Ok, so you've created a cool sounding 8 bar loop. You've got some decent sounding drums going, a sick bassline, and a catchy melody. You've got more than enough material to put together a full track, yet somehow the process of arranging everything fills you with dread. Instead, you spend the next few days tweaking your fledging creation until you eventually lose inspiration and start over again.
However hard you try... you simply can't finish tracks. Sound familiar?
Escaping the 8-bar loop and finishing tracks can be intimidating. Starting a track requires creativity and inspiration whereas finishing a track requires commitment and discipline. It is however really important for your progression as a producer that you overcome this hurdle and push on through to completion.
In this article I'll be looking at how to do this, with some great practical and psychological tips and tricks to help turn your initial musical concepts into a finished track.
Why Finish Tracks?
With every skill in life, the more often you do it the better you'll get at it. If you're regularly not finishing tracks, then you're not getting any better at finishing tracks, and this will hold you back from becoming a better music producer.
As discussed in this post, music production takes a long time to master as it's not just one skill but a collection of several different techniques that you need to learn. If you're not progressing past the loop, then you're not practicing important skills like learning how to create an interesting and varied arrangement or mixing your track to a professional standard.
Breaking Out of The Loop
So how can the process of finishing tracks be made easier?
Well, to start with here are a couple of great practical methods for progressing your track past the 8-bar loop into a full arrangement:
1) Subtractive Method
One of the most common and easiest methods for turning an 8-bar loop into a full song is to start by immediately copying your original material across the entire arrangement.
Don't overthink this step; just copy and paste every track until you reach your desired song length, without making any creative decisions at this stage.
Now that you've done this, the process of developing the arrangement comes down to subtracting parts rather than adding them. This may seem trivial, however psychologically it can make a huge difference as now you are starting with something rather than with nothing.
The next step is to start removing instruments from certain sections. For example, in the intro you may want only the drums playing. Then you may want to add the bassline, followed by the melody etc.
Do this across the entire arrangement until you have a basic structure in place. It's only at this point should you consider moving onto the finer details such as creating transitions, FX, and automation.
2) Skeleton Arrangement Method
An alternative technique is to have your whole arrangement structure laid out before you start creating anything. Tracks in the same genre tend to follow similar basic patterns, so you can use this knowledge to lay out the different sections of your track before you even begin.
One great way to do this is to use reference tracks. If there is a song that you really admire and would like to emulate, simply drag it into your DAW as an audio file.
Next, listen through the track and identify each section, and add a placeholder onto the timeline within your DAW. For example, make a note of where the build-up, breakdown, or drop begins, or the sections where certain instruments drop out.
You can even save these empty projects as templates allowing you to load them up at a later date to save yourself valuable time.
If you already have an 8-bar loop created then you can combine the skeleton arrangement method with the subtractive method by copying your loop across the entire arrangement, and then deleting individual instruments to matchup with the reference track.
Enhancing Your Arrangement
Hopefully these techniques should help you come up with a decent rough arrangement. From here you need to think about how to enhance your arrangement so that it maintains excitement and interest throughout.
Consider how you want energy to build and drop through the duration of your track, easing off during the breakdown for example, only to rise again in expectation of the drop. Think about how to create transitions to announce the start of a new section.
Look into using automation to add variety to your instruments. Play with the synth filter cut-off for example or subtly change your delay and reverb parameters over time to create a sense of movement.
If the track starts to sound monotonous, consider adding a B section or a counter melody to spice things up.
How Long Should It Take to Finish a Track?
Any time between a few days and a few months. The time is takes depends upon your experience as a producer, your workflow, the complexity of the genre you are producing in, how many hours you can commit to producing each day, and ultimately how you define your track as 'finished'.
I realise this isn't necessarily a helpful answer, however it really does depend upon a lot of different factors. Some producers spend a single evening coming up with the majority of a track, perhaps only going back to it once or twice to polish certain elements or to mix it down properly.
Other people may spend a few hours a day over the period of a few weeks or months.
The point I'm making here is don't get intimated or too concerned if the amount of time you are spending finishing a track is considerably longer or shorter than your peers. Everybody's workflow is different. There are however some simple tricks you can use to finish tracks faster.
How To Finish Tracks Faster
It's not easy speeding up the creation of musical ideas, however you can make the process of production more focused and efficient. Here's some tips on how:
Create a DAW template with all your favourite effects, instruments, and sends already set up and ready to use. This is really easy to do, and the effort you put in here will be repaid many times over when beginning new tracks.
Instead of wasting time auditioning lots of sounds, create a favourites folder with your go-to samples within it. Found a punchy kick or an ambience that you really love? Then save it so you can easily access it for next time.
Similarly, if you've spent time making a great patch then save it with a meaning name so you can find it again easily. In Ableton for example you could create an instrument rack containing a synth and a string of effects and save it in its entirety as a new instrument.
Keep it simple. It's easy to go overboard when coming up with an initial idea and end up with a huge array of instruments and sounds. If can be tempting to think the more parts you have the better the track will be, however focusing on fewer, quality parts will make it easier to finish.
Set fixed time limits. Nothing focuses your mind like a deadline. The trick here is to set yourself a deadline that has a real-world consequence. For example, you could approach a YouTuber and offer to make them a soundtrack to their next video. Now you are accountable to them and their publishing schedule, which should help with your motivation to finish.
How Do You Know When Your Track Is Done?
Your track will never truly be finished. No matter how great your track is, how perfect the sound design, arrangement and mix are, you will never be completely satisfied. The key is at some point you must draw a line under what you have created on move on. Think of your track as a snapshot of your creative journey at a fixed moment in time.
When I wrote my first few tracks it took an absolute age for me to admit to myself that I was finished. I spent so much time changing the arrangement, adjusting the automation, and messing with the levels that there came a point where I was actually making the track sound worse rather than better.
One way to avoid the temptation to keep tweaking the finer details of your track is to take away this ability. For example, if you were to render your track to audio sooner rather than later, then this may remove your desire to make further edits.
Remember that as a beginner you are not going to produce masterpieces from day one. It's important that you accept this, treat each new track as a learning exercise, and move on to your next creation.
Hopefully the tips in this article have given you a good grounding on how to produce a decent sounding arrangement and speed up your workflow. If you practice these techniques repeatedly then over time, you'll find that breaking out of the 8-bar loop and finishing full tracks becomes easier and easier.
I hope you found this post useful. If you have any great tips for arrangement and finishing tracks, then please share them in the comments below.