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A Producer’s Guide To Overcoming Writers Block

There’s nothing worse than sitting down to work on a music production project and having no ideas at all. Or you have ideas, but within a few minutes of working on them, they just don’t excite you any more. Especially when this becomes a trend that continues for days, or even weeks and months. Whether you’re working professionally under a deadline, or just trying to relax and have fun, that feeling of “writer’s block” can be a terrible thing for any artist – DJs and producers alike. In this article you’ll find some of the best advice for turning around a stagnant project – read on!

PRODUCER’S BLOCK

This idea of producer’s block seems to happen more frequently the longer you’ve been following your passion. Early on when you’re first getting into writing music, there’s always a wealth of information to draw on for ideas. You’re just scrambling all the time to glean any bit of advice or new techniques you can use, and it’s easy since there’s still so much to learn. Not to mention all the tools are new, so many times just going through the motions of learning new gear can trigger new ideas. It’s one reason ‘gear lust’ is such a powerful driving force in our creative pursuits.

Unfortunately after we’ve been writing for more than a few years, truly new ideas and tools come at us less frequently, and we’re called upon to rely solely on our creativity to produce results. So when the ideas appear to run dry, we’re left with that feeling of “now what?”, and we begin to question if this is really what we were meant to be doing in life after all.

Luckily, you’re not alone, this is something that every artist (regardless of the medium they work with – DJs, this means you too!) goes through. In this guide I’m going to explore some of the ways that I’ve found to help push through these trying times, and get you back to doing what you love.

Not all of these ideas are unique, nor will they work for all people. A few of you will be able to repeatedly use the same idea to get through mental blocks, while others will need to use a combination of these concepts, or even use them as a way of coming up with their own techniques. The point is to realize that it is possible to work your way through a creative rough spell, even if it might just take longer than you think.

So, let’s get to it with some ideas:

1. JUST WORK THROUGH IT

For the professional musician, this is sometimes your only choice. If you don’t continue to try and produce a result, you don’t get paid. Certainly it’s the most stressful situation to be in, but that’s part of making a living from relying on a creative endeavor. For many people, the inability to overcome the creative hurdles when they appear like this is by far the largest obstacle keeping them from even considering a career in the arts.

Often times the best way to get through dry spells is to just keep trying new ideas, to do your best to avoid the blank page syndrome writers often refer to. Where the fear of being in a rut is actually keeping you from even getting started in the first place. As a result you just end up staring at a blank piece of paper (or in this case a blank DAW project screen) wondering what to do next, where to start, how to get back ‘that feeling’ you get when the ideas are flowing fast and freely.

Try recording yourself tapping out some beats!

The trick is to not let yourself get stuck looking at a blank screen. Try some of these ideas:

  • Grab some loops or samples you may have collected earlier and place them randomly in your project. Try grabbing random sounds you normally wouldn’t put together, just to see what will happen.
  • Quickly record 3 notes with a synth or other instrument, repeat on a new track with a different instrument. Continue doing this, limiting yourself to only 3 notes to keep it simple and to make you work fast. Try looping the results, throw random effects on, switch synth sounds from what you originally recorded.
  • If you have a mic, try tapping out a basic rhythm on your desk with just your hands or pencils. Overdub this with more hand drumming, use different sized pens, or tea coasters, anything that’s easily at hand and doesn’t require you to spend a lot of time setting up to record. Just fill up the project with a basic rhythm to work off of.
  • Grab loops from your past songs and try to create a super remix of everything you’ve written in the last 3 years.
  • Ask a friend if you can remix one of their songs. I’m sure you could also find many people online willing to let someone have a go at reinterpreting one of their songs.
  • Have a DAW template prepped and ready to go. Instead of starting from scratch each time you write a song, set up your favorite synths and effects in the DAW and save it as a template. This not only saves you time, it gives you something to quickly fall back on when you have an idea.
  • Set yourself a goal or starting one song every day for a week. Even if you hit on something you like, the next day start totally over from scratch and try writing a new song. At the end of the week, go back and listen to what you’ve done each day and pick the best one to continue working on.

The main point of things like the above is to work fast, don’t worry about the quality of the recordings, that’s not the point. The point is to get SOMETHING in front of you as fast as possible. Even if it’s just random garbage when you’re done, you’re at least doing something, and thus hopefully more likely to have one of those happy accidents that often spark the best creative ideas in us. The key here is to keep trying, don’t give up.

DJTT Inspiration: Try making Mad Zach style soundpacks to work through producer’s block.

2. CHANGE YOUR WORKFLOW

Sometimes you don’t need new gear to trigger inspiration, you just need to look at the gear you have differently. Even if it doesn’t help you necessarily come up with an idea for a new song, you’ll have gained a greater insight into the tools you have at your disposal, and that’s never a bad thing.

This is something I personally use a lot to try and work through rough creative times – here’s some ideas for approaching your gear differently:

  • If you primarily work in software, try working in hardware. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy a new groovebox (though it might not be bad idea either), but maybe instead of only using softsynths and a computer for your sounds, you borrow a friend’s hardware synth and learn how to use that. Some music stores will rent gear as well. Even something like a cheapo Casio keyboard you buy at a thrift store can be a new way of working. Keep an open mind, just have fun with whatever you find. It doesn’t have to be a $2000 synth to be a valuable tool in your studio or spark some fun ideas to explore.
  • Experiment with a microphone or portable recorder. You can get cheap mics at almost any electronics store, and even a decent mic like a general purpose Rode can be found for cheap on Ebay or Craigslist. Try writing a song using only found sounds you record with the mic, or vice versa if you mainly work with mics and real instruments.
  • Learn an instrument. I think the term ‘electronic musician’ is slightly misleading, as very few people writing electronic music seem to play an instrument. They’re more like Electronic Producers in my opinion. Think about taking this down time to start learning something like the piano, guitar, or even hand percussion like a Djembe. I don’t think being able to play a “real” instrument is ever a bad thing for people writing music, and often times it can completely change how you approach the writing process too.
  • Create complex signal chains. Sometimes I’ll run my keyboard into my drum machine, sample that, feed it through a guitar processor, into my DJ mixer, then run it through the keyboard inputs again. You can do the same in software too, try chaining a bunch of effects plug-ins to create some crazy processing chains. The key is to do things differently than you normally would, so don’t use your usual standby plug-ins. Try crazy combinations you normally would expect to sound awful, surprise yourself.
  • Gear swaps. This one might not be possible for everyone, but if you have some close friends who write music, maybe you could trade gear temporarily with them. You both get a bit of the gear lust sated, and it should trigger some new ideas for you and them. Obviously you should only do this with friends you really trust though!
  • Don’t write the same parts first. Many people start out writing their songs with the drums and bass, or with a sample loop they like. Try starting a song with something different, like a pad sound, or the melody. Better yet, try writing a song with no drums at all, or one that’s nothing BUT drums. Ever try writing a song using only a piano? You don’t have to be Chopin on the piano, try taking some piano samples and see how far you can tweak and mangle them to create something new.

3. CLEAR YOUR GEAR = CLEAR YOUR MIND

A lot of people will tell you to save everything you do. Save your samples, save your old song ideas, save your presets, save it all in case you need it in the future. While this is certainly not bad advice and trawling all that data can help get you out of a rut, sometimes the opposite is also true. You end up feeling guilty that you haven’t used some of this stuff you’ve been saving, or you spend too much time trying to use all this stuff, instead of moving on and trying new ideas and new sounds.

Every few years (sometimes more often) I go through and basically erase everything on all my hardware synths, delete all the samples I’ve been saving, and clear any unfinished song ideas off my hard drive. Definitely worth taking a few minutes to back all this stuff up to DVDr first just in case, but after that, wipe it for good. Start fresh, take the time to build your sample library from scratch, work on building new synth or effects presets, reinvent your ‘sound’ and restock your library with fresh new sounds you haven’t been passing over again and again for the last few years.

This approach may not be for everyone, but it can be quite liberating having to start over.

4. IGNORE THE SONG

Far too often, people think that working on music only means writing songs. We often don’t give ourselves enough time or opportunity to just play with our gear for fun. There’s nothing wrong just sitting down with your favorite instrument, and just playing for the sheer joy of playing. Don’t worry about making a song, don’t worry about how useful something is, or how you might use it for your next album. Take a week and just have fun playing the presets on your synth, or making goofy rhythms on your drum machine. Sit at a piano and just aimlessly come up with fun little melodies.

You need breaks like this to remind yourself of why you got into making music in the first place, and to remember that music is more than just the end result. Certainly we all take pride in a song or album that’s well done after a lot of work, but you have to enjoy all the moments that come before that too, or else what’s the point? Use the time when you’re in a rut to find the fun in the simple things again. To remember that joy you felt when you first started putting your fingers on the strings, keys or drum pads hearing how YOU were affecting sound. This can go a long way towards keeping you from getting burned out, and having fun is never a bad thing.

5. COLLABORATE!

Most producers these days seem to work in a bubble, home alone and doing it all solo. Indeed, for many people, that’s the appeal of something like electronic music in the first place, that ability to do it all by yourself. But sometimes working with someone else can be a great way to get new ideas. Seeing how someone else approaches something you’ve been doing the same way for years can make you rethink your methods and spur on new ideas.

Collaborating can be anything; asking someone to redo the mixdown on one of your songs, swapping remixes, or equally writing a brand new song together (in real life or online). Maybe it’s worthwhile to get out of your comfort zone even, and work with a musician you wouldn’t normally be interested in. If you write banging techno most of the time, post a note at a local college seeing if any flute or violin players are interested in working together. Some of the most memorable classic tunes of our time started this way, it’s different from the norm and stands out. Or it doesn’t work, and you both go your own ways, but at least you tried.

At the very least you gain insight into how other people work, and that can often be rewarding by itself. Sometimes just talking to other musicians face to face about how they get over writer’s block can be the most helpful thing of all. It’s a reminder that you’re not the only one going through it, and you might just get some ideas you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.

There’s also a less direct and less active form of collaborating I’d recommend, and that’s just going to see a musical performance in person. Go to a concert, a club night, anywhere you can see music being performed by someone other than you. Check out a style of music you might never have seen before. Hit up a jazz night, go to the symphony, check out a local world music jam session, watch street performers make do with much less than you have available. There’s a ton of music out there waiting to be heard, don’t limit yourself to only one genre or by going to the same places you’ve been going to for years. Let other people provide the inspiration you need to get through a creative dry spell.

6. LIMIT YOUR TOOLS

Many times having too much gear can be as overwhelming as feeling like you don’t have enough. Try picking one piece of gear you own, real or virtual, and writing a song using only that. It can be a synth, guitar, drum, softsynth, plug-in, whatever.

Limiting yourself to only one tool/instrument FORCES you to be creative, you have no choice as you’re going to be working differently than you normally do trying to achieve the same results. Some people are able to mentally just block out the other gear in their studio to do this, while other’s like myself prefer to pack up the bits I’m not going to be using and put them in the closet. Truly out of sight and out of mind. And as with some of the tips mentioned earlier, even if you still feel stuck in a rut, a few days of doing this will surely help you learn your gear better.

7. DO NOTHING

The last idea I want to suggest is also the one people seem the most resistant towards, and that’s to do nothing. Creativity is not something that most people can turn on when they want, it comes in waves, sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.

No matter what you do, or how hard you try, there’s going to be times when the magic is just not happening. So don’t stress over the times when it’s not working for you, get on with other areas of your life and trust that the muse will return when the time is right. It took me many years to come to terms with this myself, but I’m much less stressed when I have writer’s block now than when I used to.

Use the time to take care of the other things in your life that get in the way of your writing when you are having a good run of inspiration:

  • Make sure all your studio backups are up to date. Digital data does not exist if it’s not in at least 3 places, so don’t just rely on that external HD for back up. Burn important things to DVDr, or use an online backup service for a more secure off-site options.
  • Clean your studio, your gear, etc. It’s amazing how dust gets everywhere (even when you cover your gear) and how quickly contacts, guitar strings, patch cables, etc can start to tarnish or corrode.
  • Get all those house chores and projects done you’ve been putting off, spend time with your significant other, catch up with friends, wash your car, whatever. All the mundane things in life (no offense to the significant others!) that seem to intrude into your music when you’re on a roll can be addressed now. The more you get done when the music is NOT happening, the more time you’ll have for music when it is.
  • Live more. Seems kind of funny, but a lot of our inspiration comes from what we do and experience in life, and it can be hard to get that kind of stimulus when we’re stuck in a studio all day desperate for ideas. Get outside, go someplace new, visit a park, forget about music for awhile. Just enjoy being alive.

EVERY ARTIST STRUGGLES

I hope some of these ideas will help you in the future should you ever find yourself in a rut. More than anything you should remember that you’re not alone in what you’re going through.

The greatest artists and musicians of all time all struggled with creative blocks, as well as the negative thinking that comes with them. Sometimes it can take months or even years to get over slow times, but you WILL get over them. I find that for whatever reason, after a long bout of writer’s block, I seem to come back stronger than ever. I have more ideas, and my songs and production chops seem to be better than before I started having issues.

Maybe our brains just need time to recharge and recover from the prolonged periods of intense concentration that come with the artistic thought process. Maybe it’s like our muscles, in that it’s not the activity that makes us stronger, but the recovery period afterward that helps us improve. I don’t know, but I do know that staying positive and truly believing that you can get through the creative down times makes all the difference.

 

Editor’s Note: This originally took the form of a PDF entitled “Chasing Inspiration” – distributed by one of our awesome forum members, Tarekith. 

Tarekith is the owner of Inner Portal Studio a Seattle-based facility with over 12 years experience providing quality mastering and mixdowns of electronic music for producers around the world. He’s been writing, releasing, performing and DJing electronic music of all genres for over 20 years. His blog, original music, DJ mixes, and audio production related tutorials are available for free at http://tarekith.com.

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  • Marky Young

    Really great ideas, I’m just starting to get over my block. But if I would have read this sooner I probably could of avoided the block.

  • calgarc

    Awesome article. I personally write everything on my guitar. This way I can mess with chord structure.

    I also have a folder in my sample library called project ideas. This is where I keep all my ideas good or bad 🙂 lol sometimes I have 25 versions of a lead before I find the right one

  • Guest

    All those are great points to overcome writer’s block, Really i enjoyed reading your weblog. Thank you Eric.

  • joey

    amazing article. I searched everywhere online desparate for answers. This told me exactly what i needed to hear. thank you

  • I usually like to write down ideas as I get them…so hopefully I don’t get block.

  • Troy Monroe

    Sometime I feel the best thing to do it to take advantage of the time to learn a little more about how to use your software or gear. Just goof off with all those fancy buttons and knobs and end up with some awesome new sounds. I also like to hop on YouTube and run through a few videos which usualy inspire me.

  • vj

    such a nice article…cheers :))

  • Anonymous

    funny i was working on a song and was having a bit of trouble, then i see this on DJTT 😀

  • Anonymous

    funny i was working on a song and was having a bit of trouble, then i see this on DJTT 😀

  • #7 “do nothing” is kiiiind of related to my favorite fall back, which is to distract yourself. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve gotten so frustrated with a track that i was about to toss the computer out the window, so i started deep cleaning my bathroom and voila! the perfect hook just popped into my head. sometimes, the subconsious writes the best music, and you can only tune into that when you’re doing something completely unrelated.

  • LoserKidJacob

    This article is very inspiring.
    I liked it 🙂

  • Ecoleopard

    Im new to producing, and my problem isnt running dry of ideas, its simply that im interested in a lot of crazy things, and i just dont have time for it all. I cant just get on my studio, fix something, and get off. When i get on, i have lots of ideas and i get exited about something so im glued to it for hours. And when i do other things, it takes me like a month to do something with a project that shouldve taken me a week. I feel like i cant gain any experience as a producer if i want to have even the least bit of a life.

    • It gets easier, you just need to stick with it. It might seem like a lot of time now, but with practice you’ll get faster at doing things. 🙂

  • Best DJTT article in a long time. Solid advice here.

  • I actually found a guy called “Mike Monday” he just closed his course called “Start Now Finish Fast”.

    It’s the same concept: finish music fast, then you will go through the creative processes of writing a track over and over, and ultimately become better at writing a whole tune that sounds decent, than e.g. a bassline that is really good but nothing else.

    • I’ve heard good things about Mike’s courses, sounds like we have similar messages 🙂

  • You forgot one thing: The really smart guys among us use their times of low (musical) inspiration to write articles about what to do in times of low inspiration.

  • SkyCaptain

    YES I LOVE THESE PRODUCER FOCUSED ARTICLES! keep em coming! these are SUPER helpful!!! I started producing before i got into DJing, and found that producing and DJing really go hand in hand. SO SO SO HELPFUL!

  • RomaK

    Great article Eric!

  • Anonymous

    8. Simply write a brilliant article about writers block!

  • Tim Nice

    Thanks for sharing… really nice article 🙂

  • Great read!

  • D dub T4RE

    A great insight!! I work a lot and use those distractions as excuses for my creativity blocks, its amazing how ideas in the most unlikely places can jump up and hit you in the face yet when you go to lay them down its gone. I totally agree with you, in music you always think fresh and sometimes even when you don’t want to, turn left instead of right.
    thanks

  • Forevernow

    A good tip I’ve been following recently is to compose every part with a basic piano patch bassline, chords, melody etc etc , then when every thing sits nicely together start sound design on each part to your taste.

    There something’s very natural about composing this way.. Give it a try.

    • Interesting idea, thanks for sharing that one!

    • This can be VERY helpful. It’s interesting that not many people write music like this anymore — it used to be one of the only ways to do it! However, for electronic music, sometimes a piano doesn’t paint the right picture. Experiment with different sounds. I’m most creative when try this technique with a Rhodes or Wurlitzer, or sometimes even a really basic sounding synth (like a triangle wave).

    • I agree 100%. I have a nice little patch on one of my synths that sounds just like it’s coming from a SNES….when I’m getting ideas down I usually write every part using ONLY that patch. Leads, bass, even ghetto drums, only in that patch. Once I have something down that sounds acceptable, I start designing the sounds. Helluva way to work if I do say so myself

    • calgarc

      I do the same except on guitar 🙂 this way I don’t even need to turn my computer on lol

  • Anonymous

    Collaborate…. No. Just kidding, but I don’t do it because I find it the hardest thing to do. People want to add ideas that are way far out from what I am doing and the two just never mix. I work alone.

    • I hear you, I’m more or less the same way most of the time. I prefer working alone and being able to do my own thing, but it’s nice now and then to meet up and just jam with someone too.

    • Collaborating can be difficult, especially in person. Have you heard of http://www.blend.io? It’s still in beta, but looks very promising!

  • Genjutsushi

    Ace Tarekith. Take time to check his tutorials on his blog too. Ive found them really useful

    • Thanks! I stopped doing the articles to focus on more regular posts to the blog, so most of my more recent tips and such will be there, and not in the articles.

  • great article thanks

  • King of Snake

    “Start fresh, take the time to build your sample library from scratch, work on building new synth or effects presets, reinvent your ‘sound’ and restock your library with fresh new sounds you haven’t been passing over again and again for the last few years”

    Gonna do this right here, right now!
    Great advise
    Thanks

  • I find it strange that this article doesn’t mention one of the most important tools for avoiding writer’s block as a music producer: listening to new music, especially music outside of the genre[s] you work in. Listen to music you’d never normally listen to, analyze it, try to find out what makes a given genre artistically effective, maybe you can incorporate it with your music and breathe new life into your productions

    Too many producers just focus on the technology, and forget that they work in one of the oldest forms of artistic expression. Over forty thousand years of human history and all they can think of to look for inspiration is a new vst. When it comes to having fresh and inspiring productions, knowing music is just as important as knowing the tech.

    • I had a whole section in the article talking about that actually, section 5. 🙂

      • I see. Doing research into different forms of music is a different process than collaborating with other artists, and really deserves it’s own section.

        Whether or not you ever work with other artists and even if you don’t have writer’s block a producer of music should always be game to look up new music. Knowing your artform is an incredible important part of staying creative.

        On that note, I know “theory” is generally a bad word in the electronic dance music scene, but learning some can be valuable in the songwriting process. Sure, you can just focus on sound design and bang away on one key, plenty of producers build careers that way. However, If you want to make tracks with killer melodic hooks and more harmonic depth faster, music theory is a good tool that too many producers reject out of hand.

  • Wow. This article caught my eye and I feel a bit better now about my inability to find focus and be able to finish something I feel is valuable. The part about “losing interest quickly” really spoke to me. I seem to make a great 4 bars (If I’m lucky) and then completely lose all motivation to move forward. Maybe its hearing the same samples over and over again.

    Some days I can say “Im going to produce something good today”, then I spend 5 hours and make nothing. But on a completely random morning when I woke up early on accident and slice up a song without thinking, I get something truly special that speaks to what I want to create… Too bad I never finish it though.

    I also like the part about deleting your saves. I have piles of unfinished projects and always think I will get back to them…yeah, right. Or worse, when I do go back to the same samples over and over again, I only seem to find the problems that originally frustrated me.

    The brain is like a muscle, and if I was able to improve greatly at snowboarding suddenly after not doing it for 2 years, then perhaps I just need time to let the abilities sink in for production. I can move about between my hardware and software, but something is missing in between.

    I’m starting to feel that I am slowly getting more motivated towards actually finishing a large project rather than making lots of tiny insignificant ones, no matter how interesting parts of them are. This article was a big help.

    Cheers for this, I needed it.

    • jeebs

      liked that

    • Rob Burns

      Deadlines do help a lot too. Sometimes a little outside pressure gives you the “permission” to just keep going and accept certain artist imperfections

      • Rob Burns

        Also buy Ill.Gates methodology seminar. By far the best 50 bucks you will ever spend for production insight. He talks about the need to finish projects quickly even if they aren’t good at first and it works. When I first started I would try to write three complete tracks a week and they were totally shite but I finished them. Now I’m getting decent and have a much more intuitive workflow which is important to connect with the right brain.

  • Great article! Writers block does happen all the time to people working in every field, for sure. I have always been thankful to my teachers who have pointed out in various ways that writers block is a natural eb and flow of a lifetime of creative work. Even Brahms said that sometimes a day composing felt as if he was guided by God and sometimes it felt like hammering the soles on shoes, and that both kinds of work were invaluable and part of living a creative life. Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage’s composition teacher, said the same thing and went on to say that he wasn’t sure that the days he felt divinely inspired necessarily generated better work than the days he showed up at his desk or piano and just grinded it out. Those were some geniuses by any standard and by their testimony I think we can safely say that it is natural to have hard days composing but those days need not be feared too much, as they are natural.

  • Didn’t I suggest this on Twitter when you were asking for articles? V.Happy, will give it a read once I’m out of work 😉

    • Screw it… I might just read it now

    • Dan White

      Actually, our forum mods suggested we get Tarekith on the blog – but if you recommended as well, thanks!

  • Theo Void

    Tarekith!!! You get around bro!!! Good one, I knew I’d read this before!

  • Thanks everyone, glad you liked the article!

    • dave ak1200

      hey man, been struggling with this for a long time, and will try anything at this point. thanks for this.

    • thank you. I thought I was alone on this one….but you covered every though I have already had…..thank you again.

  • neotechtonics

    big ups to Tarekith on ALL of his fantastic tutorials and articles.

  • Great article. Writers block can happen to even the best in the business. Having the knowledge of how to resolve it can help. Bookmarking this page 🙂

  • Korji

    Great tips! I have been having this sort of thing happen to me recently and I am glad that I have read this article. It makes me feel less… lonely.