Using Unconventional Samples to Break Through "Producer's Block"

The world is full of people in their bedrooms or basements cranking out beats. If you aren’t one of these bedroom producers yourself, you probably know one.

With music software becoming more affordable and more powerful, throngs of amateur producers are rapidly populating music–sharing services with their homemade beats and mixtapes.

This kind of music has developed into an amazing and diverse global culture. But it can put a lot of pressure on producers — who can reach thousands of listeners within moments of posting a track online — to consistently come to the table with something new.

If you are one of these upstart bedroom beat gurus or a long–aspiring and seasoned groovemaster, chances are that you have battled with producer’s block. Like writer’s block, no matter how much time you spend working on anything, everything you make feels dumb, too forced, or just plain boring.

This less–is–more mindset is a surefire way to stoke your creativity, defeat producer's block, and get you back to making unique tracks you can share with the mixtape–collecting masses."

In my experience, two common reasons for these ruts include relying too heavily on presets and a certain paralysis that comes with working with too many options.

In the case of over–reliance on presets, many bedroom producers cut their teeth in production and learn their software by using preloaded sounds and clips native to their DAW. Eventually, though, these presets will become constrictive and feel claustrophobic. In that case, it’s time for producers to use new sounds they’ve recorded themselves to make their tracks distinctive.

Conversely, as far as feeling blocked from having too many options, Ableton and similar DAWs offer loads of presets, clips, samples, grooves, riffs, and effects. It’s easy to get so lost exploring all of the choices that you never end up picking anything. In this case, producers need to limit themselves.

As an antidote to both roadblocks, I highly recommend challenging yourself to only use sounds you’ve recorded yourself. This less–is–more mindset — along with other self–imposed restrictions, like limiting yourself to a small selection of effects — is a surefire way to stoke your creativity, defeat producer's block, and get you back to making unique tracks you can share with the mixtape–collecting masses.

Sound reasonable? Here are a few of my personal tips for how to bring creative samples to your sessions.

Collecting Samples

No matter which kind of producer’s block you face, you can always make your tracks more distinctive by moving away from stock soundbanks and presets in Ableton and beginning in on your own collection of interesting.

Start building a soundbank of recordings you’ve made to use in your tracks. Get a portable handheld recorder, like the Tascam DR–05, and take it with you everywhere. Record musical sounds, of course, but record everything else you can think of.

Anything can become your instrument. Turn the local church bells into a spacy synth, turn the sound of waves sloshing in the harbor into a rhythm track, pitch–shift the cicadas and fashion yourself some digital shakers to rattle.

You can always go a more conventional route, too. Hit up your other musician friends, especially the drummers. Stop by their practice spaces and record them playing some breaks and riffs. Now, you’re collaborating.

If you want to quantize these breaks — that is, make sure they are seamless when set to the MIDI clock and BPM in the software — make sure the drummer uses a metronome. If you want the break or sample from the drummer to have that J. Dilla feel, tell them to lag on the metronome intentionally.

The DR–05 and other handheld records have mic inputs, which you can use to record electric instruments, vinyl, cassettes, or anything else with an ⅛” out jack, direct to digital.

Keep It Fun

Most of all, it is important to remember to play. Play while you are collecting sounds. Have fun. Mess around using weird sounds in normal ways and normal sounds in weird ways. Don’t approach recording your sounds like studio sessions.

Have fun. Mess around using weird sounds in normal ways and normal sounds in weird ways."

This laid–back approach to gathering sounds can lead to capturing special nuggets and spontaneous moments that can be used in your tracks. You’ll feel it when you have that breakthrough moment, and if you’re recording constantly, you’ll have that moment to use later.

Don't shy away from aggressively processing your samples. This too can be a hilarious and enriching exercise, and so long as the original WAV is your own, it will always create something unique.

Putting It Together

Once you’ve gathered an array of these sounds, get back to your laptop, load them into Ableton or another DAW, and start working on tracks. Use the samples in every way you can imagine.

In Drum Racks, use them to make beats MPC–style (an affordable MIDI controller, like the Akai LPD8, is perfect for playing with samples this way). Using Simpler or Sampler, make your samples into a granular synth sound (here, you may want a larger MIDI keyboard to explore more chords).

Or, simply place the sound in timeline mode to make it a component of the song to be layered over. The more distinctive the sounds you collect, the more distinctive your tracks will become.

A personal favorite example of how far this trick can take you is the 2005 album Very Rec by Canadian producer and painter Andy Dixon aka Secret Mommy. Each track revolves around samples gathered while playing or participating in various recreational activities: tennis, dojo, yoga, swimming, and my personal favorite, basketball.

Secret Mommy - "Basketball Court"

His glitchy, electroacoustic techno pop songs capture their designated locales and turn them, their sound and space, into distinctive and lovably frenetic cut–and–paste bedroom music. Using this collage–like approach to making new songs will break you out of your rut and offer your music a unique feel that you were looking for.


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