Monday, December 10, 2012

How New Songs Develop

Any time I write a post about songwriting, you have to keep in mind that what I'm describing to you is one of an infinite number of ways to accomplish the task of creating/capturing a new song. The same artist can end up using ten different ways to create ten songs on an album. Granted, that usually doesn't happen; many artists tend to fall into a formulaic approach, and once they hit on something that works for them, they just keep reusing it over and over. For me, the song itself is what dictates its path, and whatever direction it takes me, that's where I go. What the hell does that mean? Allow me to elucidate.

I'm currently immersed in creating music for They Stole My Crayon, a collaborative project between myself, Kat, and Bunny Knutson. For this band, if you want to call it that, I am purposefully taking some new directions in the style, and that means I can't just take the easy road. Doing this music has required me to do a lot of listening to new music (which is great, by the way), and allowing the influence of the songwriting and the production of the recordings to wash over me.

It may seem obvious, but the most important skill you can have as a songwriter or recordist is the ability to listen. When musicians listen, they tend to do it on a different plane than most people. We analyze many aspects of a recording that normal folks might not even notice but are subconsciously aware of. It's our job to put those nebulus components of sound into tangible aspects and use them well.

A Little History
Back in the era of the 1970s and beforehand, you plenty of options for songwriting, but not so many for recording. Very few people outside of commercial recording studios had the equipment required for professional music production, so you'd write your little song using your guitar or piano and a sheet of paper, then go into the studio and record it. By the way, not just anyone could go into the studio; it cost a lot of money (and still does), so most of the people recording were those who were signed to record labels who would foot the bill for the studio sessions (and the session musicians and engineers and producer and tape and so on).

Today, you can download some software that turns your home computer in your bedroom into a multitrack recording studio cheaply and easily. At least that's the theory; the problem is that most people don't realize what an intricate art and science it is to creatively capture music, and they lack the listening and technical skills to do it well, but that's another story. For the sake of this post, let's assume that you have some recording gear at home, and have a pretty good idea how to use it.

There's nothing "fair" about the recording process. Some people have to bring in a bunch of musicians to record specific parts. I'm fortunate that over the course of my life, I've become proficient on a wide range of instruments, allowing me to do most of my own recorded music by overdubbing parts on top of each other. That having been said, I always welcome the opportunity to have other people make musical contributions when they can add something to the song that otherwise wouldn't be there with just me doing all the performances.

The Demo
As I've discussed here before, it's a really good idea to capture your new song as soon as you can. I do this as quickly and simply as possible. I grab whatever is handy that I can use to record -- a video camera, a computer app that's designed for voice memos, whatever -- and record the song, usually just playing guitar and singing. Don't have lyrics yet? No problem. Mumble some unintelligible sounds while you play. The words can come later.

Refine the Tune
Perhaps your song is absolutely perfect from that moment. It does happen. Chances are, though, you'll notice some aspects of your song that need tweaking. You'll make some adjustments in your lyrics when you try and sing and realize that a phrase is really awkward. You'll decide that the last chorus should be repeated twice. You'll realize the bridge is too long. Whatever the case may be, now is the perfect time to refine your song, because once you really get locked into the structure of the song, it's hard to imagine it any other way.

What Is Arranging?
The American Federation of Musicians defines arranging as "the art of preparing and adapting an already written composition for presentation in other than its original form. An arrangement may include reharmonization, paraphrasing, and/or development of a composition, so that it fully represents the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structure"[1].

That's not really easy to understand for everyone, so let me give you an example. For our new song "Take the Ride", we'd created a demo per above the same day the song was written. I did it very fast, not trying very hard to think about the fine details. This weekend, I revisited that demo and found a few things I didn't fully like. I also started imagining some of the other sounds and musical motifs that I felt could better flesh out the idea as I imagined it. Remember, you have to have a good enough imagination to hear things that don't yet exist on a recording. That's part of being a music producer. More on that job title another time.

I can't deny that when trying to record stuff you're proud of, it's helpful to have choices in gear. However, don't fall into the trap of thinking that more/better gear will automatically make you a better recordist. It certainly won't make you a better songwriter, and having too many choices can actually end up paralyzing you while trying to get a new song done.

So, I could hear things that weren't yet part of the song. Strings, for instance. I imagined certain vocal lines that had yet to be recorded. I thought of additional guitar parts. You get the idea. Meanwhile, we also went through that refinement process. I changed the key of the original demo from E major up to G major; it just felt better to sing and more enjoyable to listen to. I also picked up the tempo considerably. I'd heard a tune that I liked and felt the tempo would be a better fit than what we'd chosen for the original demo version. Kat did some work on her original lyrics in places that didn't work well for phrasing. Also, the original demo had no drums at all, and I had what I thought might be a good plan for a drum beat. All stuff that would have a big impact on the next version of the song!

Better Demo or Master?
We then set about recording these new ideas. I started with the drums, and then added bass, and then guitar, and then some lead and backing vocals, getting mixing ideas as I went along. The question you have to ask at this phase: am I recording a better demo, or am I recording the version that will be released to the public? The answer is easy: if it's good enough, it's the final version. If not, you're going to go through part or the whole process all over again. My advice is to not assume either way. Try to get great sounds, if you can. Try and do your best on every track, because it really might be a "keeper".

It's still unknown at this stage whether what we worked on this weekend might be what ends up on the album. I will tell you this: when you don't record in a "real" studio, you almost always end up making compromises. Your home probably wasn't designed with music recording in mind, so there are noises that leak inside (so you just might have to be okay with car engine noises and the sound of playing kids invading your precious lead vocal track). Your recording gear, unless you've invested a whole lot of money, isn't as good as the equipment in a pro studio. But the good news is that even the less expensive gear we use at home has gotten a whole lot better over the years, and more importantly, if you're a good recordist and a creative person, you can figure out ways to make stuff work. Sometimes, those limitations end up challenging you into making even better stuff than you would with a wide open canvas.

What's Next?
It depends on what you're going for. In this case, we have a band member (Bunny) who lives about 30 miles away. Not very far, but far enough through LA traffic that dropping by to throw down some tracks isn't possible all the time. We want Bunny to make contributions, so what I'll do is take all the tracks we've done so far and send them to Bunny via the amazing Internet. Bunny will be able to load those tracks into his computer, and then add various sounds (probably more guitars and vocals in this case).

We sometimes are lucky enough to be in the same room while trying to write music. However, even in collaborations, I've found the act of writing music and lyrics to be a personal one best accomplished by an individual, and then the collaborative process happens while the song is being refined. Here's Bunny and I making silly noises, which is fun whether or not you're trying to write great music.

And then? More and more refinement. I'm still not fully happy with the vocals we did yesterday, so I already know I'll be doing those again. Once everything has been recorded satisfactorily, the process of mixing begins. You need everything to fit together nicely. That means the volumes of the individual tracks blend well. It means that the frequency content of the song (aka the amounts of treble, bass, and midrange sounds) has the right tone in each track so that the overall result isn't too muddy or too tinny (unless that's what you're after). It means that each effect is applied tastefully. It means that the song starts and ends in the way you'd planned, and much, much more. There's an amazing amount of creative work that goes into mixing, but we're not even close to that point yet.

What we do have at the moment is a song that's neither here nor there, but is headed in a very promising direction. I'm excited about its potential, but I've also seen songs get to this stage and get completely derailed by a number of factors. The only secret to seeing it through to its successful completion, if there is one, is to try and maintain the focus of the original vision and vibe, while also being open minded about where the song might go that you'd never planned in the first place. Sound like a mutually exclusive goal? It would seem that way, but it's all part of the magic of making music. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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