Music is an art-form, so there is really no right or wrong way to go about creating sound since it’s subjective by nature. Something that I find really interesting is talking to other artists about their creative processes and seeing what does (or indeed doesn’t) work for them. I have been asked a few times about how I approach making music, and so I’ve decided to share some of the key steps that I take when creating new tracks.
I am not software loyal…
First of all, I am not loyal to one particular software. This is quite unusual since everybody I know writes, mixes and masters their music in one DAW such as Ableton Live or Logic. But not me. I use different software for different parts of the creative process.
To start out, and the quickest way for me to get an idea in my head into fruition, I record into FL Studio. Now I’m not claiming that FL Studio is the best software out there, because it really isn’t, but when I’m walking around and have a bass hook in my head or a guitar melody that I don’t want to lose, FL Studio is very quick and easy to set up and I often find myself with a scripted beat, melody and more within minutes of opening the software. However, as soon as I want to start mixing and mastering my music, FL Studio is useless and I move over to Presonus Studio One. It’s far superior for mix quality.
The first thing I do when writing a track…
That’s the boring part out of the way. As much as I rely on my software, it is by no means the most enjoyable part of creating music. So how do I start writing a track?
I almost always begin writing from a carefully selected sound that I think will pop in a track. I know this may sound a bit vague, but I can tell from the first sound that I record into a track whether or not it will be a good one. So here are some of the vital sounds that inspired the creation of my favourite compositions.
After All: the grainy organ sound that runs throughout alongside the looped and reversed vocal sample
Late Night Thrills: the swooning, phaser-filled pad that pulses in the background and the rhythmic melodic sequence of my Moog synthesiser
22 Years: the rich and emotive orchestral intro. After writing those 8 bars I knew the rest of the track had to be something worthy of completion.
So for me, it really is as simple as finding a sound that excites me, that feels like it could be a part of something bigger, and then the rest of the ideas start to flow.
Software or Hardware?
The next big question I get asked about my creative process is this: do I use software or hardware? The answer – both, but mainly hardware. The difference between software and hardware is simple, software is computer based sound creation whilst hardware involves physically playing instruments like synthesisers and guitars. I absolutely rely on hardware to create music. I need that hands on experience that enables me to truly craft my sound, whether that’s through turning the dials on a synth or adjusting the treble on a guitar, I need hardware. Every piece of hardware in my studio runs through a 16-channel mixing desk. As long as a piece of equipment is plugged in, it is instantly usable. That is how I speed up my workflow in the studio. If I want to mess around on a synth I can just do it without the need to set it up.
Take my track If I See You Again, for example. I created this track as a continuous loop on a hardware synth, subtly adding more and more to the initial intro, bringing in loops on other synthesisers, a subtle guitar riff and a beat. After about ten minutes in the studio messing around with every synth, I had a complete track. All that was left to do was the mixing and mastering stage. Of all the tracks I’ve created, If I see You Again felt the most intuitive because I just started messing around in my studio and really enjoying the creative process. I’m definitely going to try make a track with that progression again.
(Artwork by Tilly Currer: Instagram @artforyoureyeballs)
The key ingredient…
There is one quintessential element of music that I aim to apply to every single track I make, and that’s the idea of “tense and release.” Essentially, I want there to be moments in the track where a lot is going on, sounds are building, the drums are getting busier, pads sound wider, and then I want points of momentary bliss where everything subtly fades away and all that remains is an ethereal soundscape of some kind. This is especially important for instrumental music, since vocalists are usually an obvious method of marking the most important parts within a track. As I’m creating my music I will often reach a point where I either need to add some more energy or take some away. For me, I tend to work on the basis of adding energy. As an ambient musician, I like to build my tracks from euphoric and cinematic sounds, I rarely begin with a high energy point in the track. It’s way more enjoyable to work towards that.
Working with other musicians…
After the release of Where My Body Rests, I decided to start working with vocalists again. My friend Tilly and I have been writing songs together for years but took a break while we were both at university. Recently, we’ve started writing and recording again. We manage to find a good balance with our workflow as we’re both lyricists but only one of us is a talented singer. When I write lyrics for her, she sometimes finds that they don’t fit the melody well since I’m approaching the vocals from the mindset of a lyricist - not a singer. Our workflow tends to involve combining our lyrics and giving Tilly free reign on how she takes on the melody. Every now and then I’ll have a clear melodic idea that I translate to her, but for the most part it works much better when she creates the vocal melodies herself. I’m excited to start releasing music with her vocals again.
The lyrical approach…
I’m not a singer, but I am starting to consider myself a spoken word artist. The one part of writing electronic music that I don’t like is the fact I can’t write and apply lyrics as easily. Before I became an electronic music producer, I performed in bands. I wanted nothing more than to be an indie-rocker with angsty lyrics that bite. Recently, I’ve started to adapt my style slightly to be more welcoming of vocals and lyrics. I took inspiration from electronic bands like Gorillaz, The XX and Portishead who create ambient sound without needing to sacrifice the role of a vocalist. When I write my lyrics I always build around an idea, preferably a provocative or iconoclastic one. I can be quite dark and cynical in my writing, sometimes they even feel sarcastic or sardonic, but that seems to work for me. Lyrics always feel deeply personal until they’re recorded onto a track, and so once I start writing I need to hear them sung or spoken as soon as possible otherwise I’ll think they’re useless and give up on writing them. This is when I’m thankful for Tilly, she really brings my lyrics to life.
The mixing and mastering stage…
There is so much you can do creatively during the mixing process. I’ve had synth patches or guitar riffs before that sound entirely different before and after the process of mixing them. You really can go wild with the effects if you want to!
I always start with mixing the drums. I won’t touch any other element of the track until the drums sound perfect to me. This can be quite monotonous at times, but it also means that I get the most tedious and (to me) most satisfying part of the process done early. After the drums, I mix all the other elements of the track in order of importance. If I have a distant “filler sound” like a cello for added warmth and thickness, I’ll mix that right at the end. Whereas if I have an important guitar riff or a synth patch that carries the track, I’ll take my time mixing that earlier on when my judgement of the music is much sharper than it will be by the time I’ve spent several hours in the mix.
Releasing the music…
Sometimes after releasing new music, I’ve spent so many hours listening to it critically that I almost want nothing to do with it. But that never lasts long, maybe a week at most. Before releasing my music, I listen to it on every speaker I own, on headphones, in the car, through laptop and phone speakers, and in different rooms of the house. This is why I’m sick of it by the time it arrives on streaming platforms.
That said, I’m proud of all the music I release and learn to love it eventually. Every day that I release music I have a tradition of drinking a Belgian beer. That usually settles the release day nerves.