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.)

It seems like the Pro Tools Accelerated Videos (http://www.digidesign.com/accelerated) are often overlooked as an educational resource. Sure, they’re clearly for promotional purposes, extolling the virtues of Pro Tools. But, at the same time, they are an excellent overview of Pro Tools centered music production techniques and features, both new and old. The videos aren’t nearly as in-depth as our twelve week courses here at Berkleemusic, but if what you need is a quick blast of information, an overview of a feature or technique, the Pro Tools Accelerated Videos are just perfect.

The Pro Tools Accelerated Videos can also be seen on YouTube. Here’s one on using Reason Adapted with Pro Tools and setting up the ReWire connections:

Students often ask me the loaded question, “How do I become a great music producer?” Now that’s an easy one to answer in a thirty minute chat, not. But, actually, the answer is deceptively simple. The key to becoming a great music producer is to be a finisher. That is, complete your songs, wrap your productions, put an end to the tweaking, stop being a perfectionist, just finish it.

Every time you complete a production you move one step closer to becoming a great producer. This is because every time you complete a project you have a finished work to show for your efforts. Plus, you get the added bonus of learning something new each time you wrap a song and honing your production skills in the process. There actually is a formula for getting your songs done, but it is a personal formula that only you can develop for yourself, over time, one production at a time, with study, practice, and the feedback of contemporaries.

Begin by setting manageable goals for yourself. “This month I will finish one song, it doesn’t have to be perfect but I will get it done.” Don’t let your perfectionist side stand in the way of moving quickly through the process of completing the production, from the writing, to the recording, to the production, and the mixing. If at any point in the process you find yourself stuck and taking more than a few hours on a part or a tweak, forget about it and move onto the next step. The part in question will still be there for you to tweak later, but if you don’t get the whole song down, the entire production mapped out, fretting over a single part without the whole picture in view is myopic and self-defeating.

Your first several productions probably won’t sound that great. This is to be expected, you aren’t going to produce a hit overnight. However, somewhere down the road, in five, ten, or two dozen productions your tracks will start to sizzle. You will lock into your own personal production formula and start to roll with it. This year you might only finish four not so well produced tracks, but next year, if you keep at it, I guarantee you that you’ll find yourself completing ten much better tracks. The next thing you know you’ll be producing two dozen “radio ready” tracks in a year. If you keep at it on a daily basis you will become increasingly better at what it is that you really want to do, finishing great sounding tracks.

To quote the hit songwriter, Diane Warren, “I just kept doing it. In a nutshell, I just kept doing it no matter what.” (You can read the complete interview with Diane Warren, by Michael Laskow, the president of TAXI, here, http://www.taxi.com/faq/ar/warren.html.)

Alvin & The Chipmunks