Are you a songwriter ready to record your music but not exactly sure how to go from song idea to music producer? These ideas will get you started.
With most songwriters/musicians/bands writing and recording music at home these days, many indie artists find themselves, by default, wearing several different creative hats. A singer/songwriter who wants to record his or her own songs using a GarageBand set-up in a bedroom has now become a de facto producer, recording engineer, and mixer.
An interesting trend I’ve observed via my gig as a songwriting teacher reflects this shift in our collective, creative workflow: In addition to the usual songwriting questions I field regularly, I also get a ton of basic music-creation queries.
I can usually answer my students’ questions about technical, recording/mix issues (How do I set a compressor? What mic should I use?) by pointing them to one of the many great tutorial videos on YouTube that address their specific concerns, or to resources like the Disc Makers Blog. But when it comes to answering questions on the topics of production, arrangement, etc., I’ve found a hands-on approach is more effective, and now many of my “songwriting” students are also “production” students, learning the basics of a craft they’ve inadvertently fell into (and struggle with) in an effort to get their music out into the world.
In doing this work, I’ve crafted a “Beginner Music Producer’s Checklist,” which includes some questions to consider before slipping on those headphones, cracking open that laptop, and hitting record on your latest masterpiece.
Ask yourself, “Is this song really finished?”
Without a great song you have nothing. Period. The best producer in the world can’t fix that. I know you spent all day and 12 beers working on the tune and right about now it’s sounding better to you than half the songs on the White Album but… take a breath.
Look at each, individual song section (verse, chorus, etc.). Is the chord structure for each part as strong and succinct as it could be? Are the progressions and changes interesting and engaging when played on their own, without the benefit of your melody line on top? Are there any extraneous chords in your progressions that don’t really serve a function and hurt the flow? If so, cut the fat.
Listen to your top-line melodies for each song section. Are your melodies as hooky and memorable as they can be? Regardless of the genre of music you play, your goal should be to have people walking away — after one listen — singing at least one of your melody lines (ideally your chorus melody). Are your top-line melodies too complex? As before with your progressions, cut the fat. Simplify. The ideal melody line is intriguing, catchy, not too intricate, and singable.
Review your lyrics. Are your syllables married tightly to the number of notes in your top-line melodies? How are your rhyme schemes? Are they consistent? Meaning, is verse one’s rhyme scheme the same as verse two’s? Make sure you have consistency internally and between like parts.
Next, check the flow of your lyrical narrative. If your song tells a story, does each section advance the plot? Does your chorus lyric express the main theme or topic of your song in a clear, creative way?
Review your song structure. Do your song’s sections (intro, verse, pre-chorus, etc.) interconnect well and flow smoothly into one another? Are there any extraneous sections you can do away with to make your song structure leaner and meaner? If your structure is something like verse / pre-chorus / chorus / verse / pre-chorus / chorus / chorus / bridge / chorus / chorus …, you might have a few too many choruses bunched up in the middle of the song, no matter how catchy it might be. That can destroy the momentum of your tune and bore the listener.
Think in terms of balance and symmetry. If you’re not sure about song structuring, put pen to paper and write down the structures of a few favorite tunes you might be emulating. Analyze their logic and apply it to your work.
Tempo and key
Take time to experiment and lock down these often neglected song sculpting essentials.
Tempo. Get a metronome and experiment. Establish a ballpark tempo, then play and sing the tune at slight variations of that tempo (up/down by 1 or 2 bpm). Focus on the feel of the song.
Listen to what the song is trying to tell you. If your lyrics are tripping up your tongue as you sing them, the tune is telling you to slow things down.
When you’ve settled on a tempo, record a quick version, maybe just a verse and chorus. Sit back and give it a fresh listen. Simply listening — as opposed to trying to play, sing, and listen at the same time — will provide a sharper, more focused perspective on tempo.
Key. Just because you wrote the song in G, it doesn’t mean it should be recorded/performed in G. The tune should be tailored to the range of your vocalist (which could be you). This seems obvious, but it’s a detail that is often overlooked.
Record a basic demo of the song with just a guitar or piano and the vocal. Now listen. Is the vocalist reaching for notes? A little vocal “push” can impart energy to a performance, but that shouldn’t be achieved at the expense of pitch. Lower the key of your song by a half (or whole) step if you find that your vocalist is reaching for the stars but falling flat. Same can be said of the inverse; notes can get pitchy at the bottom of a vocalist’s range as well. Try raising the key by a half (or whole) step and reevaluate.
Side note: If your song effectively holds a listener’s attention when performed in a stripped-down arrangement with just a guitar/piano and a voice, you know you’re truly on to something.
Do you have an arrangement in mind?
Before you open your DAW software, plot out a detailed roadmap of your song’s main arrangement components.
Instrumentation. Try to hear, in your mind, what instruments you’d like to have fleshing out your song. Electric guitars? Acoustic guitars? Piano? Keyboards? Strings? Horns? Harmony vocals? Bass? Glockenspiel? Let your imagination run wild. Don’t worry that you don’t know a glockenspiel player.
Crack open your phone’s notepad or grab a pen and paper and list your tune’s song sections in heading form. Start jotting down what instruments will inhabit these sections, e.g., acoustic guitar on all verses, bass comes in on pre-chorus one and continues throughout, string quartet enters on the bridge section, etc.
There are myths floating around that you have to be some sort of Brian Wilson-level genius to hear this type of stuff in your head. It’s just not true. You can do this.
Demo. Now that you’ve decided what instrumental colors will inhabit your song, map out what parts those instruments will actually play. This will involve a little experimenting. Having every instrument play the chords throughout the whole tune while the bass thumps out root notes is not a blueprint for success.
Use your imagination and some visualization. Pick up instruments and noodle around. Write out your ideas. Acoustic guitars strum on all verses while electric guitar comes in on verse two and plays a counterpoint melody over the chords. Organ holds one pedal-tone note over pre-chorus two, building tension to the release of the chorus. Vocal harmonies enter on chorus three…
The parts you come up with for each instrument at various points in the song’s timeline don’t need to be intricate or complex, or even totally complete, they just need to serve the song and keep the listener engaged by introducing interesting musical ideas throughout your song’s journey.
Will all the parts you dream up, demo, and put to paper work in the real world once you start laying down actual tracks? No way. But even the worst idea, by virtue of it illustrating how real-world crappy it actually is, will offer clarity and might point you to a part that will eventually make the cut.
Have fun exploring your studio space and best of luck with your productions!
Mark Bacino is a singer-songwriter based in New York City. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists and composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. or teaching songwriting and production as the founder-curator of intro.verse.chorus; a website dedicated to exploring the art of songcraft. Visit Mark on Facebook, Instagram or follow him on Twitter.