Creativity is not a talent; it’s a way of operating.John Cleese
When you’ve been making music for several years, it’s easy to get stuck in a lull. You go through the motions, doing everything that you’ve always done the way you’ve always done it.
This is fine, but it becomes boring. You start to lose the challenging aspect of music production.
To counter this, we need to experiment. Experimentation is what breeds creativity.
In this post, I list ten experiments you can use to be more creative. They might not increase your creative ability, but they will force you to be more creative during the given moment. The key here is to break the norm.
1. Limit Yourself to 5 Instruments
One of the best ways to be creative is to impose severe limitations on ourselves. It’s natural assume that the more options we have, the more creative we’ll be, but this often leads to endless tweaking and working on the trivial instead of creating actual music.
I find that forcing myself to work with a set number of instruments is a great way to be creative. It requires different thinking; how can I beef up this sound without adding a new layer? What effects can I use to make this drum section more interesting when it’s just a kick and a hi-hat?
Limit yourself to just five instruments. Drums don’t count as one instrument, for example:
- Plucked bass
Is five instruments.
To some of you, this may seem ludicrous and even impossible to do. That just means you need to try it more than anyone. If you’re struggling to make your 5-track song interesting, consider using:
- Send tracks
- Reverbs and delays
- Heavy and complex automation
- Preset morphing through automation (one sound to another, a la Deadmau5)
- Complex composition to compensate for the lack of instrumentation
2. Compose With Sine Waves
There’s nothing better than the sweet, sweet sound of a sine wave. Except for everything.
Composing with sine waves is far from enjoyable, but it forces you to think outside the square. You have to pay close attention to octaves, and where certain musical ideas should be placed on the piano roll. How low should your bassline be? How high on the register should your melody be?
The great thing about composing with sine waves is that it makes your mixing process a lot easier. Everything is already in its rightful place, so that when you replace the sine wave with the right sound, you know how to EQ it to fit with the rest of the tracks.
Another benefit to this experiment is that it forces you to disregard sound design, at least at the start. You’re focusing purely on composition.
3. Structure Your Track First
There’s something I like to call the Arrangement Workflow which means arranging before anything else.
Many people don’t understand this when I first tell them about it. How can you arrange something that isn’t there? Shouldn’t you come up with ideas first?
It’s simple. You build your structure with blank clips first:
- Create 3-5 “placeholder” tracks (e.g., Drums, Bass, Chords, Melody)
- Create blank MIDI clips for each (different colors)
- Arrange blank MIDI clips in phrases to sketch out a basic structure
The best thing about this experiment is that it requires you to think of the project as a whole, right from the start. Often we get so stuck into our 8-bar loop, or whatever, that we forget we’re making a full song.
4. Use Sounds You Hate
It’s easy to trawl through sample packs and find sounds that fit perfectly with the rest of your tracks, and you should do that when making music. We want to use quality material.
For being creative, though, there’s nothing like a challenge. Why not use a sound you hate? It could be a preset, a drum sample, even a vocal phrase. Find it, cringe for a moment, and then figure out how to make it work with the rest of your track.
I don’t recommend doing this with every single project. Treat it as an experiment, as practice, to strengthen your problem solving muscle.
5. Produce a Track in 60 Minutes
One of the main reasons producers don’t finish tracks is because they never set a deadline. There’s no real pressure for them to finish the track. They may think they need to finish it, they may want to finish it. But at the back of their mind, they know that if they don’t finish it, life goes on as normal.
Thus, whenever they reach a challenging moment in the music creation process, they give up and move on to a new project.
Giving yourself a set time to make something forces you to act rather than think. When you have 60 minutes to make a song, in the case of this experiment, you don’t have time to muck around. You don’t have time to think about whether you should use a different pluck or not, you just fix it later on.
6. Use Presets, or Don’t
If you’re a preset user, then experiment without them. Design your own sounds.
If you’re not a preset user, then experiment with them. Don’t design your own sounds.
7. Automate 5 Parameters on Every Track
Of all the ten experiments listed, this one is the most fun yet frustrating.
The idea is to add at least five lanes of automation to every track. So, your kick drum needs to have five lanes of automation, and they need to be doing something. You could automate a high-pass and low-pass filter, the decay of the sample, some distortion, and reverb. Or you could automate delay, a glitch plugin, an EQ, and the two filters.
It sounds easier than it is. When you get to the crash cymbal that hits every 32 bars in your song, things get a little more tricky. How on earth do you add five lanes of automation to a crash cymbal?
That’s up to you to work out.
8. Work at a Different Tempo
Whether you’re a 138 trance purist or a progressive house producer who never leaves the safe confines of 128BPM, consider making a track at a different tempo.
You can still make trance at 110BPM, just like you can make progressive house at 132BPM. Switching up the tempo often sparks different ideas and sounds, and it’s also enjoyable.
9. Create a Song With One Sample Pack
If you’re anything like me you’ll have an endless number of sample packs that contain only a few samples you always use.
Why not try making a song from one sample pack? Doing so will not only cause your song to sound more cohesive, but it will lower the amount of choices you have to make when picking samples.
With this experiment, the smaller the sample pack, the better. Avoid using construction kits and pre-made basslines and melodic loops. Stick to one-shots and FX.
10. Merge Two or More Genres Together
I left this one till last as it’s the most difficult.
Merging genres together is a great way to be creative. If you’re a house producer, why not incorporate a dirty DnB reese bass? If you make trance, why not season your track with a few dubstep wobbles and screeches?
Over to You
There you have it. Ten experiments that will force you to think creatively.
Have you got any experiments of your own that you’d add to this list? If so, what are they?
If you haven’t got any of your own experiments, which of the above ten are you going to do first?