“I should have spent less time worrying and more time building.
If you’re not sure what to do, make something.”
From the get-go of working on a new track the most pressing question a producer needs to answer through action is, How might I develop this? Your answer depends on what you’ve begun with, and to some extent, where you want to go. Did you begin with a beat, a series of chords, or a single sample? Are you aiming to make something rhythmic or ambient? Also, how you develop what you’ve begun with steers where you’ll be able to go. Is the beat something you want to repeat or morph into something else? Are the chords fine as they are, or should they be modified over time? Is the sample the star of the show, or will it become grist for a yet-to-be-created sound? (For example, a voice could become a pad.) There are no hard and fast rules for how you might answer such questions, because you don’t know what will capture your attention until you’re in the thick of it, building things and trying out options. Building and trying options produces information that helps steer you to the next step. In the meantime, here are a few strategies that always generate information of one kind or another.
Work with what’s already there. If you have a few chords, a beat, a sample, or even just a sound you like, work with that. It can be helpful to limit yourself, for the moment, to just exploring the potentials of what’s already in hand. This means you’ll be facing a less than ideal sonic something in need of help. If the beat isn’t the best, try doing things to it to make it better. If it lacks syncopation, run it through a delay, and then run that delay through another one. If the chords are uninspired, move a few of their notes around until you hear something interesting. If the sample is too obvious, make it more more subtle. (Hint: if the delays helped your beat, maybe they could also work well on the sample? Even when it comes to effects, work with what’s already in hand.)
Loop the good bits. It could be that your being unimpressed by your material’s entirety is blinding you to its good bits. One way around this is to loop a fragment of a beat, chord progression, or sample to isolate one of its evanescent, magical moments. Sometimes the good bits on loop make a compelling larger form. You don’t know until you try it out.
Amplify textures. A lot of sounds hide their magic and your job is to reveal it. The best way to do this is to greatly amplify what appear to be little details of sounds, such as the parts where the sound is fading out, or the tail of a reverb on a sound. You amplify by either boosting the volume gain, severely EQing, or by compressing the sound so that its quieter elements jump to the foreground. Sometimes I compress a sound once, and then a second time after a reverb effect to better reveal the effect’s texture.
Double a part. In a DAW MIDI and audio parts can be copied in one second, and then these copies can be your next step for developing the music. A MIDI track can drive a completely unrelated instrument: for example, a keyboard can become strings, or a melody can become a bass line. An audio track can be processed into new forms: a voice sample can become a reverb’ed pad, then re-pitched much higher up to become a treble celestial seasoning to fill out the mix. Whenever you’ve created a part, double it and then process its double into something else.
Imagine how another producer might develop this. I’m a fan of incorporating brief cognitive time outs into my workflow, where I wonder how another (more skilled and experienced and nuanced) musician might work with what I have. Doing this reminds me that I’m not adventurous enough, and that I already have too much material. The problem is me, not the music, and I’m sure another producer would look at the track in progress and say, you have everything you need right here.