A demo

I decided to export my half-finished song as an MP3 file to listen to on the bus to work, away from my computer screen. Then I thought, “why not share it on my blog?”

So here it is. I have so much work still to do – I haven’t even properly decided on the instrumentation yet. I might keep the cute synth and echoey piano or I might record it all with guitars.

What do you think?

PS I’m late for work!

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A is for April!

When I started blogging in January, I foolishly assumed that by April I would already be a blogging genius, writing regularly three or four times a week. That isn’t what happened. Regrettably, my blogging fizzled out almost entirely during March.

I brought this blog into existence with the intention to use it to chronicle a creative challenge that I set myself. That challenge was to produce a 4-song EP all by myself, in 12 weeks! It involved writing, recording, drum-programming, mixing, mastering… You can find out more about it here. As with my blogging, March wasn’t a good month for making music, and I’ve put that project on the back-burner for a while.

But never mind that: today is the start of something brilliant! I’m taking part in the Blogging from A to Z in April Challenge, which means that I’ll be blogging every day this month! That is, with the exception of the four Sundays, to take the total down to 26 – that’s so that each blog entry can correspond to a letter of the alphabet.

So today, for the letter A, I chose April. It’s maybe a little uninspired, but it gives me a chance to introduce myself to anyone coming from the A to Z Challenge website, and to outline my plans for the month.

I’ll still be focusing on documenting the ups and downs of creating music, but I think I will allow myself to include reflections on things not directly related to that process. In other words, I don’t actually have a plan, and you’ll just have to wait and see! Well, so much for introductions.

See you tomorrow!

Learning to mix

Last night I finished up the writing and recording part of my project, and today I have officially started mixing. My understanding of mixing is that you process and add effects to individual instruments in your song to make everything sound coherent and beautiful. You might have 3 tracks or 13 tracks or 30 tracks in your song when you start mixing, but afterwards you should be ready to condense it down into just two: a stereo pair, one for the left ear and one for the right. After mixing comes mastering, which is similar except that you work with those two stereo tracks, not individual instruments. Its purpose is optimisation: to give the song that magical oomph.

Both mixing and mastering are extremely creative, complex skills that take years and years to develop. I’m really excited to get started!

When mixing, it’s important to have a good set of speakers to monitor the sound. You want something that reproduces the music as honestly as possible: many speakers and headphones are designed to boost certain frequencies to make the sound more appealing. I’m going to have to make do with a couple of sets of headphones, one of which produces a notably bassy sound and the other which is a cheap set of earphones that I use to listen to music on my smartphone. It’s not great, and using headphones at all isn’t the smartest choice, but I’ll make do with what I’ve got. I’m going to learn so much and that’s what I’m excited about!

Let’s have a quick wee look at my timeframe. The plan looks like this:

Weeks 9 and 10: mixing each song (deadline: Wed 19th Mar)
Week 11: more mixing (deadline: Wed 26th Mar)
Week 12: mastering (deadline: Wed 2nd Apr)

It’s pretty vague. Having had an hour whizz past me earlier while I played with one effect applied to one instrument, I’m quite aware that you could spend forever mixing a single song. I’m only going to spend three weeks on four songs. And actually, to be fair to each song, I’m allocating a strict half a week to get a semi-decent mix for each song, and then I’ll spend the third week working on finer details that will no doubt come to my attention.

When I first started to learn about mixing, I kept hearing about compressors, limiters, EQ, reverb, delay, gates, filters, automation, and a ton of other scary words. Where do you even begin with all this stuff?! So for now I’m trying to look at it as being simply about volume. You might start by adjusting the volume of each track so that the right instruments stand out at the right times, and then you might look at EQ, or equalization, where you adjust the volume of frequencies within a track to clarify the sound. Then you might use a compressor to reduce the difference between the loud bits and quiet bits… it’s all volume.

This is going to be a whirlwind. Wish me luck!

Fun with Colours, Numbers, Patterns, Rhythms

I’m currently writing Track 4, the final song for my music project. Everything has been going really well with this one! Having set up my overall song structure and chord progressions for the verse and chorus, I got to work writing main melodic parts for those two sections.

Prepare yourself for what might be some incoherent rambling about my thought process!

For the verse, I began by writing a rhythm for the main melody. The track will be instrumental, so instead of using lyrics I constructed a couple of meaningless sentences on-the-spot. I took the natural rhythm of those sentences and based my melody on it, by inputting the rhythm into my music editor as a series of notes with the same musical pitch (F, since the song is in the key of F). After that I just just started jiggling the pitches of the notes around until I had a melody that I was keen on (I also adjusted the volumes of individual notes to make it sounds less mechanical). Sometimes imposing restrictions on your work makes it easier to get creative. I actually ended up discarding that melody, writing another in the same way, and eventually reincarnating the original as a countermelody for the final chorus of the song.

The main idea for the chorus came about really naturally while I was exploring the different sounds that can be used to synthesise notes in Ableton Live, my music software. I didn’t use any fancy techniques to compose it; it was simply a playful wee string of notes that went from my fingers, through my MIDI keyboard and into the computer. However, it’s maybe a little tedious, since the pattern repeats itself four times in the one chorus. I’m thinking I’ll need to replace maybe the third repetition, or the second and fourth, with something new…

As well as writing these “sing-a-long-able” parts for the verse and chorus, I’ve also written the drum and bass parts, as well as a couple of other twiddly bits for the musical accompaniment.

Turning my attention now to the middle 8, I sat back and had a think about where to go. Well, something I haven’t ever really done before in writing music is to insert a key change! That’s because I don’t really know how to. There is the super-cheesy method of simply raising all the music up by a semitone or two – that’s the climactic point where the boyband get up off their stools when they’re performing their slow ballad – but I knew there are other, classier ways to do it, so I did some Googling to get some answers. I found some information about “pivot chords”, where you use a chord common to both keys to bring about the change. Without really knowing what I was doing, I played around with my keyboard until I was happy with a chord progression.

I decided to change the key from F to C, since they have a difference of only one note: while F has a Bb (B flat), C has a B. I ended up with the following: F-Dm-G7-C-Dm9-G13-Cmaj9-Cmaj9. The final four chords are quite sophisticated; they’re beautiful and jazzy! After that section comes the final, triumphant chorus, transposed up to the key of C. I actually changed the final chord of the middle 8 to F to give more of a feeling of movement, since the new chorus starts on a C. Overall, the middle 8 sounds a bit… weird, but it’s not too bad, and I love the transition into the final chorus!

Image

This is how my song looks so far. Ableton Live is an unbelievably cool piece of software! The bottom right corner is the “piano roll” which currently shows the chorus melody. The top section shows the whole song, with a row for each instrument. I haven’t quite figured out a good system for colouring all my little musical blocks but I love the fact that I can do that!

Week 7, really?!

As of Thursday, I have made it into the seventh week of my music project. I was quick to make a start on Song 4, since my attempts at Songs 2 and 3 in weeks 3-6 were rushed and awkward. I have only myself to blame. My laziness constantly amazes me!

I often find myself dreaming of having a wee studio to make music in. Somewhere with sound insulation, so the buses driving past my street don’t get into my recordings. Somewhere with a nice big desk and lots of light. Somewhere where I don’t need to pack up and unpack my music equipment every time I use it.

Yes, that’s an upside-down Minecraft Creeper head holding my stuff.

So. Song 4. I tend to feel like I need to create something artsy-pretentious, but I inevitably end up demoralised and lost. To steer clear of the panic and frustration of my previous song attempts, I chose to write Song 4 starting with a template often followed by contemporary music. I chose to think inside the box.

Have you ever heard the 4 Chord Song? It is a mash up of a bunch of songs that all follow the same chord progression: I-V-vi-IV. Chord progressions are traditionally denoted by Roman numerals, with uppercase and lowercase representing major and minor chords respectively. On a whim I chose to write in the key of F, so, inspired by that famous chord progression, I picked the chords F-C-Dm-Bb for my song’s chorus. I switched it up oh-so-slightly for the verse: Dm-Bb-F-C.

Next I thought about song structure. The three main sections in a pop song are the verse, chorus and “middle 8” (or bridge or solo or whatevs). There can also be things like an intro, an outro, and wee connecting pieces (for example a pre-chorus) to help one section move into another. Neglecting the extra bits at first, I settled on the following structure:

chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-chorus

While it’s more common for a song to begin with a verse, the other three songs I’ve written for this project (in particular the 2nd and 3rd) have started pretty modestly and I wanted to jump straight into something big and catchy for this song.

Next I decided on the lengths of each subsection. I simply chose 16 bars each for the verses and choruses, and 8 for the middle 8 – since “middle 8” generally refers to 8 bars in the middle(ish) of the song. I haven’t decided on chords for the middle 8 yet. I’m going to wait and see how the other main parts sound before I write something that contrasts with it.

So at this stage my song was a series of empty boxes with a specific size and a very basic underlying chordal pattern. This is a very different approach to my previous songs where I had sloppily squished bits and pieces together, with very little sense of purpose, direction, dynamics or completeness. I should note that in Song 2 I originally intended to plan things in this way, but, y’know, it just never happened.

I’m beginning the actual songwriting process using my music software on the computer, instead of playing about with my guitar. That’s because I’m focusing on the main melodic lines at first: in a pop song the vocals are the main focal point, so I want to make sure to write a good, central, sing-a-long-able part. This will be either sung or played on some instrument. To be honest though, it probably won’t be sung.

I’m in an endless battle with myself over whether or not to write instrumental music. I like the idea of there being vocals in my songs, but I oscillate rapidly between thinking my lyrics are worthwhile and thinking they are dire. Also I think I’m pretty terrible at singing, and have a fear of anyone – for example people in the flats around mine – hearing me, ha! I’ve been on a bit of a negativity rampage these last few days (or forever). My boyfriend says I’m unreasonably harsh on myself but I always manage to find ways to refute that!

There it isn’t/there it is

Last night I was sure that my ideas for Track 2 so far were mediocre and destined to never become anything. I was still dealing with tiny, separate fragments of music that, to me, sounded disjointed and meaningless, regardless of how I permuted them around each other.

I went in a huff. I decided it was all worthless and I would need to start again. Bear in mind that this was Sunday night, three days before the self-imposed deadline for finishing my second song. Like a stroppy child, I cast aside the corners and sides of the jigsaw that I’d started to put together, and went to look for a new puzzle to solve. I thought I would have to give up on writing an instrumental track, since I felt I had failed to create any kind of storyline to be threaded through the music, and so, feeling defiant, I picked up my pen:

there was never a moment in time
when the universe was still.
i remind myself
that i will always be part of something,
i remind myself
that there are consequences to everything,
i remind myself
that a daydream could last for a lifetime
and i should be careful of that.

Then, enough was enough, and I went to bed.

~

I haven’t done much with this music project lately. I’ve been having fun, being lazy, and on Saturday I was horrifically hungover. I’ve also been panicking, trying to learn about string theory and other nonsense in preparation for a short Skype chat with a potential PhD supervisor on Thursday afternoon. It’s overwhelming. I often complain that I feel like my brain’s all scrambled up because I struggle to process information. There’s the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” but I never really understood that. To me, it should be the other way around: I see the massive forest and can’t break it down into trees.

Back to music talk. This evening I decided I should go back to the original plan and pick all my jigsaw pieces back up to smoosh them together into something. Starting from scratch would have been a terrible idea! So I played back the little recordings I’ve made and shuffled them around, drawing little jellyfish-squiggles on a piece of paper to try to organise my thoughts a little better. I tossed aside a few ideas and finally settled on the following structure:

waves/water – hello friend – sweet chords – ascending/fast – hello friend

Naming musical sections is really difficult when you don’t have verses and choruses!

What’s left to do for Track 2?

– Tweak a couple of the guitar parts that I’m not entirely happy with, and then get some good-quality recordings of them. Each little chunk of the song has two or three guitars, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want them to sound like. It’ll probably be mostly a clean, gentle sound, maybe with a little distortion at some points. I considered recording with my old, beloved classical guitar… It sounds lovely in real life but it would probably end up sounding like I was playing a shoebox with elastic bands stretched across it. Recording is hard!

– Write all of the drum and bass parts – oops! I was sure that for this track I would make these instruments really important and valuable to the song – I love a good melodic bassline – but it looks like I’m going to have to rush them.

– I suppose I also need to decide on a title! I was toying with something like “Spaceman Dreams” but I’m not sure that matches the feel of the song. Actually, I’m not sure what the feel of the song even is.

Luckily I have a week off work at the moment, so Tuesday (technically today, but I haven’t gone to bed yet) and Wednesday will be all about music! (And stressing about not being clever enough to go back to uni arghhh)

Track 2: Frustration!

Motivation is a funny thing. On Sunday I was quite productive: after going through to Glasgow to see a couple of friends, I did some PhD application stuff, a wee bit cleaning and made a meal plan for the week ahead. On Monday I sat around after work watching Storage Hunters all night. This morning I skipped the gym for no good reason at all. But when I eventually got out of bed, I headed straight for my guitar.

Writing music is hard. This is how I’ve been doing it:
– make a cup of coffee
– pick up guitar and immediately bust out eight little notes that sound pretty cool together
– spend half an hour painstakingly tweaking said notes until I get a handful of variations and I can’t decide which is best
– wonder how on earth to combine this latest idea with the other tiny little ideas I’ve came up with recently
– …make another cup of coffee

Argh! In my last blog post I wrote that I would carefully construct a plan to set the music to. Almost every song I’ve written before now involved me writing music to be sung over, so it’s quite intimidating to not have a set of lyrics to guide me with things like structure, feel and dynamics. That’s why I thought making a little story to shape the music by would be a good idea. And it might’ve been, if I’d stuck to it! But of course, after a few minutes of planning on Friday night, I was itching to get my guitar out, so the Grand Plan ended up half-written and completely ignored.

I’m kind of freaking out over it, actually. I just don’t have any kind of coherent vision of the end result. I was thinking about when I first started writing music, aged 15/16, and it seemed like everything came together so naturally. Back then I hadn’t listened to a whole lot of music, didn’t know a lot about music theory, and I wasn’t so damn critical of everything.

It’s silly, but I feel like experience, and my time studying physics, might have broken my creativity. I question everything. I worry that there is a right or wrong way to do it. I get angsty about the fact that I don’t have a finished song in front of me. I get frustrated over the fact that the song so far is not rigid or defined – anything is possible – the limit is me, my imagination. It’s like I’m trying to do some big complicated calculation but I’m having to invent mathematical relations out of no-where to get me from one step to the next, so things might work or not, and I have no idea what the answer will come out looking like. It’s almost like my master’s project all over again. Happy memories! 😉

I listened back to some of the songs I wrote and recorded when I was a teenager. I think, if I’d had singing lessons and stopped writing such cringey lyrics, I would’ve been pretty decent! But I did keep everything very simple, slow, and singer-songwriter-y. Now when I’m writing, I’ve been trying to do cool melodic stuff with the guitars, instead of basic chords. As well as that, in the current song I’m working on, I wanted an exciting, fast wee riff to pop up somewhere! But, after chiselling out something that I was happy with, I realised that it would be over in something like 4.7 seconds. How do people write full-length songs with a gazillion notes per minute?!

Anyway, far from being the ghost-story-type song I had planned, somehow the mess I’ve written so far for Track 2 has come out with quite a playful, jangly sound to it, a bit like this:

I’m not complaining, it’s just quite unexpected.

The pieces will come together eventually. They have to!