Music Production Tips: Getting Past The Loop

It's easy to get stuck in loops when making music. You know, composing and arranging everything in 8- or 16-bar looping segments. G. W. Childs explores ways to break out and complete the song itself.  
"Title image" via Shutterstock

Out of all the software applications out there for making music, very few of them have offered a valid solution for getting past the loop. What, specifically, do I mean when I refer to ‘the loop’? I’m referring to the 8-16 measures programmed in a DAW that many people remain stuck on without ever actually completing a song.

There are many elements that contribute to the being stuck in the loop. But, there is not one element that I believe contributes more than the choice bequeathed by simply using a music software application in the first place. Whatever do I mean?

Problem 1 - Choice

Here in the States, one fast food place that has become a major staple is In-N-Out. In fact, they’ve grown so popular, that when I had a NAMM meeting with some of the Propellerheads last January, we met at In n’ Out. My Swedish friends had heard so much about In-N-Out, that they wanted to try it. 

The reason (no pun intended) I mention In n’ Out, and their fame, is that they’ve done something very different from every other major fast food chain- They limited the menu.

When you visit, you’ll notice a few things available—Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Double-Double, French Fries, Soda and Milkshake. That’s pretty much what’s available. What makes this work so well is that the limited menu allows them to create one crazy good hamburger with the freshest ingredients, as opposed to thirty mediocre menu items crafted from items that we’d rather not know about. But, the other plus side to having a limited menu is that people seem to like it when their choices are limited, as opposed to having to spend 10 minutes choosing from thirty different menu items. 

Music software is very similar in regard to all of the different instruments, and effects, that are available. Logic Pro, in unto itself, has literally thousands of patches. If you think about it, patches, are technically instruments, in unto themselves. These instruments (patches) can be tweaked in thousands of different ways. The downside to having that much content is that a huge portion of time is spent simply enjoying playing different sounds, or trying different effects, as opposed to actually making music. 

And, there’s nothing wrong with playing and experimenting… Unless, you have a lifelong goal of creating an album, or even simply a song. 

Solution to Choice - Sound Sessions

Experimenting with sound, I believe, is absolutely integral to the creation of a good album, as long as it’s moderated. I’d like to suggest setting aside a good 1-2 hour session of nothing but picking out drum sets you like, bass patches you like, lead patches you like, pads, strings, and all the things that you think would benefit you, and your project. Once you’ve either organized a favorites list, directory, or whatever your DAW provides (tip: Reason offers a very cool favorites list that can be set up in your browser). Once you’ve got this selection of patches that you feel are perfect for your project, limit yourself to using these patches throughout your album. 

Some of the greatest albums in history were made with three to four instruments throughout the entirety of any given album. If you think about it, the classic Rock ensemble is guitar, bass, drums, vocals. If you even limited yourself to twenty patches, and one drum kit, you’ve got that much more going for you than many of the best albums of the twentieth century. 

To sum it up: Get the patches you want, and then stop wasting time listening to sounds, and start making them.

Problem 2 - Infinite Tracks

Okay, you’ve gotten the ‘fun boy’ past time of sound noodling out of the way. Let me introduce you to the next problem—How many instruments you’re using on any given song. 

Many of my past students (and myself) have all, at some point, run into the revelation/problem that you can, at this point, almost infinitely continue to stack instruments, on top of instruments without ever actually finishing a song. But, just because you can stack tons of instruments doesn’t mean you should. Remember, you’ll have to mix this later, if you complete it, and more instruments means more panning, mixing, leveling, compressing… It’s a lot of work! 

But, what’s even more concerning is the act of creating simple, timeless beats and melodies that really support a well written song. Sure, you can make a great song with 48 tracks of instruments, but if you’re new to the game, it’s going to make it a lot harder. 

Solution to Arrangement - Less Is More

Again, look to the albums of the past. Better yet, look to a favorite album of yours that you feel is closest to the sound you are going for. Go through the songs throughout the entire album and note how many instruments are in each song, besides voices. You may be surprised to find out, it’s not that man. 

Once you’ve got a feel for what instruments are needed to create the sound you’re going for, create a template in your DAW of choice that has all of those instruments (maybe with your own spin on them) ready to go. Once you begin the writing process, challenge yourself to stay with those instruments. Sure, there may be moments that you may hear something that you don’t have. At this point, ask yourself, “Should I add this on top of what I have, or replace it with something else?”

Problem 3 - Where do you go next?

Once you’ve created a good melody with a couple of instruments in any DAW, the hard part is knowing where to go outside of the comfy confines of two reassuring points, the left and right loop locators. This is, after all, where we really do get stuck. There are always questions within us that hold us from achieving the rest of the song like, “Can I make a part that’s as good as this one?” “Is this a chorus, or a verse, or an intro?”

One Good Trick...

This part can actually be fun, and easy. Let me show you how I handle it:

I’ll play the loop so many times that it’s stuck in my head, and I can’t hear anything else. Then… I walk away from the computer and take a walk. I’ll walk around my neighborhood, look at some trees, look at the houses and play that loop in my head. Sooner or later, I’ll notice that I’m adding things, embellishing parts, pulling out parts... Then, suddenly… I’ll add vocals. Once the vocals come in, the chorus, or verse, or intro, or whatever part I haven’t even thought of yet will usually appear. The beauty of this method is that your mind really can help you create new parts of your song that flow very gracefully from part to part. 

Another Good Trick…

This is the hardest, because we often fear the unknown. Take the loop locators in your DAW of choice… Move them over so that they cover a blank space of 8, or 16 more measures. Next, drag a copy of the drums over from your original loop, and start playing an instrument that’s featured in the loop previous. Once this loop sounds good, add another instrument in that you were already using. Once you’ve built up this second loop, take a break for about ten minutes. Then, come back and listen to the original loop, and the loop that you’ve added. If they both sound good, create another song loop until you’ve got all the parts of your song. Verse, chorus, bridge, intro, breaks, and so on. Now, you’re past the loop.

Sound Designer, Musician, Author... G.W. Childs has worn many hats. Beginning in the U.S. Army back in 1991, at the age of 18, G.W. began learning electronics, communications and then ultimately audio and video editing from the Department of Defense. Upon leaving the military G.W. went on to work for many exciting companies like Lu... Read More

Discussion

TORLEY
G.W., I enjoyed your article because today, there is an overabundance of low-cost (and free!) tools. What you write about with self-imposed limitations also recalls several "minimal equipment" albums that have been released lately, like Alessandro Cortini's Sonoio and Surchai's Ritual, both of which were essentially created with one main synth (and some effects modules). There seems to be a parallel to certain lifestyle philosophies, whether that is "living in the now"/Zen Buddhism or outright pragmatic minimalism.

I'm a big fan of spending a few hours listening to a lot of sounds on existing gear, then picking faves to shape "What is my signature?" This kind of preparation can also work well for those who are uncomfortable flipping between "sound playing" and "sound making" modes during the production process. I'm thankful some of the girthier collections (like Omnisphere and Alchemy) have built-in rating systems to make this easy.

It's an interesting inertia that comes with making a catchy 8-bar loop, huh? I find (at least in my own workflow) that part of the problem comes with establishing too many looping layers early on, which increases the complexity of tracks that need to be changed.

Refreshingly, sometimes the best solutions are the simplest, namely: more loop-centric EDM/electronic producers would benefit from learning about "through-composition" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Through-composed and performing/jamming an extended improvisation, be it melody, bass, or drums. Then, it's easy to cut smaller variant loops out of that (as is usually the case with sampling). It can help overcome a psychological mountain of expanding shorter material to fit a longer time.

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