Think about an aspiring engineer.
Or an aspiring teacher, or doctor, or aspiring whatever.
At what point would you consider them no longer “aspiring?”
Aspiring is a funny word. It means to direct hope or ambition towards becoming a specific type of person. It’s weird to think you could be aspiring towards something right now and not even know it.
That’s kind of how 2020 felt for me.
How I Got Into Music Pre-2020
The first time I touched a music software was in 2016. I discovered GarageBand randomly after sifting through an iPad I bought for college. At the time, I knew nothing about making music. When I say nothing, I mean nothing. Sometimes I still feel like this. However, I tell myself this is not true.
Anyway, GarageBand dramatically reshaped my perspective on music with one simple realization: music is a science just as much as it is an art.
I don’t know about you, but being good at science feels a lot more practical than being good at art. I tried to learn music growing up and failed miserably. My kid brain was much more tuned towards Nintendo, matchbox cars, and action figures. Trying to play a piece of wood with strings on it seemed completely insane at age 10. I couldn’t understand nor grasp the scope of music production. I mean, how could I? Even today at age 24, the spectrum of what music is blows me away; it’s a wonderfully complex amalgam. My adult brain is drawn to music production like a magnet, I find the mixture of mechanics, creativity, and ambiguity somewhat intoxicating.
I used GarageBand casually for about 2 years. Eventually I realized this thing, this piece of technology, has not only taught me about music, but also enabled me to create it. Once the software stuff made sense, the artsy, ethereal veneer started to fade. I began putting together my own pieces of music. Keep in mind, this stuff was HOT trash. But I was literally composing music, a high form of art, seemingly out of no where. It’s like doing something you never thought you’d be capable of doing — like a paraplegic taking their first step. They aren’t winning foot races, they suck at walking. But at least they’re moving. That’s something.
To anyone wondering, here’s exactly what I do with music:
I’ll come out and say I don’t know how to play an instrument. If I’m around one, I am likely to poke at it and ask questions, but I will not play it. I can’t.
I am technically a music engineer.
That means I design, build, and arrange sounds; that’s the best way to describe what I do. I’m an engineer because I know how to mix (which means to make sounds sound good in context with each another) and I know how to master (which means to make songs loud and full and pleasant to the ear). Basically I can use all the equipment, I understand how to track vocals, I can put together beats — that’s an engineer. Because I can’t play instruments in the traditional sense, I have to be resourceful with the audio elements I use. I have to know how to find quality samples. I have to know how to manipulate them in a very precise, specific way. Essentially, I rely on technical knowledge rather than raw, tactile talent.
On another level, I’m a producer. I’m a producer in the sense that I use a machine to create something, the machine being my computer of course. However, that’s not what makes a producer. The term “producer” and “engineer” often get lumped together, but they are not the same thing. For instance, a producer might not know how to operate the actual audio interface. In an industry context, a producer is someone influencing a record while it’s being made. This can be by directing vision for beat makers, helping artists write lyrics, or connecting talent to expertise. Honestly, the producer role has evolved into quite a vague term over the last 20 years. A producer is simply an influencer in the creative process though.
Since I record over my own beats, I am technically “producing myself.”
I’m constantly going back and forth between creative and technical realms when I make music. If I see an idea or feel an emotion, I immediately shift into engineer-mode to bring that sentiment alive in the software. In this way, I am kind of like an architect and a brick layer. I have all creative freedom, yet all responsibility of applied work. After I produce or manufacture the song, you could say I become somewhat of a performer. This is the fun and hard part where things get weird. Vocals add a whole other layer of processing to the mix (literally). They dictate the song heavily and require an almost entirely different motivation, skillset, and environment to do properly. For whatever reason, I’ve felt obligated to do this. I don’t think I’m a great vocalist, but I love the challenge of making something work. So now I’m writing lyrics, exploring pockets of cadence, and using my voice to achieve whatever feelings the music has inspired. Again, I am constantly switching back and forth between all these different roles throughout the process.
On the simplest of all levels, I’d say I’m a music artist.
Someone can argue I’m not “really” a musician, which is fine. Someone can even say I’m not “really” talented. Which is also fine. But, above all, I am able to make music. On an exceptional level, in a self-sufficient way. To me, that matters the most — being able.
How 2020 Forced Me to Have An Unexpected Musical Awakening
As I think about it now, this “musical awakening” thing happened because I was forced to stay home and social distance. There aren’t many things a pandemic helps facilitate, but creating music from your bedroom is one.
I was doing music before the pandy, but on a much lower level. Towards the end of 2019, I started producing on my desktop in GarageBand which is actually a pretty big jump from the cutsey iPad stuff I did before. Depending on who you ask though, GarageBand isn’t even a “real” DAW. It’s like saying you’re a gourmet chef, but you really just have an easy-bake oven and a microwave. You can still make good food, yeah, but you do not have the tools, power, or ingredients to make a truly special, high-quality meal.
Despite having low-grade means, I dropped my first official song in Jan 2020. I was stoked because it was the best song I’d made until that point. A few months into 2020, I made a few more songs. I was okay with those too because I was getting better and seeing I could actually execute the entire process from production to mix to final release. But deep down I knew I was just scratching the surface (I will probably go to my grave feeling this way.)
I just couldn’t deny the inherent limitations in using free software without any real hardware or equipment.
It was great that I graduated from the silly music app on my tablet, sure, but I still wasn’t really invested in the craft. It’s like the difference between learning about golf, playing Wii Sports in your living room versus actually going out, buying clubs, and stepping on the green. I was ready for the real deal…
At this point, it’s April 2020 and the world is falling apart. Great. The outside world is in shambles, so I did the obvious thing any true introvert would do and retreated into my newly established realm of music and wonder.
I was already making serious strides in my production, but now, with the advent of social distancing and furlough from work, I was “locked in” more than ever. The first semi-serious move I made was in purchasing Logic Pro X, a professional software for producing music. This is comparable to stepping into a full-fledged kitchen to do your cooking — it’s the real freakin’ deal. But that doesn’t mean anything. Just because you’re in a 5-star kitchen, doesn’t mean you’re a good cook.
There were major learning curves to Logic Pro. It looks something like this:
While learning the ins-and-outs of Logic, I began to encounter all these other areas where I had to or needed to improve. Obviously I could acquire more physical equipment — which I did, I literally bought everything, the audio interface, mixing headphones, microphones, monitors, controllers, cables, stands, foam padding. The list goes on. I had no problem committing more resources to the idea at this point. I called them “investments.” Which is comical. Basically, if it could help me, I bought it… here’s the first song I made using the new equipment.
I was now also investing more time and mental energy into the creative ideas and software that go into music. I was watching hours upon hours of YouTube, studying every possible nook and cranny of music from production, to theory, to psychoacoustics. I began researching plugins, compressors, the frequency spectrum, concepts of space in the stereo field. Everything. No matter how obscure or auxiliary, I sought after every piece of information wholeheartedly.
Now this is where things start to get interesting (and kind of alarming). This is where this idea of a “musical awakening” comes from.
Access to the right tools in addition to large amounts of free time lead me into an upward spiral of creative experimentation, technical learning, and self-realization.
Okay, that sounds absurd but it’s basically true.
By the time August rolled around, I really wasn’t in control of my infatuation anymore. I was kind of possessed, but in a very positive and passionate way.
I was caught in a cycle where the more I learned, the less I knew.
This is where I am currently.
Basically my being has aligned and oriented towards becoming exceptionally competent in this one specific area of expertise; I think this is foundational to who I am. I need to pursue something deep and meaningful and endlessly complex — something that has no boundaries or limitations.
The strangest thing is the self-realization and musical progress I’ve made over the last year has come unexpectedly and almost unintentionally. There was never a moment where I thought to myself “I want to become a music artist” or “I’m working really hard to make this work.” All of it just happened. It didn’t feel like a deliberate path chosen, rather a legitimate reaction, or exploration, unto the universe. And that’s kind of how I know 2020 is special — because I discovered something I can aspire towards forever.