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How to Write & Record a Song in One Hour or Less

by
Gift

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This post is part of a series called Creative Session: Productivity for Music Producers.
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In this tutorial, I'm going to walk you through the process that I and my musical colleagues have used to write and record numerous songs in one hour or less. Sound crazy? That's because it is—but it can be done, and there are numerous benefits for doing so. Read on to learn more.

Writing and recording a song in an hour or less is a daunting task. Musicians spend weeks, months and sometimes even years working on their songs. One needs only to look at Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy to see how far a musician will go to perfect their work—an album that was in development for at least nine years according to most accounts.

Unfortunately, the level of perfectionism most musicians bring to their work can cause a myriad of problems. Perfectionism can completely block an artist out of the creative zone, or render them unable to release anything they've actually finished recording. Coming up with new songs becomes an emotionally stressful event, and more than a few musicians have thrown in the towel altogether because the ghost of perfectionism haunts them.

Several years ago, this attitude towards music became a problem for the band I fronted. It got to the point where we hadn't written anything new in a couple of months and were just going over and over our existing songs. One day, perhaps the day I officially lost my sanity, I said "That's it—we're going to write a song and record a basic version in the next hour, tops."

And that is exactly what we did. The song wasn't great. Actually, it was pretty horrible. But it helped us break through our creative barriers and start producing new content again. You're probably never going to create a masterpiece using this method. The songs will be rough. You'll end up with timing issues, the odd unfortunate bit of clipping, pitchy vocals and a myriad of other problems you simply don't have time to rectify. And you're going to cringe every single time you listen to your one hour songs.

So what did we do after we'd made a habit of rapidly writing and recording music? We did what any bunch of absolutely insane people would've done: released them for free on the Internet. It even made us more focused, and we slowly learned a variety of tricks for making the end product more palatable without taking any longer. Believe it or not, people—some people, at least, and likely as disturbed as we were—started listening to and enjoying the music. It gained us notoriety in a national paper and opened up several opportunities.

So, it's a tough sell to any like-minded perfectionist musician, but I'm going to try and sell you on it: set ridiculous goals. Create bad music. Get the barriers to creativity out in the open so you don't have to wrestle with them when you're doing serious work. And maybe, just maybe, and even though it's not the point of the exercise, someone will be silly enough to like what you're doing.


Setting the Bar (Really, Really Low)

Before you begin, you need to prepare yourself for the outcome. If you're expecting that you'll end up with the quality of something even as simple as a demo recording, you are mistaken. This is much grittier. And that's okay! That's what we're going for.

Here's one of our one-hour songs. There were regularly four (and sometimes even five) people involved in putting these together, but since Audiotuts+ has a vast readership of musicians who work solo and in large bands, I've picked something that was done by just two people to meet in the middle.

Have a listen. I cringe myself when listening to this, and you are more than welcome to do the same. I stopped being so precious about these things a long time ago!

Warning: there is profanity in this recording. Two entire words. If you are offended by bad language or have a weak bladder, simply move on to the rest of the tutorial—you don't need to have listened to the song in order to understand anything I discuss.


Getting Fast Inspiration

The clock is ticking. Your one hour has just begun. You can't afford to waste time getting introspective or self-mutilating to come up with emotionally significant lyrics. Things are already getting sloppy.
Look around you. Look at the headlines on a newspaper. Don't overthink things. Don't start questioning whether you can make a song out of something you'd normally dismiss when giving yourself the luxury of time. You can take literally anything and extrapolate lyrics from it—you just can't be picky about what you've written.

That's fine for your first one hour song and it may well do the trick for you forever, but I preferred to keep an idea file. During the week when I was doing other things, for example writing about a fish oil product for a copywriting client, I'd often come across ideas for a good lyric. If you start to take note of those things in one place, you'll have a plethora of instant ideas to choose from as seeds for your song when it's time to get down to business.

It's not cheating the one hour restriction, because you're not creating a lyric or a tune from the idea—you're simply recording an observation. To do this successfully, you need to start writing about coffee mugs and other miscellanea from your surroundings, get lucky by having a good idea right at the start of your session, or keep an idea file. Keeping an idea file is the least stressful approach—and stress is something you will want to minimize if you make rapid song development a regular part of your creative process.


Process is Everything

Rapid song development is pretty much impossible if you don't approach it with a process in mind. A disorganized approach can mean you spend an hour just tying together the components.
It's quicker to work with other people—as long as you can work together well and have a feel for each other musically. Different components of the song can be worked on simultaneously, though it shouldn't be done in complete separation. Your bass player can't write his bassline if he doesn't know what the guitarist is doing, and so on.

That said, many of our lyrics were written by a songwriter in New Zealand, including the example above, and we collaborated in real-time over Skype chat or voice. It's definitely possible, to an extent, to write and record a song in one hour even when some of your collaborators are in different countries.

Setting the Rules

At the start of the hour, everyone needs to be together to figure out the idea and get on the same page regarding the theme, genre and style, feel, and desired outcome. If you've got an argumentative band, unfortunately, you're likely to fail. This is actually a good thing—the one hour song exercise became a tool we used to audition new members with!

The ring leader of your group should guide this phase of the process with a pen and paper or a text document at the ready. Your guiding brief should contain, at least:

  • The topic of the song
  • Genre and style—this doesn't have to be in-depth, it can be one or two words: "rock ballad" or "industrial", for example
  • Decide on a key and time signature in advance—it saves time
  • List the parts of the song—each instrument that needs to be written for, and the song building blocks you will need (for instance, music for verse, chorus and bridge sections)

In most cases, songwriters don't decide on the structure of the song until the lyrics are done. When getting a song together in less than an hour, it's absolutely essential—the lyricist can write lyrics for those specific parts while the musicians simultaneously get on with creating the music for those parts.

You should spend no more than ten minutes on this phase, and with practice, you should be doing it under five minutes. Our record was about 45 seconds.

The next step is to assign tasks and get everyone to go and do their job. Your recording space should be prepared in advance. It's not reasonable to include instrument and software setup time in the one hour period. We'll touch on DAW templates later, because if you do this regularly you'll usually be working with the same group of people, or just yourself, using a fairly similar set of instruments and parts. With collaboratively set guidelines at the start of the project, it is rare that the lyrics and music will irreparably conflict.

We found that we generally needed to keep the next phase, the writing phase, under twenty minutes. This is where the pressure gets turned up, at least until John Farnham enters the room to complain about it and everyone giggles at what passed for a music video in the 80s.

The Lyricist's Job

The first thing the lyricist needs is lots of paper. Heaps of it. If you are the lyricist, it is your job to write down every possible combination of words that comes into your head for the task at hand, and once you have enough nuggets, to throw them together into a hopefully semi-meaningful set of choruses and verses. Waste no time weeding out obviously bad lyrics! If I had gone all perfectionist the time I wrote the words, "the blood is still fresh" and scrapped them, I might still have my dignity, but we wouldn't have met our deadline.

It's surprisingly doable to come up with lyrics for a simple song structure in twenty minutes. They won't be perfectly poetic, but if we assume a standard short song of two verses, a chorus and perhaps a bridge, it's not too difficult.

The Musician's Job

Even with a key and time signature set, musicians need to work together. There can't really be any separation for this part of the project. It's good to have the lyricist within earshot but not so close that he or she gets distracted, so that the phrasing of the words will fit with the tune. The musicians should cluster together elsewhere in the room and riff off of each other until they hit upon something that comes together—this usually doesn't take long at all as long as you aren't unnecessarily discarding things that fit together well enough. This is where familiarity with each other from jamming and performing really comes in handy.

The first thing you want is a hook. It can be simple or it can be a complex melody as long as you can remember it and your fellow musicians don't have too much trouble working with it on their instruments. You can use the hook as the intro, as the chorus music, you can vary it for a bridge (and it may be the one time when you bother with a key change during this sort of exercise), and you can derive a chord progression from it for the verses. Getting a hook really is winning half of the battle.

If you listen to the example song, the song is introduced with the bassline hook and the song goes straight into the chorus which uses the same melody with a rock guitar sound. The verses are musically very simple, and while the bassline there differs from the hook it is evidently derived from it. There are some other sections of the song where the riffs played by each instrument change completely, but I recommend that you stick to simple structures and repeated elements to begin with.

A guitar solo helps to give the song a more instrumental component, which helps break up the monotony that often results from such fast songwriting. Pretty much any guitarist at a decent level can improvise the solo in a couple of takes, so you can just use your verse music to back it and the solo will be written as it is recorded.

The Drummer's Job

I've never, ever used recorded drums for a one hour song. I never will try, either. Drumming is notoriously time-consuming and unless you have a diva vocalist (and who doesn't), easily takes the cake for eating up most of a band's studio time.

But that's okay—the drummer doesn't have to be cast to the outskirts of the room to mope and ponder the meaning of his life, as much as we as real musicians would like him to do just that. If your drummer knows his way around a DAW, you can sit him at the computer to either program the drum beat or find a suitable loop. There is no shame in using loops for this sort of project—with the exception of programmed drums, it's pretty much unavoidable! Drums simply take too long to record live.

If your drummer does not know his way around a DAW, teach him. It's not terribly difficult to poke through the Logic loop bank (or your DAW's equivalent) and drag a few that will work well together for different parts of the song to a track.

One Practice Run

And that's not negotiable. You get to run through the song together once. Actually, we stopped bothering—we'd just dive into recording and tweak as we went. You can try both methods and see which works faster for your group.

Your song shouldn't be longer than three to five minutes, and that's how long you have if you want to practice. If all has gone to plan, we're now thirty minutes in and it's time to record.

Recording Your Song

You can get through the writing phase using your practice amps or PA system as long as everything is arranged so that it's simply a matter of switching cables from amps to audio interface when it's time to record. However, as we worked to reduce timesinks in our process so that we had maximum time to focus on the music, we found that firing up a DAW template and using the DAW and monitors as our sound system made things faster. We could tweak our instrument's sounds as we wrote, and that took precious setup time off of the recording phase. Always begin with presets that sound like they match what you are after and tweak from there, but don't spend too long on it. We actually developed "signature" presets that allowed us to easily get into our preferred sounds for vocals, guitars and bass, and then tweaked them to accomodate the mix.

If you've followed our process, your drummer has already laid out the loops according to the number of bars in each section and the order of sections that the lyricist has dictated. This is a matter of dragging and dropping, so it doesn't take long, unless you are bad at maths. Actually, we were bad at maths, but we somehow managed.

Dragging and dropping, and copy and pasting, is something to get used to, because you don't have time to record the exact same chorus for all three or four chorus segments in your song. Get one good take and run with it, copy and pasting where it needs to be shamelessly.

One good take is a bit of a misnomer. We had a rule: you get two, maybe three if you're doing really badly, takes per section of the song. After that, you are stuck with what you have done. Multiple takes is what can really kill this kind of project if you're serious about the deadline. Limiting your takes is also responsible for most of the cringes one experiences after listening to their handiwork. Get over it. I've had plenty of bad takes on the second and even third try that I've left in the project for everyone to criticize—but this is meant to be rough and quick, and anyone listening should know that. If they think you should have nailed it on your first take no matter what, firstly, take them off your fan mailing list, and secondly, tell them to go and learn to play an instrument. They've obviously never bothered.


Structure

Song structure contributes more time overhead to a songwriting project than most people take the time to consider. Making the transition from one tempo or time signature to another, or one key to another, often involves time spent figuring out how to make that transition smooth and aesthetic. It's not a problem for everyone, but some musicians have a lot of difficulty with this. To stay on the safe side, stick to your timing and key throughout the song. This song is like a scratch track, and if you want to improve on it and make into a "real" song, you can implement those changes then. A song should not depend on a time or key change to work, so if your song is boring without them, it's probably not going to be worth taking it to a more polished stage later on.

Luckily for you, the majority of Western culture's most popular music is made up of simple song structures. There are exceptions—November Rain is fairly unconventional—but really, they just prove the rule.

Here are some templates:

The Classic

  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Verse
  • Chorus

The Classic with a Twist

  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Bridge
  • Chorus

The Double Verse

  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Instrumental Break
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Guitar Solo
  • Chorus

The Classic, Hard Rock Version

  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Tame Guitar Solo
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Epic Guitar Solo
  • Chorus
  • Long Guitar Solo Outro

We've used all of the above except for the last one, which is mostly just a joke. Except for the time when we used it. Let's change the subject.

The idea is to keep it simple. After doing many one hour songs, we got a bit cocky and went with this structure:

  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Break
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Bridge
  • Chorus
  • Guitar Solo (of the Epic variety)
  • Chorus and Outro

It ended up taking two hours, but on the bright side we were able to refine this one and recorded it in the studio. I guess it's not all bad, but if you're doing this to get out of a rut, it's best to stick with simple so you can have a few successes under your belt before getting lax with the time limit. The time limit is what forces your creativity back into action.

Not quite related to song structure, but instead on the topic of recording structure, invest the time in setting up a template for your DAW that will automatically load up tracks for each instrument you want to record with your preferred effects and settings already in place. We had one for each instrument plus a set of Rewire tracks so that we could get programmed music into the track using our preferred tool quickly—otherwise, getting Reason set up in your project through Rewire can take too many of your precious minutes. A bunch of extra tracks that are muted can be handy for storing takes you may or may not use, or if you know how, you can use your DAW's comping features.


What Do You Do Next?

Once you've recorded the song and mixed it, you can do some basic mastering, bounce it and convert it to an MP3 for convenient listening. You might want to then release it if you're not particularly thin skinned.

If you're not too familiar with releasing music online, it can be done simply. You don't need anything too fancy to get a bit of rushed music out there. We were using a self-hosted WordPress installation, where we uploaded the songs and published a link to the download as part of a blog post. Here are some options you might want to consider:

  • WordPress.com — free hosted blog service
  • WordPress itself, which you can set up on your own hosting service and customize to a greater extent. You'll want a domain name and hosting to go with this, which brings us to...
  • GoDaddy, cheap domains and hosting
  • Media Temple, good domains and hosting

If you want to host your own band website, I recommend going the GoDaddy route to begin with. I don't particularly like them, but if you're just starting out GoDaddy is cheaper and you will not need the superior bandwidth and reliability of a Media Temple host.

If you're not interested in releasing your musical sketches as part of a band website or blog, you can simply add them to your artist page on Last.fm, which is free.


Taking Song Sketches to the Next Stage

The songs you'll be creating using this method can be compared to an artist's sketches. The artist quickly draws a basic version of what he visualizes in the final piece of art as a guide and a starting point. You may find, particularly when you do this regularly, that some of these musical sketches could be good enough to become a real song with some work. That's a great outcome.

When this happens, get away from the piece for a while. You've just created it while in the musical version of a pressure cooker, and you want to review the piece again in a more rational state before you invest the time in taking it to the next level.

If you decide to go ahead, a lot of the work of songwriting has already been done and you can focus on the small things—making changes to the lyrics, adding motifs, polishing jarring transitions. It's a good creative exercise, but it's also a great way to get fodder for the practice room and recording studio.

If you give this a shot, I wish you the best of luck, and I'd love to hear what you end up creating—there's no need to be embarassed, because I've undoubtedly created something far worse as a long-time rapid songwriter. Get in touch here.

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