We’ve all experienced ‘writers block’ – when you’ve been working on a track for a while and it seemed to be progressing well. Suddenly, things just aren’t clicking. Try as you might, you can’t push past the feeling that something’s wrong. This is completely natural and it happens to everyone. It’s psychological – like everything to do with music. It’s all about individual perception and opinion and when it comes to these things our minds can be quite complex. The good news is: there are lots of practical things you can do to help yourself when you get ‘stuck in a loop’. In this article I’d like to share some of my thoughts and experience with you.
Stuck in a loop
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got” … an annoying saying, but completely true! Often the impasse will come from spending too long trying the same technique, or repeatedly approaching the problem from the same angle. For example you may find that you just can’t EQ your lead synth so that it ‘sits right’ in the mix – so you knuckle down and try all sorts of crazy EQ curves, but nothing works. At these times it’s important to realise that working in closed loops of thought are what’s causing the problem; maybe you don’t need to EQ this sound… maybe something else is wrong or you need to reach for another sound altogether. It’s really basic, but one of the trademarks of an experienced producer is the ability to know when to move on, and when to change what you’re doing.
Hanging on to the wrong parts
Imagine that early in the production you wrote this incredible bass line – it was the spark that filled you with inspiration to write the rest of the track and get the arrangement going. The sparks of inspiration you get whilst working are great, but it’s easy to become too attached to these individual parts, believing they are the cornerstone of the track. Then when you get stuck – it certainly can’t be that bass line, can it?
I can’t even remember the amount of times I have reached that stage – then become stuck – looking for the little bit of magic and missing gel. Then, for it all to come together only when I muted the part that I’d become too blindly precious about, that wonderful bass line! When you’re working, nothing is sacred – if, when you mute it, the track works better as a whole, then that muted part is wrong for the track. Retaining problem parts is a common mistake. It’s human nature to love what inspires you. Just because you didn’t use it in this track it doesn’t mean it won’t inspire you next time. The ability to spot and remove or change these issues is a learning process. You will develop skill and perspective which will improve exponentially over time.
Working in uninspiring ways
One of the side effects of modern equipment, digital DAWs and software, is that in the name of efficiency, and through the user interfaces that have been designed for software, in the musical world we now have some very un-musical ways of doing things. For example if you write a Midi synth part and then skip through patches to find the right one: you could spend hours pressing one button waiting for a sound to pop up that perfectly fits with your notation and song… generally it won’t as you are working in a strange non-musical way pressing a single button, but that changes everything! If it does pop up, by that time you may be bored out of your brain and probably won’t even recognise that the sound works! So don’t do it; make your sounds before you record your performance as much as possible. On that note, I suggest if you are struggling to find the right notation or drum pattern, don’t program it… record it in. However good you are at playing the keyboard or other device you will get a benefit from this. Our bodies perform a myriad of musical things automatically, for example we never hit the same key with the same velocity twice. We do so many things it would take you years to program it all into a midi editor which would be no fun at all. The fun you have making your music will show in the end product. The more you can pull yourself away from the computer and physically into the music, the more your creativity will improve.
There is actually an upside to modern equipment which gives you the opportunity to do something MORE musically, especially in electronic music. That is: the improved ability to perform in your arrangements. Simply moving around coloured blobs on a screen is a very cold way of putting together a musical performance – so try and ‘record in’ your arrangements more like a live performance, even if it is just the general basics which you then tweak. Using midi controllers with knobs linked to filters and to your faders, make good use of the mutes as well. Making a live jam of your arrangement in this way can really add a unique human element to your production, which can be missing when you only work using the graphic interface of the computer.
Know when to walk away – so you can come back and listen objectively
It’s important to remember that music is mentally draining and sometimes you need to take a break. Our brains become easily fatigued. If you are struggling to hear or focus on your song you could be tired which can happen sooner than you realise depending on a lot of different factors. Don’t worry about walking away, refresh your hearing and reset your perception. Going into a different environment and relaxing for an hour or so is often the best & only solution. You can often return and immediately identify a few issues that were hidden from you before.
Something else that’s a common obstacle is when you confuse yourself by inadvertently training your ears to listen for the wrong things, thereby losing your sense of perspective. When this happens there is no way you can fight it… you need to remove yourself and refresh your senses in a different environment. Your hearing & brain are magic at translating audio information and enabling you to interpret it. When it comes to making music, that faculty can work against you; your hearing is not a quantifiable and subjective tool when hearing audio. Saying this I mean that you can hear the same sound twice, but if the conditions are different or if you’re in a different mood… you will make a different judgement of it when working objectively on your music. As you work through a project your hearing will begin to adapt to your room, your song and many other things, to tailor itself to the situation. It’s these presumptions you make over time as you work that can build up into an impassable blockade. If you intend to work for long periods at a time, the best option is to make the work as varied as you can, and essentially force yourself to take regular breaks out of the studio.
A good tip I find is to take that essential break, come back to your mix, set it playing, leave the sequencer minimised while you check your emails or Facebook. Don’t fully concentrate on the music. Just let it play in the background. You may find something becomes apparent that you did not notice previously. It is a good way to hear how other people might hear your music, especially after you’ve been working on it intensely for a while.
Remixing your mix
Unfortunately it may be that the only way forward is to rip your track apart. Sometimes I’ve laid down a track and thought: it’s ok but annoyingly it’s not where I wanted it to be! The best option here is to zero all your faders, throw away your mix and maybe your arrangement. Now approach this from a completely different angle: go through your composition and pick out all the parts you like most. Then start to build a “remix” of your track; save the old version to refer back, starting afresh but with some music you’ve already created. You will probably find that you’ll work up something much more to your liking the second time around, because you’ll feel fresh about the music and you will have also done all the mental work about the “idea” for the track. So, it should become easier for you to carry on successfully.
Stuck for ideas and inspiration? Well, sitting in that dark studio won’t help. Go outside; see people, animals and the infinitely inspiring natural world we inhabit. Being an artist is one of the only professions where taking a day off and going to the beach can actually be GREAT for your productivity. Realising that music is all about you and your humanity and emotions is an important step to writing good music.
When preparing for a studio session, try and get a handle on how you work best, what mood you’re in and how you’re feeling. Really pander to it to create a strong foundation you can work from artistically. Managing your creativity is important, if you want to be on your game 24/7 it won’t be easy, and you will have to make plans that include regularly re-charging and refreshing your creative batteries.