Improving as a producer by forcing yourself to finish tracks

May 7, 2020 11:38 pm Published by

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Disclaimer: These are my personal thoughts about producing music and should be treated only as such. I do not claim to be a professional producer or songwriter and I only write about observations and ideas that I have stumbled upon during my years in music. The topics expressed here should only be used as a source of inspiration and not treated as guidelines on how to do certain things. That being said…

I follow several music production groups and I often stumble upon one topic in particular that I feel that warrants attention. Many aspiring producers seem to have trouble combining their ideas and to actually finish their tracks. The comments that I regularly encounter in the group discussions are something along the lines of:

“I have this cool idea but I’m having problems coming up with the following part”
“Currently I have a lot of ideas but can’t get them to work together”
“These two ideas of mine are great and I would like to build a song out of them but don’t know how”
“I have over 100 riffs and ideas but no songs finished”

I always get really confused when people exclaim that they “wrote 10 songs in a week” or that they have “fifty completed songs ready to be released”. My initial reaction is that there are two possible explanations for this. They are either super talented and have unlimited creativity, or they have just come up with some random ideas that they have saved to track templates, which they then call finished songs. Usually, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it is the latter. Yes, some people are super creative and talented and seem to come up with an endless stream of awesome ideas, but they really are an exception in my experience.

My personal definition of a finished track is that I can showcase it to anyone without making any excuses. If you have dozens and dozens of DAW projects lying on your drive and claim that they all are completed tracks, I have a question for you. Do you honestly feel, from the bottom of your heart, that all of them are good enough to be uploaded to global music services or to be shown to talented musicians and industry people and make an impression? If not, chances are you don’t really have anything finished, just a bunch of ideas with potential.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s really hard to write and produce tracks that sound good and are well structured. It’s not easy for experienced producers to write great and tight songs either, but the more experience you get, the more creative approaches you learn to use.

With experience, you learn creative thinking and patterns for finding solutions. For instance, you might have two cool ideas or riffs that you really like and would like to use to produce a complete track. What is your approach if the ideas don’t seamlessly or naturally work together? What should your workflow look like? There are no perfect answers since this varies from producer to producer, but for demonstration’s sake, here are a couple of questions I ask myself when encountering problems in the arrangement.

In which key are the two riffs? Should they be in the same key, or maybe in different keys to work better together? What’s the last chord of the first riff, and does it work together with the first chord of the second riff? What kind of rhythm, beat, or pulse do the parts have? Can I make the drum or rhythm pattern more similar to make the ideas better work together? Or are they too similar and need to be more distinctive to fit into a single track? Should I try to use another tempo? Maybe a break of a couple of bars between these two parts could make the track more interesting and improve the general flow? Sometimes really minor changes can make a world of difference. Search for clues in music around you!

The main thing you need to do is to experiment! At the risk of sounding cliché, I really think you should actively seek ways to think outside of your own small box. Listen analytically to other artists on how they build their songs and make transitions between parts. Could you try something similar? This is something I do a lot. First I try to find reference tracks that have some similarities to mine or parts that I like. Then I try to listen and figure out how the parts are combined together in the reference track. After this, I try to apply the same framework or mindset to my own songs. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but actively seeking solutions instead of just hoping to come up with something brilliant has proved to be very effective for me. Not all parts and ideas will work together. However, many will if you put in enough of an effort.

People are slaves to their habits. It’s easy to abandon something when it gets hard and start working on something else. This applies to many things, including producing music. The point I’m trying to make is that you should try to force yourself to finish tracks instead of just moving to the next new project if you don’t instantly come up with ways to work on the initial idea in question. It will not always be pleasant and it can even be infuriating at times when you feel that you don’t make any progress. The thing is though, you make progress as a producer even if your track doesn’t. Doing this regularly trains your problem-solving in music and is really helpful in the long run. One well-executed finished track is worth infinitely more than a hundred cool ideas.

So my advice for you is: go and finish your tracks even if it can be a pain in the ass sometimes. In the end, this is the way you will grow as a producer and a songwriter!