Help for the Technically-Challenged
by Frank Gryner via your friends & family (as published in Recording Magazine)
We’ve assembled here because we care about you. It has become clear to the friends and family in this room that your avoidance of technology in the name of artistry, has negatively impacted your songwriting. Despite your obvious passion for music, you’re continuously blocking your own path of creativity by acquiring several bad habits that we intend to address here today. Fueled by natural ability, writing songs may have started out as pretty effortless for you, but in order to advance further, you’ll need to streamline your creative process and take advantage of some of the latest tools available.
Where Do Awesome Songs Come From?
We’ve heard the phrases “I’m not inspired”, “I have writer’s block” or “I don’t feel like writing” too often to remain silent anymore. What other profession is reliant on inexplicable cosmic fate in order to produce results? We know it may be hard to hear, but if you don’t know how to write songs on demand, then you’re hardly a professional, but just someone who stumbles upon a decent song by accident. Even if you don’t have real aspirations to become a professional songwriter, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with becoming really proficient at it. We’re not suggesting that you become an emotionless songwriting machine per se, but there are a lot of ways to improve your craft starting with educating yourself on precisely what a song is. A song in its most simple form is melody and lyrics. It can be difficult to separate the arrangement and production from the song itself especially when you’re overly concerned about its presentation before those fundamental building blocks are in place . Some writers need some level of production early on in order to be “inspired” to write, but reducing this dependency is important if you aim to be versatile and more original in your writing. It all starts with a better way to capture your raw song ideas.
Catch & Release
The greatest songwriters are both blessed and cursed with a compulsion to create songs absolutely anywhere, any time of day. There’s absolutely no excuse not to be well equipped with a portable audio recorder at all times. Using the voice recorder in your smartphone is an obvious choice, but be cautious with any device that isn’t 100% dedicated to one task. Ideas can come while driving or even when you’re talking on your phone; all it takes is a split second to lose one of them while you’re fumbling through app icons looking for your recorder. Portable digital voice recorders come in all different varieties, but considering you’re employing this to be a more reliable extension of your brain, we’d suggest the following features:
Intuitive navigation and fast boot up time
Reasonably rugged but small and lightweight
Clear, high quality sound
USB connectivity and/or SD card storage so it’s easy to back up often
Remember that the primary purpose of your portable recorder is to capture raw melody and lyrical ideas effortlessly. Other bells and whistles on the device can both make this process more confusing or tempt you with pre-mature production features that ultimately distract you from what’s most important in this phase: the unfiltered, bulk download of ideas from your brain.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
Writer’s block often comes from being too self-critical, too early in the song creation process. What hits your voice recorder should be viewed as casting a net into your subconscious as opposed to anything that really resembles a song quite yet. As you sift through the contents of your recorder you can start to become a little more judgmental, unearthing song-worthy contenders. We always recommend resisting the urge to dive head first into arranging or producing until you have the bare bones song written. The more you can define the lyrics and melody before introducing additional harmonic and rhythm support instruments into the mix, the better you can assess what accompanying elements are truly necessary. It’s too easy to use them as a crutch for weak melodies or as a mask for subpar lyrics. It’s a good sign when a vocal line hangs together well with a single instrument such as an acoustic guitar or piano. At this point it’s appropriate to start thinking about building up the production on the song.
Building a Better Demo
Because the rest of the world seems incapable of suspending any disbelief when it comes to works in progress, it’s best to leave little to the imagination when you present your songs. Most of the people in this room aren’t going to appreciate a song that’s not fully produced. Yes, even when sufficiently garnished with disclaimers, seasoned industry professionals have been known to overlook under developed genius. The good news is that there are a lot of easy to use tools these days to make your demo sound remarkably good but more importantly, without getting anyone else involved.
First off, you need to not begrudgingly embrace technology, but find it within yourself to become a tech-head of sorts. Hear us out on this one. Keeping up with the latest plugins, apps and gear that can potentially make your songs sound better should be a priority. While being somewhat obsessed with improving your recording workflow may seem unhealthy to you, for someone who is serious about making their songs sound better, it’s unhealthy to not be fixated on it to some extent. If you’re truly into your craft, it will be worth it for you to tirelessly research the latest options to make your life easier in your studio.
The more you can be self-reliant, the more you will actually learn about recording and truly understand your studio set up. The danger in relinquishing control over your recording studio to someone else is that it usually comes at the expense of unsolicited creative input. Before calling in reinforcements, Google it first. Chances are you’re not the first person to be running into whatever technical roadblock that’s holding you up.
This technical independence applies with other musicians as well. When you demo a song, it’s your opportunity to explore the best way to present your vision. Experimenting with different grooves, tempos and keys is a lot easier to do when sequencing the parts with MIDI. This allows you to audition each approach before committing anything to audio or involving other musicians. Many of the currently available virtual instruments are sounding incredibly convincing especially if you take the time to detail the velocity and timing of your MIDI performance. You’ll find in certain situations that your programmed tracks can more accurately represent your vision for your song than what a real musician can offer.
The byproduct of being more technically proficient is that you will eventually start to get more creative with the recording process itself. Look at your DAW as an instrument where the choices you make can take your freshly written song to a whole new level.
We know that being blindsided by all of us here today may not be your idea of a good time, but believe us when we say that we have your best interest at heart. Maybe we’re biased because we’re always pulling for you to do well…or selfishly don’t want to be subjected to mediocre music but either way, the end result is a win- win for us all.