5 Tips for Finishing Your Music Projects

You’ve been sitting on those tracks for how long now? You even got your fans, friends and family excited about that fire you told them you’ve been working on. But months have passed, maybe even a year since you first conceived of those new songs.

Maybe you haven’t ever released anything and you are carefully calculating your debut.

What’s holding you back?

Besides fear or lack of confidence, maybe the whole project just feels overwhelming to you as an independent artist.

Below are 5 big tips for getting it done!

#1 Clearly Define the Goal

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What are you trying to do? Are you trying to release a 12-track, epic, full-length LP? Or are you just trying to knock out a single?

Sit down and define what your end goal is.

“I want to release this single by Summer time,” is a simple enough goal and a good place to start.

“I want to complete this 10-song, 50-minute play time, magnum opus of progressive metal tracks by the end of the year,” is a much heftier goal, but you have still defined what you want to do!

If you’re like me, you get creative bursts and very ambitious ideas for your music.

In 2015, before my first release for my alternative-metal project Drive the Ghost, I had amassed something like 15 tracks. As I started the process of final-tracking, mixing and mastering, I realized how overwhelming the idea of a full-length LP was for my debut under that name.

I made the executive choice to release 6 of the very best tracks as an EP, which resulted in my Drive the Ghost debut Mystique. This choice allowed more focus and set for me a goal that didn’t feel light-years away.

You need to make a definite choice as to which tracks are going to make up your next release. For ideas on deciding on the length of your release (EP, LP, a series of singles), check out this post.

The next step is to break the process down into stages depending on what needs to be done for that single or that album do be fully fleshed-out and ready to release.

#2 Listen and Take Notes

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I consider a notebook a home project studio essential. I like good ol’ fashioned pen and paper, but you can use a notepad app if you don’t struggle with typing on your smartphone like I do.

With a blank page in front of you, play your tracks and listen carefully.

Write down anything that jumps out at you as sounding ‘unfinished’, ‘rough’, ‘unbalanced’, ‘wrong’, ‘out of tune’, ‘off-beat’, etc. Ideally you will do this exercise after having taken a break of a few days or weeks from listening to your tracks at all.

Mike Senior calls this process listening for snags—these are the qualities in the track that are keeping it from being release-ready.

Snags could be a muddy bass guitar that needs better mixing, a drum pattern that is obviously off-beat, or an entire verse that you have yet to write or record!

As an example, here are a few snags I wrote down in my notebook when I was finishing my Keith Kaspian trip-hop album “Eye of the Needle“:

  • “Broken Ouroboros” – gated synth is too low in the mix, snare drum needs to be more ‘crisp’, try shortening the intro by about 4 bars, symphonic strings clipping
  • “Mystics” – feels too short, try writing another section, try doubling on electric cello
  • “Obsidian” – fix phasing on kick drum layers, bring bass guitar up in the mix, guitar lead fade outs need to be smoother, tambourine too loud

If you have a trusted friend, spouse or other confidant, ask them to listen to what you have, and ask them to give specific feedback or impressions. “This is good, bro,” isn’t incredibly useful, but we appreciate the encouragement, right?

As you accumulate a list of snags, you are pinpointing the action items that will make-up your production schedule.

#3 Stick to a Production Schedule

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I usually like to attack one action item every session. If too many days lapse between your work, you can get lazy (just like going to the gym). However, if you don’t give yourself an evening or two out of the week to play a video game or watch a movie, you can get music fatigue and lose perspective and clarity on the tracks you’re working on.

A good production schedule will keep you knocking out at least one action item every session, while still letting you come up for air. Life happens, and focusing on a single thing at a time makes space for the other important things. Such a schedule gets you closer to a release date than saving everything for a Saturday afternoon.

Go ahead and map out a timeline for all of the action items in your snag list, and tackle the more challenging ones first.

Your production schedule for a single track may looks something like this:

  • Monday – replace that snare drum sample and check the phasing
  • Tuesday – re-track bass guitar for Chorus 2 and Bridge
  • Wednesday – try transposing the synth pad on intro, or try new VST synth
  • Thursday – re-track vocals on Chorus 1, notes are flat
  • Friday – augment drum fills, replace tom samples
  • Saturday – fishing with the kids and dinner with the wife
  • Sunday – Video games and Netflix

Of course, the production schedule of a full-time engineer or a major label artist would be significantly more intense than this, but we’ve got to make room for life and avoid burning out or falling into the deadly cycle of procrastination.

If a snag proves easy as cake to remedy, go ahead and move on to the next on your list that same session. If you feel yourself struggling, stop and reset for tomorrow!

#4 Step Back to Go Forward

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Maybe you’re working too much on your music and feel like you’re not getting anywhere. This could lead to frustration that makes you hate this song or that, and you have no idea if what you’re doing is any good at all!

If you feel this way, stop!

Save your project and walk away, for a while.

Get out, get away, and get some perspective on the music you’re working on.

This one is simple enough, but hard to do.

I know for many years after beginning my own music odyssey, I would work relentlessly, passionately and feverishly to get a track done. I’d spend days or weeks just sculpting the sound of a synth drum kit. I’ll tell you now that 90% of that time was a waste.

Music is strange because the more we ‘work on it’, the less improvement we make.

If you are in the writing phase, double or triple-guessing a creative impulse you had can often lead to over-analyzing, spinning your wheels, and changing the more inspired parts of your songs to something more calculated (which rarely sounds as good).

If you’ve been sitting in front of your DAW mixing a track for 3 hours straight, chances are the decisions you’re making are only hurting the mix.

You have to let your ears and mind rest to make good production choices.

I’ve already mentioned taking intermittent breaks through your finalization process. Maybe the tracks are all ready for mixing, maybe the mixes are ready for mastering, maybe you’ve done your own mastering and all that is left is to print the tracks.

Before you move to the next phase, take a good, solid week (or two weeks) awayfrom the music. Listen to other music, and let your ears re-calibrate. Come back and repeat the snag list process again if needed.

#5 Commit to the Bounce!

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So you’ve gotten to this point after beating down many snags and now you are ready to bounce that final file and upload to Bandcamp!

Right?

Why the hesitation?

Hey, you don’t look so good, you feeling alright?

This is where lack of self-confidence and lots of psychological doodoo rears its head!

I’ve taken myself and my music through the steps listed above, only to find myself second-guessing as I listened to the final bounces of my songs.

“Well, this all sounds pretty good, but couldn’t it be better?”, I would think. “I mean, I just watched that new Joey Sturgis video last night on YouTube and it gave me a great idea for juicing up these guitars!”

Don’t fall into this trap! I know I was a victim of it for many years.

As a self-produced artist, you will never release anything if your mind works like this.

As an artist, producer, engineer, and human being you are always changing, growing, and learning. A different person from your current self just wrote, mixed and mastered that album. Maybe that past version of you didn’t know the cool new metal guitar EQ trick that all the freshest mixing dudes are doing, so what? Save that new bit of production knowledge for the next release!

It’s Good Enough

As long as your music isn’t poorly performed, harsh-sounding, inaudible, unintelligible, too loud, too quiet or comically out of sync, your average music fan isn’t going to give a crap if you used “3 dB too many at 4kHz on the lead guitar”, or that the “stereo image on your overhead drum mics wasn’t quite as good as what you hear on the recent Animals as Leaders album.”

People want interesting, exciting, emotive music that makes them tap their feet, nod their heads, escape to an inner place, or astral project into higher dimensions. The sound quality is a bit less important.

Put your heart, your mind and your talent into it. Do your best to iron out the snags, get some outside input from a trusted ear, put to practice all of the technical stuff I and others like me offer, click the bounce button and release!

You can go screaming out of the room after you upload those tracks to Bandcamp or Soundcloud, if it helps.

All that matters is this – music that isn’t released doesn’t exist in the world.

Now get to work!


If you have your own routines, rituals or good habits for getting your project done, feel free to share in the comments!

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