Permission to Dream Big: Granted

Maybe it’s just me, but the culture of us average people tends to drag dreamers from their visions in the clouds back down to earth. If you say you’re going to be a millionaire in five years, they scoff at you. If you say you’re going to be a musician, movie actor, or author, the average person smiles on the outside and rolls their eyes on the inside.

Even if that’s not your common reaction, you’ve probably been told before to tear down your dreams, be realistic and lower your expectations. And there’s a time and place for that – if you’re waiting for a perfect guy or gal, you should probably open your eyes and look at the great one right in front of you.

But low expectations breed low results, and that’s awfully dull throughout most of life. So here’s an alternative:

Instead of quashing your dream, plan out how you’re going to make them happen and then start working.

Dreams don’t fail for lack of vision, dreams fail for lack of planning and hard work.

Three Paths to Success

I’ve found three camps that people fall into when it comes to actually doing something with your life.

  1. Do something small that you are guaranteed to succeed at. Then try something bigger, and work your way to the big stuff. Eventually, you reach your original impossible dreams.
  2. Do something so ridiculously big that you aren’t sure you’ll actually be able to do it. Get as far as you can – it’ll probably be further than you think – and even if you fail, you’ll still have achieved more than you would have sitting at home in camp 1 or camp 3. (Probably.)
  3. Try to come up with a foolproof way to do something perfectly the first time. You’ll be lucky if you do anything at all.

You’ll notice that the camps that actually manage to reach their goals are the ones that involve actually doing something, whether they fail or not. (Hopefully you’ve also noticed my taint of sarcasm. I’m going to try and drop it now.)

Instead of giving up on the dreams that matter to you, do something to realize them. If you want to end world hunger, you don’t have to go to Africa and feed a whole country – carry an extra $10 in your pocket when you go out, and buy someone a meal if it looks like they could use one. (Alternately, for $10 a month you can feed one child for a month. For transparency: the link goes to a religious charity.)

I know a random voice from the Internet doesn’t have much authority in your life, but because it might be the only voice that you hear say this…

Dream big. Work hard. You may have boundaries, may have limits, but you can overcome many things before you get stopped for good in the cold ground.

Rock hard! \m/ If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!


5 Reasons Why You Need to Play With Other Musicians

Music is intrinsically very soul baring. There’s just something about the sounds we make that impacts us at a core level. For this reason (among many others), many musicians prefer to play alone or have never gathered up the courage to look for other musicians to play with.

I am like this – being alone for a day with my guitar is one of the happiest days I can think of – but there is so much value in sharing the craft of music with other creators that it’s almost a crime to only create solo. Here are 5 reasons you should be playing (and recording) with other people.

1. You Improve as a Musician

Playing with other musicians forces you to play differently than when you’re by yourself. You have to keep time differently, have to follow, have to be able to keep the song going even when others make mistakes, have to be able to quickly recover from making mistakes, and have to get along well with people.

This not only improves you as a musician, but significantly increases your rate of improvement, especially in comparison with your rate of improvement playing solo.

If you really want to become better at something, it’s a mistake to be the most accomplished person in the room. Play with people who are at a higher level than you, and you will naturally become better.

2. You Get Good Feedback

Whether you play with a performing band or just hang out and jam with other musically talented people, you get great advice and insight on your technique, skills, strengths, and weaknesses. Be open to critique – if it stings, it’s probably spot on.

That being said, you’ll also hear a lot of biased nonsense (true bassists don’t use picks, anyone?). It’s well worth sifting through the nonsense to find the nuggets of gold.

If you are courageous enough to share your songs and/or recordings, you get some of the best critique on your music from fellow musicians. They listen for things that normal listeners don’t hear. Plus, they can share ideas on how to make the song better.

Collaborating on songs is one of the best ways to sharpen up musically. You get to hear new ways of songwriting, and get to share your processes. Plus, you get to hang out with some pretty cool people at the same time!

3. You Learn to Follow Cues While Improvising

Improvising is the #1 skill you need in order to play well with other musicians. The best way to learn how to improvise well is to play with other musicians, especially ones who are better than you (see point 1).

Improvising well translates well to any other aspect of music, from composing to playing live to recording. Learning to see cues and recognize signals makes you more suited to playing in various styles and genres.

If you compose songs on your own, you’ll learn a lot about song structure and how the different parts of a band work together to create a unified, beautiful whole.

4. You Learn How to Create Cues While Improvising

Not only do you learn how to follow while playing with other musicians, but you learn how to lead. Even if you’re not a drummer, even if you’re not a bassist, you learn how to guide whatever you’re playing. This also helps you understand song structure and social dynamics in composition and playing.

Once you learn how to lead and follow in improvisation, it’s easy to transition the knowledge into your own compositions. And don’t just think that improvising is only for jazz and blues musicians – improvisation is important for every instrument, every genre, and every level of experience.

Even if you picked up your instrument yesterday, you can improvise, and it’s important that you do so that you learn your weaknesses, strengths, and what you do and don’t like about your playing. Playing with other musicians, at its core, shows you what you need to practice on your own.

5. It’s Fun!

You probably got into music because you realized how much fun it is to create the sounds in your head. You know what else is fun? Hanging out with your friends.

Combining the two is the best reason to play with other musicians – because you get to meet people and create meaningful relationships through the craft of music! If you need any more reasons to play with other musicians, you might want to just use music as your personal diary: a way to express and experience the world…

…and try to find someone to play with every once in a while. ^^

It doesn’t matter how small your town is – there is always a way to play with other musicians! Keep your eyes on the lookout for other players, and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself as a musician if the topic comes up. Religious institutions, schools, and other social clubs are a great place to find musicians to play with.

If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

Limits =/= Boundaries (and vice versa)

Over the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time pushing my limits in recording. If you listen to some of my stuff, you’ll notice it’s nowhere near studio quality. But to me, that’s not what’s most important.

The most important thing to me is that I can see growth from where I was to where I am. And as long as growth is happening, then I’m doing it right. Maybe I’m not using EQ “right,” maybe I’m not doing mic placement “right,” but as long as I’m trying to better each new song sonically, I’m on the right path to getting to studio quality.

Paddling Upriver

Life is a process, not a destination. You are always moving forwards or backwards, depending on your perspective and what your goals are.

You should always be pushing your limits in areas that you want to move forward in, because that’s the only way growth happens. If you stay where you are, in your comfort zone, then you’re going to stagnate and die. Living creatures operate on this principle too – if they don’t change and adapt, then they die out.

The best way I’ve heard to understand this idea is to pretend life is a river, and your goal is upriver. You have to paddle against the flow of the water to get to your goals. If you paddle hard enough, then you move forward towards your goal. Any time you’re not spent paddling, the river is taking you back to where you were.

Doing something is like paddling at pace with the river. You’re not moving backward, but you’re not necessarily moving forward either. If you want to move forward you have to be pushing your limits, finding ways to overcome the obstacles around you.

Limits are not Boundaries

I feel that it’s worth making this distinction for your benefit. Too many people look at their limits as boundaries: something that they can’t move, can’t change, can’t get past.

But your limits are not boundaries. Limits are only permanent if you don’t push against them. When you’re trying something new and paddling upriver, what you’re doing is breaking whatever permanence your limits had.

A good example of this in recording terminology is your digital audio workstation DAW. Garageband may not have the capacity that Logic, Pro Tools, or Cubase has, but that doesn’t mean it can’t produce music that is just as good as music made in Logic, Pro Tools, or Cubase. Because it’s a free, dumbed-down version of Logic it’s assumed that it can’t produce anything good.

That’s a limit that people push all the time – just check out Sunshine Superman or Daniel Hemingway’s work with Garageband. If you gave a beginner a $30,000 studio, their mixes and songs would still sound amateur. *90% of the time it’s not about what your tools are capable of, but what you do with those capabilities that makes the difference.

Boundaries are not Limits

With all that being said, there are boundaries that people mistake for limits. Like a beaver dam in the river of life, you just won’t be able to get some places with the tools that you have.

Boundaries are not meant to be pushed, shoved, or changed unless they are precipitated by something drastic. Take relationships as an example – you can push the limits of a relationship and still be friends, but if you cross boundaries then 9 times out of 10* you will lose a friend. That doesn’t mean that boundaries can’t change – if your girlfriend/boyfriend says no sex before marriage, then the marriage precipitates the boundary change to having sex.

From an artistic perspective, there is no such thing as a boundary. From a technical perspective, there are tons of boundaries, but they’re a lot further out than you might expect. Some examples include:

  • The number of tracks you use in a song. There are settings that limit how many tracks you can use, and while you can turn those limits off, there may come a point where your computer physically cannot compute a certain number of tracks.
  • The frequency performance from your mics. Inexpensive microphones can be used to get great sounds, but what they cut in the price makes a physical difference in the spectrum of frequencies they can pick up. For example, my AT2020 USB physically cannot record frequencies above 20K.
  • The sound quality you get from your headphones/speakers. The headphone jack on my computer is physically damaged, so the signal that comes in my right headphone is significantly weaker than the signal in my left ear. Plus, the materials in your headphones/speakers can only physically do so much.

Push your limits until you hit boundaries. When you hit boundaries in recording, it usually signals that you either a) need to change your technique and explore new limits or b) that you need to upgrade your gear.

The example with my headphone jack on my computer is a great example of this – a) I’ve started mixing by using the headphone port on my UX1, which plays the signal evenly to my right and left speaker and b) I’m saving up my moolah and hope to get a new laptop in the fall.

It’s also a good example of doing what you can with what you have. It doesn’t matter what challenge you are facing, there is always something you can still be doing to reach your goals!

* I make statistics up 87% of the time, so don’t take my numbers too seriously, please. Also, all links are to websites/resources that I use personally. No affiliate links.

If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

3 Methods for Recording a Song at Home

Your brain works in a unique and individual way. Your mind follows a logic that many other people do not understand. If your methods of sitting down and actually recording keep you content and creatively inspired, then that’s how you should be recording. But most people don’t know what processes are conducive to their own productivity. That’s how I want to help you today.

I am going to outline 3 different logical methods / processes that you can use to record a song today. If you’re sufficiently motivated and inspired, you might even be able to finish a rough draft by the time you should be in bed. Give each of them a whirl, and hopefully you’ll find something useful – even if that’s just three methods you know don’t help you.

1. Compositional Recording

I hear songs playing in my head, and I’ve found that the best way to get them from my head to the computer is to figure out each part of the song section by section. What do the first 8 bars of the intro sound like? I reproduce that until I’ve got the basics of the music recorded, and then move on.

When I say “the basics of the music,” I mean three things:

  1. The groove on the drums/bass. I don’t have to have a perfect drum beat/bass line, but the groove in my head is fundamentally represented.
  2. The basic rhythm and notes on all the instruments. If I’m hearing a breakdown, I focus on rhythm; if I’m hearing a chorus, I focus on the notes. Sometimes I end up with more of a musical skeleton, sometimes it’s closer to a proper composition. As long as I can hear the song in my head through the notes, it’s good enough.
  3. General lyrical/melodic content. Even if I don’t have all the best articulation, all I’m looking for as I record piece by piece is to understand the basic form of the song in my head.

Once I’ve got a firm understanding of how the song goes, I can take the pieces and arrange them, cut them, mix them up etc. Then I re-record all the different pieces, filling in the melodic/rhythmic/stylistic gaps that are inevitable in recording section by section.

This method is most effective if a) you use loops, b) you use MIDI, c) you don’t have perfect pitch and want to get the song out of your head before you forget it.

2. Record from the Bottom Up (Or Vice Versa)

This is pretty much the most common way anyone has ever recorded in a professional setting. You record the song from the ground up: drums first, bass, other rhythm instruments (guitars, pianos, strings), melodic instruments (vocals, guitars, strings), and you finally end with the icing on the cake: any tiny fills, licks, transitions etc. that you want to color your tune.

If you’re a one-man band at home, this is a good way to record songs, especially in the case that you’re not a drummer first, and a bassist/guitarist/vocalist second. Drummers are really good at staying in time with a metronome, but most other instruments play more in time when they can play to a solid drum pattern. I’m not trying to bash non-drummers and bassists, but in my experience guitarists, pianists, vocalists etc. are all great at following the rhythm laid down by drum’n’bass. They’re not so great at leading the rhythm.

If you used process 1. to get ideas down, you might want to re-record all of the pieces in this fashion so that it sounds coherent instead of mashed together. This is just cleaning up the brilliance you came up with by recording section by section! 🙂

Alternately, to spur your creativity you can do this process backwards: melody first, upper rhythm instruments, bass, then drums. You’ll still probably want to add the musical icing to the cake at the end, though. That makes the whole song sound much cleaner and coherent.

This recording process is great if you write your music and have a firm understanding of your song already and want to put it in MP3 form.

3. Go Old School and Record the Whole Band at Once

Back in the days of the gramophone (and more recently with the turntable), if you wanted to record a song with multiple instruments, you got your ensemble together and recorded the whole shindig in a couple takes. While you can make that all nice and complex and get a fancy interface that you can plug all the instruments into, you can also take one (1) omnidirectional mic (the Blue Snowball isn’t a bad choice), place it in a place where it can easily hear all the instruments, plug it into your computer and press record.

If that isn’t about as simple as recording gets, I don’t know what simple means.

There are several drawbacks to this process: if you don’t play with other people, you can’t ask them to come out and record with you. (It’s super important to your growth as a musician to play with other people! Do it as often as you can!) Also, it can be hard as heck to get the mic placed well so that you hear all the parts clearly and concisely, especially if you have more than four or five instruments playing (including vocals).

That being said, it’s a great way to record a song quickly and effectively!

So there you have it – 3 ways to record a song at home. They’re all effective, but definitely have their merits and setbacks. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

A Philosophy for Life: Do What You Can

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that somewhere in the depths of your head, you’ve probably got some huge dreams for your life. Maybe you’ve got a novel hitting at the sides of your brain. Maybe you’ve got four full-length albums, a feature length movie, a new invention, or some other abstract piece of creativity.

Regardless of whether you want to be a celebrity or just be a part of something that’s massively successful, the time to start realizing your dreams is now. It doesn’t matter how ready you are, how much you have yet to learn, or how enormous your dream is. Right now, there are tangible things you can be doing to move towards making that dream a reality.

There is no tomorrow.

Tomorrow exists as a concept, but nothing more. You spend your entire life today – this present moment, to be precise. So unless you do something today to make your dreams for tomorrow, that tomorrow will never morph into today. Besides, your life isn’t an end product, it’s a constantly moving process. When you wake up in the morning, you’re either closer to your goals, or further from them based on what the you in the right now has done.

The impossible goal is to always be moving towards your goals. But too many people sit and wait for some perfect set of circumstances tomorrow. Your excuses are no reason to stop moving forward.

Think you’re too young/old/tired/busy to work toward your dreams?

It doesn’t matter how insufficient you are: you have what you need to do something, right here, right now. And even if you don’t reach that end product you have in your mind, anything you do to reach that goal is worthwhile.

I haven’t sold a note of my music since I started recording, but I’ve recorded over 100 songs. That’s 100 more songs than I’d have if I had said that my tools were too shoddy, that I didn’t have any good music in me, and that I was too young to actually do something.

Do what you can with what you have.

Want to write a novel? Open a Google Doc and starting typing. Want to become an actor? Check out your local theaters and audition for a role. Want to start a business? Open a Fiverr, Etsy, or Amazon account. Or start gathering your products.

If you want to start making music and still have excuses, allow me to attempt to refute them:

  • I don’t have a digital audio workstation DAW! Download a free one, or experiment with demo versions of industry DAWs like Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Reason, Mixcraft, and really, any other DAW. Just look up the “DAW name + free trial” in Google. With some of them you’ll only have 30 days to try them out.
  • I don’t have an instrument/can’t record my instrument! If you can’t use an in-DAW keyboard controller (you use your QWERTYboard to play notes) and MIDI instruments, then there are an infinite number of free sound loops and sounds you can mix and mash together.
  • I can’t use a computer! Use #9 on this list on your iPad. Or use a camera (even if it’s on your phone) to take footage of you playing your instrument, and use other programs to isolate the sound for MP3.

These days, it’s super cheap to get started recording. Heck, for the price of a mid-range guitar, you can build a small home studio. All you really need is a USB mic and a DAW (if you have IRL instruments and don’t just choose to use MIDI. Then you might want a MIDI-USB keyboard and a DAW, but really, you could probably get away with just a DAW like Garageband).

I can guarantee that no matter what your dream is, there is something that you can do here, now, today, in your village to make it a reality. The only thing left is to get out and do something. So what are you going to do today? What do you have, or can you get for free to get started?

If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

3 Tips for Getting the Best Sound Out of MIDI Drums

I have never had the opportunity to record an acoustic drum set. If I want drums in my songs, I have no choice but to use loops or some sort of MIDI instrument. In terms of sound, neither of those options are bad! I prefer MIDI drums because I have more complete control over the final sound. If you don’t have access to real drums or a skilled drummer, arranging a MIDI sequence is no sin – it’s making good use of the resources at your command.

Here’s my 3 cents for getting good sound from your MIDI kit.

1. Mix and Match Sets

If you don’t have third-party drum sounds, then the best way to get the sound you want out of MIDI drums is to mix up the different sounds from the presets in your digital audio workstation DAW. In Garageband that means you have to have multiple tracks for each preset you want, which can get tedious. (As you’ll see in tip 2, this can be used to your advantage.)Garageband MIDI DrumsBecause my computer is old as the hills, when I mix and match I tend to do a cymbals track and a body track to save on computing power. I might use the Heavy set for my cymbals, and the Portland set for the bass, snare, toms, and so on. If mixed and EQ-ed well, these stock MIDI drums can sound more than decent.

2. EQ and Mix Parts as Separately as Possible

As mentioned, having multiple tracks for each part of your drum is rough on your computer, but great for solid mixing. Think about it: if you were recording acoustic drums, you’d have mics everywhere. Each mic would lead to an individual track in your DAW, and could be tweaked individually.

Use panning to help create a realistic feel for your drums as well.
Use panning to help create a realistic sound from your MIDI.

In the sample above we can see again how ancient my computer is, because I still don’t have all the mics that would be on an acoustic set as its own individual track! The point remains, though: you can get the cleanest sound from the bass drum if you’re just mixing and EQing one sound. Repeat for each drumhead, and you’ve got MIDI that sounds good and is clear in the mix.

One way to remove the problem of having too many tracks would be bussing, or running separately mixed and EQed tracks through one track. I still haven’t figured out how to do this in Garageband, but if you’re doing it in another DAW, it’s a great way to save visual space on your screen, put sounds together, and mix/EQ all of those tracks together so they sound unified. (For more about buss mixing, check this video out.)

If you don’t know where to start in mixing your drums, this article here has a good foundation that you can build upon.

As I said, I usually only use two tracks. Rather than individually crafting a sonic space for each drum, I do it en masse by EQing the bass, snare, and toms in the same track. (Same for cymbals.) It’s not as clear and it doesn’t sound quite as good, but it works for maintaining my sanity and getting a decent sound.

3. Humanize Your Hits

The goal in working with MIDI instruments is to get them to sound as human as possible – that is, to sound like a real person could have played it on a nice kit. That being said, if it sounds good, it doesn’t matter whether or not a human could have played it.

But if you don’t want to sound like your drums are being played by a machine, then there’s 3 things to keep in mind.

  1. Humans have four limbs. Any drum pattern you make can’t realistically have more than 4 hits. If you’re having trouble imagining what is and isn’t humanly possible on the drums, head on to Youtube and spend half an hour watching drum tutorials.
  2. Humans don’t have perfect rhythm. When you make a MIDI track, you can quantize each note to fit the metronome perfectly. Don’t. Drummers are awesome, but even the best don’t have 100% accuracy. Quantize to 80-90% to maintain quality rhythm and humanness.
  3. Humans can’t play with the same precise power consistently. Velocity is MIDI language for power – you can set it anywhere from 0-127 in the editor. Many DAWs have a “randomize” function for velocity. No surprise, Garageband doesn’t have this function – if you want to vary and humanize your velocities, you have to go through note by note.

Personally when I’m arranging sequences, I vary velocities in my first bar, and copy+paste the notes into the next bar, and rearrange them there to fit my groove. That way each bar has some variation, even if it’s not perfectly random. Another way to is to randomly select a whole bunch of notes in the song, and lower or raise all of their velocities at once. Repeat that a couple times, and you’ve got a pretty decent randomization without literally moving each note.

That’s all I’ve found to get your MIDI drums sounding like you recorded an acoustic set.

As always, this is about doing what you can with what you have. If you have Superior Drummer 2.0 (or better, access to real drums and a real drummer) then by all means, use your resources. They will sound fantastic. For the rest of us mortals, we’ll just be here tweaking EQ to get our MIDI to sound as awesome as possible. Will it sound as good as Superior Drummer? Not even a little bit. Will it be better than wishing we had Superior Drummer? Absolutely!

I’m no expert, but if you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!

Your Skill Gap

I’ve got some good news and bad news about human nature, especially in context to doing something new, like recording music.

The good news is that you’re pretty awesome. The music you listen to is great, inspired, well-produced music. You know what sounds good, and what doesn’t. I talked about it in the mixing article a bit, but your ears are tuned to know what sounds good. You have great taste, and can critique a song, someone’s playing style, whether or not they’re in time or tune.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that your brilliant self can often be undermined by things outside of your control. Your ears fatigue naturally, and you can’t hear the nuances between tones. Your love for a project sweeps you up with it, and you stop seeing its weaknesses because love is blind.

Whether or not these facts that I’m spouting about you are true objectively or only subjectively, I know objectively that you can make great things. Think I’m blowing self-empowering fairy dust all over you? Check out this video.

Ira Glass talks about storytelling, but the same is true of all creation. The gap that you have between the song that you hear in your head and the song that comes through your headphones isn’t caused by the fact that you’re a dumb, worthless git. It’s a gap in your skill. You haven’t yet mastered the art of taking the music in your brain and putting it into MP3 form.

You can’t close that gap unless you sit down and make something. If you don’t give yourself the opportunity to fail, you’ll never find the opportunity to succeed. I’ve recorded over 100 songs, but I’ve shared only 6 of them with a human being who isn’t me. I can guarantee that if I had given up on song 35, I never would have made it here today.

6 songs isn’t something huge to boast about, but it’s 6 songs more than I would have made if I had given up after my first pitiful attempts. Do your MP3 sound horrible today? That’s fine, as long as you try to improve with each new recording.

You can close your skill gap. Remember, your skill is a process not a product – you will always be able to move forward and improve yourself. There isn’t a ribbon that you tear or a line that you cross that tells you you’re proficient, successful, or a master. There’s just tomorrow, another step you can take towards or away from closing that gap.

Keep walking, friend.

I’m here a step or two ahead (or behind…), walking the same road of improvement. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!