How to Avoid The 8-Bar Loop Trap (or Get Unstuck Once You’re in)

Let me guess.

You’ve opened your DAW. You’ve found a sample that you like. You’ve written a bangin’ beat or memorable melody. Everything’s sounding good.

But it’s just a loop. 4 bars… 8 bars… maybe even 16… but a loop. Not a song.

And you’re stuck.

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that it’s easy to produce a great sounding loop. What’s hard is taking that loop and turning it into a finished song.

Well, over the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with ways to avoid and get out of what I call the “loop trap.”

In this guide, I’m going to share what I’ve learned.

There are 5 key strategies that I’ll run you through step-by-step with a video breakdown. These strategies will help you either avoid the loop trap or get out of it when you find yourself stuck.

We’ll look at:

  • Why producers fall into the loop trap
  • Why you need to avoid the loop trap
  • Strategy #1: Single-instrument composition
    • Best for producers who want to focus on the underlying composition (chords, melodies), and do the heavy lifting up front.
      This is the approach I most strongly recommend
  • Strategy #2: Linear arrangement
    • Best for producers who get overwhelmed at the prospect of producing a full song, and want to work slowly step-by-step but not get stuck.
  • Strategy #3: Skeleton arrangement
    • Best for producers who struggle with arrangement and aren’t sure where to put certain instruments or sounds, or what each section should sound like.
  • Strategy #4: Subtractive arrangement
    • Best for producers who make loop-based genres and enjoy starting with a loop first.
  • Strategy #5: “Different instruments, same idea” technique
    • Best for producers who consistently find themselves in the loop trap. A good strategy if you’ve got a great loop/idea but you’re stuck.

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Why producers fall into the loop trap

To get out of the loop trap—and to avoid it in the future—we need to understand what causes us to fall into this trap.

First, note that creating a loop is not a bad thing. Many electronic artists work this way. It’s normal, and it’s acceptable. What shouldn’t be acceptable is remaining stuck in the loop. You need to move beyond it, expand it, and have it evolve into a full song.

So, what causes us to get stuck in the loop trap?

We do what we’re comfortable with

Most producers find it easier to program drums and basslines than write melodies and chord progressions. This lends itself to a loop-based workflow, because you follow a process that looks something like this:

  1. Find a kick drum
  2. Add some percussion loops or samples
  3. Write in a bassline
  4. ???

Nothing wrong with this approach, but it can cause you to get stuck, because…

We end up avoiding what we’re NOT comfortable with

When you start each project the same way, doing the easy stuff first, you’ll almost always end up stuck.

Why?

Because you inevitably reach a point where you’ve done the easy stuff (programming drums, bass), and need to move onto the more difficult work (writing melodies, chords, etc.)

Two temptations that crop up when you reach this point:

  1. You trick yourself into thinking that your idea isn’t that good and you shouldn’t continue working on it (sometimes true, often not). You abandon the project and starting a new one, only to repeat the cycle.
  2. You trick yourself into thinking that you’re “stuck” in the loop and can’t possibly get out (never true). You abandon the project and start afresh, again falling victim to the loop trap.

We succumb to these temptations because we don’t want to do the hard stuff.

But what if that’s not true? What if there were a bunch of strategies that could help you get out of the loop trap or avoid it altogether?

The good news is, there are strategies that you can use. The not-so-good news? It’s going to still take some effort on your part. Producing great music has never been easy.

Why you need to avoid the loop trap

The best way to grow as an artist is to finish lots of work.

Keyword: finish.

If you always get stuck making loops and never finish ’em, you’re only developing a fraction of the skills that you need to grow as a producer.

Sure, you might become good at arranging drum sequences or designing sounds, but you won’t know how to arrange a track in a way that keeps the listener entertained. You won’t know how to use tension and energy to draw the listener into the track and keep energy high. You won’t know how to push through the last 10% of a project.

Why?

Because you never get there. You’re always stuck on step one.

You won’t finish projects if you keep getting stuck in the loop trap.

If you don’t finish projects, you won’t progress.

Strategy 1: Single-instrument composition

The strategy: Write the core ideas with a simple instrument (piano or synth), then arrange them. Do this before adding in other instruments, samples, or other complexities.

A brief overview of this strategy

  • Using a single instrument (ideally a piano), compose your core idea (melody or chord progression)
  • Add to it
  • Create variations for verse, chorus, breakdown, etc.
  • Once satisfied, split this up into different instruments
  • Add other instruments and sounds to fill out the arrangement

Video breakdown

Step-by-step

I’d start by writing down my core idea—a chord progression, let’s say—with just a piano or synth like so.

Then, I might add a melody to it.

Maybe this is a good chorus, so I duplicate the clip and simplify it to create the “verse” idea.

Then I’ll duplicate/edit and flesh out a skeleton arrangement for my song. At this point in the process, I’ve still only worked with one instrument, but I’ve got my core ideas in place.

I’m not stuck in the loop trap. I’ve done the hard, important work. Now I just need to add in the right sounds and instruments and mix it down.

Why I recommend this approach

This is just one strategic approach to avoiding the loop trap and really finishing the projects you start. It’s effective because:

  • It helps you focus on the most important part of your project—the chords and melodies (in some genres this is less important. If you’re making techno then this strategy isn’t ideal).
  • As a result, your song will fundamentally be better. You’ve got a good foundation. It’s a lot easier to start with good songwriting and ideas and then add instruments/sounds and mix down rather than trying to insert good songwriting into an existing arrangement of sounds. In other words, composition should come before sonic perfection.
  • It gets the hard thing out of the way first. The reason most producers get stuck in the loop trap is because they dread songwriting. When you take this approach, you’ll feel more motivated to continue with the track after you’ve nailed your ideas. When you start with a loop, motivation might be high in the beginning but it will quickly subside when you approach the roadblock.

Strategy 2: Linear arrangement

The strategy: Work from left-to-right systematically by focusing on one section at a time, then moving forward when it sounds good.

A brief overview of this strategy

  • Instead of starting with the chorus or breakdown, you start with the intro
  • You’ll add a few sounds, instruments, ideas, until you’re satisfied, and then you’ll move onto the next part of the song (probably the verse or drop)
  • You’ll focus on that until satisfied, and then move on to the next part of the song, and so on…
  • Once you’ve completed the full arrangement, repeat the process by going back to your intro and making adjustments/improvements. Do this going from left-to-right.

Video breakdown

Step-by-step

Let’s say I want to write a chilled house song.

I’ll start with the intro and build a drum beat. I want 8 bars of drums in my intro before moving into the next section.

I’ll start with a basic 4/4 kick pattern.

I’ll add in a few percussion loops.

Some atmospheric sounds…

And that’s it for my intro. I don’t need to go overboard.

Already, even though I’ve only spent a few minutes working on this, I have a better idea of where to go with the track. I have an idea of where to take it.

This is the beauty of linear arrangement. It’s easy. And it helps you generate ideas that fit well with the track you’re making.

Note: This is only one approach to a specific project that I’m working on. Don’t feel that you need to start with drums or take the approach I’m taking. The point is to work on the intro until you’re satisfied, and then move on.

Now that I’m happy with my intro, I’ll move on to the first breakdown. I’m forcing myself to move forward, even though I feel tempted to just work on and improve the initial loop.

I’ll extend the shaker loops…

Write a basic chord progression…

This section is sounding good, so I’ll move on to the first verse section where the drums come in and add a bassline to my chord progression.

Once I’m happy with this section, I’d move on to the next 8 bars and so forth.

Why I recommend this approach

  • This approach is great if you struggle with the first strategy trying to write good chord progressions and melodies from the start
  • It takes the pressure off. You only need to focus on one section at a time.

Strategy 3: Skeleton arrangement

The strategy: Arrange your track and instrumentation with blank MIDI clips before adding any sounds or ideas. Using a reference track is encouraged.

A brief overview of this strategy

  • Add a reference track similar to the style of the song you want to make to your arrangement.
  • First, get the basic structure down by using blank MIDI clips or markers (name them: intro, verse, chorus, etc.)
  • Then, listen to each major section and create tracks and blank MIDI clips for all the main instruments you hear. If you hear a bass, then add in a blank MIDI clip titled “Bass” and make sure your blank MIDI clips are placed in sections where you can hear the bass.
  • You don’t need to create tracks and blank MIDI clips for each sound and instrument in the track, just the major instruments.
  • Once your arrangement and instrumentation is laid out, then start filling everything in.

Video breakdown

Step-by-step

Pull in a reference track in the same style of music that you want to produce (make sure it’s warped/tempo-adjusted accordingly).

Basic structure

Start by laying out the basic structure of the track. Where’s the verses? Chorus? Breakdown? I recommend using markers or MIDI clips for this.

If you’re comfortable working from this point with a very basic structure, then do so. Otherwise, continue on.

Instrumentation

This time, listen through and add a new track for every major instrument you hear in your reference track. For instance, you start playing and here a pad and kick drum in the intro, so you create a new track named “kick” and another named “pad”

Pause & play where needed if you fall behind while listening. You should end up with a bunch of tracks like this.

Instrument arrangement

Finally, listen through for a third time and create blank MIDI clips in places where each instrument plays. E.g., if the kick & pad play in the intro and the chorus but not in the breakdown, then place the MIDI clips accordingly.

You should end up with a project file that has a bunch of blank MIDI clips arranged as a song.

I didn’t finish this one, but you get the concept

Why I recommend this approach

  • You need literally zero inspiration to start the track.
  • Once you’ve walked through the process, you have a well-defined template which just requires you to fill it in. You’re skipping the whole arrangement phase almost entirely.

Strategy 4: Subtractive arrangement

The strategy: Assuming you already have a loop in place, duplicate/copy + paste it out until you reach the desired song length (e.g., until your loop is laid out over a timeline of 4 minutes). Then, remove instruments and sounds from your loop in different sections to create a rough song arrangement.

A brief overview of this strategy

  • Make sure you have a loop in place that you like and is well developed (in other words, you’ve got 8-10 different tracks in play rather than just a kick drum and bassline).
  • Duplicate/copy and paste until your loop is at your desired length.
  • Remove parts to form your arrangement. For instance, you might not want drums in your intro, so remove them. You might not want a bassline or drums in your breakdown, so remove them where you want your breakdown to exist.
  • Start with wide brush strokes and then get more detailed (see video explanation for this).

Video breakdown

Step-by-step

Note: this strategy assumes you already have a loop or are planning on starting with a loop.

I’ve got a loop to begin with. Pretty straightforward, just a bass and drum loop (it’s ideal to use this strategy with the most complete loop possible as you have more to subtract from).

I’ll then take this and duplicate it until it reaches my desired length (~5 minutes).

At this point, it’s time to start removing parts of the track to form an arrangement. For instance, in the initial drop, I might want a really simple kick & bass without the percussion loops.

I’ll do this across the whole arrangement until I have a basic structure laid out. Then I’ll move on to the more specific, micro parts of the arrangement (i.e., removing a kick drum here and there, fading things in and out, etc.)

Why I recommend this approach

  • It’s great for loop-centric genres like house, tech house, and techno.
  • It’s a strategy for getting out of the loop trap instead of avoiding it in the first place. We all have projects that exist as loops—this is a great strategy to actually get them finished.

Strategy 5: Same idea, different instruments

The strategy: With your loop, take the core idea(s) (e.g., chord progression), and use a different instrument to play it.

A brief overview of this strategy

  • Let’s say you have a house loop that has a funky rhythmic chord progression played by a piano. You’re stuck.
  • Take the chord progression, change the rhythm so you have long, sustained notes, and then use a different instrument like a pad.
  • You’ve got a completely different section of the song that still fits with your loop because it’s the same progression.

Video breakdown

Step-by-step

Note: this is a strategy for getting out of the loop trap, not necessarily avoiding it.

Let’s say I’ve got a loop, it’s nice, but I’m stuck and I don’t know where to go with it.

There’s an easy way to force myself out of the loop.

I’ll take one of the ideas in this loop, ideally the chord progression, and duplicate it out on a new track.

I’ll then change the instrument and maybe the composition (in this case I change the notes from short, stabby notes to long extended notes, and change the instrument to a pad from a pluck).

This has significantly changed the sound and inspired a different section. I can add different instruments to this and develop the rest of the track.

Why I recommend this approach

  • Great for projects where you have a loop that won’t benefit greatly from the subtractive arrangement approach.
  • It’s easy.

Conclusion + free download

There you have it. 5 strategies for avoiding or getting out of the loop trap.

Where to now?

Start by revisiting your favorite projects that are stuck in the loop phase. Apply some of these strategies and actually finish them. Release them. Show people.

Then, when you’re starting a new project, keep the first few strategies in mind. Do you need to start with a loop? Do you have a strategy for not getting stuck? What is it? Think through these things when you’re working on something new.

Or, do it on autopilot with my free cheat sheet. Have it near you when you’re working on new or existing projects to avoid getting stuck…

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