Chris Lyth has a six-week plan for getting yourself out of a creative slump
Has your productivity suffered during lockdown? From the conversations that I’ve had with fellow producers at different levels and different stages of their career, it seems that it has for a lot of people.
A number of reasons for this have been discussed, and what soon becomes clear from talking to people is that many, if not most of us are struggling with distractions, anxiety, motivation and focus. Other issues are a lack of workflow, structure and a solid goal to work towards.
So how about looking at a method of working that could potentially yield an album’s worth of material in six weeks – with only an hour’s work a day? The theory here is that if you're making music every day, then by the law of averages you'll hit upon a few great ideas among a great many more average ones. The important thing is that you are creating finished products, which you can then pick from at a later date.
People get ready
Before we can go any further, we first need to eradicate any mental barriers that stop you being creative. You need to update your software, your chair is uncomfortable, you need to rearrange your studio… all those small problems that don't actually prevent you from writing music, but that you somehow you always seem to think of just when you're about to get down to work.
So take a few hours to tackle all the small problems. Download those must-have samples, reinstall that software, swap out that broken lead. Now, promise yourself that once these tasks are complete, you will not be distracted again – because as sure as night follows day, other problems will mysteriously manifest themselves. Ignore them: once your gear is set up and capable of making music it is time to start.
Okay, so now you're sitting comfortably… I'll begin.
The master plan
The scheme I'm proposing is that, over the next six weeks, you aim to record, arrange and mix down 14 new tracks. That sounds like a lot, doesn't it – especially if we're only working for an hour or so a day?
But remember: the aim here is productivity, not perfection! At the end of the six weeks, you might have 14 absolute bangers on your hands, or 14 absolute duds. More likely, you'll have a few of the latter – and hopefully a few of the former, too. But you should definitely have got your creative juices flowing again, and hopefully this way of working might boost your productivity in the longer term, too.
The plan is to work on one track for one hour a day, every day. Weeks one and two are all about generating ideas: spend one hour each day coming up with rough sketches for tracks (one per day), so that by the end of the two weeks you will have 14 fledgling tracks.
In weeks three and four you'll revisit those tracks, in the same order, and spend one hour max on arranging your ideas. And then finally in weeks five and six, you'll mix them down and make any final adjustments – again, working on each track in turn, for one hour each day.
The idea here is not only to separate the tasks into manageable blocks of time, but also to focus our full creative attention intently on each separate discipline without distraction. We want to move quickly and productively, without getting bogged down with decision paralysis or other forms of creative dissonance. After all, one of the main reasons for getting stuck in the middle of a track is that we start to second guess ourselves and question our intentions – this has laid many a promising idea to rest.
Your musical judgment is, of course, vitally important – it’s at the very centre of your art. But for this exercise, the inquest must come after we have completed Phase Three on all tracks. We are looking to become lean, mean, track-finishing machines!
That's the general idea. Now let’s look at each phase in more detail…
Weeks 1 & 2: Idea generation
Have a DAW template (or a few different ones) ready so that all your instruments and effects are loaded and ready to go. The genesis of an idea can be fleeting, so we must work fast to unleash all of our ideas. An hour is more than enough time to get down the rough idea for a track into your sequencer, if you set your mind to it and are prepared!
Work broadly and quickly, and get all your beats, melodies and musical parts down as rapidly as possible. Record everything, tweak synths and FX, and create multiple versions of melodic phrases and beats with subtle differences. Personally I find that working in 16- or 32-bar patterns works best, as it builds in variation over time, and listening to a longer passage is more interesting than a shorter one. But you can of course make shorter loops from these long patterns later if needs be.
Roughly balance your mix using just the faders, but take no more than a minute or two to do so. Don’t be temped into getting that bassline sounding super-fat with EQ and compression, because you'll lose focus! All of that work can be done in Phase Three.
If you're struggling to make a start (and there’s absolutely no shame in this, many of us do!), try importing the back-end of a track that you particularly like into your DAW, looping it up and then jamming some parts over it. Start with melodic ideas, then gradually lay over some drum parts and a bassline. Then, once you've jammed out enough melodic and percussive ideas over your “inspiration track”, just remove it!
If you have time, write some fills and flourishes that can be dropped in to pepper the arrangement when required. Small augmentations at key points in your track can make a surprisingly dramatic impact.
Weeks 3 & 4: Arrangement
All being well, you'll have had lots of fun jamming out ideas over the past couple of weeks. Now, on Day 15, it’s time to open up the very first track that you started. One of the great things about this method is that you'll most likely have forgotten how it sounds until you hit Play and it slowly starts coming back to you. Now, with renewed objectivity, you can listen back and quickly start to isolate the good parts from the bad.
You may find that you have enough material for more than one track: this is a crucial juncture. Decide fairly quickly on a direction, and save the other possible direction under another name with a quick note.
Having a clear idea about your direction is important. Decide if your track is going to be aimed squarely at the dancefloor, a beatless ambient piece or a typically structured song with verse, chorus, bridge etc, as this will impact on the decisions you are about to make. If you are very new to production and find the arrangement daunting, have a look here for a few ideas.
Most software (particularly Ableton Live and Logic 10.5) has the ability to perform and record a rough arrangement by triggering different musical phrases and loops on the fly. This is a great way of arranging: it feels very natural because you are triggering parts when it feels right.
Once your basic arrangement is down, tidy up anything that wasn’t meant to happen: bum notes, clips that were triggered by accident, etc. Then start to add some automation, filtering lines or fading parts in and out. Treat each part as a living breathing instrument, in order to build depth and drama to your arrangement.
Now do this for each of your other 13 tracks for the next 13 days.
Weeks 5 & 6: Mixing
Now we're reaching the home straight, we're going to go back to your first track again and complete it. The great thing about this three-stage process is that you get hear your tracks with objectivity. How important this is for clarity of vision and freshness can't be overstated.
On your first listen, jot down anything in the arrangement that, in the cold light of day, needs attention: for example if a section goes on too long and loses your interest. Once your arrangement is complete, we can then look at quickly mixing your track.
This technique is very quick and will get your mix in good shape within twenty minutes…
1. Follow the process below to get a usable basic mix balance. It’s only a ballpark range, so don’t get too hung up on the numbers, but they should work as a starting point. You're going to need to watch your peak volumes on your master channel. Either look at the number read-out on your DAW master, or put a dedicated level meter plug-in on it.
* Pull all your channels down to zero except your Master and Aux. Bring up the kick until it hits -12db on your master channel, then bring up your snare/ clap so that it pushes up the level on your master to -10db. Now bring in the rest of your hats and other percussion, keeping all of this under -10db.
* Now for your bass! Bring this up so that your master channel is sitting between -10db and -8db. If it’s difficult to keep it in this range, then it’s telling you a story (a sure candidate for compression). Now add everything else, balancing it all out so that your entire master is peaking at no more than - 6b. This will likely be the most challenging part, but once achieved this should have your mix sitting at a relatively decent balance.
2. Cut out any frequencies below 100Hz on all channels except kick drum and bass. As you start chiselling away with EQ and compression, keep an eye on your master peak so that your individual levels are all sitting reasonably within these guides.
3. Briefly listen at various levels to make sure you can hear your main parts and if you’re happy, render your mix.
4. Make a cup of tea and repeat for Track 2 tomorrow!
None of the above is carved in stone. Not everyone can commit to finding an hour every single day; others may find they're happier spending two, three or more hours per day. The plan as I've described it is really just a suggested way of giving your work in the studio some kind of structure, if that's what's missing.
Ultimately there's no gold standard or best practice when it comes to writing music: the best 'method' is always the one that suits you and serves your imagination. But alternating our workflow from time to time can help us escape the well-trodden thought patterns that we unconsciously fall into, which can lead to feeling uninspired and stale. And right now, in challenging circumstances, finding some time to enjoy and immerse ourselves in something we love is an important act of self care.
Words: Chris Lyth