You have a melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic idea in your head. But when you sit down at your DAW to try to capture it, you usually begin by trying to find or create the right sounds to match the idea. And somewhere along the way, the idea itself gets lost.
As electronic producers, often our first instinct when starting a new song is to collect a palette of sounds before beginning work on the actual notes and rhythms. And modern synthesizer presets are often designed to sound like entire productions just when playing a single note, with huge layers of effects, embedded rhythmic activity, or both.
But sometimes, this can be a distraction from your real goal, which is to create your own compelling musical ideas.
Instead of starting by trying to find the perfect sounds, try starting with the simplest sounds you can find. General MIDI or other “generic” presets are good for this exercise.
Now, without taking time to tweak the sounds or add effects, just start working on notes and rhythms. It’s likely that everything will sound uninspiring at first, and this is OK. The hope is that by working this way for a while, you’ll come across musical ideas that are strong enough to transcend or overcome the sounds that play them. These ideas will have to be really good, since they won’t be able to hide behind impressive synth patches or layers of effects. But really good ideas are what we’re after—musical materials that are so strong that they inspire you on their own merits. Consider that whole symphonies have been written by composers who work entirely at the piano.
Once you have a great collection of self-sufficient musical ideas, then you can start the process of finding great sounds to play them. As you were doing the hard part of the job—writing the music—you may have already had ideas about what kinds of sounds would be appropriate. This will make finding or creating the appropriate sounds even faster and more rewarding, because you’ll know that they fit your own musical ideas, rather than suggesting musical ideas that may be more a function of the inherent sonic properties of the sound.
Although generic electronic sounds work well for this, an even better solution is to write using an acoustic instrument like a guitar or piano (if you play one). Acoustic instruments serve dual purposes here. As with General MIDI sounds, they help to get you out of sound-design thinking so you can focus on the music. But they also help you get out of DAW thinking entirely. By removing the computer from the picture for a while, we’re more likely to avoid distraction and really force ourselves to write with our ears instead of our eyes.
Of course one challenge of working acoustically is that it makes it a little bit harder to capture great moments of inspiration that would otherwise automatically land in your DAW. In this case, it might help to set up a mic in the room and record everything you play as audio. Yes, it might take a bit more work to then sort out what you played later, but at least the ideas won’t be lost.
This technique isn’t for every producer. If your music is fundamentally about sound design, then it’s possible that notes and rhythms aren’t much of a factor in your work at all. In such cases, these techniques will probably just waste time. But if you’re a producer working in a less experimental genre, starting with simple sounds might help you get to better music.