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Overcoming Creative Blocks

Frequently Asked Questions
Published February 2001

Overcoming Creative Blocks

Even if you have top‑notch recording gear, and the expertise to use it effectively, there are still a number of more intangible problems that the recording musician can face. Amanda Lowe answers some of your questions on how to maintain creativity and a positive attitude in the studio.

Q. I've been working on this track for so long now that I think I'm losing any sense of objectivity. Is there anything I can do to regain this?

Overcoming Creative Blocks

Because building a track can be a lengthy and intense experience it is difficult to listen to the results without associating it with all the trials and tribulations you have gone through. This means that it's easy to end up listening emotionally and subjectively, rather than clinically and objectively. Therefore, if you want to be critical about your own tracks, don't listen to them just after you've mixed them. Get out of the studio, clear your head, let your ears have some quiet — they've been working hard. When you do sit down to listen, try to imagine that you are listening to someone else's work: what would you (honestly!) say to them about the mixes? It helps to have a pen and a piece of paper handy to jot down any thoughts you come up with.

Try thinking of where the music will end up being played, and then play it there. If you are creating music for people to listen to in their living rooms, then play a copy of it to yourself in your living room. If it's a dance track, dance to it — you'll immediately feel if it's hitting the right buttons. Also, try to listen in as many different situations as possible. Play a copy of your track on a crappy car stereo, on your mother's hi fi, on a really big PA rig and also listen to it on a couple of different sets of headphones.

Another way to get a fresh perspective on your music is to change the time at which you work on it. If you normally work during the night, have a critical listen in the morning, or vice versa. If you find yourself normally 'enhancing yourself chemically' (with caffeine, alcohol or whatever) while working creatively, then why not try abstaining for once, in order to get a completely uncoloured view of your material. After all, you'll be able to party twice as hard once you're sure that the job's well done!

Q. I've got dozens of tracks that are only part‑finished, yet I can never get to a point at which I'm totally happy with any of them. How do the professionals finish off their material?

Overcoming Creative Blocks

The professionals, by their very nature, have to do what they do for a living. They don't do tracks just for fun, because they have to make a living from them, and they therefore have to deal in clear objectives and goals before they even sit down to create. Professionals will usually set themselves time limits — if a track isn't working within a certain number of minutes or hours then it will often be more viable, in financial terms, to bin it, because time wasted is potential earnings wasted.

It is important to know what you want from your tracks, if you are ever going to finish them. 'If you don't know where you want to go, the chances are you won't get there', as the old saying goes. In order to sort out your tracks, get your goals and objectives sorted. The real professionals know exactly what they require of a successful track, and how long they are prepared to spend looking for it.

Whatever the goals you set yourself, they won't do you any good unless you set yourself clear objectives for achieving them. Specify exactly what you are going to do in order to reach your finished track (once again, pen and paper can be handy here to keep you focused) and set yourself a fixed time in which to achieve these objectives. Actively limiting the time you allow yourself to spend on completing a track is especially important if one of your goals is to make money from what you do — a finished track can earn you money but, in the hard‑nosed world of the music industry, a dozen part‑finished tracks aren't going to get you anywhere much. A professional attitude is about getting focused and getting your music out there.

Q. I'm happy with my performance when I'm on my own, so how come I always seem to start making mistakes whenever I get into the studio with other people around? Is there anything I can do to stop this happening?

The moment you take your performance into the studio, with other people relying on you to come up with the goods, it is all too easy to get thinking along the lines of 'I mustn't get it wrong', 'I don't want to let anybody down', and 'I can't afford to make any mistakes now'. However, this is not a constructive habit to get into, because it won't do you any good no matter how much you tell yourself these things.

The reason for this is that the human mind is bad at processing negative commands, just by nature. Try telling yourself not to think of a plate of chips — what's the first thing you think of? So if you walk into the studio saying to yourself, 'I'm not going to start making mistakes today', it is only bringing the possibility of making mistakes to the front of your mind, making you more likely to slip up. As a result of this, the best way to go about improving your performance in the studio is to give yourself positive suggestions. For example, say to yourself, 'I'll be relaxed and confident when I am in the studio today' or 'I'm going to give a blistering performance in the studio today, which everyone will be happy with'. It may take a little while for this strategy to become effective, and it may be best to start with very easily achievable positive suggestions, but practising this will help increase your confidence.

If you regularly fail to perform up to your own high standards within the studio, it can be difficult to break the habit, because your mind has begun to connect negative feelings to certain situations. In the above example, the mind is anchoring 'making errors and being nervous' to 'playing in front of your peers in the studio', such that the latter automatically triggers the former, which then only serves to confirm the initial mental connection.

What you need to do is break this cycle — if you can find a way to perform in the studio without getting short of breath, even a few times, it undercuts the points of reference that your mind uses to connect this activity with the unwelcome behaviour. The real question is how to break the cycle.

It can help with this if you mentally rehearse your time in the studio before you go. This may sound a bit wierd, but it will help you practice staying in a relaxed frame of mind, simply because you're within an environment that you can control. Once you can see yourself as relaxed and successful in a mock‑up, it'll be much easier to recreate that in the real studio environment. Though you might think such an approach to be a waste of time, such visualisation techniques are actually tried and tested, especially in sports competition. Championship runners, for example, visualise and preview their performance many times in their mind before a race — seeing the track, hearing the starter's gun, feeling their limbs working in a controlled manner, tasting the sweat on their lips and, most importantly, imagining themselves surging ahead of the pack.

For visualisation techniques to work, it is important to make the images as detailed as you can, while keeping yourself centre stage and in control. It can take a while to keep your attention focused, so you may have to allow yourself several attempts at mental rehearsals, but if you persevere it can really make a difference to the confidence with which you perform.

If this approach is not successful, you can also use visualisation to imagine yourself into a different environment that you find less hostile. You might be surprised at how easy this is to do. For example, many of us performed to ourselves when we were younger, imagining that we were in front of a screaming crowd of fans or that we were appearing on our favourite television show — the imagined environment was much more fun than the real one! If you can imagine a performance situation, however fictitious, where you can feel confident, relaxed and in control, then this can be used to increase your confidence, regardless of the reality of the situation.

Your imagination is a wonderful thing. If it could let the younger you pretend that you were a megastar, and feel great about it, when you were only singing in the bath, then think what it might be able to do for you today.

Q. After working on them for a while, every track I do seems to sound stale. How can I be sure that it's not just that my ideas are stale?

Creating your music should be a pleasurable activity and, indeed, most people feel a sense of excitement at the start of each new project, when there is a world of possibilities awaiting them. However, every part of the recording process should be enjoyable, not just the start, whether you're sorting out the beats, deciding on instrumentation, or even consulting your manuals to find a solution to some particular problem.

What we need to look at here is how to make sure that you enjoy every part of the process. One sensible way to increase your sense of achievement is to set yourself frequent small (and therefore manageable) tasks. For example, if you say to yourself 'by lunch I'll have finished the chord progression', or 'before Oprah I'll decide what effect to use on the vocals', then you'll probably be able to sit down to lunch/Oprah having achieved a fixed task. If you can see yourself progressing with a track, and can tangibly see your progress, then it's much less likely that it will go stale. While not setting yourself goals with limits provides you with limitless scope, it does mean that it's easy to allow yourself unlimited time for each track, and this can easily lead to you getting bored.

Another useful tactic in beating staleness is to change what you're working on every couple of hours if possible. Try working on the drums for a couple of hours and then on the vocals for the next couple of hours, in order to stop yourself getting stuck in a rut. Given that so many SOS readers now work with computer‑based systems with instant recall of most settings, there is very little reason not to alternate periods of work on different tracks, even! While it is wise to try to achieve small goals every time you work, this doesn't mean that you have to achieve each of them all in one go — you can always go back to it in an hour or so if progress is slowing.

In addition to setting goals and varying what you work on, staleness can also be combatted by limiting the time you allow yourself for each track. If, at the end of the time, the track is stale, or isn't working, either bin it or get some fresh input. See if a friend can do anything with it, for example — a fresh look at something can make all the difference, and 50 percent of an earner is better than 100 percent of nothing. Also, have a look at your working methods, and see if you can vary the patches, effects and controls that you use. Dipping your toe into the unknown can often inject a bit of excitement into your work.

Q. Whenever I hear a recording of my voice, I hate it, and I find I can't even tell whether it's a good performance or not. It doesn't sound like that in my head, and we've tried everything we can think of in the studio to sort it out. Is it just me?

It could be you, or it could be your recording equipment or techniques. The latter of these is what most of Sound On Sound's reviews and technique features cover, so the best solution if you're concerned is to check out SOS's back issues on the technical aspects of vocal recording — Hugh Robjohn's article in SOS March 1997 and Paul White's 20 Tips in SOS October 1998 are both good places to start. Though the technical elements of getting a vocal performance require experimentation and experience to get right, this is probably the easier of the two problems mentioned above to overcome. What can be much trickier to overcome is if the answer to 'Is it just me' turns out to be 'yes!'.

Where are you listening to the recordings you've done of your voice? It is important that you listen to them with no distractions and with a critical ear if you're going to improve your performance. By 'critical', I don't mean that you have to critisise yourself in a negative way, but rather that you have to concentrate very carefully in order to discern what exactly it is about your vocals that is good and what is bad. Bear in mind, though, that there is something about listening to one's own voice that makes even the most accomplished performer cringe. In this case we are often our harshest critics — many a famous performer dislikes hearing the sound of their own voice, even when many fans love it. If you can stand it, it can really help to get some feedback from other musicians about your recordings. You can also ask relatives or best friends, though they may well provide a positively biased viewpoint. If you can find people who you can trust to give honest appraisals of your voice, then really try to make the most of their opinions.

One other thing to consider is that it might not be your voice, as such, that is the problem. It could be that you're attempting to sing in a manner that just isn't appropriate for the material you've chosen. You have to be clear in your mind exactly what you want to deliver. Is the style smooth and sophisticated, raw, bland, or in‑yer‑face? What is the emotional content of the track: anger, love, passion, humour, despair...? Are you going to belt out the line, or are you going to keep it more quiet and intimate?. What aspects of your voice do you want your audience to hear?

If you really have no idea about how you want to perform with your voice, try listening to performers who you admire, and try to work out what it is they do when they sing. The good news is that you don't necessarily need to be able to sing to be able to bring a song to life — a fact of which Bob Dylan fans will undoubtedly be aware! However, it's also true that, even with the best voice in the world, no amount of studio jiggery‑pokery will liven up a mediocre performance, so it's worth spending the time perfecting your performance before you even think of recording it.

Q. My band has landed a small advance to record some new material in our local studio. We've been after a break like this for ages, so it ought to be going great. However, the other members of the band seem suddenly to be developing time‑wasting into a fine ART — they are unhappy with every take, they bitch about each other's performances, and progress on the album is really slow. Help!

If the members of your band truly consider this their big break, then it's odds on that they're going to be really scared of botching it up, even though this is not something they're ever likely to admit to each other or even to themselves. In such situations of pressure, people are often unwilling to proclaim anything satisfactory because this lays them open to being judged on their performance — and, as I've just explained, it is understandable that this judgement fills them with apprehension. Your band may not even realise this, but all the poor performances, bitching, and general bad vibes are probably delaying tactics, putting off the moment when they will have to be accountable for their efforts.

However, while this may go some way to explaining their behaviour, it doesn't really help you much on its own. As I explained above, the band have obviously now begun to associate the session's activities with their negative feelings, so you have to attempt to break this link that they're making. Try giving them only one chance to do things, saying that you want them to play like it's the last time they'll ever do it — keep the tape running and let them really go for it. Or suggest that everyone act as if they really love everything that's been recorded, just for a laugh — just the change in vocabulary can break the cycle. How about starting early and finishing early for a few days, to try to change the routine? Order in some different food and some booze to catch them off‑guard — if you get them in a good mood then you might find that some magic starts to happen.

If you think that being assertive might just have them phoning round for a new producer, then it's worth trying to establish some rapport first. One important technique which can help improve how well you get on with people in the studio is often called 'pacing'. By this I mean matching certain aspects of your behaviour with those of your collaborator: for instance, if you are working with someone who speaks loudly and rapidly, where you generally speak quietly and more slowly, then try matching their speech patterns. By this, I don't mean taking things to extremes where they think you're parodying them, but just splitting the difference. The same can apply to posture and movement — if someone is laid‑back and relaxed, then it makes little sense to seem too alert alert and poised, for example. You'll make far more progress with people if you subtly mirror how they sit or stand, and how they move. You can even try matching their breathing patterns — this is almost imperceptible to the casual observer, but if done well can make an incredible difference to the way other people in the studio relate to you.

Obviously, there are many more ways in which to establish rapport than I can go into here, but if you're interested in following up this subject then there are a number of worthwhile books on the subject. Try Words That Change Minds by Shelle Rose Charvet (Kendall & Hunt, ISBN 0787234796), The Magic Of Rapport by Jerry Richardson (Meta Publications, ISBN 0916990206), and Influencing With Integrity by GZ Laborde (Crown House Publishing, ISBN 1899836012).

Q. I can't seem to find any good ideas anymore: I always seem to end up playing the same sort of grooves. Is there any way I can get out of this rut?

There is a world of musical inspiration out there, even though it sometimes seems difficult to find any. You have to remember though, that the music you produce will inevitably be affected by the music you take in, so if the latter has remained the same for a while, the former may also be stagnating. Therefore, one of the best ways to inject a little life into your music is simply to change what you take in.

Set two weeks of your spare time aside for doing nothing but absorbing new music. The only limit to your listening should be that you're not allowed to listen to what you normally do — your usual CDs, radio station and sample discs are banned for these two weeks, as is playing your usual instrument. Get yourself down to your local library, and take out a pile of music that you wouldn't normally give a second look. Go to your record shop and have a look through some sections that you have never ventured into before. If something looks interesting then why not treat yourself to it? Go to some gigs that you wouldn't normally be seen dead at, and tell yourself you're broadening your education. By the end of two weeks you will have heard and experienced enough to get yourself out of your rut, and your abstention from making music ought to have you itching to get going again!