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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Riding the waves of motivation

Shortly after I started this blog, my friend Adam started one as well, because I said he should. For a while he’d stopped posting frequently and I had to encourage him to write, but now the tables have turned and he’s the one telling me to get blogging again!

Anyway, I might have, kind-of, completely and utterly abandoned the A to Z blogging challenge soon after the half-way point, but I will not look back in sadness! It was super fun and I’m sure that if/when I do it next year, I’ll be better prepared for it.

Instead of blogging, I have, at least, been making music! I’m working on Song 7. You might say,

“I know you started out by writing 4 songs in 12 weeks, but I haven’t heard much since then. How come you’re at Song 7 now? Where did 5 and 6 go?” Where indeed.

“And I still haven’t heard two of the original four yet!” Well, maybe one day.

Song 7 currently has 88 bars of music, which means at a tempo of 130bpm (beats per minute), it’s around 2 minutes 42 seconds long. It has a beginning, a tentative end, and a middle that needs stretched out a bit further. I also – of course – need to write the entire drum accompaniment. Drums make me uneasy. I tend to leave them to the end. Song 7 has a provisional title: “Following Me In The Sunshine”.

I’ve composed the entire thing so far using my MIDI keyboard and my computer. When you write music on the computer, organisation is key. It’s really important to carefully keep track of all the bits and pieces of the song, otherwise things will get lost and mixed-up. I decided to completely reject the notions of “verse-chorus-etc” for this composition, so I had a bit of fun with naming the different sections:

intro
1: wistful daffodils
2: on the wind/below the wind
3: when everything starts to feel see-through
4: coming to light
5: unwinding the space on either side of me
end: wistful daffodils?

I haven’t actually written a fifth part yet but I thought “unwinding the space on either side of me” sounds awesome, and I want to add more to the song anyway. Maybe I should use it as an actual song title instead of the name of a fragment of a song; a mere organisational tool. I also really like “when everything starts to feel see-through”, although the music doesn’t quite capture the essence of that kind of feeling. Well whatever, it hardly matters.

Since I’ve slipped back into meaningless procrastination recently, I’m going to impose a deadline on this song. I’ll give myself a fortnight. Come back on the evening of Sunday 11th May (oh! That’s my friend’s birthday!) and you might just hear a new song!

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!

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!

Image

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!

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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.

Awkward selfie on Corstorphine Hill.

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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!

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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!