process and chopped off about 2/3 of the time it normally takes to lay down my initial scratch tracks.

That feature is the Arranger Track and inspector window. You can see a great overview and demonstration here, but here’s how it works at a high level: With the arranger track, you take each section of your tune, like intro-verse-chorus-bridge-end and record them all once, in a continuous sequence. This can be a singe guitar track, or all of your tracks—it’s up to you how much you need in order to have enough to sort your arrangement out.

Once you are finished, using the Arranger Track at the top of the timeline in the track view, you simply paint (using the pencil tool) over each of the the sections you just laid down. Then, either by copying/dragging and dropping in the Arranger Track or using the arrangement items that appear in the inspector pane, you then create your arrangement like putting together pieces of Legos. As you edit your arrangement, you can see the actual tracks appear in the timeline.

This is really cool and incredibly useful, qualifying it as an official Smart Musician Tool in my toolbox. I am sure that other DAWs have similar functionality, but I am not yet aware of them. If yours doesn’t have this type of tool, you can do virtually the same thing by recording your parts as described above, and then slice the tracks at the beginning and end of each section of your song. Then, copy and paste your newly built LEGO pieces together to create your arrangement.

This is a great way to quickly make your song idea a reality to share with other musicians who may be recording or performance the tune, or maybe serve as a starting point for the song to evolve into your next hit. What tools, creative ticks or approaches do you have that you use to write and record your music? Share them in the comments below!

TSM Podcast ReLaunch


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Hey all you Smart Musicians!!

So, here’s the deal. The all new TSM Podcast will be re-launching the week of January 1st, 2018. I am working on all kinds of new things, and the topic landscape is changing a bit—more like broadening. We will be highlighting technology, but not just gear, but how technology can be used in creative ways to make your life easier.

Being a Smart Musician is all about making more time for making music and building your own personal music empire, whatever that may look like. This year has been a reboot for me and my musical activities and projects, and I am more excited about creating and performing music than I have been in many years. The Smart Musician Podcast is my way of sharing my experiences with you all and I am seriously looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I would love to hear about what you are interested in, particularly challenges you are facing in your musical life, as well as successes so we can all help and benefit from them. Please leave your feedback in the comments below—I am stroked to see what lies ahead!

Process


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I know I may be writing about things we all know already, but in my experience this is just as important as new ideas. I don’t know about you, but there is so much information to the point of overload an a daily basis that if it’s not repeated or somehow kept in the front of my mind, it will just drop out of sight, forgotten. So, I may be repeating myself or stating the obvious, but that’s because I think it’s important enough. 

When creating music, I have created a process which works extremely well for me. There are several reasons having some sort of process is not only beneficial, but required in any complex project, and music is one of them. Process allows you to free up mental bandwidth in order to focus on the task at hand, knowing what your next step is. This will give you confidence in how you are working your project and, I argue, will even allow creativity to increase and flow more freely. But, for a process to truly add value, it must be repeatable. I find it helpful to write it down in a bulleted list format so I can stay on track with a visual status of where I am at along the way.

Process, like a routine, allows you to do without having to spend tons of mental energy on how to do it. Once you have a process down it becomes like second nature  if you keep doing it on a consistent basis. Process, whether we realize it or not, is at the core of just about every human activity to some degree, and is a mechanism by which, along with consistent effort, we are able to improve what we do. In future posts, I will go into

More specific details describing my processes and how they work for me. What processes do you have that you find useful in your music creation process? 

Expanding The Landscape of TSM


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I have been a bit lax the past week or 2 in my blog posting responsibilities, but I have not been sitting on the couch binge watching Netflix. What I have been doing is getting ready for a 5-Song EP challenge for the month of May, which started 2 days ago. I have also been thinking about TSM and where to go with it, especially seeing as my original motivation was focused on live performance, gear, and how to leverage technology to make live performance easier and better. That has not changed, but what has is that my focus is not just on the live aspects of music performance now. My musical landscape has been changing—expanding, really, and leans more toward the studio and songwriting, recording and production. This really is the starting point for a lot of us. In fact, the lines between studio and live have been blurred, if not all-out erased in some cases. The technology used in the studio today is also used live.

Technology is also bringing the stage to the living room and to a streaming audience. This alone is a deep pool of discussion topics. The environment we live in is drastically different than it was 10 years ago, even 5 years back! As things have changed, I am learning and re-learning what I need to know to make and perform music in today’s world. The fact is that I have not worked on a studio project for about 20 years. That has changed as I have been re-assembling my studio and am starting work on an EP, along with a couple of other recording projects that I am working on. So, I am going to fire up the video camera and start capturing the processes and tools that I use as I work through this project. You will have the opportunity to follow along with me as I go and as I learn all over again.

This will be a fairly rough process that I hope will be of some sort of value to you as I learn—even better, we learn together! It will be a bit messy as I dive into new gear and software, as well as dusting off my vocal and guitar chops (I have not sung lead vox in many years, like 25 long years…) I figure that I am going through this process either way, I might as well capture it and share what I am doing and what I learn. There is no magic plan, just a direction, tossing the proverbial map aside and pulling out the compass as this is all about the journey, not a final destination.

I hope you will find this useful, and if there is anything that you are looking for and that isn’t covered, just drop me a note in the comments below.

Available Resources


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I am not sure what I would do without the internet. It’s crazy to think back 25 years and imagine how I made any sort of progress without it. The fact is, that everything tends to maintain a sort of balance. Without the internet, I just had to figure things out by learning from somebody—asking them questions, or just do it on my own through trial and error. The reality is that is how I got the foundation I have today. Back then, there was no expectation that information would be available like it is today, but the complexity of the gear and tools back then was nothing like it is today, not to mention the availability! Today, we have access to both tools/gear and information, and a lot of it is even free!

It goes without saying that the tools and gear have become exponentially more complex, but there are great free resources out there to help guide you along when trying to learn how to use them, or just about any topic related to music performance and production. Just hit YouTube and type in a search for whatever you are curious about or trying to figure out, and you will hit an endless stream of video tutorials and reviews. I have a few that I subscribe to and find invaluable, like Joe Gilder (HomeStudioCorner.com), Graham Cochrane (RecordingRevolution.com), Ian Shepherd (ProductionAdvice.com), and Warren Huart are a few at the top of my watch list—these guys are an incredible source of knowledge and information that just wasn’t available back in the day. I have found them so helpful and learned so much that I have no problem ponying up cash to buy their products or support their sponsors so I can support them and help keep them in business, which keeps them pumping out all of the content that educates and helps me build my skills.

Dig around and into the resources that are out there, not just YouTube, but podcasts, blog posts, forums, Facebook, Instagram—you get the idea…and when you find something valuable, support these guys by buying a course, a subscription they are offering or even better yet, one of their original songs they have for sale. We are all in this together and even if these things are available and free, it still takes time and money to create and deliver the content they offer. Even if you don’t buy anything, use what is out there and be sure to let them know how much you appreciate what they are doing, and let them know how you have benefitted from their content. This is how the new world goes around. It’s really the greatest time to be alive for anyone involved in the creation of music, let’s make full use out of what is available to make better music.

What resources do you love and use? Share them in the comments below!

A Little GAS To Get Things Going


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OK, Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) really describes a condition where one is all geeked out all the time, focusing on the next shiny new tool and spending virtually no time learning and using the ones they already have. This is especially true with those of us who are into music. This isn’t just about hardware, but software too—plugins are like musical opioids. I have been guilty of this in the past, looking for the next cool plugin that can provide another dose of inspiration. What I realized, though, in the past several years is that I went in the opposite direction, trying to use my quarter-century old gear, jimmying it into places it wasn’t meant to be used, trying to stretch its analog existence into the digital box world. I got so cheap that I scavenged any cable I could find just to make the connection, ignoring the fact that cables can be the weakest link in the chain.

I have started an overhaul of my studio and the major component just got delivered. It is the new PreSonus StudioLive Series III 32 console. I will save the details of this beauty for a later post, but my point is that there has to be a balance between GAS and not having the tools to get the job done. Now, you don’t have to go out and drop thousands of dollars to get what you need—the key is to be honest about what that is and know when that new piece of gear is more of a want. This can be very though for those of us gear geeks, but it is critical that we use what we’ve got, learning it and knowing its limits, using it until it won’t do what we need it to do any longer. But in my situation, I reached a point where the setup I have just wouldn’t do what I needed it to do. So, I researched the heck out of my options, narrowed in on what I wanted down to its physical dimensions and how it would fit into my existing room. Here’s what that looks like, just after I pulled it out of the box and turned the lights on:

Studio

In my case, I needed a little GAS to get things rolling. I am not going crazy with buying new gear, but I do need to get the basics set up. The next targets are a pair of studio monitors to compliment my Yamaha NS-10m’s, acoustic treatment for the room and update the cabling. These are things that have been lacking for years and that will improve the efficiency and the quality of the music being made. I am really looking forward to sharing the progress of the studio and the new ways to leverage technology to create better music. The studio will also be used to resume the production of the TSM podcast which I am planning on rebooting in the next few months. A healthy balance between GAS and maximum utilization of what you have will give you a sweet spot that enables you to focus on making music while, hopefully, making the process even more enjoyable!

What’s in your practice or recording studio? Please share a description in the comments below!

Balance


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As musicians, engineers, producers, songwriters—for all of us, it is so easy to geek out on gear. I love gear, and it has been a long time since I have purchased anything significant aside from the occasional plugin (until today, but I will share that in a future post Smile ) The thing about gear is that it’s all shiny, and like my dog, I tend to chase after the next shiny thing that I find. I love diving into gear and figuring out what it can do and what it can’t, and even more importantly how I could use it. The problem is that I chase that shiny thing down a deep rabbit hole, and before I know it I’ve spent all my time focusing on gear when I could have been spending it actually making music. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we need to do that. But, if you’re like me, limits need to be put into place.

I also have a tendency to look for just the right app, or combination of apps, to help me be more efficient in the music creation process. But what I have figured out over the years is that there are some things that technology just can’t replace. One of those things for me is my Moleskine notebook and a pen. Over the past couple of days, I have had 3 tunes finally settle in and form in my head out of a ton of different ideas around riffs, melodies, progressions, etc. It is in these moments when an idea comes to me that I need to just get it down and out of my head so it doesn’t get lost. With actual pen and paper, I don’t have to worry about a computer or device crashing, being out of memory or waiting for the thing to boot or the app to start—I just open it up and write. I have been carrying that notebook around with me for the past few days, opening it up, scribbling and editing my ideas as they form into songs with arrangement and structure.

My point is this: find the simplest tool you can to get the job done, then build out from there. A healthy balance of technology and organic tooling (i.e. pen and paper) has allowed me to get more done faster. Technology is awesome, but it can easily distract and take away from the focus of actually making music. A set sheet scribbled down with a Sharpie on a piece of paper can’t crash (unless someone spills their beer on it—even then you can probably still read it) during a gig, and that is arguably one of the most important tools when playing a live set.

As I mentioned above, I just made my first pretty significant purchase in quite some time as I start rebuilding my studio. This piece of tech along with all the other gear are great, and necessary to get things done, but it’s not about the toys—without my notebook and pen, I would not have the type of material to record. It all starts there—from the head, through the pen and onto the paper. Technology is incredible, but there are some things that are timeless and cannot be replaced.

What types of “organic” gear do you rely on in your process? Share in the comments below!

Collaboration Tools


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Chances are if you are someone who is involved with music in any way—a musician, producer, songwriter, engineer—that you are not flying solo 100%. Collaborating, communicating and just keeping things straight can get to be a challenge pretty quick. There are a few tools that I have found to be very useful in collaborating with others, whether they are in town or another part of the world. But it’s not just the tools, but it’s how you use them and getting everyone involved to use them too. The fact is that these are just tools used as part of a process. If the people you are collaborating with do not use the tools, then the usefulness of those tools decreases.

For me and the people I work with, I set up Dropbox to share media files such as MP3’s, DAW files and any images or artwork, Evernote to share lyrics, charts, notes, set sheets, documentation, etc. and Facebook Messenger for conversation. There is nothing magical about these tools in particular, just that they are ones that I use and have found to be invaluable in our workflow. Dropbox, in particular, allows us to collaborate on recording projects, which is our primary focus, while we live spread out between here and Nova Scotia. I can drop a mix into Dropbox for our Canadian bassist and get his bass track back in as much time as it takes him to lay the track down—a thousand miles away!

For text-based files I use Evernote. I use this tool extensively in all areas of my life, including collaborating with the guys. This allows us to craft song lyrics and charts and then share them instantly. Evernote is available on just about every desktop and mobile platform out there, and we all have smartphones which we do most of our interaction with, except for working with DAW files. Both Dropbox and Evernote have sharing capabilities that allow me to share a Dropbox folder or Evernote notebook with the guys. Any time a file or document gets updated, we are notified of the change.

We use Facebook Messenger for messaging, mainly because it seems to flow better and has a better group conversation experience than simple text messaging, especially with a mixture of platforms. Again, there is nothing necessarily magical or irreplaceable about any one of these tools—there are plenty of competing apps out there that do the same basic things. The important thing is that there are tools available, and all of the ones I have described are freely available even though I do pay for additional Dropbox storage, and Evernote Premium for features that I don’t necessarily use in music collaboration.

This is truly the greatest time to be alive as a musician as technology has not simply leveled the playing field and torn down barriers to the average musician, but has introduced so many great apps and platforms that allow us to do what even the “big guys” couldn’t do 20 years ago. There are so many other tools out there that can be used to make our musical lives easier and help reduce the amount of time we spend mucking around with things just to be able to make music, instead of actually making music, which is what it is all about.

What tools are you using to make your musical lives easier, better and more productive? Just drop a line below in the comments and share what is in your toolbox!