It can be hard to come up with new song ideas again and again. As an electronic music producer, this can be especially difficult. Many songwriting-“formulas” of other genres don’t apply here so you have to be willing to experiment. In this episode, I’m going to show you my five tricks to generate song ideas that spark inspiration and make you want to continue.
What to do when you run out of song-ideas
Most electronic music producers put out several singles and EPs per year. Some even publish an album from time to time. The release rhythm in genres like techno, house, and other forms of electronic music is much higher compared to other genres.
Now before finishing a tune, you might have had three to five song ideas that didn’t make it for whatever reason. So in order to publish twelve songs a year (which is not that much these days), you would have probably had more than 40 song ideas and production sketches. That’s a lot of stuff!
Generating song ideas that are worth pursuing
Your goal shouldn’t be to just pump out more song ideas but better ones. Ultimately, you want to increase your chances of writing a full track every time you sit down to produce music.
My top 5 ways to generate musical ideas for new songs
Inspiration sometimes just “happens” but simply waiting for it can be a frustrating experience. Over the years I’ve developed some strategies that help me generate song ideas no matter if I feel inspired that day or not. Try them out for yourself and let me know if it works for you as well!
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1. Go out into nature or the city and grab some field recordings
Using field recordings to spark new song ideas is probably my favorite way of kickstarting creativity. The big advantage of these recordings is that they’re inherently unique. This might make it easier to produce music that stands out.
The benefits of capturing field recordings in nature
A lot of research has been done on how our brain waves start to change for the better after just a few minutes of walking through a forest. It’s incredible how the sounds and smells of nature influence our minds. Your stress level goes down and new neural connections are made, and your ability to solve higher-level problems increases (here’s a great article on that). All in all, you couldn’t ask for a better state of mind to kickstart your creativity.
Besides being a passionate collector of edible mushrooms and plants, I also love to grab field recordings in nature. You can record a never-ending catalog of interesting sounds in forests and parks. From the obvious bird sounds and trees shaking in the wind to the little hidden world of bugs and plants below your feet.
Cracking different types of wood creates rich percussions, rummaging around in a pile of old leaves turns into your new favorite background ambiance. After a couple of hours in nature, you will have a vast catalog of interesting sounds to generate song ideas.
From nature to city
While I much more prefer to be in the forest, I must admit that electronic music benefits a lot from field recordings captured in the city. The hectic, loud, and busy city life offers a very different style of sonic material than nature. Both can complement each other in a very interesting way.
The obvious sounds you might capture first are traffic sounds from cars and the subway, people walking and talking in the streets, and banging things against surfaces to create interesting sounds. But that’s just the beginning!
I encourage you to bring a bunch of items with you like coins, sticks, strings, whatever might help you reveal the sonic beauty that’s hidden in the streets. Then, look for the non-obvious sounds. I’ve recorded some of my best samples in abandoned industrial buildings and other unique places. If that’s not available in your area you can experiment with going to a junk-yard or even asking the owners of interesting spaces if they let you do some recordings in there.
Best-practice for recording awesome samples
Grabbing field-recordings isn’t that hard if you follow some general rules. This is what I recommend to my coaching clients:
- You can start by simply using your phone to grab first recordings and play around with it.
- If you have gained some experience, it’s worth investing in a proper field-recorder. I have had great experiences with the recent Zoom-models as they’re very easy to operate and the sound quality is decent as well. Other brands might offer good quality, but I’m not a big fan of diving through five sub-menus just to increase the mic gain.
- Make sure you leave enough headroom on your recordings by carefully adjusting the input gain. Especially when you try to capture percussive sounds, you might easily clip the analog-to-digital converters. This creates nasty digital distortion artifacts in your recordings.
- Before recording something, leave a little voice note and tell your future self what you’re about to capture. This makes it easier to find a specific sound later on.
- As soon as your field recording session is over, go home and do your homework: Name files, categorize them in folders and save the best-edited samples in a special folder. This is going to be the starting point of your next studio session.
All in all, if you want to generate song ideas, working with field recordings is one of the best ways to spark creativity.
2. Load some samples into your session and completely destroy them
If you’re not in the mood for a walk or simply don’t have the time to capture field recordings, I have another great way of generating song ideas. This one is a bit more aggressive but can lead to super interesting results.
The idea is to import some random samples into your session and completely destroy them. I truly mean it, whatever you end up with MUST sound completely different from the original sound. The benefit here is that you can even work with the basic sample pack that comes with your DAW.
There’s no limit to your creativity here, you simply try to create unique sonic textures that evoke some emotion. You can use whatever tools you have.
Let me give you an example of how this could work
- You import a standard, boring snare sample into your session.
- First, you use warping/ time-stretching to double its length which already makes it sound very different.
- Next, you put a dense reverb on it as well as a grain delay.
- Now, you follow it up with a saturator as well as a compressor and you completely nuke it (meaning: you’re using an unnatural amount of compression and distortion).
- Then, you render/ bounce the sound in its full length (including the reverb & delay tail) and re-import it into your session.
- Now it’s time to chop it up in different little parts that sound promising. You can put effects on those as well, as I’ve said, there’s no limit.
The cool thing here is: Since you already have a channel with lots of weird effects going, you can easily throw in other samples onto that channel and see what happens. This way, you can create a large variety of sounds and textures with very little effort.
Taking sample-smashing one step further
The process above can be done with the stock plugins of Ableton or any other DAW. If you enjoy this way of generating song ideas, you can go one level deeper and play with creative effects units that are a bit harder to operate. One of my personal favorites is Molekular by Native Instruments. But you don’t have to buy something, start with free Reactor or Max for Live libraries that offer sample-mashing tools and experiment with them.
Overall, this way of coming up with new song ideas is very easy to implement but is also dangerous. You might end up tweaking samples for hours without having any song structure in place. The next trick is the exact opposite: Be fast and modulate on the fly.
3. Hold a single note or chord and automate it with effects into complete mayhem
This one is astonishingly simple but helps you generate many song ideas without much effort. It works like this:
- You play one or several simple notes on a virtual synthesizer in your DAW and directly record a single take from start to finish of your track. You should have 5 to 10 minutes of relatively boring material.
- Now it’s time to spice it up a bit. You start with modulating the synth parameters and draw automation lanes. Use the cutoff and resonance settings of your filters, maybe also modulate the ADSR-envelope as well as the waveshapes. Depending on the synth you use, different parameters might give you the most interesting results.
- Try to use the modulation to tell a story, guide the listener throughout the whole piece and create different parts, simply using the automation lanes.
- Then, start putting creative effects on top and modulate their parameters as well (see tip nr. 2 above).
- You should end up with something that is already a pretty promising first guideline of your song. From there on, it’s all about adding the right groove and finalizing the parts.
The most tricky aspect of this approach is that you have to make sure the song is modulating enough, otherwise you end up with a pretty boring piece of drone music. But if that’s your thing, even better for you.
4. Program a drum beat, convert to audio, slice & swap it
If you try to generate a song idea by programming the drums from start to finish, you often end up with a pretty boring standard beat. So here’s my go-to recipe for making it a bit more interesting.
First of all, you need to program at least five to ten different drum patterns by drawing midi notes or using a sequencer/ virtual drum machine to generate them.
Next, you duplicate these midi patterns and feed different virtual (or analog) drum machines with them. If you’ve programmed ten different patterns and route them into three different drum machines, you end up with 30 different-sounding patterns.
Now all you have to do is bounce them to audio files and cut them into interesting little pieces. You then have all the freedom in the world and can combine different parts of different patterns with different drum sounds. That should give you enough variety to create an interesting groove for your song.
5. Create an orchestra of machines and be the conductor
This idea to come up with song ideas is a very playful one. Imagine you’re the conductor of an orchestra. But instead of conducting human players, you’re conducting several midi-instruments. It’s a bit like playing an electronic music live-show.
First of all, you need to hook up all the analog and digital pieces of equipment you want to be part of your machine orchestra. Then you start to create several main patterns and motives as midi events which you can launch in your session. With DAWs like Ableton Live or Bitwig, this is relatively easy due to their live-oriented clip view. But even in more “traditional” DAWs like Cubase or Logic you have sequencing-tools that allow you to seamlessly switch from one pattern to the next.
Now it’s all about performance and capturing some magic moments. You can either conduct your orchestra as a whole by using MIDI controllers (the APC40MK2 is great for that), or you can do it track by track and layer one on top of the other.
This live-feeling gets even more intense if you also modulate parameters on the fly and directly record things like filter modulation or changes in the ADSR envelopes. Nothing’s sacred here and you can, of course, combine this technique with the other ones I’ve laid out before.
Putting it into action: Generating song ideas like a boss
I hope this episode has helped you kick off new song ideas like never before. Definitely let me know what has come out of your experiments! Here are three action steps that you can implement for your upcoming sessions.
1. Next time you lack inspiration, try out the one idea that resonates the most with you
- Instead of feeling overwhelmed by all the new opportunities, simply focus on the one strategy that naturally resonates with you. If you’re the kind of person who loves long nature walks, then the first idea is perfect for you. If you feel more like an uber-nerd who hides in his or her cave and you love experimenting with weird glitch-plugins, then the second idea might be a better fit.
- Gradually add more of these ideas to your arsenal. If you have a couple of techniques that work for you, go all-in and let them drive your creative process.
2. Keep an “inspiration kickstart” file close to you
- Keep a physical notebook or file ready for your sessions and write down what is helping you when you get stuck or lack inspiration. Start with adding my five suggestions to that list, continue with your own.
- Don’t put too much pressure on you. Some days it just doesn’t work and that’s totally okay. Use the time to either relax or dive into old projects and export interesting loops and sounds that might be suitable for a future session.
3. Come up with a system for file organization
- If you come up with new song ideas all the time but don’t structure them in a clever way, you’re going to end up in a big mess of abandoned projects that don’t lead anywhere.
- It’s not important what exact file and folder system you use. Just make sure you have SOME system in place that keeps your files organized, backed-up, and easily accessible from anywhere. I recommend working directly in a folder that syncs with cloud storage like Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive.
Alright, that’s it for this week’s episode, I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Now I’d love to hear from you: What has helped you generate song ideas?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything!