3 Modes Of Thinking When Producing New Music
The three modes of thinking that I am constantly jumping in and out of while producing new music are composition, sound design & mixing.
There are no hard rules or a particular order of operations I subscribe to when it comes to creating a new musical idea from scratch, but instead my approach is to simply take action on what inspires you within these three modes.
And if you are stumped in one these modes (i.e. you’ve been tweaking a kick sample for 30 minutes), you can simply shift your creative juices into another mode and continue capturing musical ideas and pushing the completion of your project forward.
When I’m thinking in Composition Mode, I’m thinking about the musical elements and overall arrangement of those elements my track.
In this mode I am constantly playing off of different harmonies, melodies, atmospheric sounds, drum beats, etc. Depending on the order in which you capture these musical ideas, one may inspire another.
In most cases, I am starting with some sort of chord progression to set the mood & inspire melodies and other elements, but I’ve also found myself starting with a single sample, a simple kick/snare/hat combo or even a melody I was humming before opening up my DAW.
As the project develops and I start to add more sounds, I then start to think of arrangement ideas such as taking away elements for a bar, cutting frequencies of entire groups of elements, or adding one time effects for variation.
If you’re not too confident in your composition or arrangement abilities outside of a four bar loop, I recommend studying your favorite artists and dissecting the arrangement of their songs to gain insight into their compositional decisions. For this exercise I simply bring my favorite songs into Ableton and try to recreate them down to the very last sound. This will give you access to more compositional “moves" to use on the fly when you’re breaking out of a four bar loop idea!
Sound Design Mode
When I’m thinking in Sound Design Mode, I’m thinking about each individual sound's character.
First, I’m thinking about the sound sources. Is my sound deriving from a sample or is synthesized? If it is synthesized, what type of synthesis & what are the basic waveforms being used? This portion of sound design is especially helpful if you are trying to emulate a sound or get a sound design idea from your brain to the daw. Over time, you will start to develop an ear for what basic waveforms you need to use for each sound design idea.
Next, I’m thinking about whether or not the sound has any audio effects applied to the sound sources. For example, do I want the sound to sit in the back of the mix with a big reverb and delay or do I want the sound in my face, completely dry with a bunch of saturation? Or maybe I want the sound completely filtered out? This portion of sound design is essentially where I’m thinking in audio effects. Here is where a lot of mixing and matching of effects come into play and its where you can take a basic waveform or sample and turn it into a completely different sound by combining different effects.
Lastly for sound design, I’m thinking about how I want the sound to change over time. This includes Envelope and LFO modulation, pitch changes & any automation I want to manually draw in over time. Usually this goes hand in hand with any audio effects I’m applying. This is also crucial if you’re using something like FM Synthesis and adjusting the envelope stages of any modulating waveforms. Modulation is also a big factor in terms of giving life to synthetic sounds (i.e. adding a slight LFO wiggle at the end of longer sustained notes)
So again, for sound design, I’m thinking in sound sources, audio effects & modulation.
When I’m thinking in Mixing Mode, I’m thinking about the balance of each sound in relation to another.
This isn’t the final mixdown or mastering stage per say, but rather the constant balancing of the mix as new elements are being added throughout the new project. This means I’m considering the balance between each individual sound’s volume, frequency content & stereo placement.
And again, as you keep adding more and more sounds to the project, you’ll have to enter into mixing mode to balance all of the individual sounds into one cohesive sound for the listener. One trick I like to use while producing new music is to simply close my eyes or look away from the screen when I’m doing a listen back. Here is where my ears will usually pin point what needs to be turned down, what frequencies need some cleanup or what portions of the arrangement need some tweaking if the mix is too busy.
The goal here is to tap into the perspective of your ideal listener who has no knowledge of each individual sound in the project, but instead is passively listening to the track as one sound. It’s a slight mind shift, but it is necessary as you can get lost actively listening to your track as a producer instead of as a listener. This is why it’s sometimes easier to identify problems in the new mix as an export rather than in the DAW.
So again, the three modes of thinking that I’m constantly bouncing back and forth between when capturing a new musical idea are composition, sound design & mixing. Having this mental model as I create something from nothing helps me produce faster and more efficiently. Hopefully it helps you as well.