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SAC Challenge Week 2

Well, it’s been a long weekend.  I co-wrote a pop song with Lucy LeBlanc and Dave Stanley Daoust on Friday night, and then recorded it until Monday night, and here it is!  It’s called Unstoppable.  It’s aimed at Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, and it was very enjoyable to work on with Lucy and Dave.

This was our first attempt at all writing together in this configuration, although I have written a song with Lucy once before.  Dave and I are in a songwriting Facebook group with a couple of other writers from the USA and we get a lot out of it, as it is a good way to get fair and honest criticism from other writers of work in progress.  It’s good to have a group like that.  We help each other over occasional writers’ block and encourage each other!

Teen pop is fun, so I enjoyed the challenge!

I would have preferred time to take a break after tracking and then mix, but just like in the real world of the music business, three days is a typical turnaround and you don’t always get enough time to deal with the niceties.

I had the title “Unstoppable” in my “hook book” (a notebook of ideas for song titles that I keep) and it seemed perfect for the brief – to write a strong female song for 13-18 year old girls.

The song pursues the idea of that sense of invincibility that comes with being young.

The possibilities of life are endless when you are young!  That feeling is something we hoped to capture as we worked on lyric ideas together on Skype in a three-way call lasting just under three hours.

We chose an inner city high school as a location to set the song in, as the target audience are girls, aged 13-18 years old.  We thought a reasonably brisk tempo and straightforward feel was appropriate, and so 126 BPM in 4/4 time was our lucky winner.

First step in producing a demo was to enter markers at the appropriate bar positions for all of the sections that would be in the song, so that a road map to sections was clear in the DAW session right from the start.

Next, I enlisted the virtual instrument plugin “Boom” – a drum machine plugin with sound sets of a dance music nature, such as the ubiquitous 808 and 909 kicks, claps, snare, rim and hats, along with similar urban, electro, dance and other kits.  I mixed and matched kit elements to suit. I didn’t really have time to program in all the fills that you would expect in this style, but there is at least an intro fill.

The Slate Trigger plugin provided a more realistic kick drum sample playing alongside the 909 kick drum, and in the end I used three different kicks at different levels in the mix, playing interlocking parts, and also a fourth kick specifically for the bridge, where most of the instruments drop out and a bunch of real handclaps join in with a pattern reminiscent of the ’70’s hit “Car Wash”.

Next up came a synth bass line and a whole raft of keyboard parts, mostly arpeggiated riffs and gated stuttering pads, all provided by the virtual synth plug-in Element from Waves Audio in the interests of speed.  The featured image of this post is a picture of that plugin.

This is where I paused and established the correct key for our singer, my lovely wife.  She had an intermittent cough and a cold, so it was problematic in all keys, with a few frogs showing up here and there, but we felt F major was the best place for the song’s melody with her vocal range.  Having a cold was just bad luck!

She was game to try all the same, and we did get a vocal that definitely demos the melody line successfully, if a touch froggy now and then.  Her voice was giving out to the cough after about half an hour, so it was a rapid-fire recording process, and we couldn’t work hard on it without her losing her voice, so we did what we could in the circumstances in the interests of finishing the vocal before that happened!  The slings and arrows of demo-making in a hurry!

TWith a key chosen, it was the time for real instruments to be added.  Tracking up acoustic guitars four times doing a simple strum pattern was the next thing to do, panning them in pairs opposite each other in the stereo image.  Then, I put a capo on at the third fret and tracked it all four more times with a different position – first four in F, next four guitars in D with the capo at fret 3.  This gave me a thicker, richer acoustic sound, once panned appropriately to join the others, and the capo versions added a lightness to the sound I would normally get from using a guitar strung with Nashville tuning but I didn’t have one handy.

Thinking of Mutt and Shania, I put on twelve tracks of background vocals singing the title in three part harmony, “Unstoppable”, which appears twice at the head of each chorus and once at the end of each chorus.

It’s great to reinforce the title as much as possible, both in writing and in production terms!

I sang four lots of each note in the background vocals, to thicken up the backgrounds and pan them fairly wide, processing them with an LA-2A compressor plugin and then iZotope Nectar effects, simply to be as fast as possible at mixing it.  No time to finesse!

Finally, after a last minute check with my co-writers for improvements in the lyric, which they came up with right on time for the takes, my wife did her best with a bad cold to sing the lead vocal, and of course it’s quite a while since either of us were teenagers, but we did our best to sound young and rather more healthy than we were feeling!  Insert snuffly noises here!   :-)

And so, after a long weekend of writing and recording, we had a demo.    In truth, productions for the target audience would probably have less guitars (often, none at all) and would be a bit less densely layered, but the time constraints made it impossible to find time to thin out the production or to add details like drum and keyboard fills and one-off sound effects and such.

There was no time to mix from scratch, which is a shame, and the work-in-progress mix she sang to is not much different from the one I ended up with by the deadline.  I did my best with my little Auratone speaker in mono to balance everything up like a pop hit, and then squeezed it all a bit with some mastering plugins and a virtual tape simulation, the Slate VTM plug-in acting as my half-inch mastering recorder.

It was tough going but very good fun!  We hope you like it!  This challenge certainly reflects the pace of the music business in terms of turnaround time for demos.  Phew, time for sleep!@@$#**@#.

Fortunately, next week’s challenge (an advertising brief) will not require more than 60 seconds of music, unlike this week’s target of a little over three minutes, so bridges and outros won’t be required.  After this week, that sounds good to me!

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