Wednesday, January 5, 2011

10 Tips to Fight Writer’s Block & Increase Studio Productivity

Sometimes it’s writer’s block. And sometimes it’s simply procrastination. But some days in the studio don’t seem to flow like others. Often we feel inspired to start (or continue) a project but feel that something’s not working. Maybe the sounds don’t come like they did last time. Maybe you just can’t get in the groove. To help we’ve got some tips that can get you back on track the next time you’re feeling the lack of mojo in the studio.

10. Clean your workspace. A clean physical space creates a clear slate in your mind for creation. I find that when I clean the house, sweep the floors, dust off my equipment and delete a lot of junk from my computer desktop I feel much more enticed to work. I also gain a lot of ideas through the process and my mind feels clear as a result. You can apply the Chinese art of Feng Shui to your studio layout, which is said to bring harmony, balance and a better flow of energy. On a smaller scale, I take a moment once a week to clean down all my gear, using a horse-hair paintbrush to get dust out of the smaller spots.

9. Disconnect yourself from the internet. Close Explorer, Firefox, Safari, iChat and any other apps on your studio computer that are online. Facebook and instant messages confuse your workflow and will get you off-track. Make your studio time streamlined and productive and you are less likely to lose your inspiration in the process.

8. Listen to something very different. This tip comes from Oliver Chesler who runs the very insightful Wire to the Ear blog. Oliver adds,“Four hours into any mixing section and your brain starts to believe it’s being exposed to a torture test of some sort. Stop and click iTunes open and then play the cheesiest, happiest song you can find. Besides realizing how much better any song you choose is better than the one your working on your brain will reward you with some new ideas.”

7. Take a break. Your ears are doing a lot of work when you sit between the monitors and scrutinize each sound. Eventually your perception of the sounds changes and it’s important to take breaks to let your ears rest. 5-10 minutes after 45 minutes of working (at lower volumes) should be adequate to let your ears bounce back.

6. Write your ideas in a notebook (with a pen.) I was working at an Ad Agency a few years back when my boss gave me a really good tip. She suggested that when I come to work in the morning I should grab my coffee and a notebook and “sit on the couch and write for an hour.” It turned out to be a habit I kept long after that job. Most of us turn to the computer for our first move with just about everything these days. But the computer offers too many choices and too many chances for mis-direction. I found that writing my ideas on paper helped me to refine ideas and workflow before I got started. With a clear direction of where you want to go before you begin, the process becomes much quicker and enjoyable. If you keep these ideas in a notebook they can become a reference for more ideas when you read over them again. I continue to find new inspiration in things that I wrote and forgot about.

5. Try your hand at a new genre. Most of us get stuck in one or two modes of beat creation when we start, leaning on a certain tempo and kick pattern to begin the session. To inspire creativity when you’re in a rut – change it up. If you usually make house, make hip hop or dubstep. If you usually make drum and bass, make techno. By attempting a new beat pattern you will conjure new ideas while learning how to produce outside your own box.

4. Apply time-compression. This idea comes from Dubspot’s Matt Shadetek who wrote a great piece on his blog entitled: “Creativity: How To Turn Lack Of Time & Resources Into An Asset.” The basic idea is that when we are very busy (working a full-time job, going to school, etc) we are the most productive. This is because we are constantly at a fast pace, trying to get the most out of all the time we have. When we are not working or not so busy we are less productive because we are moving at a slower pace. To get the most out of our time it’s best to apply deadlines to things that we do in order to be more efficient. Matt explains further:

The basic idea is how when we are forced to do something in a tight frame we suddenly become very focused and fast and get it done. The example is when you were in high school and had six months to write a report and then wrote it in five hours the night before it was due, and still wrote it really well. I think more people do this than not. By working constantly under time pressure and deadlines you can actually majorly improve your productivity. I find I work REALLY well this way and get a ton done. I don’t fuck around and check my email or twitter in the middle of working, or stare into space or allow myself to get distracted. Instead I WORK LIKE CRAZY and get things done. As I mentioned in my Zen Calligraphy post I like to sometimes use the site and set tight artificial time limits during my work day to push myself into this race against the clock mind state. It’s awesome.

3. Apply Oblique Strategies. In 1975 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created the Oblique Strategies card set. Subtitled “Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas,” the cards offer new perspectives in our approach to creating art. The idea is that when you are stuck you can pick a card and then use the message to move forward in your work. For an example of how it works you can check out an online version of the card set, download the iPhone application or pick up your own deck directly from Brian Eno.

2. Give yourself some limits (and make a manifesto). Some of the best artwork created is made using minimal materials. Dabrye and Prefuse 73 have created albums made entirely on an MPC, for instance. One of my favorite house 12’s was made with (just) a Roland MC-505. You don’t need a lot of gear to make music. Furthermore a lot of us are overwhelmed by the choice of VSTs, presets or even DAWs to choose from. By setting some limits on what you are using you can save time and get down to the business at hand. One way to do this is to create template files that have your presets and plug-ins loaded and ready to go. Another way to approach this refinement is to make a manifesto. This idea comes from Matthew Herbert who has a personal contract for the composition of music which includes rules such as:

The use of sounds that exist already is not allowed, In particular: No drum machines. All keyboard sounds must be edited in some way: no factory presets or pre-programmed patches are allowed. Only sounds that are generated at the start of the compositional process or taken from the artist’s own previously unused archive are available for sampling. The sampling of other people’s music is strictly forbidden. – Matthew Herbert

1. Stop Complaining. My favorite tip is directed at procrastination. It comes from the insightful and musically prolific Mike Monday, who writes some great pieces on music production, motivation and productivity on his site. He also makes some killer dance music. The advices continues as follows:

You’ve wasted too much time complaining. The game has changed and you can either sit on the sidelines or start playing. This is as big a revolution in the way we consume and distribute music as there’s ever been in history. As big as sheet music. As big as recorded music. As big as radio. If not bigger than the lot. And you’ve spent way too long whining about it instead of getting your head around it. You’re missing a golden opportunity. Or more accurately – lots of them. Because the writing’s on the wall for selling recorded music it doesn’t mean the same is true for music as a whole. Our new currency isn’t vinyl, cds or even mp3s. It’s attention. So how are you going to get mine? – Mike Monday

Do you have your own methods for getting into the groove with production? We’d love to hear your tips and ideas too!

Michael Walsh is an audio/visual artist and journalist living in Los Angeles.