As annoying as it is, the old adage “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance” holds true every time. But it needn’t be laborious – the key is to make things simple and, more importantly, fun. The first step in finishing tracks faster is mapping out your structure and arrangement.
We can view the empty arrangement as one big problem, for which there are any number of solutions. But problems can be broken down into distinct parts, and we can use templates to do this. Indeed, structuring your tracks before you even get started is a fantastic solution to avoiding the creative block altogether.
Every solid wall, no matter how huge, starts with just one brick. Your job is to lay that first brick as carefully as you can, then the next, and the next. Don’t worry about the wall yet, just make sure each brick is laid perfectly on top of the last. Eventually you can take a step back and admire your solid, sturdy wall.
Break it down
If the track is the ‘problem’, then the key is to break it down into its constituent parts to form templates. Construction engineers don’t start a building without a blueprint and, likewise, it’s a good idea to start your production by mapping out the structure and arrangement first – at least then you’ll know where you’re going. After that it’s simply a case of filling in the blanks.
Mapping the structure and arrangement of a track before you’ve even started writing it can seem strange, and sometimes even intimidating. You may be asking, “How the heck am I supposed to know how I’m going to end a track, if I haven’t even come up with the start?” Fear not – we’re going to start by immediately eliminating the guesswork.
Beg, borrow, steal
Steve Jobs famously misquoted Picasso when he said:
“…good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
It is believed that this was inspired by the words of T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal…” Either way, they’re getting at the same point. It’s ok to take something, get inspired by it and make it your own, adding your own flare. That’s not stealing, that’s inspiration…that’s templates.
No one starts with a blank page. Even if you think you have, you definitely haven’t, something will have made its way into your brain on a subconscious level without you even realising. Just look at hip hop and the majority of electronic music – ‘sampling’ defined both genres, they were simply more honest about it.
A really quick and solid way to map out your structure and arrangement is by copying that of another track:
Choose a track that you like, preferably one in a similar style, feel or tempo that you’re aiming to create. Listen to the track, I mean really listen to it.
Analyse the structure and arrangement and look for patterns. Where possible, I select a track with the tempo I’m looking for and place it in the arrange window of my DAW.
Next, I analyse the tempo of the track using a BPM analysis plugin (most DAWs have these, for example BPM Counter in Logic, found in Utilities in the plugin dropdown).
I then set the project tempo to match and sync the metronome of the project with the track, shifting it slightly until it’s totally locked in.
Now you can create markers for each new section within the music. For example, ‘Verse, Bridge, Chorus…’ or ‘ABAC…’, whatever works for you.
Once you get to the end, zoom out and view your completed structure map – huzzah! A template. You can even mute and hide the guide track – I recommend ‘hiding’ it so that you can reveal it again as a point of reference later (simply click CTRL+H).
Listen and learn
You see, the track’s composer has already done the hard work for you! They’ve tested their structure and arrangement with audiences, online, in clubs etc. over and over again, and already optimised them for the best audience response.
It’s not cheating, it’s simply working smart using templates. Most people didn’t build their own houses, but it doesn’t stop them from living in them every day without worrying about the DPC level or the depth of the cavity wall insulation.
Now that you have the markers in place, it’s a useful exercise to listen to the arrangement and instrumentation again with these in view.
Ask yourself, for example:
- What techniques are used to build from intro to verse?
- How does the artist go about creating tension?
- What elements make up the breakdown?
- Do the drums drop out at any point?
Once you’ve asked these kinds of questions and observed the results, take note. These points form a really valuable list of creative ideas for your own compositions.
Rinse and repeat
This structure map is now a fantastic template for writing your own tracks. After all, structures aren’t the same as melodies – no one’s going to sue you for using the same structure! If that was possible, the pop industry would be even more corrupt than it is now.
Save this marked out project as a template and re-use it as many times as you like!
Don’t forget, every track is different. When writing using a template structure, if you feel that something needs to change, go for it. The main objective is control and inspiration – you can add/delete/amend to taste, this just gets the ball rolling and avoids the issues of the ‘blank page’.
You can even map out transitions such as noise builds, risers, cymbal hits etc. in advance, as these elements are often required in almost every track…definitely beats constructing them over and over again.
Master your structure and arrangement
Once you’ve analysed a number of tracks, you’ll see a lot of patterns. Not naming names, but many artists use the same proven structure and arrangement over and over again, and why not? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say.
What else can you use from the work of others? What else can you take as inspiration? The possibilities are endless. Remember, stealing from one person is stealing, but stealing from many people is research!
By analysing existing material in this way and creating templates, you’re freeing up your own creativity by preparing in advance. You don’t even have to make difficult choices, as someone has already made these for you. You can just get on with being inspired and getting creative.
Join the course
This article is part of my course: Finish Tracks Faster: The Ultimate Guide. For a whole series on conquering your creative block, finishing tracks and becoming a prolific creator, join today for free: