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Weekly Music Writing – Like lifting weights made of creativity

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

A while back I wrote about writing music constantly in order to build your skills and flex your creativity. I’ve been making music for several years now and my biggest project had been a 16 track score for a tragically unreleased computer game, which I finished in about 6 months. This was a great exercise, but afterward I got somewhat lazy. I was still producing music and getting better all the time, but unfortunately at a very slow rate.

It was roughly two months ago when I had completed a song in the studio that took me about a week to make when I realized ‘You know, I should really be finishing a song every week.’That’s when I decided to start my project.

I call it the Jupiterman Weekly Song-A-Thon. I’m writing and producing a new piece of music every week for three months. This means by the end of it I’ll have twelve tracks, and so far I’ve completed nine. There are no requirements in the project other than finishing each song by Friday. The songs can be any length and any genre. In the 9 songs that I’ve already made, I’ve done electronica, jazz, solo piano, cinematic, ambient, and… er, harpsichord rock (kind of a failed experiment. It was a rough week.)

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way so far:

1. There are ways around writer’s block. Usually by Friday when I’m finishing up a new song I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do for the next week and I may even start working on the next song immediately after finishing. This isn’t always the case, however. There have been a couple of weeks when I’ve started without any clue what I was doing and nothing I try seems to click with me. It can be very frustrating. This is not the end, however! I’ve somehow managed to deliver a song every week regardless. How?

Well, one week I simply couldn’t get much time to work on anything. Instead of just giving up, however, I dug around through my hard drive and dredged up an older song that I had been working on several months before. I hadn’t been too happy with it, but in the few hours that I had that day I polished it up and finished it off in time to release it that afternoon. I became much more satisfied with it.

Another week was truly a case of writer’s block. Friday came around and I still had nothing, despite having spent a lot of time in the studio previously that week. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then I remembered I had a piano piece that I had written as a sort of chord exercise for myself almost a year ago. I only played it on my keyboard in my bedroom and never really considered recording it. Until now, that is. Despite it starting out as an exercise, it was musically sound, had an interesting chord progression, had some real emotional power and I could play it fairly competently. Problem solved! I recorded it, tweaked it, and had it done in less than two hours.

Writer’s block will most likely hit you sometimes, but there are creative ways to get around it. You can also try doing something completely off the wall, if you have no ideas left. This is how you get stuff like harpsichord rock; not the best thing ever, but something different, at least.

2. I have a style/formula and I have certain limitations.
I’ve always kept this idealized vision of myself as a composer who is genre-less who can write a competent piece of music in any style imaginable. This project has shown me the reality of myself as a composer. There are certain genres that I gravitate towards, like electronica, and others that I struggle with, like rock or symphonic. I really want to make another rock song after the success of Mighty Surf Wizard Battle, but I have a hard time mixing electric guitar sounds and coming up with chords to make up the verse and chorus sections. I have an easier time with symphonic works, but again, chords (my arch-nemeses) are difficult. The real problem with symphonic, however, lies in the technical limitations of my own studio.

I also have a very specific way of putting chords and, indeed, whole songs together. I tend to have chord changes occur every measure, but almost never more frequently. This can be very limiting.

None of the problems I’ve mentioned here are insurmountable. They are not intrinsic aspects of my or anyone’s character. There more learned about music and more practice one gets, the better their work becomes.

3. Time constraints will give you perspective. Since I’m not living in a mansion built out of solid gold BMW’s, I have to work at a job like everyone else. My particular job, thankfully, affords me some flexibility to work on other endeavors. Still, work, social obligations, self-education and writing for multiple websites take up a lot of my time, and I’m sure you can relate. With all of this in mind, I set aside around 8 to 16 hours of my free time each week to work on my music. This is certainly not enough time to create a masterpiece, but it is enough to put together a well-made 2 to 3 minute song.

Having such a time constraint will force you to know and understand what is most important in the music you’re composing. There are many things I could tweak on each piece that I write; making sure every last drum beat and portamento swing is absolutely perfect, but I simply don’t have enough time. Instead I focus on making sure it’s a finished product that has some emotional weight and is produced well. When you write all the time, you get more efficient. Little technical things that you struggled with before and would take up so much of your time will eventually fade away as you become more competent at them or you find a more efficient way of doing things. You’ll learn to produce quality on your first try, rather than your third, simply because you’ll have no choice.

4. Forcing yourself to make music is incredibly rewarding.
This project has been great fun and I’ve learned a ton from doing it. It has even given me a lot of ideas for things to do after the project is over. I’m thinking of doing a pure electro-jazz album in the style of my third song in the project. I want to do some collaborations with a few of my friends. I’ve now proven to myself that I can make quality music quickly and efficiently, so there’s no hesitation or wariness about getting started on a new project.

I urge you, fellow makeshift musician, to start your own Song-A-Thon. It doesn’t matter if all you have is a guitar and a tape recorder, just give it a try. Maybe bring some other musicians in to help. By the end of it you’ll have a sweet album to give away or sell. It could just be the best thing you’ve ever done for your music writing career.

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Learning Music Theory

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Hey folks, I hope you all had a good holiday. I went to Maine and discovered that I don’t necessarily enjoy snow as much as I thought I did. Shoveling snow out of a boat will do that to you. Anyway, onto the article!

Wait, what is music theory? I get this very question from a lot of folks. The phrase ‘music theory’ isn’t exactly self-explanatory. Let’s see if I can give it an understandable definition. When you study or practice music theory, you are breaking down music into it’s individual elements, defining them, fitting them together and seeing how they work. Pitch, melody, chords, notation, rhythm, notes, these are all different elements of music theory. By understanding every aspect of music and how all the pieces fit together, you can easily figure out how to make melodies and songs that will move the listener in the exact way you intended.

Why is that some songs sound sad? Or triumphant? Mysterious? How is that a song can build tension and release it? If you learn music theory, you will understand how all of that works, and you’ll know how to do it yourself when you write your own songs. Sure, some people can get away with not learning any of it formally. They have managed to figure it out intuitively. I’m not one of those people. For the most part, I can’t listen to a chord and be able to guess what notes it’s made out of, for example. At least, not yet. This is why I learn theory.

After you’ve gotten started playing your instrument of choice for a while, you’ve got a good base for learning theory, and you probably already know a lot of it already and don’t even realize it yet. I don’t recommend studying theory before you’ve played any music.

The first thing you should learn is how to read sheet music. This doesn’t necessarily have to come first, but it will make your life ten times easier, by my extensive calculations. Though youcould, theoretically, learn music theory without knowing how to read music on a staff, I don’t know of anyone who has. Theory is usually expressed using the staff. Learn what the staff is, how to read notes and rhythms and by the end of it you should be able to sight-read at least some really simple tunes. If you want to be a composer, then you should learn some piano too. I’ve covered that in a couple of other articles. By taking up piano you can get the triple-benefit of piano-playing skills, the ability to read sheet music, and some basic music theory all at once.

Now we get to the meat of this. While the Makeshift Musician usually recommends that you learn things on your own, perhaps in this case it might be good to get a lesson or two from someone else. Music theory is both complicated and abstract, like math or a language, so it can be difficult to learn without someone there to make things clear for you. You don’t have to get a Bachelor’s in Theory or anything, maybe just a couple of classes to get you started, or find a mentor to help you out. Check local colleges and adult education programs and see if they offer some sort of basic music theory course.

If, on the other hand, you’re like me and want to slog through it all by yourself, then I have a great book to recommend. In fact, I recommend it even if you are getting lessons:

Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People

This books starts from the basics and goes all the way through up to the most complicated chords and unusual concepts. It is taught in a clear, linear way (don’t you hate it when books tell you to skip ahead and back just to get everything?) It’s written in a conversational style so as to not be confusing and it has a goofy sense of humor, which I like. If you read this book while you’re learning an instrument, it’ll all come together pretty intuitively.

There are several other books that will teach you music theory, this is just the one that I’ve been using and I like it a lot. If you have any questions about learning theory just shoot me an email: makeshiftmusician@gmail.com.

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Podcast: The Process of Making a Song

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This week I’m doing something a little different. You can now listen to me provide a running commentary on one of my own songs. I talk about the chords, working with MIDI, EQ, robots, and how stuff comes together to make a cohesive whole. It’s like having the Makeshift Musician come over to your house! In a non-creepy kind of way. You can download the original, non-commentizated track, Ashur, the Sky God here. Then,

download the podcast here.

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The Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a Musician

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

If you’re looking to learn about playing, writing or recording music in some way, any way, but don’t quite know where to start, this is for you

So you want to start making music? You want to be the next Bach? Have lots of ideas and want to make a CD? Perhaps you just have a serious deficiency of groupies in your life and you want to change that? Whatever brought you here, you want to make music in some way, and doing that may not be as hard as you think. This guide will act as your starting point on your new path. Regardless of what instrument you want to play, or what kind of music you want to get into, this guide will show you how to get started, from choosing an instrument and learning to play it to composing and eventually recording. 

Before you start

If you’re completely convinced of your own ineptitude, or you think it is too late for you to take up the difficult task of making music, then I’ve got something to say to you:

You Don’t Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Getting an instrument

The most popular instruments in Western society are the rock staples (guitar, bass guitar and drums) and piano. There are plenty of other instruments out there to choose from though, if you feel like doing something different. If you haven’t decided yet, take a look at this article for advice on choosing and buying an instrument:

Picking up an Instrument

If you’ve picked piano, here are couple of other articles that you should check out:

Starting out with Piano
Piano Playing Tips for Beginners – (note: while this article was technically written for pianists, the lessons generally apply to all instruments)

Becoming a better listener

As you start to play music, you’ll discover an interesting phenomenon: you’ll notice more about the musical world around you. After a while, you’ll gain the ability to de-construct all the different music that you’ve been listening to. This is a wonderful experience and will make you a more observant person in general. Now is a good time to take the initiative and start actively becoming a more deliberate listener. Try the techniques listed in these articles and discover new dimensions in music that you never understood before:

Introduce Yourself to New Musical Genres
Listening to Music Intelligently

Composing music


I have two things to say here about composing music, whether it’s a short rock song or a 20-minute symphony. 1. All music, and I mean all of it, is made of of the same basic components, which means that if you can write a bluegrass song, you can also make a disco song, a dirge, a traditional Japanese folk song or anything else you could imagine with the same basic techniques.2. There’s no special talent or magical skill needed to write music. If you have the ability to make pleasing sounds on your instrument of choice, then you also have the capability to compose your own songs. Once you’ve learned some music theory, even just a little, you’ll realize how simple it is. If you can take a pile of colored blocks and arrange them in an interesting pattern, then you’ll be pleased to know that while writing music is a bit more complicated, it’s still pretty much the same basic concept. If you’re still not convinced, this might change your mind:

Gain the Confidence to Compose Music

Then look over these once you’ve decided to take the plunge:

Don’t Find Inspiration: Create It
Daily Songwriting Exercise

Making a studio and recording music

This is possibly the most complicated part of being a musician, but it can also be the most fun overall. Recording is also most likely the most mysterious aspect of music creation for beginners. Years ago, the recording realm belonged solely to the professionals with expensive studios. Now that computers have changed literally everything in our society, anyone can make a studio of their own and even make their music sound fairly professional with minimal equipment.

There are a couple of things you need to know when delving into the recording world. First is the concept of multitracking. You need to understand how that works before you can understand how a studio works:

An Introduction to Multitrack Recording

Knowing and understanding the components of a studio and how they relate to each other make up the second important part of what you need to know. You can learn this and how to build your own studio on a minimal budget in the Makeshift Musician’s most popular article, short and snappy:

Make Your Own Recording Studio

or go in depth with the ultimate resource:

The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Read these too:

What Speakers Should I Get?
Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

Once you’ve got your studio up and running, this would be a good read:

How to Make the Best Recordings on Earth

Beyond

What is left to learn, now that you’ve become a prolific, multi-talented musician? Believe it or not, there’s still a lot we don’t know about music and how it affects us. There’s much to learn, and you could devote your whole life to music and still not learn everything there is to know about it. Here are a couple of articles that may help guide you towards a deeper understanding of the mysterious phenomenon that is ‘organized sound’:

The second most popular article on the site: The Importance of Music to Humankind
Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
The Origins of American Music

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You Don’t Need Musical Talent to Make Music

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

You know why I believe in this so much? I’ll tell you why.

I joined the school band when I was in fifth grade. I played trumpet. I didn’t particularly like playing the trumpet and I only mildly enjoyed class. When, in high school, we had to learn music theory, I was almost completely mystified by things like the Circle of Fifths, chords and other musical concepts. I never did particularly well and and mostly languished in the beginner level classes while my classmates moved on to the advanced ones.

I never showed any real musical talent; indeed, folks around me probably thought I didn’t enjoy music at all. I didn’t listen to popular bands like other kids my age listened to and I was very vocal about my disappointment in the music on the radio. I appeared to be a pretty un-musical young person.

You know what though? Now I play piano and the banjo. I’ve learned and understand a great deal about music theory. I’ve made several hours worth of music. I went to school for Audio Engineering and got an A- on my final independent study (writing and producing a six-song album.) Someone thought my music was good enough to ask me to write music for their game. I write about music, for a site you may have heard of, and actually have people writing to me, mefor answers about making music. This is the guy who could barely stay afloat in band class! If those poor folks only knew!

Am I writing just to praise myself? Well, after putting all that together I have to admit it does sound pretty awesome, but that wasn’t my point. My point is that if I could do all that withoutany ‘inborn’ musical ability, then anyone else can do it too. I don’t see myself as a particularly self-motivated guy either, so I’m sure anyone out there can probably do better than me.

I’ve heard many people say that they won’t pick up an instrument simply because they think it is too late for them to learn. There are a lot of scientific studies that say people can’t learn as effectively past their teenage years and after age 17 your neural pathways are pretty much do-blah blah blah. Forget that crap. Maybe my neural pathways aren’t as flexible as they once were, but I have many other skills and traits that come with age that make up for that problem, like self-discipline, good time management, big-picture thinking, and the prospect of getting paid for what I do. I had none of these things when I was a kid, and my learning was probably much slower because of it.

The only reason you might think that you are aren’t a musical person is because society tells you that you aren’t. But the fact that you can enjoy music scientifically proves that you can also make it, since you use much of the same parts of your brain for both listening and performing. In many hunter-gatherer cultures, the concept of musical talent doesn’t even exist. Everyone is taught how to make music and dance from a young age. This is how our own cultures were until relatively recent times. Why the change? Different values? Elitism? Who knows? You shouldn’t let it hold you back.

So what are you waiting for? Angels to come fluttering down, bestowing upon you a golden guitar? You definitely have no excuse now. If you do still have an excuse of some sort, you can bet that the Makeshift Musician will do it’s best to unceremoniously blast that one out of the water tooGo pick up an instrument and start playing!

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Electronic Musicians: Use Some Acoustic Stuff!

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

I have a challenge for all you purely electronic musicians out there: incorporate some sort of acoustic instrumentation into your songs. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

Sing! You’ve got a voice, and even if you don’t, you probably have a friend who does. Throw in some lyrics. If you’re no poet, just write some stuff that doesn’t make sense. It wouldn’t be the first time an artist did that.

decent pair of bongos or some other percussion instrument only costs around fifty bucks or more. Go ahead an add some fun drumming. Record multiple takes of the same part for a cool, dense multi-layered effect. 

Grab your guitar or steal a friend’s. Learn a couple of basic chords or simply learn the exact chords that you’re already using and then strum along with your own music. Something as basic as strumming can be very effective. For an example, see Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’.

If you are absolutely clumsy with real-world instruments, find a friend who can play something and record them. Recording with other folks is really fun anyway, and it could lead to fantastic collaborations in the future.

Why am I challenging you to do this? There are three interrelated reasons. One is that acoustic instruments not only sound great by themselves, they will also add real gravity to the electronic ones. Synthesizers just sound more legitimate when performing next to physical instruments, and having them mixed together makes for a profoundly rich sound pallete.

The second reason is that by being purely electronic, you are limiting yourself. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a mostly electronic musician myself, but I’ve still found the time to recorded banjo, guitar, bongos, random percussion, sound effects, my own voice and the voices of others. I see these as challenges. I’m always looking for ways to record real stuff in with my electronics. By getting a microphone and adding some acoustic elements, you are expanding your own potential as a musician, and that can’t be a bad thing, right?

The third reason comes from the motto of the old LucasArts Audio Stooges (Michael Land, Clint Bajakian and Pete McConnel), the geniuses behind some of the best music in the game industry: “Music travels through air. If it’s not going through air, there’s a problem somewhere.” Just as it is good to get out of the house and play sometimes, it’s good to step out of the computer occasionally and just make some noise. It will enrich your life.

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Random Music Making Techniques

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

There are lots of cool hints and techniques I’ve wanted to share, but I couldn’t think of a good context in which to deliver them. So decided to just put them together in a series of articles. Enjoy!

Stealth Chords: So you have an interesting chord progression in your song. Instead of just leaving your chords as basic triads or whatever, try to change them up a little to make them unique. Take out some of the notes, or arppegiate it occasionally. This may help make the chords blend better with the rest of the music, and it will keep surprising the listener. 

Fadeouts: Many folks hate fadeouts. I think they’re pretty cool, if done well. If you’re doing a fadeout at the end of your song, try introducing a new element just seconds before the song fades out completely. Something like a new melody or maybe a new melody played by a new instrument. This makes the fade out more interesting and will make the song feel like its part of something larger. 

Hard Panning: If you have an element in your song that’s in the center channel but you want it to have a nice, big presence, try doubling the track and then panning one hard left and one hard right. Sometimes this can give the sound a large enveloping feel. 

Key Changes: You’ve seen Jeopardy right? You know the Jeopardy song? Halfway through it they do a key change, but they don’t change anything in the song! It’s the exact same music, just transposed up a few steps. I hate this with the fire of a thousand suns. I call that ‘technique’ artificial lengthening. There’s nothing wrong with key changes; they can add so much life to your piece, but for the love of Mike, at least change the melody, if not everything else. Okay, rant over. 

Orchestras Play in Concert Halls: remember that if you are making orchestral/symphonic sounding stuff, reverb is very important! Listen to any orchestral recording and you’ll hear lots of beautiful reverberation. Spend a lot of time tweaking your settings until it sounds like a real concert hall, and consider simply putting a reverb effect over the entire mix. Whichever works best. 

Radio Voice: When recording vocals, for whatever purpose, I’ve found that a lot of amateurs won’t mess with equalization much and leave the voice as is. It’s a good idea to play around with the vocals, for instance try cutting out some of the low end. This will often give it a more realistic sound, allow it to mix better, and avoid that deep, booming ‘radio voice’. Pay attention to some of your favorite albums and you’ll see that the singer doesn’t have a lot of deep low-end in his or her voice.

That’s all for this edition! Feel free to add your own writing or production techniques in the comments section.

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Daily Songwriting Exercise

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

A great exercise that I mentioned in my article on finding and maintaining creativity was writing music every day. What does this entail? Does this mean you should start and finish a new song every day? Work on just one song over a long period of time?

The mindset you should have is that you will sit down in front of your keyboard, sheet music, studio, guitar, jug or whatever you have to make music every day regardless of what ideas you have. It is important to remember that what you actually make is irrelevant. You could be working on one polished song, making a different little sketch each day, or just recording weird stuff that comes to your mind. Just as long as you sit down and do somethingevery day.

As soon as you stop thinking about results, you can start thinking about making something. Think of it like daily exercise. When you go for a jog, you don’t really care about the destination, you are simply doing it to condition your muscles and heart. You do daily creative exercise to condition your creative abilities and your neural pathways. You should not be worried about the result of your efforts. No one is embarrassed about running in a loop every day and getting nowhere. So too, you shouldn’t be embarrassed about the random crap you make every day. No one has to hear it but you.

I have often paralyzed my music output because I would worry too much about making something professional and polished. I felt that anything I started wasn’t good enough, and soon I would just get in a rut, making pretty much nothing. Finally I decided that this was lame and making somewhat unpolished music is better than making no music at all.

It is particularly fun to simply try to make something new every day. Sure, a lot of it will be crap, but it will keep forcing you to come up with new stuff, which means new neural pathwaysfor you and more creative energy. Plus, you’ll quite often stumble on something awesome and you’ll want to expand it into something more complete. 

So here’s my challenge for you: sit down with your music making equipment for at least an hour every day and make sure you have at least something by the end of your session. I don’t care what it is, and neither should you. You will discover all sorts of new stuff this way. In fact, go do it right now.

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Jumpstart New Song Ideas

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Sometimes it can be really hard to come up with ideas for new songs. You may find yourself, as I often do, simply repeating the same chord progressions over and over again, and you’re afraid that all your songs will start sounding the same. Here are some things that I do to get myself back into the creative flow:

Listen to New Music – I have an article on introducing yourself to new musical genres. Follow the steps in that article and you’ll no doubt gain several ideas for new songs. Listening to interesting new music always gives you a new perspective on things. Everyone else in the world looks at things a little differently than you do. A piece of music represents one artist’s or group’s point of view. By continually stimulating yourself with new viewpoints, you will always be able to see everything differently, even that keyboard sitting in front of you.

Try writing in a different genre – I covered this a lot in Don’t Find Inspiration: Create it. Writing a different genre than you usually write in will give you something new automatically, plus you’ll learn a lot while you do it. Pick a random genre or combine two different genres that don’t normally go together. You can get some weird and interesting results, and they will always be creative.

Play with more obscure chords – Break out your old books and look up some of the more esoteric chords in them. Like listening to new music, hearing new chords will give you a fresh perspective. Try combining chords in ways that you haven’t tried before.

Mess around with some pre-made loops – If you have the ability throw together some looped drum tracks or chords on your workstation, dig through the presets that you have and put some together. You’ll have instant accompaniment while you try to play new stuff. It really helps get things flowing quickly.

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Start to Finish: The Process of Making a Song

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

The way I write songs may be a bit different than most. First of all, my songs don’t exist in live form. I only write a song as a finished studio piece. Second, I generally don’t know where the song is going when I start it. It can be a kind of messy way to make music, but it usually yields interesting results. Even my more focused songs, like Harvest or Continuous Welded Railfollowed a similar writing process. I mostly deal electronic instruments, because I have a strong, possibly quixotic desire to be a one man show, but I’ll occasionally throw in vocals or some live instrument part. Lets get to work!

Part I: Composing and Producing

I always start with one of two things: a concept for a type of sound, or a melody or chord progression. Sometimes I’ll randomly come up with a melody at an unexpected time, or sometimes I’ll stumble on one when playing around with the keyboard or banjo. Other times there will be a particular song that I like and I’ll want to write something in a similar style. I never use those AB-whatever song structures that are so prevalent in pop music, nor do I try to come up with hooks for my songs. I love hooks, I’m just not particularly good with them.

Anyway, lets say I’ve got an interesting melody. I’ll then practice playing it over and over with different instrument sounds, like piano, strings, synthesizers, maybe horns or something. During this time my left hand will often be searching for chords that fit with the melody as well. Eventually, I’ll find a sound that clicks with me and I can picture an entire soundscape surrounding the melody, which is when I get to work.

First I’ll decide the tempo I want the song to be at. I do this by tapping a special button on my drum machine that gives me a tempo readout based on my rhythm. I start a new song in Cubase and set that tempo. Then I’ll pull up some drum preset on the keyboard and record it real quick and loop it. I’ll choose a drum loop that roughly fits the feel I’m going for, though it is unlikely that it’ll be used in the final production. This makes for a metronome, or click track, that is way better than the usual obnoxious beeping sound that the software gives you. Now I can play my melody along with a nice beat to keep time.

I’ll record the melody first in MIDI format, which means instead of recording the sounds of my keyboard, I record the data of what keys I press onto a MIDI track in Cubase. After that, I’ll tell Cubase to quantize my notes, which essentially means make minute changes to each note so that they’re all in time with the rhythm. I don’t do it too much or everything will sound too mechanical. But since I have just about the worst rhythm a musician could have, it’s very useful. Once the notes are in place and they sound like someone with actual talent played them, I’ll have the software MIDI track play my keyboard, and this time I actually record the sound. Often for simpler melodies or chords, I won’t bother with the whole MIDI/Quantization thing.

I’ll then record other parts in the same fashion, like a bass line or a sweet pad (a simpler background chord). I’ll also start thinking about what kind of percussion I want. I make sure that I experiment with any instrument sound I can think of. I never leave out any possibility for any kind of sound. Who says you can’t have harpsichord, oboe, a screaming synthesizer, xylophone and distorted rock drums all in one song? I’ll never tell you that.

By this time I’ll be thinking about new melodies to follow up the first one, new chords to move the song to, and transitions to tie the pieces together as I make them. Because I pretty much record as I write, a very experimental way to make music, I’ll often end up with several versions of a song, each one going in different directions. Many of them are terrible, but by continually experimenting I’ll find new avenues to write in. Working with each part is like working on a miniature song, since any one part can sound completely different from the next. Sometimes I’ll go from purely symphonic to purely electronic to several layers of percussion without melodies, and each one requires a different mindset when mixing. This is also a good time to record anything acoustic, like bongos or, *shudder*, vocals.

Eventually I’ll get to a point where I either think it would be a good place to end the song or I simply can’t think of anything else to add. Sometimes I’ll try to incorporate some elements from the beginning of the song into the end, to wrap things up nicely, but it isn’t necessary.

Part II: Post Production and Mastering

After I have everything pretty much written, I get to the mixing and engineering stage. This is where it starts to sound less like a collection of disparate sounds and more like a cohesive song. I’ll fix up the percussion and add in interesting rolls and crashes to spice up transitions between parts. I might add some small, quiet higher pitch melodies to complement the main ones. I’ll change the volume levels on everything until it all sounds great. Remember this: Good volume levels on everything will mean the difference between a mediocre song and a great one. I’ll add effects like reverb, filtering and distortion.

I’ll keep tweaking it as much as I can. Then I’ll leave it alone for a day or two. This is important. I’ll leave it alone and make sure I listen to a lot of other music that’s not mine during this time. When I come back to the song I’ll have a much more neutral and fresh perspective. I’ll tweak whatever I think needs work and then I’ll burn the song to a CD. I’ll listen to this CD in my car as I drive to see what it sounds like there. Listening to your song or mix on different sets of speakers is a great way to make it an excellent, well rounded mix. I often find, for instance, that the bass in my mix is a bit heavy in the car compared to my studio monitors. I’ll also probably listen to the song on headphones, which you should be doing anyway occasionally when writing the song. This helps with tweaking the stereo image you’ve made in your mix.

Once I’ve listened to it in a few different environments I’ll go back again and tweak whatever is left. Then I’ll declare it done. (Maybe after listening to it in the car again?) I save it as a WAV file, and bring it to my Windows computer for mastering. I only do this because my mastering software ended up being Windows only. I’ll add a very small amount of compression which I add to all my songs to give them a consistent volume level. Then I’ll convert that to a high quality (256kbps) mp3 file, put all the necessary tags on it, and upload it to my website or send it to whoever may have asked for the song in the first place. I keep the master WAV file in several different places, (one on the Mac, one on the Windows machine, and one on a separate backup hard drive) to be safe. I also backup the original Cubase tracks as well, because you never know when you’re going to need the original tracks when you’re famous and some creatively starved rapper wants to pay you millions for the right to call your song his own.

Then I take a quick break and start all over again! If you want to hear examples of songs of mine that followed this procedure pretty much to the letter, listen to:

Falling Gracefully
Apathetic Macrocosm
Quantum Foam
Behold! The Mountain Cries

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