The ever-talented Kristian West takes the reigns at ModeAudio Magazine once again to deliver his creative and inspirational take on how you can use your old tracks to generate brand new compositional ideas. Take it away Kristian!
I have a folder on my hard drive that's packed full of rough track sketches, filed under 'unfinished', 'partly finished' or 'just can't seem to possibly finish'. Sound familiar? I know from speaking to my producer friends that this is a very common scenario - often totally disregarded and left to gather dust, these fledgling tracks bring us both pain and a bad conscience. Just imagine what could have been!
Today, I want to talk about one method of rectifying this dire state of affairs, well six, to be more accurate. Instead of viewing these incomplete tracks as either not good enough or part of some previous learning curve, why not use them as jumping-off points for new ideas? Of course, this will only work if you are willing to accept an alternative outcome for your unfinished tune, but you just might come out with something that you can actually finish.
Ignorance Is Bliss
So, first of all, forget about how you hoped that old track would sound – disregard those big plans you had for it when you first loaded up a blank DAW session. Simply open up your old session and open up your mind – I'm going to use a series of musical examples to show you what you might be able to achieve with such an approach and, crucially, it concerns transformation, not elaboration.
Now we're ready to begin, save your old project under a new name and keep this mantra firmly in mind at all times: 'nothing is useless, recycling is sacred!'
I'm going to be using Ableton Live in my demonstration but you can of course achieve similar results in pretty much any other DAW you care to try with.
Recycling Is Sacred: Idea 1 - Rewrite
This first step is the most radical and so, in my opinion, is the most fruitful - keep the channels in your old session intact but delete everything else. That means all midi notes and all audio - I told you it was radical!
Start writing a new track using the channel and instrument setup you'd already constructed for the previous tune - you will find the session instantly has a certain feel to it, suggesting certain paths for creation. It's a pretty brutal use of your previous session but small changes only make for small gains!
Recycling Is Sacred: Idea 2 - Replace
Try replacing a track with lots of busy MIDI action on it with a drum kit of preloaded sounds, seeing if the rhythm or samples triggered spark any new ideas. Or, if you have a track with loads of effects applied, such as a lead vocal, try swapping just the audio or instrument out with something else, keeping the effects chain intact.
It's amazing how just having something ready to go, with effects already adding some sheen or excitement, can help to get your creative juices flowing!
Recycling Is Sacred: Idea 3 – Wash Out
This strategy is particularly applicable to Ambient and Downtempo but it can work wonders for other styles too - try adding a huge reverb to your whole track, washing it out into a rich background drone. Naturally, this technique will retain the timbre and tone of your old track but it gives you something of a blank canvas from which to begin building again.
The resulting drone may be a little to noisy or intense to be useful, however – in this case, try using an EQ or filter to sculpt away portions of the sound. Once you've found something you like, bounce it out paste back into your session – you've just created a new block of audio to play around with!
Recycling Is Sacred: Idea 4 - Resample
Mine your old track for a section that really has something going for it. Export this 'sweet-spot' as a short, 8 or 16 bar audio loop, making a number of variations with different groups of instruments muted or playing. This provides you with a host of brief but related ideas to begin working from in your new session.
Sometimes, it's taking the best part of an old tune out of context that really helps you to see where you can take it, divorced from all those other distrating bits that you didn't really like in the first place!
Recycling Is Sacred: Idea 5 – Chop Up
Bounce your entire track out and import it back into your session as a single file. Scan the file for a great melodic or drum part of an easily divisible length (e.g. a single bar) and chop it into single crotchet notes, then load them up in sequence into a sampler. Try playing around with the notes in different arrangements – you'll probably find that having kicks, snares and other percussive parts tied to certain melodic notes brings out a certain flow from the chopped notes, which could lead you down a new and exciting compositional path.
We could call this idea the 'J Dilla' technique, as he was one of the absolute masters of this chop and scramble approach – give his tunes a listen and think of the loops as actually consisting of collections of much shorter sections of entire sampled songs. Genius!
Recycling Is Sacred: Idea 6 – Move The MIDI
Be brutally honest with yourself - if there's really nothing that special about either the melodic or harmonic layout of your track, you should consider exporting the MIDI as clips for further modification and use in other tunes. Spin the notes around the scale, reverse them, invert them and more – this type of trial and error work can be really fruitful in terms of generating track starters or extra spice when you're stuck in a production rut.
There you have it – 6 ideas for how to use your old track to generate new ones. Some are more powerful than others but you'll know which to try out, depending on how serious a jam you're in trying to finish that song you started a year ago. Good luck and as always, get creative!