Becoming a producer: the basics
Are you a songwriter ready to record your music but not quite sure how to get from song idea to music producer? These ideas will help you get started.
A guest post by Marc Bacino from the Disc Makers blog.
With most songwriters/musicians/bands writing and recording music at home these days, many independent artists find themselves, by default, wearing several different creative hats. A singer-songwriter who wants to record his own songs using a GarageBand setup in a bedroom has now become a de facto producer, sound engineer, and mixer.
An interesting trend that I have observed through my work as a songwriting teacher reflects this change in our collective and creative workflow: in addition to the usual songwriting questions that I answer regularly, I receive also a ton of basic music making questions.
I can usually answer my students’ questions about technical recording/mixing issues (How do I set up a compressor? What mic should I use?) by directing them to one of the many great tutorial videos on YouTube that answer their specific concerns, or to resources like the Disc Makers Blog. But when it comes to answering questions on the topics of production, arranging, etc., I’ve found a hands-on approach to be more effective, and now many of my “songwriting” students are also “production” students, learning the basics of a craft they inadvertently fell into (and struggled with) in an effort to get their music out into the world.
In doing this work, I’ve created a “Beginning Music Producer’s Checklist,” which includes a few questions to consider before you put on those headphones, open that laptop, and record your latest masterpiece. artwork.
Ask yourself, “Is this song really over?”
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 melody and right now it sounds better to you than half the songs on the white album but… breathe a little.
Look at each individual song section (verse, chorus, etc.). Is each part’s chord structure as strong and succinct as it could be? Are the progressions and changes interesting and engaging when played on their own, without the added benefit of your melody line? Are there any extraneous chords in your progressions that don’t really serve a function and interfere with the flow? If so, cut the fat.
Listen to your best melodies for each song section. Are your melodies as catchy and memorable as possible? Whatever genre of music you play, your goal should be to have people walk away – after a listen – by singing at least one of your melody lines (ideally your chorus melody). Are your high-end melodies too complex? As before with your progressions, cut the fat. Simplify. The ideal melodic line is intriguing, catchy, not too complicated and singable.
Revise your lyrics. Are your syllables closely related to the number of notes in your main melodies? How are your rhyme schemes? Are they consistent? Meaning, is the rhyme scheme of verse one the same as that of verse two? Make sure you have consistency internally and between similar parts.
Do you force rhymes? Don’t be careless. Correct lyrical lines that aren’t great.
Next, check the flow of your lyrical narrative. If your song tells a story, does each section advance the plot? Do your chorus lyrics express the main theme or subject of your song in a clear and creative way?
Review the structure of your song. Do the sections of your song (intro, verse, pre-chorus, etc.) interconnect well and flow smoothly? Are there superfluous sections you can remove to make your song structure lighter 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 clustered together in the middle of the song, regardless of how catchy that could be. This can destroy the momentum of your track and bore the listener.
Think in terms of balance and symmetry. If you’re unsure of the structure of a song, put a pen to paper and jot down the structures of a few favorite songs that you could imitate. Analyze their logic and apply it to your work.
Tempo and Key
Take the time to experiment and lock in these oft-overlooked song sculpting essentials.
Tempo. Get a metronome and experiment. Establish a rough tempo, then play and sing the tune at slight variations of that tempo (up/down 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 your tongue as you sing them, the melody is telling you to take things slow.
When you’ve decided on a tempo, record a quick version, maybe just a verse and a chorus. Sit down and give it a new listen. Just listen – instead of trying to play, sing, and listening along – will provide a sharper, more focused perspective on tempo.
Key. Just because you wrote the song in G doesn’t mean it should be recorded/performed in G. The melody should match the range of your singer (which could be you). It seems obvious, but it’s a detail that is often overlooked.
Record a basic demo of the song with just guitar or piano and vocals. Now listen. Is the singer looking for notes? A little vocal push can energize a performance, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of height. Lower the pitch of your song a half (or a whole step) if you find your singer is aiming for the stars but falling flat. The same can be said of the reverse; notes can also become sharp at the bottom of a singer’s range. Try increasing the key by a half step (or a full step) and re-evaluate.
Side note: If your song effectively holds the listener’s attention when performed in a stripped-down arrangement with just guitar/piano and vocals, you know you’re really onto something.
Do you have an arrangement in mind?
Before you open your DAW software, lay out a detailed roadmap of your song’s major arranging components.
Instrumentation. Try to hear, in your mind, what instruments you would like to have to flesh out your song. Electric guitars? Acoustic guitars? Piano? Keyboards? Strings? Horns? vocal harmony? Low? Glockenspiel? Let your imagination run wild. Don’t worry if you don’t know a glockenspiel player.
Open your phone’s notepad or grab a pen and paper and list the song sections of your track as a header. Begin noting which instruments will inhabit these sections, for example, acoustic guitar on all verses, bass enters 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 kind of Brian Wilson-level genius to hear this stuff in your head. It is simply not true. You can do it.
Demo. Now that you’ve decided what instrumental colors will inhabit your song, determine what parts those instruments will actually play. This will involve a bit of experimentation. Having each instrument play chords throughout the melody while the bass produces root notes is do not a model of success.
Use your imagination and a bit of visualization. Pick up instruments and noodles around. Write down your ideas. The acoustic guitars strum all the verses while the electric guitar enters at verse two and plays a counterpoint melody over the chords. The organ holds a pedal note on pre-chorus two, creating tension as the chorus exits. Vocal harmonies enter on choir three…
The parts you provide for each instrument at different points in the song’s timeline don’t have to be complicated or complex, or even totally complete, they just need to serve the song and keep the listener engaged by introducing ideas. interesting musical notes throughout your song journey.
Will all the parts you imagine, demo, and put to paper work in the real world once you start creating real tracks? Certainly not. But even the worst idea, by illustrating how shitty it really is in the real world, will offer clarity and might point you to a part that will eventually make the cut.
Have fun exploring your studio space and good luck with your productions!