One of the most daunting tasks as a music producer can be starting a blank project. Your mind starts asking what genre… what bpm… what style… what synth… where do I start? In this article I am going to describe my basic writing process and what I found works for me. It will be step by step. This is a guideline. There are no rules, but I find myself using this logical progression a lot in the studio.
#1 START WITH THE VIBE
The first thing you are going to want to do is get in touch with the feeling of what you want to create. Check out this article on the Creative Mode to learn more about “getting in the mood”.
For this process I suggest just playing around. Just rock out with an idea. It could mean you play the guitar, keyboard, step sequencer, or whatever. Just make music with a sense of play for a little while as the vibe begins to emerge. Once you have this the rest can begin to fall into place.
I’d like to add that this is a give and take process through out writing music. I begin to feel out the vibe and idea of the track, but I am also fluid and move where it wants to go. Sometimes ½ way though the track I make this totally awesome synth section that feels more like acid house then glitch hop (what I was going for). I just follow that route. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The key is to come up with ideas and just play.
#2 GROUND ZERO
At this point I will start to build my track. I generally start in 1 of 2 places. If I am creating a more harmonically driven track (like ambient of downtempo) I will start with texture. I have used the Morphonic Textures as a great place to build lush textures. From this place I will start to hear different harmonies and melodies. It’s like starting off a canvas with a random texture and seeing what shapes can be found in it, like cloud watching.
If I am making a more rhythmic based track I will start with the beat. It will be the cornerstone of everything else, so I will start with it’s structure. Sometimes I just grab some prefab look. If I like the groove I will remake it by listening to the parts and writing a new midi / audio sample based looping. It’s important to create your own loop as quickly as possible so you don’t build the track around any other drum loop and when you build one later it just doesn’t fit.
#3 BUILDING THE INSTRUMENTS
Now that we have the foundation , either textural or rhythmic, we can start to build the other instruments involved. 80% of the time I start with the presets. It’s just really easy to throw in my favorite synth and play with a few sounds. I see which one inspires me. Maybe this rhodes is awesome, but needs a little saturation or attack. I then edit the preset and tweak it to my liking.
Usually I change it by ½ to ⅓ of what the original sound was. Just minor tweaks here and there to make it unique and fit what I want. It’s important to understand the basics of synthesis so you know what is happening and how to affect it in unique ways.
Once and a while I will start with a blank instrument, like operator. If I know exactly the sounds I am looking for, or it’s easy to make, I will just dial it in. A good example of this is sub bass. I know I can use a sine wave, or a triangle wave with a few tweaks here and there.
In building instruments remember you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean you have to build all the instruments from scratch. Do you think every band leader should know how to build a drum kit, guitar, bass, and cowbell? Granted if you do develop the skills of synthesis and sound design you will have a stronger control over the sound and can start doing the crazy synthesis shit.
#4 WORKING YOUR WAY UP
Now that we have a foundation, and starting to build out our instruments we now just work our way up the track. This image is a great example of the stems to build a track. Granted this is a rhythmic based track. If it were more ambient and textural I would just add a layer at the bottom.
This is also a very basic formula to look at with songwriting. If you start with the drums, then the bass has a groove to play off of. That helps support the groove in the guitar part and so on. If you started by recording your lead and vocal then later added drums you might notice there cadence was off. That is why this is a simple and logical progression for writing tracks. Not a rule, just one formula.
#5 BUILDING THE COMPOSITION
Now the parts are being built you are ready to start expanding the composition. I wrote an article showing off some tips and tricks with writing your composition. With the composition you are just expanding out the ideas you already created. Maybe you add an intro, break, new part B, or whatever the track wants to turn into.
KEEP ON KEEP’IN ON
That is a look into my process of building a track. The key is to cover that blank canvas as quickly as you can with the basic elements and let the evolution move you forward. Don’t get stuck in your head worrying about what the track should sound like. Let the track move you as much as you create the movement.
If you are an Ableton Live user, you might also want to check out this article on Fast and Furious Songwriting. It looks at some techniques in Live that can keep you moving in the creative process. This article and much more can be found in my one on one classes. If you want an in depth look at the creative process and techniques on speeding up your music production, then check out the Private Online Course, Fast and Furious Songwriting to get the music flowing.