September 5, 2010

Write Horizonally, Not Vertically

I’m not even going to say that it’s been over a month since I’ve posted anything here – that’s self-evident and… oh.

One of my major problems with writing is developing Ideas into full pieces. I can do Ideas – every musician does Ideas all the time, when noodling or practising, or just strumming the guitar – it’s all Ideas. The first thing to learn is to recognise when any one of those Ideas are any good, good enough to spend some time on developing. You don’t want to waste time working on an Idea ‘with no legs’. And conversely, you don’t want to let good Ideas go to waste.

I used to record everything – with modern DAWs, recording space is cheap and it was easy to just hit record and then play, practise, noodle, fiddle, whatever… If an Idea came along, I had it already captured and could go back to it and start playing around with it.

But, of course, the ratio of useless crap to good Ideas was an immense stumbling block, similar in a way to the preset overload I discussed in Technological Roadblocks, or The Kore Of The Problem? – too much choice stagnates creativity.

But there was a more insidious problem too – when the Idea was already captured in the DAW, I found it far too easy start trying to arrange and produce it, on its own and in isolation, before thinking about it in context of a full piece.

The rise of modern DAWs, cheap plug-ins and amazing tools means we’re no longer just composers and song-writers – we’re producers, arrangers, sound-designers and our own session musicians too. Now, rather than concentrating on writing a good piece of music, we get bogged down very early in the creative process with texture, sounds, effects and instrumentation… And before long, we’re writing vertically when we should be writing horizontally.

Recently, I’ve been trying to remove the DAW from the initial writing process – which is difficult as most of my instruments are inside the DAW of course – and have been forcing myself to think of developing the structure of an entire piece of music around an Idea before turning to the computer to start recording and developing it. Only when I have the full piece mapped out, and the other Ideas that support the initial Idea in place, do I go to the DAW and start recording.

Initially now I’ll put down a full guide track for the whole piece – normally acoustic guitar, but sometimes piano if the Idea is better represented that way. Only then will I start to develop vertically. At that point, it’s much easier to record whole passes of an instrument, to play segues properly, with the right dynamics and intonation to give the piece of music the correct flow. It’s all too easy if you work vertically to create beautifully arranged sections of a piece of music which just don’t fit together properly – or at all!

Hopefully this methodology is going to allow me to actually finish some pieces, and while it feels empirically to be a slower way of going about things, it’s actually only a slower way of producing something… It’s a much quicker (and better) way of producing music!

September 5, 2010

2 Comments on “Write Horizonally, Not Vertically

Michael Hillier
September 5, 2010 at 18:39

Nice piece. I’ve had similar issues myself, with hundreds of little ideas, loops, riffs etc kicking around on my hard disk where I’ll probably never look at them again.

Paul C Duncan
September 5, 2010 at 21:28

I too share this problem. I find that turning an idea on and off like a tap is very difficult. It’s only recently that I have had a block – a loss in direction – no idea how to make my rekindled love with music become a paying job once more. This Blog – helps me to feel less isolated as does my friendship w/ many composers and musicians on twitter/soundcloud . I think my self-help is to store everything all clearly labeled eg fast/slow strings/piano… tags if you like. But each day – like being a rubbish 14 year old ‘cellist AGAIN – is to do something everyday – even just scales,studies,arpeggios. Practice makes perfect?
Nice one John. #HOOTS!


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