But how do you put on the “producer hat,” and coax that finished product out of the raw materials? It’s not for lack of other instruments. Today, as covered elsewhere in this issue, we have extremely powerful, realistic drum composers that can actually help you create a part. For guitars, when there’s no guitar player around and we need something to support our tracks, we can use Steinberg’s Virtual Guitarist 2 (or Virtual Bassist for the bottom end). We can create harmonies via hardware or software, and use automation to create — even if by trial and error — a decent mix. As a result, there are fewer excuses not to get a project done.
So, what are the details that can hang you up and keep this from happening?
EVERYTHING STARTS WITH . . .
. . . a good song! My keyboard player comes to me frequently with “demos” of tunes he’s composed, and together we decide if it’s worth writing lyrics for them or not. His main “details problem” is that he cannot stop adding synth tracks. To me, a chord structure and maybe a lead synth line is enough to have an idea of a whole tune, and that is basically what I ask him to play for me. If the song isn’t happening, do yourself a favor: Move on.
As a rule of thumb, I start composing on piano, acoustic guitar, or with a very limited assortment of synths. True, you can get real inspiration for new tunes with some shiny new synth plug-in. But then, you can get lost in sonic details before getting into actual songwriting, and short circuit the process. The same happens when you start adding “that special FX” to the vocal track . . . or to an entire mix. Sometimes a signature sound can be the result of a happy accident, but I recommend doing your homework in advance so that your creative juices go into the composition, not designing a synth patch or processing chain. You can always go back and re-cut a track, but it’s hard to return to the creative space you were in when a song started coming together.
All you need is good raw materials. Don’t think about what you don’t have; that detail will stop you for sure. Instead, take advantage of what you do have. Maybe you have already invested in a good quality condenser mic and a good preamp. Or maybe not, but if you have a decent audio interface with preamps and a dynamic mic, don’t worry. One of the vocal tracks on my band’s CD was recorded with a SoundBlaster card, through the built-in mic connected to that “mic in” port. Maybe the experienced ear can tell which track it is, but I’m sure many will not notice the difference . . . what matters is we got a good take, so we kept it.
THE RULES FOR GETTING IT DONE
Part of avoiding details involves willpower: Don’t touch that dial! But another important aspect involves the tools you use.
• Use a standard, trusted recording system you know like the back of your hand: Computer, audio interface, preamps, mics, MIDI controller, and monitoring system. These elements are so basic and important you don’t want to have to think about them.
• Limit your sonic arsenal. Define a “composing set of tools” with a drum generator, possibly some loops, piano patches, and two or three well-known soft synths for specific purposes. You may be able to get by with just a workstation program, like Sonivox Muse, E-mu Emulator X, MOTU MachFive, NI Kontakt, IK SampleTank, and so on.
• Spend pre-production time to define “your own sound.” Do not waste valuable time while composing a song to create some new type of sound or effect. Prepare that in advance, record your vocal/guitar tracks, and apply your saved presets to them. Leave the fine-tuning for the final stage.
• Recording is about capturing “the vibe.” Leave “the sound” for later.
• Create a basic mix of the song within your personal DAW, but make sure you save it in OMF if you plan to open it into another manufacturer’s DAW for the final mix. This way you can spend some more time polishing the final sound in, perhaps, a more sophisticated environment.
These guidelines apply to all kinds of music writing, whether you’re using a computer-based DAW or a stand-alone recorder like units from Roland or Korg. Focus on the big picture, not the details, and get the job done in time — every time.