Music Production – Any ideas on ideas?
This is a question that comes up fairly often – where do you get your ideas from?
And the simple answer is, I don’t know.
There. The end.
But it is a difficult question to answer, because often I find that ideas really come out of nowhere. Perhaps a more interesting question is how do you take a idea and make it into a finished track or project? Unfortunately, I have only done that deliberately a few times in my entire career. So thats not something I ca write about either.
Okay. I have to start somewhere, so lets see where this leads…
For me, ideas come from all sorts of places. With any track or set, I usually like to start with a theme. What normally happens is that I will hear a sample and then I will wonder what could be done with it. Sometimes it is a vocal sample – I have one at the moment that I have been trying to use for a number of years. It is from the TV show Kyle XY and it is a girl sarcastically saying “Awwww, sweet clueless little muffin”. Why do I like the sample, and why do I want to use it? That I cant answer. All I can say for sure is that a) it sounds good to me, it has personality and the way it is spoken is both amusing and easy to remember and b) It hasnt worked in any of the tunes I have tried to put it into.
This sample is one of any number that I have in the back of my mind at all times, waiting to find a tune to be in.
Other times, the sample and its potential is more specific. I will hear a breakbeat, usually in a rock or folk track, and it will appeal to me for some undefined reason. So I will take it, slice it up, and then use it on whatever I happen to be working on. I usually don’t save specific samples for specific tunes – I try to use whatever I have just found in whatever I am currently working on (unless it is an obvious Luna-C / intro / outro sample). I do it this way because I am always listening for samples, whether watching TV or reading a book. Yes, I sample books. If I read a good passage, I will find the audiobook version, then try to get the sample from there. I usually have to use these samples immediately, because unless it is particularly amazing, I will forget I even took it within a week. The result of my relentless sample taking is an elaborate filing system and a terrabyte of samples on a hard drive. Some of them are downloadable sample packs, but a large portion of them are taken from my own sources. I don’t do this because I really enjoy taking samples – its actually a bit of a hassle. But if I am offered samples from a friend, or I find a sample pack online, I am never that enthusiastic about it. Firstly, because I don’t “know” the samples. Making the effort to sample a beat embeds that beat into my mind. I have to cut it out of the original source material, edit it, name it and put it somewhere. Downloading a sample pack means that I have an extra 300 faceless samples that I don’t know, haven’t listened to, and wont think of when making a new track.
The other problem is that if I downloaded it, so did everyone else. Probably a year before I found it, too lol.
Here’s the thing. if you want original ideas in your track, then you have to have original samples / source material. There are three elements that effect your ideas in any track:
1. The samples
2. The equipment used
3. The artists ability.
Someone like Darren Styles, who is very musically accomplished, can have the same samples as everyone else, the same equipment, and still make an original track. He is a musician first and foremost.
People like Dj Ham or Hattrixx have musical ability, but they also have technical ability. Either of them could come into my studio and make a track that would sound nothing like the stuff I produce using the exact same equipment. This is because they enjoy working the equipment to the point where it is a talent in itself.
Then there are people like me. I am, at heart, a cut and paste sample guy. This is where I excel. Sure, I can play some music, but not as well as Darren Styles, and I can work my studio, but both Hattrixx and Ham leave me in the dust. But I think its fair to say that I can out-sample most people.
None of this is to say anyone mentioned is any better than anyone else. These are just the skills we have, and they have good and bad points. And good artist will try to be as versatile as possible and master every aspect of their art – so it is that I spend time learning the equipment even though I hate doing that, and I try to play music even though it is a struggle for me.
However, without original ideas, Darren Styles, Hattrixx, Ham and myself would be unknown to you. It is the ability to have an idea and make it a reality which has put us where we are (wherever that is lol).
I mention all this so that you can understand why most of my ideas come from samples. Where I might think “What could I do with that beat I sampled?” Hattrixx might think “What if I processed that beat using this technique?” and Darren Styles might think “Would that beat work with this song I am writing?”. I am guessing of course – I could be (am probably) totally wrong about how any other artist thinks. But the point is, I start all my tracks from a sample point of view, even the ones that don’t have many samples. Thats how I am built.
So I cant tell you where I get ideas, except to say that the launch pad is usually a sample of some kind. Sometimes it is from a passage in a book that gives me a specific emotion that I want to capture. Does that make sense? No. But its still true. More often it will be a sample or a sound effect or a video on youtube or anything audio that makes me excited. I based a track around the sound the garage door made at my in-laws place in New Jersey. It wasn’t a very good track, but still…More often than that, it will be a theme, or a combination of theme and sample. For example, Supaset 4 was the theme of a live radio show, combined with the idea of sampling all the wrong music and changing it into hardcore. Piano Progression was the idea of extending the piano riff a ridiculous amount, and not using a sample.
On the other hand, my track “My Angel” was the idea of using an electro beat (sampled from Radiohead’s Idioteque, incidentally) and combining it with the theme of loss – because my father had died and I was grieving when I wrote it. The main vocal sample was actually an afterthought, and I used it because it fit, but it wasn’t part of the initial idea for the track.
This is something that happens fairly frequently for me. I will often have a great idea for something, but by the time I have finished the track, that great idea is just a side element while the main hook of the track was just something I threw in there without any thought. It has occurred to me that my best ideas are the ones I don’t think about – but as I cant think about them, there is no way I can do them on purpose. So thats no help.
Sometimes, I will try to force it, making sure that the original idea is what comes out as a central theme at the end, but that rarely results in a good track in my experience.
For the most part, I tend to have an idea and then just see where it leads me. Sometimes it is to a brick wall – no, you cant make a swing styled hardcore track, it will sound shit. And no, trying to make a track where all the breaks are reversed will not sound good. Other times, messing about with something stupid redefines your whole work ethic. Wouldn’t it be funny if I added Johnny Be Good to Johnny Jungle – YES! And that leads too….every Supaset since lol.
One thing I cant do is start a track from scratch with no ideas. I cant just boot up the studio and start work. I have to be doing a remix, or playing with a vocal or a beat. I have to have a theme, or something to trigger the creative process. It is one of the reasons I don’t really make Freeform. There is nothing for me to start with, nothing for me to hold on to. I like some of the freeform out there, and I have made some with Genki, but I find it extremely difficult and also kind of unrewarding because it often feels so faceless to me. Incidentally, I was asked to remix the classic “New Zealand Story” many years ago, and I did a really lousy job simply because I had nothing to work with. This is not a fault of the music in either case, but a result of how my mind works. An idea is fine, but I need something solid to work with as well.
I have been making music for a long time and I know that for me, inspiration comes and goes in waves. I cannot say why, or what it is that causes me to make music. And I don’t now where ideas come from. I do know that it is important to run with the ideas when I have them, and to understand that when I don’t have them, I have to stay away from the studio. I cannot force it. I used to be able to, back in the 90′s, but not now. Whenever I do, it results in a frustrating day followed by no results.
I think this is because I have done so much music over the years that it is much harder for me to be inspired in the first place, and nearly impossible to make something that I feel has broken new ground. I understand myself so much better than I did even five years ago, and I know that just having an idea or inspiration is not enough for me. I need the challenge – I always have. It’s why I ended up doing the hardest form of Kung Fu I could find, rather than being content with reaching black belt level in Karate. Its why I still make hardcore, when there are plenty of easier and more profitable musics to make. And its why when I do something within the hardcore scene, it is usually something that no one else is doing. Not because I am super awesome or have better ideas, but because I am actively seeking those things that I haven’t done before, or even better, things that no one has done before. This thread runs through my entire career – from making plastic sleeves, to releasing a hardcore CD long before most other labels (Vinyl Is Better) to giving away the entire back catalogue, to, well, all of it. If it is not interesting, if it is not inspiring, then I usually cant be bothered to do it. Incidentally, that is also why I get bored of most social media stuff really quickly.
This is obviously a bad thing when if comes to financial stuff. Even now I am doing the 20/20 project – do you have any idea how much 20 remixes can cost? And then posters and stickers and an actual manufactured CD? Do you think I will make a fortune from it? Trust me, I will be lucky to break even. But here is the thing…no one else has done it. No one else has a 20 year old label, and is idiotic enough to try and do such a project. I know all this – but the idea was irresistible to me. And so here I am, working my ass off to pull off an idea that for all intents and purposes is ridiculous. And yet, it pleases me, and makes me happy, and so from my perspective it is a great idea lol.
In the end, isn’t this is what ideas are for? Not for money, not for fame, not even to benefit anyone else. They are great big “what ifs?” that I feel compelled to answer, and that thrill me when they work.
So I think understanding yourself, and your motivations, has a direct effect on how you deal with your ideas – and your lack of them. I seems plain to me that my output has lessened, and equally plain that I cant really do much about that. But that’s okay. When I do something now, it comes from a pure place, and is better for it.
And as always, these are MY ideas, and how I work. If you work in an absolutely opposite way, thats excellent. There is no right way, and the only wrong way is if it leaves you feeling bad.
Okay, I think thats all I have to say about that. As usual, I have meandered about a bit, but I hope you enjoyed reading it anyway!
Chris / Luna-C