SONGWRITER HOME RECORDING WORKFLOWS
Between May 1 and June 30 2013, I ‘m adding a lot of informational content to this, my recording blog at www.wigglytoesmusic.com
There are short blogs and long blogs in this series of blogs on home recording for songwriters.
This is probably the longest one Maybe save the link for later if you don’t have 20 minutes right now…
Today I’m considering the myriad ways songwriters have available to them to work up a great recording at home.
Other blogposts will include audio and video. Most will be shorter – but there’s a lot to say here, since approaches are so varied. This may be the longest blog of the whole series, now I think about it.
There are many methodologies for making excellent recordings that go from one-take live performances recorded direct to a mono or stereo master recorder all the way to complex programming and layering approaches using over 100 tracks!
Home studios can do both extremes and everywhere in between, depending on available equipment, knowhow, and given a decent acoustic environment around you at home. You can tweak the acoustics, thankfully, and I’ll be telling you how later in the series.
Recording is a hobby with such satisfying results after a while that, for a songwriter, it’s a no-brainer to try to master it.
It sounds like a lot to deal with, but actually it’s easier than it looks. You’ll be flying along in no time. Like the grand game of chess, it takes a lifetime to master it, but you can learn the rules to get by pretty quickly.
We’ll start with your moments of inspiration as a songwriter. We all start here before we diverge down differing paths.
SIMPLE IDEAS AND FIELD RECORDINGS
The different approaches have merit in different circumstances, and tend to lead you towards different targets, and there are costs involved in being able to head where you want to go.
Some styles are less expensive to record than others since some genres require additional software or hardware and others don’t. It can become an expensive pursuit if you let it, but you can do more than enough on a limited budget to get your songs across in quality recordings.
It doesn’t take fancy gear to catch the listener’s ear and thrill their heart.
With a decent vocal mic, DAW software, a good audio interface and a fairly fast computer, you can cover a lot of ground and get excellent broadcast-quality results that sound great. One instrument and a great vocal can be profoundly moving – think of Adele.
Maybe you’ve made a “field recording”. This could be a walk by the sea or through a public park, recorded with a portable palm-size stereo recorder you carry on your person, such as your smartphone. It’s basically a recording made out and about.
Take the time to do that with any small cheap recorder you have or can borrow or buy – or just use a smartphone if you have one. Even the very cheap palm-size business memo machines are fine for this purpose, but you may already have a suitable ‘phone or tablet.
A key advantage of getting used to recording things out and about is that any fear of recording will subside. It becomes second nature to hit the Record button. You also end up with a library of recordings, any of which might contribute a nice atmosphere in the background of a song some day – think of the birds singing in the Beatles “Blackbird”.
The technical quality (or lack thereof) of a “field recording” often has little to no impact on it’s effectiveness. People are usually happy to ignore minor deficiencies.
Doing this, you will capture your song fragments and lyric ideas and musings as well as recording the sound of your current environment. It’s the beginning of a classic workflow.
You’ll typically have a Zoom-type portable recorder or your existing smartphone or tablet. This is a really essential writer’s tool. See my blog on “Recording song ideas quickly” from February 2013 for more on capturing your ideas.
Since you have a computer or a tablet device for reading a blog, you can already record at home for free, given a USB microphone to plug into it. This is the simplest way forward with minimal expense and equipment.
Apple computers and iPads all come with Garageband software for free, and Audacity is available free for the PC platform.
Both products allow you to record yourself into a computer with a microphone and record sounds to several tracks. you can then mix the result together to make a stereo mix.
USE A CLICK TRACK
Of course, not all music requires strict tempo but it is extremely helpful to play in strict tempo. It opens so many doors to production techniques.
You can always change tempo or force audio to follow a fluctuating tempo given the right tools, techniques and time, but not doing so is preferable, for obvious reasons. Life is short; don’t spend it on convoluted processing of pre-existing audio. Learn to play in steady time.
You’ll soon feel comfortable playing with a steady click – maybe use a cowbell or a woodblock sound if you hate the bleep of the computer pulse. It is easy to change the sound of a click to make it more conducive to play with. I’ll post a blog about click tracks and virtual instruments in a few days time. It’s like riding a bike, tricky at first but soon very easy and never to be forgotten. Make it a routine to practice if you don’t already have the skill and your recordings will improve rapidly.
So, in the computer or tablet, you have a multitrack recording environment of amazing quality and facility in your home, and one that can make broadcast quality recordings given the right care and attention. It makes it easy to get songs online for distribution after you’ve made them as well… bonus!
RECORDING WORKFLOW TYPES
A popular approach is to enter a MIDI note that lasts for a bar or two, and loop it while trying different sounds. This can be a writing technique as well as a production task.
Using rather more costly virtual instruments in a DAW, in the form of plug-ins inserted on a MIDI Instrument track, can become prohibitively expensive, but it is an inspirational addition to the arsenal of writing-friendly tools. Worth considering if you can afford it and it suits your musical style.
If you do happen to have the budget for fancy virtual instruments, then, yes, investing a few hundred dollars does make for a lot of fun and inspirational sounds, but it’s not required to make good recordings. Examples of fancy instrument plug-ins to inspire might include Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Stylus RMX or Waves Element or Tassman 4 or iZotope Iris, any of which can generate amazing backgrounds of audio to write over.
You can scroll through the instrument plug-in menus looking for cool sounds that inspire you as the 4-bars-long MIDI note you already drew into the MIDI track plays in loop mode. Improvise in real-time on your attached MIDI keyboard and start writing to that groove.
Transpose, speed up, slow down – all easy to do in MIDI-only stages of a recording. MIDI is very useful to use if you want to confirm tempo and groove before attempting any audio recordings, because you can make a guide backing track with as many virtual instruments as you like and still change the tempo or swing feel or key at any time.
Once you’re certain it’s the right speed (Beats per Minute) and key signature for your singer, then you can add audio tracks to your song safe in the knowledge there won’t be a problem later on in the recording stage.
Few really good software instruments are cheap, though, which is their main downside for the songwriter on a budget.
Be cautious about which products get your hard-earned money and do take advantage of free trials to coincide with your recording sessions for maximum value. There’s always a new effect or instrument plug-in you haven’t previously tried that can be downloaded and used in free trial mode for a particular session. Read reviews too.
In fact, a fine recording can be done with Garageband or Audacity if you do the right things on the way into the computer or tablet, and take care in choosing or preparing the acoustic spaces you use your microphone(s) in.
Returning to idea capture, if your ideas are first caught on a portable gadget, they can provide (or, more typically, become a part of) the final mix, impacting the sonics of the recording and thus the emotional arc of your song.
Here we come to the core issue with workflow options.
It is not just a matter of which gadgets you buy to record yourself with, or which microphone you sing into. Gear does not make the outcome what it is, though it firmly impacts the process. The outcomes you will get from the recording process are very strongly influenced by the way in which you write your songs. How you play is less important in a technology workflow than in a performance workflow, because the technology workflow incorporates a lot of editing and programming which changes what was initially recorded. This is not as common in performance-based music, though regularly done there too.
Virtually all of us use DAWs these days (or standalone boxes or keyboards of one sort or another also containing computer chips, software apps and sounds) running software of one type or another, and in fact most music sequencing or recording programs operate in the same well-established paradigms with very few exceptions.
Even the most common key commands are often the same from software to software, such as commands for transport controls to navigate playback and recording modes (Spacebar or Enter are popular for Play, and often toggle Stop/Play).
Unless you’re still using tape (really????), we all operate in a paradigm where music occurs along a timeline on multiple tracks in software, and there is a structure from top to tail that can be viewed along that timeline and noted with Markers in a Marker List for ease of navigation around the song. Handy when overdubbing or mixing.
Nowadays, well inside the 21st century, we may decide that our songwriting is complete before any recording actually begins, as it used to be for most of the last century. Alternatively, we may decide even very significant writing details at any time during recording – even sometimes in a mastering session with what seemed to be a finished mix, believe it or not, on the rare occasions a structural edit is both desirable and possible.
I’m not typically too happy about edits done at mastering, being a mastering engineer. Let’s get the mix right and THEN master it. Sigh. I am simply pointing out that writing need not stop just because you are mostly done with a recording of the song. Always keep your inner writer engaged and looking for improvements in lyric, structure, melody or phrasing. Only structure is likely to be changeable at mastering and then very rarely would it happen.
Let’s look now at all-in-one recording options, ones where “DAW” functionality is embedded in a standalone product.
MUSIC PRODUCTION CENTRES AND DIGITAL KEYBOARD WORKSTATIONS
Quite a few folks use all-in-one machines built specifically for creating music, for instance any models in the Akai MPC (Music Production Centre) family.
These are table-top devices that act as a DAW would, but you get playable rubber pads (typically 16 of them) for choosing and triggering internal drum sounds and recording your playing of the pads for later editing and copying and moving and transposing of your recorded playing data, cloning and positioning it as necessary about the sequence’s timeline.
Some of these devices have a drumbeat focus, but they also offer built-in keyboard sounds and sampling facilities that can be step-wise programmed (entering one beat or note at a time). These are often called production centres after the Akai MPC that led the charge originally.
Other units are basically piano keyboards with a brain that do the same sort of thing without the drum-pad options, but with a piano keyboard, and each have many buttons and faders. These are used for MIDI control and recording your real-time performance moves of buttons, wheels, faders and keys as MIDI data, an area first entered by the venerable Korg M1 back in the late 1980’s. These keyboard types of DAW became known as Workstations (the W in DAW).
Both production centres and workstations are fully MIDI capable, and once the MIDI data is in the computer, it can be further edited and manipulated. A key advantage is that you can try a new sound playing the same part you have just recorded, without doing anything other than changing sound patch on the device for the data you are playing back. Hear the part with a shimmering Fender Rhodes piano sound, and then hear the same part played by a spiky harpsichord. Easy. A great workflow, but perhaps rather technical at times. Thankfully, MIDI is pretty simple in use.
These types of units also let you enter step-wise sequences of notes of different durations and pitches, thus compiling a musical track, just as DAWs do. You can play in parts via a keyboard or input features like drum-pads, or you can click it in with button pressing or typing onscreen one beat at a time. Not my idea of fun, but it works perfectly well and I have used the technique for several decades with great success.
MPCs and workstations are highly sophisticated bits of equipment, but they’re not very hard to operate after reading the manual and working with them for a short while. These things will also do sampling and recording of audio, and drum programming and synthesis and sequencing all in the one box.
Their most prized asset is that they will have a recognized feel or groove to their “swing” algorithms but I think they really shine when combined with a fuller, more traditional recording set-up. The Akai MPC perhaps is the top of this tree, in my view, but there is a lot of competition in this area. These types of unit are also quite expensive, but then so is a computer and the necessary software to get it acting as your DAW.
This all-in-one approach to recording lends itself mostly to urban and r’n’b and hip-hop music writing and production, where groove is a key component of every recording and sampling and synthesis is commonplace. These things are simply DAWs with a different outfit on in many ways.
I think of these types of products (namely a production centre or keyboard workstation) as having the same relationship to a desktop computer (with DAW software) as an X-Box 360 game console has to a PC desktop computer (with gaming software). An MPC is a purpose-built music computer rather than a general-purpose computer. They both have internal processing chips and memories and sounds and so on, but the MPC can only do music tasks.
CHOOSE A WORKFLOW TO SUIT THE GENRE/SONG
The genre is what determines the recording approach most of the time, so if a performance genre is the target, this is the way to go. You feel a genre is appropriate and rehearse yourself and/or other musicians to perform it into a recording device.
Alternatively, you may find yourself creating at random, on your recording set-up, whatever it is, seeing where your song idea takes you, writing as you go.
It must be the target genre, then, which really determines the recording workflows to use for any one project.
For me, workflows for songwriters recording at home fall into three main areas. I’ve done them all plenty of times and they all work well in different ways in different styles. There’s fun to be had and lessons to be learned from mixing and matching the elements of each style as you try to find your preferred sound for a particular project.
PERFORMANCE, TECHNOLOGY and ACCRETION WORKFLOWS
PERFORMANCE and TECHNOLOGY workflows are at each end of a continuum, and there are as many stops in between as you can imagine, I’m sure. They differ mostly in terms of the importance to the desired outcome of capturing human-performed real-time performances.
ACCRETION is a term I borrow from Planetary Science and use in my own way. It seems to be a good way to describe a certain process, outlined below. Let’s see the differences between the workflows.
A simple USB condenser microphone into GarageBand or Audacity is the cheapest way to get an acceptable vocal or acoustic guitar recorded. It could be an acoustic piano that you record first, or any other acoustic instrument, of course, if that’s what you use to write.
You might even use an electric guitar or electric piano through a miked up amp or plugged straight into your audio interface’s Instrument input, sometimes called DI Input. You may even choose not to add any more audio to your recording, if the initial instrument and vocal take is emotionally and sonically engaging and successful by itself.
The only criteria here is that the performance has been practiced extensively, and the song structure has been thoroughly examined and settled upon. You will be trying to avoid too much editing in most cases by capturing good solid performances to begin with.
In other words, you have finished writing the song, apart from any last-minute inspirations to upgrade the lyric or melody or phrasing or add a new instrument to the arrangement.
We humans love to hear other humans playing more than we love to hear machines playing, or music that sounds heavily edited or processed (i.e. “Not-Live”). This seems to be true, even amongst EDM and experimental electronica fans. They still pile on the vocal samples, you’ll notice, which are quintessentially human.
Famous examples of performance recordings are, again, “Blackbird” by the Beatles (well, Sir Paul McCartney, to be precise) or Bob Dylan’s timelessly poignant classic “Masters of War”. Another example – the beautiful Adele is a great performance-based recording songwriter of today.
Singing really does not have to be done at the same time as the bed track – it’s much simpler technically if you don’t and the results are much better (technically) – unless the performer finds it best for performance reasons to sing while playing, at which point it’s the engineer’s headache (that’s you, I’m afraid)!
I’ll cover this problem when I talk about tracking acoustic guitars in June 4, 2013’s blog “Tracking Acoustic Guitars”.
It’s not hard to record a vocal/guitar take in one go, but you will need two different microphones and must aim them carefully and consider your environment acoustics to do this well. The equipment need not be amazing – it’s not necessary to use expensive microphones to get professional results. Budget ones do pretty well here, since there is virtually no sub-bass frequency content in a vocal or acoustic guitar.
If you’re thinking of several people at once, a classical string quartet is a good example. They would expect to record themselves as a live performance, playing together at the same time, with good eye contact, in the same not-too-small (wooden-floored) space. Much the same is true of small jazz piano trios (piano, upright bass, drums).
Both these types of writers and musicians prefer natural, real sounds, and so it really helps to get better quality equipment for these styles. With pop and urban music, and indeed rock, you can afford to be more casual with equipment quality and still get away with it. That’s because most of the sounds are artificial, synthetic sounds that do not occur in nature. In other words, we don’t have a template for natural…
You can be ambitious with a large room with high ceilings. If you are lucky enough to have access to this sort of room, a string quartet, for example, could be recorded at your home pretty well, so your room(s) available to you for recording purposes are very important.
You would also want to switch off ALL your noisy things like fridges and furnace vents that might be in the same room for the duration of the “open” microphones. Mute the phone and the doorbell too.
If you only have low ceilings and carpets, you could take some basic equipment to set up temporarily in a suitable church hall or non-carpeted function room that has reliable power outlets. Use a surge protector on the power strips you plug anything into for safety with untried power sources.
Being asked to wear headphones while playing is clearly problematic for violinists, even though there are one-cup models they may use – but sometimes they just have to work with it. These are the type of issues that may arise where several players of acoustic instruments are playing together at the same time. I’ll talk about that later in the blog series.
There are numerous performance-based genres; for instance, in the Celtic, bluegrass, country, folk and Americana fields. In particular, Nashville is world-famous for it’s leadership in preserving and perfecting the art of recording musicians that play together simultaneously.
Many songwriters are keen to emulate this at home, but, in the end, each musician you try to add to your live performance is going to cause a sizeable increase of required equipment (microphones, cables, preamps, power supplies, gadgets, etc).
My advice is to minimize the number of musicians you record at once, and if possible do things one at a time for best results. Patience pays off. The downside is the human feel of players interacting is tricky to maintain in a series of overdubs, and it takes some experience to do that consistently well. People play better when they are playing at the same time with eye contact, and solitary overdubs don’t provide this performance feedback loop.
The biggest problem with this workflow (multiple players at once) is in maintaining the sense of performance when people are playing simultaneously but cannot make eye contact with other players.
Sometimes, allowing eye contact is a problem in home studios due to sound isolation factors – steps taken to prevent “leakage” or “spill” issues of one players’ sound getting into the neighbouring player’s microphone. Baffling off a drummer or upright bassist behind home-made wooden partitions (so-called gobos) or putting him/her in another room can very easily hamper interplay amongst the musicians, for example.
I’ve found that good eye contact and great headphone mixes to play too (where appropriate) dramatically improves the sensitivity to each other’s playing, which gets the best results at the end of the day from this workflow.
So here’s your trade-off with performance workflows. You balance size of ensemble against how easy they are to record at once (and this means care in planning tasks and selecting equipment, so as to meet your session’s equipment needs).
The less people at once, the better from the results point of view in a home set-up, because it means you acan use a lot less equipment and spend more time focusing on one thing at a time.
Let’s remember prosody. Some music needs to sound superhuman in rhythmic consistency and accuracy. Horses for courses. These machine-like groove songs are great when people are funky enough to play them well, but sometimes they are songs far better suited to the next type of workflow – the TECHNOLOGY workflow.
Using this methodology provides you with a fairly finished sounding recording quite quickly, and it does not have to be committed to. You can change entire song structures around with a few clicks of a mouse, moving your verse 2 to verse 1 and seeing what you think, and so on. Solo before or after the bridge? Try both ways, a few quick edits will show you the differences.
MIDI (Musical instrument Digital interface) is a protocol for MIDI-capable gadgets to talk to each other. Keyboards and drum machines are MIDI devices, but there are also numerous other uses, such as controlling theatre lighting during a play, changing patches on an effects unit in real-time during a song, or running a theme park ride’s audio track in synchronization with the ride every time. It’s been around a long time now, but it is extremely useful to understand and use when recording.
This will be covered in much more detail later when I cover MIDI and synthesis topics, but for now, just realize that it is the core component of the sequencing approach to songwriting and recording.
People use MIDI data to write musical parts for virtual instruments that reside in the computer.
In addition, they MIDI integrates external gadgets (drum machines, keyboards, and so on) that can send and receive MIDI commands to the DAW sequencing software. MIDI captures performances not as audio, but as numerical data describing notes and events and parameters that can be changed in countless ways at will after the fact, within the parameters of what MIDI is capable of – which is a LOT of very cool stuff.
Many artists create entirely bespoke electronic music, using no beats or loops but simply making their own from scratch using the building blocks of sound synthesis. This blog series will cover synthesis, MIDI and sampling in a fair amount of detail during June 9 – 17, 2013.
The approach is often to start programming the details without having a finished song, just writing as they go. The genre again determines the recording methodology. Often, the idea for the song concept will only be firmed up after the backing track is mostly completed for at least a potential chorus section. The tune is written to slot in with the existing production elements that have been used. Loops and beats are tweaked in level, tone, processed, and often muted completely at points in a bar to mold them around the intended melodic framework that the writer is developing. An idea comes, is tried, but things are modified to make it work.
A sequence is assembled, usually drums or beats or loops, in the computer software. If you have written the song in full, you will instead program MIDI parts to control virtual instruments (drums, synths, piano, whatever) bar by bar, or else pre-fab loops or beats are used. There is no song at this stage, usually. The typical approach is that the songwriter writes to what inspires him as he tries things in the sequencer.
This is a TECHNOLOGY workflow. The technology is strongly influencing the writing process.
Writing after you begin recording has its downsides too.
You may waste a lot of time tweaking stuff that you throw away shortly afterwards to try something new. The writing itself may not work out well a lot of the time, since great songs are usually crafted rather than popping out of thin air, and you can end up with various song sections that work and various others that don’t really fit but you might re-use in another song.
This leads me to… the ACCRETION workflow.
THE ACCRETION WORKFLOW
As far as I know, I’m the first and only person ever to use ACCRETION in reference to a method by which songwriters and producers can create their original recordings. My apologies to the members of the Earth Sciences community.
ACCRETION is used there to describe the suspected mechanisms of early planet formation, as interstellar dust and other formative pre-planetary materials gradually coalesce together and grow into a larger body under the influence of their increasing gravitational pull with increasing mass, blah blah blah. A world is born from bits and pieces of rubble floating about the place.
This is accretion! The term resonates with me for describing a certain process of creating new original recordings and it is primarily a technological method rather than a performance method, but has a fair amount of human performances at it’s core.
Wow, I invented an alternative meaning for a word! Or did I? If you were there first, do let me know!
For me, accretion neatly describes the gathering of a bunch of disparate audio elements that acquire “weight” by their juxtaposition, growing into a song by influencing the writer during their assembly. Accretion definitely lies nearer the technological end of this continuum. It’s songwriting by audio collage. Urban styles work well here, as well as deliberately atmospheric work, for instance Brian Eno’s experimental music and his influence on many U2 productions.
Quite a few writers (including myself at adventurous times) have had hours of fun and created songs by taking disparate bits of audio, fragments of speech, melody, environmental soundscapes (so-called “field recordings”, referred to above), and throwing them all together in a DAW of some kind and seeing what collage of sound results as we play them against each other looking for pleasing combinations.
The sounds may inspire a song. Perhaps you hear a train in the distance and you’re Paul Simon and write a lyric on that idea. The recording you make contains these sounds (if you choose to retain them) as well as your new song.
It’s a pretty cool way to have a go at a new technique and learn more about your DAW’s operations as well. It takes a few hours of practicing to get good at the importing, cutting and pasting moves involved, but you feel like you run the DAW and not the other way around once you get some commands under your belt with this kind of experimental activity. Did I mention it’s fun?
Recording a lot and thinking about what you are aiming for provides a very valuable set of skills, everything from repeated critical listening from many points of view to trying out a change in song structure in software on the fly.
Some people are impulsive, others more methodical. Your workflow is influenced by your personality type too, so if you are not very patient and not very practical, you may want to minimize interaction with equipment and pick an appropriate performance-based workflow!
If you record into a DAW using an audio interface, which is the norm and thoroughly to be recommended, you will have a modern and effective recording setup that far outperforms analog tape, not only in quality terms but also in its mind-blowing ability to do incredible things and facilitate phenomenal results. Beyond that, you can pick where you will work today on the continuum between performance and technology workflows.
Some people start their recording process by writing a song on a traditional instrument as completely as they can, then move to a DAW to record their song as they currently feel they should perform it. Almost all songwriters worked that way when I started out, but today most begin a new recording of a song by sequencing riffs and chords and beats with virtual instruments in Reason, Live, Reaper or GarageBand. It makes a big difference to the feel of the song, I find, depending on which approach you take.
Careful pre-production on the structure and delivery of your song in a solo performance context will always strengthen your recording dramatically. It carries a lot of emotion to the listener in a focused way if you have written well before the recording starts and can perform well with the red light on.
This is very hard to equal by writing as you go with machines and MIDI programming. However, if you don’t try the sequencing and programming methods, your skillset in the studio will be far, far poorer than that of those who do.
Try to record in a way you don’t normally record, if you can! Use MIDI if you don’t usually, and perform if you don’t usually. Shake things up. See how it changes things.
Remember that tempo is not necessarily a strict metronome thing, it can change in mid-flight, and it is the push and pull of tiny timing imperfections that construct the irresistible groove. Chuck Berry plays a very different rhythm feel to the one played by his pianist on those classic records, but they’re both playing together on the same song at the same moment and it works fabulously.
This blogpost is more philosophical generalization than anything really practical. Still, I hope it’s food for thought about your own writing and recording process and what you might try changing around.
Tomorrow’s episode is “Tools Of The Trade You Really Do Need”. It will be a lot shorter as you don’t need a lot!