Inspiration, organization and the key to finishing your DAW music tracks.
Foreword : How to finish my tracks
Suggestions for being organized with a new DAW based track and how to increase the chance of finishing your DAW music tracks. (How do I finish my DAW music tracks?)
If you do not want the preamble, scroll straight down to point 1)
A few words first : I master all genres of music for a living so please do not typecast me as mastering for just a few genres based on my free time hobby. My music making activities are a personal creative pursuit to enjoy in my spare time. So if you have rock, metal, punk, folk, reggae, acoustic music for mastering, no trouble at all. I can master any genre with skill and ease. (as a former pro sound engineer who recorded bands and interacted with musicians professionally for many years, I know my mastering abilities extend to all genres. Check my extensive Biog page)
Many producers do not seem to be able to finish their tracks. And, I believe I know the reason why through my own experiences making 8 minute long (on average) DAW based synth heavy tracks.
As soon as music becomes difficult we must understand that a producers job (in the modern sense of the word) is to work through tough musical/technical situations. They are very common and not unique to yourself, even if your music is, we all have to deal with these tricky stages in creating musical art work.
When the going gets tough, a DAW music producer must get going or have only hard drive loops !
We all experience it, we all lose confidence and doubt ourselves at times but we must simply find the strength to work through these uncomfortable issues. As music producers we are united in this way, it is not unique to you and your music tracks. You must push yourself and be at “semi-peace” with being uncomfortable with your track not being where you want it to be. In fact it is normal. Once you have understood you are not alone in your loss of confidence and swiftly changing moods. Realize even your mood will not usually stay the same for long. So when I say “semi-peace” try and make judgement calls on when you should just get some fresh air or come back tomorrow and when you should dig in and push harder. We are going to look into some practices that seem to work well.
A bunch of 1 minute ideas or 32 bar loops on a hard disk is not normally a useful proposition for a self release or label. I will present methods to try and get your enjoyment making them (important in itself) into a more satisfying end result. I am sure there are many ways to approach this, including, no planning whatsoever and just tinkering around with a sound, drum pattern or break and naturally expanding upon the initial ideas. This is my approach which seems to work, for at least myself :
Firstly, a link to a track I made, nearly 8 mins long with 163 DAW channels on a 17 inch monitor with the CPU running at 95pct over head (at the end of the mix) an old Intel i7 2600 CPU with an RME 9632 PCI sound card. It proves this system works for myself on a less than current music hobby PC (11 years old) and is not just internet hot air. (of which there is plenty !)
I hasten to add a great track or piece of music can be produced with just a handful of channels/tracks. This is just to illustrate a fairly long track and complex project still resulting in completion, on a very mediocre production PC.
A preface for good measure :
I usually leave some time between starting one track and another, that is usually about 1-2 months however this time it has been almost a year. It can be as short as 2-3 weeks. I tend only to make music when I feel I might have something to say, or I feel I need to enjoy that cosy DAW headspace, it is a bit like entering a space that I like being in. A place to turn silence into sound.
As a general rule I like to try and get some organized feeling in the DAW layout so I can think less about those logistical elements of the track making process whilst in a creative stream.
Being organized takes a little time and forethought but means you are interrupted less when your are in a creative flow, which can at times be critical.
1) Preparation, ground work for DAW music
I usually make a folder often weeks or months before a new track, inside I have pieces of audio that I have found inspiring and also a .rtf (rich text) document with thoughts and ideas. That could be a track name, some production techniques to explore or reverse engineer, synth ideas to try, a likely key that I will work in, maybe consider possible scales I would like to use. It might be timecodes of specific synth sounds in a track I was to try and emulate the feel of etc. It can be nice to be inspired by a track that you have heard and then work out what key and scale it is in on the keyboard. Of course the goal is not to copy the melodic ideas and progression but a scale will often give a specific feel which can be tapped into. Anything that relates to my feelings surrounding a fresh tune I will put in the folder for reference. The folder could also include inspiring imagery, or written notes, experiences or imagery, actually seen or imagined. Any source of inspiration can be kept in the folder.
2) What are you going to write ?
Typically I know roughly if I am making a retro inspired track or something “modern” in style, a mix of both and which genre, this is all good to consider. It can help determine an approach to the techniques you might use or produce useful limitation. As well as freedom, limitation can narrow things down in order to curb an incapacitated feeling of where to start. (not a good place to already be unsure of yourself.) As one example : quite often my plan will be to include some retro style melody or production techniques. Retro DAW music may offer a more organic sound (it is often more melody driven as the synth sounds of the time were more useful for melody) which can work remarkably well with modern sounding more technically precise techniques. I never worry about drawing from the past, the origins of a style of music. I am sure you will agree great tracks that you love are not always new tracks. If a track is not necessarily modern sounding that has little bearing on whether it is good or not. Great music can be made at any time, you can use retro or older techniques and tap into a sense of sentimentality (often to your advantage). A modern track has a difficulty to compete with the memories held by “classics” of a genre. So tasteful throwback can be both enjoyable and add a new depth to your music, however the choice is of course yours. I always try and do this tastefully though.
3) Time to start
If you know the approximate target length of the average track for your genre.. say 4, 6 or 8 mins I would start your initial sequences at approximately the mid point. So switch between bars and clock time (mins/seconds) and start your initial sonic sketches around mid way… so that might be 3 mins in a 6 min track at say bar 100 or 200 in your time line depending on tempo. This allows you to work both forwards and backwards in your sequence and DAW time line without the fiddly need to shift things around too much later on. That does not always go quite to plan (such is creativity !) but it starts things off with a good premise.
4) Early reflections : (if you can pardon the pun)
4) I have a tendency to make the foundations of a track over a period of a week (in hours this might be between 3 or 10 hours depending on how complex the initial choices are).. leaving ample time to ensure that the foundation is something worth building on. This is a good approach as I find it is a good thing to take time feeling if what you have at the start is good enough to build on. You can check and consider if your basic drums, kick, snare and hat pattern and bassline is something of a high enough quality to work as a basis for new music. Of course I have usually selected key and having an idea of scale/chords at this stage. It usually takes a week as I can listen to that on a few different playback systems and environments to see how it “feels”. I will never hesitate to scrap something and make it again. (This first stage can be heavily reliant on good acoustics… without knowing with a degree of confidence that your drums and bass are solid ground on which to build it can be tricky to move forwards. If this is the case good headphones may be a beneficial secondary check.)
5) Organize early so creative juices can flow unhindered :
Once I am fairly satisfied the bed rock sounds can work I will then start to do some DAW housekeeping. I will often make an audio track with empty “parts” of 8 or 16 bar lengths and run them from the start of the timeline to the approximated end point (say 4-5-6-7-8 mins).
This may appear overly formulaic, however I believe there is good method in some limitation. You do not have to conform to these musical marker parts. They just serve as a basis for some orderly approach to length of sections/arrangements for the music. At some point in the process you should be hearing “the core” of the track. The main sounds, melodies or motifs that will form the bulk of the track. You may also be hearing the stand out parts that sound so good that you will use the for the core of the track. With some luck this will be able to form the character of the track. The parts that make you smile, or make you sad or invoke a feeling strongly are probably good sections to form the main body of the work.
TIP : If you bounce soft synth parts to save some CPU cycles make a “Redundant MIDI” track and label/place your MIDI parts (muted) on this track in case you wish to reinstate and modify them later on. (maybe for that filter sweep that was not quite right)
TIP : Keep stubborn drives awake by dragging in some long wav files (6 or 7 so not played from memory, maybe edit them down and run them from start to end of anticipated track length) from that drive and playing them at -85dB on a fader. These files will be accessed as you navigate your project and stop sleep prone drives from nodding off and disrupting work flow whilst a drive awakens (most typically when you have a great idea that requires fast execution). Remember to mute this track entirely when making a final render.
7) Creation begins
If I had a plan for the type of track I was roughly planning to make I will start with some synth sounds. I often find a basic sound that works in the genre (let’s call it a “bread and butter” sound) is a good choice for starting with some melody lines. Let’s face it every melody line you create is not going to be a winner. If you are managing 1 in 3 being workable that is a decent hit rate I would say. Any synths sounds initially used may be tweaked or even replaced at a later stage. I will probably have synthesized these sounds myself in the past that roughly sound as I might wish them to. Whether you are using presets or your own crafted sounds is largely irrelevant for penning melodies. Just something ballpark with the right texture for the genre, right decay for the role, will do fine.
TIP : For non musicians don’t be too proud to label your keyboard with stickers for the notes and apply a second set of stickers on your keyboard outlining your scale choice. It is very easy for example to search “F minor scale for keyboard” and look at the images for which notes are in the scale. Print it out or add your keyboard stickers… you will be amazed how this simplifies the production of nice melodies for your tracks. Don’t know chords ? Play 2 or 3 notes from your scales together and make them yourself. Do not hesitate to use the full breadth of your keyboard from low to high octaves for different feels. Using an actual hardware synth keyboard or MIDI keyboard controller can be a much bigger aid to making music than you might think. (Especially if you typically key edit / step sequence using a mouse – a very worthwhile investment.)
At this stage I will know what base key and what scale I will use for the track. I will try to make melodies of 8 or 16 bar sections. I would continue until satisfied with quality and quantity of parts to make a track over the expected time duration. It is probably better to have more than enough parts than too few as this can help a little later at the arrangement stage. It may sound obvious but try and make melodies that you personally want to hear. Take time and be diligent about what melodies are included and what are discarded. Consider the atmosphere they conjure and how they make you feel. And of course do they work together in the progression of the arrangement. The same with any production tricks, SFX, effects processing trickery, impacts or specifically rhythmic sections.
TIP : If a DAW writing session is throwing up challenges sometimes it is best to call it a day and have a cup of tea/coffee and carry on another day. We all know the disappointment and slight frustration/loss of confidence from a bad session. Try and make peace with it, it is just unlikely to be plain sailing from start to end. Some of the best parts of a track are made under adversity. Our mental state definitely affects our music making ability (one day you think you made trash, the next it is nowhere near as bad, bear this in mind). So take it easy on yourself, you are not alone in this it happens to most people. Try 1.5 to 2 hour sessions and add a bit on each day you have time free. This can be a fresh and productive way of working, even with limited hours in front of the DAW. If your arrangements are difficult experiment with different styles of transition. They can be remarkable at stitching 2 sections of a track together. Also be diligent that sometimes sections just will not work if they are too disparate. Withdraw the weaker section and drop it at the back of your sequence and write something new.
TIP : This is rather personal but I would suggest making 95pct of the track stone cold sober. Good music tends to affect your mood and feelings anyway. If you wish to have a few beers and check the track elsewhere away from the DAW that’s fine. (with a note pad in one hand and beer in the other !). I never found navigating large DAW sessions easy when anything less than sober. Each to their own, but finishing music is often about a progression. Less so zoning out on a loop for 45 mins. Judge this for yourself. I prefer to let the music drive the feelings I have and then maybe listen and reflect at a later stage when I am fairly confident with the track. With a more relaxed mind set at a point where I am not in front of the DAW.
8) Quality control, being selective and due diligence
Of course there will be care in selecting or rejecting sections of chords and melody that do not quite fit musically or is deemed not good enough as well as considering any awkward transitions. Being selective is a very important approach to making a good end result, both for intended feel/mood and arrangement. Arrangement is something that will be somewhat genre dependent and also track length dependent. It may be that drum programming takes a precedence in the arrangement for some genres. It will also be personal to yourself or be necessary to follow a fairly formulaic approach if the track is destined for the dance floor. Here there will be certain expectations. In this case, make sure you are dancing to the track, do this from start to end standing 2m away from your DAW playback if possible. Don’t even look at the screen, look out the window or sit down and face away or lay down. Feel for the awkward moments where the arrangement “mis-steps” you. Or when a section feels too long without a break or lacks drive, lacks impact, loses energy prematurely etc. Simply follow how your music makes you feel, yes it is hard work, especially at first ! It can be unpleasant finding all your short comings ! Deal with it, note down resolve and improve it. Grab a notepad and pen and take notes about flow when the arrangement is and is not working. Then you can make adjustments.
TIP : Another good approach is bounce the track and take it to another place where you cannot make any immediate changes, another room, car, garden, kitchen. Listen or dance there to get a different perspective where you cannot get lost in the tweaking rabbit hole. Always have a note book so you can note down issues you hear… such as “01:35 this arpeggio section is too long”, “leads clashing at 03:20”, “break down needs refinement or new melody added”, “04:25 not strong enough, re think.” “riser becomes too harsh.”, “some supporting melody notes dissonant.” These kind of written notes should be happening, unless your are a born composer who gets it right first time, every time ? You will have the need to toggle between timecode and bars and musical timing (time line bars) how this is done and how you measure into the sequence will differ with each different DAW.
Also make notes as you get to the end of a mix down. I usually have between 50 and 90 mix tweak/production adjustment notes despite being a sound engineer who mixes as he hobby writes. I often add small sounds here and there cymbals, impacts, extra sounds, slight melodic changes, risers smoothing transitions, fader rides, eq adjustments, add compression, to add a little smoothing control etc. Note them all down and adjust them. The more you find, the greater layers of tweak detailing you will find, like peeling of the layers off an onion.
9) Never too late to re-assess, what’s the rush ?
Quite often a track may deviate from the initial inspiration and I will be constantly assessing this as I make the music. It depends what my goal is. Am I set on making an overtly retro style track, something modern or something in between and how good is what I have made… does the track as it is surpass what my thoughts and sonic visions were ? I often take 2-3 day breaks and come back and listen again with a little time in between. This is quite normal and healthy as we do not want to recreate exactly the same that has gone before but add part of our own journey to the music. If they sound good, sometimes I will allow the deviations and sometimes more work on quality control of individual melodic parts will be needed. Removing some and creating new parts at times. I always believe sufficient time is required to understand if these new sections are working well or not. Personally I don’t rush a track. I don’t see the need to, you are releasing it once so may as well take your time and do due diligence on the track. For myself a track will take between 30 and 50 hours normally. Finally beware of the late change.. don’t rush completion after these late stage changes.. you need time to understand what they really are, so leave it for a few days and reflect after different listening situations.
10) Further good practice :
I usually save my DAW project/session file to the C: drive (which happens to be an SSD drive) and I always then copy those files to an external “audio” drive as a safety back up. A typical track would have over 100 x “save as” saves. After every major structure change or addition I do a save as, simple sequential numbers 0-100 +. This is very good practice which takes a little time but when you need to revert or after a crash you are so pleased you bothered.
Some people like to leave some space between signing the arrangement and mix off. I used to but this changed as my tweaking methodology saw ever increasing levels of refinement so my confidence built as to when a tracks mix and composition/arrangement was ready.
Adapt the above suggestions to what works for you. This is not a blueprint but an approach where you can pick and choose from suggestions.
Making music should be generally a fun excercise. However it is rare that there are no challenges to work through in order to make a good end result. Each track is a musical stepping stone on becoming better at making music/production and mixing. As long as you have an approach where you can balance learning and writing music it is usually a rewarding experience. Problems are normal and you must generally work through them come what may, unless you wish to end up with a hard drive of inspired yet incomplete loops.
Dig in and work through the challenges, I have never not managed to work through these challenges and the same will be said for yourself. I finish every track I start and I can assure you it becomes easier with each track, be persistent. The challenges might seem frustrating at first but they can often end up being points where interesting music is made. I prefer to focus and push through them. Sure you can have a pause if you need but continue and work through rather than wallow in a feeling of being defeated. Tommorrow is another day probably with a new perspective, bear that in mind and never beat yourself up. Everything is a stepping stone, one hour to the next one day to the next, one track to the next, one album to the second album.
If you feel your own track is not quite as good as others in your genre, that’s ok. Never forget how we can project our own thoughts feeling and memories when we hear our favourite music. We often associate important aspects of life with the music we love, this is a very potent emotional quality we project, elevating some tracks to beyond epic status. We cannot second guess that someone, somewhere will have similar feelings and projections onto our own music. If your music affects others in that way, even a single other person, you have done a good job. In this way music is both personal and has very high potentials. As long as you feel you have done the best you could do at the time you made the track, you can always look back and be satisified with that.
I believe in an approach where there is basic structure to create some limitations or set processes so there is not an overwhelming feeling to starting making a new piece of music. These limitations can be expanded and flexible as you see fit. The method is that they allow the initial formulation of ideas and a “core track” to be formed from which to build DAW music in a progressive manner. This is likely to result in more finished tracks.
I hope this was of use to you in you question of “How do I finish my tracks”
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Feel free to like and share online, at will. Article Copyright Barry Gardner 2022, Sunbeam trance track written and produced by Barry Gardner 2022