Mark Ronson on creativity and how to become a music producer
“The most important thing you can do is listen...”
To really grow yourself as a proficient music producer, take time to study your favourite songs, albums, producers and their methods. Listening to old records was my college — Earth, Wind & Fire, Quincy Jones, Timbaland and The Neptunes are some of the things I would study. If you’re aiming for a top 10 hit or a song within a genre of music, study and take influence from the greatest examples. Reusing and reimagining the building blocks, rhythms and sounds within your creation will allow you to get much closer to that genre or style. Studying the great records, even if it’s just to see how they work — that is your university.
The important thing is to realise that you don’t need a fancy rig to make great sounds. Sure, it’d be great to shred on your dream instruments, but really what’s more important as a producer is the sounds that you make. Look for things like cool pedals, plug-ins and other innovative ways to make a guitar sound like a guitar’s never sounded before — or not even sound like a guitar. Those are the things that I find exciting. By messing around and combining them, what you get is basically a sound that not only has no one else ever heard before, but a sound you’ve never even heard yourself. And that’s the thing that makes you want to build a song around a great tone you’ve just discovered.
At times we can rely heavily on where we feel most confident, but this shouldn’t be the only thing you can bring to the table. Putting yourself out of your zone of comfort and trying processes you’re not proficient in will almost always improve your skill set. Trying to learn an instrument or practising one that you are unfamiliar with can be a great way of reinterpreting what your role is within a project and help you walk in the shoes of an artist. What it will allow you to do is find new inspirations when it comes to writing melodies or bass lines or chord progressions, through tactile experimentation with the instrument.
On days where I’m struggling to find inspiration, the thing I do to help unlock those creative impulses is go on YouTube and learn one of my favourite songs. It’s exciting to learn something you love, and you’ll learn something new about inversions and chords.
The most important thing you can do as a producer is listen. A prominent example of that from my career would be when I first met Amy Winehouse and asked her the simple question – ‘What do you want your album to sound like?’ It might sound overly simple, but when you’re there to produce a record for someone the best thing you can really do is take their vision and prop it up on steroids by a million.
It was experimenting with my piano that sparked the inspiration for Back To Black. When I first met Amy Winehouse in 2006, she told me she wanted to make a record that sounded like the ‘60s girl-group stuff they played at her local. She played me the Shangri-Las, all stuff I was familiar with, but nothing like what I had produced up till then.
Amy went back to her hotel and I stayed up all night, buzzing off the energy of meeting her. I wanted to come up with something that would inspire her and encourage her to choose me to work on her record. I sat at my piano and stumbled on a D minor, with the A in the bass. I instantly felt something and for some reason I knew what the next chord was. She’d so inspired me with all this music, with drama, that I sat down at a piano and created it. It’s strange how these moments happen but you just have to challenge yourself and welcome these moments when they come. Certainly nothing is going to come if you don’t sit down and try.
Mark Ronson’s BBC Maestro course on Music Production is available via bbcmaestro.com now
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