Sometimes the software gets in the way of the creative process

I have a few more days left allocated to writing the fourth and final song for my project, but I’ve been trying to tie up various loose ends in earlier songs.

When I was working on Track 1, way back in weeks 1 and 2, I used a program called Ignite to record my musical ideas into the computer. I’ve been using Ableton Live 9 (Intro) for the following three songs, so it made sense to me that I should go back and set up Track 1 in Ableton Live. While Ignite provides a really simple, intuitive way to record ideas and arrange songs, it doesn’t offer the mixing and mastering capabilities that Ableton has.

I used the following instruments in the song: some electric guitars, a bass, drums and a keyboard. I’m using MIDI for everything except the guitars – that means I tell the computer what notes to play, and the computer plays them for me using a synthesized MIDI instrument instead of a real-life instrument. Different music programs have different instruments, and there are infinite possibilities to choose from! Now, I really liked the sounds of the instruments I’d chosen in Ignite, so I converted each MIDI file into an audio file, which is easily done in Ignite. The software is designed for musicians, not engineers! I then imported the audio files into Ableton Live. I could have exported the MIDI files instead, but then I would have had to pick one of Ableton’s instruments to play back the sound. I only have the Intro version, and it seems that the best sounds have been reserved for the Standard and Suite versions!

For the next songs in my project I had used Ableton Live straight away. However, I ran into trouble writing the MIDI bass parts: the stripped-down Intro version that I have just doesn’t contain any particularly good bass guitar sounds. So, since Ignite comes with a nice set of instruments, I thought I could export the MIDI files from Ableton Live, import them into Ignite, pick a cool sound, and export the audio files to put them back into Ableton Live. But unfortunately Ignite isn’t able to import MIDI files! Alas, if I want to use Ignite’s instruments I’d need to record the music with my MIDI keyboard from scratch. I’m sure it would take no time at all since everything I’ve written is very simple, but it’s still quite frustrating!

In short, Ignite is great for getting started with creating and recording ideas into the computer. It’s very basic, and has a really good range of MIDI sounds to choose from – especially since it’s all free!! It’s also set up so that it’s easy to export everything into another piece of software (eg Ableton Live) to make more complicated adjustments and do the post-production stuff. Ableton Live is amazing both for recording and everything that comes after, but the Intro version I have is a bit disappointing when it comes to the available sounds.

This has been a bit of a dull blog entry. So, if you made it this far, here is the grand unveiling of the tracklisting for my wee EP!*

old dreams

1. i was an entire instant, all to myself, more than i am now
2. time is nonlinear, it slows when i realise
3. those moments i don’t want to be a part of anything
4. daydreams and denial

Really first and fourth songs are the only ones worth listening to. I’m so tempted to discard the third track because it’s such a non-song. But it still has a chance for redemption…

*Subject to change – coming up with titles for instrumental music isn’t easy.


A sneaky trick to make me sound like a better guitarist!

I’m writing four songs in twelve weeks. I’ve split the twelve weeks into two parts: the first eight weeks are for writing and recording the songs from scratch; the final four are set aside for the post-production stuff. Tomorrow is the first day of week eight, but since my fourth song has pretty much written itself, I’ve been looking back at the previous tracks and building up a bit of a to do list.

Simply put, I like Song 1. I think I’d be happy to listen to it if someone else had written it. I wish I could say the same for my second and third songs. The third one, in particular, is pretty dire: it doesn’t sound finished, or coherent, or anything. But I don’t have time to do any great musical restructuring, so I’m stuck with it!

My to-do list is dominated by the fact that I need to re-record some guitar/bass parts, in particular for Songs 1 and 3. I’ve spoken before about having issues with finding the right guitar tone, and that makes the recording process very scary to me. In fact, that’s why I decided to write Song 4 entirely using MIDI instruments which use sound generated by the computer.

I recorded the guitars in Song 2 without any effects, and the sound is okay. It’s passable, for me with my horribly low standards/reluctance to re-record. Ach, I’ve a cheek to call myself a musician! There was one wee passage that really troubled me though: a speedy, playful part for two guitars that came out a bit sloppily. It wasn’t even that fast, and I’d had to practice it a million times until I was happy with the recording, but the more I listened back, the more I heard it was a tiny bit out of time.

Instead of re-recording it, I used some computer trickery!


This is the audio track for one of the guitar parts that I wanted to fix. It shows eight bars of music, subdivided into 4 beats per bar. If you look at the arrow at the start of bar 5, you can see that the audio doesn’t quite start on the beat. With Ableton Live, you can insert so-called warp markers into the music and then squeeze or stretch bits together until they sync up with the beat. After some careful adjustments I restored order to my sloppy guitar parts!


Everything lines up much better now! I was amazed by how well it worked, even though it’s just subtle changes. (If you’re really paying attention, you might be able to figure out that I’m playing two notes per beat in bars 1-2 and 5-8, and triplets in bars 3 and 4!)

My plan for today was actually to spend some time re-recording my guitars for Song 3. I’m thinking I will use my classical guitar instead of plugging in an electric one. I just love the earthy sound of classical guitars with their nylon strings! As well as that, I bought a new condenser microphone with money I don’t have and I need to get some more practice before I attempt to record my sister playing the flute for Song 1!! However, instead of facing my fear of recording, I went for a nice long walk and hung out with squirrels and stuff.

Thoughts on “finishing” Track 1

I’m disappointed. I’m sitting here cradling a mug of hot chocolate (spiked with candy cane vodka* – a Christmas relic) feeling sorry for myself. Today is that last day I’ve allocated to working on the first of my four songs, and, like with any deadline I’ve ever had, I postponed a number of things to the last day… and then in the evening, decided that it’s doomed, so why bother?

No, I haven’t given up; I’m just frustrated. I had a busy day yesterday – gym, PhD application stuff (i.e. spend lots of time anxiously thinking about the emails I need to write), work, then straight over to Glasgow for a gig – and, anticipating this, I accepted the fact that I would be left to record all of the guitars and vocals today. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would drink all the beer, sleep on my friend’s couch and have to trudge back to Edinburgh this afternoon!

If I was more experienced, that wasted time wouldn’t matter too much. The guitar parts are really simple; it’s just a matter of finding the right sound and recording a few takes to make sure everything’s perfect. Likewise with the vocals. Oh my god, I’m not even going to talk about vocals. Song #2 will be, for sure, instrumental!

It’s the lack of experience that’s got me down. Sounding rubbish is disheartening.

I never really got comfortable with guitar amps or effects pedals. When I was really into playing the guitar as a teenager, it was a classical guitar I played 70% of the time**, and when I got my electric guitar out I mostly played it unplugged. That way, you can make sure you’re playing everything perfectly: there’s no distortion to mask your mistakes, so there’s no room for sloppiness. This is why I can’t jam with other guitarists: I’ve got this assumption that they’ve spent lots of time playing around with effects and stuff, and, even if I have the skill, I could never sound great. It’s a confidence thing, I remind myself. Stupid Insecurity #389.

Turning a negative into a positive, I recognise that I just need to take a bit more care with how the guitars sound in the next few songs. I’m going to spend lots of time experimenting with effects and such. Distortion is where all of my guitar tone problems are. No matter what I use – pedals, amps, computer software – I’ve never been happy with the result. I need more practice!

I should explain how I recorded the guitars. The basic set-up was very simple: I plugged my shiny red electric guitar (a lefty Epiphone Dot that my boyfriend and I share, and lovingly call El Meano) into a shiny red box called an external audio interface (a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2), which I plugged into my laptop (also shiny, but not red). So, no microphones or amps. To record a guitar with more than just a basic, clean tone, I suppose there are a couple of options. One way is to use computery software to modify the sound after you’ve recorded it. Instead of this, what I did was put a couple of effects pedals (distortion and chorus) between the guitar and the Scarlett 2i2. The chorus effect is a subtle, shimmery sound. I was curious to see what would happen if I crossed it with a slight bit of distortion. I quite liked the result: it adds a sort of wholeness, or richness, to the sound – but it quickly becomes muddy and dull if you increase the distortion.

I just wasn’t happy with the sound, though. That awkward moment when you admit to yourself that you prefer the sound of the MIDI guitars rather than your actual real-life guitar parts… argh, I’m so done with Track 1.



* Inspired by 

** I recently rediscovered a few classical guitar pieces I recorded for my parents when I first moved away to Edinburgh. They missed hearing me practice every night after dinner. Past-Mairi was actually pretty good, right?!

How many times can I say “drum” in one post?

Yesterday morning, with help from maybe four coffees, I started drumming.

Drums are a big obstacle for me. I am, if anything, a guitarist. I used to play the piano, too, and I’m quite familiar with music theory. But drums – well they seem so unfamiliar, so untameable! I’ve never really taken the time to deconstruct a drum beat and think about what’s going on.  I’m starting to feel like I’ve never even listened to drums before. How, then, am I supposed to put a decent drum beat together?

My understanding of the anatomy of drums is as follows: there’s the bassy kick drum, the rattly snare drum and the crispy hi-hat. I think they generally do most of the work. Then there’s some tom-toms and cymbals; and there’s that joke that two drums and a cymbal fall off a cliff (badum-tssh). That’s everything I know about drums.

Alas, my song needs drums, so that’s what it’ll get. I’m composing all the drums digitally, using the MIDI sequencer that I mentioned in my last post. Even if I had access to a drum kit, the idea of me playing it is laughable – but you’ll have figured that out already. The digital stuff sounds really professional anyway. Crafting a rhythm in this way is a lot similar to inputting a melody: I even worked with my MIDI keyboard to plot out the beats. When I press a key on the keyboard, it corresponds to banging a particular drum or cymbal, and the computer plays the sound for me.

The software I’m using actually comes with a built-in drum machine containing hundreds of ready-made patterns that you can use. At some point a few days ago, I picked out one or two of those presets to see how the music sounded with an actual beat. It wasn’t bad, but I felt uncomfortable about using someone else’s work for my music. I guess that ties in with the all-by-myself ethic of the project. I’d rather have my own feeble attempt at it!

So I came up with my own rhythms. I had to keep reminding myself that there are no rules here. The limit is my imagination. I needed to tell myself to stop worrying about how physically playable the patterns were (ie, would you need three hands?) or how sophisticated it would sound, and focus on building up a rhythm, one layer at a time. As it happens, I’ve kept everything in Track 1 incredibly simple – I need to keep reminding myself that that is okay, too. I’m not writing a fugue.

For the briefest moment (again, in keeping with the DIY approach) I considered recording a bunch of everyday noises and digitally sequencing a drum beat out of them, inspired by the La Dispute song “nine”, in which the rhythm part was made up of “3 books, a pencil sharpener, and a Sharpie brand permanent marker against paper”. What I mean is that I could record, for example, the sound of me stamping once on the ground – or you know, whatever – and tell the computer to replace, say, the bass drum sound with that audio clip. I’d repeat this with the other drum parts and then stitch everything together in the same way that I did with the digital sounds. It would be a lot of fun, but I quickly scrapped the idea. Maybe one day, for some other song.

In any case, I’ve pretty much got the drums finished now. To be honest, I feel like I was really quite lazy with it. Maybe you’ll be able to tell when you hear the song, but I hope not! I’ve had a busy few days and there’s still lots to do before I more on to Track 2 on Thursday. The clock is ticking!

Track 1: it’s not a song about maths homework

I was an entire instant, all to myself, more than I am now.

I feel like a kaleidoscope;
I’m feeling incompatible.
I see the numbers in my veins:
Bulging out beneath my skin,
Completely static.
I see me staring at the problem,
Begging it to solve itself,
Solve for x, for me.

It fills the gaps between the walls:
The syrup in the shadows.
Like a plastic bag
Down the throat of a whale,
Trapped in an instant.
That blank portrait, those same words,
The way I can no longer
Say anything else.


I wrote this on a whiteboard and left it in the hallway of my flat. That in itself felt like an achievement. Yes, me being scared of everything will be a recurring theme in this blog.

The words are, for the most part, frankensteined from little snippets of writing that I did in the last few months of 2013. That’s what I want the EP to be about, though: the claustrophobia of lengthening nights, the time spent being a ghost, and the feeling of eventually waking up.

So there you go; that’s what I’m going to sing in the first track. I worked it quite easily into the music, which I think has a bit of a dreamy/introspective feel to it. 

Shortly after coming up with a melody for the vocals, I realised that it would probably be a good idea to transpose the song to a new key – one that would suit my shy-girl vocal range better. Since the guitar parts I’ve written are all really simple, I had programmed them into the computer using my MIDI keyboard, instead of recording audio tracks. MIDI clips only contain information about a piece of music – when notes are played, how long they’re played for and at what volume – instead of the actual sound wave, and this means that you can edit a MIDI file really easily by simply dragging and dropping musical notes around an on-screen keyboard. The computer then generates the sound for you.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a few bars that one of the guitars plays in my song:


(I’m currently using a super-basic-but-still-really-cool program called Ignite. It’s great for quickly capturing ideas but I’m already getting frustrated by its limitations. I’ll soon make the switch to Ableton Live, which is scary but incredibly powerful)

Now, I transposed the song down four semitones, taking the key from C# minor (I think) to A minor (presumably). It’s funny how that simple change – lowering the pitch of everything by the same amount – seemed to affect the song. It reminded me of an idea posited way back in the early 1800s: that musical keys have different characteristics. According to the internet (, it was said, for example, that the key of A minor is associated with “pious womanliness and tenderness of character”, whereas my original key of choice is “a leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture.” The physicist in me says “ha!”, but part of me – the part that goes mental every time there’s a full moon – loves it.

Anyway, transposing MIDI clips is fine, but I will be recording the final version of the guitar parts using an actual guitar, instead of my wee keyboard. This means I need to relearn the guitar parts – I haven’t had a close enough look at it yet but I’m hoping I won’t run into problems. It’ll be awkward if some of the notes become unplayable, but I suppose I could always just detune the strings!

The same applies for the bass part, except that I don’t have a bass guitar. Well, I considered heading back to my parents’ house to borrow my twin sister’s bass… She’s right-handed and I’m a lefty, but for the longest time my party trick way to drunkenly try to play righty guitars upside-down, so I don’t think I’d have too much trouble with it. For now, I’ll stick with a MIDI track; I’ll possibly go home to record the basslines for all 4 songs before I start mixing. Would that be cheating?


Next time I’ll talk about musical influences, or the hardware/software I’m using, or how writing drums is driving me insane. As well as simply keeping track of my progress for my own purposes, I’m trying to keep the content at a level suitable for people who don’t know anything about music theory or production, as I think it’s all really fascinating! I also hope that what I write about will be interesting to other musicians out there. Let me know what you think 🙂

Some kind of new year’s resolution

Hello and welcome!

As 2013 came to an end, I was digging my heels into the ground, hurt by the reminder that time is pulling the rug out from beneath my feet.

In July, I graduated with a master’s degree in Mathematical Physics – I then spent the rest of the year working as a shop assistant at Boots and H&M. Instead of glorious freedom from exams and other such horrors, I found my days all smudging together, punctuated by the one or two days off per month… until all of a sudden, half a year had escaped me. I had to do something. I swore that the new year would be different (I did the same last year, and the year before…), and then I set myself some goals – some real, tangible, specific goals – complete with systems to hold myself accountable. I quit one of my jobs (sorry H&M) and picked up a loose thread from my pre-university days. I decided that from now on I would be a part-time penniless musician.

I started a project: I’m going to write/record/mix/everything a 4-track EP, by myself, in 12 weeks.

Now, I’m not expecting miracles. I have a wee bit of musical ability and songwriting experience from when I was an angsty teenager, but overall I’m really new to the whole process. The learning curve is steep and the concept is, well, kind of intimidating; therefore I thought it would be useful to keep a blog so that I can reflect upon the ups and downs of the journey.

I chose a short time frame – twelve weeks – because I just want to prove to myself that I’m capable of creating and completing things. I’ve always hated the idea of producing anything that is less than perfect (music, university assignments, you name it…) and feared people’s reactions to my obvious, fundamental lack of perfection. With such an attitude, I really feel like I’ve stunted my growth (yeah, insert short-person joke here). I’m not a perfectionist: instead of making perfect things, I tend to get disheartened and give up. So my aim for this project is to learn lots about making music and to be able to say “yes, I have written an EP, here it is!”

The project officially started on Thursday 9th Jan 2014, so I’m about a week into it already. I began by sketching out a rough plan:

Goal: Write and record an EP in 12 weeks
Start date: Thu 9th Jan 2014
End date: Wed 2nd April 2014

Weeks 1 and 2: write/record track 1
Weeks 3 and 4: write/record track 2
Weeks 5 and 6: write/record track 3
Weeks 7 and 8: write/record track 4
Week 9: mix tracks 1 and 2
Week 10: mix tracks 3 and 4
Week 11: more mixing
Week 12: mastering

Maybe I haven’t allocated the time fairly; I’ll just have to wait and see. Progress is good so far though. I’ve made up a rough draft of track 1: I’ve pieced together some lyrics, written most/all of the music and figured out the song structure, with the help of a cheap-ass MIDI keyboard (MIDI keyboards are magical, by the way) and the free DAW (digital audio workstation) that came with it. I’ll talk more about all of that in future posts!

With a week left to go for track 1, I’ve got most of the creative stuff out of the way. Still on my to-do list:
* write the drum part (I actually started this blog to postpone programming the drums – I tried playing drums for about 5 minutes when I was 14… it was pretty overwhelming.)
* get good-quality recordings of the instrument parts
* record the vocals (a really, really terrifying thought)

…and after all that I’ll be putting the song away to work on track 2, until week 9 when I get started with the exciting/soul-destroying editing!

Before I get back to work, I’ll say one more thing. Track 1 is tentatively called “I was an entire instant, all to myself, more than I am now.” It’s a little clumsy, but it feels right!