The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 3: Life and Death
In the first part of our series we discussed the concepts of stillness, darkness, and cultivation. In Part 2 we looked at the process of birthing the idea into a coherent form, and beginning to tend the idea, to cultivate it, and begin to shape it.
In this final installment of the series, we'll move straight into full-scale production, culminating in a completed song. We'll cross some interesting territory in this tutorial - both related to production and philosophy, so I hope you enjoy it!
Also available in this series:
- The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 1: Darkness, Cultivation & Birth
- The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 2: Birth
- The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 3: Life and Death
And so long as you haven't experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth. -Goethe
Scratch My Back
As mentioned in Parts 1 and 2, the importance of scratch tracks can't be underestimated. In my production work, the scratch tracks form the framework or spine of the song. Everything else must be built around the scratch tracks, because those are the elements that really need to stand out.
For this particular tune, there are two primary scratch tracks - vocals and piano. Since I can't easily track the vocals without reference, I've started by sketching out the complete piano line for the tune, broken into sections.
I spent a good while listening for the right piano sample, and in the end I settled on a simple Yamaha Pop Piano setting from Logic's EXS24 sampler. By most standards it isn't a particularly great instrument sample, but it had the exact right feel for the type of tune I was writing, and it underscored an important point:
Do the best with what you have.
To me this means both working with the tools and instruments you have, as well as being content (for now) with the skills you have. If you wait for exactly the right instrument and exactly the perfect performance, chances are you'll be waiting a very long time...
It is important during this phase to pay attention to the flow of the tune, and to hit all of your key 'moments' so to speak. For this reason I've broken up the piano into three separate tracks - one each for verses, bridges and chorus.
After laying out the piano arrangement, I move next to the vocal track. While this can be a good time to practice the vocals, the important part here again is to build the framework. Your performance doesn't need to be perfect - it needs to convey the timbre, volume and delivery of the final performance.
I did several takes each of the verses, bridges and chorus. During this time I found that I didn't really like the chord progression for the bridge, so I made some minor alterations to make the melody flow a bit better.
With the chorus I found myself borrowing a popular chord progression, but found that the vocal delivery still made it uniquely my own. This is one of my personal philosophies that I'd like to convey:
It is OK to borrow and imitate so long as the result is still something uniquely your own.
I know the traditional saying is that amateurs imitate and professionals steal. I don't agree with this, personally, because there is often a fine line between borrowing, imitating and stealing. My feeling is that as long as what you end up creating feels like something uniquely yours, all is well.
So here's a shot of my vocal comp arrangement:
Addition and Subtraction
I've written quite a bit about the process of addition and subtraction here, here, and here. The upshot is that for me, the process of arrangement is a process of adding layers and sounds over the top of your 'framework' until things start to naturally fall away.
In the context of this tune, I've now got the piano and vocal scratch tracks, so it is time to begin building and adding around those key elements.
If the piano and vocals are frame, the baseline and rhythm section are the foundation. With this particular tune, though, I wanted to keep things simple to start with. For the bass I chose a simple fretless electric sample, but softened the attack to blend a bit better with the vocals and piano.
From here I went back to all the various ideas I had about the song in terms of what kind of palette I'd like to use. The musical inspirations for this tune, in no particular order, were:
- David Gray
- Counting Crows
- Peter Gabriel
This gives me a pretty broad swath of sounds to work from, but it was pretty easy to narrow down where to go next. Because the song was built with piano and vocals in mind, it made it a little easier for me to quickly rule out some of the more new electronic flavors that BT tends to bring to his music. Besides, my production skills aren't really up to par to be able to create those types of effects, so I moved to something more simple.
Peter Gabriel came next, and it was easy to see how some of his more highly produced tunes might not work with the relative simplicity of this tune. But his tune "Here Comes The Flood" still worked as an inspiration, though it wasn't exactly clear to me how just yet.
So that left me with David Gray and Counting Crows - both of whom rely heavily on piano, guitars and traditional pop/rock arrangements.
In the end, my next step (after piano, vocals and bass) was a simple jazz drumkit, with an easy and simple rhythm. The song didn't seem to want any heavily electronic production, so I kept it simple.
From there I added some intro pads, and a few pad lines in a few different areas of the song. I also added a simple accordion line (inspired by Counting Crows) which added some interesting character and ornamentation during the built-up second Verse and Bridge.
I wanted to focus on adding interest to the verses and bridges as the tune went along, and things seemed to be moving along well. I paid close attention to the overall shape of the song - ensuring that there was tension and release throughout. I did this by ensuring that there was a good balance of addition and subtraction throughout the verses and bridges, with the choruses consistently having the most energy and power.
Playing With Beat, Pulse and Tempo
When it came to the chorus, I found that something just wasn't quite working between the bass, drums and the power of the vocal line. I reworked the bass first, by duplicating the track and restoring the original attack of the fretless. This gave the baseline some added 'punch'. Likewise, I wrote a new drum line just for the chorus, with a relatively simple but more forceful beat.
The last step was the most complex, and it involved a lot of manual editing. I wanted the primary hits of the chorus arrangement to fall ahead of the beat. This type of slight swing tends to give a kind of inherent pulse feeling to the overall rhythm of the chorus. To me the chorus feels more 'powerful' this way than if the beat were simply straight.
Pushing the beat in the chorus
While I liked the overall feeling of the new chorus beat and progression, I continued to tweak and edit it to try to perfect the pulse. During this phase I also played with the tempo, by creating a unique tempo track in Logic.
A tempo track can be a powerful way to increase the tension and energy of a song. If done correctly, the audience typically wont notice that the song has sped up - only that it has gained momentum. Initially I started with a tempo of 126, increased to 133, then back down to 126 during the final verse, and up to 133 again at the final bridge and outro.
In the end, I removed the third and fourth changes, resulting in a starting tempo of 126 during the first verse and increasing to 133 for the remainder of the tune. I found that reducing the tempo back down to 126 during the last verse really caused a huge loss of energy, and made that final, important verse seem less important.
Now that the basic arrangement of the tune is complete, it is time to turn to the vocal tracking. This is the phase where I aim to create final vocal takes, assuming nothing else about the tune changes.
Here is a shot and sample of the final mix before vocal tracking:
After practicing a few times, I recorded my vocal takes in a few sessions, with some overdubs and harmonies thrown in for good measure. Though my voice is out of practice, overall I was happy with the vocals I captured, and began the process of editing the vocal takes.
For me, vocal editing is about creating focus and minimizing distraction. The things I tend to watch out for are room noise, mouth clicks/pops, and big breaths. I find manual cutting and editing to be the best technique for minimizing these. While a noise gate or compressor/expander can sometimes be effective here, nothing creates silence like the scissors tool.
I used the Logic "Male Creamy Vocal" preset on my channel strips, with a few tweaks to the EQ and reverb settings. I also removed the Noise Gate, because I found it to be too forceful and resulted in clamping some of the quieter parts of the tune. I like to keep some dynamic range in my mixes, so the Gate had to go.
After finishing the vocal layout and edits, I spent a lot of time listening to the arrangement. It caused me to make a few changes that, while unorthodox, felt right for the tune.
- I cut the final chorus of the tune, and ended instead on an extended bridge. While somewhat unorthodox, I preferred ending this way as it seemed more gentle and had a lullabye-like quality to it.
- I created a new filtered drumloop to layer over specific sections of verse and bridge to add another layer of energy. This reminded me quite a bit of some David Gray tunes, so I didn't feel bad about that.
- I recorded some egg shaker to give a softer rhythm to some sections.
- I cut the accordion line from the tune because with the way the arrangement was moving the accordion sounded too traditional.
- In the accordion's place I substituted a nice piano-arpeggio pad, which gave just a slight uptempo and electronic feel to the tune that I quite liked. It worked well with the new drumloop, too.
Kick The Bird Out of the Nest
By this time I had spent several days finalizing the arrangement, tracking the vocals, tweaking, and re-tweaking. I realized that I could easily stay in this mode for another several days if not weeks, but then a flash went off in my brain. I was reminded of the Cult Of Done Manifesto. The best summary of this that I've seen is this: Done is better than perfect.
As I mentioned early on in this series, it has been a long while since I've written, produced and published a tune. With this in mind I decided that I was happily contented with the way this song had shaped up and that it was time to stop tweaking.
I stepped back from the computer then, and listened to the tune and realized that there was one thing missing.
I went quickly to my other machine which had some samples of my daughter recorded when she was just about one year old. I copied them over to my main machine, and took a few selected edits and added them to the beginning and end of the tune with some simple reverb FX.
As I listened back again to the song, this time with samples of my daughter, I'm not ashamed to say that I had tears in my eyes. The process of creating this tune has been long and arduous for a lot of reasons. But beyond this, I was simply happy with what I had created and I knew that when my daughter was old enough to understand, she would be proud of her daddy for writing this song for her.
And it brings me to another point:
Let yourself be moved by your music.
If you can't be moved by your music, chances are you wont move your audience. Give yourself the time and space to listen with an open mind, an open heart and fresh ears.
At this stage I could go into some detail about my process for mixing and mastering, but we have covered that very well in other tutorials, and it isn't my strong suit. Needless to say I spent the last several hours finalizing the mix, ensuring the vocals stood out where they needed, ensuring there was dynamic range suitable to my tastes, and ensuring that other instruments in the arrangement felt like they were all in their right place. I added a simple multi-band compressor on the output stage for some very light finalizing before printing to disk.
What follows, dear reader, is the first 'pop' tune I have recorded and produced and shared with the public for a good long while. I hope you've enjoyed the process of creation with me, and I hope you'll enjoy the tune, or, if not, at least give me some constructive feedback.
I wish you great success in your musical endeavors.
Final Mix: "I Will Love You Tonight"