I'm usually pretty good at imagining what I want something to sound like. I helps that I don't do a whole lot of work that require any fancy sound design, so most of my sound design so far is for my own edification.

However, I'm just about to start work on a horror / ghost film, and I expect to run into a few problems. The whole "sound design writer's block" is sometimes hard to get by. I've run into a few of these in the past. I've always found a way around them, but it can be especially difficult if you're under a tight deadline. There have been times where I've delivered a project that I wasn't pleased with because my "writer's block" left me scrambling for second best, only to think of the perfect solution a day or two after delivery.

What do you do inspire yourself when you hit your mental blocks? What do you do when you need a quick fix so you can hit a deadline?

5 Answers 5


Everyone's creativity runs on different cycles, so everyone's answer might be totally different. For me, beyond the obvious (playing with fresh/new gear, plug-ins, or soundmaking objects), there are three tricks that usually help.

The first is to get in tune with my own creative rhythms. I've noticed that my creativity increases under certain conditions and times of day, so I'll rejigger my schedule to best accomodate when I know I'm at my most mentally fluid; it certainly isn't the middle of the afternoon, I'll tell you that much. I'll save my afternoons for repetitive tasks, and let myself really rip, say, first thing in the morning, when I'm still groggy, can free-associate easily, and can think creatively with fewer preconceptions or distractions.

The second is to get away from the problem for a while. I learned in art school to work on multiple pieces at once, and literally to turn the canvas of one piece against the wall, out of sight, while working on another. In this way, I purposefully interleave tasks, errands, and even projects so that I don't grind down on one thing for hours and hours. Taking a bike ride in the middle of the day, running an errand, or even taking a shower can give some distance from the challenge at hand. Distance = perspective = objectivity. For me, exercise almost always helps.

Finally, I free associate in order to re-frame the problem. Sometimes this is mind-mapping, sometimes it's just lists of words. But for me, working BACKWARDS from the desired emotional outcome and working towards the solution is the best way to go.

There are a variety of interesting unblocking "accessories" out there that some use, from Eno's "Oblique Strategies" to Thinkertoys. I've not used them myself, but they serve the same function of giving you some perspective and helping to re-frame the problem to facilitate fresh thinking.

  • +1 on distance. When time allows I find it best to escape the suite and get some vitamin D. I don't smoke but I'll take a break and go chat with the smokers, even just take a walk around the block. Oct 18, 2011 at 13:05

I suspect there is an 'artists delusion' that says inspiration strikes and then you work. I personally find the opposite - if you don't feel inspired choose the most banal aspect to work on and do it. By the time you have finished it inspiration will appear! Theres a great Laurie Anderson quote: alt text


Lots of good food for thought already posted here.

One thing that has always been helpful for me is to simplify my workflow. Today we are presented with an astronomical amount of choices so much so that I think it can sometimes stifle creativity instead of promote it. Scads of plugins and unlimited tracks to name a couple of culprits.

A technique that I'll occasionally use to get out of a rut or simply for a challenge is to pick a simple set of 3 to 5 plugins and limit myself to making sounds with only those plugs. This can force you to be creative in ways that you aren't always exercising and help find and develop new skills and editing techniques. It can also force you to dig much more deeply into something as simple as an EQ possibly discovering some special quirk about that plugin in the process.

I'll even go as far as to create different simplified versions of my plugin folder so I can only see those few choices in the list in Pro Tools. The lack of this giant list of choices can be quite liberating.


Leafcutter John (who has a great blog btw) went through it a year or so ago and did a great job of not only blogging it, but engineering his emergence from the doldrums by kicking off some projects via the blog as well.

See "I thought you used to be a musician once?" http://leafcutterjohn.com/?p=598

and "Goodbye Curse of Greatness" http://leafcutterjohn.com/?p=612

The 99% looks good, cheers Andrew!

  • Leaf Cutter John is great! Mar 7, 2010 at 22:41

Check outSound Design Strategies. It's based on brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. Who knows, it might just work.

A good blog on this kind of stuff is The 99%. It's by the guys from Behance

The 99% provides insights on productivity, organization, and leadership -- all designed to help creative people take action and push their ideas forward.

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