Breaking writer’s block: A producer’s guide to sparking inspiration – DJ TechTools

Ask any artist what their least favorite part of their creative process is, and you may very well find an overarching pattern: the challenge of dealing with writer’s block. Many music producers dread those two words – or rather, what they entail. 

As a producer myself, I can speak from experience and empathize. I have gone through numerous dry spells where it feels nearly impossible to write music that fits my personal standards. Writer’s block comes in many forms, which is why it affects so many people. Some folks feel that they lack inspiration or their “muse”; some get burnt out by the industry and lose interest; some have to work to survive and support their musical path; some face challenges related to focus or their own abilities.

Many of these reasons intersect, too. The forms of writer’s block are somewhat endless. At the end of the day, though, it all boils down to finding a solution that works best for you. With that, we ask: what can you do about it? Better yet: where can you start? Breaking out of a writer’s block spiral is possible with the right tips, tricks, and methods to tap back into your creative flow state.

With 10 years of producing under my belt, I’m here to share my own tried-and-true methods that have helped over the years. I hope they can do the same for you. 

Tip #1: Use different starting points

The quickest and easiest way to sidestep writer’s block is to try approaching a track from a different angle. That means, rather than starting with the intro of a song and writing until the end- you can use different starting points that allow you to adjust your perspective and perhaps unlock something creative you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. 

Rework one of your WIPs

Ever get to the point where your track has potential, but doesn’t sound quite right yet? When I keep running into this sort of roadblock on a track, I’ll ‘Save as’, name it a ‘Rework’ or a ‘VIP’ (variation in production), then play with new ideas from the same track skeleton. 

Start with any of these ideas to rework one of your own work-in-progresses:

  • Take the melody, bassline, or vocal part and make it the main lead. Build other elements around this lead to make it shine. Add movement, automate effects, or chop up this lead so you have something to use as a build-up or break-down as the track progresses. 
  • Take the beat or drum loop and start writing the track from the drop rather than the intro. Add elements that complement the beat, such as stabs, FX, vocal samples, or ear candy. 
  • Take a few elements from the original WIP, then swap the rest. Consider using new instrumentation, percussion, vocals, FX, or a combination of these. 
  • Change the tempo or genre of the track and see if you can produce different results. 

Looking for more guidance? Check out my tutorial on the process:

Vibralocity gives a walkthrough on reworking a WIP (work in progress) project.

Start with a sample

Looking for a different starting point? Take a sample from another track that interests you, then start building a track around it. Chop up the vocals, instruments or beat to make your own bits of a song, then act as if you are remixing that song. 

Worth noting, of course: if you’re sampling directly from someone else’s music, you can’t release your version without copyright clearance – but you can still play it in a set. Another approach is to write the whole tune, then make your own sounds to replace the original samples you used. This has worked wonders for me. 

I’d also recommend trying out this awesome AI tool: the Ultimate Vocal Remover. It’s proven to be super useful to quickly pull an acapella or instrumental layer for a track.

Start over (yes, really) by building a fresh beat from scratch

It’s safe to say that most producers have written their own beat at some point (as opposed to only using drum loops). Sometimes, all it takes to break your writer’s block is writing a new 8-bar loop, which could turn into one of your best songs! Start with the kick and the snare, then take it from there. 

Chop up your drum loop

If you’re not able to write a new 8 bar loop, find one you love – then chop that drum loop into smaller bits. It could be every 16th note or 2-4 beat sections; the possibilities are endless. From there, recombine the bits into something completely different.

Ever heard of the-much loved genre Jungle? It’s a subgenre of electronic dance music that emerged in the 90’s, characterized by high-tempo chopped beat samples – aka, well, breakbeats. If you haven’t heard of it before, I suggest listening to a few well-known tracks here

Watch this great how-to from UK Bass Tutorials on Slicing and Layering Breaks that has helped with my own inspiration and skill set: 

UK Bass Tutorials gives a walkthrough on slicing and layering breaks

Craft a synth or a bass patch

Something that has worked really well for me in the past is to find a tutorial on sound design, create a new synth patch for writing melodies or basslines, and then noodle around until something sticks. Focus on writing short riffs with slight variation and record as many as you can. Then, listen back and see what you want to keep. You can export these as samples for processing later on or you can use them as the building blocks of a new song. 

Some of the best sound design tutorials I have found are from: 

Refine a catchy hook

Another great starting point for breaking writer’s block is to take a catchy hook you’ve written before and mess around with it. Try putting it into MIDI, then sample it with different instruments. Try it as a bassline, melody, pads, stabs, or even apply the riff to vocals (this can yield surprising results). Try layering the hook to create a full-spectrum lead and build around it. Try chopping up the hook and see if it brings any new ideas. 

Tip #2: Deconstruct something familiar

One of my core go-to methods is to completely remake a song that I know – from scratch. I isolate one part of a track while listening and recreate it. I usually start with the beat, then melody, then bassline, and lastly the vocals and FX – but you can do it whichever way feels good to you. 

Once I’ve recreated the whole track (or, at least, most of it), I will start remixing and adding new elements to it in order to make it my own.

Take a look at this video of one of my past projects in which I’ve done this:  

Vibralocity provides a walkthrough on remaking a familiar song from scratch

Tip #3: Have a backup plan

Sometimes, everything we touch turns to dust – say, the beat doesn’t groove, the melody is too repetitive, the bass is too simple, or the sounds don’t go well together. When this happens, it’s crucial to have a backup plan. There are quite a few ways to do this, but today we’ll cover a few I like to fall back on.

Organize your sample library

Chances are pretty good that you have a ton of samples in your library that are not organized at all. Maybe there are some new sample packs that you want to download. Whichever it is, go through those samples and add them to folders within your User Library that make sense to you. Create as many folders as needed to make finding samples quick and easy.

Press play on this to get to know the basics of sample library organization within your DAW:

Vibarlocity provides a walkthrough on organizing your sample library in Ableton

Create track templates

You can save yourself major time by creating track templates for the various genres you like to work with. I’ll find samples, instruments, and recordings that seemingly fit the genre I’m focused on at the moment, add the appropriate processing to each channel (EQ, clipper, saturator, drum bus, etc), then group similar tracks together (eg- percussion, kick, bassline, melody and harmony, vocals, FX). Once that’s all set up, I’ll save the template for future projects. I have written many songs from these pre-saved templates!

Make some mud pies

Load a synth or bass patch that you’ve made (or even a preset) into a new project file and hit record on your session. Then, play different notes (or the same note) as you adjust parameters on the patch you loaded. Make sure to mess with every setting you have here – envelope, distortion, effects, LFO, etc.

Once you’ve recorded for a few minutes (or longer), route that recording to a new audio track. Add various effects to the new audio track as you record again. The idea is to make as many different sounds as you can from the same patch. Then, take that long recording and chop it up, find parts you like, save those bits to your sample library, and use them for songwriting later on! 

For an in-depth walkthrough on mudpies, check out this article, which features an interview with Mr. Bill – and hear from the man himself below with his own tutorial on making mudpies. 

Mr Bill gives an advanced walkthrough on making mudpies- a sound design technique

Practice music theory – take the time to sharpen your chops

Let’s face it- we can all improve our music theory chops. Take some online courses, watch some tutorials or simply just practice scales on your instrument of choice (it can even be a keyboard). Get comfortable and confident with chord progressions from songs that you like and are familiar with. Copy them. Record those chord progressions. Pick a scale and noodle around until you’re able to write a short riff that keeps your interest. Start a song from that riff. 

TAETRO on Youtube has a really great Intro to Music Theory for Producers series – here’s Part 1:

TAETRO gives a walkthrough on Part 1 of his music theory for producers series

Tip #4: Write your track in chunks

If writing a whole song from scratch seems daunting, that’s because it can be! If you’re having trouble figuring out where to start, approach it in in chunks.

Here’s an example: 

  1. Start with writing the beat, the melody, or the bassline. Write more than you think you need because you can always pare it down. 
  2. After you’ve written one of the above (or all 3), then spend some time on sound design. Refine the parts you have to make them full and give them life. 
  3. Add movement and interest. Add risers or fallers, automate the volume or stereo width (Utility), automate effects or filters, or automate various parameters of each sound to keep the listener’s interest. 
  4. Play with the arrangement. Go back through the track and take parts out or rearrange them. Creating more space in a song can build tension or bring resolution depending on how you do it. This is especially helpful when you are transitioning from a build to a drop, from a drop to a breakdown, or even your intro and outro of the track. 
  5. Record vocals or found sounds. Make the track your own by using your voice, try making sounds with things around your home, or take a field recorder outside and see what magic you can find (I personally love the sounds of walking slowly in snow, heavy rainfall, or birds singing). 
  6. EQ, gain-stage, mix, and master. These 4 have a lot of overlap, so I like to do them together. Once the song is mostly written, I will go through each track and sound and meticulously EQ everything and balance the overall mix as I go. This helps me save time when I want to finish a track. 

The great thing about this approach is that you can do any of the steps above in any order you wish. This gives you freedom to stay in your creative flow without forcing anything. If you keep coming up against a wall, just try a different step!

Tip #5: Try the obvious, yet overlooked tasks

Finally, I wanted to provide a few tips that have worked for me when nothing else seems to be going right with my music writing: 

  • Be consistent – Have a routine where you can show up on a regular basis (the same time every day or same day each week is ideal).
  • Focus – Remove distractions (put your phone away), reserve time each day (this takes discipline), and be sure to take breaks (your ears will thank you). 
  • Be open – Allow anything and everything to come through when you’re writing a song. Practice non-judgment as you let your creative juices flow. Then, come back and refine after some time away. Another way I’ve heard it said is ‘Write when you’re drunk and edit when you’re sober.’ The idea is to not let your thoughts get in the way of creating something. 
  • Pull the string of inspiration – A quote from a friend of mine goes: “The muse is a string in the wind; we must catch its tail and pull its inspiration into existence.” When you’re inspired, lock yourself in the studio as long as you can to get those ideas out. 
  • Don’t be afraid to take time away – Life is all about cycles. Remember to allow time to be impressed by life so that when it comes time to create, you can freely express the feelings inside. 

Happy writing, and be sure to share any tips and tricks of your own for breaking writer’s block in the comments below!