The past 18 months have been life changing for many people around the world. For me personally, I’ve gone from working in an office 5 days a week to being at home 7 days a week. We’ve had three lockdowns here in the UK, and in between we’ve still been advised to stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary to leave.
So as you can imagine, this has given me a lot more time to work on my music. But it’s a double edged sword, because the free time can be both a really useful opportunity and an oppressive creativity killer.
It’s easy enough to fall into periods of zero inspiration at the best of times, but there is so much more added pressure these days that sometimes it can be impossible to get some good music done! It’s an easy trap to fall into, so today I want to give you some ideas on how you can avoid it, and how you can make sure you’re getting the most out of your productivity and music making.
I’ve put together this list of ideas you can use to get yourself inspired without having to leave your house, so have a read through and hopefully you find something that helps you get back your creative spark!
Create a cover or a remix
This is a super easy way to get yourself in the music making mind set. Starting on a project as a remix or a cover can quickly kick-start your creativity.
Perhaps try to work on a song outside of your usual comfort zone, as this is a good trick to make sure you’re constantly expanding your horizons.
Alternatively, you could completely change the style of one of your favourite tracks, it can be a good challenge to work within the framework of an existing track but try and add a new style to it, taking this one step further, you could even remix a track within the same genre, but just put your own spin on it. You could do a techno remix of a techno track, but inject some of your own personal flavour into it, so it’s still an entirely different tune.
Often you’ll find that by starting with a cover or a remix, you’ll end up creating new and original ideas that you could end up using as your own track later, or failing this, you could at least explore some new techniques. But even if you don’t do anything new or original, at least you are spending the time working on some music! Also, if you can manage to get a good acapella of a track, then you could create a great remix by completely reinventing the instrumental that sits under the vocals!
Use old projects and unfinished ideas
Now, if you’re anything like me, your DAW folder will be about 10% completed projects and 90% unfinished ones. Sound familiar?
It’s the curse of the modern music producer. Creating half baked ideas that never see the light of day is just par for the course at this point. But what if you could find a way to use those half done ideas, even if it isn’t in a way that you might first think?
Your musical brain will be constantly evolving, so that chances are, each track you make is a little bit more refined than the previous one. You learn new techniques as you progress, and you may find that each new finished track sounds so much better than your previous ones. Obviously this isn’t a rule of thumb, but as a general concept it’s quite sound.
So what can you do when revisiting those old projects?
For starters, you could try out any new production tricks or techniques you’ve learned, to see what variations you could make in your idea. Failing that, you could mine your unfinished projects for audio gold, looking for small ideas or phrases that you can bounce out as a loop (more on that later) and use in new projects.
Of course, there is the simplest solution, and that’s just to take your unfinished idea and finish it! Taking an idea and working it into a finished track is a skill in itself, and I’ve spoken about this before. It’s good practice to build the skills that come with finishing music, and even if you don’t release this track, or do anything with it other than listen yourself, you’ve still built on some skills and allowed yourself room to develop without the pressure of thinking “this is going to be one of my tracks that I release, so it needs to be perfect!”
In truth, our tracks are rarely perfect, they’re just always compiled of the best and newest techniques we know in order to create a good tune. Do you think chart topping producers release every single track they make? Of course not.
Freeing yourself of the idea that every single tune needs to be a banger is liberating, because it allows you to work in a way that is just focusing on finishing the track, rather than creating a number 1!
Programme synth sounds
There are so many scenarios when opening your DAW simply doesn’t come along with the inspiration to create some new music. If you’ve taken any of my previous advice and set up a regular scheduled block of time to work on your music, there can be nothing worse than sitting down at your set time and not feeling any inspiration whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean you have to simply give up and try again another day (though you can do that if you want to!).
Within our audio workstations there are so many micro-environments for making music. Open up any of your software synths and you’ll see what I mean. Native Instruments Massive, Ableton’s Wavetable, Max for Live, all of these are super complex synthesis environments that allow tremendous depth of customisation and programming.
So, if you’re not feeling like making some music, take the time to experiment in one of your synths. If you own Max for Live, then that is full of endless possibilities for creating plugins, synths, weird generative patches and more. Or if you’re not feeling that level of curiosity, you could just try tweaking some of your favourite presets in your go-to synths.
I have found that you don’t always need to know the name and function of every single control in a synthesiser. Sure, it helps, but you can learn how it affects the sound just by using your ears. A great exercise is to set a melody line (or chord sequence or whatever you prefer) to loop in your DAW and then just tweak the parameters on the synth as it plays. You’ll be able to hear how this affects the sound, and then you can figure out how you want to apply that to your workflow.
If after doing this, you want to learn the theory behind how and why that particular control changes the sound in that way, then by all means do so! But you don't need to do that in order to tweak and change the sound.
Produce audio samples
Another great exercise you can do if you're not feeling inspired to make a full track is to work on creating some audio samples. It may have never occurred to you that you can use your DAW to make samples of your own to then use in your music.
Maybe you love a particular clap sound, but there's an annoying ring to it, or a weird artefact as it tails off. Sort this out with EQ and bounce it to your sample folder!
Taking it a step further you could record things around your house to make unique one shot samples. Some of the best drums I've heard have their own unique sound to them because they're not actually drum samples, they're recordings of dropping an apple on a table, knocking your knuckles against a wardrobe door, crunching a piece of paper between your hands.
With a bit of compression and basic EQ, you can take every day recordings like this and turn them into your own unique drum sample pack.
But this doesn't have to be limited to drums! You can create weird melodic loops to use in other tracks. Pay attention to time stretching, pitch shifting and reversing, as all of these tools are great for making loops and samples.
It can be a really good technique to create background ambience loops which you can use in other tracks to add a bit of interest to the backdrop of your music. These subtle layers of audio really add up to enhance the stereo image of a track, especially if you incorporate panned elements too.
Don’t forget you can tune any sound by looking at a visualisation tool and seeing the peak fundamental frequency, then finding out what pitch that fundamental frequency corresponds to. But if this seems too technical, you can always use your ears!
This technique allows you to turn even the most mundane sounds into fun and interesting samples and loops for your projects, so try it out!
Collaborate with others
It's become a bit of a meme in the music producer community, asking someone to collaborate with you. If I had a penny for every time I've seen a "this is sick bro! We should collab!" comment on social media, I wouldn't be needing to write these articles, put it that way!
All joking aside though, collaborating is a fantastic way to broaden your horizons and see music production through someone else's unique lens. Each of us does things differently, so being able to explore, discuss and compare techniques with another producer is such a valuable thing.
Whether you're finding people in your daily life to collaborate with, or you're searching online, the benefits are numerous. Even if you don't collaborate by making music together, you could set up a partnership or producer's group for giving feedback and tips on each other's work. Obviously there's a level of trust involved there, but having other like minded people to share your craft with is amazing and super useful.
Being a producer can feel isolating at the best of times, and especially in these times when most of us are having to stay distanced from others, using online forums like Facebook or Reddit is a great way to make connections and get feedback!
I’ve mentioned this before as a great exercise for working on your music, but it’s worth reminding you all, and informing any new readers of this little technique.
Fact Magazine has a great online series called Against the Clock, where producers have just 10 minutes to create a track. While this may seem drastic -and even impossible- timed challenges are a really useful way to get you out of your head and into your music. Setting a timer for any length of time (it doens’t have to be 10 minutes) can get you super focused and in the zone, and force you to make snap decisions.
I often find that when I’m working on a track I can get so bogged down on one single element, I get tunnel vision and struggle moving on from it. Maybe I want a synth to sound a specific way, and spend hours (yes literally) trying to make it do that. While there’s nothing wrong with that on the face of it, many of us don’t have that much time to be poring over our work in such detail!
So, you could try 30 minutes, and open your DAW and just see what you can come up with. Do your best to remain focused on getting a fully formed idea by the time the timer goes off. It doesn’t have to be a fully finished track, but at least a 32 bar loop with some variations should do the trick.
Set Your Own Boundaries
Building from that previous idea, it’s a great technique to force some creativity by giving yourself strict boundaries. A timed challenge is an example, but you could also challenge yourself within a specific genre, BPM, or even length of track. Try making a track that’s 7 minutes long, for example, you’ll find it’s a whole different approach to making one that’s 3 minutes. You have to think differently about your structure and transitions to keep the listener interested!
The beauty of this exercise is that, since you know yourself and your workflow best, you can really set the parameters to whatever you like. You can set a rigid set of rules as a fun exercise and see what the results are!
So, hopefully you’ve picked up some good tips here that will help you to remain inspired and keep productive during these difficult times. It’s more important now than ever to look after ourselves, and as music producers, finding a balanced and healthy approach to our workflow is a key part of this!
As always, thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and don’t forget to check out the rest of the site for some sweet Ableton Templates and tonnes more articles on music production. Stay safe!