Music producers all love writing in their DAWS (Digital Audio Workstations) right? Then why is it so hard to get anything done? All those facilities sitting right in front of us; collections of instruments and effects that would have seemed a fanciful dream just ten years ago! You’d think it would be child’s play to come up with the most amazing tunes at the click of a mouse.
Yet it’s not, it’s no easier than it was in the 70’s; in fact, many would argue that it’s actually harder to write on a computer because DAWs give us too many options. With a thousand preset sounds for every eventuality, and a couple of hundred more that could never be used for anything, they enable us to delay that moment when we commit to a musical idea, a sound, or even a concept. And that delay breeds discontent, dissatisfaction…uncompleted compositions. Yes it does.
So how should we cope with this gift of infinite choice? We could restrict the amount of plugins we use, that’s easy. It could work too. Maybe we could restrict the amount of time spent working on a track, that might help. What else can we do?
Adjust your relationship with your DAW
Computers are amazing tools, they help us to get jobs done. But they can only do the jobs that we specify for them, they don’t think for themselves. What this means is we have to approach our DAWs like we approach our cars…with a clear objective, a route ahead and a full tank of gas.
So here are 10 ideas that will adjust your failing relationship with your computer and help spice up your compositional process. Unlike other lists of ideas that tell you to ‘play the melody backwards’ or ‘let the bass take the lead’ (which are about as helpful as telling you to stand on your head), these ideas will help you write better compositions by adjusting your creative habits permanently:
1. Write in analogue: Or, to be more accurate, do as much of your writing away from the computer and away from your computer as you possibly can. Try to create fully formed musical ideas in your head, or on a guitar and make notes on paper as you go along. Yes, you read that right, on paper. Why? Because the act of physically making a mark on a sheet helps you to commit to your idea in a way that typing on a keyboard simply doesn’t. And committing to an idea, recording it properly and then moving on to the next task is how great songs are written and great records are made.
2. Write everyday… and attempt to write something you can be happy enough to play to others. You often hear this advice, but not many explanations of why it’s a good idea. Consider yourself a marathon runner: in order to run such a long way you have to work up to it, you have to train… everyday. Without the training, you will fail. It’s the same with writing: the more you write, the more likely you will turn out something great. And the more you write the clearer your own voice and style will become in your work. Both are good things.
3. Stop watching TV…specifically broadcast television, the kind of stuff you put on simply to fill the silence in your home. Television bombards you with images and sounds and stifles your thoughts, including the everyday creativity you rely on for your music. Consider how many commercials you consume everyday, each one instructing you to think or feel a certain way. Now imagine a world where that doesn’t happen at all. Nice isn’t it? You can get a long way towards that state of Nirvana by limiting your TV viewing to only the programs you actually want to watch. Better still, throw out your TV and…
4. Read books instead. Why read books when you can get all the information and entertainment you need from the web? The internet normally gives you byte-size chunks of information on demand, often without context. You think of some query, you put it into Google, you get your result and then move on. But with a book you are immersed in someone else’s vision, their creativity and their imagination for a sustained period. That’s the important bit; rather than taking a sip and moving on, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to view the world from another person’s perspective, thus giving your own imagination and creativity a workout. Speaking of which…
5. Listen to something other than your chosen genre everyday. Ask friends for recommendations, they’ll be happy to oblige. If you don’t have friends, read the many excellent music blogs or find playlists. Your knowledge of music will expand, you’ll hear ideas that hadn’t previously occurred to you and you might enjoy yourself in the process. And once you’ve done that you’ll be able to…
6. Make connections between ideas and styles that don’t currently exist. You could argue that’s all creativity is, finding new ways of combining ideas and concepts and discovering new developments. So do it, and don’t forget the Vulcan philosophy of ‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations’. It proved useful in many tricky situations on the Starship Enterprise, it might help you too.
7. Don’t rely on your memory. Carry a notebook. The person who said ‘if my idea is any good, I’ll remember it’ had too much time on their hands.
8. Collaborate. Having someone else with you when you work is one of the best disciplines you can have, and is probably the number one trick that stops you spending hours scrolling through presets. Just imagine how boring that must be to watch, let alone listen to? It’s the musical equivalent of window shopping.
9. Go for walks to clear your mind. Walking is better than any cup of coffee, cigarette or exotic substance that you might consider to refresh you. Even the act of walking into another room can help you adjust your mood, re-focus your mind. Try a jaunt to the shops, walk down to the park or simply a stroll around your studio to get your creative juices flowing again. And, if after all that you’re still not writing a hit…
10. Take a break from your work, a proper break that lasts at least an hour. It’s only music, nothing to get stressed about. We’ve got loads of it already!
Steve Hillier is a writer and record producer and with more than a dozen hits under his belt. An Apple Logic genius, when he isn’t producing and peforming, Steve can often be found teaching Sound Engineering Courses at Point Blank.