This post is for music producers and singer songwriters who want to improve their music production workflow and need a little help:
- getting started;
- keeping momentum; and
- finishing tracks.
If you rarely struggle with a blank page and have no problem knowing when a song is done and ready to go, skip this one.
1- Knowing where to start
Sometimes we’re not inspired and don’t know how to get going.
Sometimes we’re so inspired and have so much to say and do that we don’t know where to start.
Here are a few techniques you can try to find inspiration or channel your creativity in a positive way.
There are lots of ways you can brainstorm songwriting ideas.
My favorites involve….
Pen and paper: free word associations.
If you need help to get started with this, pick a random word or sentence out of a book or website or newspaper. Or choose a photo or video.
Playing around: improvise on an instrument.
The obvious choice is to improvise on an instrument you’re comfortable with but, if you have access to an instrument you’re less familiar with, don’t hesitate to give that a try as well.
The trick here is to pick ONE technique BEFORE you start a creative session and COMMIT to it.
Pick one, set a timer to 30 minutes and get crackin’!
It’s ok if nothing comes out at first or if everything that does come out sounds like crap. You’ll have plenty of time to edit later. Just get going.
Working within a Box
Again, there are lots of ways you can do this.
I’ve picked my favorites and the ones I think are easiest to get your started (provided you know a little bit about music theory).
Choose a 4 chord sequence or key to write in.
There’s no need to overthink this. Remember, at this stage, we don’t care if anything’s any good or not.
What matters is that you sit down for 30 minutes and create SOMETHING. Anything!
With that in mind, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, pick one of the following 4 keys:
- G major
- C major
- D major
- A major
Once you’ve picked a key, decide on a chord progression.
If you absolutely insist on choosing a minor key, simply go for the relative minor of those listed above.
- E minor
- A minor
- B minor
- F# minor
Again, don’t overthink this. Pick a chord progression that’s comfortable on your instrument and get started!
The goal here is really to smoothen your music production workflow. Limit the roadblocks and get some music out.
If you need a little inspiration, here’s a list of the 5 most popular and common chord progressions on the guitar and a similar list of popular chord progressions for the piano.
Work with a template or reference track
I like to work with templates. In my experience, templates take a lot of the pressure off because they provide a frame that I can work in and around.
Instead of having an entire wall to paint with no instruction for color, shapes or motif, I can focus on painting a smaller canvas with the colors and brushes I’ve been given, with a general sense of whether the work will be figurative or not.
I have 5 Logic Pro templates that I use regularly. For each template, I picked on song I liked and mapped out:
- the song structure (e.g. intro – verse – chorus – verse -chorus – chorus)
- the instrumentation (e.g. guitar lead, guitar rhythm, bass, drums, synth)
- the tempo (e.g. 112 BPM)
- the time signature (e.g. 4/4)
Basically, I map out the architecture of a song and start working the foundations with my own material.
Sometimes, if I’m really not feeling inspired, I’ll practice reproducing the rhythm or chord sequence or melody of a reference track but that’s really just for practice.
That rhythm or melody will never make the final cut BUT may trigger inspiration and lots of new ideas.
Keeping the Creative Momentum Going
One of the worst things that can happen as an artist is to lose momentum right in the middle of an exciting creative project.
Here’s how you can make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
1- Get Rid of Technical Barriers in Your Music Production Workflow
Technical barriers are fairly easy to overcome, make sure you address those first.
Do everything you can to simplify and streamline your songwriting environment.
Work with a (fast) external hard drive.
If you’re producing your own music, make sure your computer doesn’t slow you down.
Less strain on your computer’s hard drive = faster response time = less enforced interruptions.
Limit the number of plugins you use
This will also help with speed.
Less plugins = faster loading time = less lag time to execute a creative idea.
Remember your DAW and all those virtual instruments are just tools to express your creative ideas. They shouldn’t be slowing you down / cramping your style 😉
Have everything ready when you need it
….is another low-hanging fruit when it comes to keeping momentum going in the music studio.
If you can keep your home studio setup nice and simple and ready to use, it will be much easier for you to sit down and get to work whenever you have a little bit of time (more on why that’s important a few paragraphs down…)
2- Get Rid of Mental Barriers that Clog Your Music Production Workflow
Getting rid of mental barriers that stop us in our tracks is hard but not impossible.
Do everything you can to stop putting so much pressure on yourself. You’re not perfect. So what?!
Music is not serious. It’s not meant to hurt you. It’s exists to be loved and enjoyed. To give our lives that extra little bit of color.
With that in mind….
Separate writing from editing
Writing is the place of inspiration and flow. It’s the phase when you don’t care that everything is a draft, you don’t try to make everything perfect. There’s plenty of time for that later.
Editing is a completely different beast. It’s a crucial step of the music production workflow but shouldn’t come too early in the process.
Mixing, then mastering come even later.
Sometimes, we write and edit and mix all at the same time. This is especially true for electronic music producers who do everything “in the box”.
Make sure you have dedicated work sessions for each stage.
Work in short bursts
Another great way to avoid burn out is to organize your work around short creative sessions.
There’s no point staying 3 hours in the studio if your ears are shot after 1 hour listening to the bass line on repeat.
Long hours in the studio is a great way to suffer from decision fatigue and start making all the wrong calls.
Long hours in the studio are the reason why you go to bed thinking you’ve just come up with a huge hit and wake up confused when you hear how flat your song actually sounds.
Forget about the outside world.
The music studio is where the magic happens.
Don’t mess with the magic by thinking of the outside world.
There’s no point trying to anticipate how your song will be received because:
1- you can’t please everyone. Even The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin don’t have everyone nodding in agreement.
2- it’s not that important. What matters is that you’re having fun and/or expressing emotions you couldn’t get out otherwise.
Thinking of the outside world will only kill your momentum in the studio.
To keep momentum going in the music studio, stop second-guessing yourself.
Focus on making the music you feel like making and remember you don’t have to share what you’ve been working on unless you want to.
3- Knowing when to stop
Another tricky step of the creative process is knowing when to stop.
It’s tempting to keep going indefinitely, to add and edit stuff.
Sometimes, you’ll just know a track is done. But more often than not, you won’t.
When that happens, take a look at….
The “Stop or Not” Test
Am I still having fun with this?
Is there anything I can do to improve it RIGHT NOW? (no excuses)
Is the last version of the song better than the ones that came before?
If you answered “No” to any of the questions above, it’s time to give up on the track. For now at least….
I recommend filing it in a dedicated “Maybe for Later” folder. You can re-visit that folder once or twice a year when you need inspiration.
Take a Break
Answering the “Stop or Not” test honestly is not always easy.
Here’s another question that you can ask yourself and answer objectively:
How much time have I spent in the studio working on this song?
If you’ve worked on a song for more than 15 sessions or 30 hours, take a break.
Chances are you need to take a step back before you can have a big breakthrough.
Again, file under a dedicated “Maybe for Later” folder and move on.
Don’t Anticipate How Others Will Judge Your Music
Finally, if you’re really not able to let go of a song you’re not making real progress with, ask yourself:
Why am I not letting go?
What am I afraid of?
Why have I not finished and released this song yet?
Not enough gear can’t be an excuse. Not enough time is not a good excuse either.
Dig deeper than that.
Very often, the answer to those questions has something to do with feelings of insecurity, fear of not being good enough, fear of failure.
If you find that’s the case for you, here are a few choice quotes to give you some strength and energy to push through and move forward anyway 🙂
The bottom line is, if you want to be happy making music, you must learn how to make music for you. The rest will follow.
To help you with that, here’s the Music Production Workflow Checklist.