Before I outline the solutions that I use to finish tracks, it's useful to address the problems. Let’s face it, most of us don’t make great choices when we’re in the moment. I know it’s not a good idea for me to go the supermarket when I’m hungry - it’s likely that I’ll make some poor choices.
I’ll get a whiff of the pastries or I’ll see the triple choc cookies and it’s difficult not to reach out. I don’t trust future Luke at all, so I prefer to make decisions in advance, designing and implementing failsafes wherever I can. Examples include:
- Batch meal preparation - Whenever possible, at the start of each week, I plan and make all my lunches (and, if possible, evening meals) in advance so that my gut is doing as little thinking as possible.
- Disabling WiFi - I try to turn off the internet when I’m writing/mixing to eliminate distractions, or before I know it I’m checking my Facebook feed, clicking a video link, watching a suggested video on YouTube, and so on down the rabbit hole...what was I working on again?
- Diarising work/practice/play - I know that on Monday at 6pm I’m either hiking or out on my mountain bike, I don’t have to think about it. Sometimes I even try to set aside time to be spontaneous...your partner will really love it, trust me...ahem.
I could go on - you get the picture. What has this got to do with music production I hear you ask? Well, in a word, everything - if you want to be productive, that is.
If you’re mostly in love with the process and you prefer to meander and move with the ethereal ebb & flow that’s totally fine - I have full respect for that - although personally I have a real need to finish tracks.
It has a profound affect on me both psychologically and physically when I complete a track because:
- I feel a huge sense of achievement (and relief!) and my confidence as an artist and engineer increases;
- I’m instantly motivated to start the next track;
- I’ve learned a great deal from the whole process and I’m excited to apply my knew knowledge or experience.
Ultimately I know that, whether or not I’m totally happy with what I’ve produced, it’s another product to add to the portfolio. The simple act of finishing means I’m even more likely to finish the next, and so the perpetual cycle continues for the better.
Indeed, the opposite is also true if I don’t finish tracks: I don’t feel motivated, I start to doubt myself (or at least my ideas), I have less experience to take forward and there is a danger that I’ll spiral into almost complete writer’s block.
We all know the feeling, and it’s not fun. The good news is there are simple measures that you can put in place now, in advance, to prevent this cycle from happening.
Know Your Role
If you’re a one-man band you need to wear different hats, but that doesn’t mean you have to wear them all at the same time. It’s good to get into the habit of separating your skillsets.
For example, many people ‘produce’ music by opening up their DAW, building some drum parts (whether sampled, synthesised, or both), EQing the kick for while, building a bass sound from scratch, writing a bass part, building a chord patch...and so on.
This process is fine if you’re experienced, but it can take up a lot of energy, especially if you’re not 100% happy with one particular part.
We all know the situation where you walk back into the studio the next day, fire up the system and wait with baited breath to review the painstaking work of the day before, only to be disappointed. It’s not the same, it doesn’t have the same energy, the melody doesn’t quite sit right, and so on.
In all honesty there probably is a good idea in there somewhere, but you didn’t give it the time, space or respect it needed because you were too busy setting up all of the sidechain routing or tweaking the arpeggiator.
As I said, we’ve all been there and you’re not alone.
Stop, Rinse, Repeat
As romantic as the process of writing music appears, there is a lot of repetition. A heck of a lot of repetition in actual fact.
Let’s actually stop and think for a moment.
Go ahead and add up all of the seconds you spend opening a blank project in your DAW and setting the tempo. Then delving into folders for the same handful of kick samples that you always end up coming back to. Then digging around for a clap sound that compliments it, dragging it in and copying it in place...
Then tinkering with a bass sound only to arrive at the same old tone that isn’t quite perfect. Then thinking it would be good to add some swing with a shaker. Then searching around for HAT_022 from your favourite sample library but it’s on another hard drive. Then...what genre is it again?
Let’s put an end to this, shall we? As much as you like to think that the next track you write is going to be unique and original in every way, how about you admit to yourself that it’s not actually going to happen?
We’re creatures of habit, we reach for the same proven tools, so why not embrace it? Don’t shy away from this, it’s not a weakness. On the contrary, it can be your greatest strength.
The key to writing a great track is producing loads and loads of crap ones first. It’s that simple.
Finish tracks, learn what worked, forget what didn’t, and hone the good bits even further. Before you know it, you’ll have your own sound. You don’t start out original - originality will find you eventually.
Harness Your Inner Schizophrenia
You hear many ‘successful’ producers explain that they are able to finish tracks in a week, or even a single day (à la Nicky Romero). This doesn’t seem believable (in all honesty, I don’t believe the 1-dayer story*), but there are steps that you can take to speed up the production process.
Successful composers have these steps in place, they’ve mastered the process and, fundamentally, they know their own weaknesses. Let’s revisit the hat analogy for a moment (bear with me) - these are mine:
At any one moment I’m wearing one of these colourful skull garments. At first glance you may be wondering why I’m not simply bundling Mixing and Mastering into the umbrella of ‘Engineering’ - and you’re right to ask this.
I make a clear distinction between Engineering, Mixing and Mastering as, for me, these hold distinct approaches and philosophies. By compartmentalising these areas, I have found this to be the most effective and productive method to achieve progress in the least amount of time.
As an example, let’s start with the first one: playing the role of the Engineer. The key element to remember is task batching. Don’t worry about the bigger picture, concentrate on the micro and the macro will take care of itself.Concentrate on the micro and the macro will take care of itself.Click To Tweet
So, for example, on a Tuesday evening I may sit down and concentrate purely on sound design.
The goal here is to generate a series of presets that can be used at a later date. I call up my favourite soft synth and begin to generate a chord sound from scratch. Once I’m happy with it I save the sound as a preset and move on to the next.
It’s easy to get sucked into the writing process at this point, as you may get inspired by the chord or sound you create, but it’s crucial that you keep moving. NEXT SOUND. I may create 10 presets in an evening, I may create 30, it doesn’t matter - once it’s time to stop, I’m done. Time to call it a night.
You can follow this process for sampling too. For example, on Wednesday night I might browse the net looking for drum sounds. There are so many free packs available if you know where to look, and I may want to purchase some packs - that’s fine too. I catalogue and organise them so that I know where to look when I’m ready to write, and that’s it again, time to call it another night.
There’s no mental fatigue with this ‘technique’. No procrastination, each part just simply gets done. I don’t worry about the end goal as I’m confident that it will all work out and I'll finish tracks. This is because once this initial science is completed, I’m free to be creative, to be an artist.
I know that when it comes to sitting down to compose something I have all my sounds ready for action and I don’t have to go hunting or experimenting - it’s all good to go.
Move On And Finish Tracks
Sure, I concede that it is possible for the universe to align and you’re inexplicably able to write an entire track in six hours with ease, with every constituent part inspiring another, everything flowing and the piece seeming to somehow 'write itself' with eerie serendipity.
But that doesn’t happen often for most of us, if at all [sidenote: read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield which perfectly articulates this issue in depth].
The key to writing good tracks, like in any creative exploit, is consistently stepping up to the plate. Indeed, as Woody Allen said, 80% of success is showing up.80% of success is showing up - Woody AllenClick To Tweet
You need to get in that studio each day (or as often as you can) and just work. Eventually you will hit a flow state and it will pay off - you just need to be persistent, which is where most people fall off the wagon.
Above all, by implementing this approach you’ll eliminate procrastination, achieve your goals one at a time and, ultimately, finish tracks. It’s essential to limit yourself in this way, to set boundaries and focus on one thing at a time. It’s extremely difficult to be an artist and a scientist at the same time.
Of course, music production is probably the closest field to a ‘creative science’, but it doesn’t mean you have to do everything at once. By the same token, it’s absolutely key that you are able to set yourself deadlines and reward yourself at every stage.
As I mentioned earlier, aim to achieve one thing at a time. Tell yourself, “Tonight I’m just going to create ten lead sounds, and that’s it." Then move on.
For concrete methods and techniques that will put an end to writer’s block, unleash your creativity and help you to finish tracks, check out my series on templates.
*Don’t believe that every guy you see is working alone. Many ‘producers’ have a team of people around them. How do you think they’re able to be so prolific? They may write the parts, but they may well have a sound designer, a mixer, a mastering engineer and so on. They may even - dare I say it - outsource the writing. Music is a business, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with it.