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Composer’s Forum: Recycle Your Creative Output

Gerry Bassermann

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File away your musical ideas for future use.

Think about how you make music. It can be pretty nonstop: playing, listening, producing, and posting finished pieces online so others can hear them. Now you jam, now you gig, and now let your feelings about something you experienced become the lyrics to a new song. It’s deep, it’s personal, and it can be all encompassing.

You are creating this world in that you are making lots of choices about who and what you are as a musician and as a composer. You have also inherited native musical instincts and energies and process much of that unconsciously. And along the way, you listen to a continuum of musical ancestors and contemporaries who influence your choices. As a creator, you want to draw on all of this experience and energy, both conscious and not, to generate as much musical content as possible.

Evaluating Your Process

I used to think that the music I was currently imagining and working on was the only thing I could focus on. The piece was in my mind day and night. “Should I repeat this or extend that or cut that whole section?” I was constantly turning it over in my mind, playing, listening, imagining. Basically, I was consumed by one project at a time.

Then at some point, I became aware that other ideas were waiting in the wings, competing for my attention, and so was born the Queue. In there I had multiple projects in mind. There was the crucible project (I was already engaged on the current piece and working to finish), the darling project (I was aching to work on a melody or riff I’d fallen in love with), and the what if project (I was imagining music that, for example, began with a big bang and subsided into nothingness over some amount of time). Basically, the Queue organized my music composition on a timeline: Current, Soon, and Future. Now I was dovetailing the projects, but the overall progression was still serial. I still worked on one piece at a time.

Recycle your Musical ideas #1

Time to Multitask

The truth is that you can develop working habits to increase your creative output. As we compose music, many ideas are introduced, but only a few are developed for the work at hand. These outtakes are often discarded as you narrow in on the composition. If you can keep track of all the musical bits you generate, they can be retained, reworked, and reborn into new identities, new contexts, and next lives.

You need a process that is easy to execute and integrate into your workflow. Basically you want to name, save, and organize unused ideas to develop a custom archive of material drawn from your own work that can supply you with creative resources for future projects. You can create your own private stock to inspire yourself to make new music as more opportunities arise and less time is available.

Parallel Processing

In addition to whole bits that don’t make it into a specific piece, gems are hiding within your productions. Imagine you are deep in your DAW, producing some music. Maybe you’re looping a section in order to adjust some parameter. You solo a few tracks and listen in. Now this reduced loop is further removed from the overall sound of the piece, and you recognize it has an intrinsic musical value on its own. You quickly want to document that sound, be it loop or one-shot. It could even be that a single note with various effects automations driving it forward is compelling and appeals to the sound designer in you, so you pause to document it.

Every DAW can export specific selected parts—MIDI, audio, or both. Normally, what you hear is what gets exported, and you can audition the bounce afterward to confirm that it’s been captured accurately. So you change your focus temporarily to save this subsection of sound as a viable autonomous musical cell.

Recycle your Musical ideas #2

Habitually pausing to export valuable assets is an efficient way to build an archive of original material.

It takes just seconds, and then you return to the main production. The more you do this, the easier it gets. Your archive should live on a network drive that is always available to write to, and it can grow to hundreds of files in no time. You are completely in control of what deserves to be archived or not, promoting only what is compelling and sounds special to you.

You Are the Creator…You Are the Curator

This archive is the representative of all your work—your intentional output (the catalog of songs you produce) and your incidental output (the exported assets). It’s like holding two perspectives at all times, your main purpose (the current production) and your ongoing recycling project (recognizing and saving quality material). The recycled material is made up of good ideas and can produce another generation of good ideas. You just have to be able to lift yourself out of the project at hand, quickly document, and then get back to work.

If this gets to be second nature and you’re populating plenty of extra material, the next level would be to export multiple versions of the loop including individual parts, effects on/off variations, and perhaps even different versions in multiple keys. The level of intricacy is up to you. The benefit remains that you can then dip into your private stock at any future point and breathe life into your own undeveloped ideas.

Make It Future Proof

By the way, I’m talking mostly about exporting to audio here. That’s the quickest and is also future proof in the sense that a single audio file conveys the asset’s complete vibe and will continue to do so in five and ten years. The integrity of a DAW file over time is uncertain, prey to eventual incompatibilities of all sorts and the endless migration of operating systems and standards, not to mention the life cycles of hardware. So much music has been altered or lost because the control data (MIDI) became detached from the sound it was performed with—the synth or VST instrument with which it was so intimately connected.

Monetize that Archive

Another significant benefit to this archiving, recycling process: new revenue streams. Once you continue to produce evocative sounds and loops as a passive function of your music composition and production work, then you can sell them. Market to consumers who have an insatiable need for new sounds or to soundware companies that have this business already dialed in.

Once your music output starts to propagate, you can recognize other avenues of distribution and develop music to suit them. Perhaps you are already getting your songs to music supervisors who select songs for TV shows and films. For your incidental output, music and sound licensing can take many forms: sample sets for instruments, song starter loops, or sonifications for logos and splash screens. Music libraries license background textures and moods aimed at commercial spots and games. A great resource to learn more about any kind of music and sound licensing is a program called Master Music Licensing. Check it out.

As a composer, your catalog and the material that you document is the center of your musical cosmos. Growing an abundant archive with diverse genre content is the healthiest thing you can do to provide for a thriving music career. The trick is learning how to focus on the music composition projects that are most exciting and fulfilling for you, while at the same time spinning off ideas and archiving that parallel output. 

Think big and work smart. Maximize your potential by generating multiple output streams. Don’t just produce your archive…recycle it!

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