Attack Of The 8 Bar Loop
So there you are, staring at your computer screen. 12 tracks of brilliance, or at least 15 seconds of it.
You sit there listening to the loop on repeat over and over again, trying to convince yourself that you are being creative, instead of just stuck.
We have all been there. Our closet is not full of only skeletons, but unfinished digital waste that only sits there as potential. Unfortunately, this is where most of your work will stay.
One day, your gravestone will read: “He almost put a lot of great art into this world”
If there is any challenge that computer musicians have that I hear about repeatedly, It’s the 8 bar loop syndrome. This seems to stop more creative people than any other obstacle I can think of. Let’s solve this here and now.
Making loops is easy, finishing songs is hard
The first step is admitting you have a problem. Your problem is that you make your little loops & you rock out to it for a couple hours, pat yourself on the back & then put it aside. The next time you sit down for “studio time”, you open up another blank slate & off you go into 8 bar purgatory. This repeats over and over & you eventually realize years later that you haven’t finished any music.
The problem is that you haven’t defined your goal before you sit down to write. You buy loads of equipment & can’t wait to get into the studio because making music is fun! We it stops being fun, you end the session and hope eventually inspiration will bring you back to another fun session of finishing what you started.
It doesn’t happen like that. Fun follows struggle and frustration, which follows fun and so on. It’s almost never fun to do something you don’t know how to do, so you usually get stuck because nobody likes doing things that aren’t fun. Realize this. Even the things that are fun today will stop being fun tomorrow because you will have done everything you can with your current skill set.
Stop focusing on fun
I know that is the last thing a music producer wants to hear but if you are going to finish songs, you are going to have to start by accepting that some unpleasant work is involved. “I don’t know how” is not an excuse. The answers are out there, but they won’t help you much because you are probably looking for the “golden bullet” that will fix all your problems. It’s not going to happen. Consistent practice and experience are what fix all your problems.
Trust me, when you get in the habit of working through that 8 bar loop, you will make important discoveries that will not only start making the process easier, but it will start to become fun again. In fact, more fun than you had with your previous skill set.
What all this mental mumbo jumbo? Just give me a damn solution!
You probably know me enough by now to know that I believe creative solutions are much more complicated than just throwing you a few problem solving bullet points. Sometimes quick tips can be a huge help, but when it comes to finishing songs, it is sometimes necessary to dramatically change your mindset & focus. This in itself can be very simple to understand but difficult to internalize. That is why the tips I am going to give you below are in the middle of my post instead of the top. The internal work always comes first.
Some practical tips
Ok, so it really isn’t that hard to turn that 8 bar loop into a finished song. If the task seems daunting, it’s likely because you are overthinking things. From my experience of working on music nearly every day for the last 2 months, I’ve discovered a process to getting things done that has worked well for me. With experience, you will discover what works for you, but here is my cheat sheet for turning that loop into a song.
1. Get out of the session window – Most of you reading this are probably Ableton Live users & know that is has 2 different music windows. The Clip view & the arrangement view. If you are using another DAW, you are probably already in the arrangement view, which is where you want to be.
So if your loop is still in the session (clip) window, record it into the arrangement window. Since all finished songs end up there anyway, this keeps you from procrastinating in the wrong window. The Session window has it’s advantages for getting quick ideas together, but you need to leave this view asap.
2. Drag out your loop – Once you have your loop in the arrangement window, just drag it out or copy it for around 7 minutes. You can always go shorter or longer in the end, but this starts you looking at your loop more as a song.
3. Intros & outros – Start working on a simple 16 bar intro by stripping out what is not needed. This is where the DJ will be mixing, so keep that in mind. Once done, copy the whole 16 bar intro to the end of your song. Congrats, you have an intro & an outro.
4. Ghost track – Create an audio track & pull a similar style song in as your first track. Turn off the track so it doesn’t play unless you hit “solo”. Now visually look at the breakdowns in that song & emulate that by simply removing your kick drum in those sections. This will give you a visual cue where your own break will happen. You can also shorten or lengthen your song so your 16 bar outro lines up with your ghost track. (Remember, nothing is permanent & you can go in a new direction once you are inspired to)
5. Bringing in elements – Listen to your ghost track for how certain elements are brought in & out through the song. Test this out with your own elements to see if similar arrangement works for your song.
6. Creating atmosphere – From my experience, it really helps the mood of your song by having some subtle atmospheric sound going on in your song so things don’t sound too clean. This can be a simple field recording from out your window or an ambient loop fed through a good amount of reverb with or without delay. I keep it low enough so it’s not interfering with anything but when turned off, you notice it’s absent. You’ll be surprised how this can make your song sound more professional.
7. FX – Nearly all electronic tracks have effect sounds, odd voices or drum hits bouncing around the stereo spectrum. When you hear a song like this, you imagine the complexity of what must be 50 tracks of just effect sounds. It’s actually much easier to do this. Just pull your fx sounds into a drum machine instrument. For Ableton, I suggest Drum Racks. Next, create an effect chain that gives some stereo movement. I typically add reverb, delay, filter & autopan. I’ll also create 1 or 2 return tracks with panning, verb & delay with different panning settings. By feeding the fx track through the send/returns the sounds randomly bounce all around your head. Cool stuff! Make sure you filter off the low end on your effects or things can start getting really muddy, really quick.
8. Breaks and builds – Breaks and builds often sound most effective with reverse sounds, sounds with rising or falling pitch, percussion & more intense reverb or delay. Once again, listing to your ghost track for a reference on what might help your own song sound better.
9. Cut copy & paste arrangement sections – I find this to be good fun & easy to do. I imagine you should be able to do this in most DAW’s but it works incredibly well with Ableton Live. I can easily cut a few bars of the song here & double a section over there to make sure the good parts are enhanced and other parts don’t carry on too long. You will typically work in 4,8 & 16 bar chunks of music. This is where you abandon your ghost track & feel what works best for your own song.
10. Drum programming – Once you have a basic structure & arrangement happening, it’s time to make sure things aren’t sounding boring. There is nothing more effective than drum programming & variations. It doesn’t take much to spice things up. An extra kick here, a snare fill there, maybe a few well placed claps. I also can’t understate the importance of layering. Just when things seem to be losing excitement, you can add in a second snare drum or clap & later another hi hat layer. Using multiple sounds can really help to keep interest throughout the song.
Congrats: No more 8 bar loop –
If you followed all the steps above, you will be well on your way to turned your well crafted loops into full songs. It is my hope that you put more music into this world by pushing through the challenges on a regular basis & getting your endless list of loops out of purgatory.
Happy Music making!