Head Tutor at the Toolroom Academy, Ben teaches Toolroom’s flagship Production Certificate programme and has recently designed the new Club Ready mixing and mastering course.
“Creativity is a funny old thing – us humans are often more creative than we think we are. Once you get into the nuts and bolts of being a music producer, a lot of what you’re doing is about solving creative problems. The first problem is ‘how do I make a good song?’ and having a vision is a big part of that.
If you want to make music for the industry, then having a game plan is genuinely vital, but part of having a plan is having a sound. With my records, I’m more worried that people know it’s me within two seconds than having a No. 1 on Beatport, so I like to focus on letting songs develop on their own through the lens of me being particular on sound choices and technique. That can be creatively challenging, so nowadays I’ll write 5 or 10 ideas and just let creativity bubble around without putting too many restraints on it. Normally, I’ll find one or two of those ideas will hit the brief.”
“Big household names like Skrillex and Deadmau5 often bent the rules by taking something and adding their twist. That doesn’t mean it will work for you, but if you don’t you’ll never connect with people. Today, we’re very guided by our influences and what’s popular, but we also need to be allowed to write different music. Take time out to write some weird stuff and feed your creative ego, it’s a really productive way to discover what could potentially be a magical idea.”
“When it comes to using plugins I believe in less is more and getting to know them inside out. Unless you’re a hobbyist, there’s no point dabbling with four or five synths. A good analogy is language. If you can’t articulate yourself you’re going to struggle to engage people, and music production’s a lot like that. By knowing your instruments really well you’ll have more opportunity to connect with people on a much deeper level.”
“Practising and honing your skills is like having a martial art, so when it’s necessary to go into the fight it’s all second nature. Training your ear by writing 30 drum loops in a week, for example, is a really good way to do that. Before you know it, you’re picking the right sounds and making the right decisions much quicker, and it leaves you with more time to spend on being creative.
Another idea is to jump on YouTube and learn to play piano, or pick up and practise on an old guitar. Use that part of the brain that allows you to get away from the negative cycle and anxiety that we all get stuck in from time to time.”
“It may be clichéd but it’s really important to get out of the studio, as solutions can come when you have space away from your screen. You can always refine and refine, but it’s usually stepping away from the studio and coming aback with fresh ears that was needed.”
15 years at Toolroom, Pete initially worked on A&R and label management before becoming one of the academy’s lead tutors, hosting courses strongly focused on creativity and production.
TAP INTO YOUR CREATIVITY
“Some people are more creative than others and some don’t realise how creative they can be, but most creative people are born with that characteristic. I wouldn’t call it a ’skill’ – it’s a talent they’ve learned to harness and expand upon, but you can help people tap into creativity and that’s what we try to do at the Toolroom Academy.
One of our courses, titled ‘Creativity Unlocked’, is about trying to help people discover themselves, which will help them to get creative. The music industry puts up lots of barriers and dance music can be quite segmented and tribal, so we always encourage people to step outside of that and try to push beyond their boundaries.”
“You can’t force creativity or sit down and say “I’m going to be creative today” because it might not happen. When you want to get creative you’ve got to find a source for inspiration and take steps towards finding your groove. Try and open your mind to influence, which means not just listening to the music you’re producing but being inspired by other artists and genres.
When you’re a bit stuck, try doing something completely out of the box. That could mean buying a sample pack and trying to make an entire track in two hours from pre-made loops, creating a whole track using just 8 channels on your DAW or setting yourself a one-hour time limit and seeing what you can do. When you make music for fun the results will often surprise you! The real big one for me, however, is not to worry or get jealous of what other people are achieving. Everyone’s on their own journey, so just focus on being you.”
“People often think they need to have tons of plugins and software to create amazing music, but you can easily become overwhelmed by that. The key is to focus on just a couple of instruments, master them and figure out how you can use them in a way that’s original or unique to you. With Toolroom’s online courses, we’ll always use a DAW’s basic filters, delays and EQs rather than external plugins. Getting the most out of the program you’re using will give you an amazing skillset and the potential to master others.”
“This goes against my general advice of seeing projects through but if you’re going through a massive creative spell and are worried you might lose it, just focus on writing. For example, make five 8-bar loops of some grooves and a little hook idea then stop, save, close and start the next one. When you come back and listen to those ideas a week later, one of them is bound to stick out.”
He is signed to Toolroom as Tuff London. A producer/engineer in his own right, Ben also teaches music production to autistic children.
“At Toolroom, we try to give students the tools and knowledge to be able to use their gear in a way that frees up their creativity so they don’t have to worry too much about the technical side. For example, the more you can relay to people how to program drums and make the process simpler, faster and more efficient, the more time you’re giving them to be creative.
With the tools we have now you can be endlessly creative, but when your options are endless it’s hard to stay focused. We teach students the importance of what to focus on in order to find the space to be creative. For example, how to create a reference track so you’re not wasting time searching through sounds for hours or trying loads of different arrangements. We’ll show you the best method to arrange things quickly and creatively.”
“There’s an old saying, ‘by failing to prepare, you’re preparing for failure’. That’s literally about sitting down and being focused before you even start a track. Having a vision keeps you focused, and that can come from another track you’ve heard, a moment you want to recreate from being out at the weekend or a sample you’ve stumbled across. That’s your starting point and your reason to make a track.
In the old days, even if you didn’t know the name of a track you’d be able to go to a club or a record shop and describe it. Things are different now, but you need to give people a reason for hearing a track because there are 10,000 uploaded on Beatport every week and you need to stand out by having a concept for what your track’s going to be.”
“Creative lulls come from people not having enough focus or becoming frustrated with their equipment. If I sit in the studio, open up the computer and have no idea what I’m going to do, things never go anywhere. If that’s the case, step away from the computer because putting yourself under pressure never works when you’re trying to be creative.
Instead, think about utilising that time to go through a load of old records and finding some samples, go through a sample site and listen to new sounds, download a new synth or create a new sample pack for drums. Basically, use that time when you’re not feeling creative to find tools that will allow you to at a later date. Every time I’ve done that, I’ve relit my fire and found myself a little gem!”