Posts Tagged ‘ Creativity ’

Find a big room

Find a big room and go record something in it!

It doesn’t matter where it is, or what you record… just find a large space and record something in it.

Large spaces usually have a very distinct sound to them. They also often have a noticeable reverberation. If you’ve chosen a public place as your big room, you’ll also have the benefit of having something interesting happening in that space too.

Use your imagination! Even if you don’t have a large room in your home (or even if you do), you can probably find somewhere large with an interesting sound. A shopping centre close to midnight? An underground railway station? A school hall? A cafe? A lift lobby?

You can choose to record the sounds that you find there or you can make some sounds of your own and record them. Don’t get stuck on preconceived notions of what is or isn’t a musical instrument – use this as an opportunity to break free and experiment!

And don’t worry too much about having to purchase equipment to do it. If you’ve got a professional field recorder, that’s great. If not, you can always use your mobile phone or borrow someone else’s gear. Again – break free of the notion that you must record with accuracy and high fidelity. The goal is to produce something interesting, not necessarily to document reality.

And then, make a point of incorporating the sound into your next project. Be creative. Use it as a background texture. Chop it up and turn it into percussion. Play it backwards for an eery atmosphere. Load it into a sampler, change the pitch, process it… Maybe that distant door slam can be subtly layered with your kick to make it sound huge. Maybe that train horn can be sampled and filtered to become a new synth lead. Maybe you could bring your vocalist and record some backing vocals in the subway. Or busy shopping centre.

Whatever you do, do something. Don’t just reiterate the same old approaches – be creative!




What is creative direction?

The term ‘Creative direction’ might sound obtuse, but it’s really quite simple. Creative direction is the vision for the song. It is the idea (or set of ideas) that set the direction for all the creative decisions in the production process. Decisions based on the creative direction of a song have a wide range – as broad as choosing the instrumentation and as detailed as the type of distortion pedal used on a background guitar part. Anything that has an impact on the musical expression should be based on the creative direction.

Creative direction can be articulated in a variety of ways. The two most common ways are as adjectives (written/verbal language) and as references to existing recordings (‘sounds like’).

Adjectives are useful because they can be applied across many different kinds of decisions. For example, ‘rough and raw’ can be used to guide anything from lyrics and vocal performance through to compression and reverb choices. They can also be adapted to suit different contexts. For example, ‘smooth and clean’ means different things in a pop-rock song versus a downtempo electronic song.

The downside to using adjectives is that they can sometimes be vague and subjective. For example, different guitarists may interpret ‘spacious and expansive’ differently. Skilled and artistic interpretation is a large part of the value that dedicated instrumentalists bring to a session, but difficulties can emerge when everyone on a session has their own individual interpretation of what initially appeared to be common language.

References to existing recordings are useful because they are much more specific. For example, a particular drum tone might be difficult to describe in a specific and non-ambiguous way, but playing a recording of something similar will very quickly bring everyone onto the same page. Regardless of the different terminology and reference points, the artist, producer, drummer, engineer, etc will understand the reference because it is a concrete expression of a sound. There’s much less interpretation required.

The downside to referencing existing recordings is that they allow much less interpretation. If you approach music as a process of creation – rather than recreation – you will probably find such references to be inadequate in describing your creative direction. Also, if you draw your influences from a wide variety of styles and sounds, you might find concrete references to be misleading. For example, a rap/electronica hybrid isn’t necessarily a Tupac / Chemical Brothers mashup. Some adaptation of each element will be required to make it work with the other elements.

Clearly, a lot of situations will require a combination of adjectives and reference recordings. The important thing is that you have a creative direction – no matter how it’s expressed. Without creative direction, all you’ve got governing your decisions is the question ‘does it sound good’? You might like the sound of an instrument or song element, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for the song. If you’re just going by what you like the sound of, the end result is likely to be unfocussed or haphazard.


Don’t make good music. Make amazing music.

Anyone can get sidetracked.

Sometimes it happens quite naturally. The distraction is easier, faster, more gratifying than putting in the hours of work to get a result.

When I speak to a musician or composer or producer, I can usually tell how connected they are to their work by how much they talk about gear.

The good ones don’t talk about gear.

If you make music, gear is a distraction. If you’re thinking about gear, you’re not thinking about music. Of course gear is necessary, but gear is like any technology – it’s working best when it stays out of the way.

When I meet some people who make music, the first thing they talk about is gear. It excites them. It challenges them. It gets their juices flowing. I’m sure it’s the same in other fields – there are probably plenty of photographers who endlessly compare lenses or lust after other gear but never think about taking breathtaking photographs. Or filmmakers who are more concerned with having the right equipment than telling a compelling story. Personally, I find a lot of gear boring. They’re tools. That’s all. Gear is important if you want to make good music.

But gear isn’t important if you want to make amazing music.

What’s important if you want to make amazing music?

Creativity. Hopefully this should be self-explanatory. You need the ability to generate new ideas. You need to be able to synthesise and combine ideas. It’s not important that what you create is necessarily different to everything else – the important part here is the act itself of creating. Without creativity, you’ll be stuck teaching high school kids and playing in cover bands.

Work Ethic. This is more important than most people realise. Work ethic is what gives you the ability to Get Things Done. I usually think of it as a combination of motivation, commitment and discipline. Motivation is the willingness to do the work. Commitment is the belief and courage that form the promise to do the work. Discipline is the stamina and mental strength to follow through on what you promised – to stick to the plan. Without work ethic, you’ll be known as that person who has high hopes but never achieves anything.

Resonance. This is the real magic. This is the ability to tell a story that connects with people. At one end of the scale, this could be as simple as making upbeat happy infectious songs that make people dance and feel good. At the other end of the scale, this can be music (and a persona) that taps into a collective subconscious – whether it be to tell us what we’re thinking but not saying, to expose our fears or to fill us with wonder and amazement. Without resonance, your music won’t move your listeners to support you and fall in love with you.

Some people are naturally good at one or two of these things. There are people who are extremely creative but are stuck in their own world and never get anything done. There are people who are high achievers but are more comfortable following the rules than writing their own. There are people who know how to make their audience laugh or cry but shrugged off any expectation of artistic integrity long ago.

Think about your own strengths and weaknesses in terms of creativity, work ethic and resonance. If you’re strong in some areas but weak in others, you might consider partnering with someone who has complimentary abilities. For example, a person with strong work ethic could partner with a person with song creativity and resonance. Or, a person with strong creativity and work ethic could partner with someone with strong resonance.

Also consider that your weaknesses aren’t fixed. You can become good at something that you were previously not very good at. Even though it might appear that some people are naturally good in some areas, they’re actually skills – you’re not stuck the way you are. Of course, like all skills, it takes a lot of hard work (years!). The improvements may seem unmeasurable at worst and incremental at best. But it can be done. Just remember – they’re not innate superpowers – they’re skills. And like all skills, they can be learned and acquired and developed.

No-one’s holding you back.


How do you know when a mix is finished?

Have you ever felt like a mix session would never end? As if you could forever be making minor adjustments to levels, EQ or effects settings? Do you sometimes find yourself unable to decide over a 0.5dB level change for a channel? Do you wonder if anyone will notice, whether it even matters?

Creative direction

One of the biggest reasons people get lost in the mix is a lack of creative direction.

The term ‘Creative direction’ might sound obtuse, but it’s really quite simple. Creative direction is the vision for the song. It is the idea (or set of ideas) that set the direction for all the creative decisions in the production process. It can be defined in terms of adjectives (such as dark, dry, urgent, mysterious, etc), or it can be defined in terms of musical reference points (such as “Beatles-esque vocal harmonies with Lady Gaga instrumentation and a lead singer like Thom Yorke”).

Without creative direction, all you’ve got guiding you is ‘does it sound cool?’. And if you’re in this hole, it’s no wonder you’ll never finish. There’s always another cool sound around the corner. There always another way to make anything sound cooler.

Exploring tools

Another reason people take forever to finish a mix is that they waste too much time exploring their tools. Here’s a bad analogy:

Your toilet is broken.

One plumber has a truck filled with tools, and feels the need to try every tool for every task – just to see which tool might work the best.

Another plumber has a smaller toolbox filled with a few hand-picked items that are versatile. This plumber also knows every tool in the toolbox extremely well and knows exactly which tool to use for each task.

Which plumber would you choose to fix your broken toilet?

Of course, there’s a time and place for exploring your tools. But this isn’t when you’re trying to Get Things Done. You need to separate ‘work’ from ‘play’. Exploration time is important, but it’s just as important to do it in a (mind)space separate from actual projects and productivity. That way you free yourself from the expectation of making any progress on project work, and your project work isn’t bogged down by exploration.

Adjust once

Do you ever find yourself setting and EQ for a channel, then coming back to it over and over again? Or maybe it’s a compressor. Or reverb. If you keep coming back to revise your settings, it means you didn’t get it right the first time. And you probably didn’t get it right the first time because you didn’t understand what settings would be needed to make the track work in the mix.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix to this. Not even a change in attitude. All it takes is experience. The more mixes you do, the better you’ll be at predicting what you need to do on each channel in order to put the mix together.

It might help to think of mixing as having a conversation with the music. Like any conversation, the more you listen the more effective your own words (mix settings) will be. The more you talk (adjust settings), the greater the risk that your words will be irrelevant to the other person (the music).


Preproduction: Clarifying creative direction

Creative direction can be a real ‘gotcha’ when working as a producer with an artist. First of all, it’s absolutely critical to be clear who is the creative director for the project. As a producer, my projects roughly fall into two categories:

  1. The artist is the creative director. For these projects, the artist has a clear idea of how s/he wants to express the songs. The artist will choose the genre and approach to instrumentation for the project. The artist is the visionary. For these projects, the artist is hiring me to make those dreams into reality. I leave my own personal taste at the door, and I must adopt the taste of the artist. Working on these projects, it is essential to understand the difference between effective composition/production and personal  taste. When I make a suggestion to improve the music, it must be a suggestion that is consistent with the artist’s own tastes and goals for the project. That sometimes means accepting (or even making suggestions for) musical choices that are not to my taste. Where the artist disagrees with me, it is my role to educate the artist and help them understand why my suggestion will help them sound more like how they want to sound. Obviously, this requires a high degree of sensitivity, understanding and mutual trust.
  2. I (the producer) am the creative director. For these projects, I am in charge. I call the shots. I get to make music that excites and challenges me. Where I use other collaborators – artists and musicians – they are coming along for the ride. Where the previous scenario is of the artist hiring me for their project, this scenario is more like me hiring the artist for my project.

Once it’s clear who is driving the creative direction for the project, it’s then important to establish what the creative direction is – for the whole project, and for each song. This is a discussion that need to be had in terms of colours, textures, feelings, instruments, etc. Sometimes this is quite clear and direct, other times the artist is less clear – either s/he doesn’t know, or has difficulty expressing it.

When establishing the creative direction for a project or song, it’s important to share common ground – common reference points so that you both know that you’re understanding each other. Often an easy way to start this process is to present some musical references – I often ask the artist to bring in some favourite CDs that capture some of the essence of what s/he wants to achieve.

Another good resource for establishing common vocabulary is the AMG mood list: I like to choose a selection of words from this list that captures the creative direction of the project. This selection of words is also a useful resource when working with other contributors – such as session musicians and graphic designers.

Once the creative direction is established and agreed upon, the artist and myself can intelligently and constructively discuss various aspects of the instrumentation and other musical aspects of each song. I can make suggestions that the artist hadn’t thought of – but still support the creative direction of the song. The artist can more easily explain the intent of the song. It gives us a framework to decide whether ideas are appropriate or not. It helps give us the courage to discard good ideas that don’t fit.

Without establishing the creative direction for the song or the project, confusion and miscommunication is inevitable. It makes it difficult to tell the difference between effective composition/production and personal taste.

After all, how can you take the artist’s music to the next level if you can’t agree on what the next level is?


5 remix ideas for an ‘a cappella’ vocal

An ‘a cappella’ is, put simply, singing without instruments (or a backing track). When remixing, often an a cappella track is provided to the remixer. This is usually a track consisting only of the vocals from the original song, minus all the other instruments. It’s also incorrectly spelled as ‘acapella’, ‘a capella’, ‘acapela’, or any number of variations.

Oh, ok. You have an a cappella track to remix. Or maybe you’re working on a song and it’s just not working. Or maybe you just want to have some fun. There are many ways of taking an a cappella recording and transforming it into a new song.

  • Get active with pitch changing and timestretching. Modern pitchshifting and timestretching algorithms are excellent and, in a lot of cases, transparent in sound. This opens up a whole world of creative processing. You can change the melody or timing in a natural way and make as if the song was always sung that way. You could make extreme changes (or use inappropriate settings) and make the changes audible – making the processing part of the character of the sound.
  • Find a new hook. Approach the lyrics and performance as raw songwriting material. Pick out a different line or section and use it as a hook or chorus. Rearrange the lyrics to give the song a different angle, or a different twist. Doing this you can create a new song that’s based on the old one, but stands on its own – not in the original’s shadow.
  • Chop it up into little pieces and throw it to the winds (granular synthesis). Use the vocal recording as sonic material to be transformed into something completely different. This applies to any extreme processing. Create new sonic textures or other musical material that isn’t melodically related to the original performance. This can be particularly powerful if the processing retains some character of the original sound – so that the resulting sound is familiar but not recognisable.
  • Change the time signature. This can be a good idea if you’re feeling low on inspiration or direction. If the original is 4/4, recast it as 3/4. Or 6/8. Or 5/4 if you’re feeling daring! Taking this approach will instantly open up new musical ideas and provoke you to create something inventive.
  • Record another performance of it. This is verging away from ‘remix’ territory into ‘cover’ territory, but can be particularly effective if the new performance is combined with sonic elements of the original song – either original vocal snippets or other sounds and instruments. Interesting things can happen if you blend the boundaries between remixes and covers…

These ideas should kick start a few of your own ideas. Experiment! Be creative! Whatever you do, don’t simply add a dance kick drum and call it a day! There’s a whole musical world of transformations and recomposition – go exploring!


How to get out of a rut and rediscover inspiration

We’ve all been there. Halfway through a project, maybe even halfway through a song. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but right now it feels like the well has run dry. Nothing’s grabbing your attention, nothing you try sounds good. You keep coming up with the same tired clichés and you’re over it.

What do you do? Throw in the towel? Give up? Browse some forums again? Read up about defeating writer’s block? Maybe. Here’s what works for me:

  1. Don’t take a break. No, really – don’t do it. You want to make music? How are you going to make music when you’re on a break? Taking a break is shorthand for ‘distract yourself’. It might feel good, but it’s not going to get you back up to speed. Here’s a secret – if you want to produce great work, you have to work.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep. I can’t stress how important it is to be well rested. Being creative in the studio is a process of inventing new music. In order to do this effectively, your brain needs to be working at full capacity – able to recall, synthesise, transform and create new thoughts. Similarly, it’s best not to be too stressed either – try to reduce other causes of stress in your life.
  3. Listen to different music. A common cause for writer’s block is that you’ve exhausted most of the musical ideas in your head. This is often a result of only listening to a limited variety of music. To refresh yourself with new musical ideas, seek out new music to listen to. It doesn’t mean that you suddenly have to join a metal band if you were previously a lone dance music composer (or vice versa!), but bringing in even a few cross-genre influences can breathe a lot of life into a project. A large proportion of the most interesting music out there is influenced by a wide variety of sources.
  4. Force yourself to finish that song. Yes. Force yourself. Bring it to the point where it can pass as a completed piece of work. It doesn’t matter how – follow a formula if you have to. It doesn’t matter if you’re not inspired, or not ‘feeling’ it. It doesn’t matter if it sucks. Just go through the motions. The important thing here is to establish a workflow, a pattern of finishing work. Don’t let yourself leave unfinished ideas lingering. Real artists ship. You think creativity breeds productivity? Think again – productivity breed creativity. Once you establish a pattern of actually following through on songs and projects, it becomes easy to feed in your creative ideas. It becomes a conduit (not a barrier) for creativity.
  5. Take on a small project (and complete it). Sometimes writer’s block can be caused by the intimidation of a large project. An album is a huge undertaking. No matter how much you want to make an album, no matter how many good ideas you have, it can be almost impossible to take the first step. It’s daunting. Instead of procrastinating, take on a smaller project. Set yourself a 6-song EP, or even a 3-song demo. Set yourself a month, or a week, or a weekend, or a day. Set your goals, and then follow through on them. Get used to completing smaller projects before you take on big ones.
  6. Get intimate with a neglected piece of gear. These are good times for musicians – instruments are more affordable and accessible than ever before. Chances are, you’ve got an instrument that you haven’t explored as fully as you could – whether it be a physical instrument like a guitar or hardware synth, or a software instrument. Set yourself the task of getting to know that instrument through and through. Compose some music using only that instrument. Find creative solutions for sounds that the instrument isn’t naturally good at. Guitars can make percussive sounds. Monosynths can be overdubbed and layered to form chords. Any sound can be completely transformed through effects processing.
  7. Buy new gear. Or don’t, and say you did. Yes, I said it. New gear is inspiring. The more different to your current gear, the better. A good gear acquisition will actually challenge you to think about making music in a different way. It’s not just different limitations and different possibilities, but a new way of navigating the musical ‘space’ of rhythm and harmony. The more you challenge your existing ideas about how to make music, the easier it is to create new thoughts, new ideas and new music. Trying out new gear is also fun and motivating. Even if you can’t afford new equipment, you can still try to imagine what your music might be like if you had an exciting new instrument. Try to push your current gear to the limits while you try to recreate the sounds you’re imagining.

By following these steps you should be refreshed and invigorated, ready to produce your next hit.