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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Start to Finish: The Process of Making a Song

The way I write songs may be a bit different than most. First of all, my songs don't exist in live form. I only write a song as a finished studio piece. Second, I generally don't know where the song is going when I start it. It can be a kind of messy way to make music, but it usually yields interesting results. Even my more focused songs, like Harvest or Continuous Welded Rail followed a similar writing process. I mostly deal electronic instruments, because I have a strong, possibly quixotic desire to be a one man show, but I'll occasionally throw in vocals or some live instrument part. Lets get to work!

Part I: Composing and Producing

I always start with one of two things: a concept for a type of sound, or a melody or chord progression. Sometimes I'll randomly come up with a melody at an unexpected time, or sometimes I'll stumble on one when playing around with the keyboard or banjo. Other times there will be a particular song that I like and I'll want to write something in a similar style. I never use those AB-whatever song structures that are so prevalent in pop music, nor do I try to come up with hooks for my songs. I love hooks, I'm just not particularly good with them.

Anyway, lets say I've got an interesting melody. I'll then practice playing it over and over with different instrument sounds, like piano, strings, synthesizers, maybe horns or something. During this time my left hand will often be searching for chords that fit with the melody as well. Eventually, I'll find a sound that clicks with me and I can picture an entire soundscape surrounding the melody, which is when I get to work.

First I'll decide the tempo I want the song to be at. I do this by tapping a special button on my drum machine that gives me a tempo readout based on my rhythm. I start a new song in Cubase and set that tempo. Then I'll pull up some drum preset on the keyboard and record it real quick and loop it. I'll choose a drum loop that roughly fits the feel I'm going for, though it is unlikely that it'll be used in the final production. This makes for a metronome, or click track, that is way better than the usual obnoxious beeping sound that the software gives you. Now I can play my melody along with a nice beat to keep time.

I'll record the melody first in MIDI format, which means instead of recording the sounds of my keyboard, I record the data of what keys I press onto a MIDI track in Cubase. After that, I'll tell Cubase to quantize my notes, which essentially means make minute changes to each note so that they're all in time with the rhythm. I don't do it too much or everything will sound too mechanical. But since I have just about the worst rhythm a musician could have, it's very useful. Once the notes are in place and they sound like someone with actual talent played them, I'll have the software MIDI track play my keyboard, and this time I actually record the sound. Often for simpler melodies or chords, I won't bother with the whole MIDI/Quantization thing.

I'll then record other parts in the same fashion, like a bass line or a sweet pad (a simpler background chord). I'll also start thinking about what kind of percussion I want. I make sure that I experiment with any instrument sound I can think of. I never leave out any possibility for any kind of sound. Who says you can't have harpsichord, oboe, a screaming synthesizer, xylophone and distorted rock drums all in one song? I'll never tell you that.

By this time I'll be thinking about new melodies to follow up the first one, new chords to move the song to, and transitions to tie the pieces together as I make them. Because I pretty much record as I write, a very experimental way to make music, I'll often end up with several versions of a song, each one going in different directions. Many of them are terrible, but by continually experimenting I'll find new avenues to write in. Working with each part is like working on a miniature song, since any one part can sound completely different from the next. Sometimes I'll go from purely symphonic to purely electronic to several layers of percussion without melodies, and each one requires a different mindset when mixing. This is also a good time to record anything acoustic, like bongos or, *shudder*, vocals.

Eventually I'll get to a point where I either think it would be a good place to end the song or I simply can't think of anything else to add. Sometimes I'll try to incorporate some elements from the beginning of the song into the end, to wrap things up nicely, but it isn't necessary.

Part II: Post Production and Mastering

After I have everything pretty much written, I get to the mixing and engineering stage. This is where it starts to sound less like a collection of disparate sounds and more like a cohesive song. I'll fix up the percussion and add in interesting rolls and crashes to spice up transitions between parts. I might add some small, quiet higher pitch melodies to complement the main ones. I'll change the volume levels on everything until it all sounds great. Remember this: Good volume levels on everything will mean the difference between a mediocre song and a great one. I'll add effects like reverb, filtering and distortion.

I'll keep tweaking it as much as I can. Then I'll leave it alone for a day or two. This is important. I'll leave it alone and make sure I listen to a lot of other music that's not mine during this time. When I come back to the song I'll have a much more neutral and fresh perspective. I'll tweak whatever I think needs work and then I'll burn the song to a CD. I'll listen to this CD in my car as I drive to see what it sounds like there. Listening to your song or mix on different sets of speakers is a great way to make it an excellent, well rounded mix. I often find, for instance, that the bass in my mix is a bit heavy in the car compared to my studio monitors. I'll also probably listen to the song on headphones, which you should be doing anyway occasionally when writing the song. This helps with tweaking the stereo image you've made in your mix.

Once I've listened to it in a few different environments I'll go back again and tweak whatever is left. Then I'll declare it done. (Maybe after listening to it in the car again?) I save it as a WAV file, and bring it to my Windows computer for mastering. I only do this because my mastering software ended up being Windows only. I'll add a very small amount of compression which I add to all my songs to give them a consistent volume level. Then I'll convert that to a high quality (256kbps) mp3 file, put all the necessary tags on it, and upload it to my website or send it to whoever may have asked for the song in the first place. I keep the master WAV file in several different places, (one on the Mac, one on the Windows machine, and one on a separate backup hard drive) to be safe. I also backup the original Cubase tracks as well, because you never know when you're going to need the original tracks when you're famous and some creatively starved rapper wants to pay you millions for the right to call your song his own.

Then I take a quick break and start all over again! If you want to hear examples of songs of mine that followed this procedure pretty much to the letter, listen to:

Falling Gracefully
Apathetic Macrocosm
Quantum Foam
Behold! The Mountain Cries

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