Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A Song for the studio - Part 2.

The writing session

I wrote before about creating a new song with my brother for us record at our upcoming studio session. I wanted to write a short post to document the writing session and describe the process in a little more detail.

A guitar, pencil and pad, a few chords and a dash of time. All you need to write a song...

It's been a long while since I had written a new song as I mostly concentrate my efforts on producing tunes for others these days, and in the week running up the the writing session I felt I should be trying to note down some ideas, but as hard as I tried I found myself coming up blank!

Generally as a writing pair my brother is the lyricist and I create the music, but these lines are not definitive and we will both contribute to the song as a whole. We haven't had a chance to write directly together for many years so I was a little nervous approaching this session whether we would still click quickly into place and start to feed from each others ideas.

Getting started

The session started as all good writing sessions should, with a cup of coffee and a chat. Colin (my brother) had brought along his song book and ideas file and we spent some time getting into the zone by reviewing old songs we had written or worked on together and also skimming through some of the half finished ideas he had in there.

One song caught our attention, originally entitled 'Better late than never' it consisted of a verse, verse middle and a few lines for the chorus. Essentially the song was about rediscovering an old song and realising that it never really got the time it deserved, we both felt that this was an interesting concept especially considering the context of what we were doing. Colin couldn't remember the melody or chord sequence associated with the song but that didn't matter as it gave us a blank staring point, and the few lyrics we had would make a great jumping in point.

So we had our starting point.

Working quickly

Now was the time to work quickly and to get the idea moving while inspiration was still fresh. In my experience about 80% of the song gets written in the first 40 minutes of a writing session, because if the idea is exciting to you it will begin to suggest  its own direction and you simply hold on for the ride. We quickly settled on chord sequences and melodies for the various section of the song, and began to flesh out the lyrics often with lines we both agreed were simply placeholders to be revisited later. As I said it is key at this stage to let the song flow and not get too hung up on details - These can be worked out later.

Although I feel sure that this song will end up centred around the guitar, when I'm writing I prefer to work out chords and melodies on the piano. As this is my stronger instrument and allows me to be more inventive and creative when working out chord changes and I can better visualise how a melody needs to move. My limited guitar playing ability always leads me to the same few chord choices which can be a problem.

Along the way the song gained a new chorus and title based on the line 'Play it again'. We wrote a new second verse and a bridge, while also editing and rewriting parts of the original song's first verse.

Job done - for now..

We spent around 4 hours in total writing the song, and by the end we had a finished piece - all be it one still with a way to go both lyrically and structurally. I feel that it needs as short break possibly after the first chorus, and a proper intro is called for too.

But time our was up. Our wives had returned with the kids and it was time to call it a day.

One last job remained, and that was to record a quick one take 'scratch demo' of the song for us to both go away and listen to so we could refine the thing towards being 'ready'. So if your interested, here is that very recording. Rough round the edges and full of plenty of mistakes, but it's our version 1.0

Final thoughts

I was a little worried going into this that we would not be able to come up with the goods on the day, but deep down I knew it should work as long as we could keep our egos at bay were just be open to comment and suggestion from each other.

It was a hugely enjoyable session which produced a song that neither of us would have written alone, which is great as it means we both feel attached to it and totally on board with the idea.

However, the biggest thing I've taken away for the process is that there is no such thing as writers block in music - all you need to do is make something, anything - if is good then great - Job done. If it's just 'OK' then you, or maybe someone you know can probably improve it, change it and mould it into something better. If just plain stinks then you at least have made something and it might spark other ideas to move forward with!

So I will leave you with this thought (which I think I originally heard in some form or other from Merlin Mann)

Make a version 1.0 - it can always be improved in version 1.5!!


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Old Masters...

A blast from the past

Now of course I'm not talking about the painters here, but rather my old master tapes from many a year back. Hang on, did you just say tape? - Yep, and cassette tape at that!

A recent request by my Nephew for a copy of the backing track of one of my old songs so he could do his own version of the song had me digging out my old Tascam 424 four track tape machine and a whole stack of master tapes going back over 20 years!

Tascam 424 - Sepia toning seemed fitting somehow

Now I'm a sucker for listening to old recordings. You always find that forgotten track, idea or take that makes you smile, and quite often makes you think "What on earth was I doing!". Every time these old tapes come out I end up losing hours just enjoying the sheer innocence of the ideas they contain. They come from a younger me, a me who had all the time in the world to just play, create, programme and record music. From a me still learning about recording, songwriting, audio engineering and sound. That's not to say that I don't still learn something with every recording I make today, but the technology I was using back then made every recording a true learning experience.

Decisive days

For me these were the days of tape. The earliest recordings were made without the use of sequencers, meaning entire parts had to be written and rehearsed before being played live and committed to said tape. These were the days of track bouncing while adding new live parts to maximise the track count from the limiting 4 presented to you.

Most of all the were the days of decisions.

Once you had bounced 2 or more tracks together there was no going back. No calling up a new softsynth or patch. No tweaking the mix of the parts bounced together, no macro edit screens to hone every 'event' (we used to call them notes!), and definitely no multiple 'undo' button to fix your mistakes! You were forced to work with what you had and move on.

These may seem like bad things, but in many ways they are a fantastic positive force on your music making,  by forcing you to have the courage of your convictions and commit the idea and move on. Too often in these days of DAW's we defer our decision making for a later date and never really 'finish' anything. Every session can be recalled and tweaked and remixed endlessly making the final version of something all too elusive. This modern working method leaves little room for the happy accidents which all to often could lead a track in a new direction.

What's that noise?

That would be tape hiss. Or maybe it was the old keyboard's output stage, or the cheap poorly designed mic preamp, or any number of other items in the signal chain all of which hissed, hummed and buzzed in various musically unpleasant ways! It is such an eye opener to hear how clean and quiet the outputs are on  even the budget gear we have today when compared to gear from 15-20 years ago. Your ears compensate so you quickly don't notice what you are hearing after a while, and it's only when you put the two in direct contrast that you see, or rather hear the difference.

Hearing one of the later songs on these tapes reminded me of the day I was recording it. I remember completing the mix for the backing track which was all running from MIDI sequenced keyboards, and wanting to lay that down to 2 tracks of the recorder. However, every time I played back the newly recorded backing track from tape I was dismayed at the loss of clarity and tone in comparison to the live MIDI mix.

There was no real way to avoid this, you just had to accept it as a limitation of the medium and move on.

Never go back!

Say's it all really - Would I trade in my DAW with it total recall and macro editing, my high bit rate audio interface and it huge dynamic range and minimal noise floor, my softsynths and plugin's and the 1000's of patches and variation of sound they give my? Not on your life! The technology we use today frees us and makes all sorts of creativity possible that simply could not have been achieved back then.

But the one thing I take away from it all is this:

Sometimes you need to finish your idea first. To write the song or part before trying to record it. To choose a sound or patch and commit to it. Make at least some or your decisions early on and stick with them to give you a foundation to build your track on top of.

Of course, if you want to come back later and do a Dubstep/Metal /Country remix mash-up then nothing is stopping you  - least of all the technology.