Over the last decade, Berlin DJ and producer Andre Crom has steadily built his career as the man behind OFF Recordings. Since its launch in 2008, Crom has guided the label through over 90 releases from artists such as DJ W!LD, Chris Carrier, Jaffa Surfa, Darius Syrossian, Jay Lumen, and, of course, Crom himself—his releases have also landed on liebe*detail, Leftroom, and Freerange Recordings, among others. Reflecting Crom's position as a DJ and producer, OFF specializes in deep, stripped-back grooves that float in the peripheries of house music, with each release curated purely with the dancefloor in mind. Naturally, alongside the growth of the label, Crom's touring schedule blossomed with years of regular gigs in every corner of the globe. Now, for many artists, this would be a comfortable position to be in—globally touring DJ with a respected label and release resume—but for Crom, something didn't feel right; he was at an artistic crossroad and restless for change.
In 2016, arguably at the height of his career, Crom moved from Berlin to Barcelona to reinvent himself from being primarily a DJ to becoming a solo producer. Up until that point, he had mostly co-produced tracks and realized that to stay relevant he needed to become an accomplished producer with a signature sound. Over the subsequent two-year period, Crom obsessively devoured production and studio knowledge and faced his limits head on. In this time, he also moved from his widely known deep tech-house sound to grittier strains of heads-down techno—a move that can offer as many mental challenges as technical know-how.
Coming out the other end personally and artistically refreshed, and with a wealth of tunes that have been signed to labels such as Ovum, 100% Pure, and Sleaze, Crom is now as comfortable in his studio as he is behind the decks and has offered to pass on the knowledge he has amassed over the years to aspiring producers looking to break through or evolve their studio skills.
If you're familiar with my past you know that I made a pretty radical turn from deep- and tech-house to techno. I made the move purely out of instinct and without any strategic thought behind it. After all, such a move has quite a potential to destroy an artist’s career, if the old fans won't follow and new ones don't come on board... but it was just something I felt I had to do to keep my passion for the music alive. Besides, in the past two years, I evolved from being mostly a co-producer to becoming a solo producer, so I still consider myself to be pretty new to the studio and did have to learn a lot. Here I'd like to share with you some of what I learned along the way.
Fight your fear of failure.
I never worked seriously as a solo music producer until two years ago, because I thought I had no real talent for music production. This thought was a limiting belief which severely hindered my career.
Finally, two years ago, I realized that if I didn’t learn to create successful music all by myself, I wouldn’t have a future as an artist. So at last, I threw myself into learning production with all I had, with the mindset that if I should fail, at least I would have given it my best effort.
It did take two years—in which I released largely unnoticed music—to come to that point, but my recent releases are played by most of the leading artists in my genre, including Richie Hawtin, Adam Beyer, Dixon, Hans Bouffmyhre, and many more. And with every day in the studio, the process of creating music becomes more fun and instinctive. I honestly wish I had faced my fear of failure as a music producer earlier in my life—my career could have grown much faster and steadier that way.
For people new to production, I can recommend this course, which I took myself. It taught me the basics of music theory.
Nobody cares....until they do.
Don't take it from me, take it from Ben Klock, who struggled for years until his career really took off: "at many points in my life, I thought success was just not for me."
It's definitely possible, or even likely, that your first tracks or releases will not get much attention and that it will take years until you can make a living out of making music—if that's what you want. As said above, for me it took two years of releasing largely unnoticed music before coming to a point where people really started to pick up what I did.
So, if your music seems to be going nowhere, just keep going and get better until people notice you. Nowadays, the market is flooded with "good" music. Only if you manage to stand out in some way will people notice you. And while social media does play a big role these days, I believe that for the majority of underground artists the music is still the deciding factor. In short: do something that catches people's attention, and success will follow.
"The reason why my music nowadays sounds somewhat decent is simply hours and hours of practice."
Persistence beats talent.
Edison already said: "success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration," and I think for the vast majority of people this is true.
I don't see myself as a particularly talented guy when it comes to production. The reason why my music nowadays sounds somewhat decent is simply hours and hours of practice. Sure, there will be some exceptionally talented people who do amazing things without much effort, but talent or inspiration is not what one should rely on.
What you can rely on is your willpower and your hard work. Combine that with a mix of humility (to accept your current limitations), confidence (to believe that you will continue to grow and eventually become a master of your craft), and patience (it just takes time to become really good at anything), and you have a healthy mindset to become good and successful at whatever you're doing.
"Rather, understand the aesthetics, techniques, and soul of the work that fascinates you, and use that to create something of your own..."
Steal like an artist.
The above might have been a quote from Picasso (or not) and Steve Jobs reiterated it—there's also a great book named after it which I very much recommend—but what it means, in short, is study your masters. Replay and reconstruct their work, understand what fascinates you about it and how it is done, deconstruct the elements, and look to recreate them in your own way. But when it comes to making your work public, don't post or send as a demo a plain copy of somebody else’s music—unless you declare it a "tribute" and just post it to your Soundcloud or something like that. Rather, understand the aesthetics, techniques, and soul of the work that fascinates you, and use that to create something of your own that might be seen as compatible and inspired by something or somebody else that came before you but not as a plain copy trying to ride somebody else's fame.
Find "original" inspiration.
Instead of checking the current Beatport (or Hardwax) hits, why not listen to a Sven Väth set from the '90s? Or the backstock of a legendary label? Or go to YouTube and jump from one obscure classic to the next? Or a video game soundtrack? Or a classic movie? While writing this, I'm listening to some '90s trance classics...some elements of them are timeless, while others did not age so well (psytrance bassline, anybody?!) Take the elements you like, discard the stuff you don't, make it your own, and bring it into a contemporary form.
One technique I also like to use is to take an existing track you like, loop a (not too full sounding) part of it, find a sound you like in your favourite VST, and just jam along to the loop. Once you have some cool elements down, delete the inspiration loop and replace it with more original parts.
What makes you special?
Richie Hawtin once said: "find what makes you special and then fucking ride that." This is probably one of the most essential questions for any artist: what makes you stand out? Nowadays, the market is saturated with people doing decent music—so why should people spend their time and interest listening to you, buying your music, and coming to your gigs?
There are many possible answers: in my personal case, during the years when I had the biggest success in terms of music sales and bookings in my "deep-house era," it was providing music which a lot of people can relate to and want to dance to. And nowadays, after an extended period of trying to understand where I want to go, I'm working on doing the same with underground techno music, somehow staying true to my recipe while quite dramatically changing my sound.
For other people, it can be something different, like creating truly groundbreaking music, or even just being geniuses in terms of social media and portraying themselves as interesting and/or relatable characters.
Whatever it is, chances are, if you want to get noticed, you need to understand what makes you special.
Recycle your projects.
You don't need to reinvent the wheel when creating each and every track. Especially when you did something which a lot of people like, why not use it as a basis to start a new project? A few ways to do this:
In Ableton, scrap the arrangement of the old project and go back to the session view. For my drums, I like to use Battery, where I have a few dozen kick, hi-hats, and various other drums in each kit. Keep the processing on each drum sound, and just use a MIDI pitch tool to skip through the multiple kicks, hats, etc.—this way you can keep your mix and effect chains intact while exchanging the sounds.
Another simple way to recycle is to keep your synth preset, but write a new progression with it.
If you have a project where you're happy with a few elements but not others, instead of trying to fix the bad stuff, copy the good elements into another project and start new.
One example from my recent Rhea EP on Sleaze: if you listen to the tracks "Rhea" and "Tethys," you can hear they have a pretty similar sound on the drums. I had finished "Rhea" first and was really happy with the result, so I used a very similar 909 low tom bassline for both, but changed the bassline tuning, the synth hook, and some other elements to create two tracks that are like siblings and very compatible, but not just a copy of each other.
Bounce your work in progress and give yourself feedback.
While arranging and fine-tuning a project, I find it extremely helpful to bounce the track (or hide the DAW window), open a notes application, and listen to the track from the start until the end while taking notes. Only afterwards should you go back to your DAW and make adjustments.
This frees a lot of brain capacity for listening to and analyzing your music—compared to when you look at your arrangement—and it's easier to resist the temptation to jump back into editing mode while listening to your work. It's also helpful to do this outside of the studio to give the track a different listening context.
"Especially with more experimental styles of electronic music, it's very much about doing stuff in new and different ways, which often means challenging the rules."
Learn and then forget the rules.
Before I knew about music theory and scales, I was terrified to produce a track with a wrong note—because of this, I didn't really touch the keyboard much at all. Now I don't think much about theory and just do what sounds right to me because I trust my own instinct. Similarly, there are many rules when it comes to producing and mixing a track. When learning this craft, it's important to understand why these rules are there and what they try to tell you. But don't make yourself a slave to them.
At the end of the day, what really matters is if the music sounds good. Nowadays, I often do things I thought were "forbidden" a year ago, like putting delay on a kick, or a massive distortion or saturation effect which might take away a lot of low end on the bass—but this "mushy bass sound" is actually an important style element of certain kinds of techno. Especially with more experimental styles of electronic music, it's very much about doing stuff in new and different ways, which often means challenging the rules.
However, if you are a beginner and want to ensure you hit the "right" keys, here's a quick piece of advice: just hit the white keys, focusing on the "A" key. This will ensure you to stay inside the "A minor" scale, which is an extremely common scale for underground dance music. If you want to become a bit more original, you can use the Ableton MIDI pitch plugin and transpose the notes you play up and down; this will give you the ease of just playing the white keys, but change the scale you play in, resulting in a less heard sound.
Always seek external feedback.
Besides giving yourself feedback, ask producer friends for their opinion on your work. It's easy to lose the objectivity when looking at your own music, and it can help a lot to ask other producers what they think. Forums like Sub Sekt and Reddit's Techno section are great places to look for like-minded people and to get objective, honest feedback. Apart from showing your work, you can also ask any questions you can think of in terms of production techniques.
Be smart when approaching labels.
Before sending anything out to labels, make sure that it sounds mature and represents the best you can do. Get feedback from other experienced producers, listen to it on different sound systems, and, if possible, test it out while DJing a gig. Make a "demo master" of your tracks with compression and limiting, aiming for an RMS volume of -10 decibels—which equals the perceived volume level of most professionally mastered tracks.
Here are some other tips when approaching labels:
Have a close listen to the label's sound and make sure your tracks fit within that direction—especially check the recent releases as sometimes labels change styles;
When you write your message, make sure to use proper English (have friends help you if you're not so fluent yourself), and explain in a few short and honest words why you specifically contacted this label. Also, list some references and supporters of your music;
Understand that most popular labels get tons of demos and they might not listen to stuff that's sent to their public email address. See it as a test of your commitment to find a personal contact at the label and to establish a connection with them;
One good way to do that is to get in touch with some of the label's artists whose work you admire. Write them via social media or their email, tell them what you like about their work, and ask them to check out your work. If they get back to you in a friendly way, you can build a connection and eventually ask if they would introduce you to the label A&R. Or go to the label's A&R/owner when he/she plays in your city and introduce yourself in person. Or give the label a call and ask what's the best way to send a demo;
Nowadays it might be easier to reach artists and labels via their social media channels, as these tend to be attended to more often than an "firstname.lastname@example.org" address.
In the case of my Ovum release, I noticed that Josh Wink (label owner) had left favourable feedback to some of my earlier promos. I remembered I had his email address and sent him a personal email along the lines of: "Thanks for your support of my recent music. As I've been following your label and your own music for many years, it would be an honour for me to have a release with you. Check out my demos please..."
As Josh—like most internationally travelling DJs and label owners—is a busy guy, it took a few days to hear back but we eventually locked the release in.
Read, learn, and invest in your music
Here are a few of the books and other sources that helped me:
Jason Timothy's book on the right mindset for music production. I highly recommend this, it gave me the mental strength to follow through the hard phase of starting out with production and a lot of my tips above are derived from this.
Dennis De Santis' book about creative techniques in Ableton.
Point Blank Music School. I did their Electronic Music Composition course when I started out and it helped me to understand the basics.
Two of my favourite plugins:
Izotope Trash2. A great plugin to colour or totally change and destroy your sound.
What sets it apart from similar plugins is that it combines distortion/overdrive with Filters, a delay, a convolution reverb and compression. Therefore, it can completely change and add character to an otherwise "standard" sound.
Here's a simple 909 loop, first the naked signal, and then with Trash2 on it.
Native Instruments Driver. Another very nice and often overlooked filter/distortion plugin. I used this on the master bus of my track "Feel" from the recent Ovum EP. You can hear it in the middle of the track when the filter on the whole signal closes—I really like the raw resonance it creates.
Finally, accept that it takes time
Most of us get inspired by other artists whose work we admire, so naturally, when starting out producing, and also later in the process), we compare our work with those artists who often belong to the very best in the world in their particular niche—and chances are, at first anyway, your music will suck in comparison. Remind yourself that most of these guys tinkered with their craft for at least a few—and often many—years before getting to the point where they created the tracks you look up to. It's likely that you'll have to do the same.