Trifonic: When Is A Song Done?

13 Jan

One question Trifonic gets a lot is, How do you know when a song is done?

In this video, Brian discusses how deadlines, artistic vision, and technical abilities all play a role in determining when a track is “done.”

What about you – how do you know when your tracks (or other creative projects) are finished? How do you decide whether to stop working or keep refining? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

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  • Maize

    Something that I find useful is playing the song in a mix with other songs that I respect from other artists. I put together a small playlist of the songs I'm really enjoying lately that I think are of good quality and that I'd feel proud of if I'd written them, and I toss my track(s) into that mix and listen to it on shuffle when I'm working or on transit or whatever. It's hard to pick out when a track is really done when you consider it on its own, but in that context I find that if it's not really done it stands out like a lighthouse beam — it just feels rough or incomplete or ill-considered next to the other tracks. When it's done, on the other hand, it settles in next to the other tracks and fits. That comparison is very helpful to me.

  • nick

    if only to stop the endless adjusting, i always try use the 60% rule: when you think you're 60% done, it's done.
    great site!

  • LT

    Interesting, is the “60% rule” an established phenomenon, or something you came up with?

    Trifonic probably operates closer to a 90-95% rule… for better or worse. :)

  • LT

    That's a great idea, and definitely something we do too, primarily at the mixing and mastering stages.

  • Morgan Williams

    When I work on an album, the first track I write is usually the most expressive and difficult to get right, once I'm happy with it, I'll have a pretty good Idea of the direction the album's going and I'll elaborate on the themes behind that first track on the next track I do… Ill play them over and over again repeatedly on monitors and headphones with a notebook and just quickly jot down notes on where I think the tracks could be improved… I'll go back to each one and tweak them until they sit nicely together.

    This method can sometimes create songs that sound quite similar sometimes, but so long as the contrasting elements of each one are emphasised, you can't go wrong :)

  • entasmiquity

    Good advice on an interesting topic. I for one have been working on one particular project–a christmas song–for 15 years. This year I made great progress, I think, but it's still not…done. As an amateur songwriter, I have no real deadline, and that has allowed the project to go on and on. At some point, clearly I have to cut the cord and be done with it, but when I listen to it, I still think of ways in which it can be improved and still reflect the original vision for the song. So I keep going knowing that the final product will be worth the wait.

  • Jesse Clark

    In my experience, the purpose of a given track greatly determines when it is called 'done'. for me there are roughly 3 kinds of music:

    1) music for music's sake! this sort of music composition is the hardest for me to 'complete'. this is pure art so for me there is really not an end point to the process, just an abandonment. I like Brian's idea that when there is nothing else in his power to improve the track, he calls it 'done'. For me, I know when a track is done if I feel that if I mess with the track anymore I will ruin it, so best to just leave it alone. that rule seems sort of lame compared to Brian's.

    2) music with a concept! I tend to compose music with a strong concept in mind. this helps inspire and focus my work, but almost as important it helps eliminate the millions of options to just a few options that fit my concept. as a track is approaching 'doneness' it's helpful to go back to the original idea for the track to figure out what else is needed to capture that idea.

    3) music for picture/work for hire: when I'm composing for a film or commercial the director/client has a lot to do with a track being called 'done'. the music is there serve a purpose, to support a character, story thread or subplot, etc. so when the director and I come to an agreement that the music is appropriate for a given scene/sequence all there is to do is fine tune the music. I could tinker with it forever, but I risk losing the balance with the picture. that's the nice thing about applied music, there is a reason for the music so it's more clear when it's done.

  • Bryan

    Off topic –

    Are those speakers behind Brian for surround sound? Just came to mind that it would be interesting if you deliberately created the sweet spot by positioning the speakers in back of your head(s). I don't know if the brain has any bias towards sounds ahead of the body – maybe we actually have a heightened sense of detail of what's behind us for survival purposes?

  • LT

    Interesting… When we were working on Emergence, we found ourselves with a lot of tracks “in progress” for a long time. We weren't exactly sure where we wanted to go with everything musically. But once we finished Parks On Fire and a couple other tracks, we suddenly felt we had a clear creative direction and were able to finish up everything else relatively quickly.

  • LT

    15 years?? Wow. That is some serious patience.

    My suggestion: Whatever you have by Christmas 2010, just declare it “done” and let the world hear it. You can always do a remix for Christmas 2011 if you feel the need to refine it further. :)

    The nice thing about tracks that are for your own projects is that, even if you declare them “done” at a particular point in time, you can always go back for a reinterpretation. That's what we did with Emergence and the subsequent Remergence EP.

  • LT

    I actually think “can't improve it” and “will ruin it if I do more” are pretty similar rules, and smart approaches. :)

    Completely agree that narrowing down your options is absolutely essential, whether by limiting yourself to a certain concept, mood, set of software/hardware tools, or some other means.

  • entasmiquity

    That's a good suggestion. One thing that I struggle with when a
    project drags on is that the vision almost necessrily changes. The
    sound I was trying to capture in 1995 is not the same sound I might
    try to capture now. Your “2011 remix” idea is a good way to work
    around that.

  • LT

    Nope, they're not surround speakers – Brian just has his back to our workstation. :)

  • Morgan Williams

    In Management Science there's something called the “pareto principle” which says that in manufacturing systems, 80% of the defects, mistakes and inefficiencies in a product can be attributed to 20% of the process defects. i.e. you solve 20% of the process inefficiencies, and you solve 80% of the problems with the product.

  • cheekyrapide

    This is such a *big* subject. As a total nobody, I've listened to two great inspirations talk about “doneness” and the idea of 'song' – Roger O'Donnell from the Cure (who did his first album on just one one Moog Voyager) and Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices (who believed in writing one song a day). I came away from both discussions feeling that a 'less is more' approach was the way to go. I guess that's the idea of a self imposed deadline (which I've never been able to enforce). It's also sometimes hard to apply that in electronic music when production is so intrinsically linked with the end composition; after all, you always want to see how the new Ableton Live 8 Corpus plugin will sound with your loop!

    I'm really enjoying your posts; please, please keep them up!

  • nick

    a guy i write with thought it up while we were in the middle of mixing a record once, and it stuck. we were always operating on a 150-250% rule beforehand.

  • Torley

    I'm so glad you shared your candid thoughts on this, LT! It's such a universal topic for anyone who… creates. I struggled with it for a great many years before finding acceptance: a song is never really “done”. But at some point, like a child, you send it out into the world. It may come back to you remixed, it may take on other lives of its own — and heck, it can be remastered (which is not just “icing on the cake”, it's vital to presenting music) — but what pleases me the most is that I *know* where my song has traveled. For example, someone writes to me with encouraging words saying “I found out about your music from so-and-so…”

    Especially for the more editing-centric types, let me know if you relate: I'm sometimes tempted to keep applying one more little stuttery glitch, one more variation in harmony, but altho those details contribute to the overall appearance like one-day stubble, I eventually feel the song wrestling free of my grasp and wanting to be set free at last. This is a tough one because it sounds vague, abstract, very gut-oriented and certainly about intuition, which is why ultimately, I present my reasons, my examples as the music itself… not words.

    This may not have been such a feasible, practical view in earlier years, but thanks to the flexibility technology gives us to constantly shape art, it's really a process — or a continuum or wave — not a point. (Kinda quantum mechanical, I know.)

  • redgnu

    First of all: really cool that you share your creative process.

    Seeing this video, reminded me of my ongoing struggle, to actually “create” a song. Like from start to end, with progress.

    Let me explain a little further, I work with ableton live mostly, and most of the time in session view.

    So what happens, is that, say, I start with a drum beat, then create a bass loop, and maybe some strings to acomply it.

    At that point, either of two things can happen:
    1. I end up trying to add more and more sounds together (making it into a cacophony).
    2. I start creating a lot of small variations on that first loops.

    What I would like to know, is how to turn a bunch of loops into a song. How to get some progress into it. Are there some guidlines / rules that you use? Like song patterns (intro – chorus – bridge, etc.). Or is it just a matter of having a theme, or object that you want to “describe” with a song?