It’s one of the most familiar problems to anyone who writes electronic music. You’ve written a great beat, a solid bassline, and a couple of decent ideas for hooks. Your embryonic track now stands as an 8 bar loop at the beginning of your DAW window, which you’ve just spent the last half hour happily muting and unmuting channels. All it needs now is for you to tease it out into a 5 minute arrangement, and your work here will be done. But…. somehow, as soon as you start to copy those parts out, they seem to lack movement, interest and detail. The excitement is lost and your progress grinds to a halt as you realise that your exciting loop gets boring after 90 seconds. What to do? Well, you can try throwing ideas at it – maybe the kitchen sink will help. Or, you can try writing a slightly different way….
One of the main issues here is that copying and pasting 8 bar sections simply isn’t an interesting thing to do. It doesn’t get you excited, and it’s certainly not a natural way of composing music. And that lack of excitement can sometimes show through; as you laboriously draw in edits, fills and automation tweaks, there is limited potential for improvisation or sudden flashes of inspiration.
What you need is some element of performance. Something ‘live’ to bring the fun back. This can be done in a number of ways. The most obvious is simply to get a good hardware controller. Then you can arrange your tracks somewhat on the fly; set up some channel controls, hit record, and jam the track as you see fit. This will give you the chance to go on what you feel, rather than what your eyes are telling you – if you think something needs an extra four bars, or it should all break down to the kick drum at one point, it’s a lot easier to just jam that in.
Don’t forget also to assign some common automation parameters to your hardware controller too; filter cutoffs, delay returns, reverb sends – whatever you commonly use. By jamming these in live, you can get a much more natural vibe than those geometric curves that your DAW would try to impose on you otherwise.
But all this supposes that you’re happy enough with your 8 bar loop in the first place. What if you can’t quite find the missing link that will get you to the stage of arranging the track? This is when hardware really comes into its own. It’s time to start messing around. What you can do will depend on what hardware you have, but there are plenty of options. Try taking one of your MIDI riffs, and sending it to a hardware synth or sound module. Send the MIDI from a drum track to a synth line, or vice versa, and then start tweaking the parameters of the sound; filter, envelopes, and so on. Transpose it so it’s in the right key, and voila – some new riff ideas.
Next, try writing some kind of percussive riff, and run it out through any hardware you can get your hands on. Whether it’s a synth with an audio input, a delay unit, or just an old DJ mixer with some effects built in. Now hit record on your DAW and start jamming away. Go as crazy as you can – distort it, mess it up, see what noisy racket you can build up and break down. Record a good 10 minutes of this, trying everything you can think of. Now when you go back to your track you suddenly have loads of options for inspiration. Chop out a single bar of the take for a random fill or edit. Cut a two-minute section out, layer it quietly into your track and let it provide detail and development as you build around it, without the need to chuck effects and edits in every 8 bars. Or if it turned out really well, you could push it way up front and let it be a main feature of the track. Whatever you do, a 10 minute take will provide you with several minutes of sound that evolves and develops, in a way that would take a lot more than 10 minutes to program, and with a lot more potential for improvisation and creative thought!
What if you don’t have any of these things though, and are stuck just with a laptop and a pair of headphones? Well, a mouse (or trackpad) is never the most intuitive interface for communicating musical ideas. But you can get some more ‘live’ feeling vibes by going in on the automation of your track. For instance, put some effects plugins on your channel, and start jamming with some of the parameters. Start recording these (Ableton Live handles this very well indeed, while Logic will need the ‘Latch’ function enabled on the automation window) and again, record 10 minutes or so of yourself tweaking delays, reverbs, filters, even pitch-shifters and autotuners. It may feel awkward, but it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll come out with ideas in real time that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered (or more often, sadly, that you’ll have considered and then rejected on the basis that they would take too long to program). Once you’ve got a longish take to play with, you can then bounce it down to audio, re-import it to your project and start chopping away.
The crux of all these suggestions, however, is that you jam out the ideas first, and then work them into the track later. Get 10 or 15 minutes of just freeform randomness into your DAW, unrestricted by considerations of whether it will be practically useful in the track, and you’ll soon find a sense of fun and creativity that’s very difficult to replicate by cutting and pasting blocks of MIDI data. And that can reinvigorate even most basic of ideas. So take a look around you, see what you can use to mangle the sounds in your tunes, and start having some fun. It could turn out to be some of the most productive fun you’ve had in a while…..
Categories: Basic Production