Update: The Ultralearning Experiment has finished and it was a huge success so click here to skip down to the Results section!
I am embarking on one of the biggest challenges of my life (check out this post to learn more).
To kick this project off, I am dedicating three months to an ultralearning project and this page will document my progress.
If you don’t know what ultralearning is, check out this podcast episode before proceeding.
My ultimate goal is to release a 10-song album that I’ve written and produced myself (this goal can be broken down into smaller goals of releasing a 7-song album, 4-song EP, or 1-song single).
That’s not my goal for this ultralearning project though…
The goal for this project is to just accelerate down the path I’m already on.
After years of feeling like I was stumbling around in the dark and bouncing off walls, I finally feel like I’m out of the darkness and am moving slowly in the right direction.
The problem is though, I feel like I’m only moving at 5mph so progress is slow and it isn’t as enjoyable as it could be yet.
My goal with the ultralearning project is to simply bump up my speed from 5mph to 15mph so that I at least can experience a cool breeze on my face and feel like I’m making more progress (so that I enjoy the journey a lot more).
Writing, recording, and releasing music is something I hope to do for the rest of my life, so this is not something that I plan to stop once the ultralearning project finishes or I release my first album. It would be nice to start progressing faster than I currently am though.
I have blocked off all of September, October, and November of 2019 for this project and since I don’t have a full-time job or any other obligations, I should be able to devote a lot of time over those months to this.
I’ve already started working with a local producer so that I can improve my skills on the recording/production side of things.
I plan to immerse myself in the music I want to create and will be dissecting works from my favorite artists to see what I can learn from them.
I also plan on using YouTube and other online resources to pick up recording/mixing skills, as needed.
The primary driver of this project though will be directness – I will write and produce as many songs as I can, while getting corrective feedback on what I produce.
- Sound Design
Direct Practice Activities
Write, record, and mix my own songs (I have someone who can master my recordings for me so that’s a skillset I’m not even going to worry about at this stage).
- Syntorial – Synthesizer software that helps you become better at sound design
- Audible Genius – Software that teaches skills useful for music creation
- Analyze and rerecord favorite songs
- Complete unheard songs by favorite artists (e.g. listen to the verse and try to write a chorus for the song before hearing the actual chorus)
- Write melodies for favorite instrumental songs
- Write sonnets (supposedly good practice for writing lyrics)
- Recreate favorite synth patches
- Pay a professional to mix and master one of my songs while sitting in on the session to see how they do it
- Take a weekend course on mixing/mastering at a local recording studio
I have created a spreadsheet to log my hours and activities.
The columns are ordered in order of directness (i.e. the most direct and important tasks are on the left).
Updates to Plan
After speaking with Scott, I realized that I didn’t really define my scope properly so here’s my new one…
Write a dancy, uptempo, synth-based song with minor tonality.
Spend five hours per day, five days a week on the project.
- Aug 28 – Finished plan and sent to Scott Young prior to interview.
- Aug 30 – Talked to Scott and clarified a few things. He suggested I limit the scope of my project, which made sense and made me feel less intimidated. Really excited about project now (instead of dreading it).
- Aug 31 – Created time log spreadsheet for project, listing out all the types of tasks I can complete.
- Sep 1 – Excited to start, really happy about limiting scope, and time logging seems like it’s going to be motivating. I have a bunch of different activities lined up so I’ll try to do the hard stuff first but will fill in the time with easier stuff when I lose motivation.
- Sep 2 – Realized how long 5 hours is yesterday so woke up really overwhelmed this morning. Luckily just got to work with my coffee, like normal. Started working on a cover song but came up with something interesting and unique so decided to scrap the cover and write an original instead. Song has a lot of feeling and melody-writing is easier than normal for this one, thankfully.
- Sep 11 – Made good progress over a few days but a few things came up (need to buy a new car) so I haven’t been hitting my hours. Feel like I’m progressing though so now I just need to start increasing the amount of time I’m spending doing it.
- Sep 14 – Scheduled a lesson with a local producer for next week. Going to get him to remix and remaster the cover song I did a while ago that I’m happy with from a songwriting standpoint but I’m still not happy with production-wise (sounds muddy on some speakers and isn’t as crisp and powerful as I know it can be). The plan is to let him mix and master it while I’m in the room with him. Then, I’m going to go home and try to mix and master it myself, using the notes I took while watching him, and see how closely I can get my mix to sound like his.
- Sep 16 – Great biproduct of this ultralearning project is I’m getting more accomplished in other areas of my life. Since I feel like time is scarce again, I’m using my non-music time much more efficiently and effectively.
- Sep 17 – The production lesson today was incredibly helpful! When I’ve been producing music, I’ve been in my head 100% thinking about everything I’ve read/watched/learned/etc. and am using my brain to come up with what I should do but when I watched him mixing my track, he just used his ears and tweaked things until they sounded great. It seems obvious I should use my ears instead of my brain but it took seeing him do it to realize that! The track is already sounding so much better so I’m excited for our next two-hour session to hopefully finish the entire mix.
- Sep 24 – My second production lesson was today but I wasn’t as happy with how the changes sounded. Good news is, I came home and started making my own adjustments, using my ears, and started moving things back in the right direction.
- Sep 26 – After doing a lot of work on the cover song, I’ve got things sounding really good again so happy to learn I had the skills to fix the issues I heard and excited to get the song mastered next week.
- Sep 27 – I decided to forget about my 5-day week and instead will spread my 25 hours over the entire week. I want this to be a daily practice so spreading the hours out over the week has been useful and has taken the pressure off a bit, since I don’t have to hit as many hours in a single day. I’ve been putting in a lot of hours though and have been feeling more confident. Going to adjust my plan for month two to focus more on the specific goal of creating a single, uptempo song. Need to put together drum sounds, synth patches, etc. and make as many songs with those tools as possible (plan to take sound design out of my list of tasks for month three so that I can focus on the songwriting). Need to focus all effort on the specific type of music I want to make and since I already did a fair amount of drills, need to now focus more on direct practice.
- Sep 30 – Didn’t hit my 5 hours per day for 5 days a week but exceeded 4 hours per day so not too far off. Building momentum so I’ll hopefully make up for that time in month two.
- Oct 1 – Had my final production lesson today so I got to watch him master the cover song I’ve been working on (TE). Although I plan to pay a professional to master any music I create in the future, it was still great to watch someone do it. The song is sounding fantastic so I can’t wait to release it and replace the version that is already out there. First though, I’m going to try to master it myself and see how closely I can get to the version he created.
- Oct 9 – Cover song is done and is so much better than my original version. I became obsessed with it and it took over my week (I even worked more than eleven hours on it one day)! Now that it’s done, I’m not sure what to work on next so I took stock of my existing songs that aren’t finished and started planning rest of the month (need to make it fun because confidence still isn’t there yet).
- Oct 10 – Getting more specific with my tasks for the next day so that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking and instead just get straight to work.
- Oct 11 – Got inspired by a song I heard so going to attempt to recreate synth sounds and make a similar original song from scratch. Currently exceeding my hours for the month so at least I’m putting in the time and am making progress. I uploaded the cover song to DistroKid so I’m excited for that to be processed so that I can take down the old version.
- Oct 15 – Halfway through the ultralearning experiment and things are going well. This project has definitely forced me to put a lot more time in and I can see that I’m progressing faster because I’m working at it more. Looking back, it’s now obvious why I felt like I was progressing very slowly before…because I was hardly putting any time/work in! Going forward, I need to worry less about creating the perfect song and focus more on just finishing as many songs as I can. A musician I really respect named Rafter told me that the best way to write a great song is to write 100 songs so I need to put that advice into practice.
- Oct 17 – Confidence still isn’t there so going to focus on deconstructing my favorite songs in the style/tempo of the song I want to write.
- Oct 18 – Tried to write the chorus of an unheard song from one of my favorite bands and I actually got really close! My rhythm was a bit different but I chose the same synth line and vocal melody notes so I must be making progress!
- Oct 20 – I’ve been gradually slacking with my strict social media/web surfing rules and I can feel my brain has regressed back into the junkie state where I’m constantly looking for the next internet hit. I decided that I need to go back to my strict social medial rules (only consume that stuff on Saturdays and don’t touch it at all for the rest of the week, except for replying to messages).
- Oct 21 – Confidence still isn’t there so I’m still spending most of my time deconstructing my favorite songs. This has actually been very beneficial because I’m adding some new tools to my toolbox and I’m understanding how simple and similar some of my favorite songs actually are.
- Oct 22 – Since I cut out social media completely, it’s making me use my unproductive downtime to watch music-related YouTube vidoes instead. This resulted in me finding a new YouTube channel that seems really good and has already taught me good tips for creating crisp, digital bass sounds and mixing sub basses. Although YouTube is passive learning, and I’m trying to do less of that, it’s still useful because I do pick up some great ideas every once in a while.
- Oct 23 – When recreating one of my favorite songs, I realized I really liked the structure of it so I’m going to try to create a song with that exact structure and types of instruments. I created a new project for this song and I filled in all the slots with blank clips so it looks like a spreadsheet with different color cells (now, I just need to go in and turn those empty clips into music). I’m very excited about this because now it feels like solving a problem rather than creating something out of thin air! And after just a couple of days of cutting out social media, my brain feels completely different again and I’m able to concentrate so much better. Amazing the difference it makes cutting all that nonsense out.
- Oct 24 – I sat down this morning to recreate another of my favorite songs but my internet was down for some reason so I couldn’t listen to the song. Instead, I ended up diving into the original song I was writing and I wrote for over 3 hours straight and actually finished most of the song!! I really can’t believe it! It finally feels like I can actually do this! Even though I felt like I was progressing last week, I still didn’t actually believe I could do it. Today though, I really believe and that made me excited to keep going for the rest of the day. It’s only dinner time and yet I’ve already exceeded my 5-hour target and I’m still going. This is what I was hoping for! This quote just came in from a James Clear email today and seemed like good timing, considering today’s breakthrough…”A good choice may go unrewarded for a long time. The best choices tend to provide exponential returns and a hallmark of any compounding process is that the greatest rewards are delayed. Things don’t really take off until years later. Keep working. Be patient.“
- Oct 29 – Came up with vocal melodies for all parts of my new song (AS) and I actually like them!
- Oct 31 – Used vocoder for vocal parts (allows me to tweak melodies and not get sick of hearing voice). Arranged whole song and it’s complete (can’t believe it)! Hit my hours target for the month too! Really can’t believe how productive this ultralearning project has been so far. May actually get a releasable song out of it (which was the dream scenario when I started).
- Nov 9 – Had my first day at the mixing and mastering course in Glasgow and it was a ton of great information! A lot to take in but I’m already really happy I decided to do it.
- Nov 10 – Second day of Mixing/Mastering course was just as good as the first and I’m definitely happy I did it. Met some nice people with similar interests so hopefully keep in touch with Sam and pass music back and forth with him. This really highlighted how it’s worth spending money on personal development because it allows you to level up much quicker than you would otherwise (thanks for making me less cheap, Ramit!)
- Nov 12 – Went through the notes I got from the course and learned a lot from them as well so the course was a huge success. Got a big disount on FabFilter plugins that I was going to buy anyway so that made the course even cheaper.
- Nov 14 – Remixed and remastered my Sonic Youth cover using what I learned in the course. It’s amazing how much more confident I feel and now I know how to use all the tools properly so I know how to fix issues when I find them.
- Nov 27 – Found a production studio in Glasgow that you can book out by the hour so I went in there for three hours today to mix on the studio monitors and to record vocals. The original song (AS) sounded great on the studio speakers and so did the Sonic Youth cover (TE) so really encouraging! I’ll probably book the studio again next week to finish off the vocals and the mix (hopefully).
- Nov 28 – Tried to sit down and write lyrics for AS but I underestimated how hard that was going to be. I’ve completely ignored lyric-writing because I thought it would be easy but it’s anything but. Really disheartened because I felt like I was close to the finish line for this song but now I feel miles away again.
- Nov 29 – Decided I was putting too much pressure on myself for lyrics (most of the songs I like are nonsense) so I’m going to keep trying and will hopefully still be able to finish this song before we start our big trip to the States next month.
- Nov 30 – November has been a blur. I hardly did any video lessons or “passive” activities because I’ve been so busy working on my original song (AS). It’s crazy how fun it’s been now I’ve gotten over the hurdle of “can I actually write a song”. The song structure for AS has been there from the beginning so I’ve just been focused on making it better, which has been a lot of fun. Really hope I can get it finished and am happy enough with it to release it!
- Dec 4 – Finished the lyrics for AS and although they aren’t great, they aren’t terrible so I need to be okay with “not perfect”. Heading into the studio today to try to record vocals and finish everything off. Almost there, hopefully!
- Dec 9 – Finished my hours, finished the song (!!!), showed it to Jill (she was really impressed)!
- Dec 10 – Worked a lot on remixing AS after hearing it in the car and now it sounds done. Can’t believe it! So excited to share with Brian to see what he thinks!
- Dec 11-Mar 23 – No log entries during this time because we moved out of our apartment in Edinburgh and headed to the States for a two-month trip. There was sadly still too much to do on my original song (AS) to release it so I postponed the release until 2020.
- Mar 24 – Got new monitors delivered and set up studio in our new Edinburgh apartment. Since my first Ultralearning Experiment was so productive, decided to start another one.
- Mar 25 – New studio is amazing, having more fun than ever, and making great progress! This music project has been such a blessing during these insane COVID times.
- Apr 2 – Put finishing touches on Sonic Youth remix (TE). Sounds so much better than original versions so my production skills must be getting better!
- Apr 3 – Submitted TE to music Facebook group for feedback. Scared!
- Apr 4 – Got great feedback (especially on production quality and vocal mix, which were the two things I was worried about most). Here’s some of the feedback I got: “Hey Brandon, great to hear what you’re up to, its really cool! I haven’t listened to the original yet but I like Sonic Youth and this really doesn’t sound like them, I wouldn’t have guessed it was them. Thurston sounds more like Trent Reznor in this context which is interesting. The production as a whole is pretty faultless in my opinion, sounds full, even when minimal, nice stereo field, and that synth line at 2mins is so lush/raw! Im struggling to find much to critique other than things that are a pure matter of personal taste… Initially I felt it took a while to get going but on second listen I like the pace. Really inventive.“. And here’s some more feedback from someone else: “Just checked the track out – sounding great man…From the very first moment you can tell that the production quality and mix is super high. That synth sequence is beautifully squelchy…really like that, and the vocal feels like it sits really nicely in the mix to me…At 1m22 – I was definitely not expecting that change of pace!…And again at 2m – I was not expecting that change either! 3 tracks for the price of 1 here! Excellent…The mixdown is really great on the track though, you’ve managed to make all the synths and vocals sit nicely together which is not easy. I really really like this track, so well put together man – great work! :D“
- Apr 8 – Finished SoundGym workouts. Very helpful but time to move on. Finished Sonic Youth remix and shared with Brian. He said he thought it sounded “100% professional”!
- Apr 26 – Shared new mix of original song (AS) with Brian – He liked it! Made a few suggestions to improve the kick and vocals so I’ll make those tweaks tomorrow.
- Apr 27 – Made the changes Brian suggested and sent back to him – Said it sounds great!
- May 2 – Big day! Emailed AS to Michael so first time I shared a song with someone other than Jill or Brian. He replied and said he liked it!
- May 6 – Shared AS with Rafter. Nervous!
- May 7 – Heard back from Rafter!!! Lots of great feedback and said he liked it too!
- May 21 – Shared a new original song (G) with Jill.
- Jun 4 – Just saw that someone added my Sonic Youth cover to their Spotify playlist! After further inspection, seems like it was a way to get more people to listen to their own music :(
- Jun 8 – Feel like I had a big breakthrough with singing technique today. I also progressed quite quickly with a new original idea (BC) and it’s nearly a full song already. Need to remember that I usually hate everything when I’m working on it but then I listen the next day and it’s actually good (just like Mad Fientist writing).
- Jun 22 – Wrote a new demo (P) in a day!
- Jun 23 – Finished P and sent to Brian.
- Jul 4 – Made a big breakthrough on BC chorus! Really liking this song so excited to finish it (been a huge confidence boost working through issues to get to a finished song).
- Jul 5 – Finished the structure for BC! Now I can just produce it and hopefully make it sound great. Really exciting!!
- Jul 12 – Finished the mix for BC, minus proper lyrics and vocals, and it’s definitely my favorite song I wrote yet! Shared with Brian and he really liked it too!
- Jul 15 – Excited to get started on the next song. Usually I would just spend weeks overproducing the last finished song (since I’d be scared to start a new one) but I was more excited to start something new today so that’s a great sign! Just put all five completed songs into a playlist and listened to them all for the first time. So exciting! Could already be an EP. Can’t believe it!
- Aug 12 – Brian is in the studio today to record drums for AS, BC, and G!!
- Aug 15 – Drums sound amazing and elevate AS to a whole new level!
- Aug 16 – Spent all day recording vocals for AS.
- Aug 23 – Finished pre-mix and sent away for mixing!
- Aug 30 – Sat down and wrote ZD in one day!
- Sep 1 – Took Brian’s original idea and made an arrangement and vocal melodies in less than an hour! Feel like I suddenly leveled up this week. Is this the S-curve of progress people talk about? It feels like it is!
- Sep 2 – The Disclosure Twitch stream has been so helpful! I have so much more confidence to just try stuff. Just came up with a cool industrial idea this morning (I). Definitely feels like I may have just leveled up!!! Got back the AS mix. Hated it at first but after speaking to Brian, realize just a few tweaks are needed for it to sound really good (hopefully).
- Sep 4 – Got the second mix back and it’s so much better than the first version! Went back with a few minor suggestions and he implemented them so now I finally have a mix/master I’m happy with!
- Sep 5 – Uploaded AS to DistroKid! First single is ready for release!
- Sep 20 – Busy getting everything ready for the single release and album pre-order. Can’t believe this whole project is going to finally become real on October 2nd!
- Sep 23 – Jill just became the first person to pre-order my album! So crazy this is actually happening!
- Sep 26 – Showed sister-in-law and brother-in-law AS, P, BC, I, and TE and they really liked them all! I was actually less scared to show them than I had expected so I must be happier with the songs than I initially thought!
- Oct 2 – I can’t believe it but I just released my first single and started accepting pre-orders for my album! This experiment has been a huge success and you can hear me discuss everything I learned here!
The experiment exceeded all expectations!
This a graph showing the time I put in during the experiment and the directness of my activities (blue=direct and grey=passive):
After the 3-month experiment finished, I picked back up again in 2020 and continued tracking my time and activities:
And here are the total hours I put in over the past few years:
You can see the Ultralearning Experiment, which started in September of 2019, really helped increase my hours dramatically (besides the 2-month trip we took to the States at the end of 2019/beginning of 2020)!