Learn an instrument.
You don’t have to be a virtuoso to be a music producer, but training your ear and learning musical theory will hugely benefit your career. You should also try to compose your own songs, master tempos, or perhaps even learn to play from sheet music; understanding music from the other side of the soundboard will make you much better equipped to hear its full potential. Consider these basic instruments:
Piano/Keyboard. Probably the most versatile instrument for a producer, being able to noodle on the piano is huge. Whether you’re just trying to work out a concept or want a particular phrase recorded, a piano is almost indispensable,not only for the melody itself, but also for its flexibility in live scenarios!
Guitar. Learning the guitar will help you easily flesh out chords and immediately become relevant to rock and popular music.
Bass. Underrated but essential, the bass will help you lead the rhythm section and create a solid foundation for your productions.
Master the technology.
To create and manipulate music, you’ll need to learn how to use a soundboard and as many music-processing programs as you can. If you don’t already have some background in sound production, a good sequencer program to start off with is Cubase. Sequencer software programs like Cakewalk Sonar, Reason, and Pro Tools help music producers arrange and tweak the music that they record. Hip-hop and dance producers may wish to use FL Studio, which could be used for pop as well.
If you’re thinking about producing hip-hop music, think about investing in a sampler. The MPC60, SP1200, and S950 are all popular with “golden age” hip-hop producers like Pete Rock and DJ Premier.
Know the basics of mixing.
Know what it means to mix a track: how to blend all the disparate sounds together into one mellifluous mix. Know the difference between “in the box” and “out of the box.” In the box just means you’re mixing solely on a computer program; out of the box means that you’re mixing with a soundboard and other non-computer equipment to achieve your sound. Know the difference between stereo mix and mono. Stereo mixes represent two different tracks in the same song, one for the left ear and one for the right; mono represents a single sound for the track. Know what to put in the center of your mix. Bass guitar and vocals usually want to stay in the center of your mix — not off to any one side. Other instruments and production elements can usually be panned slightly to the left or right side to create a fuller sound.
Become a student of music.
Take your scholarship seriously. Music producers are in the business of making music, often with the help of other songs. Hip-hop producers in particular, whose job it is to take samples from other songs and rework them into a different beat, need to be voracious music students. If you’re not a student of music, you’ll soon find that you’re limiting yourself unnecessarily.
Think about what sounds would fit well together.
Your job as a music producer is to make fascinating, intriguing, soul-shattering music. Often, this means taking exploring the way that different sounds and different genres interact.
George Martin, the illustrious producer of the Beatles, introduced what we now call “World” music into the popular canon. Martin helped mesh the sitar into lush pop songs. This was truly East meeting West.
Create some music.
Try doing whatever feels best: Punk, Ska, Rock, Rap, R&B, Country, Funk, Jazz, and the like. In the beginning, focus on mastering one style of music. This will allow you to make a name for yourself in one particular genre before eventually moving onto different musical styles. Because they often involve less instrumentation, Hip-Hop, R&B, and Pop are the easiest to start off with. Eventually, try experimenting with more genres. The more genres you become fluent in, the broader your horizons will be (and the more clients you’ll get). Don’t overextend yourself too early, however. Have one genre down pat before you move onto the next one.
Rework an old favorite.
Take a known song — preferably one that has been minimally engineered — and give it your own flavor. What kind of potential does it have? How can you make it better? What new vision do you have for the song to transform it into something utterly different?
Make several versions to get a feel for the possibilities. Make a Reggae version of “The Wall” perhaps, or work an obscure jazz tune into a Hip-Hop beat. Don’t be afraid to think big here.