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Your Unfinished Tracks

If you are anything like me, you’re likely to have hundreds of unfinished tracks lying around on various MacBooks, PCs, and even mobile sequencers. You probably have countless unused chord progressions, patches and samples that you came up with in the heat of the moment and then forgot about because you got distracted, lost the inspiration, or simply felt it “wasn’t good enough.”

This is a common challenge of producers: we operate in a medium where our own inspiration is the driving force and because there is nobody else to carry the load and we are typically such hard task masters, it’s very easy to shut down the project in its early or even later stages. But as the old cliche goes, creation is one percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. The following is a guide to what to do the next time you find yourself ready to throw in the towel.

Focus on the process and the result will come:

If the idea or concept you had was so amazing that it inspired you to pick up your Macbook or synth or bass guitar and start laying down a groove for twenty minutes before you lost your mojo, then it’s probably worth pursuing. It’s kind of like riding your bike down a hill, the first bit is easy and you don’t have to do any work, (momentum does that for you) but as the ground levels out you eventually start paddling. Let me tell you, most of music production is pedalling.

Thinking that you’re just going to breeze through every track totally unassailed by boredom or difficulty is a fantasy – it’s hard work. But it’s all worth it. Once you have your basic idea, refuse to deviate from it. Just keep plugging away at it, you’ll get there, or at least far closer to where you want to be than you were before.

Keep learning:

You gotta’ learn to love learning. In his excellent book Mastery, author Robert Greene talks about about an escalated cycle of returns that occurs once you reach a certain degree of competency in a task. In this case we’re probably talking about mastery of your DAW of choice. If you’re just starting and don’t know what automation or phase cancelling or any of that technical stuff is, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and just go “It’s all too hard! I can’t do it!” And maybe that’s true, you can’t do it all right now. But you can get really good at learning how to do it. Pick something that you really want to emulate.

Say you’d like to know how to sidechain your whole mix to get that ‘pumping’ sound, start digging around online for how to side-chain. BassGorilla is an excellent place to start and you will surprise yourself at how easy it is to make huge leaps in changing your sound. But the results should be secondary – focus on getting better and reward yourself for pushing your own envelope (no pun intended.)

Once you get to a point of loving the process of making it better, and a bit better still, not only will your sound production skill have increased tenfold but you will be able to work for longer periods of time. The initial spark of “This is the greatest thing since Scary Monsters and Nice Spites” will be replaced by a quiet intensity of focus and willingness to get the job done which is ultimately far more satisfying and more likely to get your track to completion.

Learn to create a ‘scaffold’ for your track and then build around that:

Plenty of producers forget that arrangement and songwriting are completely different skills. The style of music that I create is predominantly song form based but even if you are trying to create Beatport bangers, you need a scaffold to work from. The number of times I’ve been half or a third of the way through a song and then thought to myself “I have no idea where to go from here…” Motivation obliterated.

You always need a next step. Learn to break it down into small chunks so that if you ask yourself “What am I trying to achieve here?” you can answer it in a sentence. For example: “I am trying to write a bassline for this verse,” or “I am EQ-ing the vocals so that they don’t clash with the lead synth.” You must be as specific as possible. Once you know exactly what you want to do, you will be amazed at how easy it is to get it done.

It sounds simple but do not underestimate this process.

As well as specificity you have to be working towards something significant in terms of your track. You must work from the outside in: get your structure, basic beat, vocals, basslines chord patterns and melodies down first and DO NOT OBSESS OVER THEM. They don’t have to be perfect just yet. Remember it’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.

You don’t want to spend 6 hours on something that is ultimately going nowhere because you painted yourself into a box. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if your hihat is -4.5 dB’s or -4 dB’s so don’t spend 20 minutes agonising over it. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. I suggest you start to make a habit of pulling yourself up on how significant what you’re working on is.

It may be fun to tweak for hours at a time but you may need to delete that section if it doesn’t flow properly into the next one so don’t waste your time on the specifics if the big picture isn’t sorted. Don’t bother making the icing until you’ve baked the cake, which dovetails with my next point…

Focus on the hard bit:

I know you will happily spend two hours making a perfect super saw patch on Massive that sounds like it’s going to split the world in two. Me too. But if you’ve been doing that for years, your time and energy is likely better spent on things that you aren’t as strong on, especially if they’re important. For example, I like to record virtually all my own vocals because I am a control freak, but quite frankly I’m often a little insecure in my vocal abilities at times.

Consequently, I put off doing them until the last minute. And we all know what happens when you try and lay a vocal melody over a finished track – a lot of the time it doesn’t fly. This can be very frustrating. What I’ve started doing is recording a guide track with a guitar and just me singing so I know that the vocals will work on top of the chords (Madeon recommends this as well on his Reddit AMA which I make a point of reading every month or so).

The point is, get into doing the hard bit as soon as you can, whether that be focusing on structure, making sure your sounds gel together in an EQ sense or focusing on sound design. Once you’ve sussed that bit, the rest of it will be easy so if you know you’re going to butt up against it at some point you may as well confront it while you have the inspiration and energy to tackle it.

Even if you HATE it, finish it and call it a learning experience:

Working on a track for weeks or even months and realising that you just don’t care about it anymore is an experience we all go through. Its all just too hard, the baseline is crap, the drums sound like they were recorded in a paper back and the vocals are dull and lifeless. But you know what? Do it anyway.

Finish it and put it out. Bach finished all his work and subsequently he is one of, if not, THE most highly regarded musicians of all time. Once you’ve finished it and put it out you may never want to hear it again but I promise you, you will be proud that you finished it. Completing a track will give you valuable experience, not only in mixing and mastering if you self master it, but the act of completion itself will setup a valuable precedent in your mind. You’ll also have a reference point for next time, not to mention some sweet patches to call on.

Set yourself a reasonable deadline and decide you won’t seriously work on anything else until it’s done:

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and nowhere is this more true than creative endeavours. If you have a goal and decide that no matter what you’re going to have that rack done by Thursday, you will get it done. Of course, if it’s Wednesday and you haven’t started don’t make that goal. Steve Jobs had a theory called a ‘reality distortion field’ that if you really need to get something done and make it the number one priority, you could do it.

This certainly worked for him (a few distraught employees aside) but remember to take this in moderation. How many hours do you take to finish a track? I read Porter Robinson and Madeon take about 50 hours to complete a track, Wolfgang Gartner takes about 40.

It really depends on how much detail you want to put into it; if you’re just making a beat for a rapper, you could possibly churn one out in 90 minutes. Personally, I tend to spend about two and a half weeks on a track, assuming perhaps two hours a day (so maybe 30 odd hours) but it really depends. Remember if your basic structure and melody is off, it doesn’t matter how much time you sink into it.


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Work to your own rhythm:

Some people like to wake up first thing in the morning and make a beat. Others find inspiration at 2am in the morning and work until dawn. Some people make music on their lunch breaks. Some people wait until they get home from work and then go until dinner. Any of these approaches are valid, however, it’s unlikely that all of them will work for you.

Develop a habit of producing at a certain time. I tend to get up in the morning and due to the nature of my work, I will work for two hours from maybe 10 until midday. Ideally you want to be working on it every waking minute (and once you get into the habit, believe me you will want to) but obviously that’s not a viable reality for most of us.

 Keep listening to and viewing things that inspire you:

Hard work may be the fuel that drives your track, but inspiration is the the GPS guiding you to your destination. You can get inspired by all sorts of things: movies, video games, music, books. Even a strong cup of coffee can get you in a creative mood.

I went to an art gallery the other day and it made me realise how much I appreciate fine details in things – suffice it to say, I went home and made a very complex beat. Knowledge and inspiration is what keeps us hungry when we’re feeling dejected so don’t neglect it.

Stick to your original vision, but don’t obsess on perfection, it is a mirage:

We sometimes have a perfect version of a song we’re making in our heads and exactly how we want it to sound, or at least a similar track or style. You should use this as a guiding force, however, experimentation is just as important so don’t get carried away making car alarm style sirens when you’re trying to make a deep house cut.

Until you hit the point of mastery a la Skrillex, Flux Pavillion or Knife Party, it just won’t sound quite like it does in your head. Eventually, you can get pretty close, but that sort of ability takes years and years. Accept that it will never sound “totally perfect” and learn to work with what you have and love it for what it is.

Believe in yourself and your abilities:

Make no mistake, you have the capacity to make really great music – music that people around the world will love. The only difference between you and anyone else making music right now is the size of your dream and time.

It is a long, difficult road, but if you stay on it you will get to where you want to be. And the only person who is going to allow you to stay on that road is you. So get to work, you can do it.


About the Author:

Hailing from sunny Manly, in Sydney, Australia, Nice Girls Can’t Dance is the moniker of Alex Eldridge’s electro house/chillwave/blahblahgenreblah project. After spending years touring and practicing in tiny garages for little job satisfaction and less money, Alex had his tiny fragile mind blow by awe inspiring thunder that is Justice’s first album ‘Cross’ (sic) and decided to turn full time to his other hobby of producing electronic music, which he has been doing more or less consistently since he was 13. Fusing the French duo’s merciless slabs of square wave with a love of wordplay in the vein on the Arctic Monkeys and LCD Soundsystem, and occasionally a more contemplative side closer to, say, Steely Dan writing trap music on acid, his sound is completely twisted. Alex also owns a children’s guitar school in Manly, Sydney where he earns his keep quietly defiling young minds with rock n’ roll.


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