Your Home Studio - Starting A Project

  • 04/13/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
It’s now been several weeks since I started this series. We’ve covered basic recording and editing and have gone about setting up a studio environment to maximize our efforts. Now, it’s time to start looking at building a project.

Over the next several articles we’re going to set about creating a full production. In doing so, we’ll use the techniques and philosophies as a vehicle to create a song that is not only radio ready, but also something we can all be proud of.

Now, every artist is going to go about preparations for a recording project in different manners. They are however, all just different means to the same end. That end being a song or track. We also need to define if we’re going to be creating a song or a track.

Yes, there’s a difference.

A song is a musical piece that incorporates lyrics, even if they are slight and not the emphasis of the piece. On the other hand a track is a purely instrumental piece with no vocal emphasis. It seems like minor information, but all facets of your production should be thought about in advance.

Although the words, or instrumental pieces may come to you at random times, or through “noodling” it’s always advantageous to have a plan.

The first thing we need to start with is feeling. How do we want our song to feel? Is it bright and airy? Does it make you want to dance? Is the song or track dark or foreboding? The desired feel of the song or track can adequately set you on the necessary path to completion. For instance, a song that has a desired dark feel will likely be composed in a minor key and contain more dissonant intervals, where an up-beat, happy song will likely be composed in a major key making more use of rich intervals such as major 3rds, 4ths and 5ths.

Also influencing the feel of the song is the tempo. Is it a ballad, is it dancy or is it blindingly fast? Does the song or track have a static or dynamic tempo?

When thinking about tempo we also need to have a good idea of how long we want our production to be. Because song length is directly related to tempo, as well as song structure, we want to give that some thought as well.

Okay, so lets say for posterity sake that we are creating a rock song with an up-beat feel at a moderate tempo of around 90 beats per minute. Lets also say that we want this production to be an instrumental track that will showcase a rhythm and lead guitar section as the main rhythm section instruments.

So, where do we start? Well really that’s up to personal preference. Some people work in a linear, start to finish fashion, while others take chunks at a time. An example of that would be first creating the chorus section and building outwards.

Working from the middle of a tune outward works well in a specific structure that is based in classical music. In classic structure you have a theme, a variation on the theme and a recapitulation of the theme. Thus building the main theme first and working it’s variations in can be helpful.

We may not be creating a classic structured song however.

In this case, it’s best to work in the framework that you feel most comfortable and most creative in. If that means working from the end of the song backwards, that’s what you need to do. However you feel creative, that’s where you should start.

With that said however, it is common practice to build the bass and drum sections prior to melody, harmony and lyrical passages. The bass sections in general will be playing the chord roots. This enables you to build the melody off the bass. The bass section mixed with the drum section will also generally push the rhythm of the track, which creates the groove for which your melody and harmony sections will be based off of.

Once we get to recording the bass and drums, it is imperative to record to a click track. This keeps us in time and on beat. This will enable us later to play the melodies to a groove rather than a click, which helps create push-pull and depth to your music.

NOTE: I will reiterate again, any musical passage you are recording that drives the rhythm, or is being recorded without monitoring absolutely 100% needs to be recorded to a click track set to your master tempo.

One of the last pieces of the puzzle before we press the little red button is the structure we want from the track.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules to this. If you want a song with only one verse and one chorus but that lasts for 64 bars each, do it! The track is your musical canvas, and can ebb and flow, or morph however you feel it needs to. Some common structures include:

Verse, Chorus, Verse

Verse, Chorus, Verse, Bridge, Verse, Chorus

Verse, Refrain, Chorus, Verse, Refrain, Bridge, Verse, Chorus

Any and all of these will have variations between songs, and all of them will usually incorporate both an intro and an outro. While the intro is generally a variation on the theme of a song, or written specifically as an introduction to the piece, the outro can take many different forms. Common in rock music through much of the 80’s and 90’s was a repeated phrase (generally the main theme) that simply faded out over two to four measure. Many song endings are also written specifically to do so. Incorporating cadence devices like a Picardy third, or creating tension through dissonance and timing changes. While another method is a drum solo style ending, or simply a STOP!

While it’s not necessarily pertinent to have a full story-boarded concept of what you’re wanting out of your track, the more you know in advance, usually the easier it is to accomplish.

Jumping head long into the fire without knowing a route through it is probably the single greatest cause of writers block when it comes to production.

This is likely why producers, arrangers and mix engineers spend countless hours before recording with their artists hashing out exactly what the artist wants and how they want it to sound.

It never fails however, eventually you’ll be stopped mid-idea by writers block. The next note you desire isn’t at your finger-tips, or in some circumstances, the skill to play what you really want isn’t there.

My advise in these situations is to step away from the project for a short period of time. Sitting idle and stewing over the next steps tends to push the end further out of reach. Sometimes the music just has to come to you. It can’t always be forced.

By now you should have somewhat of an idea about how you want your song or track to turn out. You’ve given some thought about how you want it to feel. You’ve got ideas running in your head and you’ve likely picked a song structure that will adequately convey the feeling you want it to.

The next step is obvious; we get to the recording.

This brings me to my parting thoughts for this article. Write melodies down, draw them on paper and record them on personal recording devices. Anything you can do to keep track of whatever ideas you have in your head will be advantageous for you in any recording project.

Keeping a running log or notes about what you’re trying to produce will help when you’re in the studio laying down riff after riff and wondering why the sound you want seems so far away.

Listening to what you’ve laid down in a non-biased, critical way can infuse new ideas where you thought none existed.

I’d like you all to spend the next couple days putting a song plan together so that when we start recording next week, we’re all on the same page. Your plan should include how you want the song to feel. How long you’d like it to be, the key in which you want to start the song and a general tempo to start with as well.

After that I want you to get into your studio space and spend some time listening to the reference library material that I hope you have setup based on my previous article. “Set your sound” so that you know how to achieve your goals with this recording.

Over the next several articles we’re going to be putting everything we’ve learned so far together into a project. Along the way we’re going to be learning even more about the various recording methods. We’re going to learn about the stereo image, and we’re even going to learn how to sequence a drum rhythm section.

By the end of our project I hope that all of you following this article series will then have a piece of music, created and edited 100% by you that you can be proud of.

Until next week, happy recording!