Your tools are not your competitive advantage

It’s a war out there.

We’re all trying to get ahead. There are too many of us looking for work and not enough clients or listeners to go around. We’ll do anything to get our head above water – even if it means pushing down (or not holding a hand out to) our colleagues.

Or, alternatively, we’re all on the same team.

There’s a boundless and ever-growing number of clients and listeners who want to enjoy our music. The biggest challenge is getting the music in front of them. By working together we can reach more ears. By working together we can help each other improve our skills. We can encourage each other to work harder, producing work that keeps getting better and better.

Which world do you live in?

If you live in the first world, you probably keep secrets. You’ve worked hard to acquire your tools, develop your techniques. You might feel that it would be unfair to share your knowledge – for other people to be able to use your techniques or take advantage of your experience without having to earn it themselves. You might even feel that sharing your techniques would diminish your standing in the eyes (and ears) of your clients and listeners. Effectively, you want to hold yourself up by keeping others down. Maybe you even live in a slight fear that someone else will discover your secrets on their own – after all, that’s how you discovered them.

Here are two uncomfortable truths:

  1. Your clients and listeners don’t choose you for your particular techniques. You might use something esoteric like multi-bus compression (multiple parallel compressors on sends), and it might even be a significant contributor to your sound. If someone else started using your technique, however, they wouldn’t suddenly be able to steal your clients or draw listeners away from you. The same goes for tools.
  2. Even if someone knew all your techniques and had all your tools, they wouldn’t sound like you. They wouldn’t somehow steal your musical soul, your originality or your creativity. They’d still sound like themselves and you’d still sound like yourself. If your techniques are useful to them, they’ll use the techniques to get better at their sound.

Clients choose a producer or engineer based on many factors. The most important are not even remotely related to your tools or techniques – they are factors like your creativity, your availability, your ability to understand their creative vision, your ability to capture (and improve) the essence of their art, your ability to make them feel comfortable and creative. It’s all creativity and relationships, with a good smattering of feel-good thrown in. Having a well-stocked studio merely helps them feel more secure in the decision they’ve already made.

None of these factors are diminished by the guy across the road having the same  compressor as you, or the same preference for chaining three saturators in a row.

Of course, to be successful you must be good at what you do. This is not about techniques, though. It’s about skills and creativity. This transcends techniques, and certainly transcends tools. It’s about being able to understand creative direction and be able to choose the most appropriate techniques and tools to translate that direction into sound.

So if your tools or techniques are not your competitive advantage, what is? What is going to keep you ahead of the guy across the road?

  • A wide musical vocabulary. This makes it more likely that you’ll understand your client’s influences and musical language. It also allows you to be more creative and choose from a wider variety of musical ideas. Of course, the greater your own musical language, the better you’ll be able to come up with an idea that’s perfect for the song.
  • An open mind. This not only applies to music, but in dealing with people. Do your artists consider you to be someone set in your ways, or someone always willing to try something new? Are you artists comfortable suggesting strange and weird musical ideas, or do you have a habit of telling people they suck? If people know you to be flexible and fun to work with, they’re much more likely to come back and work with you for their next project.
  • Work ethic. Do you deliver? Do you come up with the goods by the deadline? Are you eager, focussed, hard working? A solid work ethic also rubs off on the people you work with. If you’re dedicated and disciplined, your clients will treat you professionally. Your artists will take their own work more seriously (and they’ll love you because working with you makes them more productive). You’ll find your whole operation runs smoother and more efficiently. Best of all, less time and energy wasted on chasing people means more time and energy for creativity.
  • The skills that pay the bills. You have to consistently produce quality output. This is not about using any specific technique or tool, but being able to choose the right tools and techniques for each situation. It’s about knowing your studio, knowing your tools and being able to get results quickly without wasting time. Your artists aren’t going to be impressed if you spend half an hour tweaking a kick drum in front of them – you just killed their creativity. They came to you to capture their artistic vision and instead spent 30 minutes listening to ‘thud thud thud thud’. Your clients aren’t going to be impressed if they asked for an orchestral track and they receive something that sounds like a mid-90’s GM synth. You need to know how to get the right sounds quickly.

So what of helping others? Will you still keep your secrets, or will you share them? Let me suggest that there’s nothing to lose by sharing your knowledge, but there’s certainly a lot to gain. Sharing your knowledge will help your friends, your peers, your teammates. By learning engineering techniques, they’ll get better at realising their sonic ‘vision’. The less mindspace they use trying to figure it out, the more mindspace they have available for being creative. And that results in better music for all of us.


    • 3ee
    • January 6th, 2011

    Sometimes you may think twice to holding on your techniques especially when you are surrounded by people you gladly helped just so you notice they, without shame, don’t share anything with you, or share information that they know it isn’t helpfull to you.
    These people are called a$$#0|es and let them be what they are!
    .. Say YES to sharing if you like people sharing stuff with you! :)

  1. I agree on almost everything, also on what wrote 3ee.
    I’ve seen fail a lot of collegues, and that because they thought that the tool ( the plugin, the esoteric hardware) can be a magic wand, with no regard to creativity.
    I spend most of the time investing on myself, on my knowledge of the tool, but also on the relationship dynamics.

  2. Agreed. A toolbox doesn’t build a cabinet – the carpenter does. A piano doesn’t make music – the pianist does.

    And likewise: a console and a rack of gear and a computer full of plugins doesn’t make a mix – the mix engineer does.


  1. February 21st, 2010
  2. January 6th, 2011
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