Help! How To Finish Tracks

We scour our mailbox for the most deserving recipient of the Attack readership’s collective advice in the first experiment in crowdsourced answers to all kinds of production and creative problems. No query is too small, no question too personal…

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This month’s problem is one that comes up time and again: how to finish a track. Let’s nip it in the bud!

Dear Attack.

Please help me. I’ve been producing for about five years. I’m generally proud of my output and I’ve had a few tracks signed. But one thing is holding me back: I’m finding it increasingly hard to finish tracks. Bizarrely, when my own standards were lower, I found it much easier. But now I find myself abandoning projects on an almost daily basis. The consequence? A hard drive full of 16-bar ideas that I’m unable or unwilling to work into full arrangements. I’ve all but abandoned my Soundcloud account as I only want to upload tracks I’ve finished. I can’t work out whether this is an inevitable side effect of higher standards or whether it’s part of a deeper malaise. I should say I’m a really good ‘finisher’ of projects in my work life – I just wish i could take the same approach to my music. 

Mark, Coventry.

 

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  • Date: 20th May 2014
  • mark Wrote:

    Is there an answer to this reader question?

  • alex Wrote:

    we need article on this, cause that’s my BIGGEST [rpblem and i’m assuming a lot of people will agree with me or this guy.

  • UnboxMeTooPLease Wrote:

    OK Mark, here’s my advice:

    1. Let your mood dictate what you do. Sometimes you have super-creative days. On these days, work up as many 16-bar phrases as you like. Go mad. Experiment, Have fun. On other days, when you feel less inspired, it may be better to work on arrangement. It may feel harder work, but everyone enjoys some bits of creative process more than others.

    2. One thing that has really helped me is to analyse structures of tracks I love – or that work really well in club environment – and replicate these to a greater or lesser extent. I even use chart paper and different colours to map out what’s happening in the different parts and then try and follow that through on my own tracks.

    3. But overall I think this is about having the confidence to abandon tracks. If you aim for perfection you ain’t gonna finish a track ever. No great artist was ever totally happy with what they did; that’s why they carried on creating! So I would say don’t worry about 100% right. Get it to 90%. Allow yourself to come back to it for that final 5%. But don’t kick yourself about it. I bet you there are parts of the arrangement and mix that the writers think suck on even the biggest dance hits ever made.

  • Sizzle MacDonald Wrote:

    Feel your pain Mark! Been there a million times. Fatboy Slim said he reckoned he finished one in 10 of his tracks. I reckon I’m around 1 in 12 or something but that’s the way it is; if you finish every track you start guaranteed you’re churning out crap. For me it’s about discipline. It may feel like eating the 50th Hot Dog in a fast food competition but I just keep going, mustard squirting out, feeling nauseous as I put a little hi-hat in here, tweaking the EQ there and finally I get to somewhere close to where I think the song needs to be. Then I abandon it and never go back. Coz there are a million and one more songs to be sung!

  • Paul S Wrote:

    Maybe you’re focussing too much on ‘perfect’ and not enough on ‘soul / vibe / energy’. Get back to basics – the way you felt about your productions when you started out. If the world’s not hearing your music they’re missing out!

  • The Dominatrix Wrote:

    Discipline. Give yourself a goal and stick to it. You’ve got a good germ of an idea. Say to yourself ‘tonight and tomorrow night I have to finish’. Do that and don’t let yourself be side tracked in another production. If you fail no more beer for you.

  • Andy Earle Wrote:

    Gotta say I think ^^^ is right. Even if it’s the bit you struggle with most / like least you’ve just got to get your head down. Or get yourself a ghost writer ;-)

  • RolandWasGood Wrote:

    Nothing wrong with posting WIPs to SoundCloud. Pro account allows you to update later. It’s useful – get advice from others that you can use to *really* finish the track. Also I find it helps to have trusted circle of fellow producers who’ll give honest feedback so that you can use that too to *finish*. (But not mates – they’ll always tell you it’s awesome – or it stinks ;-) )

  • Alli Wrote:

    Yep, Definitely relate. Can’t say I’ve found a way through this one but seems to me that the tracks which deserve to be finished eventually *get* finished. Hwoever long that takes.

  • Pedro Wrote:

    you have to finish all your tracks, even if its bad…..so you learn how to finish a track and not just begin….

  • ARNK Wrote:

    What Alli wrote

  • rg Wrote:

    I get stuck in the same rut when my ego is in control. If im trying to project an identity into my music I never enjoy it enough to finish it as im always comparing my unfinished work to the stuff I listen to. Chill out, pick some different genres to make, write a track for a friend that sums up their personality, buy some old groovebox and tweak it out. Anything to put a new perspective on workflow. If you cant go forward – go sideways!

  • Pommol Wrote:

    This could be useful?? :-)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IF_gJDIa_Zw

  • Sebastian Wrote:

    audiu.net is a good place to get creative & technical advice from people who know what they’re talking about. Good for the last 20%, if you’re stuck

  • django beats Wrote:

    i find that if i listen to the track on fresh ears with a pen and paper, i get all the ideas i need to get me to the finish,
    now the hard part is to go through the list and do all the stuff thats on it,
    sometimes i need to put in ‘placeholders’ that are just kind of doing the thing i want, but not necessarily exactly the perfect execution of the idea.
    but at least i know that something needs to go there, and it still needs to be tweaked.

  • Michael L Penman Wrote:

    There are a few things you can do. Some music related some not.

    First i will help lead you through the music related helpers.

    1) Take every project you have not finished and bounce out all the audio as loops, So drums, bass, etc etc. . And save all the presets you make. And while your at it save all the channel strips and racks you make.
    This will allow you to quickly add them to a new project that they might fit perfectly into. Make sure when naming the loops to add the Key and tempo (this will really help your work flow).

    2) This is a bit of a add on from the above helper. Remix your own track. Take the loops you have bounced from a track and remix the hell out of them. Loop, process and really just let loose on the audio. You can find already having a limit resource for sound that can allow you to think very differently and can in turn create new sonics ideas that otherwise would never of came to you.

    3) Use a reference track. Dont try and remake the track just use it as a reference. So analysis where the tracks arrangement changes. When does the bass come in. In the main section how many elements are there. Do this for each section, intro, main, break etc (any time a new element is introduced). This way you already have a template to work from. In ableton you colour code them, then save the track as a channel strip for future use.

    Now down to some non music related stuff.

    1) Get away from music. It sounds like your starting to become frustrated and that is never good for the creative mind. Even just going a small walk can work wonders.

    2) Try changing your work environment. Add mood lighting. Move equipment so its easy to reach, candles anything that can help you set a mood

    3) dont plan to write a track when you know you have to be going somewhere in a hour use this time instead to make some preset or loops for later when you have more time to make music.
    So i would say its best to plan set days to finish your tracks when you know you have some un interrupted time.

    4) Try making music in new places. Take your laptop to the beach, the park where every. The rhythm of natural life may spark some idea. Who knows…

    Well i hope some of these ideas can help

  • TruthSayer Wrote:

    TURN OFF FACEBOOK
    TURN OFF FACEBOOK
    TURN OFF FACEBOOK
    TURN OFF FACEBOOK

  • Rubicondo Wrote:

    Listen with pencil and paper ready and write yourself production notes, things to fix or change… don’t turn it into a chore by requiring yourself to labor on a piece whether or not there’s creative flow in motion..

    Not every idea can be completed, sometimes music has its own mind… the music that wants to be made WILL be, through you, now or later or through someone else

  • Nick Wrote:

    Google Mike Monday Start Now Finish Fast. He has a short course packed with psychological techniques geared to help you achieve your exact objective (overcoming procrastination, developing focus, overcoming perfectionism, using habitual behaviour to get into a roll of completing music etc etc).

  • AKA Wrote:

    Well, I can see this is turning into a publicity thread!!! Guys, please just write your opinions and if you share videos or information form other sources, please make it USEFULL information, not some publicity stunt to push online courses!!

  • Math Wrote:

    I had the same problem and we ALL have more or less the same problem. It is a habit. The key is to start creating another habit, the habit of FINiSHED WORK. So, if you want to change anything just do it step by step. In the beginning it doesn’t matter how many tracks you finish but it is important to create a new way of working. When you finish your work you have to have the feeling of something finished….then you get used to it. That’s all.

  • Mike Dixon Wrote:

    Be honest, that’s the best way to finish a track! A good idea will more often than not finish itself if you’ve got the technical chops to do it. I find gearing my studio to my own particular musical skills (live playing, fx routing etc.) also stops me from being bored of myself and putting the punctuation mark on stuff.

  • Nick Wrote:

    @AKA -. I have no direct affiliation with Mike Monday, other than I did the course, got a lot from it and saw a direct correlation in the increase in work rate. The information is offered in the spirit of helping out Mark with the question being asked . It is no way a publicity stunt, there is nothing in it for me. Its a genuine recommendation based on direct experience and entirely relevant to the question being asked.

  • AKA Wrote:

    @ Nick – Thanks for making this clear, my apologies!

  • MOTP Wrote:

    - Art is always abandoned – never finished… There’s always something more you can add in. Another synth line. Another hi-hat. Learn when to stop.

    - Deadlines are incredible useful to force you to abandon something. I work 9-5 Mon-Fri. After Sun Eve/Monday morning I don’t change anything. That’s it. The thing exists at it is. Deadline has gone. No more twiddling. Move on forget about it, maybe give it a few random listens on iTunes during the week.

    - Turn off your internet connection.

    - Don’t be afraid to throw things away – synth lines, drum loops or entire tracks. Or even sell some of your gear.

    - Don’t beat yourself up about not finishing anything recently. In the end, whatever you’re doing is just practice for that time when everything comes together and just works. If you’re trying to force it to happen, generally I find, it won’t.

    - have an iTunes playlist of EVERYTHING you’ve created. 16 bar loops. Ditty synth lines. White noise. Failed tracks. Completed tracks. Stick thyme on when you’re doing the cleaning for background noise, I guarantee that you ears will pick up on something you like. Use that in your next project.

    - rg wrote a good reply above. check that one out.

    - when writing HAVE AN IDEA. not just “I want to use these samples do this”. Have a very abstract idea in the back of your mind that you want to convey, be it about a broken heart, your mother, a cereal packet.

    - have an idea of how you want to convey that idea too – so say to yourself, BoC – Sick Times type synths with loose techie rhythms or something. Having an idea AND thinking about how to convey that idea can help kickstart you.

    - completely change your workflow. Eno’s discussions on “limits” are a great example of this. Tell yourself to only do things in pairs. Or only create things by deleting. Or everything must be purple. Turn your laptop upside down. Move your studio outside. Experiment until you find a rhythm of workflow that works. This is probably the tip I find most useful.

    - Think about what will sound good – not what you think should be there. I do the opposite all the time and it holds me back. Don;t worry about what you’re supposed to do – do what you think will sound good regardless of anything else.

    - Finally, and probably the best bit of advice, have your heart broken. works fucking wonders!

  • Harsimar Wrote:

    Well that is exactly what I’m facing these days…hard drive full of 16-bars…

  • Harsimar Wrote:

    @TruthSayer haha very true

  • Nick Wrote:

    @AKA – no worries, on reflection I could have made that first post sound less like a marketing campaign :) One of the biggest things that helped was learning basic meditation/mindfulness. Even basic meditation (lots of free online resources for this) will bring a increased level of self control and ability to focus and persist past the desire to stop creating the track before it is complete

  • Tom Wrote:

    Shameless plug? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiWIoAJhIcE

    It’s getting hard because it’s getting boring. Nothing is new to you anymore. Same sounds that were once exciting are not interesting. It’s becoming work to expand the idea. You can try to do the exact opposite. Try new things, and find ways to make it not like work. Go to festivals or concerts to find inspiration. Play a new instrument. If it still feels like work, you need a process…like a checklist. Just some ideas there.

  • TekMonki Wrote:

    While it’s still an issue for me (drives full of 4, 8, 16 bars long tracks), it became a bit less so after I discovered this guy/site: edmprod.com (one of my favorites besides askaudiomag.com and, of course, attackmagazine.com)- don’t know or work for him (them?), but some good stuff on there that deals with ways to attack this issue.

    One, for example, he/they call Subtractive Production – can explain it better than me – http://edmprod.com/subtractive-music-production/

    Anyway, after some reading through, I managed to bang out a whole track in a day – https://soundcloud.com/tekmonki/major-lazer-aerosol-can-tekmonkis-outside-mix – something I hadn’t done in ages!

  • Pretend writers block Wrote:

    PUT YOUR EGO TO ONE SIDE AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT PEOPLE JUDGING YOUR TRACKS YOU PUSSY!! after all it’s about the song not the way you spend 4 days tuning your kick and bass. The less tunes you finish the worse you’ll get at writing and finishing. Finishing is an art in itself. You’ve concentrated too long on technical so it’s made you think you should be putting out number ones every day. Guess what “WRONG’ someone shitter than u is finishing and pushing forward, makes u feel like giving up even though your production skills could probably piss on theirs. Your scared that the song you finish won’t live upto the length of time you been tweecky tweecky tweeking. Man up decide the goal and purpose of your music and push on or stop whinging. “I got writers block” boo hoo welcome to the real world. Just copy some shit for a while eg arrangements etc no one will notice and probably the average punter doesn’t give a shit. Your probably not as good as you think u are anyway if I’m wrong prove it!!!! Hang on is this about me??

  • Matty Wrote:

    Deadlines are awesome, and not just pretend ones that you make up in your head (i.e by next week I will finish this yadda yadda yadda).

    I have taken to entering lots of remix comps to give myself an actual real life deadline and it has really pushed me to finish tracks. Unfortunately as far as my own productions go, I abandon tracks too easily when they start to deviate from the original idea / sound I was going for! Any other ideas on how I can stick to the plan!?!

    P.S So much good advice here, keep it up guys :)

  • Hibou Blaster Wrote:

    Get someone else involved who is more about finishing tracks than writing them! Teamwork is the key :)

  • Tavis Wrote:

    A great way to create and finish your tracks is to “jam” them out. Layer your track with all your gear live. Have a knob and button associated with every element you want to control throughout your track. Once you’ve got your drums, synths, samples, fx, and whatever else you’ve got playing in real time, then you record the track from beginning to end! Jam it out – make it longer than normal. If you record it into a DAW like Ableton, you can chop out the boring bits, mix it down, and then you’ve got yourself a banging track.

    Nothing commits yourself more to creating a track than recording it in real time. You can’t second-guess yourself. You’re forced to create the track whether you like it or not. If the first take sucks, do it again. If the layers in the track are good and you know how tracks develop, then you shouldn’t have a problem nailing it on the first or second try. That’s how Homework and many other fantastic records were made. I encourage you to do the same.

    Live recording also lets you produce faster, which prevents you from labouring over a single track for weeks. This way you can bang out tons of tracks and pick your top 3 to send to labels.

    To get an idea of how to set up a live recording, have a look at these Fact TV against the clocks: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLg5ScSqSDXsvXVvNqW42AjfOmPjIupYZH

    A lot of these artists have gear and midi controllers linked to Ableton. They build a loop and then record live takes.

    Finally, it’s a lot easier to edit material that’s messy or boring versus creating something entirely from scratch.

  • George Next Wrote:

    Here is an article i wrote a couple of weeks before hope that will help some people.
    How many times do you feel lazy or maybe not in the mood for music and you really are not from the ones that “just naturally always work, never sleep, never stop?”, many people asked me about this and it can apply in anything you do either music, drawing,writing and so on.

    I often feel like this even for days, the length of the “creativity block” depends exclusively on me.So the simplest thing i do is my daily “music challenge routine” like many other producers do a lot well known or not;so if i am not in the mood i just sit down on my “maschine – mpc – ableton – (you name it)”and i decide to create and finish a track as best as i can within 30-60 minutes, and then publish it somewhere online either public or private or if you like just send it to some friends.

    And what about it? i am already feeling happier, more productive and creative and when the result is really good i feel proud and i also have a half completed track in my “backpack” to work on later, what if it sounds silly or crap, proud is the word again cause i was able to create and publish some music with no doubts, any restrictions, guilts or shame and i realise that it can’t hurt me it can only feel good accomplishing something you are committed to do and when you publish it you begin to overcome any fear related to music making.

    So if you believe less is more then this is actually the very less you can do and after a while all this will create more and more positive feelings-fillings inside of you, you only became stronger.

  • j Wrote:

    Me too…. i think its my ADD.
    So I forge on but limit my self to a worthy few projects and bounce around between those. I eventually do a full circle get back to a project that i happen to click with…i walk away if i ain’t feeling it. no sense in beating my self.

    I empower myself…..I learned to be patient with my self. When I’m churning sounds at that point in time….it may sound/ feel totally different when i listen to it at a later point in time.

    motivation…. I constantly experiment, that helps with the creative juices…find a creative pattern and just go with it. When I burn out i walk away.
    This all works for me. SO i guess i learned my work patterns and become patients with myself.
    Also, life gets busy, I find time to listen to other tracks or mixes as loud as i possibly can. Theres a lot of great tunes out there to appreciate.

    Find your work pattern and change it up. might work for you.
    Try to have a good time.

  • Jalook Wrote:

    Start with the intro, then build forwards your break/drop. New ideas come up and you lose Some on the road. Of your track becomes boring, just take a step back and find something new. Finisch 8 bars bevorderen you go further.

    Sorry for the poot english

  • MOTP Wrote:

    @ Matty

    Personally I love it when I completely deviate from the original plan! Music needs to be a fluid thing. What you’re actually doing is evolving the idea and the track as you go along and making it yours. Embrace it rather than fight it.

    As a case in point, I wrote an album worth of good tracks last summer. The majority of them started off with 1) what I wanted it to be about and 2) what kind of sound I was going for. The beatiful thing is that most of them ended up being different to what I was aiming for. I took an idea and developed it til it didn’t really sound like the original idea. By doing so, I placed my own character into the tracks.

    So yea embrace it! Keep the original idea in mind, but don’t stick to it as an absolute!

  • joel marcotte Wrote:

    Try by Drawing your song on a piece of paper and make a list of thing you want or not and put this paper somewhere close of the screen

  • DJ Shiva Wrote:

    Give yourself a deadline. I started doing a “finish one track a week no matter what” deadline. It works. It doesn’t have to be the most awesome tune you’ve ever done. Just finish it. At least get the composition from beginning to end.

    Getting yourself in the PRACTICE of finishing is critical, and even if you end up doing nothing with the finished product, I guarantee you will have learned something with every finished composition.

  • LG Wrote:

    There is no rush to get tracks finished. This is the biggest thing I’ve learned. It is better to produce less music of higher quality. Take your time. Keep searching. Keep trying different things out, and eventually you’ll finish the track. You’ll know when it is finished. Some times you will hit a purple patch where everything you do you finish, and other times it will be a bit slower, months, maybe even a year. Avoid saturating your Soundcloud with substandard tracks that your not happy with. That way you’ll only have your best work to choose from for public consumption. Leave them on the hard drive, revisit them in a few months, you’ll be surprised by what you hear. Also, I look through stuff i’ve recorded for other tracks, consolidated/cropped/recorded/frozen clips and i’ll find things i’ve discarded for one track work perfectly for another, and it gets the flow going again for you to finish the track.

  • Simon Makes Wrote:

    Pedro`s reply did it for me and therefore I will repeat it: Pedro Wrote:
    you have to finish all your tracks, even if its bad…..so you learn how to finish a track and not just begin….

  • ReyN Wrote:

    i was having this problem too , and then i got ableton push … this has really helped me in the building of a track using scenes rather then the arrangement view where i would find myself running a 8 bar loop for 3 hours and then the boredom would set in , i have found now I’m finishing tracks in a few days and not getting bored of them . i think that is the problem here, if you repetitivly listen to the same part of a track or just the track in general you will get bored of it and start doubting yourself . I had to change the way i worked to snap out this . mapping out all your tracks individual parts helps a lot EG- create a blank midi track and colour code all the parts (Intro- breakdown-fills-drop , etc) and then just move thru it without getting distracted by millions of presets, once all the parts are down ..then experiment . this is just what i found helped me and I’m sure everyone has their own flow . good luck and be confident , i have only just found my way out of this corner ;)

  • Neal Wrote:

    Buy yourself a re-writable CD… (The best thing I’ve eve done) and play your tracks in the car. Hearing your music in different environments has helped me so much.

    Open your projects and click global record and start triggering clips. Bounce them onto CD and you’ll find you’ll start to get ideas… Also, your car speakers are the best monitors you’ll ever have.

  • joseph Wrote:

    For me, I go from a bunch of loops to a finished track when I can force myself to start collecting ableton clips into scenes. I get loops playing that would sound good for an intro / verse / chorus, then use “capture and insert scene” (right click on scenes pane of session view). I’ll track those out into a super basic intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorusX2 pattern, then go back over it and add all the little spices: drop out the drums before a section change, move sections around, add a bridge, add synth fx, add filter sweeps, etc.

    By the time I’ve got the clips in the shape of a track, I’m way more likely to say ‘f–k it’ and hit “render audio” at some point. I always feel like it’s not finished, but often a wise person (usually my gf) will tell me I need to stop trying to add stuff bc I’m making it too busy, haha

  • Spike Wrote:

    The Problem I find is that in dealing with an art form you are trying to carve out an individual expression and identity out of an infinite pallet of in our case sounds, vibrations and emotional moods.

    For a painter that would be hue’s forms and light.

    Discipline, objectivity and careful thought about your goals with your music has to be the key thing in finishing music and developing a unique signature sound.

    If you know where you want to go, it’s a heck of a lot easier to learn how to get there if you don’t you could spend ages experimenting to no avail at which point one fruitlessly decides to just ‘GIVE UP’

    You must conceptualize a clearly defined goal for your art and stick to it!.

    That does not mean the concept cannot change but you must develop integrity in what you believe is right for you.

    Technically as others have suggested subtractive sequencing is the easiest way to start finishing tracks so try that.

    You could build a song from beginning to end from a 4 bar loop in about 30 mins then just remove the bit’s to make build up’s etc..

    You must like every one have many 4 bar loops take one and fill 5 mins of a sequencer window and subtract from there.

    easy peasy lemon squeezy.

    http://tarekith.com/assets/pdfs/ArrangingSongs.pdf

  • skreep Wrote:

    Ouch. My stuff sounds extremely boring after a day or two