The way to overcome writer’s block and get excited again. June 28, 2023 • 10 min read
I’m stuck with music production and/or making sounds or any other creative activity.
Work in stages!
- Dynamic, energetic, stimulating and exciting workflow
- A lot of different ideas right at the start that will later be a starting points for more ideas, basically there's no writers block
- Use random sample loading
- Use templates
- Think in stories
- Make sound design separate from music production
- Quantity wins
- Deadlines are stimulating
Here’s the problem. You’re working on a new track or a new set of sounds and there’s no progress. You got hung up on this one-minute detail in the mix. You try to make it right for the 10th time and it just doesn’t want to sound as you would like to. I’ve been there many times. Basically music production at times felt like walking in a tar. Slow, painful, exhausting, and discouraging.
How I used to work
Here's how I used to work on my tracks: I would focus on one section at a time, not moving on to the next until the previous one was perfect. The same went for sound design - I would work on one sound from start to finish before starting the next one. This process was slow and frustrating. If I got stuck on something, it could take a long time to figure out, which made me feel discouraged and often led me to abandon my work.
I changed my process completely. Instead of trying to finish a track or sound in one go, I started working in stages. For both music production and sound design, I divided the process into three stages: sprint (or draft), refinement, and finalisation.
Music production context
Stage 1 - Sprint (Draft)
In the first stage, the goal is to finish the rough arrangement of the track as quickly as possible (without rushing). Here, it's all about experimenting, playing, and having fun. The stage aims to develop an initial idea – your main theme – which could be a melody, some unique evolving sound design element, some rhythmic progression, or chord progression. It totally depends on the piece that you're creating.
This stage is minimalistic: try to avoid too much detailed mixing, and make only rough adjustments (volume, EQ is fine for now). Also, avoid automation and searching for specific sounds. The point here is to lay out the initial structure of the track, a kind of skeleton. Use the most basic sounds that you have, like a saw, sine, etc., and some simple drums. You may use a pre-made template for sketching if you have the sound palette that you like. If you manage to make the track sound a bit exciting with those basic sounds, it will be even more exciting later when you replace those with your intended sounds.
Draft sketching can take from one hour to several hours but it should be done in one day. It should be as fast as possible. Don’t overthink or dwell too much on things; it's all about the flow. Let the initial idea lead you. It will come with practice but I will provide some additional tips that will make this process easier.
When this stage is done, take a day off before you proceed so you can gain perspective and approach your creation with a clear mind and fresh ears the next day. You may start the other draft meanwhile if you’re still excited and have some time.
Stage 2 - Refinement
Once you have the initial skeleton of the track, it's time to make a decision. You can either continue with the track or remove it. Render what you have and listen to the piece in one go without pausing. If you feel a resonance and believe that the track has potential, it's time for the second stage. This stage is much longer and involves sound replacement, adding/removing sounds, mixing, and automation. Once you have a general outline, the process should be easy, and you'll immediately know what to do next. This process is about building around the initial skeleton of the track and then removing what's not necessary.
You can jump between sections as you wish, such as the intro or ending, and ideas should pop into your head about what comes next. Don't dwell on a single section; follow what comes up in your head. You may add something in the intro or remove something in the midsection. You may add some sidechain compression and automation lines. I've noticed in my experience that when you have the full structure of the track, it's much easier to add stuff to it. This stage ends in a relatively finished mix. Here again, I suggest taking a break and rendering the whole track for critical listening the next day. This stage may last for several days or longer depending on how well things are shaping up. You may need a couple of iterations. Before each iteration, check your currently rendered version. An important point here is to listen from start to finish. If you find an issue during listening, just take a mental note about it. You'll address those issues after listening.
Why listen from start to finish? Because this way, you'll notice what requires the most important correction. If you forget about something, it means it wasn't that important, and you can just move on. It will resurface later if it really requires your attention.
Stage 3 - Finalisation
Once you have a good mix and are satisfied with the track, it's time to improve it. This stage involves assessing if there are any unnecessary elements that can be removed from the track. Often, there will be elements that don't add much value and only clutter the mix. You can use mute/solo on groups and single tracks to identify these elements. The goal of this stage is to strip the track down to its bare essentials. If you carefully select the elements that are not needed, your track is guaranteed to improve in every aspect.
If necessary, the last touch is the mastering stage. However, this should be kept minimalistic. In my opinion, mastering makes sense only when someone else is doing it. If you have access to the full mix, there's no point in mastering it yourself. Any problems in the track should be addressed in the mix. Mastering makes sense only when you don't have access to the mix but have the final render and/or want someone else's perspective on the track. In my case, I only add a limiter for overall compression to increase loudness. Occasionally, I also add a subtle EQ.
Sound Design context
I apply the same workflow to sound design.
Stage 1 - Inboxing
Here I’m just messing with an instrument that I’m making sounds for. Sometimes I aim for a specific sound and sometimes I just experiment. In general, I work fast and I’m trying different things. I keep myself in a playful attitude - no expectations, no seriousness, it’s all for fun. Whenever I get something cool sounding I immediately save it as ‘inbox1’, then continue messing around, and again if something cool comes up I hit save as ‘inbox2’ and so on. This process continues. I may reinitialize the preset to clean slate and start from scratch but the process is about pure experimentation. In this way, I quickly end up with a quite large bag of presets. These are only drafts but contain in them the core idea to explore further in the second stage.
Stage 2 - Refinement
Here I’m taking the sounds from the first phase and checking if I still like them. If I like a particular sound I continue to improve on it, otherwise I delete it. The refinement process depends on a given instrument. If it has macro controls, I usually start by assigning useful controls to the macros for some meaningful sound alterations. Here I also address the mod wheel. I’m naming the preset so it reflects what the sound is telling. In this stage, it’s also possible that a given sound starts to diverge into something else and gives rise to a completely new sound which I save as a new preset.
Stage 3 - Finalisation
This is a basically a general quality check on the sounds. Here I’m checking the volume, tuning, cpu usage and I’m looking for any issues they may arise when playing the sounds. It’s a fairly straightforward and purely mechanical process that don’t involve any creativity. It can be boring :)
This approach to sound design really took my creations to the next level and allowed me to release 28 sound packs in the span of 2.5 years. It’s almost one pack a month which I think is quite fast when you take into account other stuff that you have to deal with in life.
I have observed that this approach has several benefits. The initial stage provides numerous ideas that can serve as a foundation for further ideas, eliminating writer's block. By avoiding overthinking, working quickly, and maintaining a playful attitude, you can experience a dynamic, energetic, stimulating, and exciting workflow that will result in the joy of creation. Ideas will naturally flow to you. It is crucial not to have any expectations for your creation during this stage, as you are doing it for fun, not for money, recognition, or any other material gain. Otherwise, there is no point.
You may ask: but what if can’t even start? Here are some tips to remedy this:
- If you have a big sample collection, I recommend using a sample manager that has “Load random sample functionality” - I use ADSR Sample Manager which is very good for this - you basically roll the dice and eventually something will pop up that will spark an idea, then you drag the sample to the arrangement and continue rolling the dice to hunt for the sounds that will go well with the idea that you have
- People often think in stories - the track is often telling some kind of story - write down the short story that you’re trying to accompany with your music or sound, note various moods that are relevant, divide the track by sections, and note what each section is about - this should keep you focused to stick to the main theme of the track; I also like to put a wallpaper on my desktop that reflects the story/theme I’m working on (I always keep artwork on the desktop for the sound pack I’m working on, so it keeps me in an appropriate mood 🙂)
- Templates - preparing music production templates in advance can be a helpful idea to speed up the sketching process. You can include favorite sounds that you often use, a general track structure that you commonly end up with, and any other tools you frequently use. This topic has been on my mind for a while, and I’m working on something that I hope to release in the future. It could be a valuable resource for many people.
- Make a sound design session separate from music production - here I would suggest recording the output of your master channel and just going crazy with various instruments and fx; if you find something interesting while you’re working, try to save it as a presets (here I also use an inboxing process - throwing everything I find interesting in one central place which I’ll sort out later); when you finish the session, go back to your recorded audio file and cut out all of the interesting sounds and save in your samples folder; the same applies to making any kind of presets, just prepare them in separate sessions so they are ready when you go into production mode (music production and sound design are intertwined so it’s impossible to perfectly divide these two activities but you should know which mode you’re working in so you won’t get stuck)
- Quantity wins - the key to improvement is quantity over quality. By creating a large volume of work, even if it is initially discarded, you can eventually hone your skills and reduce the amount of wasted effort. Focusing on perfecting one piece is not as effective as experimenting with 100 drafts and then selecting the best 20 to produce as good or even great products.
- Deadlines are stimulating - I know it's hard to impose a deadline on yourself when you work on your own but if you can find a means you should try it. I know from my experience that it works. I got two tracks placed in the major trailers - each of those tracks I made in two days because of the deadline. While trailer placement is great, I was also very pleased with the quality of the results. You may try this.
Here's a final tip for you: if you try this approach and don't see results on the first day, don't give up! It takes time to get the hang of things, sometimes even a week or a month. The key is to make it a habit and create a draft every day. After a month, you'll have 30 drafts, and even if only 5 are good, that's still progress. The other 25 drafts can still inspire new ideas or provide cool sounds. Personally, I make it a habit to create at least 5 preset drafts a day for a specific instrument, but usually end up making more. It's a great habit that results in a new sound pack for me almost every month.
I hope this will be useful for you 🙂
All the best,