I have been asked by a few people about how I go about writing songs, so I thought I would try to give a little insight to my working processes. I am a messy worker so my methods may not suit everybody but hopefully this might be of some use and might inspire some of you to have a go yourselves.
I am not particularly gifted or talented but I am enthusiastic about writing my own songs. There are many people here on G101 that are far better singers and guitar players and I am sure that many of you could write and record better tracks than I have done. It all comes down to a little confidence.
For the record my system is pretty low spec and all the recording gear is cheap and cheerful:
- PC AMD 2400XP, 1GB 333MHz Ram, Terratec DMX 6Fire Sound Card, 80&120GB HDDs, Leadtek FX5700 Ultra gfx Card and 2 VDUs.
- Behringer MS16 Monitors
- Behringer UB1002 Mixer
- Behringer Tube Ultragain MC100 Preamp
- El Cheapo Mic, Stand and pop screen
For guitar I use a Ibanez RG470 with a Roland GK-2A pickup and for fx I use the Roland VG-88 (v2.0) running straight into the pc.
We all have our favourite software but for reference this is what I use.
Steinberg Cubase SX
2.0. The main reason I use this is because I find the midi editor easy to get to grips with, whereas I find the cakewalk stuff difficult.
- Native Instruments Battery. One of the best Drum Packages I have found so far. I also use Steinberg Groove Agent which is excellent also.
- Super Quartet. This is a decent softsynth which I use mainly for bass.
- Hyper Canvas. This is a pretty good software wave table that is GM/GM2 compatible.
- Izotope Ozone. Very good mastering package. It is very processor intensive so I don’t use it in real time.
- Waves Platinum. The Holy Grail of mastering studio fx. These are superb and are truly professional quality hence the $2,000+ price tag. The advantage of these is they can be used real time on my system
Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this lot costs a bit, and yeah, I do use P2P. BUT I am in the process of making legitimate purchases of the stuff I use, so please don’t flame me too hard
There is no easy way to start a song from scratch but one of the things I often do is record any rhythm ideas I get. It might only be a three chord sequence but I often forget the nuances in the playing unless I record them with a very basic drum beat. I have dozens of riffs and chord patterns recorded for reference. Once I get enough of a chord sequence for a verse, I usually start imaging what I would like the drums and bass to sound like.
I normally start by playing the bass line on guitar until I am happy with it. I try not to make the bass lines too intrusive but at the same time, I do like them to be melodic. Once I have a decent line, I will record it and then work it out in midi. I use Super Quartet for my bass sound and program the bass line in the piano roll on cubase. This is a long winded process but it does work for me so I stick with it.
Once the bass is done, I tie the drum part in, ensuring that the bass drum and snare sync up to the bass line. Programming drums is not easy and will sound very artificial unless you think like a drummer, ie no hi hats during a snare roll – that sort of thing. There is a good tutorial on programming drums here http://www.computermusic.co.uk/tutorial/sc1/sc1.asp
Developing the Theme
At this stage I may only have a verse completed but I have a good idea about the feel of the track. I normally try and develop a vocal line/melody at this stage. In fact this is normally where I end up singing the verse to myself when I am driving to work etc. I end up developing the song past the verse and coming up with bridges and choruses. I know this sounds odd but this is the way I do it
Once you have a vocal idea of the unwritten sections then it is time to develop suitable backing. It is quite easy to work out the rhythm part once you have an idea of a vocal melody. Once you have the chords down then it is back to programming the drums and bass. In time you will get a feel for how you want the song to start, whether it really needs a solo or not. It is not easy to describe this process but hopefully you get the general idea.
Ok, at this stage I normally have the basis for a song. Now it is time to arrange it. Expect to do some serious cutting and pasting at this stage
The start of a song is very important. A lot of popular music often starts with a modified segment of a verse or chorus. But there are no rules, so I do what I think is going to work.
Depending on the song the arrangement is normally fairly linear ie verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus/solo/verse/chorus etc. but there is no reason to try a different arrangement.
When this process is complete, I normally have the bare bones of a song with guide guitar parts.
I find it is pretty important to redo the guitar parts at this stage because the song may have been developed over a few days and the guide guitars normally sound patchy (recorded at different volumes etc). I normally start with doing a rhythm guitar simultaneously onto 2 tracks, one panned hard left and one panned hard right.
I then work out if I need additional parts. Often this occurs later in the process but I usually try to develop more guitar textures early on. This also leads to new ideas and may have you redoing the rhythm tracks to accompany the changes.
The tip here is not to be lazy and try to cut and paste any guitar parts unless you have to. The more you cut and paste in a song the more character you remove.
This is the hardest part of the process in many ways. There are absolutely no rules and therefore it is hard to give specifics on lyric writing. Sometimes the words are pretty instinctive and come very easily other times I really struggle. If I am having trouble with lyrics then I try to draft out a script for the song. I will literally write a paragraph of text explaining what I want said in each verse. Then I write. And write. And write!!
The chorus is often where I tend to fall down. The best choruses tend to have memorable words or phrases in them and it is worth bearing that in mind. The way I look at it is, convey what the song is about in the verses and make the chorus as relevant to the overall song and as simple as possible.
People get worried about rhymes but that is the easiest part of the process. Websites like http://www.rhymezone.com/
really can help.
I always find that I end up rewriting the lyrics at this stage to make them easier to sing. Record the main vocals and play it back to find any dodgy areas that need redoing. If you are having trouble trying to reach a certain note then it may be worth rephrasing it. As a smoker (yeah I know I should quit), I sometimes struggle to get my breathing right so I record alternate lines and then do another track to fill in the gaps. The best tip I can give is to try and sing with confidence, uncertainty will almost definitely show and often results in singing flat. And unless you have a good strong steady voice, don’t double up your main vocal track as it becomes more indistinct.
If you plan on doing harmony backing vocals, make sure you are comfortable with the pitch. I work out difficult vocal lines on the guitar and record it for a reference. I tend to stick to 3rd and 5th harmonies mostly but 4th’s and 7th’s also work well in the right context.
- Don’t try and sing without warming up first. I find I sing better between midday and late afternoon. Any other time I struggle.
- Sing within your range. In other words know your limitations.
- Get a pop screen. This is essential.
- Don’t try to sing when you are not comfortable. I am very self conscious about singing and I will not sing unless the house is empty.
- Practice!! You will get better.
Once you have the basic song recorded it is time to see if and additions are needed. Sometimes a song will take a new direction during the writing process which affects the final outcome. Don’t be afraid to make changes. You might find that the bridge doesn’t sit comfortably within the track. You may even find that the bridge chord progression
would sound better as a verse. Sometimes you have to be ruthless.
Once you are happy with the outcome, you might want to add incidental guitars or vox. This is the best time to do it.
I am no expert at this and I am still learning as I go along. But I tend to duplicate all my guitar tracks have them panned hard left and right. I also do the same with the backing vocals. Solos and main vox stay in the middle.
Unly’s guide (http://www.guitars101.com/forums/showthread.php?t=24456
) taught me a thing or two about eq’ing.
As for FX – only use them to enhance, not to hide. Also do not use too much because they always end up louder on the mix down in my experience.
That’s about all I can think of this morning. I will try add more when I get around to it.