A minimalist approach to songwriting
A common situation many people fall victim to is that the more tools that you use for your songwriting, the more that can potentially go wrong. This is not to say that tools can not be incredible time savers, but they can also be huge time wasters as well. What I want to share with you is a new way of thinking when it comes to writing and completing songs.
How long does it take you to “prepare” to make a track?
Do you plan this out beforehand or do you just fumble around for the right sample, plugin in, effect, synth, or synth preset during the songwriting process?
Besides all the sounds and effects, how many controllers are you setting up (or attempting to set up)?
Are you struggling with getting hardware up and running in order to simplify your songwriting process?
Are you working with a midi controller or 2? How often does it speed up your songwriting process rather than just giving you a prettier button to push to do pretty much the same thing?
I’m not trying to talk you out of using hardware or software tools, but rather warning you against trying to make everything “look” pretty and “professional” before you get started. This is a mistake myself and many other producers have run up against. Hopefully it will start to break this cycle for those who read and share this blog.
Remember: This is your songwriting time, this isn’t your “sound design, muck around with effects you’ve never used, try to get this damn controller working because everyone says how badass it is” time.
All that stuff needs to be set aside for another time, a time that isn’t devoted to writing and completing songs.
A DJ’ing Analogy
Think in terms of a DJ on stage, with a crowd ready for a great show…
Does a DJ get on stage and then start trying to learn new tools?
Does he think “wow, I think i’m going to read the manual on this new effects unit I just bought”.
Does a DJ think “wow, this is a perfect time to listen to all those tracks I bought on beatport to see what is worth playing”?
Does s/he decide that now is the best time to warp those songs in Ableton?
Of course not!
A proper DJ presents a set using the tools and the songs already familiar to him/her. Even though there are 1000’s of great tools available for DJ’s, common sense tells us that regardless of how amazing some tool might be, it will only take away from the performance to use tools that are unfamiliar to you and probably get you some strange “what the hell is this guy doing?” kind of looks.
This is exactly the way you should look at songwriting….
Only look to tools you are familiar with
Although there are a TON of choices out there (and probably on your hard drive), your best results are dependant on using the tools that are tried and trusted to you. This is not the time to learn a new skill. This is a time to put the skills you have already learned to use.
This one habit will help to build your production vocabulary and also force you to put to use what you know instead of filling your head with more techniques that you aren’t likely to use.
Another huge benefit is that when you hit a roadblock, you have just been shown exactly what it is you need to learn next!
Don’t bother reading manuals or watching videos that you don’t plan on putting to use right now. Why fill your head with information that is likely to be useless to you in this moment? Doesn’t it make more sense to only gather new information when you have run into a problem that needs solving?
This is powerful for 2 reasons:
1. Your focus stays on your music and it’s completion
2. When you learn a new technique that you put to use right away, you get this great feeling of discovery. For you, this is a new world you have opened up. You haven’t let it sit in your head and get stale.
How to get started…
Have a direction
This might seem obvious, but I can’t even count how many times I’ve convinced myself to just “go with the flow”. This, although it can create some magical moments and happy accidents, it’s usually a bad idea when you are in “song completion” mode. Going with the flow is much more of a sound design type mentality. A practice of open minded improvisation. Believe me when I say that this is a powerful way to get inspiring nuggets that can become songs, but a mind in that mode tends to want to continue on that path instead of actually finishing anything. If you do this type of thing during your songwriting time, make sure to set a time limit (i’d say 15 minutes at a time), and make sure you are using a tool you are familiar with. You don’t want to get caught up trying to teach yourself a new skill when you should be using the skills you have to finish songs.
Repeat after me:
“I know enough right now to finish a song”.
Now believe it..
Your “to learn” list
You may not be perfect, and it’s possible your song can suffer on a technical level because of it, but those are technical things that can always be revisited. A song can always be revised, but there is nothing quite like listening back to something you’ve done from start to finish and thinking ” I made this”. When you find limitations in your song, take note and put it on the list of “things to learn”. Keep this list to 3 things tops and make sure to tackle those and put them to use before you add anything new to your list. This should become a sacred practice. Use what you learn as soon as possible. If you don’t plan on putting a new technique to use, take it off your list. “This is really cool” is a completely different list, so don’t get hung up on that. It only stands to overwhelm you with choices and lower your confidence in the tried and true techniques you already know.
What works right now?
I’m talking about things that don’t need to come out of the box and be set up. Once again, What is working right now? What tools are you already comfortable with? If you are an ace at using Ableton’s Impulse, don’t jump onto Drum Racks or Sampler. Yes, those tools are amazing, but they aren’t going to be amazing for you until you’ve learned them. Put it on your “to learn” list and use those new skills on your next project.
During my last remix project, I bypassed all my controllers because they weren’t making my life any easier with completing the track. I even bypassed my studio monitors because my sound card was acting up on me. This just left me, my laptop and a pair of good headphones. I wasn’t even using an asio driver (low latency driver for pc). Although this wasn’t the idea situation, it was liberating to solve technical issues by simply not using what wasn’t working. I worked at using my limitations to my advantage by cutting myself off from too many choices and forcing myself to get to the business of completing my remix.
What do you have that works right now? Use what you’ve got and keep working until you simply have no more workarounds. Only at that point should you take a break from writing and teach yourself the 1 new technique or tool you need to move beyond your roadblock. I guarantee that this new tool or technique will become part of your vocabulary of production resources instead of just idly sitting inside your head filling up space.
I can’t stress this enough. Give yourself the time to get a rough idea of what you are attempting to accomplish. Find some songs that you’ll want to use as references for the mood and arrangement you are looking for. Even if you have a 16 bar loop that you are happy with, being able to reference a completed song will serve to keep you on track and get you past several roadblocks.
If you don’t have any direction, then you are simply sound designing and experimenting. You aren’t songwriting. I am not denying the incredibly importance of experimentation, but rather attempting to keep you from losing focus and ending up with another unfinished idea that will never be heard or enjoyed by others.
Minimize your choices
Once you have a direction and know the basic sound and mood you are going for, it’s time to prepare the tools for the job.
Ask yourself “what is the fastest and easiest way to get the results I want”. Limit yourself to a couple reverbs and delays. Also have your drumkits, swells, reverse cymbals and “go to” fx sounds all ready to go (I personally lose a lot of time by not preparing this stuff ahead of time.. trust me on this one). Layout and name your tracks ahead of time with words that will give you direction (drums, bass, strings, melody, percussion etc..). Only use the tools you are already familiar with. Want to learn a new synth or plugin? Put it on your “to learn” list and take the time to learn it after your current songwriting session.. For now, only use what you know. You can bring your new skills into your next session.
For many, the word preset is a bad word. I don’t see this as the case. Presets are your friends, not your enemy. There are literally thousands of presets available to you and your own tastes dictate which ones you will gravitate towards.
There is an unlimited amount variations in classical music composers even though they are building their pieces from the same template f sounds. Don’t get caught up on the idea of every sound having to be home brewed. Think of all the great original music constructed from sampling other people’s music exclusively. Or think of how a great DJ takes the works of other producers and combines it together in a way that creates a new experience. In essence, the artist is working with already made presets. Of course you are free to make your own effects and synth presets on your off time, and I highly encourage that, but you want to have some “go to” sounds at your disposal for quick access. You shouldn’t have to mess around with a sound for too long before it sounds “right” to you for your project. You can always come back later to modify your work or introduce a new technique that you previously didn’t have available to you but whenever you are in songwriting mode, use what you know. Ableton makes some fantastic instrument and effects racks that give you a wide variety of results that you can make your own with some simple knob twisting. Don’t overlook those resources for sounds and effects. Take some time to explore these during your off time and you may discover they have solved some of your challenges for you.
As you build your own custom sounds, make sure to save these to your presets for quick access in other projects. A great way to build up some custom presets is to simply name and save all the sounds you use in your other finished and unfinished song ideas. You already know that these sounds are attractive to you, otherwise you wouldn’t have used them in the first place. This can really come in handy and start you building your own “sound”.
It’s completely ok to have your own formula for songwriting. You will always expand and evolve but you’ll be building from your past knowledge. Don’t abandon your current skill sets just because you saw somebody do something really cool on You Tube, instead pick up a couple of tricks that you can incorporate into what you are already doing. By holding to your own identity, you won’t run the risk of becoming a copycat artist that is always jumping on bandwagons but never developing your own personality.
The path of least resistance
Songwriting itself is already a path of a lot of resistance. It takes quite a bit of determination to complete something you started. Completing a song forces you to own your creative decisions and the best decisions you can make are educated ones. Let your past experience guide your current creative flow and let your current roadblocks drive you to new solutions, tools and techniques. Always aim for the solution that doesn’t slow you down. Completing songs is a skill above and beyond all others. You will likely find that many of the guys with the coolest and craziest techniques lack the ability to actually finish something. Don’t get caught up in thinking there is anything more you need to know in order to finish a song right now. Like with any skill, you will improve with consistent repetition and fine adjustments.
Happy Music Making,