10 Ways To Stay Inspired as an Electronic Music Producer
Introduction Music production these days has become such a convenience. We can fire up our laptops and lay down any idea that’s in our...
10 Ways To Stay Inspired as an Electronic Music Producer
A Production Analysis of Deadmau5's Strobe
Introduction Music production these days has become such a convenience. We can fire up our laptops and lay down any idea that’s in our heads. With all the modern tools available, producers often start and end a project by themselves. This convenience, even though very satisfying, has its set of issues. We often get stuck and feel uninspired. It almost feels like nothing worthy will ever come out of us. Moments like these are unproductive and depressing. Throughout my years of experience as a producer, I’ve come up with multiple ways to overcome this feeling. Most importantly, I follow this advice on a regular basis simply to avoid hitting that wall. It’s an interesting preventive measure in some way. Let’s give this list a crackdown and see what would work for you.
1. Using the same key as one of your favorite songs. Stop and think of the last song you heard that caught your attention. Why did it make you feel good? This simple reflection on a track is enough to get you going on a new track. You’ll wonder how a certain sound was crafted or what production techniques were used to achieve a specific sound. This is often enough to get the inspiration flowing. What I tend to do is to find the key of the track. This can be done by simply Google-ing it or looking it up on Beatport. I secretly always hope to land on a key that I don’t get to work with a lot. Once the key is identified, then it’s all about writing a track in that exact key. With all the infinite decisions we can take during our production process, having one made for us gets the ball rolling.
2. Pick a random key. This is self-explanatory. Pick a random key, ideally one you haven’t used for a long time. The fun part here is to experiment with church modes as well. There’s something unique about the Dorian scale that sounds interesting to me. If you’re not too sure what pitches are part of a scale, simply look it up. Whenever I open a new session, I play around the keyboard and decide on the scale, and start writing. I get into it and a couple of hours in, I have a solid idea. Not everyone is as methodical but using this approach can get you out of a stagnant vibe in most cases.
3. Pick a BPM that’s different from what you're used to. Since my early days of writing dance music, categorically I always worked in similar BPMs, anywhere between 126BPM to 130BPM. When I started opening up my scope in terms of the tempo, my perspective on writing music changed. Different BPM ranges offer a fresh vibe. I went from producing in 128BPM to 102BP. I’ve even explored writing in 92BPM. Sometimes going ahead and picking a random tempo simply to get started is all you need. Having taken the decision on the scale and bpm of the track, you’ll quickly get into it.
4. Pick a preset sound you would never use. A lot of producers look down on the idea of using presets. Well, some do, not all. I disagree since you sometimes come across a preset that’s quite close to what you had in mind. You know it will be a great fit for your track. Just use it. Knowing proper sound design will simply allow you to further adjust the aesthetics of the sound you’re after. Yes, it’s a skill you need but it doesn’t stop you from working with presets.
While I was writing my first album, I came across a process that has proven to be quite useful. I was always having a hard time finding good lead sounds for what I was writing. One Sunday night, tired of scanning through my library of sounds, I landed on a preset which I thought I would never use. I still decided to give it a shot for the sake of trying to think outside the box. It worked great. Since then, I’ve written a lot of tracks with that approach. I let myself be inspired by the least inspiring sound if that makes any sense.
5. Listen to music you don't usually listen to. I’m not a Hip Hop fan whatsoever. But sometimes, I listen to some. Even though I’m not a fan, it doesn’t mean I won’t land on a track I enjoy listening to. There’s a lot to learn from other genres. Sometimes, this path leads me to some obscure electronic music or a genre I never really paid much attention to in the past. Get out of your bubble of genres you tend to go for and listen to things you’re less familiar with. This will stimulate your mind and more often than not give you an idea for a new track.
6. Watch a tutorial video and practice it. As a producer, you’ve most probably done this already but I’ll take the time to go over it again since this is quite important. Pick a random topic in production, ideally something that’s not in the genre you focus on and replicate it. Throughout the process of replicating this exercise, you’ll find yourself with new inspiration and a new track. Ideally, watch a tutorial in your DAW of preference since replicating it will be that much easier. If you’re stuck or undecided on which tutorials to watch, think of that native plugin in your DAW that you never use and look for a tutorial on it. You’ll learn to see these tools in a new and creative way. Sometimes that’s all we need, click on my video below to get started.
7. Add a limitation to your process. I find this idea very useful. We all have multiple VSTs and plugins with such a wide variety of options and it becomes overwhelming. Pick a limitation and write your next track within that limitation. An example of that could be to write a track with one sample or one VST. My favorite is to try to write a good track under ten channels. Be creative and give this a try. Even if you don’t end up with a full song, you’ll come across something that will inspire you and move you ahead.
8. Grab any instrument and start off by recording it. I’m a guitar player. I’ve been playing the guitar for over 10 years now but I don’t truly consider myself a guitarist. While other guitarists I’ve known that have spent countless hours honing in their skills, I’ve simply used the guitar as a compositional tool. When I’m not too sure where to go with a song, I plug my electric guitar and load up Guitar Rig. A couple of loops in and several ideas later, I come up with a new part for the track I’m working on. This strategy is not limited to musical instruments. You can sample sounds all around you. Sometime last year, I was working on a track and I heard birds down the street since my window was open. I decided to go down and record those birds chirping. Those samples ended up making the cut in my album which was a great addition to my record. Those samples pushed the project forward.
9. Find someone to work with. Collaborations are great because we get someone else’s take on the track. Even though for some producers this might feel like a lack of autonomy in terms of artistic direction, overall this often works out for the best. Sometimes when we’re stuck and we’ve hit a wall, our collaborators can help us see the track in a different light which in turn gives us a new idea. Two minds are always better than one as the saying goes and there’s good truth to that. The idea is to pick each other’s brain throughout the process and get a fresh perspective on the production.
10. Deconstruct and analyze a track you like. Deconstructing a track you love gives you a lot of insight and ideas for your next production. Simply by taking note of everything you hear, you will start hearing the track differently. It always ignites my inspiration when I do this exercise. I start paying attention to different layers in the track that I might have not heard before. This gives me a deeper understanding of the production techniques used. Also, analyzing the structure and the flow of the track gives me a better appreciation of how good a song is. These are all sources of inspiration pushing us to write something new. Check out my analysis of Deadmau5's Strobe.
My hope here is that one of these ideas will get you out of the rut and inspire you to push your tracks forward. At the end of the day, finding inspiration becomes a habit which will only push your production skills to the next level as you show up to produce consistently.
Author: Varti Deuchoghlian
Electronic Music Producer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer. For the past decade I’ve been releasing tracks on international labels, landing support from A-list producers and have been living off of my music career full-time. To date, I’ve helped over a dozen up and coming producers advance their production skills to a pro level. If you’re struggling with crafting industry standard productions, get in touch with me through my website: w ww.mixwithvarti.com
Deadmau5’s 10-minute-and-33-second long masterpiece ‘Strobe’ written in Ab minor and peaking at 128BPM is one of the most emotionally resonant songs in the modern-day electronic music scene. Its production is simple, even minimalist. It focuses only on the journey but it takes you many places. This record was officially released over a decade ago on September 3rd, 2009 and, to this day, it moves me.
I’ve deconstructed this track in terms of the arrangement, sound selection, and production techniques used. After reading this, my hope here is that, as a producer, you start to listen to music in a different way and that this exercise gives you a tool that will help you understand what’s happening in your favorite tracks.
Please note that the names I'm giving to the sections here are arbitrary but I hope they are useful for this discussion.
Ambient Entrance / 0:00 - 3:27
The intro starts off at a slower tempo than the final BPM. We hear some repetitive plucking notes followed by an active melody line that has a wide range of notes but with the same sound. Accompanying the lead, we hear a pulsating mid-low frequency synth arp. The beauty of this melody is that it uses a droning tone to create a mesmerizing effect. In other words, it is somewhat repetitive but it flows well. The motif repeats a couple of times throughout the introduction.
Halfway through this part, a synth bass starts fading in. This adds a feeling that the track is moving forward. The grand piano joins the piece to support the harmony moving across the track. This is when we hear the lead synth moving to second place in the back of the mix. The bass synth meanwhile becomes more important in the mix. We start hearing the high-end distortion on the bass synth as well.
Two thirds through this section, we hear a white noise down swell introducing the orchestral strings. By this, I mean that the swell itself is on the downbeat. It's like a cymbal hit where you hear the transient and the sound dies off. But instead of a cymbal, it's white noise. We hear the ensemble accompanying the harmonic progression while the main motif is repeated. The orchestral composition gives this introduction a more dramatic feel. Percussion and shakers are introduced to add further texture here.
This section ends with the last chord sustaining and fading out as the next part of the track comes in.
Intro / 3:28 - 4:21
In this section, the tempo increases and finally attains the BPM it will keep for the rest of the piece, while the orchestral ensemble fades away altogether. We hear the percussive shakers still present throughout. At this point, the lead synth has a rounder mid-frequency focus giving the sound a tamer and cleaner feel. We also hear a hollow pad layer in the background that sounds like the wind blowing.
A reverse cymbal swells in with a percussive hit introducing the kick for the first time in the track. The kick comes in with most of the low end filtered out. Sixteen bars in, the low end of the kick opens up and stabilizes the main groove. This section ends with an upswell leading the track to the first drop.
First Drop / 4:22 - 5:05
This is where the sub of the kick opens up, a technique used a lot in progressive/underground music. We have a kick and a bassline driving the groove. A plucky arpeggiated lead with synth chords in the background is progressively building in the track. We hear a swell adding movement to the track. A clap and a hi-hat are added as the filter on the lead opens up. Brighter high frequencies are heard coming into the forefront of the track. This part ends with a swell leading up to the break section.
Break / 5:06 - 6:44
The kick is removed in the break. We hear the chords and the lead present in the forefront of the mix. The low pass filter on both of these sounds progressively closes while reverb and delay are added. This is where the lead fully opens up. It becomes the focus of the track while we hear a delay and a reverb on it. The filter on this lead opens up again. An underlying synth melody starts building as its reverb becomes wetter. This adds movement to the part. We hear a percussive hollow hit that builds tension leading into the next section of the track. A swell lead is introduced with a Pryda snare bringing us straight to the main drop.
Main Drop / 6:45 - 8:14
The main drop comes in with the full kick and bass. There’s a white noise side-chained to the kick, helping with the impact at the entrance. The synth lead is fully open and we hear high-end saturation to the point of distortion very clearly. The snare and hi-hat are present here at the climax of the track. The secondary lead comes in from the break to add movement and finality to the climax. This section repeats until a swell is introduced. Shakers accompanied by a bright second lead are brought to the forefront of the mix. A riser and a swell lead the track to the post drop.
Post Drop / 8:15 - 9:14
The kick and the bass are maintained in this section of the track. We enter the post drop with a down swell. The second lead is removed from the mix. The snare is maintained while a new layer of hi-hats is added to the mix. Some ambient percussive sounds accompany the fade out. The main lead is being pushed back with the frequency parameter of the low pass filter being automated. The final swell introduces the outro.
Outro / 9:15 - 10:33
The kick is still present in the outro. We hear the mid synth chords which were present in the drop becoming more obvious now. We hear ambient textures filling up the background with some howling sounds. The intro shakers come back in to add more texture. Finally, a swell brings us to the end of the song. The kick dies down completely as well as the lead synth and we’re left with the final ambient textural sounds. The track ends with a low-end tonal impact hit, a whooshy texture, and what seems like a plucked droplet sound washed in a lot of reverb.
The process of analyzing and noting down everything I hear has been quite revealing to me. When I sit down to describe what I hear to someone else, I end up hearing so much detail that, otherwise, I would not have consciously been aware of. Even the most minimal sounding tracks have a lot of movement. Through this kind of exercise, we get to see the simple complexity of a track. We understand how many decisions go behind such a complete and satisfying production. To this day, Strobe remains one of my favorite productions not because of any specific over the top production or sound design technique but instead because of the simple choices that DeadMau5 made that makes the track timeless for me. What makes a track timeless? We’ll leave that discussion for another time...