How (my) music is made. Fuck the bullshit.



A while back, I was running out of things to write about for this blog and asked the readers to give me some ideas. I got a ton of great suggestions, as well as some down right terrible ones. That’s to be expected though, and I appreciate people for trying. Something that popped up a lot were questions about my music and how it’s made. I suppose this is a very curious topic for people outside the creative process and for people who are not me. I mean, shit, interviewers have been asking me a similar question as far back as I can remember. The oh so important query of “How does your music get made?”.
When I’ve answered questions in this vein , during interviews, I tend to give a brief answer and move on as the creative process , to me, is extremely boring. Every artist works differently and subscribes to their own practices. Mine just happen to be mind numbing.
I think when someone outside of making music imagines this process, it’s extremely romanticized. They perhaps see images of a thoughtful artist , tucked away in their studio, surrounded by equipment, candles and burning incense. The artist feverishly working away , completely zoning out and creating music that eventually becomes something that means a lot to many people. Well…i can only speak for myself but this could not be less like how I go about making music. Don’t get me wrong, I do think their are people like this. In fact, I’ve met many people who completely lose themselves in what they do. I’d say about 35% of them are genuine in that and the other 65% are emulating what they think an artist is “supposed to do”. Particularly people working in electronic music of any sort.

Personally…my way or working is something that might really let you, the listener, down. I’ve considered writing about this before but I always felt like I should keep a little mystery behind the curtain and not expose myself completely. But fuck it. The way I see it , the artistic process needs to be exposed a bit , if not to simply shake some of the preconceived assumptions that seem to follow it. Too many artists treat it like it’s the agonizing thing that only they could ever really understand and I’m here to say that simply not always the case. In fact, it’s rarely the case. Making music is something that comes natural to many people. Like most things that come natural, it’s not so much “hard” as it is time consuming. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of natural musicians out there who don’t struggle. Of course, any artist worth anything is going to hit walls and deal with tons of peaks and valleys.But the misconception by music fans that musicians are either fragile beings or unsung geniuses has always bugged me. Some people just make music without all the pretense.

So, allow me to dismiss the myths behind how MY music is made. Remember , I’m just one person and I’d venture to say my way is not the norm. I’d also like to clarify that I’m not really even a musician.I play no instruments, i can’t read music and , at best, have adequate rhythm. So, just keep in mind, everything I’m writing here is from the perspective of an “Electronic” music maker. I have no clue how rock bands do what they do. I have no clue how polka bands do what they do. This is just about what I know. So keep that in mind.

When i make music, I sit in a chair , in front of a computer. I got this program called “Music maker 2000” that not many people are up on. All you do is, write an adjective in a little box. For instance, I might type “Gloomy”. It takes a few minutes but , within moments, a fully formed song pops out , perfectly fitting the adjective. Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at it and have learned to enter multiple words in to really great results. A song like \"It\'s raining clouds\" was the result of me typing “Stormy whirlwind sad uplifting elf-like”. I’m telling you. This program is amazing.
Okay, obviously I’m making that up but how would you feel if that was real? It ain’t that far off.
Let me be really honest.
Here is my actual work process in making a beat.
First off, what i’m working with:

ASR 10 sampler that i purchased over 15 years ago
Ableton live on my mac book
A Moog slim phatty
A gemini record player
A dusty ass component system and the speakers that came with it (but i also use headphones)

That’s it. Nothing more. Not cause I don’t want more but more cause I’m frugal and working within this tiny spectrum has served me well in the past.Also, NYC apartments aren’t exactly spacious. I literally don’t have enough room to add much more. I will say though, I’m certainly open to adding stuff to this meager roster in the future, we’ll see what happens.
Anyway, here’s the process, step by step.

1)Sit down in front of my sampler
2)Hook up my computer and record player to the sampler
3)go through records/mp3’s of music I would like to sample looking for ideas.
4)When I find something that peaks my interest, I sample it. I now have a starting point. I may chop it up, throw effects on it or just leave be. That usually is based on if I feel it needs to be flipped up, or if I want it to sound a certain way.
5)Depending on that sample, I either add drums or look for more sounds to go with that sample. Let’s assume I’m doing drums.
6)I’m either working with chopped drums or a drum break or , often, both.
7)If it’s a break, I throw it in ableton and get it all lined up. Meaning, I clean it up and make sure all the kicks and snares fall where I want them to be.
8)If it’s chopped sounds, I go through my pre-made library of sounds looking for the right combination of kick and snare, as well as the proper hi-hat. This can take anywhere from 2 minutes to an hour depending on how particular the sound I’m working with is.
9)Once I lock down the drum sounds, I play them out on my sampler (depending on if I use a break or not)
10)Once the drums are right, I look into a bass line. This means either something I play on my keyboard or an actual sampled bass line from some other song. Both can take a while to find as the perfect bass tone is rarely right in front of you.
11)Once the bass is right, I just tear through a bunch of records/mp3’s and look for samples to layer over the existing track. This is hugely hit and miss.
12)The layer process can be both tedious as fuck and rewarding. Every day is different. The existence of ableton has made this much easier than when I started. Prior to using ableton, all the sample matching was organic. Meaning, no pitch shifting and no easy way out. It was simply a long ass process of finding something that works. Trial and error like “Woah”. Nowadays, with ableton and it’s time stretching and pitch changing abilities, it’s pretty fucking easy. Too easy if you ask me but whatever.
13)Once I find a decent amount of layers (usually between 3 and 5), I save it to abelton. Until about 3 years ago, I used to save the beats to floppy disks. Yup! Floppy disks. But, thankfully, I’ve moved on from the 1990’s.

This whole thing takes anywhere between 1.5 hours and 4 hours. I don’t think I’ve ever sat in my “Studio” longer than 4 hours at one time. I just don’t have that kind of
focus and the seat I use isn’t very comfortable.

And that is how musical magic happens.

I realize, my work process isn’t far off from how an accountant or pharmacist works. It’s very mathematical. It’s very laborious. It’s rare, when I’m working on music, that I feel like I’m working outside myself. Most of the time, I’m just plugging away, looking for the right formula. I guess what makes it artistic is that my ears are what’s guiding this formula but still, it doesn’t feel very artistic. It is what it is.

Growing up, my dad was a painter and sculptor. Every day, he would wake up , eat his breakfast and read the paper. Then he’d go into his studio for the rest of the day until it was dinner time. I have no clue what he did down there. For all I know, he could have slapped around a piece of clay for an hour and spent the rest of the day doing crossword puzzles. But the thing I came away with from being around him was that every one has their own process that works for them. I know plenty of artists who lose themselves in their work, hate everything they create and are constantly beating themselves down over it. They lose sleep over their work and feel genuine pain over it. In many cases, the final product is great. In a way, i envy people like this cause that’s a level of passion I don’t think i’ll ever grasp. I love making music but I also am able to remove myself from it when I’m not working on it.

On a side note, I do find humor in meeting people like this who also happen to make terrible music. That’s gotta burn the soul, huh? I mean, obviously, whether or not music is good is completely objective. But I do get a kick out of listening to some Minimal techno making dip shit regale me with woeful tales of finding the right 808 sound.

As I’m writing this, I’m taking a break from working. What am I doing , you might ask? Well, I’ve begun working on my new album. This may sound exciting but what I’ve been doing the last week or so is loading up floppy disks, recording each separate instrument , one by one, onto my ableton and organizing them all into folders using BPM’s, track names, and type of instrument. I’m basically doing the musical equivalent to filling out spread sheets. Sounds fun , right? (Just to be clear, I’m not complaining about being a career musician. That would be insane. Obviously, this is an awesome “Job”. I’m simply trying to strip away some of the ideas people have about how some of us work).
So, in the future, just remember this. The next time you’re idolizing some mystical music being, don’t forget that , in the midst of all his genius, he’s very likely a fucking math nerd with huge insecurity issues. Kinda evens the playing field, huh?
But if one thing is the musicians saving grace, at least we’re not actors.

62 thoughts on “How (my) music is made. Fuck the bullshit.

  1. There is so much truth here. It is just listening to a bunch of shit, then doing data janitor work. 90% of it, once you get the basics of looping, chopping and sampling down (again, especially now that Ableton is here) is just having decent taste. Most folks have bullshit taste. So the #1 skill for any producer? HAVE GOOD TASTE.

    How do you know you have good taste? It’s a combination of being willing to shit on people you know have shit taste, as well as recognizing when you meet that rare sensei who is up on shit you have no idea about.

    It also helps if you can buddy up with that sensei and have them play you shit often. And have other producers you can compete and collaborate with. Keeps you on top of your game.

    • I’m not a huge fan of producer collabo’s though. What I mentioned about everyone having their own process really comes out. When you have two dudes trying to do their thing , it can lead to a stalemate. especially if the two producers have even the slightest different ideals in music.

      • That’s why you start out with a shared sample pool, then each of you go your own way, then dive back in and re-work the other guy’s shit, and back and forth. You still end up with two different mixes of the “same” song, though, even if only one of them ends up as the “official” collabo.

  2. Actually, seeing that your process is relatively simple is comforting for me. I’ve always wanted to try making music in the same vein as yours (i.e. “instrumental hip hop”/”trip hop”/whatever you want to call it). Aside from the time issue, the one thing that always daunted me was the process: what is the “right” way that you have to do it?

    I’ve got a USB turntable, a MIDI keyboard, a computer, ableton, and some records. Guess that’s all I need.

    • That’s the thing. There is no “right” way. There is only the way you, personally, do it. I’ve seen other producers work and I could never do it the same way as them. Not meaning I couldn’t cause it’s too hard or confusing, but cause it’s simply not how my brain works. Find your way and just run with it.

  3. Enjoyed this.. I was one of the people that asked about this topic, not because I thought it was some mystical process (I make music too). I was just curious and thought I might pick up some ideas.

    Sometimes I get totally lost in creating music and it feels great – however a lot of the time it’s laborious, tedious and not fun at all. A lot of my tracks get shelved at this point. So, next time I get bored working on a track, I’ll remember this and hopefully push through it… Thanks dude.

  4. Thanks for sharing, never thought I’d see the day you’d talk about the writing process. I get the feeling sometimes that people think an artist has to be in a deep depression or have sunshine shooting out their ass to write good music. Truth is, like you said, anybody can write music. And everybody has their own way of doing it. I think Murs touched on this on his new song varsity blues 2.

  5. I don’t envy musicians who beat themselves to death running through take after take after take of vocals, or a guitar riff, or a keyboard part, or whatever else. Sometimes that has to happen, but that’s an easy way to get sick to death of a song and lose sight of what you’re working on.

    Anyway, the best part about this is clearly the floppy disks.

  6. Thanks for posting this, its definitely interesting to read from a total outsiders perspective. Seems timely since tomorrow marks the 7th year anniversary since Music by Cavelight dropped.

      • I was looking it up out of curiosity to see if there was a number of copies sold. Wikipedia has March 23 and Ninjatune has March 9, so I guess thats US and UK release dates. Whichever it was, I remember vividly opening the mail and throwing it in for the first time. Keep up the good work.

      • There is software that will make it easier, for sure. I use BeaTunes to keep my 100 days of mp3s straight. It catalogs bpm, and will catalog the song’s key, the song’s “color” (wtf that is) and a bunch of other stuff, and write it to the itunes metadata. Then you can organize by bpm, for instance, and make a smart playlist that includes only stuff that’s of specific genres (Soul and Funk is where I usually start) between specific bpms, and even in a specific key.

        Like I said, it’s a lot of data janitor work, but the payoff can be awesome.

  7. Hahaha, “he’s very likely a math nerd with huge insecurity issues.” That shit is so hilariously true. I’ve been writing shit with GuitarPro5 (eventually moved to ProTools for better electronic sounds/sometimes recording), and really once I find a good scale to play around with it all feels like math. Mostly counting. God I fucking hate counting sometimes. Trying to figure out how to fit in triplets with dotted eighth and sixteenth notes into the measure, getting the kick drum and snare beats on the right count to match up with everything else.
    I try not to tell people as well because, like you, I don’t think the image of me counting to four in front of my computer with my unplugged bass in my lap and a fresh pack of cigarettes is what people are looking for.

  8. I bet a lot of people imagine looking for samples is exciting, haha. Truth is, unless you live in 1989 or you’re Madlib and your beat is 1 sample + drums, it’s probably one of the most nerve-wreckingly time consuming things to do. Excitement only happens when you find a fitting sample, and that’s like 5% of the time you spend looking, and even then like half of what you’ve sampled goes to waste eventually.

    I stopped making beats in like, 2005, because the process was just too tedious. It was/is very much the same process as yours, except I built a huge sample library before even starting anything, which sometimes meant DAYS of doing nothing but listening to shitty albums. So once I’d finished going through my download chunk (seriously, fuck crate digging) and started arranging something, I would pretty much go through whole library of samples every time (which eventually was HUNDREDS…) with what I had built or parts of it looped in the background.

    Needless to say it quickly killed the fun and I’ve been looking for a way to bring the fun back into it ever since. Bought keyboards and monitors and controllers and a bunch of plugins and still not really getting anything done…

  9. That’s it? Shit, I liked the “Music Maker 2000” and “stormy whirlwind elf-like sad” bit. I instantly stopped reading to laugh my ass off, knowing that hundreds of people started looking frantically for that program. Ahhh…the sheep. One could almost see the complacent glaze go over their eyes as they began to fantasize about making music themselves, and I could hear them furiously counting all that money they saw themselves making.That was a good one.

  10. Thanks for the insight. I am curious though, how do you single out samples that you wish to use? Taking out drums or other instruments that are in the way? Thank you for your time.

    • Well, ideally, I look for things that don’t have drums in them to begin with. That gives u much more wiggle room. as for sample choice, I really can’t tell you. It’s just looking for something I wouldn’t mind hearing repeatedly.

  11. hah good shit block, glad you finally broke down. I think you were probably afraid people would like your music less if they knew this was how it works, but I think in itself it is an art. The music sounds dope, nuff said. If you are listening to a comic, and he’s hella funny, does it really matter how he came up with his jokes? I mean we listen to music to hear some good shit, and you make dopeness period. Music by cavelight is definitely in the top ten for albums i’ve heard the most, out of somthing like 20,000+ songs. Daylight ep, float, labor days, all of those are in the top 10 too, you’re music being the canvas that aes blacks out to. I appreciate what you both contributed to hiphop, and music in general, even if most cant see the greatness right in front of their eyes. I wish that some REAL shit could be commercially accepted, but considering that rebecca black bullshit really exists, it shows what kids wanna hear. Also, lol why do you think shes SLIGHTLY worse than mac miller. I mean sure it’s all just swag rap, but shit sounds okay, i mean better than gucci mane, waka flaka etc. word!

  12. A floppy disk still? why dont you just export the finished beat form ableton into wav stems or one full wav/mp3 file into a hard drive? Is the floppy for the ASR?

    • Yeah the floppies are for the ASR. Though, I might start switching this up very soon. I got this onyx blackjack thing that makes it easy to take stuff straight from the sampler into Ableton. It might save sometime.

      • I would like to hear how this works out. I read up on the Onyx Blackjack and it looks like a nice little converter. Though i haven’t heard of anyone using it with an ASR-10 going to a mac. I know it’s possible, i’d like to hear that someone did it though…

      • It works fine. I mean, I have simple needs. BAsically , get that sound from the sampler onto ableton as easily as possible. It’s not midi or anything but it does the job.

      • Hey is it possible to just connect your ASR straight to ableton through midi as a “sound module” so anything you play in your ASR will be recorded into live? hope i make sense..

      • ehh nevermind i think you need the ASR-10 rackmount for you to have the in and outs to do that..

  13. maybe thats a bit nerd but… so you add the bassline really early cause then it’s easy to make everything in key???

  14. LOL! I had the same reaction when I used Ableton for the first time, it felt like cheating. I’ve been doing complete midi/live audio compositions and recently got into sampling with Kontakt… into Cubase (then Logic). When I dragged my first sample into Ableton and it automatically sync’d it and it started looping along with the beat I almost shit my pants. I thought it was some kind of witchcraft.

  15. Solid & on point. Oddly enough, I am a math nerd with varying degrees of insecurity (depending on temperature and humidity).

  16. the floppy part kills me! love it. Thanks for the info man, I have to say that I wondered alot about this exact thing. Having played in a rock band and taking lessons for many years, I can say that I’ve had the most fun putting words into the music maker 2000…uh i mean….hearing a cool 1 sec clip from an old gene krupa song and sampling it to make it my own. Its a quick and creative outlet where your ears and mouse pointer can control the musical dynamics. You can just roll with it for 10 minutes or a few hours. Its on your schedule, not the bassists, or the drummers. Glad to hear your making a new album. Keep it up!

  17. Great read. This gave me great insight into the world of electronic musicians who work heavily with samples. Truth be told though, I feel bad for you guys. I lose myself in my studio with tunnel vision, surrounded by gear that can be combined in endless combinations to create new sonic textures. It’s always an exploration. I hope you find that one day man, it’s a beautiful thing. Get a Moog, learn guitar and buy crazy guitar pedals, meet/collaborate with classical musicians, buy a piano, get some really nice microphones…get a tape machine, walk around everywhere with a handheld recorder, work on a laptop and on your PC. Buy old analog synths or better yet a modular synth, buy a PA and send your tracks out to the PA and stick a mic in front of it. So many exciting posibilties! In our modern day, electronics have given us new and creative ways to create unique music and to hear you stick to your steps was painful to read. Being lazy will make you hate music in a few years judging by the very negative tone of your article. Hope this doesn’t anger you, just a quick rate.

    • Oh, I don’t hate music at all. I’m just sick of the bullshit preconception of how it’s made.
      Also, I have a moog and have worked with many musicians.

      • Cool, just rough reading negativity about the music creation process. It’s a beautiful thing really and a unique and individual experience for everyone. Sorry yours isn’t more fun.

      • I think you’re missing my point. I DO enjoy making music. It’s fun. There’s just a mystique about it that i think it bullshit that’s created in the minds of fans and perpetuated by artists.

      • I think the mystique you’re referencing is also created with the media…in magazines, websites, etc…tricking fans into thinking their favorite musician is some sort of demigod who shits gold. I’ve been touring for years, and I’m just a regular dude…and some of my best friends are incredibly popular, and people act like they’re meeting a bunch of kings when they meet these kids who are just average everyday people who just have the relative ability to write and play music.

  18. WOAH!! it’s so comforting to know that a producer I idolise has a similar beat making process as I do. I rock a MPC1000 and Ableton Live on a PC. I take samples from Computer Music cover discs, process them in Ableton, layer them with a pad synth line. then I re-sample, sequence the drums and mix down in the MPC. it seems as if insecurity issues are common among beat makers with similar processes. big ups for the insight, yo!!

  19. Man Blockhead your a real inspiration, I know your trying to disillusion us and all but I think you’ve got real talent that extends beyond your process. You don’t give yourself enough credit. You know sound, and your samples are dope. Keep up the good work man, and also I would love to see an album with a bunch of different rapper collaborations. I’ve always thought MF Doom would be sick over your stuff, but thats just me.

  20. Pingback: nevertrickedout

  21. I have always been really curious how you decide what lyrics to use on a track…especially the lines that seem to come from movies/shows (A Better Place, Hell Camp immediately come to mind).

    • There’s really no rhyme or reason. I’m just always keeping an ear out and I have a bunch of silly old records that happen to have vocal samples on them.
      In the case of “Better Place” that was actually a recording of my father speaking to my older brother when he was a baby.

  22. Good read, thanks.
    Do you chop up samples and sequence on the ASR anymore, or do you now just sample into the ASR then move the samples over to ableton to chop and sequence? If you are just moving them over to ableton, any reason why you’ve stuck with the ASR instead of just using ableton and a midi controller?

    • I do a little of both. I keep the using the ASR cause I know it so well. WAY better than I know abelton. There’s still stuff I can do on that that I wouldn’t be able to abelton.

  23. Interesting, man. Cool stuff. I’m with you on the collab bit. Some people do well in tandem, others of us just work better in our own space heh

  24. Very interesting and informative.. I tend to stick to what I know best which is the mpc2000XL, I recently bought ableton but have been too busy to learn it’s seemingly infinite capabilities.
    Thanks for the insight Tony

  25. Do you sometimes sample just one note of an instrument in a record and pitch shift it or you always working with loops ?

  26. I play a completely opposite genre of music to yourself but found all this pretty close to home. If anyone else looked through my window they’d probably die or boredom, but for myself it’s just something I love to do and unless you write music because its something you enjoy doing I don’t think you can understand that. Hence why people make shit up in their head.

  27. Thanks for the article man, I love your albums.

    I was wondering though, once you’ve got a song to sound the way you like, with all the different tracks mixed the way you like, do you then record all these tracks into a master track and then “master” this track like a person who records a band would?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s