This is Part One of a several part series that covers the basics of music production vital to the Independent music world today.
Songwriting is about establishing a mood or getting an intended reaction from your listener. A while back when working on Rod Stewart “Stardust.” I had the pleasure of submitting some mixes of “You Belong to Me.” Aside from the performances, which were great, I was most intrigued with how the song made me feel. The song was melancholy and simultaneously hopeful which is a real paradox. Yet if I had to scientifically evaluate what made that song speak to me I couldn’t, I would be trying to describe the indescribable. At one point you just have to experience it for yourself to understand it. This is the power that music holds over us. It can conjure up feelings and provoke action. For this reason I’ve encouraged the artists I work with to pick four records they’re not familiar with and study them religiously before writing new material. By learning how other artists use their writing tools to provoke feelings and action, an artist can add depth to his or her own music that didn’t exist there previously
This is the meat and potatoes of songwriting. This is where the song goes both musically and rhythmically. Usually this is by combining verses, choruses, melodies and rhythms together in a creative fashion but there are as many structural variations in music as there are styles. Most great songs incorporate some sort of memorable hook that frequently reoccurs without getting annoying. For instance, some songs may employ Top 40 type formulas (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge…) whereas other songs may employ more unconventional techniques. One example of an unconventional technique would be “Flying in a Blue Dream” by Joe Satriani. While the song does have a simple structure to it (A/B/A vamps), Joe demonstrates the ability to integrate unpredictable melodies that never quite meet up again in the song. When you evaluate that song critically you will find that compared to a Top 40 tune the use of a “hook” in the song is almost incidental, but because of his wonderful implementation of melody and creative use of feedback the song crossed over into pop radio and proved to be a real success for him.
So many artists are under the mistaken impression that since “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was 6+ minutes long it’s ok for them to do the same. Ok, aside from the fact that over a minute of that song had to be one of the most incredible guitar solos I’ve ever heard, the rest of the song was divvied up between an amazing hook and a remarkable intro. Face it, it’s hard enough as it is to get radio to take unknown artists seriously these days regardless of HOW good the material is, yet some artists seem to think that they can get established with a 6 minute tune. When it comes to length in songwriting just do yourself a favor and say what you need to say and be done with it. If it takes you 2:15 to state it then don’t drag it out to 3:30 because of some unwritten rule. Likewise, leave the 4-6 minute masterpieces for live performances or until after you have garnered yourself a sizeable fan base.
Not every song will be a hit - don’t be discouraged. In fact it’s not uncommon for a song to start out one way in the writing phase and then take a left-hand turn for better or for worse in production. On Five for Fighting’s latest record “Two Lights,” the band spent close to a year in pre-production and test recorded over 20 songs before actually booking studio time to record the album. Some of the songs that were test recorded didn’t even get cut in the studio and ultimately only half of those songs made the final album. The material that didn’t make it wasn’t bad in my opinion, but the band members were able to pick from the best songs. If you write lots of material then later you’ll have a plethora of good songs to choose from once it’s time to assemble your record.
Decades ago great records were cut live and had little reliance on technology. In today’s world I believe that we place such an unhealthy emphasis on equipment and technology that a good song can become diluted by it. I’ve had artists arrive at the studio expecting me to fill in the missing parts in their songs with the notion that somehow I’m going to employ some vague form of “studio magic.” No song is worth recording if it isn’t worth performing well first. If the song works live then the recording will fall into place almost naturally. If you expect the technology or studio personnel to do your homework for you, you’re stooping to the level of the billion other artists pushing their songs on the Internet.
Keep in mind songwriting came before technology and technology was developed to support songwriting, not forge it. Recording has always been a musical endeavor and should take the back seat when it comes to music. I hope that as this series unfolds you will learn to understand the relationships between the two such that when in doubt, the music will always come first.
Until next time,
Dusk Bennett is a freelance producer/engineer in Los Angeles and has worked with a number of award winning artists. He can be contacted at Myspace for further questions.
Licensed to Bitchin' Entertainment by Dusk Bennett. To receive permission to publish this article please contact Theresa Yarbrough