Artist Development: How Do I Start?…Essential Tools
I get a lot of singers, songwriters, and musicians that come to me asking about artist development and music production. One of the most common questions is how to get started.
There is a lot of information about successful artists that talk about how they achieved success, but much of it glosses over the actual process. And as I tell many of the artists I’ve worked with, that’s because it’s not glamorous. The period of time between when an artist starts seriously pursuing a career and their actual public success is often mysteriously overlooked by the media. The media needs a story. And when the story just looks like hard work with daily incremental progress with regular routines, suddenly it’s not so exciting to media outlets who need to sell drama.
The good news is, you’ve already started! If you’re a musician or a singer that has already been working on getting better at your talent, then that’s actually the first step. But beyond that, you’ll want to pursue some of the basic paths and tools that will help you get better. There may be some investment involved, but these are some the most useful tools that will help you everyday. You might already even have one or two.
Get a MacBook
One of the most common and useful tools you can have for artist development, which will hardly come as a surprise, is a computer. Specifically, a Mac laptop computer. Why a Mac? Well for starters, Apple has had a leg up in the creative community long before the iPhone came along. Macs have been the preferred choice for decades with creatives. And for good reason. In addition to accessing the web and all of the document tools that come with a laptop for lyric writing like any good laptop, Apple has integrated some of the best musician tools and programs into their products. Namely, GarageBand. Garageband is the perfect starter digital audio workstation (DAW) if you’re an aspiring artist. This is a multitrack recording device, i.e. you can record one instrument and then record another while that plays back. There are plenty of great samples and instrument sounds for you to mess with, program, and create with, and it will seamlessly integrate other devices that you may need through its USB connections (Note: you may be tempted to get an iPad or even use your iPhone to access GarageBand but you will have far more flexibility with a laptop down the road). There are other pro-level and semi-pro level audio recording software programs that are more complicated like ProTools and Logic, but a good basic start to all of these is GarageBand.
Get a USB Midi Controller Piano Keyboard
The next thing you’ll want to utilize all of the super fun features of creating your own music in GarageBand is a piano keyboard. Specifically, a USB midi controller keyboard. This is basically a piano keyboard. It’s called a controller because these piano keyboards typically come with few or no sounds built into them. Hence, the name controller, as they ‘control’, or trigger, the sounds of some other device or source. In this case those sounds would come from GarageBand, after you plug in the USB cable into your MacBook. The term ‘MIDI’ is short for “music instrument digital interface”. Basically, it’s the early language that was adopted so music devices could interact with each other when they were cabled together.
These USB midi controller keyboards come in many sizes that are mostly dictated by how many piano keys you want. Singers, songwriters, and musicians that actually play piano a bit may prefer a keyboard that is full size with weighted keys like an actual piano (88 keys). (Pro tip: If you don’t play an instrument, then I would consider learning some basic piano.) Still, you may prefer something that is more compact with fewer “synth action” spring loaded keys. You can find lots of great deals for these at www.sweetwater.com, one of the largest online music instrument retailers. Many of these keyboards are only around $100, sometimes less.
Once you have your midi piano keyboard and your MacBook, you’re ready to take flight. Plug in your USB cable to your Mac, open up GarageBand and start poking around. You can find simple tutorial videos on the web for how to easily get some sounds happening- piano, drum loops, synthesizers, etc., and start creating songs.
Get A Good Microphone
So now that you have your piano keyboard and MacBook with GarageBand happening, you’ll need something to record and sing your melody ideas on there if you want to start writing songs. This can be done with the microphone built into your MacBook or earbuds, but you can improve the quality of your recordings and get the feel for recording your vocals better with a proper microphone. Because MacBooks come with a USB input, you could get a good quality USB microphones for recording vocals in this environment. However, most studio quality mics use XLR connections and typically require an analog to digital (A/D) USB converter.
For this level of mics and recordings, I prefer Blue Microphones. They offer good quality mics for a few hundred dollars or less, and they even have a great XLR to USB D/A converter (Icicle). Microphones have a large impact on the tone and quality of your recordings so you’ll want something decent. The best studios will use microphones that can cost $10K or more, but you’ll be able to get something that’s far less expensive and still sound great.
With a proper mic, now you can record and sing lyrics or melody ideas over the music you created in GarageBand.
These 3 tools are by no means the only tools you’ll want as you grow. However, these will enable you to start creating and communicating by yourself or with other writers, producers, and music artists by having the right tools.
When I work with an artist, they typically have to have some experience already if they’re to get the most out of working at the level I work at. And that means having spent some time singing, collaborating, and writing. The writing process, whether you aspire to be a writer or not, is something that I have found accelerates the process of discovering who you are as an artist. Over time, the material that comes out will present a sound and direction that will help create your persona. As I like to say, from quantity will come quality. Do lots of writing so that you can get better at it. And get better at it by listening, analyzing, and collaborating. This process never really ends for a great artist. You will always cycle through surveying the sonic landscape, integrating your own influences with the trends, and writing songs that reflect those assessments- then repeat. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’re Beyoncé, this is where it starts. And because that’s the cycle, it’s where it ends as well.
Copyrighting Your Songs
I get a lot questions about copyrights. When should I copyright? How do I copyright? Can I let anyone hear my songs even if they’re not copyrighted?
Copyrights are one of the legal protections that the government affords you for your intellectual property. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the process at www.copyright.gov. For songwriters and music artists, you’ll typically need to register songs with form PA (Performing Arts) and form SR (Sound Recording). Form PA is for the song itself. Form SR is for your particular recorded version of the song. This is why people can cover a song with their own recorded version. The song itself is a different property and has different ownership than the initial recorded version of the song.
I’m not a lawyer, and none of what I say should be considered ‘legal advice’, but when people ask me if they need to copyright every song as soon as it’s written, I usually tell them no. I typically get this question from songwriters who are worried that someone might ‘steal’ their song. The truth is that the chances of someone stealing your song are incredibly slim and very close to zero. In fact, in the many decades I’ve been in the music business, I’ve rarely ever heard of it happening. Although copyrighting is an important step in your music, it’s something that you can do when you feel like you’ll be releasing your music to the public in some way. That said, it’s a good idea to get the forms, read the directions, and go through filling them out so that you’re more comfortable with the process when you’re ready.