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Smalltown DJs’ share five tips for better workflow and preventing creative blocks

Smalltown DJs, known for their sound that combines elements from Canada’s outdoor electronic music festivals like Shambhala & Bass Coast, with the distinctive style they cultivated at the renowned Hifi Club in Calgary, have been making an impact in the music industry.

Photo Credit: Smalltown DJs – Official

Their creative approach to music earned them a nomination for the 2024 Juno Award for Underground Dance Single of the Year. They’ve showcased their versatility and dynamism through a discography that spans labels such as Dirtybird, Box of Cats, Night Bass, Monstercat, RDA, Fool’s Gold, Sweat It Out!, among others.

Their most recent accomplishment is a remix of ‘Acid Funk’ by Hawke and God Within, which is included in the ‘Acid Funk (Remixes)’ under DIRTYBIRD records.

To celebrate this release, Smalltown DJs kindly offer a glimpse into their creative process, sharing insights on music production. They provide five crucial tips to dodge creative stagnation, based on their personal experiences and challenges in the music industry.

1. Idea generation and pre-production

We like to separate ‘writing’ sessions (arrangement, sound design, etc), and ‘idea’ sessions. There is a certain state of mind that works for finding and sparking ideas (for us) and it’s generally a more playful process. Our idea sessions typically begin with a loose concept in mind, such as ‘Let’s make a hip house track’. This provides us with enough direction to get started and what to start looking for. For instance, we might start by checking out ‘I’ll House You’ by the Jungle Brothers on YouTube, allowing the platform’s recommendations to lead us further. By following these threads, we often stumble upon something interesting – a single phrase or a tiny sample – that can serve as a catalyst for an entire song.

Once we’ve gathered a handful of ideas (about 4 or 5), we step back and revisit them the next day or in a follow-up session. Taking a break and coming back with fresh ears helps us choose which ideas are worth pursuing.

2. The power of multi-effect plugins

Once we identify a vocal, sample, or key element that we believe will drive the track forward, we like to transform the sound over and over again using Multi-Effect plugins to keep it interesting and to make it our own. Some of our favourites; Cableguys Shaperbox 3, Izotope Stutter Edit, and Sinevibes Fraction. All of these plugins have great presets to get started with and can then be easily tweaked. We find that even the tiniest glitch or stutter can become a new key element for the track.

3. Re-recording a vocal sample

Occasionally, a starting point for a song is a sample pack vocal. There is a risk in this: another artist might release a track using that same sample before we do. This recently happened with our track ‘Energy’ on Dirtybird Records. We found a great vocal sample and planned to use it in the final release. But just a few weeks before the release date, we heard another record using that exact sample. We decided to re-record the vocal and make it our own. Techno Tupac jumped on it and we had a new version with more personality in just a couple of days.

This type of process, remaking a vocal sample puts you more in control of the song outcome and is an opportunity to request ad-libs or slightly different takes, change some lyrics and that will lead to a new end result.

4. Embracing the long-game mentality

Looking back, if there’s one piece of advice we wish we’d fully grasped earlier on, it’s the importance of adopting a long-term perspective. To those of you who are just starting out or have only been in the game for a few years, shifting your mindset to focus on the long game will lead to a more committed approach to making music.

Early on we would seek out shortcuts and neglected the importance of investing time in mastering the tools – be it plugins, theory, techniques, or hardware. However, if you’re truly passionate about music, dedicating time to grasp the fundamentals is invaluable. This means diving deep into your DAW, exploring tutorials on your favourite plugins, and committing to continuous learning.

5. Focus on your weaknesses

It’s natural to gravitate towards our strengths, we’ve certainly fallen into that trap ourselves. Whether it’s sound design, mixing, or composition, it’s easy to stick to what you know best. However, relying solely on our strengths led us to being comfortable with where our music at.

In 2020 we identified some of our weaknesses as producers and then set out to learn more in those areas. For us, these areas included mixing, sound design, builds & breakdowns. We found specific tutorials online and focused on refining our skills in these areas. We still have a lot to learn but by being proactive and studying our weaknesses our songs started to round out and become stronger in those areas.

Smalltown DJs ‘Acid Funk’ is out now via DIRTYBIRD. Stream and download here.

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