In his latest article on creative strategies for artists, Dubspot Logic instructor and course designer Matt Shadetek shares an unorthodox composition technique that will help you finish your productions.
Finish More Songs Pt. 1 – Working Backwards
Writing an 8, 16 or 32 bar loop that sounds great is easy. Turning that loop into a three or six minute song that sounds great is hard. This is mainly because creating good song structures with a beginning, middle and end, that have an arc and go somewhere is hard. In this article I’ll share a technique that will take some of the blank-page anxiety out of this process. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve encountered who bring me dance tracks that have a great intro, go right through to the first build up, get you excited about the drop and then… nothing. They ran out of steam, imagination and horsepower. It sounds silly and weird but this actually happens more than you’d think. Part of this is because they are visualizing the track creation process as linear. They are thinking: “first this will happen, then this, then this and then…” I am sure there are people who can take this method and make great work out there, but I don’t know them.
What I’ve found works is actually the opposite of this method. You start where you’re trying to take the listener, at the climax of the song, the maximum intensity, and then work backwards. This actually makes the process much, much easier. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, you can only connect the dots in reverse. Anyone who tells you that they know exactly where they’re going in a creative process is probably lying. Creative work is an exploration and there are always detours and dead ends. Imagine you’re trying to build a railroad and the way you start is by laying out the first few miles of track without knowing where the next station will be. Chances are things will not go well.
By starting with a destination, a peak moment in your arrangement, it becomes much easier to lay parts backwards towards the beginning. Even if you don’t know exactly where the beginning is, it will be much easier to figure out once you’ve determined your destination. One of the things which makes this easier is the fact that it’s easier to look at something full and experiment quickly with taking parts away. Experimenting with adding parts is much more time consuming because you have to create the parts and make a lot of decisions in the process.
One name for this process of taking parts away is subtractive arranging. The simplest implementation of subtractive arranging is to create an 8, 16 or 32 bar loop which represents the main parts of your song. Repeat that loop until you have the desired final length. Let’s imagine we’re doing a verse chorus hip hop song. In this case we’d want a 16 or 24 bar loop which contained an 8 bar chorus and an 8 or 16 bar verse. We could even apply the subtractive principle to creating this loop by saying that the verse is created by taking stuff out of the chorus. That’s not always the way it’s done but it’s one way to start. For simplicities sake let’s say we have a 16 bar loop with a verse and chorus, each 8 bars. We’d begin by repeating that 6 times, to get us to around 96 bars (depending on tempo and desired song length).
Once we’ve gotten our parts repeating for the desired length of time the process is as simple as going back and deleting repetitions of parts where we don’t need them. For example we might want an intro without drums and to add the drums in the first chorus. All we’d need to do to arrange that would be to delete the first 8 bars of drums. This will show us a basic overall structure that we can begin to evaluate.
Depending on the degree of repetition we want within our track we now need to evaluate what portions of this basic skeleton work and where we need further variation. With a raw arrangement in front of us we can begin to develop a clearer idea of where it feels like the energy and momentum drags, or where things feel rushed. Once we’ve identified these points we can attempt to solve the problem using existing parts, or decide to add new parts. The good thing about adding parts at this stage is that we’re now past the throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks phase. We now can make decisions about what type of part is needed at this particular moment in time. Often the parts needed may end up being very simple and functional, like a unique sound effect for a particular transition, or a simple piece of automation like a filter movement to differentiate one section from another.
It’s much easier to make these changes within the larger context of a framework. With a birds eye view of the track we can now make better, more context appropriate decisions and waste less effort. A key aspect of this approach is trying to put as much of the process into a hindsight style view as quickly as possible. Looking forward and trying to evaluate options in front of the infinite choices of the proverbial blank page is difficult. Evaluating something skeletal collapses the possibility space and allows us to think more deeply about a narrower range of choices.
Matt Shadetek is a DJ, producer and teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. He runs the Dutty Artz label with DJ /Rupture. His second solo album The Empire Never Ended came out earlier this year. Listen to the track “Bout It Girl” featuring Riff Raff.
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