Tag Archives: tips

The Process: Weekly Review

Calmettes, Pierre. "A travers les métiers." 1898
Calmettes, Pierre. “A travers les métiers.” 1898

In the last blog post, I talked about how I carry around an audio recorder with me wherever I go. It’s a great way to capture melody ideas when I’m not near my main music computer. That being said, these song sketches pile up really, really quickly. If I didn’t have a system in place for organizing them, I’d have hundreds of audio files with cryptic names all over my desktop in no time.  As promised, this week, I’m going to cover how I deal with this song ideas after I’ve recorded them.

As you’ve probably gleaned from this post’s title, once a week, I review all of the song ideas that have accumulated on my iPhone. I save the best ones in a catalog of song parts so that they can easily be assembled into full songs later.

Usually, I do this on my desktop computer and with an acoustic guitar within easy reach so that I can play with the ideas and come up with other related ideas before archiving them. The first step is to get all of the song pieces into a folder on my music computer. Next, I go through each of the files in the folder. For each piece, I follow these steps:

  1. Identify what it is — Is this a bridge, a chorus, a full song? Most often, ideas come to me in pieces although I do occasionally — in a moment of clarity — get lucky enough to write a full song in one sitting.
  2. Make a snap decision about it — Is this good enough to save? If I listen to an idea and it doesn’t do anything for me, I delete it immediately. There’s no point in wasting valuable time polishing something that doesn’t have any clear potential. Nothing feels better than deleting something sub-parit reminds me that I am actually exerting some creative control over this process and that I’m not totally at the whim of my own inspiration.
  3. Usually, at this point, the files don’t have descriptive names. My next step is to name the file. This is usually based on whatever placeholder lyrics I happened to sing in in the original recording. I’ll usually start the file name with a letter and a number. The letter lets me know what type of song part I think this is: “B” for bridge; “C” for chorus; “V” for verse; “S” for full songs. I choose a number that’s one higher than the last one I used. Here’s an example: B017_you_you_took_me_by_surprise.mp3. From this file name I can tell you that: a) this is a bridge; b) it’s the 17th bridge; c) it contains the placeholder lyrics “You, you took me by surprise.”
  4. Sometimes, if the song is in a weird key that’s out of my range, I’ll figure out what would be the ideal key for the part is and re-record the song part at this point. I’ll also try to figure out the range of workable keys. Ultimately, there’s a high likelihood that I will need to change the key that a part is in order for it to work with other parts in a song. It’s useful to know how low or how high I can sing a part and still have it work.
  5. Next, I figure out the tempo of the part. I do this by tapping along to my demo using the “tap” functionality on my drum machine, but a website such as this works just as well. I also try to figure out the slowest and fast tempos for which the song part still works.
  6. The final step is by far the most important step. I enter the song piece into a list of song parts I keep. The list has a few columns. Here’s a sample row:
    File Name Ideal Key Key Range Ideal Tempo Tempo Range Rating
    B017 you you took me by surprise.mp3 G# E-A 150 150-155 ☆☆☆☆

    Here’s a quick rundown of the columns:

    • File Name – Self-explanatory.
    • Ideal Key – The key in which this part sounds best. In the example above, the part sounds best in the key of G#maj.
    • Key Range – If the part’s key needs to be changed, how far up or down from the ideal key can it be transposed and still sound good? In the example above, the range is from Emaj up to the Amaj above it.
    • Ideal Tempo – The tempo (in BPM) at which the part sounds best.
    • Tempo Range – Similar to key range, if the part needed to be slowed down or sped up, how far can we push it and still have it sound good?
    • Rating – A quality rating (1-5 where 5 = best) for the part. Generally anything less than a 3 stars won’t stay in my song parts list for long.
  7. Repeat until all of my songs parts are either cataloged or discarded.

That’s it! I do this every week. It usually takes me a half an hour or so for all of the parts. Periodically, I’ll go into the song pieces folder on my computer and try out different combinations. When I’ve used a part in one of my songs, I’ll put a (*) next to name of the part in the list so that I know not to reuse it elsewhere. Once I’ve got two or three parts that can be combined into a full song, I’ll record a quick acoustic demo of the pieces working together, and then get to work on actually recording the song in earnest.

Hope this helps!

–David Child

The Process: Song Sketches

"La Nature." Juin 23, 1888.
“La Nature.” No 786. Juin 23, 1888.

Anyone who has ever made a habit of writing music knows that song ideas almost never occur to you when you’re looking for them. My solution to this has been to carry a recording device with me at all times. Whenever I have an idea, I slip off somewhere quiet and sing it into the recorder.

When I first got started, I used to use a microcassette tape recorder to capture my ideas (it wasn’t all that ‘micro’ either). I have distinct memories of wandering the streets of Boston singing into this clunky box while trying not to make eye contact with strangers. Nowadays, smartphones are a much more convenient way to capture ideas. There are hundreds of apps for capturing voice memos; even the default iPhone Voice Memo app is a huge leap forward from the microcassette recorder days. Better still, free cloud-syncing storage services such as Dropbox or Evernote have revolutionized the way I work. Evernote is great because it allows you to record any number of song ideas right from its iPhone App and then sync them back to your desktop computer to continue work at home. With Dropbox, I use the Griffin iTalk or DropVox, both of which accomplish the same thing.

Here are some tips that I follow when making my song sketches:

  • Tip #1: Placeholder lyrics – If I don’t have a recording device available when inspiration strikes, I attach placeholder lyrics to my melody as soon as possible (I jot them down on a scrap of paper or in my phone). Lyrics are a great way to remember a tune, although (of course) nothing beats a recording.
  • Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to sound ridiculous – No one will hear my song sketches except me. If the melody is out of my vocal range, I keep it in whatever key occurs to me; I can always transpose it down to something I can sing comfortably later.
  • Tip #3: Record first without backing – Even if I’m near an instrument when inspiration strikes, I record sketches without any backing or chords first before attempting a version with the backing. The reason is this: attaching chords to a melody can actually substantially change an idea (listen to any of the Girl Talk records for intentional examples of this). Sometimes, it’s useful to have a version of a melody before the chords were added.

In the next blog post, I’ll be covering what to do with the ideas once you’ve gathered them.



Organizational Tip: Number Your Songs!

Burgel, Bruno Hans. Astronomy for all. (Illustration)
Burgel, Bruno Hans. Astronomy for all. (Illustration)

Staying organized is crucial when you’re working on an album. The importance of  this is easy to overlook at the start of a project.  Once you commit yourself to saving all of your ideas, it doesn’t take long before you are buried in audio files and scraps of paper and can no longer remember which pieces belong to which song. This is why it is essential to have some system in place for refer back to your work.

When I first got started recording my own work, I expected that I would be referring to songs by their titles. The problem was, when I first started working on a new song, I almost never  had a title for it yet.  I usually didn’t have more than a few lines of placeholder lyrics hastily sung into a tape recorder. If the first line was “Back when I was young,” I would save my song demo in a folder call “back_when.” My thought process was “Well, of course I’ll remember which song this is. It’s the song that begins ‘Back when…'” There are so many problems with this approach: lyrics change, song titles change, sometimes a song part that was going to be used in one song ends up in another. Three years down the road, the phrase “Back when I was young” won’t jog your memory at all.

I was looking around for other solutions, when I remembered reading that Mozart was so prolific that, after his death, a musicologist named Ludwig von Köchel came up with a special numbering system for all of his work: every piece of music he wrote was assigned a Köchel number (or K-number). Now, instead of just referring to a piece as “Sonata in C for Violin and Keyboard” (for all we know, Mozart might have written ten other sonatas in C for violin and keyboard), people refer to “Sonata in C for Violin and Keyboard K. 28”. (You can see the full Köchel Catalog for Mozart’s work here.)

The train of thought that followed is probably obvious by now: what if someone had a Köchel catalogue for their work… and was also still alive at the time to enjoy it? How useful would it be to have an index of every song you had ever worked on (finished and unfinished)? I immediately went back into my archived song ideas folder. I pulled up the first scrap of a song I found. This would be song 001. Since it started with the lyrics “Back when I was young…” I put it in a folder called 001_back_when. The second scrap I found became 002, the third 003, etc. In this way, the songs would be listed in numerical order in the directory, and I would still get to keep a scrap of the placeholder lyrics form the song to help jog my memory. Unlike the actual Köchel Catalog, which made attempts to be chronological (not always easy when new Mozart compositions continued to be discovered even after the catalog’s publication), I don’t really care about when a song was written. If I discover an old song that was unnumbered, I just give it the next number in the series.

If I delete a song, I empty the folder, but I always keep the folder itself as a placeholder (renaming it as follows: “0009_deleted”).

So that’s it. Pretty simple. Even if this is the only organizational measure you take, it’s totally worth it. As long as you keep on numbering your songs and use a consistent file naming convention, you will automatically have a catalog of all of the songs you have ever written just by looking in the directory where you keep your song files. For physical content (lyrics sheets, music, whatever) I have a small file box. Each time I finish with a piece of paper, it goes into a folder labeled with the song number is belongs to. Even more useful, each lyric sheet has the song number written on it and circled. If I want to know what I’m looking at, I just look in the top-left for the circled number.

Hope this helps!

–David Child

The Man(womanchild) Behind The Curtain: Introducing…

The Wizard as illustrated by William Wallace Denslow (1900) | Man(womanchild) Behind the Curtain

Hi Everyone!

David Child here. It occurs to me that I’ve been making and releasing music for a while now, and there is so much about the process that I wish I’d been told when I first started. To share some hard-won experience, I’m introducing a new section on this site called “The Man(womanchild) Behind the Curtain.” Each week I’ll be posting thoughts as well as links I’ve found useful.

Continue reading The Man(womanchild) Behind The Curtain: Introducing…