Writing Rough Drafts

Nov 17 2007

It’s easy for me to advise you to finish all of your productions, no matter what (see my earlier blog, How to Become a Great Producer), but what exactly are the steps to getting your tracks done? Let’s address the all too common complaint of, “I start lots of cool tracks but can’t seem to finish any of them.”

In my experience, there are two prevailing reasons for not getting your tracks done, you are your own worst critic and never satisfied with your music, and you are uncertain as to exactly how the production process should progress. Either one of these reason’s would be enough to derail your train, put them together (as is often the case) and you have a roadblock that’s a serious challenge to overcome.

Learning the technical skills behind music production is easy to address. Take some courses at Berkleemusic.com and study hard. No matter the area in which you need to improve and acquire proficiency, we’ve got it covered—musicianship, songwriting, music theory, recording, sequencing, mixing, and mastering—it’s all here. Quelling your inner critic so that you can finish your music requires a distinctly different and, most often, a less obvious path. However, no matter the path you take to find your balance and harmony, embracing a clearly defined process (complete with a list of steps you need to follow to reach your goal) can help you to better steer your music productions from start to finish. For me, the process of writing rough drafts, lots and lots of rough drafts, is the key to bringing my productions to fruition time and time again.

A rough draft is a sketch of your intentions. It’s a process that helps to bring the music you’re hearing in your head into the physical world. It lets you find the balance between what you can imagine and what is actually possible given your skill level and the tools at your disposal. It is a wonderful way to quickly build the framework for a song, because without this framework you would have no structure on which to hang your musical ideas. It’s about getting the big picture recorded first, so that you can focus on the details later. Writing drafts has become a truly essential part of my creative process, and without it I would most certainly get stuck in the details, lacking a clear direction for my song.

Of course, writing rough drafts, like any other discipline, takes practice. You’ll need to accept that your first, and possibly second drafts will probably suck—mine certainly do. But, like any discipline, with regular practice writing rough drafts will become easier and more fluid over time.

Here’s a list of the rough drafts I write each time I do a track:

1) The Basics: A starting point for your song. This might be a beat, a bass line, some chords, a melody, or any combination of these ingredients. It might be two bars or sixteen. Get it down quickly and without second guessing yourself.
2) Put It In the Pot: Record every idea that you think might work. Throw it all into the mix, to be sorted out later. Again, do this quickly and without second guessing yourself. Remember, hard drive space is cheap and MIDI sequences require hardly any storage space at all.
3) Song Structure: Rough out a basic song structure. From all the parts that you put down in the last step, arrange a working song structure. Slide the parts around, mute regions, slice and dice, whatever works to create distinct song sections using the parts that you’ve recorded so far. Keep in mind that it’s easy to add or subtract bars later on should you need to alter the song structure.
4) Produce Transitions: Now it’s time to get detailed. Produce your song section transitions using techniques such as drum fills, synth rises, arrangement builds, musical crescendos, chord inversions, etc. Take your time and really work out the performances. You may find yourself making some significant song structure changes at this stage of the production.
5) Bells and Whistles: The final stage of the music production. This is the time for you to add those last production touches, the ones that will have listener’s saying, “Wow, that was cool!” This is also a good time to begin your rough mix, the first mix pass where you begin finalizing levels, panning, EQ, compression, and group effect settings. (After this step it’s onto the final mix down and mastering.)

    I like the ideas! Good stuff…

    I read half way thru it – I’ll get to the rest of it another time… heh heh.
    Great blog… great read… and so true.

    People always tell me that I never finish what I

    This is a very insightful and useful blog. I have a ton of songs that I never get around to finishing, but with these tips and this approach, I will be completing songs much more efficiently. I always used to focus on the minute details and never got a chance to paint the big picture. Listen to this guy… he knows what he is talking about!

    Ahhh… the creative workflow. It’s super important to develop a workflow like this. I know I get bogged down creating endless patterns that never end up being made into full-scale compositions. They just get buried in my hard drive never to be noticed again.

    One thing that I find useful is if I organize my projects into priority levels. If there’s a pattern or collection of musical motifs that I really feel should be made into a song, I’ll put it into my ‘High Priority’ folder. If I have a project that has some merit and could be useful for inspiration in a time of need, I’ll put it in my ‘Moderate Priority’ folder. If I really can’t think of a valid application for something I just made, I’ll dump it in the ‘Low Priority’ folder. Things that stay there for more than a year get archived onto my backup drive.

    I find this helps keep me on task and prevents my project folder from getting bloated and difficult to sort through.

    By the way – I found your site by searching for music production blogs like my own – The Stereo Bus (http://thestereobus.com). The aim of my blog is to provide a genuinely useful music production tip a day. Let me know if you’re interested in exchanging links. You’ve got some good articles here.

    Take care,
    Dan

    Question: is every one of those 5 step processes considered a draft, and how many of those do you usually do?

    Jon,

    Yes, I consider each one of those steps a draft. Sometimes I’ll do a couple of drafts per step. So, I guess the answer is, as many drafts as it takes to make it sound right, keeping in mind that you need to get the track completed at some point and move onto the next production.

    I will learn this another day Out! Roger…

    Pro Tools doe’s have all the Bells and whistle’s, Every time I turn it on I here this guy walk through the Garage and a Harley start, Is this Cool or what.

    Roger

    Question FOR: Hawk

    Is pro tools the Standard Now for: Music Production, Audio Video for Television and Radio as well as Music Video for Music DVD’s. Has It Surpassed everything Else ? I may have left out the Gamer’s here too.

    Panhead Roger

Leave a Comment