Creative Strategies w/ Matt Shadetek: Finish More Songs Pt. 2

In this creative strategies article, Logic expert and Dutty Artz label owner Matt Shadetek shares another unorthodox composition technique that will help you finish your productions.


Finish More Songs Pt. 2: Steal Like Picasso

For my previous article in this series I introduced the idea of subtractive arranging as a way to acquire a more helpful perspective on your creative decision making during the process of creating a structure and progression for your track. In this article I’ll share a second technique which will help you to finish and arrange tracks. It applies some of the same perspective shifting to the subtractive approach but relies more on a time-honored artistic technique: stealing.

As Picasso said “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Steve Jobs reiterated this idea, saying “We’re shameless about stealing great ideas.” In this case, what we’re going to steal is the structural progression of a song we like. The good news about this is that this is pretty much like stealing the idea “a house should have four walls” or “a story should have a beginning, middle and end.” By stealing merely the big picture, the broad strokes idea of what is working in one of our favorite songs, we can avoid creating something directly or obviously derivative.

Here’s the process. Find a song that you think has an effective arrangement that is similar to what you think will work for the sketch you’re working on. Import that song to an audio track into your digital audio workstation of choice. I use Logic Pro but you’ll be able to do this in whatever DAW you use. Align the track with the beginning of your project and match the tempo of the audio file. You should now have a situation where bar one of your project matches bar one of your song and they stay in sync over time. Once you’ve got the project and your reference track aligned, the next step is to mark out the major changes.

Most major DAWs have some kind of marker functionality which will allow you to place markers on your timeline with written labels. In Logic there is a marker track which allows you to set label, color and duration. There are a number of ways you can approach the next step and you can choose to add as much or as little detail as feels useful to you. The minimal approach would probably consist of labeling the major sections with title like “Intro” “Build-up” “First drop” to use some dance music examples. You could also get as specific as “Intro: pads, sound effects, hi hat” and “Build-up: pitch riser, snare roll, filter sweep.”

It’s important at this stage to note that we’re not looking to create a carbon copy of the track we’re referencing. The goal instead is to try to loosely map analogous parts from their track to yours. They might have one type of percussion sound which they add at bar 17 and you might have a different rhythmic element. The key is to analyze the overall rise and fall of energy and density in the arrangement. By analyzing the choices made in the reference arrangement, where they add and subtract you will hopefully find some inspiration for your own project.

For me the analysis part is usually the most important and useful stage to get some inspiration for my own structure. Because I have different parts and different ideas, almost inevitably I end up diverging from my original road map I’ve laid out very quickly. What’s important though is that you’ve created a blueprint which you can reference when you get stuck or lose sight of the next step. By having an outline laid out you have effectively created a to-do list for finishing your track. This can be very useful when motivation drops and you’re not sure about what to work on next.

I’ve also found this marker to-do list technique very useful independent of this arrangement analysis exercise. Often I find that the first listen of a work session is where I get many of my clearest thoughts about what needs to happen next in my track or what is not working. After I’ve listened a few times it’s very easy to lose sight of these things and to lose perspective but usually that first fresh impression is very strong and clear. To capture that insight I use markers which I place and note as the track plays or on a piece of scrap paper.  I then use these as a checklist of tasks for that work session.

Examples of markers in this approach might be “Bridge not working, write new chord progression” or “Breakdown too long? Cut 8 bars.” It’s very easy for me to forget these types of thoughts once I start working if I don’t write them down. I might make those two notes mentally but then after I’ve worked on the bridge for an hour I have no memory of what the other thing I wanted to fix was. This then results in me sitting and listening to the track again and again, which sometimes will trigger a reminder and sometimes will just result in a lot of wasted time. I find this is also helpful if I’m restarting a session a week later and can’t remember the different things I’d planned to fix or work on.

Both of these exercises are ways of safeguarding your time, energy and motivation during the production process. Momentum and the feeling of forward progress are very motivating and the loss of momentum can be very de-motivating. Keeping your next step and goals in easy view can be a great way to stay on track and continue to make progress. Making progress feels great and motivates further progress, creating a virtuous cycle.


About Matt Shadetek

Matt Shadetek is one of New York City’s most exciting producers. His live sets encompass contemporary Dancehall, UK Funky, and Dubstep, all delivered with Shadetek’s unique production voice which bridges the underground-mainstream divide. He’s one of the rare DJs who can rock a crowd with sets composed solely of his own dancefloor bangers and remixes.

Matt’s early love for Hip Hop and Dancehall along with edgy electronic sounds led to his Warp Records debut album Burnerism as part of the duo Team Shadetek. While Matt was living in Berlin and touring Europe, the followup LP Pale Fire was released, featuring the underground hit “Brooklyn Anthem”. The hit song kick-started a dance craze in the Brooklyn reggae scene (leading to over 100 fan videos of kids dancing to it).

Returning to NYC, Matt founded the Dutty Artz label/production crew with DJ /Rupture. Shadetek produced Jahdan Blakkamoore’s debut album, Buzzrock Warrior (!K7), pioneering its signature Reggae-Dubstep-Rap sound. In 2009 he also teamed up with Rupture to release the mix album Solar Life Raft (The Agriculture). His latest release, on Dutty Artz, is Flowers, an effervescent solo instrumental effort that references dubstep, UK Funky and Garage. He has toured internationally both solo and accompanied by Jahdan as vocalist.

Connect with Matt on Twitter | SoundCloud | Website



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