Many of you who read my articles are budding songwriters, composers and producers. You've got the software, a great microphone and a song worth recording, but something is holding you back... the process! It can take a while to find a method for organizing your arranging process in a way that keeps you feeling organic and creative. I've been in this position myself so I'd like to offer you a look into how I maneuver through the process of recording a new composition.
For the sake of this article I'll guide you through simple steps to recording and arranging your song. There are a million different ways you could go about this. You'll want to find the creative process that inspires you.
One more thing before we dive in. It is very important that you get to know your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and your Virtual Instruments like the back of your hand. When you know your shortcuts and are familiar with the sounds you have at your disposal you'll stay more creative and work faster and more efficiently. When creating music, the creative flow is paramount!
STEP 1 - Choose a tempo. This may seem unbelievably elementary to you, but begin your song by spending a bit of time really zoning in on the right tempo for your song. Some DAWs like Ableton Live allow you to quickly alter the tempo of your song with the click of a button. Other DAWs do not. If there is a lyric, be sure to sing the song down using the lyrics to be sure the words can be easily sung at the chosen tempo.
STEP 2 - Add a simple shaker or loop to the track. - Step 3 will eventually involve laying down a guide track for your song (sorry be spoil the surprise.) I find it helpful to establish some sort of groove to play to, even if in the end you delete it completely. A shaker or a loop can really help settle the track from the very beginning.
STEP 3 - Record a guide track. - Just as promised, step 3 involves laying down a guide instrument track and a "scratch" vocal or melody track. Don't obsess too much about these tracks for they will likely not make it to the final mix. These guides will allow you to arrange the song around the melody and a basic rhythm instrument. Without these tracks you may find yourself working inefficiently as you arrange the track. After all, how would you compose an effective counter-melody without hearing the melody clearly as you work?
STEP 4 - Create arrangement markers. - I've witnessed some people skip this step and their process suffers as a result. Use your guide track to label the arrangement with markers. Simple names like "Intro", "Verse 1", "Chorus 1", "Turnaround", "Bridge", "Instrumental", etc. will really help you navigate your session as you work.
STEP 5 - Record your basic rhythm bed. - It is at this point that we start to dig in a little bit. Take some time to build a solid rhythm track of your song. First program (or record) your drum kit or electronic kick, snare and hats. Next, add your bass instrument, then your primary rhythm instrument like an acoustic guitar, piano or rhodes. This may be the replacement to your guide instrument track. If so, you may mute or delete the instrumental guide track. Spend a fair amount of time getting these parts right, but if you're using virtual software instruments you don't have to go all the way. You'll finalize your parts, add special effects and any other bells and whistles later in the process (I don't mean literal bells and whistles... it's a figure of speech!)
STEP 6 - Develop your themes and hooks. - After getting the general rhythm section tracks to about 75-80%, you should give attention to the themes and hooks in your song. These are the signature melodic elements that you want to really stick with listeners. These are not subtle arpeggiators or harmonies, these are the big themes you want everyone the notice. I wanted to emphasize that themes and hooks be developed at this point in the process because in modern recording there are no limits to how many tracks you can use. If you are not intentional about building strong hooks you could waste your sonic landscape on elements that are less than foundational to your track. I firmly suggest that you now develop your themes and hooks, and add other elements only when needed. This will save you from creating a cluttered and over-produced track.
STEP 7 - Evaluation time...what's missing? - Take a listen to your track and ask yourself, "what holes are left in your track the need filing?" With your basic rhythm track recorded and your hooks and themes now obnoxiously stuck in your head, you should be able to hear what space is left to be filled. Things like pads, B3, harmonies, and percussion can really fill these spots in a beautiful way. Remember, these are secondary ideas, so create ideas that play second fiddle to your hooks and themes. If someone is listening closely, they might say, "wow, that such and such back there in the track is really cool", but if they're listening on the radio they may not notice it. That's ok!
STEP 8 - Replace your scratch vocal/melody with the real thing. - Once you've got a beautiful track happening, it's time to record your lead instrument! Take a great amount of care and effort to be sure the lead instruments sound amazing. Your vocal or melody instrument is the center of your track and what listeners surely will remember. Take extra time to capture an accurate and emotional performance. You may find it necessary to record several takes and comp (compile or composite) a final tack that is a mixture of all of them. Do whatever it takes to get it right!
STEP 9 - Ear candy. Congratulations! Once you get to step 9 you are 98% done. In fact, if you decided to be finished now most people wouldn't know the difference. But you don't want to settle do you? No, we're going the extra mile. Once you finish recording your vocal, find a few spots to add some special effects to your track. This may come in the form of a special drum fill, some guitar solo lines or some delayed vocal fx. Maybe you have the bright idea to add a distorted drum sound for two bars or to process a vocal line with a filtered telephone effect. You could do anything. Use your imagination. I call these elements "ear candy" and they can make a big difference in the sound of your song.
STEP 10 - Mix. You may be mixing your track as you go along or you may be the type of person who leaves it all to the end. Whatever your process you'll want to take some time and fine tune the balance of your track. Mixing is an art form in and of itself, but just because you're not a professional mixer like Chris Lord Alge doesn't mean that your track can't sound stunning and beautiful. Use your ears, compare your track to professional mixes in a similar genre and you'll find your way! For the icing on the cake, you could send your track off to a mastering engineer or use a plugins like T Racks to add a little volume to the overall track.
As you work, remember to keep your mind open and in a creative state. Leave your worries at the door and come to your workspace ready to make music. Creativity can be helped or hurt by your ability to keep your process moving along. Don't get stuck! If you find yourself struggling, move on to something else or take a break. Sometimes you just need a little clarity. Experiment and be a daring music maker! I can't wait to hear what you come up with!
So there you have it. Congratulations! You composed and recorded a song! Grab a soda, sit back and enjoy your creation!!