One of Picasso’s most famous quotes is the legendary comment on stealing from other artists: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” It’s true—every piece of art has an origin of influence. And while we aren’t encouraging you to steal (get your samples cleared!), we recognize that one of the best ways to build your own sound as a producer is to look to your influences. Every producer who opens up a DAW for the first time has an established history of love for various artists that inspired them to open a DAW in the first place. Right away, you’re probably going to mimic your favorite producer, whether it be their drum patterns or use of effects. But in the 21st century where producers are becoming a dime a dozen, it pays to stand out. You can own your influences, but be careful not to wear them on your sleeve. For the producers who successfully balance their influences with their own original ideas, your work will be much more in demand. Here are a few ways to achieve that goal.
Identify what makes your influences unique
Start off by asking yourself, what makes the artists you love original in their own right? Is it the samples they use? Is it the way they map out their tracks? Is it the effects they use? Really take a moment, sit down, and list the unique voices your influences use to make their sound their own. This will help you to both identify how they harness their original voice and how you can carve out your own path. Additionally, let’s say your biggest influence is notorious for using pitched down vocal samples. That might be their modus operandi, but it’s good to realize if you use too many pitched down vocal samples that sound like theirs, people are going to catch on.
Compare your sound to your influences
Don’t be afraid to admit that you take from your influences! Every artist draws influence from somewhere. But it’s important to be aware of the parts of your influences that are present in your sound. Sit down and ask yourself, “Which artists do I hear in my music?” Send your songs to your friends and ask the same thing or purchase a Crowd Review to get unbiased feedback. It’s pretty much going to be a given that people will hear other artists in your music, but if they say, “This sounds just like XYZ’s song ‘ABC’,” that is not good news. A small trail of your influences will always exist, but you don’t want giant footprints clearly giving away who you’re inspired by.
Diversify your influences to create your own sound
Having a diverse array of genres that influence you helps to take small fragments of each genre and piece together something new. Think about it: let’s say you have one producer who only listens to EDM and hip-hop and you compare that artist to another producer who listens to jazz, classical, pop, folk, rock, EDM, and hip-hop. Which artist is likely to have a bigger vocabulary of ideas to draw from? Clearly the second producer who draws from various genres. You can still be a hip-hop or EDM producer but incorporate elements of less synonymous genres such as bluegrass or indie. In many ways, being able to combine disparate genres helps to create new genres altogether. Don’t be afraid to combine things that might not make sense at first—like putting a steel guitar solo into a future bass track. It might not “work” at first, but play around and make it your own.
Envision your ideal sound
Every producer envisions their music sounding as good as possible in the ears of as many listeners as possible. But for producers who are seeking to really carve out their own sound, it’s important to ask yourself what does that sound like? Taking the time to really stop and envision what your ideal sound will consist of will help you get there. What are the most prominent frequencies? Are the rhythms fast or slow? What emotion is being communicated? Creativity doesn’t have to exist within a box of tools that come built-in with your DAW—dream up new sounds in your head, and spend time trying to recreate those dreams! You’ll be surprised what you come up with.
Listen to your gut
Finally, the most important part to building your own sound out of your influences is to listen to your gut. It helps to make conscious efforts to be different, but if you’re being different just for the sake of standing out, that might not get you very far in building a fanbase. Listeners want to connect with your music—and if they can sense it’s not coming from a genuine place, that can be a difficult sell. Art for the sake of art has it’s place, but people love music because of its visceral abilities. Carve out your own unique sound, but make sure it’s one you believe in and truly enjoy creating, not just a sound you made because it’s different.
Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.