How To Turn A Flop Into A Smash Hit

When tunes go bad - it happens to us all, now and again. Unfortunately we're not talking about when a track mutates into a giant lizard and stomps all over the city (a sadly rare occurrence round these parts), but rather the much more prosaic situation where you just grind to a halt on a beat. You thought your main theme for the tune was good, but now it comes down to it, you just can't make it stay interesting for 5 minutes. In fact, you're not sure the idea was really any good in the first place. This week we look into a few techniques to fix a tune gone bad...

So what to do? You can't simply forget about it and move on to the next thing - you've put too much work in already. But then, there is that old adage about throwing good money after bad, and nobody wants to waste their time on something futile. There comes a point where your time would be better spent on something else. So the first thing to ascertain is, is the track really dead in the water, or have you just come to a creative impasse?

If it's the latter, you may just need a bit of a re-think to get unstuck. At this point you will no doubt have tried things like cutting out a couple of 16-bar sections to move the track along more quickly, or extending a section, or doubling a part (if not, try these at once), so you should consider some more substantive changes. Switch the bass patch from a dirty warping bass to a simple sub; add (or remove) a big floating pad chord to completely change the vibe of the track, change the tempo by 10 or 15 BPM to give yourself a totally different perspective on the groove.

There's a famous technique for helping with creative decisions on the web, titled 'Oblique Strategies'. Developed by legendary producer and visionary Brian Eno, these are a set of cards featuring abstract snippets and suggestions, designed to help you look at things in a new light. They bear slogans such as, 'only one element of each kind' - or 'emphasise differences' - and should give you pause to reconsider how you see the track. They're available for free online; google will sort you out in no time.

If the track really is beyond help, then it's time to be more radical. Scrap the entire arrangement and go back to your 4 or 8 bar loop, and drop most of the elements of the track, keeping just your favourite few aspects. Try writing a new bassline, melody, or switching your main sample around, essentially coming up with a new track that retains elements of 'the original'. It can be a wrench to acknowledge that the arrangement you had was not worth saving (back it up anyway, just in case), but if it was going nowhere, then you'll be more productive this way.

Still no joy? Then try bouncing down stems of your drums, bass, melody and so on. Now fire up an old idea that you gave up on ages ago, or better still - a set of remix parts that you haven't got around to tackling yet. Load the drums and other stems into this new project and see if that doesn't inspire you; you might need to timestretch things a little bit, but that doesn't matter for the moment. You can always fix those things properly later. The important part is that you're giving this remix or old tune a sudden injection of ideas, with drums and groove elements all ready to go. This can really result in tracks coming together very quickly, bypassing the "blank canvas" headscratching phase, and moving straight on to the arrangement. OK, so you're using two projects to create one tune, but that's better than having no tune at all!

If none of this works, then you may have to sadly accept that your track was simply never meant to be. No amount of creative lateral thought will transform that short loop into a top chart hit. Still though, this doesn't mean your time was completely wasted - you can mount a quick salvage operation to take the good parts out for future use. Bounce down any good loops, then take your drum hits and make a sampler instrument out of them for quick access next time. Do the same for the effects, and save the channel settings of any clever synth patches you created. Any 'found sounds' will remain unique and can be used in any of your other tracks, so be sure to grab those too, and if you've made any particularly clever melodies or harmonies, you could even export the MIDI files so that you can use these on a different patch in a different track sometime. And take heart that this happens to everyone - even top producers end up down a creative cul-de-sac from time to time, so you're in good company!

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