Stop Writing Loops and Start Finishing Songs: 5 Tactics to Finish Your Tracks
Updated: Sep 4, 2019
It's a fallacy that spending more time perfecting music results in better music. Finishing more music faster results in better music. As a music producer, your primary goal should be producing as much music as possible, especially earlier in your career.
One of my favourite quotes on the subject of using loops, samples and presets:
I thought using loops was cheating, so I programmed my own using samples. I then thought using samples was cheating, so I recorded real drums. I then thought that programming it was cheating, so I learned to play drums for real. I then thought using bought drums was cheating, so I learned to make my own. I then thought using premade skins was cheating, so I killed a goat and skinned it. I then thought that that was cheating too, so I grew my own goat from a baby goat. I also think that is cheating, but I’m not sure where to go from here. I haven’t made any music lately, what with the goat farming and all.
Output is everything. You need to finish lots of music to start making the music you dream of making. When you start writing, your taste is a 9, but your output is a 1. And that gap is very frustrating. But it's a good thing because it means you have good taste. Each song you write may vary a bit in quality but the more you write, the more you'll trend toward producing music that's closer to your taste. The process never ends - you keep growing year after year. Dead periods without finishing tracks are the only periods that you're not continuing to grow, and may even slip back, so it's critically important that you build the habits to be able to finish music early, and that you just keep putting music down. One day you'll get down an idea that meets your taste, but if you don't have the habits to finish your music, it will never get beyond that 8 bar loop.
This article will highlight a few tricks to help you finish more music.
1. Prioritize Output Over Integrity
As you build more skills, you'll eventually be able to do it all - synthesis and sound design, mixing and mastering, etc. Early on, you might not have all of those skills. You need to keep the goal of finishing songs front and centre to ensure you don't get caught in habits that keep you from getting beyond a loop. If you're worried about "cheating" by using presets and loops, then you're prioritizing something other than finishing. Until you have the skills and knowledge to tackle a task like sound design or designing a kick, take the fastest and easiest way to the finish line with your current skills.
- Sample that kick from a commercial track.
- Don't be afraid of using loops and presets.
- Get midi files, or use something like Cthulhu to help generate chord progressions.
Nothing should be considered sacred - the only thing that matters is your output. I used to sample kicks for all of the techno I was writing when I started venturing into the genre. Eventually I found a process for producing the kicks that I want in my mix so it's not much more effort, but early on, I wouldn't have been able to move forward with the same velocity I did without going into my music collection and just sampling the instrumentation from lead-ins. Prioritize output above all else.
2. Use Another Song as a Guide
Like many artists, I went through a period of time where I really struggled to get beyond a loop. The key to changing this for me was to start dropping full songs into the daw and "tracing" their structure with the ideas that I was working on. It's amazing to have that source of information there - even if you're looking for ideas for incidentals, effects, layers to add or take away, you can use another song as a template. I only had to do this a few times to completely change the way that I work and start finishing songs, but if I were ever to get stuck in a loop again, I would do this first. Honestly, it doesn't matter how much of the song you try to "copy" either - whatever you produce will end up sounding completely different. Snag the percussion arrangement, use the same chord progression. Whatever it takes.
Remixing can also be a good alternative, where you can use the original song you're trying to remix as the "seed" for the track structure. Once you've banged out 5 or 10 songs in a row using these approaches, you'll likely find that you have a mental model of how sections can flow into one another and you'll have built habit and gained new insights into working toward songs instead of loops but, again, prioritize output and do whatever it takes to get the work in front of you finished. The rest will come with time.
3. Simple is Okay
I used to take days to finish songs. I would have 40 or 50 audio tracks. Layers upon layers upon layers. These days, my songs have far fewer elements to them. Small variations like very slow filter sweeps can add enough interest to keep a song moving forward. Adding or taking away one high hat is enough to get you through another section. Don't worry about producing a complex masterpiece: get the core idea, prop it up, present it, and that's it.
When I started writing, I used to put pads in every song because they fill up all of this harmonic space but I realized that's how I dealt with the fact that my instruments weren't strong enough on their own. These huge layered projects were really hard to understand and work on. I'd end up spending so much time trying to arrange all of the layers in the song that it could honestly take me 20 hours just to get a basic arrangement done. Here is an example of a song that had +50 tracks. By contrast, this song I wrote with Sara Simms has less than 20.
You can get away with fewer elements by ensuring the elements you do use are "big." Add extra harmonics with saturation plugins, or as an alternative, you can use multiband compression (Xfer's OTT is freely available if you're looking for a multiband compressor! I use this a lot, or Xfer's SerumFX's compressor with "multiband" ticked, which is very similar.)
A warning about multiband compressors: You want to use multiband compression very sparingly (only on a couple instruments - maybe a bass and a lead). In contrast you can add saturation to virtually any and every track in your mix and I'd strongly encourage you to explore doing so. You can run saturation in parallel (eg use the mix knob!) to preserve the original character and shape of the sound so that it's additive-only.
Having fewer elements that are harmonically rich is a big secret to both moving faster as well as having a more "professional" sound. You'll gain more mixing skills but these approaches will get you moving in the right direction without much effort. I personally like to use parallel saturation effects on most tracks in a mix. I would recommend SoundToy's Decapitator for this if you can find it on sale but any saturation effect on a send channel (or with a mix knob) should be a good start.
Similarly, your drum buss will will up a lot more space with parallel saturation or parallel compression (or both.) You can get fewer elements sounding bigger without a lot of technique applying these approaches.
4. Try to Get A Basic Arrangement Done In a Sitting
This was something I heard Stranjah talk about in one of his talks recently - try to get a song to "80% arranged" in the first sitting while you're inspired and have your head in the project. If I can get a basic arrangement down, even if it's only a 3 minute track, then I know I can listen to it on many systems and build ideas to spend a lot of time on that last 20% to get it really standing out. I used to put my songs up right away and consider them done, and move on, which is what I would doing recommend early on. Once you're able to bang out a lot of music, though, then you'll end up spending just as much time, if not more, on that last 20%. Don't worry about doing that very early on. Knock out ideas, get them structured, put them up, and move on to the next one until you feel like you're ready to "expand" your game and start making super polished tracks.
My personal experience is that if I can't get a track beyond a loop in a sitting, I probably won't be able to get into the flow with it to move it forward next time I sit down with it. But if it's mostly arranged, then it's fairly easy to get into the headspace to roll new ideas I have into the track. Even if I get a 3 minute arrangement out in that first sitting, listening to the track in my car or on a walk, I'll start to get a lot of ideas on how to take that mediocre song and start to make it really express what I'm trying to express. A lot of times I get new insight into how to make all of the elements "talk together" after the initial sitting and I do need some time listening to it to really see how it's all going to fit together.
5. Focus on Arrangement Instead of Mixing
A lot of people early on in their music writing focus far too much on technical topics like EQing and Gain Staging. Those are really useful tools but honestly you can forget 90% of the use cases for EQing if you just arrange your song so that elements don't overlap, but play after each other. A "call and response" kind of arrangement lets you build a song out of multiple elements, but each element can sing on its own without needing to sit in the mix beside other elements if you just arrange them so that they play individually.
Drums, a bass, and a lead are all you need to write a song. The song gets more interesting if there are 2 lead instruments playing back and forth though.
In this article, I hope I've conveyed the importance of finishing songs, and I've given you a couple guidelines to get you going in the right direction. Once you start finishing songs, it gets easy. Until you're finishing most every track you start, nothing should be considered sacred - lie, cheat and steal until you understand how to move your ideas forward. The rest will come with time, so don't let "the rest" slow you down.