The Year of the River

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Songwriting Process

The song ideas are always floating around and seeking out a writer. I try to pluck songs out of the air wherever I'm lucky enough to be in the right spot when they fly by me. Now that you've caught an idea, what to do?

I jotted down a few things I've discovered about the songwriting process along the way,
One main thing I've found is there are two phases of songwriting, the initial creative rush and the editing phase.

Phase One: The Creative Rush
Always be ready for a song. You never know when one will find you! Keep small notebooks handy. Keep one in the car, keep one in your laptop bag, keep one by your bed. Also, feel free to write it down on what ever is available, but just be prepared!

I have a Google Documents account which allows me to access my directory of documents from any computer that has internet access. No fear of loosing your ideas due to a hard drive crash.

Develop a simple song structure for your idea
Once you have an idea or hook that's motivating you, jot it down. Then, before writing any more lyrics, create a basic song structure or outline. simply describe what you want to have happen in each verse. Then write to that outline.

For example your outline could be as simple as this:
Song Idea: A song about to hometown friends who were so close as kids, but tragically lost touch as time rolled on.

Verse one: Create the setting, Identify two best friend, mention the lake and the childhood memories spent there.

Verse two: Create some tension, weave how time has moved them down different path, but they still try to keep in touch, but with pressures from jobs, family, etc, they loss touch.

Chorus: Introduce the hook

Bridge: Describe how little things remind them of each other. Mention the reflections in the lake, They think of each other other, but yet they never bother to get back in touch.

Chorus: Go back to the hook.

Final Verse: Many years later, both have passed away. Neither friend bothered to get back in touch. Wrap it up with the families of both friends standing on opposite shores of the lake, scattering their ashes into the water.
Simple as that. Now you have some structure to write within. Of course, this can always often does. Use this as your guidepost to remind you of what you wanted to achieve in each verse, as well as the entire song, when you get into the editing phase.

Check in on your old ideas from time to time
Finally, don't forget to go back and read your old ideas from time to time too that you've captured in your notebooks! You never know what might spark a new song.

Phase Two: Editing
After the initial idea is captured and you feel it's worth pursuing, You most often will enter into the editing phase for your song. Get your idea and outline into a document on a computer and save it in a safe place. Again, Google Documents to is a huge help in this case. Edit when you feel like it, from any machine.

Often editing can be a very tedious process. But to me, I enjoy it. The thrill of constantly massaging the flow and wordsmithing sometimes can be very therapeutic, especially when you have an idea that you feel you really passionate about expressing, and you feel as though you are making progress each editing session. If you feel you are not making progress, don't be afraid to move away from it before it turns into something you are not happy with.

Don't become too sentimental to any idea
If it's not working, drop it. Move on to another idea for a while. I find so much joy in returning back to an idea, even years later, and approaching it with new perspectives and new life experiences.
"Mark Twain mentioned about his writing process saying he always stopped writing for the day at the highpoint of his inspiration, as opposed to writing until the ideas were no longer flowing. The reason for this was, it was so much easier to pick up the next day from a previous high point, then to try and start from an uninspired low spot."
Setting it to music
Once I have a good grasp of the concept and where I want to go with it, I try to match it up to a chord progression, just enough to capture the right mood and feel. I'll capture rough musical ideas in Garage Band which I use as my "audio sketchpad." This is a great tool to capture ideas without any commitments. If I have more complex rhythm ideas or more complex song structures, I'll move into my studio where I can start blending in a rhythm track (bass & drums) in ProTools to help move the song further along.

How do I know this song is working?
I do have one rule before I start the final recording process...the song has to hold up completely with just vocals and an acoustic guitar before I start making the commitment to lay down the final tracks. It proves to me that the song is "real"

What's your songwriting process?


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mastering Your Final Mix

Ok, I so you have a great mix of your new tune, but from a volume and tonal perspective you may find yourself asking, "Why does it not stand up to my favorite songs from other professional artists?" Chances are, you're ready for a few pointers on mastering audio!

Before I get too far, IMHO, this is a process that's best left for engineers who specialize in Mastering. If there was one part of the process I'd give in and involve someone else, it would be the mastering process. But like most DYI'ers...such as either have a budget (you've spent all your money already on guitars and recording gear!) or you just have a desire to do it all!

I'm not a professional audio engineer, but I wanted to share a few tips from my recent learnings mastering the audio for songs I posted this month on this website

What is Mastering?
Mastering is the final step in the recording process, to sweeten the sonic tonality and volume of your final mix so its ready for retail. Mastering is about your entire final mix...not individual tracks. The pros have a lot of personal tricks and tools to get songs to sound clearer and better. But mostly it's equalization, compression, limiting, and cross fading to give your song a more polished "commercial" sound.

Unmastered Audio Wav Form
This image illustrates a typical wav form from a final mix. Note the dynamic nature of the file. There are loud and quiet spots throughout the mix

Mastered Audio Wav Form
This image illustrates a typical Mastered audio file. Note how the entire mix seems to hover around the same volume. This is the result of the compression that's typically applied to an audio file during the mastering process. This creates a full, even volume throughout the song.

#1 - Create a playlist (or CD) of favorite tunes you think your song should fit in with
Ask yourself, "What do I want my songs to sound like?" This was actually the fun part. I plowed through my iTunes library and located about five (5) or six(6) songs that closely represented how I wanted my songs to sound. Use these songs to set a bar. Every mix you make, burn it to a CD or make a playlist and place your songs right into the middle of that list. Listen to it often. You will quickly hear the shortcomings of your well as other things about your song. But don't be too harsh on yourself. You didn't want to sound exactly like them anyway!

#2- Listen to your mastered mix on various systems
Take your CD or playlist and play it in your car, on your computer, your home stereo system, upload it to your website and stream it. Note the differences in those systems and account for it in your critque. (e.g. Car Stereos tend to be very bassy, computers can be very "tinny") Unless you are specifically targeting a perticular audio system (chances are you aren't) make a holistic assessment of your mix and determine what further work needs to be done.

#3- Take the time to mix your audio just right...and then be prepared to remix it again after you master it
Once you do your first pass mastering your audio, you will probibly start identifying some issues with your mix, since you can now hear more. Factor this into your process. You will probibly have to return to your original mix to rebalance some of your tracks to compensate for the clarity your mastering will be bringing out in your songs.

#4- Refresh your ears
Wait a few days or weeks minimum after you have finished the mixdown to let your ears get refreshed, and listen to the track and find out what's wrong with it before getting frustrated. It's easy to get into an endless cycle of reaching for any plugins and/or outboard gear trying to fix your mix only to find out that its only getting worse...not better.

#5-Less is more
Again, avoid over saturating your mix with plugins or effects. In the end, mastering should be very transparent. Only put on what your track needs, if you can't hear anything that's wrong or you don't know how to fix it then don't do a thing and send it to someone else with more experience to master.

I mix my audio using Digidesigns ProTools 7.4 and do my mastering in Adobe Soundbooth CS3. I found Soundbooth to be a very basic application with a good array of mastering tools/setting. But not too much to get myself in trouble with. It keeps me in a good place!

Have fun!

What has your experience been mastering audio on your own? Let me know!

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