Why this may be helpful for you
This is about why you need boring productivity techniques when you want to be spontaneous creative. Here, I want to give solid advice about what techniques you might try, because they are working for me. This is part of a series of articles which will run as long as I still have something to offer. I hope you give this train of though a try and it would be awesome to hear/read from you about this. If you’re in the mood for a bit more introduction, check the first article of the series. This fourth article is about having a map as a helping hand to get you back on track. Other authors may call that a “Music Production Process”, so if you want to go deeper and google some other ideas, you should use that search term instead of “map”. One word of credit here for the Music Production Podcast by Brian Funk AKA AfroDJMac who’s episode “Make bad music” and some later episodes inspired me to think about my process/map and let me see that I start too many songs without bringing them to “the Tower of Mastering”. Hi, Brian: Thanks for that! I hope you like my map 🙂
Tip #4: Have a Map in Case You Got Lost
Before I crafted my map, it often was like this:
- I created a cool new sound using tool X. Now, what should I do with it and how does this help on my way to the next song / the next album?
- I created some cool new clips, some cool beats, some cool chord progression. What’s the next step to create a full song from it?
- I downloaded a cool new sample / tool / tutorial. I should make a song using it, but how will the new stuff help me?
- I found / created the perfect preset. To not lose it again I should do what exactly? Write a song using it? Store it into my library? How do I find it if needed?
- This sounds awesome! How can I build a full song with that? Is it enough idea to achieve that?
- … or short: What’s next?
As you can see it is often a big ball of mud. I wanted to go forward but didn’t knew how and sometimes/often had problems to see where this forward is exactly. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a navigator which you can consult about “where am I, where should I go to reach goal X?”. Mind that if you’re in the flow and therefore know exactly what you should do next, do that! Don’t break the flow by thinking too much. It’s cool to see where the flow will bring you, to explore, to set out for new ideas or just having a great time in general. But… if you’re not in the flow and stuck a map may be helpful.
Here is my map which is based on my experience while writing songs and I pulled some input from this article by edmprod (good resource BTW, so check them out). Looking at it, it may be obvious that I not only like to create music but I also like to draw for and play pen-and-paper-rpgs as well. To make it handy in a case of emergency I drew a picture of it and pinned it to my production desk. It should be fun to look at to enjoy using it. It looks like this and you navigate from the bottom to the top:
Headline – “Lost?”
Knowing and confessing that you’re lost is the first step on your journey. Sounds easy but let my say that it’s not when your busy in the rat race. Remember: Being busy is not equal to Being on track. You may be busy running in the wrong direction. The map holds not all the answers to all the questions I described above (so, sue me) but one useful thing to do is enough when you’re lost. So, start a Song Quest will do the trick.
Start here – Welcome to the “Bay of Dilettante”
This is where <insert dramatic sound FX> The Quest starts. I see myself as a dilettante in the nicer / original meaning of the word: I’m not fumbling with something and I’m not incompetent but I did not have formal training regarding song writing and I’m enthusiastic about the topic. The Bay of Dilettante is therefore my place to start the Quest for Glory & Loot(TM).
Everything is good and possible on the “Vast Field of Inspiration”
If you have trouble to come up with inspiration, I’m feeling really sorry for you, because I have many (creative) problems but that was never one of them. My problem is not to find inspiration, because I have more than I could ever manage in my lifetime. Other songs, some rhythm, some riffs, some blogs, some quote, some podcasts, some sounds, some YouTube tutorials, stored Evernote notes, my own library, happy accidents, some graphic designs, glitched videos, even American Presidents … I have inspiration galore. Choosing is the problem here, but I manage that by making it quick: The first one which’s carrying a lot of energy and I’m eager to play with will be good enough.
Broad Direction using the “Sound Palette of Doom”
This is the stage were I build my Palette based on the formally mentioned inspiration: Not only fitting sounds but other fitting musical ideas, melodies, rhythms, counter-melodies, breaks, vocals, basslines, synthlines, hooks, phrases, licks, beats, noises, whatever is cool or interesting. The edmprod.com production pyramide may call this “Composition”. This is close enough for me, even when I’m not using generic sounds but include already some sound design and FX. I set the BPM, I come up with ideas for rhythm and chords. What I usually not do is to fix the key of the song. Why? I just don’t care. I had some thrilling times combining odd chords from different keys and therefore I decided that key doesn’t matter so early in the process. Enough time to tweak it later or just live with dissonances may be cool, too.
Now about the Doom-part: A lot of my songs used to die in this stage. I fiddled and fiddled and because of lacking a map or new ideas they stayed here. Sometimes I had so much ideas in my palette I just didn’t have the heart to kill so many of them that only the best ones remained. Or I didn’t know which of them fit and which not. I unconsciously preferred to killed the whole song over killing some ideas. Strange? Yes, man is a strange animal.
Through the “Swamp of Exhausted Ideas” by the “Road of Song Structure”
Rescuing the song from impending doom by applying a song structure (Arrangement edmprod.com production pyramide). This stage used to be very hard and far away from that straight line I draw into the map. Some songs were easy, because I heard them in my head and I just knew what the next part should be. But a lot of them were just a big pile of sounds / ideas like described in “Sound Palette of Doom”. Nowerdays, I have a simple solution: When short on ideals, I steal from other songs. Often from songs I like, not so often from songs I don’t like but who have an interesting structure. I’m telling myself that I steal like an artist (my Austing Kleon, awesome read!), meaning I don’t copy but I make those songs my own by tweaking, adding, subtracting just as it feels right to me and my style. Ever wrote a blues song? Then you know what I mean. Trying to find a new structure for pop songs, noone had used a thousand times before? Good luck!
These strict parameters and guidelines are keeping my in line during this difficult phase. For you that may be different. Maybe you’re nemesis phase is mixing or coming up with ideas etc. Just saying, that your block may be elsewhere or be a different monster.
To the “Hidden Temple of Transitions & Fills” – Beware of Glitch Monsters
I taught myself that it’s ok for my songs to sound a bit static / boring / predictable until I reach this hidden Temple. I had to learn that piece of wisdom the hard way: It’s ok that those awesome drops, those small but interesting variations, those fills, these room to breathe etc. don’t have to be there at once / in the early stages of the song. I like the more organic sound with lots of small variations, I love to add hardly hearable background noises, groove shadows, glitches and other stuff to my songs. This because I love songs you could listen to a thousand times and still have a chance to notice something new. I hope that my songs fall into that category and here is the place to achieve that.
This is the phase of adding fills and transitions to make the song interesting and less static. This is the phase to do sound design and add glitches. Here it belongs and not earlier. If you have such and idea earlier, that’s totally fine. You don’t want to lose that awesome idea, so record it, add it to the palette and move on. DON’T spend too much time on it while in the early stages. Every thing has its time and those time is here, in this later phase. Here you may fiddle as much as is fun to you (or use Pomodoro to cut the time). You will need this good feelings to prepare the daring journey through the dreaded Mountains of Mixing which comes up next…
Cut Off that Fat in “The Mountains of Mixing”
Let’s face it: If you’re not the born minimalist then your song has too much fat: too many tracks with too many sounds, beats with too many information, audio tracks with too many frequencies, too many ideas battling for the focus / the attention of the listener.
I’m sorry to say that: You will lose many parts of your song to survival of the fittest. Mind that I don’t say survival of the strongest because a song is more than a collection of strong stuff. Just as a RPG party is not made of 6 Fighters (but of Clerics, Thiefs, Wizards and even Bards as well), you need the supporting pieces. Learn from design here: Decided on what needs focus and focus that and nothing else. Again edmprod.com production pyramide has solid advice about Mixing. Cut away what doesn’t fit: Two melody lines, not meant as a counter melody? Merge them or delete one of them or move one line to another part of the song. Maybe bury it in reverb and use it as FX in another part. Cut off those low frequency on the synth or guitar, you have bass for that. Ask yourself: What is this part doing for my song? If the answer is “nothing”, delete it. If the answer is “don’t know”, mute it and listen to your song again. Better off, without it? Delete! Maybe even mute some tracks or parts randomly and listen if the song is better now. You’ll be surprised.
Not ready to do a real delete? Just mute the part and move it out of your way (for example create a group called “attic” and move all your “should delete” stuff there).
On a side note: That is a part where I’m happy that I don’t play in a band anymore. Battleing about frequencies and parts and which instrument is allowed to play what is nothing I’m missing. Try to talk a guitarist to cut bass from his pink floydish sound and you know what I’m talking about.
The Final Destination “Tower of Mastering”
So, the final song is nearly ready. Congratulations about reaching the final stage! Awesome!
I think that this is stage you should not do with a single song but with some songs ready and maybe preparing all of some to release the album. They should sound cool as a group.
As I did not reach this phase very often, I’m afraid I’m not able to give additional advice about mastering. Shame on me, just read the already mention edmprod article and you will find help there. We’re done! YEAH!
How to use the Map to get unstucked
Now, if you have this map and you’re working on a song (I assume, that finishing a song and maybe and album is your goal) and your stuck, ask yourself: Where is this song right now on this map? Is it done regarding the current stage? Let’s go to next stage and to the next step to the Tower of Mastering! If you still need some time on this stage, finde. Just remember to do future steps not now and later.
If you’re done, give yourself XP for it. Having enough XP, you’re on the next level of songwriting. You should be proud about it!
This was a long article, but if you’re still reading this I hope you got some inspiration out of it. If you like my map, want to have your own and think you’re drawing is too bad (it’s not, but this is another topic): I really love to draw, so if you like my style and contact me, I’m happy to craft a map for you. Yes, this is for free as long as I have time left, just let me know.