2475949776_1cce473cfe.jpegA blank piece of paper…

That’s how every song/recording/production begins. A clean slate. A vast sea of nothingness.

Our job as musicians and producers is to fill that void with something good, to create something out of nothing, to make something beautiful. (Or at least something that makes people wanna break out a cowbell and start playing along.) 🙂

That’s what excites me about music. I can sit down with a guitar or with a microphone, and an hour later I can walk away having created something…something that didn’t exist an hour earlier.

However, sometimes staring at that blank page or that empty Pro Tools session can be a bit daunting, if not downright overwhelming. Where do you start? Once you have a song, how do you figure out what instruments to add to the recording? The arrangement?

Stuck in a Rut

I think I’m in a little bit of a rut myself. The last few songs I’ve worked on…they’re starting to sound kind of the same. I’ve developed this habit of doing drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, B3, percussion, mix, done.

I’m generally happy with how they turn out, but I think I’ve got a case of tunnel vision. I start a song, and I don’t really let my mind open up and think of ALL the ways I could produce it. I have this default “production kit” that I use.

There’s nothing wrong with having a “style” or a “sound.” The lead singer for Cake was interviewed recently. They asked him what he says to critics who claim that Cake’s music hasn’t changed its sound over the years. He simply told them, “You’re right.” Having a sound that works for you is awesome, but don’t be afraid to venture out and discover new ways of producing your recordings.

Here are a few ideas:

Buy a New Instrument

I’m not saying go drop $3,000 on a new Les Paul. Sometimes all it takes is a weird, quirky little instrument to reboot your brain and help you come up with fresh new production ideas.

If you’re not a musician, per se, go to your local music store and peruse the percussion instruments. Something as simple as a tambourine could spark new ideas.

If you’re a guitarist, try finding a cheap, beat up mandolin somewhere. It doesn’t HAVE to be used for bluegrass music only. I used an ooooooold beat up mandolin on my album. Only half the strings even worked because the neck was so warped, but I came up with a few cool parts that I’m happy with.

Don’t go crazy here. Spending money isn’t always the answer. Maybe you just need to borrow a banjo from a friend and see what happens. Or a kid’s keyboard. Or a kazoo. Get creative.

Listen for New Ideas

I definitely don’t do this enough. I get in this groove where I’m listening to the same music over and over, and it takes me a few months to branch out and find some new albums to listen to.

Some of the best production ideas and “ah-ha” moments I’ve had are a direct result of simply listening to other people’s music. You don’t have to personally know the producer/engineer to learn a lot from him.

Upgrading Your Gear Probably Isn’t the Answer

If it’s your production skills that need improving, upgrading your microphone or interface won’t help that. I know it’s fun to do, and I LOVE to play with a new piece of gear, but nicer equipment won’t make your boring arrangements any more interesting. 🙂

Your Turn

These are just a few ideas I thought of. What about you? Share with the rest of us by leaving a comment. How do you get yourself out of a production rut?

[Big thanks to reader andrewmalone / @andrewmalone for the photo!]

  • Melvin

    For those that play drums, changing your setup can give inspiration too. I just took some drums and made a really strange setup with a floor tom as my kick drum and only small roto-toms for toms, and I’ve been having more fun playing that lately than playing my regular kit.

  • Alobosk

    Each time I get a new virtual instrument I get inspired by its sound and start recording. Last time this didn’t work so I wnent and bought a violin. I simply got fed-up with the phony sound. I have 6 months playing it for a couple of hours and everyday I sound a bit better. Getting to know it has teached me how to better arrange for strings and now it’s impossible to even try with virtual ones.

  • Good article.

    Listen other peoples music: I’ve noticed that sometimes listening other peoples music will give the needed kickstart – especially when I’m out of ideas – *but*, for me, there lies a danger as well: I’ve noticed that when I do have the inspiration and I’m middle of production, I actually gotta *stop* listening other peoples work because I start to do the comparing thing and in a minute my own productions start to suck completely. Weird huh? 🙂

    Other good source for inspiration is sample cd’s, btw.

  • I usually sit with logic with only a piano instrument track (my main instrument) and just mess around, then as soon as I get an idea I can just quickly hit record and get it out so I can refer to it later as I have quite a bad memory when it comes to remembering my own songs.

    Mixing wise if I’m stuck, I usually open up the most unrelated sounding plugin and get a weird sounding effect going and somehow after I have a mad few minutes “destroying” the sound, I can get back on track really easily.

  • I think it turns from a rut into a crevice, then into a canyon. 🙂

  • Astewart

    Do you mean after bashing my head into the wall numerous times? Actually I get what is called “Writers Block” I have had it a few times, and it is very frustrating.I really don’t do anything “extra” to get out of it, it just simply disappears after awhile, or maybe I just finally get an idea and run with it.

  • This is a good post and good replies too. Aaron has a great point with the “one headphone technique”. I’m always messing with the panning and EQ in my car to hear whats going on with certain parts and arrangements better. I also do the obvious of pulling out cd’s that I haven’t listened to in a long time, and listening to bands/genres that i don’t usually bother with. Jamming with other people whenever possible will do wonders for sparking new ideas, especially if you’re challenged by better/more creative musicians.

    Another good technique for me is that I’ll mess with progressions/licks/arpeggios/whatever that make my hands and figures (I’m a guitarist) feel absolutely stupid. Mess around with that until I’m comfortable with the movements and not only have a improved as a guitarist, but I pretty much always come up with a couple new ideas that sometimes turn into songs. Or sometimes I’ll just learn a song

    And to go along with your “new instrument” method. I find myself falling into a lot of the same lead patterns when I’m on writing on the guitar, so sometimes I’ll jump over the piano (which I’m not very good at at all) and mess around for awhile. Since my fingers haven’t learned what to fall back on when I’m at a loss, they don’t resort to the same old tricks and patterns so pretty much everything sounds new and fresh. Translate that to the guitar and sometimes I surprise myself.

    To close out the long winded post…basically, I think that pulling yourself out of your comfort zone is one the best things you can do to keep things fresh. And not only will your song writing be more interesting but you’ll improve at your instrument as well.

    • Bob Sorace

      I’ll also jump to the piano to come up with interesting ideas that I never would’ve come up with on the guitar, and then either keep it on the keys or do it on the guitar, or both! I’m also not much of a piano player, so I end up with something that’s probably not “right” in the sense of theory, but sounds good anyway.

      Good stuff!

      • Absolutely. I actually flipped this theory when I was demoing a song the other day. I was writing a short lead over an acoustic part in one of my metalish songs and I didn’t like the way it translated with guitar. I jumped over the piano and figured it out and I’m really happy with how it sounds. And since the song starts off with some piano, it really helped tie the song together.

    • Rich

      I was also going to suggest arpeggios, this works great for me. Also, trying different chord shapes, suspended,9 chords, dominished…anything outside regular playing. I saw someone else posted changing surroundings, but playing outside always seemed to stir creativity. Either in a field, or by a creek, or just playing at night time outside (preferably in the summer haha)

      Try listening to music softly that has no words. Just relax, chill and enjoy. That works our creative right hemi in our brains. Words bring in the left side which begins to reason. I find it theraputic and healing to sort things out and even day dream….sounds fruity to put into words though.

      I wish I had a remedy for lyrics….I have not been able to write for too long!!

  • Great post! Thank you!

    Some of my favorite ideas for this:

    1. One I agree with and HAVE to reiterate because it’s so vital to the process in my opinion… I love listening to great records in my genre one headphone at a time to focus on what individual parts are doing… this can often overwhelm my mind (in a good way) with ideas that I can’t wait to try.

    2. I’m a big fan of doing a superscratch version (basically a demo approach) where I get the structure in place quickly, try an idea, save as a different version, try another idea etc… till things start to fall into place. Then I go back and start with the “real” scratch tracks and I already know where I’m headed with the production at that point.

    3. I’m definitely a fan of sitting in with really great musicians who are playing off each other. I’ve learned so much about fills by listening to people fill spaces tastefully and spontaneously.

    4. Patience – and listening in different moods on different days. Sometimes I’ll think an idea is BRILLIANT when I’m putting something together, only to find out in another mood on another day that it’s average at best. Being willing to spend the hours, to take steps backwards, to rework from the bassline up, to do whatever is needed to give the song the emotional lift it’s begging for. Some of my favorite productions I’ve done, have been songs where I didn’t really like where it was going despite my best efforts – so I started over – and the new version was everything I wanted for the song 🙂

  • Freekvrijhof

    By reading this article, all I thought was; We, home studio and production folks, should setup a website, or a new part on this site where people can upload their own music, or a little part of it. People can react, and give some tips. you can lissen to what others made, and by doing this your wil be inspired again, Something like youtube, but then only for the sound, so that it doesn’t matter how you look or how cool you are. (I keep hitting the same movies over and over again on youtube, just because some people look better then others, but that doesn’t mean their music is better). Maybe there is already something like that, but if there isn’t, maybe it’s a good idea?

  • Great suggestions but if I may add… when I get stuck in a rut, I don’t beat myself about it. Instead, if I don’t feel musical at all I drop everything and do something else, like continue building my model airplane, study programming, take a bike ride, play video games, etc… anything under the sun except music. When I do decide to come back, I feel refreshed and inspired. Sometimes your ears just need a break.

    • “Sometimes your ears just need a break.” You’re absolutely right.

  • Yeah, playing with musicians and/or in a band can really “shake things
    loose.”

  • Sometimes I find getting away from the gear helps…go jam with a friend, at their place or a different practise space, change your surroundings, bring only an acoustic guitar.

    Picking up bass guitar helped me a lot too, which goes in line with what you said about getting a new instrument. And I miss my Mandolin!

  • Bob Sorace

    Listening to music, I’ll hear a line or phrase in a song that will inspire me to write a song around that word or phrase, and often times the phrase I thought I heard is actually something else entirely. I’ll also try to figure out how to play a new song I can’t play and that usually sets me off in a new and interesting direction. As for production, since I started doing this I find myself listening to the panning choices or how the drums are sitting in a mix. Just this morning driving to work I noticed some creative panning in a Pantera song, and it was an “ah ha!” moment for me.

  • Anonymous

    Joe – good post!

    Along the lines of listening for new ideas, I’ve found that Pandora radio really helps with that. I can put in the name of a song artist that I like and then hear other songs/artists who are in the same general ball park, but may have a different sound.

    As far as trying a different instrument, I’ve found that even a different guitar will spark an idea. I have a couple of acoustics. One of them gets played the most, but when I pull out the other one with a bit darker tone, it seems to trigger ideas. Same happens when I pull out the electric and play with some different presets on my pedal.

    • Alternate tunings can be another way to get new ideas. Down-tune a guitar to
      something crazy like C#…makes you play differently.