I wanted to break down many of the major habits & some of the more subtle things that helped me finish a LOT of music. This will likely be a long one, so settle in & let’s get into it.
I’ve shared before the fact that I created a music making process that took me from finishing 3-5 songs a year to 52 songs in 13 months. I share the process in my book called…. Wait for it… The Process for Electronic music Producers.
Now for some of you, this might not seem so staggering, and if that’s the case, amazing! but for me it was a revelation that transformed my music production and has helped 1000’s of aspiring producers do the same. If you are still struggling to finish what you start in a way that makes you proud, let me try to share a few things that helped me get to this level with my own music. Hopefully it helps.
Process, not techniques
There are a LOT of cool tricks & techniques out there. I love them, but I discovered that techniques don’t finish songs. What I’ve found is that typically, the more techniques you have in your head without a home, the more confusion you face. It’s like collecting 100’s of spices but having no idea what you are trying to cook. The solution isn’t more spices.
This collection of spices gives so many options of what to prepare that I couldn’t make up my mind. On top of that, I realized that I didn’t even have the fundamentals needed to make anything at all.
If you want to finish music, you need to understand both the fundamentals of a track & the process. When I say process, yes we are creating some limitations. We have to do this to focus on what is important. This does not mean, however, that I am attempting to stifle your creativity & unique sound. In fact, you need to understand that a unique sound DOES have limitations & boundaries.
For example, you can bake a million different types of cakes & you can absolutely craft something that is unique, creative & absolutely delicious, BECAUSE of the focused limitations of the process. It’s only when you have perfected how a cake has been made over the centuries, that you can truly explore innovative flavors & ideas.
This is how you want to look at music. Before crafting that song that makes all the music theory nerds gush with envy, you need to learn to craft a simple 3 chord tune. Complexities only work when they are built on a collection of simpler fundamentals, so it’s more important to successfully finish something simple. By mastering this, you will start to understand the reasons why you might want to explore more complex ideas.
You’ll begin to learn that both simple & complex ideas are crafted from a very similar process. You may have heard the saying that it’s best to learn the rules so you can break them for the right reasons. I find this mostly true. Although happy accidents can be the basis of some of your favorite tracks, the reason they work is by and large because you have gained the understanding of how to make it work, by your knowledge of the “recipe” you have developed for your craft.
When I started playing guitar (poorly) many moons ago my goal was never to be a great guitarist. My goal was always, “ok, I’ve learned these 2 chords, let’s see if I can make a song with them”. Everything I did in the future was always focused on songs, not a specific instrument.
Now I am not saying 1 approach is better than another, but I will say that you will tend to go down one of 2 roads. You either go in the direction of musician or songwriter. You can certainly be both, but usually you are going to lean more to 1 side than another. Just understand that if your main goal is to be a proficient musician, it’ll likely take you longer to become a good songwriter.
This is why there are complete novice musicians who make songs that are more palatable and intriguing than some brilliant musicians. You don’t need to be a great musician to be a great producer & vice versa. Kurt Cobain was not an amazing guitarist. There are plenty who are better. But very few were capable of crafting songs that connected to so many.
Just so we are clear here, I am not qualified to make you a better musician, but I believe I can help you to craft and finish more songs you can be proud of. So focus on process first if you want to get better at the skill of music production. It’s not that complicated, once you get it down, but it does take practice, effort & focus. The more of the unnecessary that you can cut out, the better off you will be.
If you’ve followed any of my work, you are probably sick of hearing this, but daily practice is truly the biggest secret to me becoming a confident & proficient producer. What makes a great music producer is that they have run into 1000 more challenges than me & have learned how to navigate through them, without losing momentum.
By showing up daily, I was exposing myself to patterns that became more & more familiar. When I would stop my daily practice, it would tend to take more time for my brain to recognize & build upon these patterns & insights.
When you have done something difficult enough times, the brain starts to relax & think “we’ve gotten through this before, we can do it again”. Then those challenges just become second nature to solve without any stress.
Every day you do the work is another day of confidence building, of not being afraid of failure or a bad day. Daily practice improves your skills exponentially. Let me explain:
Let’s say you work on music for 100 non consecutive days, and each day you work on music you get 1% better. That would be 100% better.
When you work daily, let’s say you not only add your 1% for the day, but also 1% of the previous consecutive days. by day 20, you wouldn’t be 20% better, you would be 24.5% better, and this number would keep compounding exponentially over time.
Am am not attempting to quantify exactly how much better you can get every day, but just giving you an idea of the difference daily work can make to your progress over time. I’ve personally found this to be pretty accurate, if not a bit conservative in my experience.
Getting organized was an enormous contributor to finishing songs more quickly & helped me maintain or even improve on quality. Here are some of the steps I took to go from unorganized mess to a well oiled music making machine.
- I first and foremost listened to music in my style or similar enough to my style. I listened to particular songs as well as DJ mixes. I took notes on the types of sounds that worked best within this style. The kick, drums and bass tones, pads, stabs, synths, atmospheres, and types of effects or filters used. I took notes, describing each sound in detail. Were they long sounds or short sounds? Metallic or wooden sounds? Hard or soft? Dry or wet? Bright or warm? I used as much detail as possible, using descriptions that made the most sense to me. This gave me a list of the types of sounds I needed for my style. Not only does it get me laser targeted on my sound, but it also cuts out all the cool but unnecessary things that aren’t going to help me accomplish my thing.
- Next I started making my “go to” Drum Kits, Bass sounds, Synths etc. I’ll usually search presets and see what gets closest and tweak the sounds from there. I’ll then rename my new presets with 000 in the front of them, so my “go to” sounds come to the top of my searches. Super convenient.
- Next I create a basic default chain of my most commonly used effects, so I don’t have to hunt them down. I will also have each effect ready to go with the most common settlings I might use. If you don’t know what that is yet, just update as you go. Things I might have in my default effect chain is EQ, compression, delay, reverb, saturation, and a transient shaper. Huge time saver.
- I also do my best to organize the samples I have, so the ones that work for my style are easy to locate.
Taking the time to set this up for yourself is something you will thank yourself for. It will help to get you into the flow & keep you there. The faster you can go from idea to action, the better. It will also keep you from second guessing every decision, because you’ve already done the hard work.
Inspiration & references
Inspiration is rarely something that comes out of nowhere. Inspiration is more commonly a reaction to something that sparked your imagination. With this in mind, the more input you can expose yourself to, the more things to spark your creativity.
Many producers make the mistake of thinking every idea has to come through isolation, in order to be “original” & cut themselves off from all the great art around them. The truth is that most of the greatest songs are an adaptation and combination of other artists that came before them. We are all standing on their shoulders. The wheel has already been perfected, trying to reinvent it is futile.
Originality is more about perspective. It’s you looking at the same thing others have looked at, but in a different way. This is why sampling the work of others can make some of the most original & unique ideas. We are not inventors of ideas, our job is to simply repurpose them.
If you want to make a lot of music, you have to keep allowing yourself to be inspired. For me, this came through music, art, conversations, movies, nature and really almost anything I was open to.
Cutting off a source of inspiration because you think it’s cheating, is more of a cheat to yourself. If you want to stay inspired, never cut off the constant flow of energy around you. You were born with originality & taste. Anything that flows through you is going to have your energy stamped on it. Stop being afraid & you will accomplish so much more.
I discovered over time that it was really important to separate my sound design & experimentation days from my song crafting days. Sound crafting was a rabbit hole that would not only slow down my productivity but often lose the plot with the song I was working on.
Sound designing is about exploring all the possibilities, while producing is about making fast choices. It was a huge revelation when I realized that these 2 mindsets don’t work well together. I found that it’s much better to set up session times for each separately. This is where planned accidents come in.
For me, planned accidents are setting up scenarios for unexpected things to happen. There are a few ways I will approach making interesting sounds that I can later cut up & use on my song construction days. Keep in mind that I fully expect a lot of what comes out will be garbage. We are just looking for unexpected gems.
The things I like to explore in these idea sessions is extreme time stretching, granular effects & reversing sounds. This is great for repurposing samples or audio from a track you are working on. You never really know what is going to happen & that is the beauty of it. You just stay open to whatever happens.
Another approach is to grab a synth I am not very familiar with and drag in an assortment of interesting effects. Next I’ll create long & short midi notes. I keep everything 1 note, playing different octaves. This makes it easier to drop into a sampler & get the correct notes playing on the correct keys later.
While looping the midi part, I’ll send the audio output of this track to another audio track so I can record everything that happens. Then I just hit record and twist all the synth parameters & turning on and off different groups of effects. I try to do things I wouldn’t normally do to see what happens. I also like to automate things with LFOs and get a bunch of parameters moving on their own.
I keep going for 30-40 minutes & then cut up the audio bits that I am inspired by. Now I have a bunch of unique sounds no one has ever heard that I can pull into my track, on my next music making session. This works so much better for me than trying to make interesting sounds in the middle of a session. If you haven’t done this, you should really give it a try.
Finishing unfinished tracks, Collaborations & Remixes
I don’t think I would have been able to finish a song per week for a full year, if every song was started from scratch. I absolutely took advantage of unfinished songs in my archives. The difference, however, was that I had gained a lot of production momentum & became much better at problem solving and making quick decisions.
Most of the reasons I wouldn’t finish a song in the past are either because I had too many ideas going on and couldn’t decide a direction, or the track lost its original spark & I didn’t know how to retrieve it. What made a big change for me was to look at the mess of ideas & pick 1, even if it might be the wrong choice. I realized that it didn’t really matter what I picked, what mattered is that I committed to seeing an idea to the end.
Instead of agonizing over all the twists and turns I thought I needed to prepare for in advance, I changed my attitude about things. What if a great song is just 1 idea kept interesting for 5 or 6 minutes? This got me out of the mindset that I had to overthink where the song is supposed to go. I would simply let a part play until I felt something needed to happen & then I would do just enough to regain my interest for another 4-8 bars. Of course, sometimes it feels necessary to take your song in a new direction for a bit, but you should feel it instead of force it.
You would be surprised how simple a great song can be, and I believe that it’s because you make a decision at the beginning of your main groove. This becomes “home”. Then your song is simply about leaving & returning to home. Once I made this discovery, finishing partially finished tracks became much easier.
Collaborations & remixes are also great ways to work faster. Collabs are great, because you can bounce your ideas of another person when you get stuck & learn some workflow ideas that you might not have considered. Going back & forth keeps you both from hitting burnout on a track. Remixes are great, because you’ve already got a lot of the sounds & a basic structure to start from.
I’m not saying this was a strategy to finish more songs, but simply when I was inspired & needed a break from starting a song from scratch, this kept me moving forward. Just make sure the person you are collabing with is actually in the habit of finishing tracks as well. You don’t want to be waiting on someone who never had any intention to finish what you both had started.
Turning 1 song into 3
This technique can work amazingly well to finishing more tracks. I started to get in the mindset of thinking EPs instead of singles. If I wanted to get signed to a label, they usually need 2 songs at the very least. Normally 3 songs and a remix or 2 songs and 2 remixes.
This means if you want to get signed to a label, you need more than 1 song that fits what the label wants. If they like 1 track & not the other, this hurts your chances of getting signed. So your job is to make 2-3 songs that sound similar enough that if they like 1 song, they will like them all.
So my approach to this is to work on 1 track until I have a solid groove with drums and bass. Then I’ll copy & paste that 8 bar loop further down my song arrangement & make a new bassline. Not a variation that sounds like the same song, with the same notes, but a new groove. Sometimes I’ll write 2 new basslines. These will be starter points for my next tracks.
This makes things so much faster, as all you have to do, it switch out some drum sounds & change the drum pattern a bit & you’re off and running in a new direction. All your EQs and processing is already done for your drums and bass already, so your job is just to fill it out with the melodic parts and arrangement & you’ve got an EP ready to go in no time.
Just like a bass player in a band, using the same sound can become a signature for you. There is no reason you need to reinvent your bass sound with every track. All my bass lines are based on probably 5 sounds. It’s never been an issue. Plus I know how to process these sounds really well, because I have gained experience with every track.
Arranging my songs use to be my nemesis. I would agonize for ages on it & still wouldn’t always be happy. This took a ton of my creative energy that was better served focusing on other aspects of music making. There had to be a better way, and from my experience, there is.
I just steal arrangements that I like in other tracks. Im not stealing the music, I just want to know where the breaks are. So what I’ll do, is stretch out my 8 bar groove for the length of this reference track (make sure the reference track is warped to the same tempo, or this won’t work).
From here, I will mark my breaks by simply removing the kick drums in those areas. This will make it easier to locate where something needs to happen in your track. So basically you sort out your intro & outro & are left with 3 or 4 sections to make little changes to. Then work on your breaks & builds and your pretty damn close to done!
Motivation, when failing
What I’ve found when producing consistently is that about every couple months, I would go through some really rough days creatively where I feel I’m total shit & nothing is working & likely won’t work. These meltdowns are pretty terrifying the first couple times they happen. I found myself in a rut with a particular song that I couldn’t find my way out of. These days make you question everything & can be pretty depressing.
What I realized is that the only way to handle it is to just push through the mud & keep showing up every day. Usually within 3-4 days, you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Surprisingly, some of my biggest breakthroughs are the result of these experiences. In fact, some of these “hopeless” songs became some of my favorites. Probably because they were a mental stretch into unfamiliar territory.
The biggest lesson here is just to stay the path & know the dark days will pass. They always do.
When you put your focus on finishing what you start, you make some of your most valuable discoveries. Not every tune is going to be a banger, and that is totally ok, but when you stack up your results over a period of time, you’ll very clearly see how far you’ve come. This is something you can always be proud of.
As you explore your process, I hope my experience gives you inspiration & hope.
Happy music making!