Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Making Music on Memorial Day

Enjoy the demo for the new Zak song "I Like You". I'll be pulling it down in about a week, so listen now, or wait for the album in the year 2073.

Hello, Reader. Let me tell you about my weekend, as Pete Townshend once wrote.

Making music is fun, or at least it should be. If you find that making music is shitty and fills you with angst, you should try a different hobby. Unfortunately, like most arts, making music can also be a pretty anti-social activity. I can't imagine anything more boring than watching an artist of any kind -- writer, sculptor, painter, musician, whatever -- go about their tasks of creation. That's why, when Kat's parents were visiting and I had much of the three-day Memorial Day weekend to myself while she spent time with them, I did something that I wouldn't have done had we spent our typical weekend together: making an entire song.

There is no "way" to create music. At some point, you think about certain sounds that seem to go together in some way, and then using anything from a pen and paper to a recording studio and dozens of musicians, you capture the idea in some way. Beyond that, it's all a matter of personal preference, and the way you go about doing what you do is going to be very different depending on the genre of music you're creating, and your own comfort level in the tools you have available to create and capture sounds.

A Song is Born
In my case, I began the tune on Thursday evening. How does one "begin" a new song? I have no idea. I found myself semi-humming along to a little chord progression I heard in my brain while I worked, and after a moment of confirming that I wasn't just recalling a song that already existed, realized that I might have had something worth exploring. I did not have the entire song; it's very rare that a whole song is birthed in the way that a baby is (i.e., all at once). You get parts at a time. All my song had at that stage was the first four measures, which I envisioned being performed on piano.

The important thing at that point is not to worry about the rest of the song. Start by capturing what you have. I grabbed a pen and wrote this down:

E |Bm7 |Amaj7/D |Dmaj7/G |

My most effective songwriting tool: a pen and paper.

So, without playing a note, the ball was indeed rolling on the new tune. The next step I took was dictated by necessity. I opened up an application called Pro Tools, and using its MIDI functions (disregard all this techno geek crap if you're not a musician; none of it really matters), recorded the beginning piano part that very night. That's all I did for then. Some songs don't get beyond that stage; they die there, sitting in a folder on the desktop called "Songs In Progress". I've got a big batch of them, so I know how this goes.

The Little Song Grows Up
However, this time -- and maybe it was because I know I had a long weekend coming -- I kept rolling. On Friday, between while in between work projects, I extended the first little bit to include the first few chords of the verse. So that was cool. I could now start humming some melody ideas while continuing to write the song. I'll boil down the rest of the tedious process: I got through writing the entire song on the piano alone. I then wrote the drum part, and -- having neither a set of drums nor a great drummer available at a moment's notice -- programmed the drums to be played by the computer. I'm pretty good at it, though all things considered I would ALWAYS prefer having the real thing.

I now had a piano part with drums over them. That meant the structure of the song was pretty well set. I took my trusty pen and paper (take that, technology!) and jotted some notes on the locations of the important parts of the songs -- verses and choruses, bridges and solos, intros and outros. Then I built the song the way that a baker prepares a layered cake. I added my bass part, which is essential for my music. I went back and refined the drums so that they got along nicely with the bass. Then -- and this weighed heavily on the subsequent vibe of the entire song -- I decided to put down some horns, again using the computer to do the job.

Words and Things
By Monday morning, I had the entire song ready, with two exceptions. Ironically, as a guy who's known for singing and playing guitar, my new song had no vocals or guitars at that stage. The guitars were easy; I knew what I was going to do. But to do the vocals, I needed lyrics. The cool thing was the song itself was there to help me along, and by that point, it had a vibe that helped me think through what I wanted to say on a literal basis. I found the verses to impart a musical feeling of being friendly and laid back, and that's where the theme of "I Like You" came in (which, by the way, is the name of the tune). I paced around on my patio for awhile with a yellow notepad and a pen, and once the right words started flowing, they just kept on coming until I found myself with a song to sing.

Back up in the little room that I can't quite call a recording studio, I set up a mic and immediately recorded the lead vocal. I then did several more passes to record my own harmonies and backing vocals as well. The last thing I did was add short guitar solos in a few sections of the song, and then did a quick mix.

Be It Done?
The writing part of the song is done. The recording? Far from it. Because of the fact that I am at least temporarily forced to record here instead of a real studio, everything I've done so far is just a well-polished demo. I will likely re-record the entire thing at a later point, but for the time being, feel free to enjoy the tune.

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