As a composer today, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You usually have to practice a fairly wide set of skills, from composition, to orchestration, mixing, making realistic mockups, social media, networking, and so on. On top of this, you’re usually required to dive into a world of confusing technology, computers, and digital tools that you’ve never seen before.
On top of this, the infinite ocean of new plugins and libraries makes it incredibly easy to do nothing else than playing around with toys. Mix some technical issues into the mix, those 10 trailer tracks you’d like to finish and submit to a library, and that short YouTube film score you managed to land – and you got yourself a challenging soup of things that might make you feel confused, exhausted and unproductive.
In this article, I’m going to talk about some of my most important tips for being more productive and structured as a composer, enhancing your workflow, your results, energy and creativity. Hopefully these tips can help you get more done in less time, move forward at a steady pace, and make you feel like you’re actually getting somewhere.
Not paying attention to when I was the most productive, was a mistake I made a lot in the beginning. I was trying to get hours of work in the studio, but I just couldn’t seem to get things done the way I wanted to, or as quick as I wanted to. It turned out that I was constantly trying to work during the times I thought I was supposed to (Like first thing in the morning) – regardless if that was my actual time of highest productivity.
Later, when I started experiment with my work times, my productivity skyrocketed. I don’t currently have a set time I use to work with music, but what I have implemented into my routine is to listen to my body and mind, and find out when my prime time of the day is. This might depend on where I live too, but sometimes I find myself work extremely well late at night, while other times I am too tired and mentally exhausted by the end of a day to be able to work well enough, and rather prefer the morning.
Experiment and find out when you’re in your zone, be it late at night, in the afternoon, or first thing in the morning. Then base your music work schedule around that.
This is a big one for me. In the beginning, I felt I was not moving forward as fast as I wanted, and that I didn’t get the amount of work done that I had in mind. I later realized that this was because I didn’t set specific enough goals. Cause when you’re making music, there are a lot of ways to get lost, to sit and noodle around, and in any way be “busy” instead of “productive”. What helped me a lot though, was to write down specific goals for the week, and for the day.
Things changed when I started using a technique I learned from Tim Ferriss, writing down 3 of the most crucial things to execute that day – and sticking to it. This could be “finish the intro of X”, or “export stems for track X, Y and Z”, and “finish and send first demo sketch for score X”. My productivity skyrocketed, simply because I wrote down the super specific steps towards my goal, and attacked them one by one, day after day. I might have limited the things I did during the day to 3 rather than 100, but I moved forward at a much higher pace.
Try this out. Before you go to bed, write down 3 things that you want to accomplish the next day. Or even better, write down the ONE thing that you can do the following day, that will move your work and career a little step forward, and make all the things that you could do easier or unnecessary.
Then focus on that 100% the next day, and complete this task. Is the task completed and you have several hours free? Then you got the perfect possibility to just noodle around, get lost, and experiment in the studio again (as this is a very important part of being a musician/composer too, in my opinion). But if you only do this without any clear goals and checkpoints, you might find yourself moving forward much more slowly than if you set clear goals, execute them, and then play around.
Interruptions are among the top culprits for destroying productivity. Recent studies show that interruptions kill about a third of a regular workday and that it takes up to half an hour on average to get back to work after being interrupted. Add that up, and a lot of valuable time can be wasted every month, or every year!
So how do you fix this? You need to eliminate the possibilities of getting distracted as good as possible. Here are some tips:
You can add on more ideas to eliminate distraction possibilities, but this should get you started. Getting interrupted is by far the most abundant productivity killer, and when you implement these measures, you’ll notice how much easier it is to get into the flow.
Have a clean computer, and make sure your gear is working properly. Crashing computers, recurring driver errors, slow hard drives, and crackling sound card issues is one of the biggest enemies when it comes to productivity and creative flow. Make sure that when you go to work, you work, and don’t spend your time and energy resolving unnecessary issues.
Now, you can’t just take a pill and say “I’m gonna choose to not have technical issues anymore” and that’s that (Or, if you do, text me the info to your dealer ASAP please). What you can do however, is to at least set aside time to pure problem solving if you have a notoriously grumpy computer, or any recurring issues. Try to set aside time to pure problem solving, instead of always having to fix these things in the middle of a composing session, as this will usually get you out of the flow and kill your creative drive.
Have a template or a set of template set up, especially if you’re working with a lot of orchestral music. There’s no need to load the same 100 orchestral instruments and route everything perfectly every time you’re gonna make a track. Have a template that have everything set up for you – and go from there. Start creating right away.
Even if you prefer to start with a blank page, I encourage you to set up a template with the send/return effects, group buses and your signal chain set up already – so you can just drop new instruments into the groups and chains. I think doing this, versus not doing this at all can save your hours and hours every week. My main template is 270 tracks, and I cannot imagine loading this by myself every single time, especially since most of it is just orchestral instruments that will be relevant for any orchestral cue I do.
These things will ensure that you’re ready to go as soon as inspiration (or deadline) strikes, while not having any technical things holding you back or draining you from energy and time.
This is common sense, but common sense is not always common. The more you will practice, the more autonomous the composing, orchestration and production processes will be. While I used to think about each orchestration choice, every little EQ tweak, and every element I bring into a composition – things are now more like driving a car after getting more experience. You’re not thinking about shifting gears, signal lights, turning the wheel this or that much, and so on. It’s all a process that is more and more second nature.
Sometimes when you’ve been in the game for a while, it might feel like things are almost creating itself – but it’s only a result of a lot of practice, and thousands of hours of making music. The more you orchestrate, the quicker you’ll be able to piece an arrangement together. The more you mix and tweak, the easier and quicker you’ll be able to make things sound good in a quick fashion. The more your compose, the more natural it will be for you to pick the right chords for any melody, the right background elements, and nicely crafted melodies. And most of all, the more music you create – the more seamless the combination of composition, orchestration and production will manifest itself into a final product. So the more you work on your craft, the more effective you will be when it really matters.
Therefore, make sure to set aside time to actually create, and compose. Try to make a little piece of music every day, or in some way practice your skills as a composer. This can be making short mockups of melodies, improvise on the piano, find stems to practice mixing on, and so on. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only reading and learning, and the “important” gigs, like the new trailer music tracks you want to make, or that indie short film score you landed – which is what I did for a long time. But setting aside separate time to just let go and practice, without thinking about the outcome or result, will likely make you improve much more rapidly.
What do you do when you’re not working? Are you enabling yourself to be productive? Having a rather healthy lifestyle is imperative to setting free your most productive self. Before you start digging into obscure and advanced methods to increase your productivity, look at the basic and obvious. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting quality sleep? Are you eating somewhat healthy? Are you getting physical exercise regularly? How is your work environment? While I know music producers are not the most likely to be health freaks, these incredibly basic things are indeed the most fundamental to increasing your energy, productivity and mental capacity.
There is usually no need to go on a $900 juice cleanse diet, join 7 gyms and develop a phobia for sugar and junk food, but just be aware of how your off-time choices and habits influence your work-time and productivity, and thus make tweaks that fit your lifestyle and preferences.
I hope these productivity tips can be helpful, and if you have any personal tips and tricks – feel free to share them in the comment section!
Composer, producer, entrepreneur and digital nomad from Norway, and the co-founder of Evenant. Has a strong passion for traveling, exploring new cultures, learning new skills and creating new things.