I just released my 8th consecutive single in my song of the month challenge. I do not have a specific formula for creating a song but I do have a work flow that has helped me streamline much of the technical work and allows me to make the most of the time that I have. If you want to get right to hearing the song – Here is the link lyric Video:My Baby and Me (Official Lyric Video) by Extraneous Solutions
Below is a description of my process to create what you just heard.
I work a full time music education job. I teach middle school students, ages 11-14. I direct 4 choruses (each doing their own songs), a concert band and a jazz band (each doing their own music), a general music program, and a ukulele and a guitar elective. From a teaching stand point this is a very full work load and it is not uncommon for me to learning and teaching over 30 songs in a concert season.
I am a husband and a father of two teenage girls. I try to spend as much time with my family as possible and to this end rarely bring my school work home with me. I have developed systems to help me learn music quickly and effectively during my time at school (the main trick is getting to school every day at 7AM – a full hour before classes begin – you can accomplish a lot in an uninterrupted hour).
I play solo guitar music in yoga classes twice a week, kirtan at least once a month, and weddings and other gigs several times a year. By any measure I am a busy guy, so finding the time to write and produce a new song every month requires discipline. I do not schedule my song writing time, but I will share with you what I do to accomplish my goals.
1) I keep a journal. I write lyrics, ideas, schemes, anything really, whenever the urge strikes. Sometimes ideas come in between classes at school or on my way home, so I keep the journal close. I do not sit down and say “now I am going to write a song”, instead I go for walks with my dog in the morning, or I’ll be driving home and if a lyric finds my tongue, I repeat until I get home and then immediately write it down.
Once I have the basis for a song – a Title, a Chorus, a Verse – then I sit down, usually at the piano or at the kitchen table and start writing. Sometimes a song will come together in a few hours, other songs take days, even weeks of manipulating the lyrics until I am happy with them. My songs tend to be quirky but they are honest expressions. I am not trying to write hits, I am trying to write my heart.
2) Once I have words, I put music to them. Sometimes the melody is already present, I just need to figure it out and put chords under it. Sometimes a song will start with a melody that I abandon for one that is more interesting or catchy, training my voice to learn the new notes is part of the process. I play the song many times in a rough form, on guitar or piano (or both), making sure the various sections fit together naturally. By doing this, I am practicing all the parts so I can physically play the song.
3) Now I get ready to record it. This is the hardest part to explain, especially if you know very little about how recording works, but I’ll try. I use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) called Studio One Pro by Presonus. In the DAW, I have access to virtual instruments (drums, bass, keyboards, and others) that I can control with my electric piano through MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). I create a static drum beat, really it is a glorified “click” track of bass drum, snare drum, and hi-hat – think of a metronome with more soul. I set the tempo and create about 5 minutes or so of this click track. I record the main foundation instrument (guitar or piano) while playing along to this click track.
Once the basic foundation track is recorded, I go back to the “click” track and turn it into a real drum track. I basically place every hit the drums make with a mouse and adjust them by hand or use the “humanize” feature to make it sound more or less like a real person played it.
I rerecord the foundation track. I have found that I react to drum beats in a positive way and my rhythm playing becomes tighter.
I play a bass line using the keyboard.
I add any other necessary instruments – guitar/piano/solos
I sing the song with the whole band behind me. I have found sometimes I need to sing the song before I rerecord the foundation track, sometimes it helps with the timing. It depends on the song. If I do that, I rerecord the vocal once the band is tight. I am very careful to only record performances of sounds I like. It is a waste of time to record an out of tune guitar or a keyboard tone you do not like. If you take the time to record a sound you like and performance that is excellent then you wont have to “fix it in the mix” which is the biggest mistake many young musicians make. Truth is you can’t fix it in the mix.
Since I know this is the order I am going to record in, I took the time to set up a template in my DAW that already has all the tracks ready for me to record them. I set up a drum bus, and an instrument bus and then I am ready to start creating. I do not spend a lot of time guessing what is going to happen next.
4) Once everything is recorded to my satisfaction. There are no mistakes in the music, nothing I cringe at while listening to it. I begin mixing.
I zero everything.
I raise the bass and snare drums and then balance the rest of the drum set around them. Once I have a solid drum mix, I balance the bass guitar sound. Followed by guitars and piano. Last – Voice. I put the mix in MONO and listen.
I EQ and Compress in MONO, and add REVERB in small amounts.
Putting the mix in MONO forces me to carve out the sonic space for each instrument, as I have been mixing songs these past 8 months, I have gotten a lot better at creating less mud. Maybe you have noticed – hopefully not – hopefully you just hear the song and you weren’t even aware of this part of the process.
I PAN (left and right) instruments into a STEREO image once I am sure that there is space in the EQ for them – I have learned that Moving Mud to the left or right doesn’t fix anything.
This probably sounds like a lot of work, and in truth it is. There is a steep learning curve, especially if you have never run a mixing board or recorded anything before. However, the process gets faster, especially if you have a specific sonic goal in mind and don’t spend a lot of time fooling around with effects you are not going to use.
5) Once the mix is done, I send it to the Mastering Suite in Studio One Pro to put the finishing touches on the song. I use an EQ and a Multi-Band Compressor and a Limiter. I make tiny adjustment to the whole song’s sonic spectrum and compare it to other songs that I have recorded and professionally mastered material. I listen in the car on my way to work, on my iPhone, on various stereo systems. Once I feel I have a quality finished version, it is ready for distribution.
6) I make cover art, and a little video. Time goes into these as well but the lion share is in the writing/recording/mixing phase.
I have said that I write all my music (Pure Kirtan, solo classical guitar, Extraneous Solutions) in the nooks and crannies of time and doing this challenge has made me even more aware of how to use my time effectively. How to make choices and stick with them. How to trust my gut and trust my ears. To trust to know when I am going down the wrong path and to quickly abandon things that are not working. And to not over think things that are great if I would just leave them alone. But most importantly, I have learned to love the song for what it expresses, that part of me that can only be expressed through music.
There are no hard and fast rules in this life and the songs I write are mine. In the end of it all, I have to happy with them and so far that has been the case. They may be weird and lack commercial potential but that’s ok. In fact, that might be why you listen. Thank You for joining me in this adventure. I hope reading this has given you some insight into what I do each month. If you have any questions, please ask them in the comment section. I’ll respond.