We’ve all been there before: you finish writing a track only to have it sit in your folder for weeks, only ever opening it to tweak a snare or play with the mix. Often it can feel like every time you’re finally satisfied with a track, the next time you listen to it you find 20 more things to change. So how do we know when a track is really finished? Or is the old adage true: that “art is never finished, only abandoned?”
I think when it comes to producing electronic music, there is an obsession with the way things sound sonically, and so that’s what a lot of people think of when they ask themselves if their track is finished. Is the mix as balanced as it can be? Are things wide enough? Does that lead have enough bite? Is my kick getting the room it needs? These are all important questions, but how many times are you going to ask yourself them before you’re satisfied? The fact is that you can only tweak a mix or a sound so much before you begin to get diminishing returns.
The unique thing about independent producers is that (usually) they’re writing AND mixing their tracks themselves. This sometimes leads to the mixing process overtaking the writing process, because you may be mixing as you go and many of your choices in sounds and even structure might be informed by how you want to mix it. With other kinds of musicians, they may be involved in the mixing process, but when they write their song they are almost entirely focused on just writing the song.
Maybe this is why in the world of EDM I often hear music from both amateurs and professionals that has a great mix but is compositionally flat and uninspired.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that with certain genres the whole point is how well it bangs on a nice sound system or how energetic it is able to get a crowd. I’m in no way hating on that, but I know when I first started writing electronic music I got so caught up in trying to make everything sound as ‘big’ and loud as possible I didn’t even realize I didn’t like the music I was making in the first place. I was technically finishing those tracks (though I’d be hard pressed to show anyone them these days) but they were never tracks I enjoyed listening to very much afterwards. Making music that you actually like, that’s step 1.
How To Finish A Song In 3 Simple Steps?
Productivity vs. Perfectionism
Step 1 | Make Music You Actually Like
Sometimes when you’re asking yourself the question of ‘does this sound good enough’ you may be looking at it from purely a mixing perspective when you should be looking at it from a song writing perspective. I’ve spoken with new producers before who would lament about how their lead melody isn’t ‘popping’ like they want it to and start listing all these things that they’ve done to try and make it sound better. ‘I’ve tried compressing it, saturating it, playing with its reverb settings, everything!’ and then when I would ask them to send it to me it would turn out to be just a fundamentally weak melody – too many notes all over the place, a badly established motif if there is one at all, etc. Mixing along the way is perfectly fine but don’t get too bogged down in that process until you get your basic composition ironed out and actually like the song.
Does the structure make sense? Do things flow nicely? Is the melody or chord progression strong enough? Is it conveying the atmosphere or energy you want it to? Listen critically to your track and then answer those questions, and if you find yourself saying no to them then find ways to fix them. I don’t want to sound like I’m promoting a perfectionist mindset here, one might argue that this could be an endless process, but you should be able to know for the most part if you like a melody or chord progression, or if the tone of the track is what you were going for, and so on. One thing that’s definitely important – to me anyway – is how well a song flows. I can’t count how many songs there are especially in the EDM scene that have a great intro, great build but a drop that may be fine but sounds like it’s from an entirely different song. To me those tracks always sound like the artist wrote the drop first and then went back to write an intro and forgot what the drop they were supposed to be writing towards sounded like in the process. You can make two different sounding sections work together, but you have to have enough transitional elements to make them work and usually just slapping a generic build with a riser, some repeating element, and snares that get faster and faster isn’t enough to do that. Though, again, that’s just personal preference, so take that (and the rest of this article) with a grain of salt.
Here’s a tip to help you figure out if your song flows well. Load up your project, preferably after taking a break from listening to it anywhere from an hour to a couple days, play/loop your track, and then minimize your DAW and do something mindless while you listen like browsing the internet or checking your email. Anything that will steal your attention enough so you’re not listening too closely, but not too much so that you forget about it entirely. If there are any things that don’t work they will instantly grab your attention back, whether it’s a melody that doesn’t work, a sudden change in the composition with not enough lead-in, or even just simply an element that’s too loud. This works for checking a mix too, but I tend to use it for composition more often. It’s a great way to start your sessions off because it eases you back into your track and tells you right away what the first thing you should work on is.
Another quick tip is to reference the full track as often as possible. Don’t go overboard, you don’t need to listen to the full song every time you want to test if your snare is loud enough, but when it comes to sorting out structure and composition you should be listening to a new section you just wrote in context of the full song. Unless you’re writing some abstract drone music, your song is sequential, so even if you’re loving one short section you wrote, if it doesn’t fit the rest of the track I would consider bouncing it out and putting it away for another track on another day. Don’t be afraid to get a little bit destructive. Sometimes what keeps us from finishing a track is becoming too attached to a section or some aspect of a track that just simply doesn’t fit. Learning to let go and stow that idea away for another song so that you can focus on what does fit is crucial to finishing tracks. That idea isn’t going anywhere, and you can always revisit it.
Step 2 | Create a To-Do List
Okay so maybe you’re perfectly happy with your overall composition. That’s great! But if you’re like the rest of us, and certainly if you’re reading this article in the first place, you probably have a hard time getting past that final barrier of finalizing a mix and confidently telling yourself that the song is done. Now I’m not about to go into a full-on mixing tutorial here, there are plenty of those elsewhere online by people who know far more than I do, but I can tell you the one thing that has helped me get past that wishy-washy judgement phase of producing a track is simply just making a to-do list and sticking to it. I usually start this once I have the basic concept for the track done and I know the direction I want to take it.
Oftentimes when you’re ending a session but your head is still buzzing with all sorts of ideas, it can feel like a bit of a risk to close your DAW, but we have other obligations and – as mentioned above – it’s important to give your ears and your brain a break from producing every now and then. So grab a text file, or even a pen and paper depending on which you prefer (some DAWS even have native notepad plugins you can just leave on your master insert) and start writing them down before you end that session. Again, these ideas are something that can be separated into production-focused and mixing-focused, so what I have started to do recently is separate my notes into two portions. Personally I get a little more excited about the song writing process than the mixing so I may have more items at the that relate to ideas I want to try to incorporate in the song or how I want it to be structured than I do items that relate to mixing. That’s why I advise you to only really start writing down your notes after you have the song at least outlined fairly well, otherwise it can be easy to go a little wild with all sorts of vague ideas you’d like to turn some 8 bar loop into. The point of the to-do list is to inform you of what to focus on during your next session, so if it’s just a bunch of overblown ideas about what the composition could be versus building on what it already is, you risk not ever getting past that initial writing phase because you want to try them all out and thus never actually finish the song.
An average production to-do list for me may look something like:
- More vocal chops, preferably in different timbres/pitch ranges to play off the main ones
- Maybe granulize one long vocal note into 16ths to play underneath and add to the chaotic feel
- More percussive layers with variety of textures; more syncopation
- Layer the rhodes with something
- Fix envelope of Vox
- Bus drums
- Fix snare
The top portion is dedicated to mostly writing and sound design items, this is where I write down different ideas I may want to play with and ways to flesh out what I already have there that I like. The bottom portion is for mixing/mastering and organization items. This is a list for a track I just started earlier this week, so it’s not very long and quite vague, but as you work on it more and more it will grow and change. As you get closer to finish the track, the first portion of the list will shrink and the mixing portion underneath will grow and you’ll have a longer list of more specific things to check off.
It’s at this point where you should really focus on just knocking out those items. You may write down a few new mixing/mastering notes along the way, but generally speaking you should focus on keeping focused on completing what you already have written down. This is also a good time to send the track to friends or collaborators for their notes as well so you can compile them with your own if they give some good feedback.
Now, I’m about to tell you something that may sound a bit radical but you have to trust me, are you ready?
When the list is done, the song is done.
Let me say it again: When the list is done, the song is done. When you hit that point where you’ve finished checking off all of the items, take a little break, listen to the track a few more times over the course of a few days if necessary, and then finish it. Yes, there is a possibility you may come up with some last minute ideas to change things. Do them if you feel they’re absolutely necessary, but otherwise I really want to stress how important telling yourself that the song is done is.
Step 3 | Finishing The Track
After you finalize everything, send it off to whoever or wherever, tweet out that you’ve got some new fire on the way, do whatever you’ve got to do, just make sure you then walk away from it and move onto the next one.
My answer to that question about if art is just abandoned and never finished is yes, it is only ever abandoned. Though I think ‘abandoned’ it a bit too grandiose of a word for me. You may be abandoning it in the sense that you’re no longer working on it, but everything needs to come to an end. That track is and will always be a part of you, art is a bit of a time capsule by nature. You can look at older songs as memories of how you were feeling or what you were dealing with when you wrote them. I think understanding this helps move past writing a song that you’re really attached to, because maybe sometimes one of the mental barriers that stops us from finishing is that we’ve been writing it for so long that working on it becomes a sort of part of your sense of self and we can’t picture what life will be like when we’re no longer working on it.
The point is finishing songs is very difficult for many reasons and each of us are affected by different ones to various degrees so if you want to conquer that problem you have to just continue working at it and find out which ones are holding you back the most.
I’d like to end by quoting Opiuo on the subject. When asked in a recent Q/A how he decides when a track’s finished, he responded:
“I never know when it’s finished.. I just close my eyes and listen and hope that I don’t think of new things to add. I see shapes and I know it’s done.”
The fact that an artist as huge and successful as Opiuo still struggles with knowing when a song is finished should tell you just how ubiquitous this problem is. I think the keyword in his response is hope. He hopes that he doesn’t think of new things to add. It really illustrates how the artistic process can go on infinitely if we let it, and how that paranoia of whether or not a track is the best version of itself can really eat away at you even long after it’s written, mixed, and mastered. It’s a constant battle and while there are many ways to help fight against it sometimes it does just come down to just pulling yourself away. So know that you’re not alone, learn to separate the good changes from the unnecessary, and focus on moving forward.
Music production hobbyist and lover of all art mediums. Drifts between ambient, glitch, and atmospheric bass music