Listen To The Beatles
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“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” might be an apt title for these tricks of the trade. Prosody is good. Alliteration can be a nice piece of ear candy or an ugly distraction. Clichés are usually bad unless used before they become clichés. Maybe one of your lines will be a cliché someday. But let’s hope it’s not a cliché just yet.
Simply put, prosody means that something sounds like what it is. If you have a slow, sad-sounding piece of music and write a lyric over it that describes how much fun you have skateboarding, it might confuse the listener. Likewise, a bouncy, uptempo number about losing your mom in a car crash doesn’t seem appropriate. When writing lyrics to a melody, listen carefully to see that the melody evokes the right kind of mood.
When different words within a line or stanza of a song begin with the same sound, it’s called “alliteration.” Think of it as rhyme in reverse. With alliteration, the words can be adjoining, like “Manic Monday,” or separate, as with “Wind in the Willows.” Although it can be used effectively in almost any kind of song, alliteration is especially good for songs with a light or silly tone. Who can forget the all-time classic, “Great Green Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts”?
Overused Words and Phrases
There’s at least one big publisher in Nashville who doesn’t want to hear the words “love” or “heart” in another song as long as he lives. Why? He listens to hundreds of songs every week, and guess which words he hears the most?
Emotions are the real underpinnings of any good song. You want to get the listener to feel what you feel, but using emotional words like love and heart is not the best way to get that feeling across. While there’s no argument that love songs, anti-love songs, lost-love songs, or love-gone-bad songs are big moneymakers, people get tired of hearing the same words in every song. Look for alternatives. Describe your love instead of just stating its existence and location. When you do use words like love and heart, make sure that they mean something.
There are thousands of cliché phrases to be avoided, but a top-ten list might look something like this:
We’ll never part.
It’s really true.
I can’t live without you.
That’s the way it goes.
We can make it if we try.
How can I make you see.
Got to make him (or her) mine.
Soft as a dove.
Please don’t go.
Then you’ll understand.
Anyone who’s written more than a few songs knows that some words are perfect for those times when you need to fill a hole in a line. “Just,” “really,” “very,” “well,” “baby,” and many others can come in handy, but it’s easy to become dependent on filler words and to overuse them. A common practice of professional songwriters is to look over a completed song and see if it needs a “just-ectomy,” which is to say “Are there any unnecessary words that can be replaced by better ones?” The following two lines show the results of a quadruple bypass just-ectomy:
Before: “I said well now baby that’s just really very sad.”
After: “I said well now sweet pea that’d make a statue cry.”
Sometimes there’s only one word that works in a given spot. As long as it works naturally, without sounding forced, and doesn’t bring the song down or appear too often in the same lyric, it might be just the thing you need in a particular spot.
So now that we’ve covered what types of computer hardware make a good audio system, it’s time to turn to how to get music in and out of the computer. It’s time to talk about interfaces, those wonderful devices that connect music to an otherwise lifeless machine. Interfaces are pieces of hardware that connect to a computer to bring music in and out.
MIDI interfaces are the simplest and least expensive interfaces for a computer. They come in many shapes and sizes, one for every need. You will want to get an interface that has one input for every piece of MIDI-enabled gear in your studio. The MIDI interface is shown in
Computer MIDI interface
Basic interfaces start around $35; an interface with more inputs will be more expensive. In terms of connections, MIDI interfaces come in a few flavors:
Serial: Not very common now. This is a connection that attaches to a serial port on your computer.
PCI MIDI interface: A card that sits inside the computer. Usually combines audio and MIDI.
USB MIDI interface: A small rectangular port on the back or front of your computer.
Firewire MIDI interface: Firewire, as it’s known on the Mac, or IEEE 1394 as it’s known in the Windows world, is a new connection that is becoming standard. Firewire interfaces usually combine audio and MIDI.
Getting Audio In and Out
In terms of routing audio in and out of your computer, you have to make some hard decisions about how many instruments you can record at once.
Simple interfaces that support one or two channels are relatively inexpensive. If you are looking to record eight simultaneous inputs, be prepared to pay more. Also key is the number of microphone inputs that the interfaces have. If you plan to record acoustic instruments such as piano, voice, or anything else that requires a microphone, you’ll need a few microphone inputs (shown in FIGURE 5-2).
“Meter” is the term used to describe the number of syllables in each line of a section of a song and which syllables are emphasized. Volumes have been written about types and uses of meter in songwriting as well as in poetry. For a modern songwriter, simply studying the rhythm and stresses of popular songs will probably be more help than reading about spondee and iambic pentameter. Meter in today’s songs often tries to mimic the rhythms of natural conversation rather than force lyrics into rigid poetic forms. That being said, studying meter in songs or poetry can be valuable to a songwriter and there are some things that should be covered here.
Sense of Symmetry
With meter, as with rhyme, a certain sense of symmetry is necessary for a song to have a cohesive feel. If you use an 8/6/8/5 meter (each number represents the number of syllables in a line) and an ABCB/ABCB rhyme scheme in the first verse, the second verse should follow suit. Not that you can’t occasionally wedge in an extra word, but make sure that the verses feel alike and are easily identifiable as verses. This helps to provide a sense of place within the song, like chapters in a book or scenes in a movie.
Sometimes you may need more syllables in a line than you have words to fill them. An alternative to adding unnecessary words is to stretch the vowels in some words to cover multiple syllables. A perfect example of this is found in the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons song “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” in which the words of the hook only make up four syllables but are sung as eight.
Some vowels, like the “eye” sound in “cry” and the “oo” sound in “blue,” lend themselves to stretching by being sung as trills or yodels and simply changing notes wherever the melody normally requires it. In “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” for instance, this is done by sliding between two notes in the word “big.” The other stretched words repeat certain sounds, but “big” adds a syllable by changing notes. Sometimes you can just let one note ride for several beats.
Here we go…the big topic that has been debated and argued about for years. Should you use an Apple/Mac or Microsoft Windows? Each side has its strong and weak points. Both will let you run a studio. Let’s consider each side separately.
The Apple Mac has one thing going for it over Microsoft Windows. Historically, Macs were the first computers to run music software, and so more software was written to run on the Mac. Most professional studios still rely solely on Macs for audio. But now, Windows has caught up with the Mac for music. Even so, the Mac has a particular working style that appeals to some. You have to spend some time using the Mac OS to see how different it is from Windows.
The only company that makes the Mac is Apple. Apple is the only game in town, and that’s both good and bad. On the plus side, there is very little variation in the hardware, so software companies have an easy time making products that are compatible with Macs. On the downside, you have fewer choices for machines. There are some software differences that might sway your decision. Some software is still Mac only, with no Windows version. You have to do some research. Macs tend to be slightly more expensive than Windows computers, but that’s becoming less of an issue as prices equalize.
The majority of the desktop market is PC-based, and most of those computers run Microsoft Windows. Windows is now very capable of running music software as well as the Macs do. Lots of music software is now available for Windows. With Windows, the version of the operating system is critical for music applications. Many music applications will run on only the latest version of Windows. Be careful to check that you have a machine capable of running current software. Makers of software for Windows have the unique challenge of trying to be compatible with literally millions of different hardware combinations. Unlike Apple, many different companies make Windows-based PCs. Apple makes all its hardware, which is designed to run its exclusive operating system, whereas Microsoft Windows is a program run by computers made by a variety of different companies. Each computer running Windows uses different CPUs, different RAM…you get the idea. Sometimes software compatibility can be a problem on the Windows side because of this.
In the end, the choice is yours. Whatever you have, you’ll be able to run some kind of music software. If you’re thinking of buying a second computer just for audio, make sure to give both sides a fair look.
Songs haven’t always rhymed. Ancient Hebrew songwriters rhymed ideas instead of sounds — they stated an idea or concept and then restated it in different words. Even now a song occasionally hits the charts that doesn’t rhyme. Billy Vera’s “At This Moment” is a prime example. However, it’s much, much easier to market a song that rhymes. What makes for a great rhyme? That depends on what year it is and what style you’re writing. Listen to the radio and to your favorite CDs, and compare where the rhymes are and what kind of rhymes are used. You’ll be amazed at all the options you find.
The Rhyme Scheme
“Rhyme scheme” is the term used to describe where rhymes are placed in the song. Within a given section (verse, chorus, or bridge) the rhymes are designated, in order of appearance, by letters of the alphabet. AA rhyme scheme has two lines that rhyme:
Rhymes can work at the end of the lines as well inside them. Rhymes occurring inside a line are called, you guessed it, “inner rhymes.” These are one of a songwriter’s secret weapons: Consciously or unconsciously, we expect to hear rhymes at the ends of lines. Inner rhymes come as a surprise to the ear. This helps keep a listener’s attention. Where you choose to place inner rhymes can give different effects:
Back-to-back: “ I went downtown and watched the girls walk by.”
Very close together: “I went around the town, calling out your name.”
Further apart: “I went down to the bad side of town to see a girl I used to know.”
In two different lines: “ I get so down when I come home to visit/Is it this town or knowin’ you’re in it.”
You can also put more than one set or internal rhymes into a line or set of lines. The following couplet contains a complex set of inner rhymes:
As you can see, the A and D rhymes are in italics, the B and E rhymes in bold, and the C rhymes in all caps. The rhyme scheme is ABABC/DEDEC. Play with different schemes; see what you can do with ABCABC or ABCA/DBCD. Make up your own patterns and see if you can write a set of lines that fit.
In the previous lines, you might notice that the words “U-Haul” and “wall” rhyme perfectly, which is to say that the final vowel and consonant sounds are the same. Likewise the words “goodbye” and “high” are nearly perfect rhymes because they end in the same vowel sound.
But some rhymes are imperfect. “Packed” and “back” are pretty close; they both have a short “a” sound, like in the word “at,” followed by a “k” sound. However, “packed” has an additional “t” sound at the end, so this pair doesn’t rhyme perfectly. “Tennessee” and “need” each have a hard “E” as the last vowel, but one ends in a consonant, “D,” while the other ends with the vowel. “Smog” and “job” end in different consonants, but have the same vowel sound.
In the past, much importance had been placed on perfect rhyme. In some cases, it’s still the way to go. For the more formal-sounding songs in the timeless pop style, perfect rhyme often works best. But in today’s more conversational songs, an imperfect rhyme can be a fresh alternative. When people hear “heart” at the end of a line, they usually expect to hear “start” or “apart” for the rhyme. If you surprise them by using “car,” they might listen more closely to see what comes next.
Don’t Force It!
Never accept an awkwardly phrased or stilted-sounding line just because it ends with a perfect rhyme. Forced rhymes sound amateurish and make a listener think about the rhyme instead of the story or the melody. If you don’t find a perfect rhyme that floors you, look for an imperfect rhyme that does. If you can’t find an imperfect rhyme, try a different word in the rhyme spot.
Some songwriters use “made” rhymes that rely on regional or genre-specific diction styles. For example, John Fogerty’s diction allows him to rhyme words like “door” and “slow” perfectly. With most singers, these two words would be a fairly weak rhyme. However, made rhymes may limit a song’s marketability to a few artists.
There are a few attributes of hard drives to consider. The first and most obvious is the size. The larger the disk, the more music you’ll be able to store. Like RAM, this number is expressed in megabytes or gigabytes. How big should your drive be? Buy as much hard drive as you can afford. More is definitely better in this case.
The next critical factor in a hard disk is the rotation speed. A hard disk spins around in the same way a CD does. The speed at which it spins is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM). The higher the speed, the faster the disk can access its data. Why is this important to you? Faster disks equal higher track counts in the software you use. If you have a fast CPU with tons of RAM, a slow hard drive will still limit you. The faster the better. You will also find recommendations for hard-drive speed listed on audio software manufacturers’ lists of recommended hardware.
The last factor is seek time. Seek time is how fast the data on the disk can be accessed. Seek time is measured in milliseconds. The lower the seek time, the better.
I’ll Take Two
Chances are your computer came with only one hard drive, and this works fine. You can record and store files on a single hard drive. However, the best way to go is to have a second hard drive dedicated to audio. Why is this? Simply put, if you have one hard disk, the computer has to use the disk for running the operating system, running any open programs, and recording huge music files. This is a bit much to ask of just one disk. Your track count will always suffer by using one disk.
You don’t have to run out and buy a second hard drive right away, however. It’s best to start out with one drive and see if you overtax the machine. If you plan to record low track counts, this isn’t much of an issue and you might never get an error. Users who push the computer with high track counts will get errors because the computer can’t stream data fast enough to keep up. If you reach that point, get another drive just for audio.
Internal or External?
If you opt for the second drive, you have a choice: internal or external. Some computers won’t accept a second internal drive, so that choice is made for you. Neither one is preferable over the other; both get the job done. The only advantage for an external drive is that you can take it from computer to computer. If you collaborate with other home studio users, this could be a big plus for you.
When writing for a specific market, whether it’s country, pop, or Bolivian folk music, the choices you make in word usage, syntax, and grammar can affect your success as much as your storytelling and melodic skills. Paying attention to every line, every word of your song, as well as the overall flow and style, can bring rich rewards. Ignoring these things can assure you a permanent place as the best songwriter in the whole produce department, maybe even the whole grocery store.
An important choice faced frequently by songwriters is picking exactly the right word to fill a spot. Colorful words can help a lyric stand out and make a song more vivid, but make sure to use words that are understandable to your target market and are appropriate to the song. For instance, some publishers tend to shy away from songs with words like “cogitate,” “fuchsia,” and “Australopithecus.” Instead, try “think,” “pink,” and “missing link.” Use words that are natural to the kind of person who would sing or listen to your song.
If you’re not sure the listener will understand a certain word, the way in which you use it may help explain it. Many people didn’t know the true meaning of the word “ironic” when Alanis Morissette’s song of the same title came out. In the song “Ironic,” Morissette writes about situations with the question of whether they were ironic, and further reinforces the explanation by the use of simile (it’s like …) and metaphor (it’s a …) in the “B” section.
Colloquialisms and Vernacular
Colloquialisms are common sayings with an informal tone. Vernacular is an informal mode of speech. Both are used frequently and successfully in songs. “I Fall to Pieces,” “God Only Knows,” and “Somethin’ in the Water” are all song hooks made from colloquialisms. Vernacular speech is particularly useful in a song where a conversational feel is needed.
Syntax and Grammar
Used well, “bad English” can make for a great song. You may come under fire from your mother or the English teacher/amateur songwriter down at the local songwriter’s association, who insists that, “Proper grammar and syntax are the building blocks of any good song.” Thank them for their advice and politely ignore it. Look at the following line: “Although I have made repeated attempts, I cannot obtain any gratification whatsoever.”
Technically correct? Yes. Does it read like a hit lyric? No! It just sits there. It feels stuffy and old. However, if the line is made more conversational with a double negative, and some redundancy is added for dramatic effect, the results are golden — you get the hook to “Satisfaction” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Now, take the line “We shall not retire until the sun rises.” It just doesn’t have the punch of the Garth Brooks classic “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘til the Sun Comes Up.” Though there are errors made in grammar (ain’t), diction (goin’), and it ends with (gasp!) a preposition, the line has a conversational tone that’s appropriate to the song, a catchy rhythm, and a great contrast between “up” and “down.”
What matters is that your song is authentic to its genre, that the language feels natural, and that you get your point across to the listener as precisely as possible. Use bad English if, and only if, it makes your song better. If it does, use it without guilt or remorse. Remember, the primary object of a lyric is to communicate to the listener. Whatever does that best for a particular song is the right way.
No matter how well your computer runs now, you’ll need to tweak the setup for home studio use. Audio recording places special demands on the computer that are very different from the demands of surfing the Web or checking your mail. The more power the better here.
In order to really get your machine running smoothly, the best thing you can do is start over. If it’s at all possible, and you know how to do it, back up your important data and reload a fresh copy of your operating system. While this might seem drastic, the majority of computers get lethargic and become error prone due to old files hanging around the system. Generally speaking, spring cleaning like this will always help. Starting fresh can breathe new life into a machine that starts to feel old and slow.
The processor, properly called the central processing unit or CPU, is the brain of the computer. The speed of the processor is the first consideration. It’s all about speed! The speed of your computer is measured by the frequency at which the processor is able to perform an instruction, called instructions per second (IPS). This number used to be stated in megahertz (MHz), which implied a million instructions per second or MIPS. Now that chips are faster than 999 MHz, the term gigahertz (GHz) is used for any chip that exceeds 1,000 MHz (1 GHz equals 1,024 MHz). What do megahertz and gigahertz mean to you? The higher the number, the better, because the higher the number, the more “tasks” the computer can do at once and the faster it can do them. More powerful processors are able to play more tracks, add more effects, and perform more elaborate edits, and so on. Unlike studios-in-a-box and analog tape machines, computers come with no guarantees on how many tracks and effects you can run in the software. Your possibilities (or limitations) of what you can do with software are largely based on how fast your machine is. But many variables — not just the CPU — affect what the computer can do.
Different Types of Processors
When you compare machines from the IBM world (PCs) that run the Microsoft Windows operating system with the Apple/Mac world, you might notice that the Apple/Mac processors have a lower stated speed when compared with the PCs. On the surface, this seems to indicate a decreased processing power, but this is not the case. Apple/Mac’s processors are very different from the Intel/AMD processors used in PCs, and they cannot be compared simply by their processing speed. What’s important is to look at the relative speeds of other machines. Compare the speed of one Mac to other Mac machines currently in production. Compare PCs to other machines that run Microsoft Windows.
Random access memory, or RAM, is another vital system component of your computer, also another number you want to be high. RAM is a specialized area where data is stored temporarily while the computer is on. It is called volatile memory because it is gone when you turn off the computer. RAM is superfast and data can be written into it and read from it at much higher speeds than from the hard drive. RAM comes in the form of an integrated circuit, sometimes called a chip, which connects directly to your motherboard. Installing RAM is not difficult, and the price of RAM chips has fallen dramatically.
Computers place into RAM memory important information that needs to be accessed quickly. RAM is measured by how much data it can store at one time. Having a lot of RAM will speed every computer up, no matter what speed your processor is. You could have the fastest processor on the market, but with only a small amount of RAM, the computer will crawl. Most software manufacturers suggest minimum and recommended RAM amounts. Check out Web sites and call companies to see what they recommend. To run music-recording software, most computers need more RAM than what they typically come with. However, computers have limits on how many RAM chips can be placed in one machine, so your ability to increase RAM is not infinite. Pay attention to this when you are purchasing equipment.
Your magic number for RAM will differ based on what you do with the computer. If you plan on recording only a few tracks, and not going crazy with effects, filling your computer with RAM won’t be necessary. However, if you plan to use high track counts (sixteen or more), or do anything with samplers or virtual instruments(see Chapter 17), RAM is crucial. In this case, you can’t have too much.
Different kinds of songs require different lyrical styles to complement them. Your background, age, experiences, or education may give you a head start in some styles, but don’t let that stop you from becoming adept at lyric genres with which you have had limited experience. Just as an actor can learn an accent or develop a character for a movie part, you can learn a new lyrical style and expand the kinds of songs you are capable of writing.
Modern pop lyrics are usually either trendy or timeless. Last year’s slang will do you as much good as a pair of parachute pants. If you don’t know what parachute pants are, they were a form of clothing that was extremely popular for about a year (or fifteen minutes, depending on where you lived) and then, quite suddenly, no one would be caught dead in them.
Trendy lyrics aim at the teen market (which buys the most CDs and has the newest, coolest slang terms). Examples of trendy lyrics include the Avril Lavigne song “Sk8er Boi” or, for its time, The Beach Boys classic “I Get Around.”
Lyrics in the timeless style must not only transcend barriers of time, but also economic status, ethnicity, and geography. Tough? Yes! Worth it? You bet! A timeless song can keep royalty checks coming for the rest of your life and beyond. A list of timeless lyrics might include “Unforgettable,” “Evergreen,” “Crazy,” and “Freebird.” Simple elegance and natural flow define the timeless lyric.
Pop lyrics can be about most subjects, but love and relationships are the all-time big sellers. A pop lyric should be accessible to a large market so, aside from the newest “teenspeak,” try to avoid language that’s regionally or demographically specific.
Rock and Alt
A good rock lyric is emotionally charged, dynamic, and forceful. Rock is about energy, so think powerful, think active, think passionate, and rock on! General rock topics include feeling boxed in, rebellion, wanting to have fun, passion, comeuppance, and angst or depression. Most rock lyrics have a tight, rhythmic meter and are easy to follow. This doesn’t mean writing for third graders, it means getting to the point.
Alt songs may be deeper, moodier, or more meditative and cover a broader range of subjects in addition to the general rock topics. In rock or alt, an uptempo danceable song or a love ballad that isn’t too wimpy will usually be where the money is.
Country songwriting has expanded to include other musical forms. It’s the level of lyric writing and storytelling that sets country apart. Many great country songs have been based on stories the songwriter heard as a child from family or friends. Established country songwriters also recommend reading short stories and watching movies, sitcoms, talk shows, or news stories to get story ideas.
Modern country lyrics cover many topics, so there’s no need to start writing stories about cows and whiskey and cheating spouses; Nashville has more than enough of those already. Hallmarks of a modern country lyric are a conversational tone, a sense of humor, and reinforcement of basic values like hard work, faith, and honesty.
Jazz and Rap
While numerous and wonderful exceptions occur, jazz is usually more about the melody and the sound of the words than the actual lyric. Not that you can’t have a great lyric in a jazz song, but make the melody and meter top priority. Pay careful attention to vowel sounds in a jazz lyric. Jazz treats the voice like an instrument and vowels influence the tone of the voice.
Because of its droning, nonstandard melodic forms, rap requires very close attention to meter and rhyme. The rhythm of the lyric carries the song along. Instead of melodic/lyric prosody, try finding metric/lyric prosody. In rap, the lyric is the song, so make it tight and interesting and be extremely careful in your word choices. If you’re serious about writing rap, you may wish to study the different lyric styles of the East and West coast rappers as well as other sub-genres.
For the home studio user, computer music history started with the invention of musical instrument digital interface (MIDI). MIDI is a standard language to allow electronic instruments and computers to communicate. The invention of MIDI led to the computer’s ability to control a keyboard synthesizer. Unlike audio, MIDI does not have to be played in real time; it’s a text file of commands, not sounds. Because it’s just simple commands and not actual recorded audio, you can play MIDI parts one note at a time, as slowly as you want. MIDI is a form of electronic composition; you write it one note at a time and the computers/instruments play it back for you. Since MIDI issues simple note-on/note-off commands to control the keyboard, editing and manipulating MIDI music is very simple. The sequencer was born from this marriage of MIDI and computers. Sequencers can either be physical machines or computer programs. Nowadays, it’s more common to use sequencing programs in your computer.
A sequencer functions much like a multitrack audio recorder. Tracks are recorded one on top of another and arrangements are built up one layer at a time. Since the sequencer doesn’t actually make any music — all it does is control the keyboard, much like a player piano — the sequences can be highly edited. Just like book publishers reveled in the idea of being able to cut, copy, and paste text in a word processor, the creation of sequencers gave MIDI-based musicians the same power. Whole sections of music could be rearranged with ease, and editing could be as precise as note-by-note changes. Since sequencing didn’t require a powerful machine to operate, computers of the 1980s could handle the job of sequencing MIDI. A great deal of the commercial music of the last twenty years has been a combination of sequenced and live music.
The unbelievable editing power that sequencers afforded composers and musicians contributed to the growing need for the ability to edit audio as easily. Editing audio with analog tape meant cutting and gluing tape together on a splicing block. This was a very difficult and arduous task to do without the music sounding like it had been hacked up. Initially, the computer was used for stereo master mixes only. It was possible to do edits at high resolution on the computer screens. However, the computers had a hard time dealing with the large file sizes of audio and handling the complex processing needed to work with audio data. In time, multitrack computer audio became available and there is now an industry standard for multitrack audio: Digidesign Pro Tools. All of this technology came with a price, a price that was out of reach for almost all home studio owners. Recently, the power of the modern personal computer with its lower-cost, well-crafted software has allowed home musicians to join the party.
What It Can Do for Your Music
The computer has changed the way music is made. The flexibility of the current software and sound quality has made the computer an indispensable tool. You might be asking, “This is all great, but what can it do for me?” Here is a short list of what a computer can help you accomplish:
Integrate multitrack audio and MIDI
Edit and move music around much like a word processor lets you do with words
Easily burn to CD and distribute your music online
In short, the computer can be whatever you want it to be. It can easily function as a recorder, sequencer, effects processor…you name it, a modern computer can handle the job. Now that you’re convinced you want to go with the computer, you’ll need to get the computer set up.
Sometimes no matter what you do, nothing comes — at least nothing that’s any good. You can’t get warmed up at the start of a session, you’re in the middle of a new song and your brain locks up, or everything’s great right up to the last line of the song and, all of a sudden, the muse has left the building. You keep trying, but nothing happens. You start to panic. “What if this feeling never goes away?”
Welcome to the club. Writer’s block has been around as long as writing, and it happens to the best writers in the world. It’s not fatal or permanent, though it usually feels that way. No need to panic, it usually passes quickly on its own.
Breaking the Block
If you don’t feel like waiting, there are several time-tested cures. Here are a few favorites for jump-starting a stalled song:
Take a break. Sometimes your brain overloads and needs to cool down. Go get something to drink, have a snack, take a walk. Don’t even think about the song while you’re taking a break. That’s why it’s called a break!
Look for corners. Have you painted yourself into a corner? Killing off your hero halfway through can make things anticlimactic. Maybe he should die in the last verse. This cure works especially well after taking a break first.
Switch gears. Stuck on lyrics? Work on the melody. Can’t get the beat right? Get back to the lyrics.
Make a move. Work on a different part of the song. Chorus trouble? Skip down to the bridge. Can’t get the second line of the verse quite right? Write the third line, then come back. If you have several trouble spots, try working on each one for ten minutes and then switching to a different part when time’s up.
Mix it up. Rearrange the words in the line you’re trying to write or rearrange the lines in that particular section of the song. You may even want to try switching the order of the verses, starting with the chorus or moving the bridge to a different spot. If it doesn’t work out, you can always put things back where they were.
Not long ago the cassette was the format of choice for home recording. But at the time of this writing, there are only five models left in production and only two companies continue to make them. It’s likely the number of 4-track recorders available will continue to diminish because digital technology is available for the same price, and you get higher sound quality and added features. The end might be near for the cassette tape now that digital is here to stay.
When you enter the digital recording market you instantly gain some nifty features. Built-in effects such as reverb, delay, and even guitar amplifier simulators are standard. The low-end digital recorders now record on compact flash or smart media cards. Compact flash and smart media are the memory modules originally used in digital cameras. They have now found their way into the home recording market.
For between $200 to $400 you can purchase a digital recorder. Zoom, Korg, Tascam, Boss, and Fostex are currently producing these types of machines. These low-end digital recorders let you play back anywhere from three to eight tracks at once. The built-in effects are a great addition. (But they won’t sound as good as external effects processors.) The number of simultaneous inputs is usually small in this range, so don’t expect to record more than two sources at once. If you plan to record track by track, all alone, that won’t pose a problem for you.
One really neat feature that’s showing up in these units is background drum and bass rhythm tracks. You tell the unit what style you want and how fast to play, and it creates the background music for you. And many of these units can run on battery power, making them great for taking with you to capture spur-of-the-moment ideas. Another feature that’s showing up is an included USB cable for easy connectivity to a computer. You can use it to transfer the music to your computer and then burn a CD (if you have a burner).
Of course, there are always some limitations. Some of the limitations of low-end digital recorders include:
Fewer inputs than a similarly priced cassette studio
Compact flash and smart media are more expensive than tapes
Fewer knobs to turn, giving less control
Editing on a small display screen
Mid-Range Solutions — Studio-in-a-Box
The next step on the ladder will take you up in price. Every jump in price means you gain something over the previous level, usually more inputs, better quality effects, and more support for multiple channel recordings. Hard-drive storage begins at around the $550 mark for our purposes and will top off at $1,000. At this level you start gaining more control over your sounds. The number of tracks you can play back is at least eight, and some models go higher, as high as sixteen. You also get into editing features at this level: the ability to move music around, cut and paste, and easily rearrange tracks. On many units you also find a built in CD burner. When you have finished your sessions, you can master to a CD. Small LCD screens are standard for accessing effect settings and editing the tracks.
Mid-priced hard-disk recorders can be purchased from Zoom, Tascam, Fostex, Korg, and Yamaha. Pay particular attention to the size of the hard drives. The bigger the disk, the more music you can store. Since the hard disks are buried inside the unit, once it’s full, you have to finish the process and get the music off in order to record more. Compare models to see what’s available. You can achieve very high quality results in this price range.
Units over $1,000 can be considered “top-of-the-line.” Prices can shoot as high as $4,000. This category consists of studios-in-a-box and standalone recorders.
What do you get in a top-of-the-line studio-in-a-box? More inputs, higher quality, larger hard drives, bigger LCD screens for editing, more tracks, and other fun toys. As you climb the price ladder you get extra toys, including motorized faders, external computer displays, mouse inputs for editing, and digital outputs for mastering to DAT.
Studios-in-a-box are serious systems, worthy of the name workstations. The quality of the internal effects, flexibility of editing, quantity of inputs, and support for more live tracks make these workstations “professional” quality. You can find high-end devices made by Fostex, Yamaha, Roland, and Akai.
Standalone digital recorders are units that only record audio. No mixing, no preamps, no effects, these units only record multitrack audio with professional quality. Why would you use these instead of an all-in-one studio? If you already own lots of outboard gear, tons of rack effects, and a mixer, then this might be for you. These systems are not for the first-time user! You will find these exact same units in professional studios all over the world. Popular units are made by Tascam, Alesis, Fostex, Akai, and Mackie. The quality of the recordings made on these is extremely high.
Although top-of-the-line solutions are beyond the scope of most home recording studios, it’s good to know they exist!
Remember that the listeners only know what you tell them. You can do this through direct information: “I was a poor kid from a small town in Louisiana.” Or you can provide information to be inferred: “I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a one-horse Bayou town.” Melody, groove, and chord structure can also convey emotional information (minor keys tend to sound sad) or help set the scene (a chord pattern of C/Am/F/G over a medium cha-cha groove conjures up the 1950s).
Make sure that your storyline is clear and easy to follow. If you lose a listener’s attention, you probably won’t get it back. The events in your song should all connect to the hook in some way. Verses don’t have to relate to each other, but elements within a verse should all work together and support the central theme. The event flow of your songs doesn’t have to be linear. Flashbacks and foreshadowing can be useful, but make sure the storyline can be followed and to develop the idea or plot at a pace that doesn’t bore the listener.
It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking your storyline is clear. After all, you know the whole story. Test your story’s clarity by getting outside feedback. Remember not to tell your test audience what the song is about before you play it. Instead, ask questions about the story after you play the song for someone.
Songs in the Moment
Tense, to put it simply, is when the action in your song takes place. Tense can be a tricky business, especially when changing tense within a song. This must be done carefully, so as not to confuse the listener. Be careful and consistent.
Present tense is often best for love songs, statement-of-self songs, heartbreak songs, or any song in which you want to express vivid emotions. The power of these songs is in helping the listener become the singer in his or her imagination. Since the listener is hearing the song now, putting the song’s action in the present can help someone connect more directly to your song.
If you need to give past information in a present tense song, do it from a view point that sets up a contrast to the present: If you say, “I was lonely,” you are frontloading to be able to say, “Now, I’m not.” If you say, “I’ve been working up my nerve,” it’s easy to move ahead to, “Now the moment is here.” To flash back from a present moment, a phrase like, “I remember the time” gives a connection from the now to the then.
Telling a Story
For story songs, past tense usually works well. As long as the story events are told in the order in which they happened, it’s relatively easy to jump forward along a timeline to different story scenes without confusing the listener. Usually, a story song will use the first verse to set the time and the scene, the second verse to give more specific or more personal information, and the chorus to reinforce the central theme or idea. The bridge or third verse may give the climax of the story or detail present situations or emotions that were affected by the events in the story. “Strawberry Wine” is a beautiful example of this form.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a story song in past tense. The story takes place in the past. However, the song makes good use of present tense quotes from the two characters in the story. In Anthony Smith’s “Impossible to Do,” the verses list a series of seemingly impossible things the singer plans to do in the future and contrasts them against a chorus focusing on past events that, while easily accomplished, can’t be undone.
Choosing the Tense
There are usually several possible ways to set the tense of a song or song section. You’ll have to decide what’s best on a case-by-case basis. During the writing of your first few hundred songs, you’ll develop an instinct for dealing with tense.
Meanwhile, the best way to learn tense sense is by doing. Try the following exercises:
Write a story song in past tense. Use the first half of the first verse to connect present to past. Stay in past tense through the rest of the verses and the chorus. Use a bridge after the second chorus to connect the past back to the present.
Write a “wish list” song. Use present tense in the verses to talk about things you already have. Use future tense in the chorus for your wish list.
Write a story song about an historical event. Create two characters, one who lived at the time and the other a present-day descendant who finds a letter from the ancestor detailing a story, real or made up, relating to the historical event. Write the whole song in past tense. The challenge is to make the jumps from “long ago” past tense to recent past tense in a clear and easy-to-follow manner.
Write a “life cycle” song with a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. Use past tense in the first verse, present tense in the second verse, and future tense in the bridge. Write one chorus that works without changing it.
Write a song in present tense with no reference to things in the past or future. Apply this to other tenses, too. If you try it, you’ll see that this may seem simple, but it’s really tough.
The Art of Saying Without Saying
Simplicity and directness are some of the prime virtues of songwriting, but sometimes just saying something outright sounds drab. What to do? A simple but indirect description can liven up an otherwise boring lyric. Instead of saying: “She was happily married but life was tough / She worked too much but at least she had love …” try something more like: “Days at the fact’ry were hard and too long, / But the ring on her finger helped her keep keepin’ on.”
Instead of narrating your song like a wildlife documentary or a tennis match, use objects, places, actions, and expressions to color your story. This involves the minds of listeners in two ways; it makes them visualize the object, place, action, or expression and it also gets the deductive part of the brain working. (“Watson, by the ring on her finger, I deduce that she is married!” “Amazing Holmes, how do you do it?”)
Don’t make the listener work too hard to figure things out. Pointing out that a character walks with a limp will not tell everyone that he was shot in the leg during an argument over a poker game in pre–Civil War New Orleans. When the song is complete, check through and make sure that the average person will be able to figure out your story.
More than twenty years after its initial introduction, the 4-track cassette recorder (shown below) refuses to go away without a fight. Many home studio owners got their start with machines like these. Nowadays, this is one of the least expensive ways to get into home recording. If you are just getting into this, and money is at a premium, you can do very well with a tape multitrack.
4-track cassette recorder
The cheapest multitracks go for about $100. These basic machines, currently manufactured by Fostex and Tascam, allow one track at a time to be recorded. However, a maximum of four separate tracks can be played back at once. You can control each track’s level (volume) and the pan (left to right balance), but that’s all the control you get. After you find a blend you like, you can output the recording to another 2-track “normal” cassette deck to capture the final mix. As for the quality, don’t expect miracles. Even so, these recorders work well for documenting ideas and rough sketches, plus they are very portable.
As you step up in price, the number of features increases. For around $150 you can record two inputs at once. You still only get four tracks to work with, which might be plenty of tracks for you. At this price level there is no EQ or sound manipulation other than volume and pan.
For around $250 the feature set really spikes. Four inputs can be used at once and the units add high and low EQ. You also get the option of using effects plugged into auxiliary channels.
The best 4-track cassettes will cost you about $350. Eight inputs can be used at once and all four tracks can be recorded at the same time. High, middle, and low EQ are included for better control of the sound. The standard volume fader and pan knobs are found along with the auxiliary inputs for effects. You can make surprisingly good sounding demos with this machine.
I have long felt that a lot of pop music is mindless and formulaic, and now it truly appears that there is science to back it up.
Scientists at the University of Bristol have announced that they have developed software that can spot whether a song is likely to be a hit with about 60 percent accuracy.
According to a story in the BBC News, the program looks at 23 characteristics of songs, including “loudness, danceability and harmonic simplicity,” comparing this information with songs from the Top 40 over the past 50 years, using this information to predict if and where a song will chart.
If this is true, it really hammers home the point that pop music, while not necessarily devoid of substance, is something of an item where substance has little or no positive or negative value on its appeal. It simply says that music, if it sounds a certain way, can cater to the lowest common denominator and sell a ton of records.
It makes sense, people gravitate toward things that sound pleasant to them. And certain things are more likely to sound more pleasant to a larger group of people due to biological or societal reasons.
At the same time, harsher, more abrasive sounds - hardcore for example - are less likely yo appeal to a larger audience. This is why the hardcore scene has a much smaller, yet very devoted following.
But what does this information mean for the future of music? For pop, if this software becomes something that sound engineers and record company executives have access to, it probably means even less variance to the music on commercial radio. It will become even more formulaic, even less exciting - and people will probably love it.
It may mean a reduction in our being force fed the latest pop idol by media marketing outlets. If a label knows that they have an “artist” producing pop tunes that conform to the formula that will sell the most records, they may not feel the need to push those artists at the public, assuring them that they’re good, or interesting. They can just let the magic mathematical formula work for itself, pushing the music to the pop radio stations. It becomes even less about the pop star and more about the pop star’s mindless music. It becomes even less about artistic expression, though, and even more about producing a well-produced product designed to sell records. Pop music has long been headed this way, they just now have science to support it.
For punk music, it probably bodes well. Punk has always been about defying the conventions of pop music. Even pop punk bands from Buzzcocks to Teenage Bottlerocket have employed the edge of punk music, incorporating addictive hooks but never descending into the depths of bland pop pablum.
Punk music - good punk music, anyway - will most likely not be affected by this science. But it may fall pray to the marketing machine as the few true punk bands on major labels see their contracts lapse. We may see a bigger resurgence in independent punk labels as bands unwilling to conform to the formula intended to sell records look for alternate distribution.
In short, if you’re the type who loves bland pop, you’re going to love what comes next. If you like music that bucks the trends and challenges the norm, odds are you’ll still be able to get it. You just might have to work a little harder to find it.