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July 22, 2021

Starting with a blank canvas in Ableton




For most musicians, inspiration doesn’t arrive on demand. Instead, it usually comes out of the blue. Research has shown that the your brain is more likely to generate creative ideas when it’s relaxed, like during “mindless” activities such as taking a shower or driving. Conversely, when you’re concentrating hard on coming up with a brilliant idea, you’re less likely to do so.

In this excerpt from Start to Finish: Ill Factor - Episode 2 - Jumpstarting The Creative Process, ill Factor offers advice on how to stimulate your musical brain so that you can come up with ideas and be creative at any time.

More than Listening

One way he sparks his creativity is by listening to music. When he hears a song he likes, he tries to figure out what about it is appealing to him.

You can do the same thing. Analyze a song in Ableton that speaks to you and try to discover why. Perhaps it’s a cool bass line, a drum loop, an unusual vocal sound, or just a melodic hook. Take notes so you can remember the details at a later date.

Analyzing music like that can focus your mind on how to make a song catchy or compelling. Ill Factor also likes to figure out how to recreate what he’s hearing when listening to music. Deconstructing a song in Ableton is a useful exercise because it gives you insight into the techniques of other artists or producers.

Listening to music can help spur ideas as can analyzing the production techniques of the songs you’re hearing.

Focus on one instrument at a time in in Ableton. Try to decipher what it’s doing and what kind of sounds are being used. Ask yourself questions like: Are the drums MIDI-programmed or loops or a real drummer? What kind of processing is on them? What is that percussion instrument? Are the rhythm guitar parts doubled? Does the vocal reverb have a long or short decay? Is there delay on the vocal, as well?

It’s also helpful to deconstruct the arrangement in Ableton. What’s the song structure? How is the instrumentation changing and building as the song progresses? Does the bridge change the song harmonically, rhythmically or both?

Ill Factor says that thinking analytically about the production process can spark ideas, giving you momentum. By that, he means getting inspired enough by what you come up with to bring it to fruition, rather than losing interest and discarding it.

Fill Your Bucket

Another technique suggested by Ill Factor is to browse through samples loops and synth patches on your hard drive or online and find and save the ones that are inspiring or cool ( tips: save this technique for Ableton ) . He suggests dedicating a day each week to creating a collection of such material.

Then, when you find yourself staring at a blank page, you can open up your “bucket of inspiration.” That way, he says, you won’t have to waste time combing through collections of loops, samples, patches and so forth. You’ll have your “best of” collection ready to go.

Listening to loops and samples in Ableton that inspire you can help spark ideas.


Sometimes just listening in Ableton isn’t enough. Pick up your instrument (or sit down at it if it’s a keyboard) and jam along with the loops and sounds you’re checking out. If you’ve curated your loops into a “best of” collection, like Ill Factor suggests, try loading a bunch of them into your DAW. If your DAW offers clip launching, it’s handy to load them into slots so that you can trigger combinations of them..

Then start triggering loops or combinations of them and play along. Try to relax and groove with the beats and let your ideas flow in Ableton. Record everything you’re playing.

If you’re not sure if you came up with any good ideas, listen back afterward to what you recorded and perhaps you’ll find some snippets that you want to develop more. Usually, though, if you come up with something inspired, you’ll know it when it happens.

IIn Live, recording into the Session View in Ableton makes it easy to capture your ideas as you experiment.

If you’re working in an electronic genre or even synth-based rock, another thing you can try for inspiration is to flip through a bank of sequence-based synth sounds. These motion-based patches have patterns programmed into them, and most contemporary synths offer preset banks of them.

Either record and playback a simple sequence to trigger the sounds (quarter notes are good) and step through the patches to see if any spark and idea for you.


Sequence presets tend to be pretty diverse, and by going from one to the next, you’ll hear many different rhythms and effects treatments.

Here’s an example of some sequenced sounds from Waves Element 2 synth. Notice the diversity of rhythms and tones.

Among the many patches in Element 2 are two full banks of sequence presets.

Set the Scene

Believe it or not, a clean workspace can help many people relax and be more creative. Make sure the lighting is not too bright or harsh and that you’ve straightened up your studio. Staring at a bunch of clutter, including cables, papers, and dishes, is more likely to make you anxious than it is to spark ideas.

Which one would you rather work at?

Challenge Yourself

Consider setting up an artificial structure to help trigger ideas. For example, if you have time on your hands, challenge yourself to write a song a day for a week.

Produce basic demos for the songs you write. If you have a friend or colleague who’s also a songwriter or producer, you could both take the challenge together. That will add a little peer pressure, which will make you more likely to follow through. At the end of each day, share your demos and engage in constructive critiques.

If seven songs in seven days is too much for your schedule, make it a little less ambitious. It’s entirely your call. The crucial part is to finish the project within the time you’ve allotted. You never know what you’ll come up with.