How to stay creative away from the studio, DAW, and vocal booth

Many of us aren’t able to dedicate as much time to creating music as we wish we could.

There are a myriad of reasons why this may be the case — perhaps you have a laborious career, a family to tend to, a busy college semester, or even a seemingly endless touring cycle that’s keeping you away from the studio. While all of these other pursuits can absolutely be rewarding in their own ways, being away from making music for long periods of time can be a serious creative pain point.

The key to keeping the creative energy flowing despite our hectic lives is maximizing the less eventful moments in our schedules, and capturing the little ideas that pop into our heads when we least expect it. By doing these things regularly, we can also make the best use of the times when music does have our undivided attention. Below, we share a few practices (organized by focus) for staying inspired away from your creative space, whether that’s the studio, DAW, or vocal booth.

Lyrics

1. Read on your commute

There’s more to developing yourself as an artist than making music. Do you have times in your week where you’re just sitting in a train or bus? Pick up a novel from your public library or local bookstore and turn your commute into a reading session. Engaging with stories can stimulate our imagination, broaden our emotional horizons, and inspire new lyrical and compositional ideas.

If you want to do something that’s more immediate to music, using your commute to analyze the lyrics of a favorite song or two can be a fruitful exercise too. When we listen to music, many of us often gloss over the lyrics and experience the song as a whole; taking the time to focus on them in isolation can illuminate unique word choices, rhyme schemes, and more that can influence our own writing.

2. Carry a small journal with you

Here’s another idea that’s especially great for commutes: consider getting a small journal that you can throw into your bag when you head out in the morning, and use it to draft new song ideas on-the-go. Get as granular or abstract as you want; write down exact lyrics, or just broad themes that you may want to revisit later. By having the journal as a thought starter, you don’t have to start with a blank slate when you sit down to write or record later.

Using a notes app on your smartphone works totally fine for this one too, and in some ways it can be a more convenient alternative. However, if you’re easily distracted by email notifications, social media messages, etc., then keeping a dedicated physical journal may be the way to go.

Melodies

1. Use your voice memos app 

Does a random melody ever pop into your head when you’re out and about? Don’t let it get away from you! By the time you find yourself in front of your DAW, at best you’ll remember that you had some sort of tune earlier in the day (but totally forget how it went). Instead of forfeiting these ideas to the limitations of our fleeting memories, sing into your phone’s built-in voice memos app to capture ideas on the fly. Don’t worry if you’re not a great vocalist — you just have to get the gist of it for your brain to fill in the details.

Of course, the challenge is when you’re self-conscious and in a crowded area. If this happens… keep looping the idea in your head until you have a few feet to yourself (or just go for it knowing that you’ll never see the people around you ever again, and they probably wouldn’t notice or care anyways).

2. Experiment with musical “blind contours”

A blind contour refers to a drawing exercise where an artist draws a subject without looking at the paper. Doing the musical version of this (i.e. notating a piece of music without listening to it) can yield some interesting results, and we don’t need to have our instrument or DAW in front of us to make it happen. Just draw out a staff (or sketch a rough MIDI grid, if that’s how you operate), and try writing down a melody that you thought of in your head.

When you get to your workstation, input your melody and take a listen to the result. This can be a fun ear training exercise if you keep striving to get the result sounding closer to what you initially imagined. The musical blind contour can also generate some happy accidents that you wouldn’t have naturally thought of if you had your ears to guide you.

Production

1. Create production-minded playlists

If you listen to music while you’re working, on the bus, at the gym, etc., consider making a playlist of songs that are in some way tailored to a particular track you’re currently working on. Maybe there’s a specific chord progression, rhythmic idea, or synth timbre in your favorite artists’ music that you want to emulate in your own work. This playlist can serve as a list of ideas to try out in your own track when you finally have the chance to sit down in front your DAW. The tracks may also end up being good reference tracks when it comes time to master your song.

2. Gather specific sounds that inspire you

Another creative practice worth getting in the habit of is gathering specific one-shots, loops, etc. for later use. The best way to do this is via the Splice mobile app, which allows you to carry the expansive Splice Sounds library in your pocket. With it, you can browse, preview, and download sounds while you’re in line at the grocery store or on your way home from work. Your sounds sync seamlessly across the Splice Sounds mobile and desktop apps, so when you’re back at a DAW and ready to create, the sounds that spoke to you are waiting.

Similar to playlisting, the mobile app is great for identifying specific ideas that you want to incorporate into a project you’ve already started. That said, it’s also great for inspiring brand new song ideas while you’re away from your workstation. The app is currently available for both iOS and Android.

Hopefully these practices will help you stay inspired in those moments where you’re not in your dedicated creative space. Do you have any favorite tips or tricks for staying creative that we didn’t cover above? Let us know in the comments below.

November 19, 2019

Harrison Shimazu Harrison Shimazu is the editor of the Splice blog and a composer for video games and film.