A couple of years ago I decided to make it my mission to find the cure for ‘writers block’. I had it all planned out, I started writing a book, testing new techniques and typing my results to a word document. I even took a little break from making music to do it. After overthinking the whole thing, I shelved the idea. I hadn’t written or typed anything since being at school and truthfully, wasn’t happy with how it read. Despite feeling passionately about the subject, I didn’t feel I was getting my words out properly.
At the same time I was noticing a change in the dubstep scene, a lot of producers were shifting to make different styles of music and some of the ones who stayed were finding it increasingly difficult to write music with the same level of innovation that dubstep had become known for when it broke through only a few years before, myself included.
I’m going to do a few posts on here about ‘writers block’, I feel like it’s a complicated beast to tackle, something more than a simple blog post can solve. In this first post I'm addressing some of the tactics you can employ at the start of the session, when I return back to this I’ll delve into some of the techniques that I’ve used and still use myself.
State of mind
The first thing you need to consider if you are suffering from writers’ block is, ‘are you in the right frame of mind?’ or more importantly, ‘are you doing enough to encourage the right frame of mind?’ Our mental states easily affect our ability to complete tasks, being creative is no different. It’s quite difficult to just decide to be relaxed if you aren’t, controlling what goes on in our heads isn’t something we always have complete control over. We can however, make changes to our environment. Personally, I’ve found that working with the lights off helps me to stay focused on the screen in front of me, emulating the typical climate you’d expect to see me play music in.
Other ways of improving your environment extend to making sure you are comfortable being in it. If you use a laptop you might find working in a bar or coffee shop helps you concentrate better on certain aspects of producing like developing a tracks structure for instance. Obviously, a busy bar or airport lounge isn’t best suited to mixdowns but I have written tracks this way, returning to the projects later on to mix down. Anecdotally, ‘Street Knowledge’ was written in All Bar One in Birmingham Airport while I waited to fly out to a gig.
Consistently finishing tracks is a difficult skill to pick up, it can take years of experience and practice to develop a process that works for you individually. I’ve tried plenty of methods offered by other people to improve the quantity of my own beats over the years in the hope of finding that 'golden nugget' of information that was missing from my brain, the last piece of the puzzle that has me writing beat-after-beat-after-beat like a machine. I’ve even bought books written by people in different industries, just to see if there was some super powered way of thinking that I haven’t harnessed yet.
Some of the books I've read on the subject. They didn't help me write music any better, but were interesting nonetheless.
The missing piece of the puzzle
Sadly, I don’t believe it exists. There’s no one size fits all method to any creative art and music, is particularly subjective. What I have done, is finish tracks in the past, my way.
Looking back at how you finished your tracks in the past holds the key to consistent results. If you can, think back to the processes involved in the last track you finished. What were the key points that helped you achieve this? From my own experiences, starting tracks with a bass riff gets me rolling, introducing new sections with variations in percussion help to bulk out the structure later on and so forth. During the latter stages of toying with the track layout, I look at adding sounds to emphasise key points like the drop or end of phrases such as white noise etc. As a result, I make a point to repeat those tasks every time I sit down to write a track.
The key take home from this is finding the methods that you’ve used successfully in the past and taking a mental note to ensure you do it again in the future. The more often you use these techniques, the lower the effort you’ll need to use to apply them in the future. Its like training muscle memory and in turn, you should find it will help you focus more on other aspects of the creative process.
Preparation is also part of this process. On a basic level, preparing some food or snacks to keep you fed and hydrated will aid you in your quest to get some real work done during a lengthy session. Getting up to make food takes time, you can get distracted watching videos on your phone while you wait for it to cook, you see where I’m going here.
The same applies to the tools you use while making music. Is it really a good idea to program new drum sounds each time you write a track? It sounds aspirational, it may even make a novel footnote in your press release. The truth is, the average person listening to your tracks can’t tell how long you spent making the kick drum, they probably haven’t heard of Sylenth and they probably don’t care that you used a preset from it either.
With that in mind, why not skip ahead? Keep a folder of sounds that you like, it can be from other sample packs or sounds you have used before, even ones you have made from scratch. Removing any task that you can from the overall songwriting process will make it simpler and easier in turn.
"The truth is, the average person listening to your tracks can’t tell how long you spent making the kick drum, they probably haven’t heard of Sylenth and they probably don’t care that you used a preset from it either."
Another way to go about this if you like to make your own sounds, is to dedicate sessions solely to making sounds to use later on. In the past, I’ve spent entire days just making folders of individual sounds to use in future productions.
Expanding on this idea, I recently attempted to make a song from start to finish without using an EQ or compression plugin. It made me rethink the sounds I used, I selected samples more carefully without my pro-q’s frequency spectrum to look at, if a sound had an odd ringing sound I didn’t draw to fix it right away either. On completing the track, I could fix all those nasty sounds in the mix down couldn’t I?
What I actually found was that bar one or two genuine sharp frequencies, I hardly touched plugins on the mix at all. I’d also been able to write my track smoothly without getting too hung up on fixing a sound before moving onto the next. I’m not saying this method will work every time, but I really recommend giving it a go.
Another block that you might face when writing, is the intimidation that comes from not knowing what to write. Staring at a blank project leaves you open to the blinding possibilities ahead and you lose the drive that inspired you in the first place. Well, it might not happen that way but you’ve probably experienced it in some form.
I myself, struggled for a long time with getting stuck halfway through a track because I would lose focus of what I was doing. I reached a point where I stopped creating and started thinking. Thinking about the sounds, changing volume levels and using plugins to mix my unfinished loops. Eventually, I would give up on the project because I’d lost interest in the whole thing. It’s possible those volume levels needed adjusting, the whole thing would definitely need a mixdown later on, what I failed to do was give myself enough tasks to work through to help me turn the loop into an arranged piece of music first.
By breaking down the song writing process into a list of tasks, you give yourself a series of small, achievable things to do that help you achieve your end goal.
By breaking down the song writing process into a list of tasks, you give yourself a series of small, achievable things to do that help you achieve your end goal. As you check off each task, you increase the likelihood of progression, and earn satisfaction from completion, enabling you to move seamlessly and without distraction. For example, I’ve put together a list of things I might do to put together the beginnings of a new track:
Building a groove
- Select a kick drum
- Select a snare drum
- Select a closed hi hat
- Select a bass sound
- Position snare on 3rd hit of each bar
- Position kick on first hit of 2 bar loop
- Position bass sound in a 2 bar loop
- Position additional kicks to complement groove and positioning of bass sound
- Position hi-hat, ensuring it fits with where the kicks and snares hit
If someone had asked me to ‘build a groove’ and passed me this list, instantly I would have a clear guideline of what I needed to do. All of those tasks are more than likely something you are familiar with and don’t need to think too much about, if at all. However, by actioning each process, ticking it off the list along the way, you have tangible proof of the work you’ve done and it shouldn’t feel like you’ve been sat doing nothing.
Moreover, its not as easy to get distracted when you have clear guidelines laid out in front of you. It’s no different to writing a shopping list before going to the supermarket.
And another thing, it feels good seeing something through to completion, especially when you look back on a track that you completed from nothing. Having a list to work through lets you sample a little bit of that good feeling each time you finish a task.
Hopefully some of those things point you in a direction that gets you closer to breaking through any creative issues you are experiencing and if you like the post or think it could help anyone else you know, please give it a share. If it inspires even just one person to make a kick-ass track, that would be pretty sweet.
The drawings in this post are from the seminal 'Akira' series by Katsuhiro Otomo. I really recommend giving the movie a watch if you are unfamiliar with it.