Everyone's creative juices dry up for a while now and then. But as our resident studio hound Chris Lyth explains below, you can turn those bouts of frustration into a positive...
Writer’s block is something that comes to all artists at some point - although for our purposes, perhaps we should call it ‘composer’s block’, or ‘producer’s block’. A seeming inability to come up with any fresh, creative ideas - or any ideas whatsoever - would appear to be, sadly, just part of the human condition.
But this particular dark cloud, as frustrating as it may seem, does at least come with a silver lining. Of sorts. That's because when you're engaged in any kind of endeavour - artistic or otherwise - taking a step back to reflect is vital, and both productivity and quality can be greatly improved as result.
So let’s get stuck in to how we can make the most of this enforced downtime....
1. Organise your environment
Do you have trouble finding that particular vocal sample? Is your flow disturbed by having to find a cable to plug something in? A vibe can be easily broken by interruption to your creative process, so removing obstacles to your creativity is vital to productive studio sessions. Take time to make a list of what cables you require, go buy them and hook everything up properly. Then take some time to arrange your files and plug-ins properly and create folders for stuff that you use frequently. Make sure that your set-up is clean, clear and intuitive, with everything ready to play and record as soon as inspiration does finally strike.
2. Make yourself at home
Feeling at home in your studio is a prerequisite for your creative focus. Is your chair comfy? Are you able to adjust the lighting to get into the required frame of mind? Surround yourself with things that inspire you - artwork, books, meaningful personal items - and do everything possible to minimise any of the day-to-day stresses while you are in that space. Arrange your time so that you are free from calls. No one is expected to be a monk, but you absolutely do need dedicated time without social media and other digital distractions.
3. Bite-sized chunks
We frequently procrastinate and lose our way because we are intimidated by the workload required to finish a track. So why not employ a stopwatch strategy to tackle this task aversion? Break the tasks down into manageable chunks - such as ‘vocal editing’ or ‘fix snare timing throughout track’ – and give yourself 15 minutes (for example) for each, then move on to the next. Start with the biggest tasks first, not the easy stuff - that way you avoid being fatigued later when dealing with the hard parts. After a few attempts you’ll start to view these processes as being less overbearing and have more confidence to get stuck in.
4. Sample out of your comfort zone
It’s easy, sometimes too easy, to sample music that sounds great already, so try to stretch yourself by sampling something you'd normally never dream of, such as an EDM track or cheesy pop tune. The idea here is to trigger your creativity in a different way. Perhaps you could even design your own manifesto, and follow your own self-determined rules as to how to treat this material. Quite a few producers have told me that some of their favourite sounds have come from dreadful records!
5. Work with others
Making music can, for some, be a solitary endeavour and a second ear can be more valuable than many hours of toil. Working with others, especially those who work outside of your chosen genre, can open you up to new channels of inspiration. You don’t even have to work with the idea of releasing anything - just jam away and immerse yourself in their process. New ways of working can be particularly rewarding and can inspire you to incorporate them into your own working methods.
6. Sketch it out
Try to sketch out your idea on paper before you even set foot in the studio. Sometimes daydreaming outside the studio can bring new thoughts and feelings that wouldn’t normally arrive by flicking through samples on your computer. Having clear ideas makes for faster decision-making: the idea will most likely stray a little, but it will help to focus your process. Sketch out a general vibe, what instruments you will use and a rough arrangement, and keep coming back to it to keep you on course.
7. Build up your personal sample bank
Create material for future tracks by writing and saving new synth presets, creating effect chains, making special FX such as swooshes, crashes etc (all those noises that you end up scrolling through a bought sample pack for!). Why not spend an entire afternoon making pads or reprocessing single drum hits to create your own sounds? All of this sort of work can be done and saved by type (Kick, Percussion, Clap etc) and will sound more like you than any sample pack.
8. Set yourself some limits
Impose a set of self-determined limitations on yourself such as:
• Finish a track in two hours (set yourself targets of 20 minutes for drums, 20 for sound design, 20 for arrangement etc).
• Write a track with one piece of equipment only
• Pretend that your DAW is only capable of running four audio tracks
Limitations force you out of your comfort zone, making you stretch both your creativity and the limits of your instruments. This trick also has the advantage of helping you master your software and/or equipment inside out.
9. Develop a routine
If you read up on most successful artists, they generally have a set creative routine. Some rise at 5am, work for four hours and then do no more, Others only get started in the witching hours. Find a time that works for you, stick to it semi-religiously and try to aim for at least an hour of uninterrupted creative time a day.
10. Nothing risked, nothing gained
It’s important to be willing to make mistakes, as those mistakes can often be the genesis of new and surprising ideas. There’s nothing more inspiring than something great coming from the unexpected, as it helps you find different paths and form different outlooks on making music.
Finally, if you do find yourself at a seeming creative dead end - don’t be too hard on yourself, or start to think that you weren’t cut out for this! I promise you that every artist you admire has struggled for many years to get their productions to the standard they are today. Only through time, constant self-evaluation and hard work will you get there. If you’ve spent a lot of time on a track and it’s not going to see the light of day, don’t despair - you’ve just become better at your craft and will have learned something. Plus there’s every chance a sound or idea can be used at a later date once objectivity has appeared on the horizon.
Right now, though - aren’t you supposed to be tidying up the studio?
Words: Chris Lyth