Thankfully, Chris Lyth is on hand with some tips for streamlining your studio technique
If you produce electronic music, the chances are pretty high that you have a hard drive straining with dozens, if not hundreds of unfinished tracks. Having spoken to many producers about this, it seems the act of finishing a piece of music proves somewhat elusive for many people. But sitting on multiple unfinished projects can feel like a millstone around our necks, and the thought of this can make starting yet another project feel intimidating.
Often we fear that if we haven't agonised about every last detail of the track for weeks, our artistic process is somehow unworthy and we aren't trying hard enough. Yet the truth is that time and effort are rarely reliable predictors of quality.
In some cases, especially with producers who have been in the game for a long time, standards are set ever higher as the years go by, making it difficult to live up to those self-imposed benchmarks. Judgment comes calling a little too quickly, and another promising idea ends up being cast aside.
The pattern, it seems, is familiar. At the start your track sounds exciting and full of promise, but as you progress doubts start to raise their heads, and slowly but surely you become discouraged and the spark is lost.
So with that in mind, let's attempt to find a way around some of these roadblocks...
1. Don't be so hard on yourself
Not every track that you finish will be a stone-cold killer. Even The Beatles and Aphex Twin have their off days; so does every writer, painter, sculptor etc. The great tracks are rare and all artists will have a graveyard of work that's never quite made the grade. The key is to complete the project and move on to the next one.
2. Don't become numb to your own idea
No matter how great an idea is, if we hear something looping for hours and days we will gradually start to dislike it, then start changing it and generally destroy the idea. So it makes sense to get our ideas recorded as quickly as possible. Think of your arrangement as soon as possible and think lengthways - progress the track along the timeline rather than looping and adding parts. This will give you the feeling that the track is progressing and that the momentum is with you. It will also keep your arrangement from becoming bloated.
3. Give yourself a deadline
Nothing motivates like a deadline, so give yourself a strict deadline and stick to it. Getting into the frame of mind of finishing is important. Part of being creative is about making decisions, and procrastination will often lead to self-doubt and other time-wasting behaviours. Make your decision quickly, when the idea is good, commit fully to that idea and render it to audio.
Work fast: for example, try to program a beat in 90 seconds. Then do another one. Do this for ten minutes, then do the same with basslines, then move on to melodic ideas. Within the space of under an hour you will have generated a lot of material. Some bits will be better than others, so be a magpie and steal the best and shiniest from your ideas pot and then quickly jam out an arrangement. Where possible, keep the creation and mixing/ production processes separate.
4. Don't feel responsible to your audience
A record label perhaps may say that you have a duty to suit what the market demands, but in truth your only responsibility is to soundtrack your own thoughts and feelings. Also, it's impossible to imagine what your audience will respond positively to. It could be they think that quick groove you knocked up in 15 minutes is the best thing they have ever heard and that epic you have been perfecting for eight months is an unlistenable dirge. There is no linear relationship between musical effort and musical enjoyment. The private space that exists between the music and the listener is absolutely individual and impossible to second guess.
5. Focus on the job in hand
Turn off phones, Facebook and Twitter, and anything else that tends to distract you. And make sure everything in your studio is working as it should - nothing should stop you realising the potential of your session.
6. Paint with broad strokes first
The real genesis of an idea can be short, so we must work fast to unleash all of our ideas. This is not the time to start EQing a hi-hat or questioning the validity of the idea. Work broadly, and get all your beats, melodies and musical parts down as quickly as possible. Record everything, tweak synths and FX, and jam out multiple versions of rhythms and lines with subtle differences. Then you can go back and fine-tune it all!
7. Declutter your toolbox
With modern DAWs giving us a field of almost limitless possibilities, the desire to constantly refine low-level details can often get in the way of decisively committing to an idea. If you find this to be an issue, try limiting yourself to just a few essential tools to remove the infinite possibility spiral.
8. Work to a template
Build yourself a "straight to work template" pre-loaded with your favourite sounds and plugins. Make sure you are prepared so you don't have to go searching through your hard drive for a particular sound, as this will dampen your inspiration. Pre-organise your working environment so you can capture your creative impulses quickly and all your energies are devoted to that alone. The value of a highly customised template can't be underestimated.
9. Create an arrangement scaffolding
Good arrangements require us to have a sense of musical objectivity, which when we are engrossed in an idea can be frustratingly elusive. We’ve all been there: should this riff go on for another 16 bars? There’s often a fine line between hypnotic genius and tedium, and it’s a line which many producers have crossed at some point or other.
To avoid this, find a track that's similar in genre to yours that you think has a compelling arrangement. Copy the track into your DAW and tempo-match it so that your beat grid aligns. When something occurs in the scaffold track, make a cut and label it along the timeline. As the track, progresses it may go: Intro - Drums - Verse - Break - 303 Enters - etc. What you will now have is an idea for an arrangement which will likely have fairly formal arrangement divisions in 8-, 16- and 32-bar sections. You can then use this arrangement scaffolding as a framework for your own parts - it *is only a scaffolding, as it will be taken down so that the music behind it will be what stands.
10. Create a 'bits and bobs' file
Make sure that if a track is cast aside, your time is not wasted by rendering all the good parts to audio and saving them in a file of out-takes and odds-and-ends. That part that was great but not quite right may slot in perfectly next time!
Some of these techniques may work for you better than others. Changing around our workflow from time to time can help us escape the habitual thought patterns that start to feel stale and narrow after a while. Ultimately there's no universal best practice - only the one that serves your imagination best.
Words: Chris Lyth Pic: Alex Regan/Creative Commons