The most common starting point for DAW-based producers is creating a loop, and the most common plight of DAW-based producers is moving on from the initial loop. The modern-day writer’s block preventing an 8-bar loop from developing into a fully fleshed song isn’t easy to get over, but we're here to help. This guide won't cover much about arrangement - that's a topic we'll cover later - but instead we'll focus on some techniques and workflow for generating new options and potential sections at that step between creating a loop and arranging out a song that is so rarely given much thought or time.
You need just two things to successfully expand your track with new options: be as experimental as possible while you pursue new ideas and be as critical as possible afterward. The best way to accomplish both of these is to become extremely comfortable with duplicating your loop and working to create "derivatives" - altered copies that have the same DNA as your original loop. The goal is to create as many different ideas as possible so you can throw out the bad ones and leave the best ones to assemble into the final track. This keeps everything cohesive and frees you from mistakes as your previous ideas will be preserved while you work off the copy. So as you start playing with these ideas, keep in mind you'll want to explore them on copies and copies of copies.
When you get started on your duplicates, make sure you approach them with the right mindset. This doesn't have to be an intimidating process - you have nothing at all to lose by twisting your derivatives into new contortions of the original. If it doesn’t work, throw it out! If it inspires you, pursue it! Just don't get into the habit of ditching new ideas too soon.
Sometimes, all it takes to make an interesting variation is to remove a single element from the initial loop. How do things change without the bass? Without the chords? Often, these types of alterations create working parts in and of themselves, but they can also offer a brand new outlook on your track and inspire you to add or change things that you wouldn't have otherwise heard in the already-full original loop.
And while you create new derivatives, try keeping your mind off the macro consequences of your choices. Just follow your intuitions, add, remove, and replace things, and respond to the changes you make as you go. You’ll be able to evaluate how well if fits into the overall vision of the song later, but for now, take chances - they don't have to be the final versions, but they could lead you to brand new ideas that create a feedback loop of self-inspiration.
Because of the repetitive nature of rhythm and the usefulness of a pocket groove in almost every genre, even live drums are often built out of "loops". From the early days of rock n roll to the dance tracks of today, however, drum fills have been the go-to method of breaking up a percussion part that drones on for too long. You can easily extend a loop that is too short just by duplicating it and creating a fill in the last bit of the second instance of the percussion. These days, "fills" can take lots of different forms - adding a white noise swell, a reversed half bar, or a warped double time beat can be as effective tools for making a drum part feel fresh as a brief bombastic syncopation.
Another approach to creating new rhythms is to tie them to the other parts they play against so that they highlight the melody or chord pattern. A closely matched percussion track can create successful cohesion between all the parts in a section, but you may need to add a few additional hits to keep it interesting. As with anything, you should view the initial changes you make as a new starting point - duplicate the loop to create a new derivative if necessary and then listen to where the new interactions between the parts "want" to go.
Of course, adding a new percussion layer is an even simpler trick to add energy and a new feel to a new section. Try throwing a bongo loop or shaker on top of your existing drum track and see how that changes things. It might be enough on its own, or it might offer a new groove to work off of and adjust the rest of the drums to.
Hopefully these approaches will help you make alterations to the anchoring rhythmic elements of your track. If it's helpful, you can try focusing on only making changes to the percussion for awhile, and then return to them later and see how you can shape the other parts around these differences.
Variation in melody and harmonics can be daunting, especially if you aren't as familiar with music theory. If this is the bottleneck to getting production done for you, find tricks that take some of the burden and responsibility off you. You can use apps to show what chords work in the key you’re writing in - like this one for iOS - or use midi processors that keep you in key. As long as your critical eye is filtering the options, it’s still your creative work, whatever the original source.
When you’re tweaking chords for a new part, take a chord in your original progression and see how many different ways you can make use of it through inversions, arpeggiators, etc. By playing the chords out in new ways, your likely to find new contexts for them and new harmonic ways to play off them.
Similarly, replacing a single chord in a progression can make a big change to the feel of the song, and the resulting harmonics with the rest of the piece re-contextualizes the rest of your tonal elements. You can also try the opposite - pull a single chord out of your progression and transplant it into a new derivative to build a new progression from scratch.
One of the easiest things you can do that almost always makes for interesting variation is to pull some of your tonal elements an octave up or down. When you move your chords down, you immediately open some space in your track and help distinguish between an A and B section. Because it's so easy to change the pitch of MIDI and audio tracks in any DAW, you should always give this a try.
Another useful and easy thing you can do to a derivative is to extend some phrases out to create longer passages. Change a few notes in your duplicated melody, especially the ending tones, as this essentially make your melody twice as long. Think of them as the melodic equivalent of drum fills. Many melodies have repeated patterns within them, and variations and longer passages help keep them feeling fresh.
Finally, embrace the random and chaotic nature of music making! If you play an instrument, record a few improvisations on a derivative and edit them into something simple and cohesive. No matter how good or bad a player you are, you can always find some strong passages to pull out of your noodling, and after quantize, transform, and sequencing, create something that adds to your track.
Music is more than a sequence of fundamental frequencies and timing. Especially in today's era of limitless in-the-box instruments and processors, the textures and sonic harmonics are just as important as those traditional compositional elements. Just as before, when you copy over a new derivative, do anything you can to transform the existing sounds into something completely different using all the tools at your disposal.
Tools like automation! With tweaks to just a few parameters in a new section, it can feel totally different from what came before. The classic example of this is the automated cutoff of filter, starting low in the beginning and letting continuously more harmonics in to build anticipation and energy. Adding an effect like a filter, chorus, or delay to a few tracks in a new derivative can push it further away from the original, as well as inspire further changes to the composition of further derivatives.
Now, the most dramatic way you can alter textures is just to change your timbres altogether. If you're still working off MIDI, it is incredibly easy to swap in new instruments, but these simple changes can make a huge difference in opening up the track. Copy your MIDI into many different sounds, creating "soft" derivatives with the same mindset we had earlier. If you have a sustained saw lead, try playing around by changing up the instrument to a staccato sound like a marimba. The juxtaposition will make a clear indication of a new section for the listener and make a whole new feel and dynamic for you to work off of as you develop the other elements that will play alongside it. As you continue to hear new sounds that work with your melodies, chords, and percussion, save them in muted tracks and keep them in your pocket to try out in the various sections you start to create.
Sometimes you need to do something really different to start to get results with your variations. Everything we’ve talked about so far has been pretty traditional, but you might need to really fuck up your track to break writers block. If it sounds bad, good! That means you can identify things that aren’t working and things you don’t like, creating a laundry list of things you can work on, so tweak those until you like it! The great benefit is that since you started from something so far out and weird, by the time you’ve worked it back to something more reasonable it will sound very different from the original source.
A completely different technique is to take your hands off the project altogether - collaborate! Send the stems or even the bounced .wav to a producer friend you trust to put their own stamp on it. Let them do whatever they want and when you get it back you'll not only have new material, it will also inspire you to further create yourself.
Don’t stay too long, go somewhere else but bring it back before we feel too uneasy. Never forget that the stakes are low here - if you stay critical and eliminate the loops that aren't working, no-one will ever hear them! So take chances and get weird and continue working on ideas to their natural conclusions, you'll find groupings that work for you and provide plenty of material to work into a final arrangement.