I’ve been including in a lot of my recent articles tips about throwing as many ideas onto your DAW as possible. It’s a great way of creating music; sticking as many cool ideas as you can get down and then see where you go from there. Beginning a track is obviously a massively important part of your process, but so is finishing one!
This has really got me thinking about the opposite end of the spectrum. Finishing tracks can be daunting, challenging and frustrating. Sometimes you can get stuck with how to progress your ideas once you reach a certain stage, so I thought in this article we would look into some ideas to help you with that final stage of bringing a track from a rough arrangement to a finished product.
Before we dive in it’s worth noting that what you’re not going to find here is a strict set of rules to follow in order to have a finished track, because that’s just not how music creation works. It would be nice if I could offer you some sage advice and wisdom and then you could go away knowing exactly what to do to finish all of those unfinished ideas sitting on your computer. But alas, I can’t.
What I do want to do, though, is to explore some techniques and ideas that I’ve found success with in my own personal experience. I’ll be lifting some examples from the wonderful Making Music; 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers by Dennis DeSantis because it has become my go to place for music production tips of late!
Hopefully this will inspire you to get stuck into those half finished ideas and make them into something workable, or it will just give you some solid skills and concepts to apply to your music production in general. So let’s jump right in.
See Your Music as a Journey
The biggest shift in my mindset was when I began to acknowledge that my entire music production process is a journey. Rather than viewing it in terms of successes or failures, I found a way to view everything in the context of my wider path of musical creation.
Finishing a track counted as a success, but what about all the half done ideas? In my mind they used to pile up as failures.
I was so bogged down by guilt and frustration that I had hundreds of unfinished projects on my laptop, all of which had potential to be full tracks but few ever were. It’s worth noting that since my laptop died and I lost everything, rather than feeling disappointed I actually feel relieved, and I think that goes to show how easily things can affect our mindset when it comes to production.
So learn to view your music production as a journey. If you have an idea you’re not sure what to do with, force yourself to finish it anyway. Not every track you make has to be a chart topper, and it is probably that many of them will never be heard by people outside of your circle of friends or peers. But for each track you finish you have one more completed project. This will add to your confidence, your efficiency, your skills. Think of these tracks as ways to practice your production without the stakes being too high. You don’t need to make an amazing track this time, just try and include some creative sound design or processing and have a play around!
Learning to frame your music production as a journey of self improvement is a really useful tool to bring into your repertoire. It takes practice and consistent reminders, but it is worth it in the long run. You should be making music first and foremost for yourself.
In your mind then, a finished track becomes something you achieved and something to be proud of, and not something half done that could be adding to your frustration. It’s a simple concept but ask yourself this; do you want to be a producer who finishes tracks or who has so many unfinished half baked ideas?
Tackling this mindset is a great first step on the journey to learning to finish ideas that you begin.
The Power of Erasing
I’ve mentioned Dennis DeSantis’ Ableton based book before; Making Music - 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers is full of absolutely fantastic ideas to help you with your workflow, and it’s a book I regularly refer to when I’m stuck. I wanted to draw attention to one of the tips in his book as I feel it mirrors the points I’ve been making with regards to finishing tracks.
In his tip ‘The Power of Erasing’ DeSantis lays out the problem like so;
“You feel like your music lacks the “fullness” of the music that inspires you. But your attempts to solve the problem often end in music that just feels cluttered or messy.”
This is a phenomenon that I guarantee we have all faced. Sometimes there seems to be this elusive quality that ‘finished’ songs have that we just can’t recreate in our DAW. Sometimes this can be down to mixing and mastering, after all, the results a professional mixing or mastering engineer can get are often amazing!
But there’s also more to consider. We as producers can think about how we arrange our songs in order to combat this problem. I’ve often used this method, which is why I’m pointing it out here so you can get the benefits of this technique!
It can be easy to think of your DAW’s timeline as having an unlimited amount of space, and in order to make our track sound full or finished, the easy option is to add more elements. But, as DeSantis points out; “...musical space has boundaries, link a canvas: There is a limit to how much you can add before you’re simply covering something that’s already there.”
And it’s that last line that really gets me every time. The concept of ‘covering something that’s already there’ is one that we need to be very mindful of when making our music.
So let’s see what some of DeSantis’ suggestions to combat this problem are.
The first thing he mentions -which is something we should all be bearing in mind- is the concept of ‘making space’ in music production. Usually this will refer to the often annoying overlap in frequencies you get when certain parts occupy the same sonic space of the spectrum, which is solved by carving out bands with EQ to clarify certain instruments over others. But this same process, DeSantis points out, can be applied during composition as well, which could even save you from having to go in and do forensic level EQ processing later on.
As I’ve been mentioning a lot recently, the solution to this can be not to add more in order to make your music sound ‘fuller’ or ‘powerful’, but it can actually be to take things away. Sometimes when you add more things to your music, the inaudible frequencies can cause such clashes that your parts are fighting to be heard. So sometimes by removing parts, you can actually make your music sound fuller because each part that you keep in is not being drowned out or masked by others.
Now there’s one thing to bear in mind with this technique though, and that is that in order for this to really work, your parts have to be as good as they possibly can be. Trust me, I’ve tried this technique; creating a track with fewer elements than I’d usually choose, and believe me it is a challenge, but when you get it right it works really well!
DeSantis tells us that “if you allow yourself to fill musical space by adding parts, you run the risk of treating each part with less care than you might otherwise, rather than really investing the time and energy into getting a few elements to be perfect.” And this is a key point to take away from this. Sometimes the old adage rings true; less is more. But you have to make sure that the “less” is fully realised. You can’t expect to mute half your parts and magically unearth an incredible track, but with care and precision you can create a carefully balanced mix of just a few core elements, each with their own processing and mixing in order to sound as good as they possibly can. You can do this by reducing the decay time of a particularly sustained musical part, or you can thin out a dense part by removing some notes. There are many ways you can achieve the right balance for individual parts working together.
The key point to remember here is this; add parts as necessary, but only as necessary, and be ruthless about removing things that aren’t contributing to the music. This can be a good place to ask a friend or peer for their input if you’re struggling on deciding which elements you want to keep or remove, so bear this in mind!
Song Form and Structure
One of the aspects of musical composition regularly repeated in my own musical education was a thorough exploration of song structure and form. Having worked in both live music settings playing guitar in bands, and then in more individual or collaborative electronic music scenarios, I’ve had lots of experience with different types of music and the structures that are typical in them.
However, as I often have to remind myself, not everybody has had the benefit of a formal musical education and many people are self taught, perhaps even many of you reading this! So I thought it would be a good idea to explore the concepts behind song structure and how they can help you conceptualise your music and get it finished quicker.
This is a topic DeSantis touches on in his book in 2 parts, so I’ll be borrowing some of his wisdom as I explain this section.
Many people take for granted that songs are split into sections. We’ve all heard phrases like ‘chorus’ ‘verse’ or ‘middle 8’ to describe them, but when it comes to actually putting these concepts into practice, we may not know if they’re relevant to our music, or if they’re the right choice stylistically. Understanding the various types of song structures that have become commonplace can give you a better understanding of music as a listener, as well as giving you a framework to work from when you’re creating music.
Musical sections can often be described by their names, or letters. You may hear people describe music as having an ‘ABAB” structure, so let’s have a little breakdown of some of the common terms.
- Verse or A Section
We all know what a verse is when it comes to traditional songs with vocals, but if you’re not necessarily working in that genre, you may wonder whether a ‘verse’ is the right choice for you. That’s why it’s useful to know they can also be referred to as ‘A sections’. These are generally a recurring section, usually of 16 or 32 bars, which often serves the purpose of being the main body of the music. For example in a traditional song with lyrics, the verses tell the story.
- Chorus or B Section
This section is also a repeating section. It’s common to have a chorus or B section repeated several times during a song. It serves as a contrast to the verse section, often containing the ‘hook’ of the song. This can be a melodic line on vocals or a synth or other instrument, depending on your genre. The intention here is to get it stuck in the listener’s head; it’s often the chorus of a song you’ll find yourself singing over and over again.
In general, when you’re working with songs with a vocalist, the chorus serves to add musical resolution to the musical tension created in the verses. The lyrics are often the same in each chorus, while being different in each verse. You can sometimes get the chorus at the beginning of a song, but it usually occurs after the first verse.
- Bridge or C Section
No, we aren’t talking about giving birth when we say C Section, so don’t worry. The ‘Bridge’ in music is traditionally a third and unique section of a song, serving as a contrast to both the verses and the chorus. This section typically only occurs once in a song, so a common song structure in commercial music is ABABCB. The C section is often different musically from each other section, and may even include a key change, unusual chord progressions or have dramatically different textural density.
Bridge sections can differ drastically among genres, so this is an opportunity to throw in a curveball and subvert the expectations of your audience.
Now, the ‘Verse’ ‘Chorus’ and ‘Bridge’ terminology may not be relevant for you if you’re not working with vocals in your music, which is why they’re also referred to as A B and C sections. Understanding this structure is a key skill, as being able to identify structural sections in music you listen to will help you understand how to better create your own music. Though the previously mentioned ABABCB (or Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus) structure is used almost universally in commercial pop music, there are always exceptions to the rule.
If you’re working on more club oriented dance music, particularly without vocals, there are other ways you can structure your song using addition and subtraction of layers, so let’s explore this concept.
In electronic dance music, we often do away with terms like ‘Verse’ or ‘Chorus’, replacing them with phrases such as ‘buildup’ ‘drop’ or ‘breakdown’. These are -much like the previous examples- just ways to label different sections in a track, but the techniques used to differentiate these in EDM genres can differ.
If you’re making music such as techno, house or dubstep, you may avoid the use of sections in such a rigid form as we’ve previously discussed. I like to refer to this type of music as ‘progression based’ music, since there are often musical elements that are present for large portions of a track, but there are underlying changes -or progressions- that drive the overall structure. This is achieved, DeSantis tells us, “by a continuous variation of textural density around a relatively small amount of material.”
This is vital information if you’re finding yourself stuck on how to finish a track. So let’s explore how some of these techniques are used in modern electronic dance music.
The name of the game here is layers. If we take a genre such as Dubstep, you will find that many of the elements play from the beginning of the track right to the end. Drum sounds in particular -which drive this type of hard hitting music- are a constant, so variation is achieved by subtle layering of parts; adding and removing elements as the track progresses to vary the density of the underlying texture. There are several conventional terms used to denote the sections of music when it’s constructed in this way, and they will be all too familiar to electronic music fans.
The Buildup is a universal idea in dance music. Think of the context and audience of Trance music, for example. You have hundreds of people in a sea of MDMA fuelled dance mania, and the tide of that sea is driven by the texture of the music. A Buildup section is usually 16 or 32 bars in length (or some multiple of those) and it contains layers added, gradually increasing the textural density or perceived sense of energy in the track. The aim of a Buildup is exactly what it says on the tin; creating drive and momentum, and ending at a high point.
A Breakdown section is -surprisingly- a section in which lower energy is used as a direct contrast to a Buildup section. This can be either a gradual or a sudden reduction in density, and common techniques can be to remove all drum elements, or maybe just the hard hitting kick and bass. You want to create space in a Breakdown, giving a short reprieve as a contrast to the Buildup, and in anticipation of the next section.
- The Drop
Everyone has at some point in their life had to sit there, awkwardly unsure of a piece of music as someone tells you ‘no trust me, wait for the drop!’ There’s a reason for this, as the Drop is the musical climax of the track. The anticipation of the other sections lead to what is usually the most texturally dense section, giving the most energetic output of the track’s length. They can occur after either a breakdown or buildup, depending on the energy you’re using in your particular track. These sections usually only occur once or twice in EDM, but Buildups and Breakdowns can be more frequent.
Dubstep is a great example of this type of work with sectional density and texture. Instead of using distinct musical ideas such as a Verse, Chorus or Bridge, producers achieve results by sometimes drastic differences in texture between sections. But this type of structure isn’t unique to Dubstep, and is common in many genres of dance music.
Styles such as Dub techno on the surface seem to have little sense of difference across sections; basslines or drum patterns can be playing for the entirety of a track, being introduced at the beginning and being present for the entire arrangement, and other elements are added gradually to vary the sectional texture or contrast.
Using layers as a form-defining process is not something you can do for every genre or style of music, just like using Verse and Choruses can’t be applied to every genre as well. Whether you’re using typical song structures or layering parts or ever-changing level of density to create your structure, both of these concepts can be good ways to take your music to a finished product.
So in the above sections we’ve covered the different ways you can use form and structure to inform your songwriting process. Whether you’re working in more conventional pop realms, where vocals and traditional verse - chorus - verse structures are your go to, or if you’re working in club oriented dance music with a looser grasp on traditional structures, hopefully there’s something useful for you in what we’ve just covered.
Here at Top Music Arts we know how difficult it can be to bring your ideas to the fullness of a finished song, and we hope that you got some really useful tips from this collection of ideas to help you finish more tracks. We are always working to get you the best resources to help with your production, and whether it’s our blog or our project templates, there’s something for everyone.
So make sure you check out the rest of our site for whatever resources you may need, and thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts.