A Crash Course in Music Production - Structure and Variety
Producing music is a lot like writing. You have blank page with a cursor blinking away silently. You kind of know what you want to write about but you have no idea how to start. You might do a rough outline of an article, or put down a few subheadings and a headline that you think will jump start things.
Once you've gone over some of your ideas and fleshed out your outline you've got a pretty good idea what the article will be about, but you just don't know where to start. Do you write the intro first? Or do you capture your main ideas before you tie them off with an introduction and a conclusion?
Music production, or creating a song from scratch, is a similar ordeal. You know you want to write a song and you kind of have the idea for it, maybe a few chords and the melody, but you don't know where to start.
Well, in order to jump start your creative music production session, let's go over some of the things that will help you produce a song from initial idea to finished product. It doesn't matter if the idea is just a demo. At least it's more than a lingering idea in your head you will likely forget.
Music Production - Some Basic Definitions
Before you record anything, it's a good idea to have the song down. I know from personal experience that it's hard to record a song that's only half finished or has a ambiguous ending that you don't know how is going to go. If you are struggling with the ending, like I usually do, just pick one of your favorite ideas and stick to that. Alternatively you can just repeat the chorus a few times and then fade it out during mixing. The point is, going into a recording session with a song that's not completely finished will hamper your productivity.
I write songs on acoustic guitar mainly, so most of my songs follow the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-chorus arrangement. I obviously deviate from this rule whenever inspiration strikes me. I have a few songs that only have the chorus at the end, breaking the verses up with small interludes or pre-chorus that never resolve. Knowing your song structure enables you to see the song in a linear fashion, especially when you are deciding on the arrangement and production.
The arrangement is different to the actual structure of the song. In production, I would say arrangement is the structure of each individual instrument and how they relate to each other. Arrangement is very important in music production, and I would argue that one of the biggest jobs a producer has is getting the right arrangement for the song.
Arrangements can vary from very sparse and simple to the incredibly complex. Aside from the massive drum part at the end, Phil Collins's 'In the Air Tonight' is a great example of a sparse arrangement. The song revolves around the same chord structure the whole time, with only a few atmospheric instruments creating interest underneath the powerful but somber vocal part.
[Editor's note: Unfortunately due to copyright reasons YouTube won't allow us to embed these videos. These links will allow you to play the video in a separate window on YouTube.]
In contrast, a complex arrangement can be found in 'A Day in the Life' by The Beatles. Not only is George Martin a brilliant composer and arranger when it comes to orchestrations, the song structure is also a very unusual one. The song combines two distinctly different song parts with crazy orchestrations. Even though both of the parts are pretty straightforward when it comes to instrumentation, the whole orchestra is what makes it such a brilliantly done arrangement.
Another song that has an incredibly sparse arrangement, but just works on the strength of the song is Jeff Buckley's 'Hallelujah'. It's a lesson in simplicity and beautiful song writing.
Another Beatles song that goes overboard in its arrangement is 'The Long and Winding Road.' The symphony is just too much for a song that works in a simple band format.
It is actually much better in its intended version, from the Let it Be...Naked album.
However you decide to go with your song, just remember to think your instrumentation through. If you think the song is strong enough to survice on only a guitar and voice then that's awesome. But if you are producing electronic pop that needs all sorts of beats and synths then try to arrange the parts so that they are not clashing with each other.
A few simple rules to go by:
- Only one lead instrument can really be present at one time. Clashing melodies are hard to appreciate, since we just can't seem to focus on both of them at the same time.
- Too many instruments doing different things can sometimes sound cool, but exercise caution. Don't overdo different rhythm parts.
- You can pile on and layer different instruments if they are all playing the same thing.
- Make your song evolve with new instruments being introduced regularly. A simple lead between the melody in the second verse, or extra percussion tracks in the final chorus to spice things up.
Creating contrast in a song is very important to keep the listener interested. The best example of contrast can be heard in the loud/quiet/loud/quiet arrangements of the Pixies and Nirvana era. Since Nevermind turns 20 this September I think it's ideal to illustrate the example by one of the greatest Grunge songs of all time. Even though you might have heard it a million times before, make sure you understand how important the quiet/loud contrast is to the song. The rock parts create the excitement that keeps you wanting more as you listen to the subdued verses.
Some productions show contrast in different ways. Even though quiet verses and loud choruses are very typical, that doesn't mean you can't do it the other way around. Another way to add an even bigger contrast is to have a fairly energetic verse that drops off into an airy pre-chorus before it shoots back up into the even louder chorus.
There's one thing you can ask yourself when you are creating both the song structure and producing the arrangement: What kind of contrast do you want in your arrangements. What instruments will go throughout the song and which instrument will only be present in the chorus or verses?
Another popular way to create contrast is to due so gradually and with two different parts that connect via a smooth transitional part. This is very popular in modern dance tracks, like LMFAO's track 'Party Rock Anthem.' This song has an crazy synth lead with a four on the floor beat that hypnotizes the listener.
In the "verses" where they rap all the synths are very subdued, with the same riff going on in the background with the occasional lead weaving in and out of the vocals before it transforms into the wavy pre-chorus. The wavy chorus is basically the same as the chorus but with a more relaxed synth and beat part. Obviously this track was designed for the dance floor, so the arrangement and song structure reflects that. It's mostly pure chorus and hypnotic trance leads from beginning to end. But sometimes, that's exactly what the people want.
Music Production - A Basic Approach
Now that we've gone over a few definitions with some examples it's time to figure out what kind of approach we could use to produce a song. Every song is made up of the same things, but since they are all very musically subjective they might sound different. However, all songs have the same three things: beats, rhythm and melody.
Approaching a potential song, we would start by laying the ground work. If it's a band type song then that means laying down the drum tracks from start to finish. You need to create a foundation upon which everything else rests, so having a solid drum or beat section is key. If you are just producing a song inside the box, whether you're trying to demo a potential idea or creating an electronic track, it's a good idea to put down the beat first.
If you're recording a live drummer, chances are he knows the sections and the structure of the song. Ideally he will differentiate a little bit between sections as to create interest. If you are creating a song structure from beats, it's up to you to create interest in the drum section. Even though you could get away with having the same drum beat throughout the song, it usually ends up sounding too repetitive. Change it up a bit by adding some fills and different drum beats in the verse and choruses. Even simple cymbal splashes here and there create a sense of flow which can cut out the monotonous sound.
Also, pads and other sustained instruments could also be included in the foundation of a track. Even though they are 'harmonic' in nature, and create a chordal structure, these aren't usually riffs. They are more like the mattress on which the riff section sits.
Now that you've got a solid foundation of beats and drums, it's time to add the rhythm and riffs. These are the harmonic understructure of the song. If the foundation is the groove template, the rhythm section is the chordal template from which the melody lies upon. Depending on the genre of music you might approach this section differently, but you would typically start by laying down the bass track. Make sure your bass track sits tight with the beat as it makes things so much easier in the mixing phase. You want the beat and bass to lock together, because if they don't the mix will inevitably fall apart. Bass bridges the gap between the foundation and the rhythm section. It joins the two together.
Next up are any rhythm elements you want to include. In my case this usually means acoustic guitar or rhythm guitar of some sort. It could also mean synth riffs or piano chords. These rhythm elements are the things that make up the whole of the song and are usually always playing. Don't worry about lead instruments and solos for now. Concentrate on getting the rhythm down. In a big production this could be a whole bunch of different instruments: guitars, pianos and synthesizers. But getting them down and making sure they don't clash and everything has a particular place in the mix is key to a good production.
Melody and Leads
After getting a tight rhythm section down on top of the drum beat it's time to add the lead elements. More often than not, this includes the vocal and solos. After you've recorded the lead melodies you can add additional backups where you feel the song needs more punch. Typical examples include backing vocals in the choruses, either doubling the lead vocal or harmonizing around it.
Also, if you want to create interest and subtle build throughout the song you can add lead instruments on top of the rhythm. This sometimes includes a second guitar part in the second verse, or a lead line that weaves in and out of the melody. It can also mean having a contrasted synth riff that plays counter to the main one.
Listen to Postal Service's 'Such Great Heights' for a great example of electronic pop that combines all of these different things.
The beat is tight with subtle variations that break it up. The pad and bass are combines into the same thing and the synth lead has various contrasting second synths playing along to create interest throughout the song. I think this song is a great lesson in how to create a popular electronic song that combines both great melody, tight beats and rhythm and variations throughout.
The key to a great production is having a good idea for a song to start with. But to take a good song idea and make it into a great production, one must create variety and interest.
Creating tight foundations of beats and drums with a great rhythm section is only part of producing a great track. You must also add variety to your song structure and arrangements and make sure than none of your instruments are fighting over the listener's attention. And as with every popular song, the only thing that must always have the listener's utmost attention is the melody and the vocal.