In this episode of Pick Yourself, I’m going to help you finish more songs. Use my 7 best tricks to escape the “stuck in the loop” syndrome and get things done. Soon you are going to write more (and better) songs in less time.
How to not get stuck in the loop
Being stuck in the loop is one of the biggest problems among upcoming music producers. The workflow of modern DAWs such as Ableton, Cubase, and Logic relies heavily on working with loops. It’s easier than ever to build a great sounding four-bar sequence. But that’s far away from writing a whole song.
Finishing music is a skill you have to develop. It doesn’t have to do with talent, it’s something you can practice. If it feels hard for you right now, just remember to adopt a growth mindset (as discussed in episode 16). I’d say that about 60% of the problem stems from psychological barriers that you’re imposing upon yourself. The other 40% have to do with building clever routines to kickstart your creativity.
The art of finishing more songs is really the art of managing your creative process. If you succeed in this area, you can remove the word “writer’s block” from your vocabulary.
The 7 best tricks that will help you finish your songs
Over the past years, I’ve tried out many tricks and hacks that are supposed to help you finish more songs. A lot of them sound like good advice but have proven to be less effective than others. So I started to experiment with different combinations of tricks to find out which ones actually move the needle.
This list has long been a “secret weapon” that I’ve only given out to my coaching- and studio clients. But hey, this is episode 20 of Pick Yourself, so let’s celebrate.
Even if some of these tricks sound obvious to you, be aware that there’s a very deep layer to each of them. They also cross-influence each other, so this works like a recipe. If you remove some spices, it won’t taste as good.
1. Remove all distractions and set up a routine to get “in the zone”
This advice isn’t as obvious as you think. With “distractions”, I mean a lot of different things. Let’s start with the obvious ones:
- Social media
- News sites, blogs, forums, and other pseudo-informative content sources
- Your phone in general (calls, apps, etc.)
- Your partner, roommates, pets, or parents (if you still live with them)
Okay, that wasn’t too surprising. But what about these:
- Thoughts in the back of your head
- Instruments, plugins, analog gear that you don’t fully understand (yet)
- Technical issues and a slow computer
All of these things can stand in the way of you finishing your songs. So how can you deal with them?
Removing the obvious distractions
For the first set of distractions (social media etc.), the answer is pretty simple: Block them. You simply put your phone in flight mode and store it in your bag. Next, you install the Cold Turkey blocker on your computer and enter all possible distractions. Lastly, you set a timer for your writing session and you’re done.
When it comes to removing possible distractions by your partner, roommates, etc., you have to clearly communicate your boundaries in advance. If they understand how much music means to you, they will understand that you need a certain non-distracted time block per day to work on your craft.
It also helps to have a little door sign that you can put up when you’re having your creative time. Maybe you find something more elegant than “do not disturb”.
Removing the not-so-obvious ones
So what if thoughts in the back of your head keep distracting you? The best thing is to have a little physical notebook close to you where you simply write the things down. Whether it’s things for your to-do list or issues in your romantic life. Instead of trying to fight it, you’re simply giving it a place where it can flow out of your system. Your mind will mark it as “saved for later” and you’re good to go.
I also recommend separating the time you invest in learning new tools and instruments from the actual writing process. If you want to finish more songs, you need to only use tools that you know really well. Fiddling around with your new analog synth is a lot of fun, but you shouldn’t have to think about how to route filter modulation sources while you want to finish a song.
One of the best investments you can make is to buy a fast computer and a reliable audio interface. If you combine this with paying for software (not cracking it!), it can save you hours of troubleshooting. If your computer is too slow, the constant crackling of the audio engine is a huge distraction and can pull you out of the creative zone.
It’s all about setting up the right routine
If you start every writing session with a fixed routine, it will boost your creativity enormously. Such a songwriting-start-habit could look like this:
- Get some water and snacks
- Put your phone in flight mode
- Start the Cold Turkey timer
- Close your door and put door sign up
- Put your little notebook and a pen right next to your mouse
- Write down any thoughts that keep distracting you
- Switch on all external gear and start your DAW
- Close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths and focus on what you want to achieve
- Start writing awesome music
I personally love doing a short meditation that helps me get in the zone. If that’s not your thing, a couple of deep breaths do the trick as well. The important thing here is to develop a routine that works for you. Feel free to experiment a bit but try to be consistent with it in the end.
2. Draw inspiration from other sources than music
Staring at a blank session in your DAW isn’t the best way to kick-off the songwriting process. Some people start with listening to other artists and get inspired by their music. While this might help you get started, I still believe it isn’t a good idea.
Finishing more songs isn’t only about the quantity, it’s also about increasing the quality of your music. Therefore, getting inspired by other artists in your field might end up in the “copycat trap” which I’ve described in episode 7.
Things that can spark your creativity can come from many different sources:
- Paintings and sculptures
- Movies and motion artworks
- Events in your personal life
Make sure you write inspirational moments down as soon as they happen
Inspirational moments can happen in everyday life but we can also intentionally seek them. A good idea is to keep a little “inspiration-notebook” with you, where you can instantly save these moments for future writing sessions. This can also be stored digitally on your phone, of course.
Let’s say you went to an inspiring modern art exhibition where one specific visual art installation made you feel something special. Try to capture that feeling in your notebook so when you go back to the studio, you can put yourself into that experience again. Believe me, this is going to unlock your creative potential much more than fiddling around with synth presets.
3. Create templates to save creative energy for things that matter
If you’re one of these people who start a songwriting session with a completely blank session: STOP IMMEDIATELY! Do you really want to waste hours (and maybe days, if you count it for a whole year) on routing, naming, and coloring tracks?
I believe you should save your creative energy for the moments that really matter. If your goal is to finish more songs, you need to start the session at a point where most of the “organizational” tasks are already done. Therefore, I suggest creating a template that looks more or less like this:
- Organize your session in “types” of tracks that are colored in a certain way (e.g. all bass tracks are always purple, kick drums red, percussions yellow, etc.).
- Have some audio and midi tracks already in place (named, colored, and routed) for things that you constantly use in your productions.
- Prepare FX-send/return channels for effects that you’re often using (e.g. a certain reverb for percussions).
- Keep your hardware instruments, effects and midi controllers hooked up and routed so you minimize the need for patching cables from a to b.
- If you work with group-tracks in your DAW, set them up in your template with a fixed name- and color-scheme.
- Set up a rough-mastering chain (EQ, compressor, limiter) on your master channel so you can quickly check what the end product might sound like.
Let it evolve over time
Your template is going to change and evolve over time, but it’s important to get started with this early on. You might think that this is limiting your creative possibilities, but that’s not the case. It just makes your tools instantly accessible and removes unnecessary friction from the creative process. If you want to set up some weird and unusual effects-chain, you can still do so if you feel the need.
4. Create a structure before writing any music
The “stuck in the loop”-syndrome mainly comes from working on a loop for hours and then struggling with transforming it into a song structure. So why not switch up the process? You can structure a song before writing a single note.
Finishing more music is mainly about tricking our minds into thinking that we’re already halfway there. If we lay down a song structure, the song feels kind of finished already.
I suggest starting with putting markers in your blank session. Think about how many bars your intro should be. Then you decide at which point you want your track to gain intensity. Maybe go for a breakdown (or don’t do it), but try to tell a story with your structure from start to finish.
The most interesting song structure is based on your inspiration (see above) and tries to reflect your thoughts and feelings in the way you build your tune. You can always adjust the structure afterward, of course. Psychologically, it makes a big difference if you start with a single loop or a complete song structure.
5. Create a “skeleton-track” with modulations
So what the hell is a “skeleton-track”? Think about the human body for a second: Everything is built around our skeleton. Even without any flesh, you could tell a human skeleton from any other living species, right? The “skeleton-track” in your session serves the same purpose. It contains essential sonic information of what you want to express and you can build everything else around it.
Let me give you an example: Based on your inspiration, you want to write a heavily distorted bassline that modulates in different ways. You also want some reverb around it that ebbs and flows throughout the track. So you set up an analog synth (or a digital one) and record a sequence that keeps going throughout the whole song. You modulate it on the go (either with real knobs or midi controllers) and simply follow the song structure you’ve laid out before.
It’s all about tricking your brain
It doesn’t have to be perfect but it should serve as some guideline for how your song changes in intensity. You could, of course, also copy and paste a sample that plays throughout the whole song. But still, you can live-modulate it with a filter (or some effect) and also adjust the effects-send to create some tension.
In the end, you’re going to have a song structure plus one “main” element of the production from start to finish. Now, all you have to do is build the rest around it. You will, of course, delete and change parts of the “skeleton-track” later on. Maybe you will replace it completely, who knows. It still helps you finish more songs because your mind thinks that one of the main elements is already done.
6. Worry about sound-design rather than mixing
One of the most distracting things you can do in a songwriting session is messing around with EQ, compression, and other mixing tools. If you spend an hour tweaking your kick drum but you haven’t even started to put anything else in the track, it’s a clear sign that you’re guilty of this.
Sound-design is an art-form and it’s different from mixing. You’re working on the source itself rather than the tools that might (or might not) follow in the chain of this channel. If you want to create a unique kick drum, it’s not enough to grab a sample and immediately EQ and compress it. The process might look more than this: You synthesize a nice fundamental tone, put a properly sliced field recording on top, and maybe add a distorted sample from a library to it as well.
If the kick drum doesn’t sound good in its raw state, there’s no point in reaching for EQs and compressors. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with quickly filtering out some unwanted low-end or high-end, but you shouldn’t start to polish a turd at this stage.
Production and mixing should be two different phases in the creative process
A great way to finish more songs is to simply separate the production from the mixing phase. This means you have to work harder on composition, arrangement, and sound design to make the song sound great in its raw state. Not only will this approach help you finish more music, but it will also improve your final mixdown. If you start a mix with great-sounding sources, you can focus on enhancing them rather than fixing problems.
7. Get input from experienced mentors as early as possible
If your goal is to finish more songs but also to grow your skillset as quickly as possible, you need to get a mentor. Experienced producers as well as mixing- and mastering-engineers can offer detailed feedback, even at an early stage of the songwriting process.
For my studio-clients, I’m including this service completely free of charge. It’s incredible to see how fast they’re getting better. It’s a win-win situation for everybody because I enjoy mixing and mastering a great production way more than having to rescue a song. The ones who want to go deeper book a 1 on 1 session to work on specific pain points.
Since this might sound like I want you to book a project with me (which is not the main point here), I’m giving you the full truth: You don’t need to pay a professional for this. Great mentorship often comes for free, either from your direct circle or from collaborations with more experienced people.
The worst thing you can do is to hide alone in your studio and not let any external influence change your path. This will not produce genius-level productions but rather leave you with many blind spots.
Try to absorb other people’s workflow and implement the bits and pieces that help you finish more songs.
Summary: How to finish more songs and produce better music
The one thing these 7 tricks have in common is this: They all try to let the creative parts of your brain reach a flow state by removing as many obstacles as possible. Organizational or technical obstacles are being removed while inspiration and creativity are being nurtured. Combine this with some mentorship that helps refine these strategies and you’re reaching a whole different level in your productions.
Finishing more songs and becoming super productive during your studio hours simply takes practice and a decent level of discipline. So let’s have a look at how you can get started.
Putting it into action: Escaping the “stuck in the loop”-syndrome and finishing more songs
Congratulations, you’ve made it to this part of my blog post. This means you’re really serious about implementing the things you’ve read here. I’m giving you three action steps that will help you get started with finishing more songs.
1. Create your personal “getting in the zone” routine
- Start with a very simple process that contains not more than three steps, for example: Phone in flight mode, Cold Turkey blocker activated, take three deep breaths.
- Then slowly refine your routine and experiment with additional steps that help you get in the zone.
- Make sure you do this every single time you want to write music. Typically, these types of processes become an automatic habit after 30-60 days.
2. Set up a session template that helps you kick off the creative process
- Keep it simple and start with the most common things you find yourself doing over and over again manually.
- When using your template in the next songwriting sessions, write down which bits you’d like to add to your template for the next time.
- Don’t try to build a super-complex session template as this is just your perfectionism creeping in again.
3. Experiment with songwriting hacks and seek help from experienced mentors
- Try out the “structure first” approach and experiment with “skeleton-tracks”.
- Make sure you stay away from mixing during the production phase of your song. Start spending more time on sound design as it will give you a much better end-result.
- Seek advice from people that are more experienced than you are. Try to learn from their workflow and incorporate the bits that resonate with you in your own way of working.
So, that’s it for this episode of Pick Yourself. Thanks so much for making it until here, I’m really impressed!
So what is your current strategy that helps you finish more songs? I’d love to hear from you, just leave a comment below!