Recipes for Song Construction with MIDI Sequencers and Synthesizers
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How to Write a Song with Music Software

  by Tweak

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Newbs, you've come this far.  (Tweak smiles, holding two fingers about 1 inch apart.).  Its finally time to START making your music!  If you master this page you will be this far along (Tweak hold his fingers about 1 foot apart.) This page is important as we are going to write a song, step by step, and I am going to share with you some techniques and shortcuts I have learned through the years. 

In fact, I am going to write a song using my own recipe, and will let you see and listen to it at various stages of the project.   Along the way I will insert tips and tricks where you see "Time Out!".  Some of these are hard earned composer's secrets, so pay attention.  I am also going to leave in all the mistakes and problems at each stage so you hear what I heard.  This is not my best song.  But it reveals the process.  That is what this article is about.

What you need

1. A good quality MIDI sequencer.

Are you serious?  Then don't mess around with toys and $50 buck midi programs!  Sure they may have the same features as the big boys, but trust me, it just isn't the same. There is no substitute for the user friendliness of a top of the line (or near top of the line) sequencer used by the pros. While everyone needs to budget money for the studio, and it is a very expensive enterprise, this is one area where a compromise may prevent you from reaching the heights. Music power is the ability to translate the music you feel into sequences of data. If your sequencer makes it hard to do something, chances are great that you won't try in the heat of creation. The easier functions are, the more likely you are to use them.   See Comparing the top MIDI Sequencers for the PC for more.

 

2. Learn Your Sequencer's Basic Functions.

If you haven't done this you are wasting time. High end sequencers do take time to master and have a steep learning curve. Think of it as an investment. The joys of making your own music is the payoff, and it is worth every minute you spend figuring things out. All sequencers have their own internal logic and organization. Its important to find out which sequencer has a way of working you can groove with. Here are the absolute basics you must master.   

Make sure you at least know the major key commands for REC. STOP. PAUSE. REWIND. Don't use the mouse for these functions! It will slow you down and probably ruin a few ideas. I'm not kidding. Nanoseconds count when you hit a live spark. If possible make it so your playing hand never leaves the keys. Use the other hand to trigger the record button. Know how to use a DRUM or PIANO ROLL GRID. Figure out the fastest way to make a new track and define an instrument.

Speed and intuitiveness is everything.  You don't want to be mucking around with menus looking for functions as your live spark fades back in the void till its gone.  Read up on what Quantizing does. So crack the manual. Chances are before you get too far you'll have a few ideas.

 

3. A desire for Quality.

The difference between a great sequence and a ho-hum one is quality. You have to work towards this realm. Quality occurs when you work your sequences with mixers, controllers, effects, program changes and every element suddenly locks together to make a unified image and statement. That's what all those tools are for. Once you are in the realm of quality you can't do wrong. Well things always can go wrong, but they are less likely when a vibe has caught you. Tweak that foundation till it moves your soul. Always ask: What can make this better?

 

4. Fun.

If its fun to record it might actually be fun to listen to.  This is the most important tip of them all!  I don't care what they tell you in music school.  Music is supposed to be fun!  If it's not fun, it is not going to work.  So make sure you "Play".  A fun piece can break all the rules and go platinum.  A "textbook perfect" piece might get you through a college recital, but that's all it will do.

 

Tweak's Recipe

Start with Drums

Start with one or two bars of Hi Hat, on a quantized grid, input notes with different velocities. (quarter notes or eighth notes typically for rock, 16th notes for dance)

 

Hi Hats
 

Lay down the same bars of bass drum. (Beats 1 and 3 for rock, ballads, etc., 1,2,3,4 for dance) (Go ahead, add leading notes, experiment--you are building a house, make the foundation strong and weather-worthy.)
 

Position and choose the snare. (Normally to beats 2 and 4) (Yes, add a frill, a flam, and flirt with this essential backbeat). Don't add the Toms yet, or anything else.

 

basic drum pattern

Listen to this simple drum pattern
 

Copy this sequence to bars 1-8 (verse), then copy it again to 9-17 (chorus)

bars 1-17 

 

Time Out!
What's a Hook?  A "hook" refers to the 1st opening bars of a song, sometimes to only the 1st few seconds.  The hook must generate enough interest to keep the audience wanting to listen
.

 Note, in Hip Hop Music, the Hook refers to the essence of the Chorus (which is usually used to start the song.) Call it what you want.  But here, I mean the first few seconds of the song.

What's a Bar? A place where musician's hang out and get famous for their bad boy/girl behavior.. Yes..but in terms of music construction, a bar refers to a measure of music.  In most pop music in the time signature of 4/4, that's 4 beats. "A One and a Two and Three and a Four" That's one bar or measure. 

 

Using Audio Loops?  No Prob.  Just find the beat you like and lay it down.  TIP: Even if you have the same loop repeating you should put it down a least every 5 bars.  Even the best cut loops go out of sync if you try to run them 16 or more bars.

Doing Trance? Many pieces that have made a lot of money just start with a kick for 4 bars, and the hats the next few bars, then the snares all culminating in a snare roll.  The rest of the rules below don't necessarily apply.  Trance works by building up elements and dropping them out and adding new ones. Sort of like driving your car on the expressway with an every changing landscape, with the throbbing of the motor keeping it all unified.

Time Out!  Do you know what the white and black notes are on your keyboard?  If you don't, take this quick lesson.  It shows you what you need to know in about 2 minutes, and how to use a marker and tape to mark off the notes in the key you are in.  Read Tweak's Basic Keyboard theory Now!

 


Add Bass for Chorus

Back to a standard song. Do a baseline for the chorus. Take your sweet time and experiment till you find something you really like--do not settle for "anything", and avoid tweaking reverbs, FX--just get the bass right. You do not have to sound like Jaco the Great here. The most powerful basslines in our music are very simple play-offs of octaves and fifths.  Or its a simple walk up or down the scale.  Or in some Trance music, just playing the same note in a straight run of 16th notes, deleting a couple at random and raising one note a half step. Make sure you LIKE what you have given birth to. Groove it, twist it, torture it. When your inner censor says "Wow, Cool!" move on to the verse section.  You might find, after coming up with the verse bassline that you want to change the chorus bassline to make it fit better.  Yes!  Do it!

 Do the bass for the chorus first

Here you see the bassline for the chorus section.
 

Using Loops? Then find the bass loop you like.  Note that it will probably take you longer to find one you like than making one from scratch. 

 

 

Time Out: Song Building Secret: There are, some famous composers have argued, two general principles to follow when writing music.  The First is the rule of Similitude.  The rule is the more you make things similar, the stronger they become.  The second and opposing view is the rule of Contrast.  If you make things sound different, they are more interesting. Of course, both are correct. You can use these rules for every aspect of the song.  Yep!  They are abstract.  Use it to build a melody and decide which note comes next; or use it to orchestrate instruments, or decide on the best arrangement.  If you ever get lost, ask yourself, "What would the rule of similitude say to do?"  You Owe me, dude.  

 


Add Melody for Chorus

  • Add a simple melody line, same as above, to the chorus. (Note we do the chorus before the verse). Play around a long time. What possibilities does the bass open up? Don't like it? Fire the Bass player and get a new one. Try different tempos. What's your mood? Try to match it with your inner rhythm of the moment. You are looking for a statement, so listen for it. its very common for sudden little sparks and flashes of meaning, but the hand might not know how to get there. Keep at it. When you are close, if you are not adept at keys, take a look in the grid editor and see what you have and move things around till they speak.  In traditional rock, country, ballads, etc., the melody is the part sung.  If you are doing something dancey, a one or two bar looped pattern of 8th or 16th notes go here.  

  • Keep it simple, even if its stupid and sing-songy.  Dude, think about jingle bells or yankee doodle. Or the Beatles "She Loves you Ya, Ya Ya."  Stupid melodies WIN HEARTS BIG TIME!  If you have any doubt, just turn on the radio to ANY channel and listen to melodies.  They are simple, catchy, easy.  Even you jazz buffs, go watch a concert of avante gard players and watch the AUDIENCE.  They only clap when someone does something simple (or finishes an overly long solo, thank god)
  • Using loops? Here you have to do major digging to find something that is going to define and carry the piece.  Keep you bassline running as you audition different arpeggios, (Arps).  As above, be patient and try lots of things. you are looking for something to "lock". If you don't have to use loops, here is the place you want to try your hand at the keys and come up with something fresh.

 


Do the same as above for the Verse

  • Go to the verse and do the bassline and melody line. Same process as above. Lots of new composers have a little trouble here. The trouble begins usually when you start thinking of how these things must be different. Think of the melody as a friend you have that you want to introduce.
     
  • The verse is the part that gets everyone ready for the chorus. Now if you were a chorus (stay with me now) what would you want the verse to do? Of course, you egotist, you would want it to build you up, roll out the red carpet, say all kinds of great things about you. That way, when you the chorus takes the stage you can fly.
     
  • Tension/Release. Question/Answer. These metaphors don't always hold. (Hey there's NO Rules), but they will get the new composer over the hump. Once you have a few successes with music, you will feel a freedom and all of this will become second nature.

 

The Verse and the Chorus take shape 

At this point you see I have my verse and chorus defined  Listen to this song after the verse and chorus basslines are made  

 

Consider the basic form of the Arrangement

    Now let me introduce the basic structure of the Arrangement.  The Verse is sometimes called the "A" Section.  The Chorus is called the "B" Section.  There is usually a "C" Section too.  We'll get into that in a bit. There is also an Introduction and and Ending

 

Time Out: Basics of Arranging


A Typical Song may have this, well used, time proven structure:

IABABCABC 

(I=Intro, A="A section or verse",  B="B section or chorus", C="C section" or break, E=Ending)

  • Intro (4-8 bars)
  • A (8-16 bars) Verse
  • B (8-16 Bars) Chorus
  • A (8-16 Bars)  Verse 2
  • B (8-16 Bars) Chorus 2
  • C (break) 2-16 bars
  • A (8-16 Bars) Verse 3
  • B (8-16 Bars) Chorus 3
  • E (ending)

Note there are many variations of this, such as

IABABCACE

 

IABACBABE

 

 IABCBCABE

Which one to use? Depends totally on the "feeling" you get when arranging the song. These are NOT hard and fast rules. However, you need to keep the listener in mind. If they do not hear a repeating theme, they will get lost.

 

This is better than any book you can  buy.  Want to know what the top arrangers are doing?  Sheesh, the secrets are all out there plain as day!  All you have to do is count the piece out. Want to get your Tweak on fast?  Go straight to the mainstream Britney Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera. Don't tell me "that music is crap..., sniff".  Open your mind, just a second, OK?  Those arrangers are in the money big time cause they know how to hook people. Don't fall into some stupid, counter-productive "avante gard" all-commercial-music-is-bad-cause-you-hate-all-celebrities.  That's just ego-driven drivel.  Instead, count out their dirty little secret.  You will have new respect for the team behind these artists and how they play with the hidden rules in our minds of what contemporary music must be.

 

 

Build the Song's  Arrangement

Copy bars 1-8 to 17-24 (These are the "A" Sections)
 

Copy bars 9-16 to 25-32  (These are the "B" Sections)

 

Putting the basic song structure in place 

Listen to the song at this point.  I inserted a small break, a "C" section at Bar 37, then copied it to the start and end of the song as a "placeholder" for the intro and ending.

 

Your "core" of the arrangement is now complete.  Evaluate. Do you like it? If so, Continue. If not, start over. Don't waste another second on something you don't like. A good song will "pull you in" at this point. A great song will feel like time has stopped and you'll feel irresistible elation, a willingness to throw yourself on the alter of humanity, and a desire to stay up all night to cull this out. As funny as that sounds, experienced composers know its true.  When you stumble upon a great song, you will know it and you will be in total awe as its beauty reveals itself to you.   
 

Go ahead and orchestrate (i.e., add different instruments that "go together") some instruments with the melody. Find the best patches, experiment with contrast, put a different sound in each frequency range. Avoid sounds that compete with each other. Imagine they are people actually playing the instruments. Make them earn their union wage, but don't piss them off with incredibly unrealistic passages, except when you have to. Remember, you are the boss, here. 

 

Time Out: Orchestration and the Arrangement:

Do NOT let these terms freak you out!  They are SIMPLE. These two concepts help you THINK about how to build your song.  To Orchestrate is to find instruments that go together for any given moment in time.  The Arrangement is the movement through the song's Intro, Verses, Choruses and Breaks in Time, from start to end.   For example, during the Chorus, the instruments may change.  You might switch from a clean to a distorted tone on Guitar, the vocal might be double-tracked, you might add tambourine.  Orchestration changes as the Arrangement progresses.  Remember, you are the boss and can make any kind of orchestration you desire.  If the standard pop song arrangement does not work for you, try writing verses in 32 bars rather than 16 or 8.  Your piece might become like an orchestral work.

 

Develop a "break" (The "C" Section)

  • or counter melody or variation to fit into bars 32-48. It is OK to copy the drums from the verse section, just remember to change them a bit later on. Don't forget that drummers need a little break.
     
  • Orchestrate the break 
     
  • Move the entire construction so it starts at bar 5
     
  • Develop an introduction. 
     
  • Develop an ending. Congratulations! Your song skeleton is complete. 
     
  • Go back and listen to the whole thing a few times. What are you hearing? How can you make the piece unforgettable? 
     
  • Adjust the tempo at this point if you need to, before you start recording audio.  Once you record audio, your freedom to alter tempo is diminished. 

 

Song Skeleton is complete 

Here you can see that I added 3 guitars to the arrangement. At this stage experimentation rules.  You can hear the new tracks on page 2

 

 

Recording and Composition

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
Vocal Processing
Recording Guitars
Using Compressors
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

 

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