A Recipe for Song Construction
Listen to the song at this point
I muted the piano then copied the sequences to another track and assigned
a low whistle from Absynth. When I added the Celtic Hammered Dulcimer
I started feeling the song. But the song is far from finished,
its just a draft at this point. The intro, ending and break need
development, the drums fleshed out, the bassline repaired. But
I have a sense we are going somewhere.
Give Life to the Skeleton
- Continue to orchestrate, add instruments
and supporting tracks
- Work on each track till it does what you
want it to do. Break the rules of form if necessary. If it doesn't "fit"
Transitions! Add gaps, pauses, extra bars. These really add
drama and excitement.
- Remember that nothing is sacred at this
point. Don't be shy about changing instruments, ripping out tracks,
re-recording tracks. Use the mute button to get an idea of how things
sound without one of the tracks.
- Double parts
that need emphasis. Doubling is simply this: Copy one track to a new
track and assign a different instrument. For example, if you have
a violin section playing a melody, transpose the copy down 2 octaves and
let the Cellos play it. Let them play it together or let the violins
do it 2 bars, the cellos the next 2 bars, back to violins for 2 then let
them both do it for the last 2 bars.
- Fix and fill out
the drums--add and delete parts so it does
not sound mechanical, unless you are writing disco :). If you were using looped midi
drum patterns or track aliases, it is time to turn those loops to real copies.
Make each bar of drums unique, even if it is just changing one hi hat.
- Add frills, ornaments
and transitions. Percussion like tamborine, cowbell (yep),
congas, shakers, bells, etc can really help a song move.
Listen to the song at this juncture. You
can see from the tracks I added a whistle from Albino for the choruses.
A thick pad from Atmosphere and some clean percussion from a Logic drum
kit helps fill out the song. Notice also I filled out the drums
with similar, but unique 8 bar patterns. The song is at a fun
point and there are still possibilities open.
Prepare for The Rough Mix
- Set the track volume and pan for each
channel. Give each instrument is own sonic space. Pretend you are
in the front row and you are looking at the stage. Always center the bass
and kick drum to get started.
- Go through each track, cleaning up bad
notes, trying alternate patches
- As the mix progresses, it is time to start
deleting parts that do not have a function or impact on
the song. Be ruthless. At the end of the mix, we want every element
of the song to contribute to the strength of the whole. If you have
non-contributing elements, mute them to see if their absence hurts the song.
If not, delete them.
- Start setting up FX patches and
track EQ, get the overall mix level tamed so that the final
output is under 0db. Don't get too hung up on tiny mix details yet
(that comes later). Just get everything "in the ballpark" where they
start to "gel".
- Elements that need to be louder than
other elements throughout the song are candidates for a track compressor.
This could be a vocal track, or dominant instrumental track.
At this point I fixed most of the problems with the song
structure. I extended the 1st verse to 16 bars from 8, cleaned up the
intro and ending, and added a new reverb percussion track. At this point
there is no doubt that the song has got me and its meaning is starting to unfold.
I've started to pay attention to mixer settings at this point localize the sounds
in a pleasing way.
Every Song has a Story
- Sit back and listen. What does this song
Mean? What is its message? What is it Like? If you really like it, a word
or a phrase or some kind of meaning will pop up. Think of the whole song in
light of the new found Meaning.
- Ask yourself what it would take to make the
piece truly memorable. The meaning will tell you what to do.
- Do that. The song will start sounding like
a story. Now you are ready for tweaking of the...
- Climax! Copy chorus 2 to chorus
3. Things to try: Double instruments, Possibly write a new variation on
the melody. Possibly put the melody and countermelody on top of each other--see
- Tweak the climax, add, delete, transform,
extend. You are the boss. Make a Statement. Go all out. Triple instruments if
you have to, stack them sounds up.
- Write the Ending again if necessary
- Go back to each part, starting at the last,
this time, and tweak it all down to where you are happy
- Add slight tempo changes, track offsets--especially
the snare---, and add humanization if appropriate to quantized parts.
- Listen. What needs to be changed to make the
story a good story. Do it. This may take an hour, or a week.
- Turn on the master deck, set levels, and do
a rough mix.
Listen to the Rough Mix. I have named the song, re wrote
the intro, ending, cut many notes out of the bassline, added more layers for the
main "vox" that carries the melody. I started the mix by EQ-ing a few tracks
and adding compression to the drum track.
The meaning of this song started to arrive.
I started calling the song "Telstar's Daughter", reminiscent of a very early electronic
music piece called Telstar. This meaning completely changed the direction
of the song away from its soft rock underpinning to a harder electronic form.
So I got to work tweaking out drums and looking for novel combinations of drum sounds
to give it a modern vintage flavor. Then I decided to punctuate it with vocal
samples. Just my monotone voice through a huge rack of effects. "Our
mission, is to develop the tools..." Ok its corny, but hey, have you seen the price
of corn this year?
A few things you might notice. General housekeeping. I have all 7 drum
tracks grouped at the top of the arrangement. Notice how I alternate kits
for the verse and chorus. Notice I have a track for just kick drum.
This lets me set the kick volume independently of all the other drums. Now
look at the bottom 4 tracks. Those are vocals snipped up. Each of those
tracks has a different set of effects. Because this is a space tune, I care
much less about sound quality than I do about finding something cool. In fact,
I am going out of my way to obliterate sound quality from these tracks.
I ask myself if I am happy with it. The answer is no. Its getting big
and time consuming. It may be time to stop or take extreme measures to save
it. But that is the way it goes. Sometimes you get a great song done
in a few hours; other times like this time, it takes days and you have to fight
for every bit of sonic interest. I know I have the choice to dump it.
Many times it is better to kill a project than let it eat up week after week for
nothing. Yet with the vast array of tools we have at our disposal, I could
still get radical and come out alive. So stay tuned to see what I do next.
Concluding the song
OK, days passed and I decided to hard tweak (remix) the song
using a special remix method. But that is another class! Now I feel a little better
about it. Definitely not my best, but that it made it on Soundclick is a sign
that it is a cut above the thousands of songs I have that never made it that far.
You can listen to it on my
Or you can stream it from here at
I hope you are able to see and hear the
song construction process in a new light. There is nothing magical about the
process. Its really a matter of building good composition habits. The
recipe I have shown you has been with me for over 15 years and I have not changed
it much I first wrote it out. But that does not mean you have to follow it
(or any other method) like religion. Indeed, it does not matter how you get there.
It just matters that you get there.
I wish you the best of luck in your songwriting process
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Sound on Sound's
Tips for Pop Arranging by Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser. This is a
great article, a 'must read' and its free, courtesy of Sound on Sound
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More Articles on Recording and Composition by Tweak
Recording and Composition INDEX
Recording Process Made Simple
Inspiration and Style
Step-by-Step: How to write a Song
Write Drum tracks without a Drummer
Hip Hop Beat Construction Made Simple
Hip Hop Production and Mixing
Hip Hop Drum Tweaks
Using Electronic Drum Kits
How to Record Vocals
Preparing for a Vocal Session
Using Effects Processors
Buying a MultiTrack: Watch Out!
Using an AW1600 Recorder
Podcasting from your Home Studio
MultiTrack Recorder Price List
Outboard FX Price List
Studio Racks List
"For the introduction of a new kind of music must be
shunned as imperiling the whole state; since styles of music are never disturbed
without affecting the most important political institutions."
Plato (c. 427–347 B.C.), Greek philosopher.
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