What to do when it’s just not working

Ever gotten to a point where things just aren’t working?

The guitar tone isn’t right. The vocal sounds too weak no matter what I do. The mix doesn’t have any energy. This melody is boring. Those lyrics sound cheesy. I don’t like how the snare sits in the mix.

Sound familiar?

I’ve been to this point many times. Mostly in mixing, but more recently in a recording session. It seemed like I was spending a lot of time trying to fix something, and no matter what I did, it wouldn’t sound how I wanted it to.

In this article, I want to outline a few of my strategies for overcoming this. Hopefully you can take something away that will help you next time you feel like things aren’t working.

Take a break

First and foremost, take a break.

Probably at least 8 times out of 10, when things aren’t working, they seem to magically fix themselves overnight. Especially when mixing.

It has actually become predictable now for me. After I’ve worked on a mix for 1 or 2 hours straight, I start to get frustrated. Things aren’t coming together, it’s not sounding good, there seems to be so many things I need to fix.

For some reason, taking a break and coming at it later with a fresh set of ears often seems to make the problems disappear. It doesn’t have to be a long break. Do what works for you. Sometimes I’ll take a break for 10 or 15 minutes, sometimes I’ll leave it overnight and get back to it the next day.

When taking a break, it can also be helpful to listen to other music. Whether in your studio, or on a completely different listening system. Our ears tend to get used to whatever we’ve been listening to, so giving them a “reset” by listening to other music is something I’ve found helpful.

Try it out. See if it helps.

Focus the most time on the “big wins”

This is an idea that Graham Cochrane talk about a lot over at The Recording Revolution (if you haven’t checked out his site yet, please do. Tons of great free content over there).

Maybe that thing that isn’t sitting quite right for you actually isn’t a big deal. Maybe the people listening to your music aren’t actually going to notice that guitar tone nearly as much as you think they are.

Focus on the big wins. Something that only makes a 2% difference should not take 50% of your mixing time. Make it sound as good as you can, and move on.

Finish the project

Sometimes, you just need to cut your losses.

I talked about this in my post about my recent EP. I had been working on the songs for a while, and there was a ton more I could have done to them.

But I just went ahead and released it.

No mix is perfect. But I will tell you this: your 20th mix is going to sound a whole lot better than your 2nd mix. So maybe the snare drum doesn’t “snap” the way you want it to. Just release the mix, and start working on the next project.

Of course, I’m not saying you should just ignore problems with your mix and just go ahead and release. Of course, try to deal with the problems if you can. But don’t let them block you. If something just isn’t working and you can’t seem to make it work right, maybe it’s time to call the project finished and move on. The issues you’re hearing might not be as big a deal as you think.

Well, I hope that’s helpful for you next time you feel like things just aren’t working. Have any of your own strategies or hacks for getting past things that aren’t working? Let me know in the comments section below.

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6 thoughts on “What to do when it’s just not working

  1. Alex, I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. I did attempt to meet Graham’s Challenge at the beginning of the year and create an EP in three months. It is my very first attempt so it didn’t work out for me. I am a perfectionist and it can be a very big problem at times. Especially when building your knowledge and experience.

    I found at times I would get so frustrated I would have to step away for almost a week. But what I noticed is that every time I did and went back to a project I made major improvements. It was a fantastic realization. I spent that week concentrating on reading and learning as much about my DAW, my equipment, Recording strategies and songwriting skills. Also just as you said checking out RecordingRevolution.com and listening to others music for inspiration. So did I really take time off.. but I guess it depends on how you look at it.

    At any rate this was a great post.. thank you and Im sure that others will gain just as much from it as I have. Nice to know that others experience the same struggles I do and how you attack them.

    Thanks again
    Al Tone

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    1. Thanks Al!

      Yes, perfectionism is something that I think a lot of us struggle with. I certainly do! I’ve only recently started realizing that in order to get things done, they are almost definitely not going to be perfect. So I try hard to make things “good enough”, and get it finished!

      I’ve definitely found that taking a break is often all it takes. I’m glad you’ve found that it works for you too.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for the encouragement!
      Alex

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  2. Hi Alex,

    Excellent post. I have been through this innumerable times, and still do. What you said makes perfect sense to me and I think I have to really focus on the 3rd point at this point.

    I was recently facing a problem with getting the drum programming of a track perfect, but after reading your post I feel I should give it a last listen and call it off. “The issues you’re hearing might not be as big a deal as you think.” I think this is the most common problem the growing music producers would be facing – trying to achieve perfection in everything, and this takes away lot of our time and energy. This leads to your 3rd point “finish the project”.

    Thanks for an inspiring post. This will indeed be helpful to all the music producers out there, especially those who are at beginner & intermediate level.

    Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks, Kaitav!

      Yes, I’ve struggled with this numerous times. Especially when mixing. It can be so hard to call it “done”, because there is always something else you could change. And dude, I still haven’t mastered this. But I feel like I’m at least getting better. I’ve learned from Joe over at Home Studio Corner that in order to make my mixes (or recordings, etc) better, I need to finish as many of them as I can. So now, when my mix isn’t perfect, I can just tell myself, hey, if I get this one finished, then I can start working on the next one, which is probably going to be better!

      Anyway, glad this post was inspiring for you! More to come soon 🙂
      Alex

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  3. Hey Alex, this was great! The bit about taking breaks is sooooo true and the same goes for finishing the project. But the ‘big wins’ thing is something I’d never given much thought, yet I often fall into the trap of spending 50% of my time as a producer on something that doesn’t make that much of a difference… it’s an obsessive paranoia. But like you said, people don’t necessarily hear things the way I do as the composer/musician/engineer. I have a totally different perspective.

    This is not exactly the same thing, but it kinda reminds me of when I take the time to work something nifty into a track, hoping my parents (my musical taste testers) pick up on the moment of genius, but they completely miss it, commenting instead on something totally irrelevant! (different perspectives lol) All that effort for naught!!

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    1. Haha. Yeah I hear ya. When mixing, sometimes I’ll get so frustrated with, say, the vocal track not sitting just how I want it to. I’ll spend sooo much time on it. And then later, after getting away from the mix for a while, I’ll listen back to it and wonder why I had so much trouble. The vocal sounds fine.

      Definitely worth going after the big wins. That said, of course, I also believe that a great production is made up of a whole lot of small, subtle creative decisions which each by themselves may not seem that significant. But, sometimes we spend waaaay too much time on one single little thing, when really it doesn’t make that much of a difference.

      Like

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