Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hitting the Ground Running

I don't know about you, but I always seem to have about a thousand things to juggle all at once. In addition to all the writing, recording, and touring for my band, I do a lot of mixing, remixing, and production for other artists as well. Add into this designing the merchandise, running my band's online store, maintaining the website and social network sites, answering e-mails, and - oh yeah- writing this blog, you get the picture. I'm a bit busy.

Inspiration, when it strikes, usually does so out of the blue, and almost always when I am in the middle of doing something else. Since time is not a commodity I have a whole ton of, I wanted a way to be able to get ideas down quickly so I could get back to whatever the task at hand is. My solution was to create a template for my DAW with a basic layout designed to let me get my idea down fast.

This has been something I've done for years, but now Logic allows you to save different templates that come up whenever you open a new file. Regardless of your DAW of choice (others may have this feature too, I'm just not familiar enough with them to know for sure), all you really need to do is set it up and save it as a song file you can load up whenever a cool idea pops into your head.

What your template contains will largely depend on what kind of music you make, but try to make it as flexible as possible to suit any sort of idea you might need to jot down. You just want to create channels of software instruments that are preloaded with the types of sounds you need just to make a basic sketch of a song. Don't worry too much about picking cool sounding patches, you want something pretty generic and boring just to get the idea across. You can worry about the sounds themselves when you actually start working on the song later.

I usually start with a drum loop of some sort so that I have a rhythm to write to. Nothing fancy, just a four on the floor kick, snares on the 2 and 4, and an eighth-note hi-hat line - something that can be used with just about any idea. Then I make a channel with a generic synth bass, one with a generic lead sound, one with a generic pad or string sound, and one with a piano sound of some sort. This way, I have pretty much every type of sound I need to get the very basics of an idea down. All I have to do is have an idea, open up my template, play my idea into the sequencer, save it to a separate file (don't overwrite your template!), and I have a (hopefully) cool idea I can come back to later to flesh into an actual song when things are a bit less hectic.

This technique has another advantage as well. Because you're using the same sounds every time you sketch an idea out, you aren't distracted by fancy presets or ear candy. Instead, you can concentrate on the actual musical idea itself to sort out whether or not it's as good as you initially thought it might be. It's often been said that a proper song is something you can sit down and play with just a guitar or piano. This isn't quite that extreme, but it plays to the same basic principle: sticking to a few generic sounds will make you concentrate more on the music itself and less on the gimmicky parts of a song (as fun as those may be).

Do you use templates to get down ideas? What's in yours?


mangadrive said...

I made this monstrous template that would give a minimalist an OCD fit when it is loaded. It has all my favorite VSTs pre-channeled, a drum kit, 2 slice channels, and all of it is already bussed down. On the main bus Waves SSL. 2 Altiverb sends, 2 Ohmicide sends and a 2-tap delay. This is stuff that's gunna be added anyway. It works in favor of a remix because then I just add the kit in and start mashing stuff.

It sounds completely impractical and on most mixes I probably wouldnt even use it all but it doesnt distract me cause I'm used to seeing 30+ channels at least in a mix anyway. The trick is though to add a channel in a DAW you have to navigate a few menus, and then set all permiters, channel it, etc. Doesnt matter how much you have on a pre-defined channel, if you want to remove it you just hit delete and its all gone.

One button removal > 15 click add.

visitour said...

great tips! nothing worse then getting bogged down in front of the muse

and for ppl who also play acoustic instruments there are some really cool portable recorders out there, like the zoom h2 that I use. get it down then copy the file to the computer at your leisure. I love that thing.

I also love the track templates feature on my DAW. a template can be one track or several with any plugins and routing desired. right click on the mixer and I can choose the one I need instantly

Anonymous said...

Great blog Tom! Hope you won't get too busy to keep at it! :)

Hmm. I used to be all about templates. Writing songs with generic sounds like the piano. Writing down my musical ideas fast!

And it is, indeed, a great exercise. Getting into that whole discipline of song-writing. Focusing on the music. Before all the filler bleeps and noises and the twirly atmospherics. Before all the impressive sounds fool you into thinking you've got a great song.

Many of my heroes write this way. Mr. Martin L. Gore writes on guitar, right? Or at least used to. Gary Numan sits down at his trusty M1. They write demos that get produced later.


My tracks started sounding all too clever. I'd focus on chords, the melody, the intervallic relationships, modulation, counterpoint even... I started worrying about things being musically "correct". Because that's what I was faced with: the music. I mean I could certainly hear the music much easier - there was nothing fancy to distract me.

I realized that I had a tough time translating these demos into full tracks. It all started to sound like bad Phil Collins.

I decided that piano wasn't enough. That the masterfully sampled generic Bösendorfer was my enemy!

Perhaps a generic synth bass sound was needed? And a nasty, generic, Oddity lead? And a whole library of self-made drum loops even? A better template! A better palette!

I did all that. My template started growing. I even spent time tweaking my template. To make it just about perfect.


I encountered one major problem. The setup didn't really inspire me. It actually killed my inspiration. It made music boring to me.

And that's when I realized something crucial. I realized that my musical ideas weren't born inside of my head, in isolation, in the vast depths of my bipolar darkness.

So, when I'd sit down to write, using one of those generic sounds, the songs became generic. Or just bad. I'd have bursts of inspiration but typically the generic sounds would bring me somewhere I didn't want to be.

Fast-forward to today.

It all starts with the empty Logic template. I like to build songs out of what I call a context or a world. Typically, this means a loop of some kind. A noise loop, a fragment of weird strings, maybe something distorted to all hell. Maybe a quick pattern from scratch. Some atmospheric noises as well. I try to, very quickly, create a world from which a song could emerge.

Once I like that world and it inspires me, that's when I try to find sounds that belong to that world. And, at this stage, I may do templating of sorts: loading up channel strips of what I've done before and tweaking them. Or, loading up presets and tweaking them quickly so that they fit the world. Once I have sounds that go with the world I've created, musical ideas start coming to me. The ideas seem less forced, less clever, and more honest. If I'm lucky, things really start flowing and a song is born. It's like planting a seed and gently letting it grow into something. Never forcing... just kind of helping it along and supporting it.

And yes, I still worry about the musical stuff, too. Every now and then I will drag and drop my melodies and chords onto a piano track and solo it. And surprisingly, most of the time, the ideas that sound good within that context I've created also sound good on the piano. Sometimes I fine-tune things on the piano track and copy them back over to the original tracks.

But the key to me is the initial inspirational experimentation and world creation. I used to call that part noodling. But it's only noodling if you stop developing those ideas and don't finish the track.