Illustration: Lan Truong
If you ever find yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed, combing through a hard drive of unfinished work, you’re not alone.
Ask any producer and you’ll find that everyone tends to accumulate a dizzying vault of ideas. While we all like to revel in the joy of free-form creation from scratch, no one likes to see good sessions recede into the void of work never to be finished. In a previous article, we examined practices we can put into place to get over the emotional hurdles that can arise after tackling a creative project. In this article, let’s explore some practical and creative strategies to breaking the spell of unfinished work.
Before we dive in, bear in mind this crucial caveat: not every session needs to be finished! Some sketches are best to let remain sketches. Not every exercise is worthy of the effort that goes into execution and there’s nothing wrong with letting some ideas be nothing more than a learning experience. The problem is when none of your ideas are being seen through to completion. The best first step you can take is to identify the work that is worth being finished.
1. Diamonds in the rough
Get organized, clean up your hard drive, and find the diamonds in the rough. Again, not every single session you ever started is a worthy candidate of being finished; find the sessions that are and pull them aside. I might recommend creating a new folder on your hard drive. Looking at a clean folder of only quality work can do wonders for your clarity and motivation.
Bounce your work. Export demos. Get in the habit of keeping a copy of the track in a session folder where you can quickly and consistently reflect on your works in progress. Throw your demos into your iTunes library (or wherever you listen to music) as well. It doesn’t matter if the track isn’t good yet. The point is for you to be able to reflect on why it isn’t, and develop ideas in the interim between your sessions. You’ll already know what to do next time you hit the studio if you’ve made a mental (or physical) list of edits while listening on the train, in the car, or walking the dog.
As you continue to listen and reflect, you may see some themes emerge. Pay close attention to these. You might notice a recurring sound palette that feels integral to your identity. Some tracks might sound a part of the same world. Watch for these signs; an album or EP may be forming.
3. Macro before micro
From a production standpoint, think big picture before you get granular. Yes, sound design can happen alongside composition, but if you’ve spent one hour tweaking a snare drum before making any headway on your arrangement, you’ve strayed too far from the trail.
1. Reprogramming your headspace
The psychology around finishing carries us in the direction of more creative strategies. If you experience a sense of anxiety around finishing, you can reorient your mentality around it. Trick yourself into finding the joy of “starting” in the “finishing” process. The freedom of creation from scratch can mean the creation of a new section for a track you’re working on.
2. Composition by subtraction
One of the daunting aspects of finishing a production is arrangement / sequencing. While an entire course could be taught on the topic, one approach that combats the paralysis of staring at a blank canvas is composition by subtraction. For many producers it’s not an issue making a loop and layering with instrument after instrument, but translating that into a musical narrative on the timeline is another story.
If you find yourself bewildered by this step, trying duplicating your loop for every instrument across the timeline for several minutes. You should now be looking at a big block of material from which you can carve out your sequence. Begin removing parts here and there, trying out different permutations of combinations, and creating dynamic range.
This approach plays on the relative ease of subtracting versus adding. It invites us to think of music as sculpture, which is creating from a place of abundance as opposed to scarcity.
3. Self discipline
Lastly, consider embracing a bit of self discipline. Be flexible and kind to yourself in the studio, but don’t submit to the temptation to play around and make something from scratch, at least not every time. Even when finishing a work in progress sounds like less fun, remember that finishing is a skill in itself that needs to be developed. Think of “finishing” as a muscle that needs just as much exercise as “starting.” Consider a loose ratio such as finishing one track for every five that your start. By spending as much time finishing as you do starting, you’ll be keeping a balanced practice.
August 2, 2021