Last week, I went to Sónar for a second time, and the sunshine and music there feels a hazy and distant dream today. Nonetheless, it reminded me that I had the bulk of a write-up of one of last year's Sónar+D talks sat around for a while. It's still relevant, because of the subject rather than the quality of my writing. So, here it is.
At Sónar 2015, I sat in on part of a session discussing how to push past creative blocks while making electronic music. Dennis DeSantis, who has written a book published by Ableton on this topic, was involved in a Q&A-style event to discuss it.
What motivated the book? It was explained that the book came from documenting his own strategies for solving specific problems in the process of making electronic music.
Furthermore, he was insistent that these were his own strategies for dealing with them, not a definite prescription for what you should do. Maybe they work, but they might not: you might need to vary them or try a completely different approach. The idea as much as anything is that, if you're at a creative dead end, the suggestions may inspire you to mix up what you're doing, which could reveal a new path.
Even in the time I attended, the session tackled several questions. Here's what I took away from the insightful discussions then, much of which the book covers too. (For whatever reason, despite enjoying the talk, it took me a year to get around to reading the book, and you can find my view on it below the discussion of the session.)
How to approach that fresh, empty project file?
When all you have is nothing, making something from that can be difficult.
It was mentioned that, if like Mozart, inspiration strikes when you go for a walk, then following that and seeing where it takes you is a good start. For those of us not blessed with the talent to both be able to conjure up wonderful music ideas away from an instrument and transcribe them into software, we perhaps need to try something else.
In that case, just doing something — anything — is better than nothing, even, as was cited, just mashing the keyboard.
Beginning with the elements that electronic music is frequently built on, for example, drums or bass, can help too. Building some kind of hook with one element may spark ideas to fill in the blanks with other elements.
Developing and refining ideas by splitting production time into distinct creative phases is another approach. First, keep everything you make, then spend some time editing that ruthlessly. Remove anything that isn't great. You can repeat that until you have enough material to start building up a song.
Having too many tools to choose from
The problem of choice is one that surely almost everyone making music with computers has faced at some point. With a plethora of cheap or free VST plugins available, and settings for each one, it's possible to get lost shifting faders and turning dials without getting anywhere.
The advice there then is to deliberately restrict yourself. Just work with a small number of tools you already have. That said, when your VST list is large, it can actually be difficult to adhere to this.
Initially sketching out parts with very basic presets only, even as simple as General MIDI instruments, was another insightful strategy. That way, you're solely working on the composition side first and foremost, then can expand on those sketches.
The idea that it's only the lack of a perfect plugin to do X, Y or Z that's blocking your work was dismissed as well. People were making great electronic music decades ago with much more restrictive tools than those available to us today. DeSantis pointed out that you can go on looking for the perfect compression plugin, but no need to look further: you probably already have it in your collection.
Switching software to get out of creative dead ends
By contrast to focusing on certain tools you already have, switching digital audio workstation (DAW) completely was proposed — he candidly admitted that Ableton may not want him to say that. This sounds like a big leap to make, but enables you to break free of the workflow that's dictated by the current software you're using.
By changing your DAW to one which doesn't let you quite work as you used to, it can help break the patterns you may usually fall into, giving you fresh inspiration. Taking this idea, it was mentioned that some producers even move away from software entirely and use hardware instead.
This conflicting advice reflected the idea that there are no magic solutions for sparking creativity, only suggestions. If an approach doesn't work, you need to try something else until you find something that works.
Actively listening to existing pieces for ideas
If you're a DJ, you're probably familiar with the idea that it can sometimes be more effective to align tracks at a higher level than just matching beats or, more commonly, bars (where the first beat of a measure for multiple tracks play together).
To do this, you can listen to a piece of music and count the number of bars that constituent each part of its structure. That is, in terms of verse/chorus, or intro/build-up/drop/breakdown/outro. With this knowledge, you could organise playback so that, for example, build-ups of different tracks play at once, or a build-up coincides with a breakdown.
This also gives you a structure as a framework for making a new piece in that style, too. You might opt for, say, a 16 bar intro and 32 bar build up because other music in the genre uses that. And this makes the creative process a little simpler because you already have constraints on what you need to make a track.
What DeSantis proposed during the session was going even further: careful listening to build up a catalogue of attributes. By listening to a piece of music in depth and breaking it down into its key components — elements like rhythm, melody, and the sounds used — you have a instant starting point of well-defined restrictions which you can take away and use as the basis for your own work.
When taking those elements outside of the context of that piece as inspiration, you're likely to end up with something that sounds distinct from the original work, rather than a poor imitation.
Knowing when a piece of music is complete
On answering this, DeSantis cited an aphorism paraphrased as "art is never finished, only abandoned" (an internet search tells me this is often attributed to Paul Valéry).
It's easy to be entangled in tweaking things forever, constantly returning to a project and slightly adjusting it. At some point, you should declare it as being "resolved". Resolved might mean declaring it complete, or something that you're decidedly not going to pursue further. In line with the above quote, it was noted that a work is never going to achieve perfection, but it may still be good enough.
It might be that you feel instinctively that it's done. Otherwise, if you're at the point of diminishing returns — spending lots of time on it without making any real progress — then that's an indicator that your time may be better spent on the next project. If the current project's really going nowhere, then best to look ahead to the next.
Deadlines were also mentioned as a great incentive for getting things finished: if you don't finish on time, you don't get the job. Producers who aren't creating as a career don't have that pressure. But you can still apply an informal deadline: perhaps aiming to finish a piece by a certain date or abandoning it otherwise could help you work with some time restriction in mind.
And how's the book?
The sample on Ableton's site is a sizeable and representative chunk of the entire book. That alone should an idea of whether you'd find it worthwhile, without me needing to tell you.
There's much to like about the book. The chapters are concise and breezy, and cover various aspects of the music creation process from start to finish. Each chapter describes a problem and then explains a suggested way of solving it: a style that books in other disciplines could do well to consider. Learning how to accomplish an end goal is highly motivating, especially when you learn something new in a five minute read.
As the book deals with a creative process, I also liked that, as mentioned above, the ideas are labelled just that, as suggestions only. There might be conventions that creators use, but there aren't usually concrete rules in creating something new. Indeed, some of the guidance offered contradicts that offered in other chapters, representing different approaches from which you can work.
It's short enough to read through the entire book from start to end quickly, picking up a flavour of any ideas that are new to you, and then placing on a shelf to refer back to as needed. The book doesn't always delve into those ideas in great detail. However, there's enough there to put the idea into practice and, importantly, making you aware of the concept so that you can investigate further elsewhere.
For a wide ranging audience, this is an easy read. The assumed knowledge of the reader is minimal, outside of some experience of working with digital audio workstations. For my limited background in music, this is a good thing. That said, I think some of the exercises and ideas suggested in starting to create something when inspiration is lacking may well benefit much more competent readers too.
Having Ableton as book publisher is a boon for marketing the book to one producer community, but could deter users of other software from reading. It should be stressed that the ideas covered are software, hardware and even genre agnostic. There's nothing presented that's particularly Ableton specific. It would be a pity if fewer people read it because of that; it's an enjoyable and enlightening read for learners.