“Why do I always get stuck at the loop stage?” is one of the most common questions I hear along with: “My loop sounds great but when I turn it into an arrangement I lose confidence in the idea and give up, what’s missing?”
Don’t worry you’re not alone.
We’ve all been there; everything is going so well and then you start the arrangement and just feel something is missing.
That feeling of being lost and not knowing where to go next usually leads to throwing more sounds at the track in a desperate bid to find a solution.
The more sounds you add, the more your initial idea (the thing you loved at the start) get’s swamped and the whole track loses direction.
Each new sound you add is more disjointed than the last and after hours of hopeful preset surfing the track gets dumped on the hard drive graveyard.
But still, you can always start a new track tomorrow, what a relief! The energy level is back up, fresh optimism for tomorrow…
Let’s be honest, you’re kidding yourself and deep down you know it.
It’s always there at the back of your mind:
How do I finish these great ideas I keep coming up with?
How do I create something to show for myself?
How do I take the pressure off and start enjoying writing my tracks?
I know how it feels because I’ve been there (sometimes I still end up there!) but I know the way forward and I’m going to share it with you now.
The answer is not to keep adding more, but instead develop what you already have.
Understand what the most important aspect of your music is and tell a story with it.
Without this understanding, chances are you’ll end up with yes another unfinished loop sitting on your hard drive.
You have good ideas, you make good loops but the arrangement phase is crippling you.
Let’s put an end to this and nail it every time…
THE 3 KEY CONCEPTS
Before we dive into the full process there are 3 key concepts that always help me to progress when writing a track:
- The first is to keep it simple. There is no need to overcomplicate the process of writing a track. Keeping it simple and writing fast gets results.
- The second is to take the biggest steps towards the finishing line first. Only when a full arrangement is in place do we concern ourselves with the fine details.
- The final aim is to work with the mantra ‘Good is good enough’. There is no room for perfectionism.
These might seem obvious when you read them but it’s amazing how many producers spend forever just tweaking kick drums and other small details and never moving forward.
I instil these ‘Mantra’s’ in the heads of every single music producer who joins ‘Finish More Music‘ and these subtle shifts in mind set make a huge difference.
Why am I telling you this? Because even though logic tells you it’s true, there is nothing quite like solid evidence to hit the point home.
I promise you; keep these concepts in mind whilst you are going through the other steps and they will be a huge game changer for you!
PHASE 1 – CONTEXT INSTRUMENTS
The biggest step at the start of a track is coming up with the core idea, the very essence of the track and the thing it will be remembered for.
The core idea in a piece of music is called ‘the theme’ and it’s kind of like the lead character in a film. Let’s take Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1,2,3 or 10 – you take your pick!)
Bruce is introduced near the beginning and the entire film is built around him. We see his character develop and we see how he reacts when put in different situations and environments.
So what lead character will you go for? What is your core idea?
I like to write dark, groovy, techy tracks but I also like melodic elements. The core idea I always start with is the melody and then I build the rest of the track around it.
Personally I find it easiest to write melodic ideas over a groove, so I start by quickly putting one in place. This is my first step, my phase one. No fuss, no pissing around with compressors, just getting the job done so I can move on to that core idea! (you might prefer just to get stuck in with your theme in phase 2 and that’s totally cool, go for your life!)
The key is to stay focussed on working quickly when putting any context elements in please first.
For example, when I write a quick groove I’ll chuck on some basic effects and mixing techniques that I know give me quick wins, but nothing more.
With the drums in place to give me a little rhythm to work with I move on to the big deal…
PHASE 2 – THE THEME
Now we’re ready to approach the creation of the tracks central idea: The Theme.
At this stage of the process it’s all about experimenting, exploring and having fun.
Set yourself some boundaries to experiment within and then come up with a bunch of different ideas to choose from.
In keeping with the dark and eerie vibe of my music I always pre-select a mysterious or melancholic key; something like Phrygian. Then I select a sound that matches the underground vibe of my music.
Those are the boundaries that channel my creativity in the right direction.
I keep in mind that I want to use lots of tension notes in my melodies and write 5 -10 melodic riffs to get me started. Maybe one of these stands out and I’m ready to move forward or perhaps I need to create a few more before one hits the spot.
When you have picked your final version to move forward with you will most likely want to spend a short amount of time developing it a little further; perhaps changing the instrument or adding some effects to bring it to life.
Again the secret here is not to spend ages tweaking. Remember it’s big steps first and procrastination doesn’t get a look in!
I do understand.
This is already a lot to take in.
Fortunately, I break it all down, with step by step examples that show you how to decide on your theme, create it and turn it into a full track, inside our mini course: Beyond The Loop
But, if you’re sitting there wondering what the hell to do next with your theme next, let me explain…
PHASE 3 – VARIATIONS
Now this is the big one. If you’re not doing this it will be a game changer!
Rather than start throwing new sounds at the loop we instead develop the theme that we have.
Remember our example of Bruce? How might he develop in the film?
His emotions will change, in some sections he’ll creep around, in others he’ll move at 100 miles an hour. He will be put in calm environments, crazy environments and tense environments. He will have conversations with other characters (none as important as him though!)
If you don’t develop your theme it will be like watching Bruce do his grocery shopping: boring and lifeless!
I hope this is clear; you absolutely must create a bunch of variations of your theme. I recommend grabbing a pen and paper to jot down some ideas.
If you’d rather save yourself the hassle just steal my favourite variations here : 5 AWESOME VARIATONS TO KEEP YOUR LEAD SOUNDS INTERESTING
To create the variations simply duplicate your initial loop a bunch of times and create a new variation in each loop. Easy!
I recommend creating at least 5 variations so you have some really good content to start creating your arrangement.
PHASE 4 – THE ARRANGEMENT
So, we’ve got our building blocks in place; a bunch of sections containing either our theme or a variation of our theme.
Now it’s time to start creating an arrangement!
Note: we haven’t been tweaking anything at this stage. There are no variations of any support elements (in my example the drums supporting the melody). All of the details are being left until the end.
It’s also important to notice the big difference here. Rather than try to take one loop and turn it into a track, we now have 5 or more loops.
We’ve got the pieces in place, now we have to put them into an order that makes sense and join them together.
Fortunately, I have a sick hack for quickly putting your track together and I break it down in a big way inside our video mini course: Beyond The Loop.
Let’s continue on with our current example…
In dance music we tend to expect 16 bar sections so it’s a good idea to extend all of your loops to this length before starting.
It’s also worth considering the overall layout of the track. Here are some questions to think about:
What is your climax section?
Will it be a breakdown or come after the breakdown towards the end of the track?
How early on in the track do you want to introduce your theme?
How long does the intro need to be for a DJ?
With factors like these in mind you can start to create the overall shape of the track and explore how the different sections flow into one and other.
The beauty of this approach is that most sections will work together as they have all been spawned from the same seed of an idea rather than being a bunch of randomly added sounds and patterns.
At this stage of the process we aren’t concerning ourselves with transitions and automation, just making sure the energy flows well through the track and the core idea takes the listener on a journey.
When you have all of the sections in place I recommend listening through to the full arrangement from start to finish. This often highlights areas that need adjusting for the track to make sense as a whole.
By the end of this phase you will have a draft arrangement in place and be ready for the final step – adding some details…
PHASE 5 – FINISHING TOUCHES
Here we go… The final piece of the puzzle!
You are now the proud owner of a full arrangement that flows, takes your listener on a journey and develops your core idea.
It most likely still lacks interest in certain sections.
For me, 16 bars is too long for a loop to play without having movement of some description. It is possible if you have an awesome loop with a killer groove but these magical moments don’t come along often!
The final step is to add finishing details such as automation and small variations in the second half of each 16 bar section. It’s not often needed in the first half because it’s a new section with a new variation to the theme so the listener is kept entertained.
Many times you will just be changing something up to distract the listener from the general loop. This could be as simple as muting an element or adding effects or new notes to a sound to bring it to the front of the track.
Sometimes however there will be the need for a transition into the next section or a noticeable change of energy, such as a small climax.
Remember these parts of the process can get fiddly so work to the 70% rule: When it’s 70% good enough, move on. You can always come back and tweak some more – right now though we are all in to get the job done.
When you have ticked off all of the sections I recommend another listen through.
Then it’s on to smaller and smaller details until there is nothing left to polish off…
And that’s it.
You’ve finished your track!
The biggest piece of advice I can offer you is to learn more about the subject of arrangement.
It’s often fear of the unknown and that horrible sensation of being lost and clueless that stops us moving forward.
If this sounds like you and you’re ready to do something about it and create some seriously kickass arrangements then grab our mini course: Beyond The Loop and let me show you how to always finish your tracks.
When you know with certainty what to do next, any resistance you feel evaporates and it’s easy to move forward.
Don’t forget to grab my cheat sheet here to add my favourite variations to your tool kit:
Finally I want to extend my thanks and appreciation for you taking the time to read this blog post and I wish you the very best for finishing more music.