For those of you who know me, I have struggled for ages with Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Ableton, and many, many others. I have tried just about everything, and invested hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars over the years. Audio programs like these are super powerful, but the learning curves are steep, and until you hit that curve they can be more of an an anti-creative device than what they are designed for. A typical scenario for me goes like this:
- Open the DAW.
- Figure out why my audio signal isn’t showing up, signal is weird, settings from the past session didn’t save correctly, etc.
- 20mins later: Begin recording.
- 5mins later: Accidentally hit some hotkey that made the cursor stop following playback (or something else that derails my ability to do basic interfacing with the DAW).
- Google. Google. Google…
- 45min later: With my creative drive now turned into frustration, I leave to go workout.
This happens almost every time I try and use a DAW. So what in this equation is within my power to change? I do a lot of restructuring work with my own music students to help them overcome their own hurdles, so it’s only fair I spend the time to think long and hard about how to overcome my own.
Reverse-engineering the machine
Now I think I have figured out how to approach this problem, and
Logic Pro X Pro Tools will be the first test since I don’t currently have Pro Tools on a subscription (and I don’t care to pay Avid at the moment) I am paying Avid because Pro Tools is the industry standard and seems easier for my style. Taking observations from the most effective attention-sucking apps, let me ask you this: Why is an app like so Instagram so addictive? Why does it pull a user in? Obviously there are many reasons why Instagram is unhealthy, but we can take the reasons it succeeds at holding our attention and reverse-engineer them to create positive habits as well.
The Instagram formula (relative to our goals) has the following elements:
- Minimal resistance (easy entry for engagement)
- Attainable goals (small packets of content that are easy to create: a picture, a filter, and some text)
- User reward (connection and/or accountability from others for sharing the post)
Logic Pro X Pro Tools 30 day challenge
Here’s my take on the formula; my thirty-day challenge:
- I will make ten songs in thirty days.
- All songs will be done in
Logic Pro XPro Tools.
- All songs will be under 90 seconds, rough cuts, and will have at least three tracks. These will be silly, fun, and allow me to get in the habit of learning Pro Tools without making too much of a fuss about it. I am going for habit-building and a positive association here, not perfection or attachment; process and habit-building over product.
- I will make an average of one song every three days (30 days/10 songs = 1 song per 3 days). That’s a little over 2 songs/week.
- To keep momentum and focus on creating music and learning Logic, I will only work on one song at a time.
- I will work at least 30min/day, every day, unless more important issues interfere.
- To keep Pro Tools accessible, I will try to keep it open as a reminder that I need to use it daily.
- With each new song I will make an effort to learn new features using Pro Tools; plugins, sends, returns, mixing, mastering, etc.
- When I create a new song I will post it on the list below for accountability and personal reward.
- Each song will have notes on what I learned.
Along the way I expect to run into all the basic problems I have experienced using DAWs, but hopefully with less weight attached, smaller endpoints, and some natural curiosity given the more relatable problems I’ll encounter during the process.
See you in a month!
Songs, as they come
*I can’t upload the files here without paying for a premium membership, so I used Google Drive and hyperlinked it below. Google Drive has some issues playing MP3s on desktop, but here they are!
- 2/27: “Dobstop”. Well, this was both a PITA and easier than expected. Drums, bass, four guitars (two verse, two bridge). Played with the plugins a bit. Mix is shit. Bass is shit. Super frustrating export process. I like the bridge (reminds me of “Kiss From A Rose” for some reason). Working more on the mixing with the next one!
- 3/01: “Motorboating Era“. I got this idea while listening to “Motorola Era” by AZ, so I thought I’d just borrow it for a bit. Drums, two bass (one fuzzed out), three guitars. I’m learning a bit about what order you need to do things in to mix properly. I can see how mixing would be super fun, and how there is no substitute for experience in that regard. There’s only so much frequency space, so knowing a bit about what you’re going for first really helps so you don’t end up having to readjust all the dependent settings. As far as it stands now, I think I should dial in my guitar sound from the amp (or plugin) first, then add compression (which I also need to better understand), and then EQ it, and ideally with a vision of where it would sit in the mix from the beginning.
- 3/13: Change of plans: this is now the
Logic ProPro Tools 30-Day Challenge! Life has been super challenging this last two weeks, so I haven’t been able to keep up on this challenge until today. Here’s a quick reprise of an original tune of mine called “Traveling“. I wrote this one for my dad after he passed away. He had a traveling spirit, like myself. Miss ya, pops. Thoughts on the tune: It feels good to be back with Pro Tools. It’s more intuitive and actually made for music professionals. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I just did four passes of guitars using capos in different positions to make different chord voicings. Not much mixing tonight (it’s late and I have to get to bed soon), but I did remember how to route reverbs and copy to additional tracks; the muscle memory is still there. Just under the 90 second mark. There is hope, haha. DI via Strymon Iridium and then some Dverb. Enjoy, and goodnight.
- 3/17: “Four“. This one is a Mogwai-esque idea. I played with reverb and delay levels, and learned about automation (applied to the volume and plugin levels). Also learned about playlist comping (this will take a bit longer with the loop-record-to-comp feature, as my internal memory is like a hard drive left outside over winter). Also did batch crossfades, which make things easy if you’re not particular about little details (which I am, but for current purposes, am not). I really got off track with family stuff, so now I’ve got ten days left and six songs to go. CAN I DO IT?
- 3/19: “Goodbye, Good Morning“. Here’s a pensive number. I really would not have played to a click in hindsight; so stiff sounding, but whatever. I did a lot of automation on the frequency shifter and AIR enhancer to get that tinny main guitar sound and the chorus-y, washy other guitar. I like the vibe overall and may come back to this one to make it into a real song eventually. I learned the basics of using compression (and specific to guitars), and refreshed on EQ-ing basics and frequency sweeping. Learning, when answering questions that naturally arise, is really fun.
- 3/21: “Unlucky Seven“. Ran into some real strange issues with Pro Tools on this one–a corrupted session. Eventually, with some help from friends and the internet, I ended up fixing the session by making a new one and importing session data very carefully to isolate the issue, which for some reason went away, even though I ended up with all the original tracks and plugins. So weird. Anyway, that’s why I called it “Unlucky Seven”–song six went into the seventh session! Regarding the song itself, I really learned a lot compositionally. I ended up writing the first riff as I was watching a video with Johnny Marr talking about his signature Fender Jaguar; something he played inspired me, so the first track came off that. The second guitar followed, and then I got the idea to have four guitars, but to write the remaining two based on the pan directions I envisioned. This way I could hopefully compose considering the musical conversation, space, and texture. I think guitar 2 became renamed as “GTR 4” or something like that. Once I’m done with this DAW challenge I think I’m going to make a guitar symphony EP using this mindset. Sorry for the slop–a great half-baked idea implemented halfway! If I had thought of it prior the first guitar would have been much more focused. GTR 1: 100%L, GTR 2: 57%L, GTR 3 57% R, GTR 4 100%R.
- DAW Challenge #7: “TDA Theme”. Back in the days of Brooklyn open mics I used to joke with a friend when asked how my practice was going. “Oh, just polishing the turds into diamonds”, I’d say, and we’d both have a laugh. This song, a real Cleveland gem, goes out to the band I never made, TDA (Turd Diamond Annihilator). Why the funky smell? Oh boy, the things I did wrong here! The initial idea was cool: use the Slate Drums plugin and map out some ideas from the Harcus DIY Punk Rock MIDI pack, then write a guitar part for each MIDI piece, and see what a weird hodge-podge I could create. Well, inspiration is a busy lady and she didn’t show up as planned, so I did my best to start polishing what fell into the toilet. Things really got going when I made the mistake of forgetting to turn off the reverb in my signal chain before recording the first guitar part, making mixing impossible! Yikes! At this point I had a student in 20min, so I decided to do a marathon second guitar and see how fast I could harmonize the first part! This was actually really fun (removing the pressure to make something awesome). Then I added bass and mixed it as best I could. Afterwards I changed the drums a bit more to make it feel more interesting. The guitar fills are absolute slop, but whatever–the objective was reached, and I am learning! LEARNING!!
- 3/31 “Rule of Three“. This song has three sections, progressing from groove metal to eighties. I broke a lot of rules here, but I really felt this one, especially the second and third pieces. I think some bits are going to make it to the upcoming EP! I played around with using the Maxim plugin to help with mastering, but I’ll admit, it was a bit beyond me.
I’m calling the DAW Challenge early. I don’t need to make it to ten songs. Obviously I didn’t make the 10 songs/30 days objective, but life got in the way, and what matters is that I’ve built confidence, technical skills, and the working habits and approaches required to break through my prior creative barriers. Mission accomplished!
What did I accomplish technically? I refreshed on the basics of building a session, adding aux tracks and buses, using reverb and delay, understanding how to use compression, EQ, and the mastering plugin, Maxim. A lot of this is really basic application, and it opens up a world of interest and research for me as to what future equipment/plugins might be useful for higher quality material. I learned how to import session data, buffer size, playback engine, and some essential keyboard shortcuts.
I’m going to keep pushing with the same approaches to creating, and turn some of these ideas into proper songs🤘