The Music Production Process
Step 1: Writing a Song
Without a song, how could one possibly begin to record. Typically, writing a song starts with an idea or an inspiration. It may begin with lyric and a melody, a chord progression, a unique sound/loop or an improvisation that takes on a life of its own. Once this idea has developed enough to stand on its own merits, the music production process can then begin. A music production must support, in every way possible, the message or prevailing emotion of the song.
The most common mistake I see today with young producers and songwriters is that they focus on the sounds or production elements before the song is finished being written. For certain styles of music this can work if the production invokes a feeling or emotion that inspires the lyric and melody. In many cases though, the production sounds disjointed because the lyric and melody end up being limited to the production style or arrangement. What happens next is that the arrangement must be adapted to the lyric and melody and the production can easily lose the coherency necessary for the song to carry its message.
Traditionally, writing a song is done with a singular instrument, a lyric and a melody. That's why so many songs start out as a piano and vocal or acoustic guitar and vocal. If you were writing a song with a group of musicians, they would likely become bored or disinterested if you spend too much time experimenting with melodies or new lyrics. When writing a song, it is typically best to work through these issues alone or with a writing partner that will help you quickly dismiss ideas that just don't work. Once you have flushed out all of these issues the music production process can really begin in earnest.
When carefully crafted, a song will hold the interest of the listener. A song tells a story that conveys ideas and emotions. If the story is something the listener can relate to then they will listen as long as it is told in a compelling way. Great storytellers are very dynamic and interesting people as are great recording artists. They convey the emotions and events in a song with vivid imagery that takes you on a journey.
Although the recording artist and the songwriter are not always the same person, the pairing of artist and songwriter is critical to the success of a song. Sometimes they work together in the process of writing a song so that the artist can add their input and perspective of what the song is about. If the artist cannot relate to the song from their own personal experience, then it will typically sound hollow. The passion must be there for the song to be taken in by the listener.
The blessing of the process for writing a song today is that there are so many resources available, you don't need a band to make a music production. You can create a template production that allows you to work on your ideas without wearing other people out by making them play the same parts over and over again. The use of music loops and samples is an exceptional way of getting the creative juices flowing and setting the stage for writing a song that's inspired.
This process can also have pitfalls. One of the most common is that the songwriter may fall into the trap of focussing on the production elements instead of just writing a song. Without a good sense of judgement, the songwriter may ignore the real problems which may be that the lyric or the melody just isn't very good. By focussing on the production elements they may waste hours, days weeks or months trying to salvage a song that is not really ready for the music production process.
It is for this reason that I believe most of these tools are best used in the demo stage of the music production process. I've seen too many songwriters lose their flow while writing a song because they spend hours trying to work out technical issues instead of just writing. Keep the songwriting process simple. Always have a recording device with you to capture an inspired idea. If you have a smart phone, your one app away from having a portable recording device with you at all times.
For those that struggle with writing a song, good lyrics and melodies or finding good subject matter to write about, there are many websites and forums on songwriting to hone those skills. Writing a song is an art form in itself. However, to start the music production process, the quality of the song cannot be ignored. If you want to become a music producer, you cannot ignore good songwriting skills as a necessary part of your repertoire. The ability to assess issues and make necessary corrections will go a long way to helping you be successful. It is the song, after all, that the listener will relate to most, not the production.
To be very clear, the process I have been talking about here is all about songs that are meant to be the center of ones attention. Although many of the ideas presented here will also work for other forms of music, the focus here is on lyric driven music. Since all music carries some story or emotionally driven feeling, the concepts here can be adapted to the production style to achieve similar results. A jazz or classical record, for example, also convey emotions that tell a story. Even though the story may not be as explicit as a lyric driven song, the same process can be used to aid the listener into the interpretation of that story.
The Four Basic Principles of Writing a Song
To help lend a broader understanding of writing a song, let's go over some of the key elements of good songwriting and how they affect the music production decisions you make. These four basic points of focus must be addressed before the song enters the recording phase of the music production process.
1. Subject Matter of the Song
What the hell is your song about? What feeling are you attempting to convey? Love, jealousy, hate, anger, fun, etc… These decisions lay the groundwork for EVERY other decision that is made including what sounds and instruments are selected in the production process.
Writing a song about heroin addiction, for example, is not going to have bright tinkling bells as part of the music production. In this example, the musical elements of the song will need to be dark and oppressive sounding so that they support the prevailing message of the song which is most likely about depression and helplessness.
Conversely, writing a song that's meant to make people party and dance is not going to be filled with dark heavy depressing sounds. The elements used here will be brighter, punchy and focussed. They will need to pump and breathe at the pace a person would dance to. While this may seem obvious on the surface, the real artistry of writing this type of music is doing something unique while remaining within these parameters.
2. Telling the Story
How do you plan to convey this message? These decisions all start with the prevailing message or feeling from the song. This can be as simple and using a minor key for a sad song versus a major key when the message is more positive. The blend of melody and lyric must support each other in every way. If the prevailing message is one of irony or sarcasm, writing depressing lyrics in a major key could convey a sense of humor or show a person trying to cover up their true feelings about the subject matter.
There is no way to underestimate the importance of this relationship. The human brain is wired to receive and process information in a very particular way, if you go too far outside of these parameters, the message will be lost on most that care to listen. When presented well, you open a doorway to the listener's consciousness. From there it is up to you to keep the door open by continuing to hold the interest of the listener.
Of all the topics surrounding the music production process, this is the one with the least number of technical solutions. No plugin, compressor or effect will cover up a bad song for very long. No processor will change the attitude or feeling of a song. These tools can only enhance an energy that must already be present. In the example above, heavily compressing the recording may help to convey the feeling of being trapped. This approach may work against you, however, if the song focusses on the feeling of freedom while on the high.
This is the reason that the songwriting process is so critical to get right before even attempting to start to make a music production out of it. If a song can't hold the interest of a listener when presented in its most simple form, then it likely can't withstand the music production process without becoming and endless parade of bandaids.
3. Holding the Attention of the Listener
How would you like to present the song? How will the dynamic energy of the song flow? Do you want it to start out simple and end big? Do you want it to start out big, drop down in energy and then explode in the end? Do you want it to maintain an even energy level throughout? Any one of these methods can work if the selected method supports the message of the song.
The classic structure for a song starts with a verse which presents a story or situation. It tells you what happened, how you got into this situation in the first place. The chorus section then conveys the emotional result of the story that has just been told. It tells the listener what has resulted from the events told in the verse.
Usually, there is a back and forth profession between verse and chorus that may lead into a breakdown or bridge section. The breakdown or bridge sections will take you to another perspective of the story. It may be the truth of what has transpired, it may represent a reprieve from the story so that the impact of the remaining story is more dynamically felt when the next chapter is told.
This traditional method of songwriting is not necessary if a creative way to keep the interest of a listener is created. A song about the repetitive nature of living and working in a big city may benefit from a repetitive loop or programmed rhythm. The programed, repetitive nature of the production may help to convey the feeling of living a robotic life, repeating the same pattern of living day after day.
The reason why the traditional verse, chorus, bridge method works is that there is a template that will most likely to hold the interest of the listener if presented well. Every story has a setup (verse) a problem or dilemma (chorus), a realization or solution (bridge or breakdown), and an ending. The ending can be any of the other song elements or something completely different depending on how the story ends.
A song is basically a 3-5 minute movie in audio form. I like to use visual references when talking about any kind of audio because the reality is that sound is a secondary sense to sight. Up until the age of synthesis, every sound that we ever heard came from a physical object that we could visualize. This programming has been built into us for thousands of years and serves us well as a survival mechanism. Sound allows us to perceive and interpret things we may not be able to see. Sometimes they are dangerous things, like a car racing through an intersection you are about to cross.
Sounds presented well in musical form also help to support or create the images or feelings that are presented in the song. A song is no different then any other form of audio. A song can create images in a persons mind. They listener may recall past events in their life that relate to the story being told in the song. The music production helps to support that imagery. When properly done it may bring a person back to their own personal experiences that they can remember and relive through your song.
4. Feeling Over Thinking
When a song is well written the dynamic of the song will be clearly spelled out by the story. It will help you decide if you should use a breakdown section instead of a bridge section. It will help you decide whether to fade out on chorus sections, a vamp section, end the song with big crash or just a simple melody. Unless you are writing a song that is meditation music or attempting to put the listener into some kind of hypnotic state, people will respond most to differences in things, not sameness. Without this progression of dynamic changes, people will get bored and turn you off.
The best way to judge whether a song is ready for the music production process is to FEEL it instead of listening to it. In other words, stop thinking and just let it speak to you. Pay close attention to any section of the song where you lose interest or feel your attention is taken somewhere else. Does the song hold your full attention from beginning to the end? Does it drag on too long? Do you feel cheated of shortchanged by the song because it is too short? Do you feel satisfied after listening to it?
Remember, feeling will always outweigh thinking! If you find yourself trying to convince somebody why a song is good, then you should already know that something is wrong. If you have completely lost your perspective, shelve the song for a while until you can listen with fresh ears. Listening to the same thing over and over can have the effect of burning it into your consciousness. You lose the ability to be objective.
Finally, when writing a song, never ask somebody what they think of it. Unless they are a professional producer or artist and are brutally honest people, they will usually BS you because they are your friend and trying to support you. The best way to judge a song is to play it in the background and just watch for reactions without soliciting one. Do they move their head or body to the beat? Do they leave the room singing the lyric or melody? Do they ask you about whose song this is? These are clear signs that something is right because they are feeling it, not listening to it.
Moving on to the Demo
Once you are satisfied with the song, you are ready to take the next step. Step 2 is the Demo stage of the music production process. In all of the excitement over writing a song, it is easy to overlook this important part of the process. This is an experimental phase of the production process that allows you discover how to best present your song to the listener. Lack of preparation before recording can completely ruin a great song. Do not underestimate or bypass this important step!
Step 1: Writing a Song
Step 2: Recording a Demo
Step 3: Rehearsals
Step 4: Recording Basic Tracks
Step 5: Overdubbing
Step 6: Editing Music
Step 7: Music Mixing Part 1
Step 7: Music Mixing Part 2
Step 7: Music Mixing Part 3
Step 8: Mastering
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