We're overwhelmed with endless scope and choice in the modern studio environment. Simple tasks can be executed in a multitude of ways, unlimited sounds and instruments can be explored at the touch of a button, any imaginable piece of gear can be brought up in software form, and any musical idea - no matter how simple or complex - can be saved and recalled instantaneously.
Thanks to all of these factors, the infamous 'writer's block' is now the curse of the modern producer. Symptoms include overworking a simple musical idea into an overblown mess, abandoning projects that are 89-90% finished to start something new, or cold sweats and sleepless nights at the mere prospect of turning an eight-bar loop into a six-minute record. Some only experience these struggles on occasion, whereas others have severe 'loopitis': a chronic condition that keeps the sufferer stuck in an endless cycle, preventing them from completing anything musically worthwhile.
Can we train ourselves to break out of the loop and naturally develop unfinished sketches into full-blown masterpieces? And can we craft inspiring material that will inherently encourage fascinating arrangements? With these track-completing tips by your side, the answer is a resounding 'yes'!
For more advice on getting tracks finished, pick up Future Music issue 306.
1. Become a track finisher!
There's nothing as depressing as realising your hard drive is filling up with incomplete sketches and abandoned ideas. The harder you try, the less music you finish, and the track finishing process becomes more difficult as time passes since your last completed record.
Set out to break negative habits by finishing a track. Any track. It doesn't matter how awful this track is, as long as you completely finish it. Once that's done, finish another. And another. Eventually, you'll mentally recondition yourself as a 'track-finisher', and you can use this positive momentum to improve quality as well as quantity.
2. Pare back your equipment
Are you more of a gear hoarder than an actual musician? Too much choice can be overwhelming, so get music finished faster by limiting your tools to the bare essentials.
3. Improve productivity with a notepad
Starting a new track is enjoyable, but forcing yourself to go back and finish an incomplete idea isn't anywhere near as fun. One proactive way to keep on track is with a simple notepad and pen. Open a half-finished project, being sure to approach it with fresh ears, then have a single listen through and make notes based upon your instant impressions. Which parts need changing? Perhaps a breakdown needs extending or shortening? Maybe certain automation sweeps need adjusting to maximise tension? Write a list, then work your way back through it and tick items off one by one.
4. Keep the end in sight
Make the final arrangement your main goal when designing sounds. Don't just create one static drum loop: instead, generate variations, evolutions and automated copies that can be strung together and change throughout the track
5. Harvest material for future sessions
A hard drive full of incomplete projects and eight-bar loops can be very disheartening, each one serving as a reminder of your failures as a producer. However, it's easy to turn this negative into a positive. Think of every unfinished sketch as a source for new material that will fuel your future sessions. Set aside a studio session and trawl back through your unfinished projects, rendering out useful audio one-shots and loops to your samples folder - being sure to label the filenames with key and tempo. Also, save synth presets, effects chains and channel strips to give you track-finishing ammo for the future.
6. A/B compare
Many mixing and mastering engineers use professional records as a sonic benchmark when making processing decisions. Do the same when composing: analyse the layout of popular tracks and borrow ideas from them for your own.
7. Manage your time in the studio
As producers, there's nothing we love more than kicking back for an evening and jamming out with a bunch of synths and drum machines. But where do you draw the line between hobbyist and professional? Are you doing this to make some cool sounds, or to get actual music out there? We'd advise you to focus upon time management and effort.
We can all apathetically twiddle synths and plugins, but it takes dedication and planning to force tracks out the door and into the hands of DJs and labels. Book studio time, set yourself deadlines and force yourself to finish everything you start.
8. Start the clock
Get tracks laid out by setting yourself a time limit. Got an evening spare in the studio? Set a three-hour timer and get to work!
9. The quickfire approach
When you're in a particularly creative mood, sit down and fire out a collection of separate 8- or 16-bar loops and track sketches. In addition to the core elements, lay down plenty of FX, filler parts, rhythmic markers and other incidental sounds - not only providing 'ear candy', but also providing potential material for the later arrangement stage.
Once you've sapped your creative juices by building up a collection of individual ideas, forget about them and do something else. Then, when you hit a creative drought in another session, you can easily return to these projects: audition them, pick out a favourite, then concentrate on finishing your in-progress arrangement using the multitude of sounds you've already prepared.
This quickfire method is especially useful when you have a forthcoming collaboration planned, as you can generate a rapid succession of ideas in preparation for the session - or even for those times when you feel you need a session of 'arrangement training'.