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How To Get Out Of a Creative Rut

Man sleeping on a piano

Hey everybody, it's Iftah's time again and in this piece we are going to talk about inspiration; or actually, the lack of it - which is the devil that is waiting behind our door (how much longer?). We all know periods where we are dry and dull, we go to our studios, we turn on our machines and no matter how we try, it’s just not working. Throughout the years I have developed some technical and non-technical methods that help me deal with it, and I'd like to share them with you:

Break your routines and the rest will follow

The first thing to try is to break your routines. If you tend to go to the studio during the day, shift it and do night time sessions - even if you have to force yourself to do so, it might be worth checking.

Giving up plans and making music for the sake of fun is also very helpful. You have probably noticed that after doing this for a couple of years, you might tend to make music with the idea that it should end up as a product. As much as this might be necessary sometimes, it can also be an inspiration killer and it is very much helpful to start the other way around; if you just start to mess around and make music you might not usually do just for the sake of fun, things might start to happen. For example, if you usually do rather techno/house oriented music, just start to do something completely different that might turn you on. Let's assume its West coast instrumental hiphop. Start with a loop and do things instinctively. After a while, if you like it, just extract the elements that you like, adjust the tempo and go back to your known regions (or don't, you might turnout to be  a great West coast instrumental hiphop producer).

Going against your instincts is also a great practice. Based on the American composer Pauline Oliveros's collection of “Sonic meditations”, start with any sound - more or less randomly selected. Let it play until you feel that you got used to it and that you wish to keep it, and exactly then, change it to something else. If you repeat this for a while, you might sense a sort of priority-reordering in your musical approach - something that could eventually lead for a new sense of musical freedom.

About three years ago, I spilled a bottle of beer on my computer (shame on me). I was able to take it apart, clean it and let it dry, but as a result I had no computer for a week. In that week I set up all of my hardware and started jamming around with no purpose and recorded it to an 8-track cassette recorder. Because my mind was free from any obligation for concrete results, I came up with wild and interesting things, which we later on developed to the "Love songs for the broken hearted arpeggiator " EP. This was actually only possible because of this freedom - convincing myself that "Hey, I'm not going to make anything serious anyway, so what the hell, let's make some noise!".

The repurposing playground

Technically, when I'm uninspired, I love to mess around with software or hardware and use it in unorthodox ways, i.e. ways you shouldn't use it and see what happens. The result can be fun and inspiring - and most of all, very special sounding. Here are some examples that might inspire you; they are all related to Ableton live. Some of the terms below might be a bit advanced for some of you if you are new to this. The internet however, is full of information so all you need to do is to Google. You can also check out the YouTube links with detailed tutorials that I have created for the following examples.
  1. Granular Simpler - first example is using “simpler” - Ableton's built-in sampler as a modular granular synth. Once you have loaded a sample, turn on “loop mode”, turn off “snap” and shorten the region of the playing sample. Make sure it is set to “mono” and play some sustained notes. Play around with the “loop”, “length” and “fade” controls. This is where the magic happens. Once you get a good feel to it, assign an LFO to control the start parameter. The sonic result is much dirtier than a dedicated granular sampler/synth but this is also what makes it unique and interesting!
  2. Filter Ringer - second example is using Live's new autofilter which has the ability to self resonate (i.e. produce a sine wave when resonance is set to 100%) in order to apply a technique called “filter ringing”. In this example, we set the autofilter resonance to the verge of self-oscillation (for example 96%) and feed it with a short impulse. The impulse can be a fraction of a rimshot sample loaded into a drum rack. Once you play the sample you will hear a sine wave with a very natural decay, which is super cool for percussions or percussive lines. The tuning of the sound can be changed via the frequency settings of the filter. If you add the stock “expression control” max for live device and map it to the frequency dial of the filter, you will be able to play it tonally from a midi keyboard.
  3. Feedback Synth - last example is to make a feedback loop within Live and play it tonally, in order to achieve a sort of “karplus strong” synthesis which is a method of physical modelling synthesis, super useful for strings or percussion. This requires rather detailed explanation, so I suggest you'll just check the video in the link above.
  4. As technical as these examples might be, the general idea is to find a technical base and to use it as an inspirational leverage through what I humbly named before as “messing with the rulebook”.

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