We’ve all been there: opening a new Live Set, pondering the blank slate of an empty Session View window, wondering how to begin. Or, not knowing how to get from that first spark of inspiration to a finished piece of music. The fact is, despite all the music tools and technology at our disposal nowadays, making music remains as difficult as ever. Why this is, and what you can do about it is the subject of a new book entitled Making Music - 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers.
While the author, Dennis DeSantis, is Ableton’s Head of Documentation, the book is not an expanded Live user’s manual. Instead, as the title implies, it’s meant to help you actually make music – with concrete tips for solving musical problems, making progress, and (most importantly) finishing what you start – regardless of the software or hardware you use.
Making Music is divided into three sections, the first of which deals with problems (and solutions) at the beginning stages of the music-making process. And since even seasoned musicians also must periodically stare into the void of an empty new project, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to share the strategies they use for starting a new piece of music. Check them out below and then head over to the dedicated Making Music site where you can read complete and unabridged chapters from each of the book’s three parts.
I've always been attracted to the way Cage and Eno use limitations and parameters as a way to push the creative flow. Now, more than ever before, this process is even more important because of how many choices are in front of us.
So, when starting a project, I first think of the palette I wish to use to represent the sound I want to capture. Sometimes it's saying: I'm only going to use two analog keyboards for all the sounds, which pushes you to be super creative and also limits you to those sounds and character of the keyboard itself, which in turn creates the atmosphere and focus of the project.
"I rely on randomness to create my own samples and loops."
Once I figure out which sounds or plug-ins to use, I then rely on randomness to create my own samples and loops. I set up systems where the sounds are triggered randomly, then I loop or sample these into new rhythms. This way, I usually can never do them again, which is unique, and also no one else can figure out how to copy them, which will separate you.
In the case of hip hop sampling, I remember when I did Adventures in Low Fi for BBE, my process every day was picking (blindfolded) 20 records randomly from the shelves and seeing how many beats I could make with these 20 random records! It was so much fun that to this day I still do this! You get combinations that are out of this world!
For more on this topic, see the Arbitrary Constraints chapter in the book.
Starting from scratch can be hard. Unless your drum programming is very minimal, throw a drum sample into your session as a starting block. You can take it away again, replace it, or eventually, if it becomes integral, you can try and clear it! But the energy and 'finished' sound of a sample from a record will instantly give weight and perspective to other elements you add.
In preparation for when I "begin" a thing, both Ableton and my studio work space are organized to swiftly capture what's happening inside my head with as little interruption or impedance from the physical world as possible. For the most part by "organized" I mean, my user preferences are carefully/readily kept and all my favorite instruments/toys are always wired and just a power button’s touch away from being recorded.
"You will always have the majority of eternity to edit/rearrange/supplement your initial inspiration so why not let its beginnings pour freely from you?"
Inspiration rarely spends the night, so the clearer and quicker you can render/sketch/record what is "budding in your skull", the sooner you can explore/re sample/delete your way to cogent natural composition. While speed isn't necessarily valuable to a conceiving musician, achieving the capture of your ideas quickly, or without ordeal, can amplify your clarity and help prevent your "Problem Solving Self" from getting involved in the creation process too early.
You will always have the majority of eternity to edit/rearrange/supplement your initial inspiration so why not let its beginnings pour freely from you? Getting "out of your own way" technically is one of the best ways to get a really long listen at what " the music inside you " may sound like.
When I have no idea how to start music, I record sound from Torstrasse. (Any street is fine, but Torstrasse is full of cars and trams and it is loud enough always. It is my type.) Then load it in Ableton and I sing an improvisation on top of it. Usually, I can find some miracle in it. A unique beat, a funny harmony, a new awareness of timing. These can be the starting materials of a new song.
My approach to music and sound tends to be visual and so I find it helpful to start with a question: What should the music look like? So I first try to get an idea of the design and cover art and then start making the music to go with that. What can also be helpful is to write the liner notes to the album ahead of time. Or even better, have someone else write them!
Read selected chapters from Making Music
Learn more about King Britt, Kindness, Doseone, Kyoka and Jan Jelinek.