How To Turn a Spark Into a Bonfire


One of the greatest challenges in any creative field is starting the work. You face a blank canvas or an empty sequencer, intimidated by negative space. Where do you begin? The most difficult part is often at the start. You overthink it, start doubting it immediately before you’ve begun, and insert your ego into the process. But you haven’t even begun! How can you possibly tap into the creative flow without any momentum or inertia? The answer is in the preparation. You have to be prepared to be spontaneous.

Painters don’t begin without mixing colors and prepping their palette. Chefs don’t cook a meal without ingredients prepared by their sous-chefs. Designers don’t start before establishing an inspiration with mood boards. Musicians are no exception. You have to start with building blocks to work quickly and create original work. Collecting and propagating these seeds of inspiration will grease the process and streamline your entry into creative flow. To speed this process up, follow this series of steps: collect your influences, prepare your raw materials, limit your choices, and optimize your workflow.

Collect Your Influences:

Make a deliberate effort to find a variety of inspiring work, clip it, comment on it, and save it for later. Grab fragments of lyrics, photographs, sections of songs, and compile them in one place. Write key lyric phrases in a notebook – they’ll turn into future ideas where you can milk the metaphor. For “In The AirAngela McCluskey clipped magazine headlines and assembled them into a ransom letter style collage to create lyric ideas.

Take the time to define why it inspires you and store it in the comments section. Maybe it’s the way a snare drum cracks, the tension and release of a chord progression, or the balance of a mixdown. Grab screenshots, rip mp3s, compile inspiring private playlists on streaming services, make lists of keywords, use static cling whiteboard sheets or install a corkboard on your wall. Use a mix of digital and analog media to stimulate your brain. Study the greats and only borrow what you love, not what you feel obligated by others to enjoy. Dig deep across a broad variety of influences to combine and cross pollinate your inspiration sources. There is no original idea – just new applications and combinations.

Prepare Your Raw Materials:

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Create your palette. Assemble a diverse group of sounds and instruments. Continue refining your template. Pull all these ingredients together ahead of time by dedicating specific days for prep work. During these days, curate your raw materials. Rate synth presets, move or delete useless sounds, tag samples with key & tempo (see Mixed In Key), color code files, assign MIDI presets, build sample libraries, and remove unused tools from your workspace. Make sure all your gear is powered and in-tune.

Also make sure your audio treatments (plugin chains, pedals) are ready for use as they will often entirely transform your raw ingredients. Make sure nothing breaks the flow. Assemble your raw materials and plant the creative seeds that will develop into a song.

Creative seeds:

– Chord progressions
– Loops
– Drums
– Riffs
– Leads
– Written lyrics (keyword lists, magazine headline clippings)
– Vocal melody phrases
– Bass lines
– One-shots
– Drones (sustained note sounds)
– Samples
– Spoken word
– Found sounds

Limit Your Choices:

Reduce complexity to get better results. Both Avicii and Stevie Wonder use a similar technique on the piano to narrow down their writing process. They often use only the black keys. Transposing to keys that are easier to physically play improves the composing process – it’s harder to hit the wrong notes in the scale. Transposing can be done manually, or digitally like in Ableton Live’s MIDI scale and pitch tools. You can also use programs like Auto-Tune to bypass or remove certain notes in a scale for restricted tuning. Both artists used limitations to make the creative process work for them.

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Ideas for reducing complexity:

Less gear/plugins, less choices and problems. Try making an entire song with one synth. I did this recently with Spire to demonstrate my soundbank
Less presets – pare down to your favorites
Less notes / Scale restriction – ex: only composing w/ black keys or transposing to black keys
Less syllables and words in lyrics ex: hold the vowels longer
Less layers: allows more bandwidth and critical choices
Tempo/time and note frequency locking: – fill the spectrum with notes and registers relevant to the song key. Lock the release times, pre-delays, time based FX, and modulation to tempo. (check out Music Math)
Less money: You don’t need expensive gear to make music. Expensive gear can also be high-maintenance and more trouble than it’s worth!
Less time: work always expands to fill the time available
Use chunking to simplify composition. Layer a complicated lead or arpeggio into several parts/layers rather than trying to play it in one take.

Optimize The Workflow:

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To maintain sustained creative flow it’s crucial to have an effective work process. Eliminate distractions and interruptions by leaving your phone on another floor, signing off Skype/IM, turning of notifications, blocking out large chunks of work time (3+ hrs), starting the day with an effective morning routine, and taking advantage of batching and automation.

Need to road test an MP3? Create an Automator droplet that converts AIFF/WAV to MP3 and copies to your Dropbox account. Use IFTTT to create powerful recipes for connecting your social media and apps. When you’re in office mode, use Docusign to electronically sign contracts, and 1Password to collect your logins and save tons of time. Use programs like QuicKeys to record action sequences, or Alfred to improve your workflow with key combos and hot keys. Use your smartphone as an add-on remote. Look for any repetitive mind-numbing task that can be batched and you’ll reap exponential gains.

Ideas for batching:

– Convert MP3s
– Rename files
– Add key, tempo, and energy levels to song metadata (see Mixed In Key)
– Record a complex list of actions into a shortcut (see QuicKeys)
– Abbreviate common words and chunks of data (mailing addresses, common spelling errors)
– Assign most used apps to hot keys
– Schedule backups and maintenance

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