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AN EDMPROD 1ST EDITION

RESOURCE

WORKFLOW FOUNDATIONS
HOW TO OPTIMIZE YOUR WORKFLOW
AND MAKE MORE MUSIC

SAM MATLA
© Copyright 2016
EDMPROD LIMITED. All Rights Reserved.
Content may be quoted with permission.

edmprod.com
Ideas & Resources for Electronic
Music Producers
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CREATIVE BLOCK . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 04
THE IMPORTANCE OF WORKFLOW . . . . . . 09
FOCUSED MUSIC PRODUCTION . . . . . . . . 13
THE 4 MOST COMMON MYTHS . . . . . . . . . 24
OPTIMIZING YOUR ENVIRONMENT . . . . . . 29
3 CREATIVE HACKS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
CREATIVE BLOCK
AND HOW TO DEAL WITH IT

You know how it goes.

You sit down at your DAW to start on a new project,


and then it hits yo -- well, nothing hits you.

That ' s the problem.

You can ' t come up with any ideas.

You ' re stuck.

You get frustrated.

Ah. The joys of being creative huh?

In this section, I ' m going to share three practical


tips you can use to overcome creative block. These
WILL work if you put in the effort.

But before I share those tips, you need to ask


yourself...

Do I really have creative block?

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Most artists mistake creative block -- or writer ' s
block -- for sheer laziness.

I know that sounds harsh, but here ' s the thing,


music production isn ' t always easy. If it were,
then there ' d be many more successful producers
out there.

The same goes for any creative field. Creative work


is difficult, and when you do creative work, ruts are
inevitable.

So my first piece of advice is this: push through it.

Force yourself to sit down and make something..


Don ' t leave your chair until you have a melody or
drum loop. Make something - anything. Just push
through.

This is the true test for creative block. If you can


push through it and come up with something, even
if it ' s bad, then you know it wasn ' t real.

But what if it is real? What if you try to push


through it but you still end up unsatisfied or
lacking ideas?

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#1 - Purge perfectionism
One of the leading causes of creative block is a
perfectionist mindset.

The perfectionist mindset is antithetical to


creativity as it sets a standard for ideas. As soon as
you come up with something, it either reaches that
standard or it doesn ' t.

And let ' s face it, most ideas, at least initially, aren ' t
that great. Ideas need to be developed, they need
to be nurtured, they need to experimented with.

But when you hold the mindset of a perfectionist,


you subconsciously don ' t allow for that
development and nurture to happen. You
automatically reject any idea that doesn ' t reach the
perfect standard straight away, and as a result, you
trick yourself into thinking that you " can ' t come up
with any ideas. "

Ask yourself - are you a perfectionist? If you are,


you need to make some changes.

Here ' s what I want you to do:

1. Set a timer for 30 minutes. No more, no less.


2. Create and arrange a full track in that time.

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No, you won ' t have time to mix it down. Yes, you
will have to use presets and loops. And no, it ' s not
going to be anywhere near perfect, and that ' s the
point.

You know instinctively that 30 minutes isn ' t enough


time to make a track, and you ' re forced into a
completely different mindset. There ' s no pressure
on you to create a masterpiece. You know you
can ' t.

#2 - Collaborate
Collaborating with other producers and musicians
puts you in a position of accountability - something
that rarely exists when it ' s just you by yourself.

If you don ' t do the work, your partner will be


disappointed and feel let down. That by itself is
often enough to destroy creative block.

The other benefit to collaboration is that you don ' t


always have to come up with the idea. Let ' s assume
you have creative block and you haven ' t been able
to come up with any decent ideas for weeks. You
collaborate with a friend, he sends you a killer
groove, and you ' re immediately inspired and know
what to do with it. You ' re over the " idea " hump.

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#3 - Take a break
Out of all the creative people I ' ve talked to, most of
them have one thing in common - they take regular
breaks when they feel overwhelmed or stuck in a
rut.

Breaks can do wonders for your capacity to do


creative work, and they ' re also a great tool for
rekindling your passion.

There are two types of breaks I recommend taking:

- Active breaks: You ' re not " making music " as


such, but you ' re still studying music - related
topics and learning on the side. You might be
designing presets or chopping up vocals.
Doing the prep work, if you will.

- Passive breaks: Complete and utter break


from music production and all it entails. This
doesn ' t mean you shouldn ' t listen to music -
you absolutely should. Listening to a diverse
range of music during your break will lead to
tons of new ideas when you ' re back in the
studio.

How long you choose to take a break for is


completely up to you. I recommend 2 - 7 days
depending on how overwhelmed or " creatively dry "
you feel.

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WORKFLOW
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?

What is workflow?
The definition of the word workflow and how it
pertains to music production will differ among
producers. I like to see it as how you get from A to
B, or in the context of music making - how you get
from idea to finished song.

The benefits to a structured workflow:


Most artists don ' t have a structured workflow. They
play it by ear. There ' s no set of steps for them to
follow ; no process to speed things up.

This isn ' t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a lack of


structure and freedom to experiment is imperative
to creativity.

During the early stages of making a track, when


you ' re just coming up with ideas, it ' s important that
you do not set any rules or guidelines, as all they ' ll
do is restrict creative freedom.

However, once the initial idea stage has passed, a


lack of structured workflow can be crippling.

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Let me use an example.
Steve and Tim are both electronic music producers.

Steve has a structured, defined workflow that he


typically follows when making a track.

Tim doesn ' t have a structured workflow.

They both come up with an idea for a new track - in


this case, it ' s an 8 - bar loop.

Tim has his loop and isn ' t sure where to go next. He
knows he should arrange his track at some point,
but maybe there ' s more to add to the loop? Maybe
he should mix the loop down before he starts
arranging? Tim becomes overwhelmed by choice.

Steve, following his typical workflow, takes his loop


and begins to arrange it in the playlist, taking out
certain instruments during sections and adding
other instruments during others. After finishing the
arrangement, he composes some frills and motifs to
keep the track interesting and adds FX samples to
smooth over transitions. Following that, he takes a
few hours to mix down his track and finally renders it
out.

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Steve understands that it ' s important to let the
creative self roam free during the initial stages of
production, but he also realizes that without a
structured workflow, he ' ll encounter overwhelm
and work much slower.

Who do you think will finish more music and


progress faster?

But Sam, music is sacred! You can ' t just follow the
same process every time!

The most common objection I get from people


when they hear me talk about the benefits of a
structured workflow is that music is a sacred art
and shouldn ' t be " formalized " or structured in any
way.

Saying that is a great way to sound pretentious and


more " creative " than other people, but it ' s not a
good objection at all.

Why?

Because almost all creative professionals have a


workflow.

Do you think a filmmaker wakes up in the morning


and lets inspiration guide his day? No. He has a
workflow, a process that helps him get from A to B.

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Can you imagine an award - winning film composer
ringing up a director and saying " Sorry for the
delay. We ' ve got the main idea down but we ' re just
not sure what to do with it next. Let ' s give it a
couple of weeks and see where inspiration takes
us. "

A structured workflow does not kill creativity. It


doesn ' t make music production any less sacred or
special. It ' s the smart thing to do.

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FOCUS
THE BENEFITS TO FOCUSED MUSIC
PRODUCTION

Why a lack of focus is bad


If you’re like 99% of other producers, you make
music on the same machine you use to check email,
talk to your friends, and watch YouTube videos.
When you’re faced with a challenging task like
music production, these distractions become more
appealing.

We’re good at justifying distraction. We know that


checking Facebook while producing is a bad thing,
but we trick ourselves into thinking that it’s not.

"Ah, what will a few minutes do? I’m stuck with this
song anyway.”

I’ve even come across some people who have


Facebook, Twitter, or another potent form of
distraction open on a second screen!

1. It introduces task switching


One of the main reasons these distractions cause
creative problems is that they introduce task-
switching.

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Task-switching suggests that as we switch from one task
to another, we encounter cognitive delay; our brain takes
time to “re-focus” on the task at hand.

An experiment performed by Alessandro Acquisti and


Eyal Peer of Carnegie Mellon showed that “multitaskers,”
or the group of people in the experiment that were
interrupted, had, on average, a 20% lower score in a
cognitive skill test designed for the experiment.

While we don’t know exactly how long it takes to re-focus


on a task, there’s plenty of evidence to show that
multitasking, or switching from one thing to another
rapidly, is not beneficial to any sort of work, whether that
be creative, physical, or intellectual.

To put this into context, let’s say that you’re trying to lay
down a few ideas for a new track. This is typically one of
the more difficult parts of the production process. After
30 minutes, you’re just scratching the surface of some
great ideas, until you decide to quickly check Facebook
and respond to Dave about a highly unimportant topic
that doesn’t require your urgent attention.

You spend 5 minutes or so chatting with Dave before


returning to your DAW. In doing this, you incur the cost of
task-switching, and find yourself frustrated at the fact that
you can’t focus nor reach the same level of creative
confidence you had prior to checking Facebook. The 30
minutes you spend leading up to the point where you
were about to discover some great musical ideas has
gone to waste, thanks to task-switching.

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2. You trick yourself into thinking production is boring
When you’re completely involved in an interesting task,
whether that’s having a stimulating conversation with
someone, being on a date, or watching a great movie, you
tend not to find ways to distract yourself.

When you’re partially involved in a task that’s not interesting,


you’re constantly looking for ways to distract yourself.

However, the line between the two is blurred, and there’s a


degree of crossover. If you’re partially involved in a task that’s
somewhat interesting but rather difficult (like music
production), and there’s no external pressure to not distract
yourself, then, following the path of least resistance, it’s easy
to be distracted.

The problem with all of this is that you start to act the same
way during a highly involved task such as music production
as you do when you’re bored or tired. You browse the net
endlessly, looking for ways to entertain yourself.

It’s the easy way out.

Over time, this habit becomes so ingrained that music


production passes from being a fascinating, enjoyable
process into a frustrating, difficult, and boring process.

Can you see why a lack of focus leads to creative problems?


Habitual distraction and the incurrence of task-switching
makes any form of creative work an absolute nightmare.

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How to focus
It’s not easy to break away from constant distraction and
focus solely on music production, but it is possible.

There are a few key things that typically precede focus.

1. Clarity
When you have no clear, overarching goal, it can be
extremely hard to focus. You end up in a position where
you’re just making music for the sake of making music,
which isn’t always bad, but it means that there’s no
measure of importance placed on what you’re doing.

Having a clear objective, and truly aligning with it, is the


best way to become focused in your production session.
It’s important to note the clear part in “clear objective.” If
your objective is vague and uninspiring, e.g., Make a
song, then you’re going to find it hard to focus.

It’s a good idea to set both an overarching goal and a


smaller one for each production session.

For example, let’s say you’re working on an EP. Your


overarching goal might be:

To produce a 3-track EP around the theme of X for


distribution through label X.

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Now, to achieve that overarching goal, you’re going to need
to spend a fair bit of time producing, which is where your
session goals enter the picture. You sit down to spent 90
minutes making music, but before you do so, you set an
objective for the session that aligns with your overarching
goal. For the first session (and the first track), it might be
something like:

Write a basic chord progression, melody, and bassline that I


can iterate on and improve in following sessions.

With this clear objective, you know exactly what you need to
focus on. You’re not fumbling around in the dark trying to
make sense of everything, instead you have direction.

Session objectives, by their very nature, lead to more


optimized and productive production sessions. If your
objective is to write a chord progression, melody, and
bassline, then anything else (sound design, mixing,
arrangement) is unimportant in that session, and so you avoid
it. This leads to less internal multitasking, and thus less task-
switching (yes, task-switching can occur inside the DAW).

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2. Be enthusiastic
If you start a production session in a state of frustration, or
you view it as a chore, then it’s incredibly hard to become
focused and stay focused.

You must be enthusiastic about making music. Trick


yourself into being enthusiastic if necessary – fake it till
you make it.

If I’m not feeling enthusiastic about making music, but I


know I need to spend some time doing so, then I listen to
a playlist of my favorite music for 15–20 minutes. Another
strategy for generating enthusiasm is to listen to new
music that you haven’t heard before. You’ll almost always
come across something that makes you say "that’s
freaking awesome. I’ve got an idea."

3. Multitask as little as possible


Something I elaborate on in my book
is the power of
separating production processes.

Few producers actually do this, largely to their detriment.


They try to work on everything at once – sound design,
composition, arrangement, mixing.

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It might look something like this:

1. You start with the composition stage, jotting down


musical ideas. You use a basic preset or piano for this to
avoid venturing into sound design.
2. You then progress to the sound design stage, finding
the appropriate sounds for your already-made ideas.
3. following that, you arrange your ideas and sounds to
represent a full track.
4. Once your track is fully arranged, you mix it down.

Note: you will inevitably need to multitask. For example, if


you’re in the sound design stage and you come across the
perfect preset, but it’s too loud or contains too much low-end,
you’re going to adjust it accordingly. You shouldn’t avoid
doing this, but you should try and separate the production
processes on a macro-level.

4. Embrace failure
It can be hard to focus when you’re faced with a challenging
or daunting task, especially when it’s something you haven’t
tried before.

Often, we distract ourselves because we don’t think we can


do what we set out to do. We might not consciously think this,
but deep inside the crevasses of our brain, we do.

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It might be that you’re trying to write a memorable melody.
Granted, writing a great melody is challenging, but it’s not
impossible. If you sub-consciously think that you can’t write a
good melody, then you’re simply not going to focus, because
you know the effort is futile.

To counter this, you need to embrace failure. You need to


cultivate the trial and error mindset, because that’s really what
music production is – trial and error.

You need to realize that it’s okay to try 10 times to write a good
melody, and finally get there on the 11th attempt.
Professionals understand that failure is an essential part of the
process. They welcome it.

5. Leverage momentum
It takes a while to get focused, and when you are focused, it’s
a good idea to stay there for as long as possible.

If you catch yourself being focused, you need to realize that


you’re at peak productivity level, and to take a break or
distract yourself means that you’ve wasted the last several
minutes trying to become focused.

Leveraging focus produces results. You can work extremely


quickly and get a lot done when you’re focused, so make the
most of it, and produce for as long as you can when you’re “in
the zone.”

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The state of flow
Flow is generally defined as an optimal state of
consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.
Flow follows focus.

You’ll have experienced flow before. It’s where all sense of


time goes out the window, and the only thing you’re thinking
about is the task at hand. You don’t care about your bank
balance, the fact that there’s a raging storm outside, or that it’s
3AM in the morning and you’ve got work at 8AM.

Here’s what visionary and serial entrepreneur Peter


Diamandis has to say about flow:

“We call this experience flow because that is the sensation


conferred. In the state, every action, each decision, leads
effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed
problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate
performance.”

Why should we care about flow?

Flow is what leads to the greatest results. Ask any professional


athlete, musician, composer, or inventor what led to their
breakthrough and they’ll tell you that it was the times of
extreme focus/flow where they made the most progress and
eventually reached a “eureka!” moment.

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Not only is flow beneficial in the sense that it allows us to work
quickly and get a lot done (have you ever produced a song in
3 hours? It’s an amazing feeling), it’s also incredibly enjoyable.
A good production session in which you enter into flow can
often rekindle your passion for music production if it’s
wavered.

How to reach flow


There are numerous triggers or “preconditions” to flow, many
of which are irrelevant to the field of music production and
unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

However, there are three main triggers that you should know
about in order to reach flow (or at least increase your chances.
Flow is somewhat elusive and random).

1. Clear objective/goal
I touched on the importance of having a clear, overarching
objective as well as individual session objectives. If you want
to enter the state of flow, these are absolutely essential.

Clarity leads to certainty, so that we know what to do and


where to focus our attention.

2. Instant feedback
As a music producer, you don’t really need to worry about this
as electronic music production always gives immediate
feedback. If you place a wrong note, or EQ a sound in a less-
than-satisfactory manner, then you’ll hear your mistake.

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3. The right difficulty
If what we’re doing is too easy and there’s no sense of
challenge, then we stop paying attention. If what we’re doing
is too difficult, then we get frustrated.

One’s ability to reach the state of flow varies with skill level. A
new producer may find it difficult to achieve any sort of
intense focus simply due to the fact that they aren’t
comfortable in the DAW and are not sure what to do. An
experienced producer may find production mundane unless
they push themselves.

You don’t need to consciously think about the difficulty of


each production process, and I would, in fact, argue that you
shouldn’t. After all, reaching flow is not the end goal – making
good music is. However, it’s important to note that in
situations where you’re forced to do extremely easy and
mundane work, or incredibly difficult, challenging work, you
probably won’t enter the state of flow, and shouldn’t be upset
because of that.

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4 MYTHS
ABOUT CREATIVITY
A few days ago I sent you an email about focus, and
how it pertains to electronic music production. It
was a long email, so today ' s one is going to be a
little shorter ( I know you ' re busy! )

Today, I want to share with you 5 common myths


about creativity.

Why? Because there ' s A LOT of misinformation


surrounding creativity as a concept.

Let ' s get into it.

1. Creativity is something you ' re born with


There are very few things I find more infuriating
than having Ableton Live crash on me in the middle
of a production session, but one of those things is
when someone tells me that " creativity is
something your born with. "

You ' ve probably heard some variation of it before...

" I can ' t be creative. No one in my family is creative.


I ' m simply not a creative person. "

" James? Yeah, he was born creative. Lucky guy. "

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It ' s likely that some people are born with a tendency
or inclination toward creative thinking, and research
seems to suggest that. However, this does not mean
that if you ' re born with less of an inclination you
can ' t be creative.

I guarantee that if you ' re reading this, you have the


capacity to be creative, along with 99 % of other
human beings on earth.

2. Creativity requires inspiration


Inspiration, like motivation, is fleeting. It ' s here one
moment and gone the next.

Given that professional artists and producers work


day in and day out, and manage consistent creative
output, what do you think is more likely:

A ) Professionals are always inspired and therefore


creative

Or

B ) Professionals do not rely on inspiration and work


regardless

The answer is B.

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Yes, inspiration is nice at times, but it ' s romanticised.
Great ideas from through perspiration - through hard
work. Inspiration is not a prerequisite for creative
ideas.

Creativity is a skill. A habit. It ' s something you


develop. It ' s something you train. It ' s something that
you get better at over time.

3. Limitations suppress creativity


Fortunately, this is a less common myth than the
others, but it pops up from time to time.

Some people believe that creativity thrives in


environments that contain little or no limitations -
that creativity requires freedom.

While it is true that creative thinking is easier when


there ' s freedom to experiment, it ' s wrong to suggest
that freedom to experiment is somehow reduced
when limitations are imposed.

Let ' s say, for instance, you ' re limited to using one
synthesiser plugin. You still have limitless
possibilities when it comes to sound combinations -
and that ' s not factoring in post - processing outside
the synth.

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On the other hand, limitations can - and regularly do
- lead to creative solutions.

Take the process of sampling, for instance. There


are inherent limitations when sampling. Some parts
of the track you ' re trying to sample simply won ' t
work because they ' re too busy, other parts won ' t fit
your production. You need to think, in a creative
manner, about which sections or samples are going
to fit best.

4. The more you learn, the less creative you


become
If this were true, legendary composers and
musicians throughout history would have to be
deemed uncreative.

This thinking comes from the fact that it ' s typically


easier to be creative when you ' re just starting out
because you don ' t know what ' s good and what ' s
bad. You experiment wildly: you put your sub bass in
stereo, you plot random notes in your piano roll, and
sometimes you come up with really creative stuff.

As you start to learn more about music production,


you realise that you probably shouldn ' t do X, Y, and
Z, and start to become more reserved in your
approach.

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There may very well be a period of time where an
artist lacks creativity due to the fact that they ' re
trying to figure everything out, and they ' re anxious
to step out and " break the rules " per se.

However, this period is not indefinite, and when the


artist comes out of trenches having developed skills
and acquired knowledge, their ability to be creative
is much stronger than it was during the beginning
stages of their life as an artist.

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OPTIMIZING
YOUR PRODUCTION ENVIRONMENT

Optimizing your production environment is not


essential, but you ' d be stupid not to do it.

What do I mean by optimizing? I mean setting your


physical and digital space up to accommodate for
creativity and productive music making.

There are a number of different things you can do


to optimize your environment. In this email, we ' re
going to focus on the basics.

Optimizing your physical environment


You sit down to work on a project and quickly
glance at the empty beer bottles and other bits &
pieces strewn across your desk.

Your chair is uncomfortable.

5 minutes into the session, your phone lights up


with a text message: " Yo are you coming tonight? "

By the time you get back to making music, you ' re


distracted and you can ' t think straight. Why?
Because your environment is not conducive to
creativity.
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In order to focus, we need to optimize our physical
environment before we optimize our digital
environment.

Here are a few things you should do:

- Turn your phone off or put it in Do Not Disturb


mode. Place it far away from your desk so you
won ' t be tempted to use it.

- Consider investing in a comfortable and


ergonomic chair. If you ' re spending hours in it,
an expensive chair is more than justifiable.

- Get rid of any potential distractions on your


desk.

- Take a few moments to prepare before each


session. If you know you ' ll crave snacks, then
lay them out beforehand so you don ' t have to
quit mid - session to grab some.

Beyond that, it ' s worth setting aside a set amount of


time for production sessions. This way, you know
how long you need to focus for. If you just start
producing with no end time, you ' ll rationalize
taking a break to check social media at any random
point.

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If you have a set time of 60 minutes, for example, you
know that for those 60 minutes your focus is
production only.

Optimizing your digital environment


Optimizing your physical environment helps
immensely, but it ' s also worth taking a look at your
digital environment too.

Here are some ideas:

Turn off your internet connection ( this goes


-
without saying, but some people forget ) .

- Optimize DAW settings to speed up workflow


( auto - coloring, defaults, etc. )

- Organize your samples and plugins folders

Optimizing your digital and physical


environment shouldn ' t take long - 30 minutes max
unless you need to buy a chair - but doing it will save
you a ton of time in the long run and also help you
focus.

As Shia would say, " Just do it! "

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3 CREATIVE HACKS
THAT ACTUALLY WORK
Sometimes, things just don ' t work. You ' re sitting
there, trying to come up with an idea or make
progress on that project that was oh so inspiring a
few days earlier, but it just doesn ' t work.

It ' s times like these where, as producers, we can fall


into thinking that we ' re unable to finish tracks,
unable to come up with ideas, unable to really
make progress on something.

To combat this, I want to share with you a few


creative " hacks " that work without fail ( assuming
you actually follow them ) . If you ever find yourself
in a slump, come back to this guide and try one of
' em out.

1. Create a melody over an existing chord


progression
Writing melodies is not easy and can often be the
roadblock that lies between you and a finished
track. For many producers, once a good melody
has been laid down, the rest comes easy.

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One hack that I like to use is writing a melody over
an existing chord progression. Here ' s how you do
it:

1. Find a MIDI chord progression ( or piece of


audio ) from an existing song ( original or from
elsewhere ) or MIDI pack.

2. Assign an instrument to the MIDI file.

3. Insert a new instrument.

4. Write a new melody over the top.

5. Delete the original chord progression.

6. ( Optional ) write a new chord progression


underneath

Boom. It ' s as easy as that.

2. Limit yourself to 5 instruments


Overwhelm is a reasonable excuse for not coming
up with ideas.

So? Get rid of it.

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Allow yourself 5 instruments only. No layering. No
extra little bits. Make a track with 5 instruments and
prove to yourself that simplicity leads to results.

Note: it ' s probably not going to sound fantastic


with only 5 instruments, but the point of this
exercise is to focus on the songwriting and ideas
rather than instrumentation & layers ( which are of
secondary importance )

3. Arrange / structure your track first


It ' s incredibly easy to get stuck in that 8 - bar loop.
Once you ' re stuck, it ' s hard to get out.

Here ' s a hack that works: structure your track first .

That ' s right, structure your track before you do


anything else. Take 15 minutes at the start a new
project to arrange some blank MIDI clips in the
playlist. Keep it simple. Have a MIDI clip for drums,
have one for leads, have one for bass. You get the
idea.

Once you have a basic structure, you just need to


fill it in. Simple.

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