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How to Write a Song with Music Software
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?
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.
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)
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.
Copy this sequence to bars 1-8 (verse), then copy it again to 9-17 (chorus)
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!
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.
Add Melody for Chorus
Do the same as above for the Verse
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
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
Copy bars 9-16 to 25-32 (These are the "B" Sections)
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.
Develop a "break" (The "C" Section)
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