Friday, 11 October 2019

Composition For Dummies Pt. 3 – The Recording (First Part - Guide Track, Drums and Bass)

So the time has finally come to “do the demo”! You've got music, lyrics, you're really feeling like you've got something a bit special and you're desperate to go about committing it to tape (well, hard drive).

Thing is – how do you actually go about it? Quite often, you actually find that your ideas aren't 100% fully formed, and nor can they be – you need to hear them to work out what needs editing, tweaking, moving, shortening, lengthening etc. Many times, you'll find that what worked in your head doesn't quite work when you hear it played back.

This is where the guide track comes in. This is going to be just you with a simple rhythm guitar (or piano, or whatever you've written the song on) along with ideally a rough vocal. The vocal doesn't need to have finished lyrics, or indeed any lyrics – what you're doing is find where the melody is going to be, as all your other parts need to be arranged with the idea of supporting that melody.

Now, if you're recording using a computer based set up running software like Logic, Pro Tools or (my personal choice) Cubase, you can actually see the waveform of the track, and this lets you sort out the structure. You can make virtual cuts to delineate verse, chorus, bridge etc. and “paint” those sections different colours, which makes rearranging things far easier. You can experiment with (for example) maybe cutting the length of the second verse and lengthening the chorus. Maybe a bar's break before coming in with the guitar solo for a bit of extra impact.. these are all ideas that you can experiment with before settling on the perfect song structure.

Once you've got your structure, I like to re-record the guide to make everything a little more organic and even sounding, and then it's time to get recording in earnest.

First up, drums. I'm fortunate enough to have a small electric kit which allows me to send MIDI pulses straight to Cubase to activate the drum samples, and for any project studio I would really recommend one. Don't worry about it's built in sounds, you're using it to trigger samples so as long as you've got MIDI out you're in business. Certainly, I've found learning the basics of playing drums a damn sight easier than programming drum machines!

Once the drums are done, I go in and tidy them up (there's a reason I'm not a drum teacher...) quantising and clearing up any mistakes, adjusting dynamics etc. Another good trick is to duplicate the drum track twice – the first one I wipe everything but the kick drum, set the EQs and compression (most audio software has good presets to help with this), the second track is just snare with EQ, compression and usually a decent chunk of reverb. Reverb is something that's nice on a snare but you really don't want on a kick, and the original track I treat as an “overhead”. Now you've got dedicated kick, snare and overhead – professional engineers will often mic each drum individually and treat them as such along with an overhead, but I don't tend to have the patience for that.. one day!

With drums down, alongside your rerecorded guide track, the next step is bass. When working out a bassline I like to make sure I've got the kick drum heavily boosted in my headphones as root note + kick drum is really the basis for any bassline, and quite often it can be all you need – less is very often more in this regard. Lay back and try and play as behind the beat you dare, because most of us have a tendency to speed up as we play and this can often impart a “nervous” feel to the track. You really want your timing to be rock solid here to build a solid foundation along with the drums.

With the bassline recorded, compression is a good idea to ensure a tight punchy sound. Check your EQ to make sure it's not boosting the same frequencies as the kick drum – you want your boost close but not overlapping as otherwise you'll have a messy low end as both instruments compete for the same frequencies. Panning is not really something that works down in these low registers, and neither is reverb, so make sure you've got your EQ together to ensure the bottom end, the foundation of your track, is nice and clear.

Right, with a solid foundation for your track, next month we'll take along at building up textures with the guitars and keyboards! See you then, and don't forget TUNEICEF LIVE! Sunday December 15th at the Cask Bah in Loughborough.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Composition For Dummies Pt. 2 -Lyrics

I must admit, I've been trying to didge this one for a while, for one simple reason – I SUCK at writing lyrics.

But then it occurred to me – if I was naturally a Morrissey, a Paul Weller or Jarvis Cocker, and lyrics just somehow came to me out of the ether.. well, how would I help any of my students who were less fortunate?

So maybe me sucking at writing lyrics is a blessing in disguise, because in order to get anything half decent I really have to work at it.

Now, there are as many ways to write lyrics as there are people to write them, but here's the way I like to try and go about things...

I tend to like to describe a situation, to tell a story with my lyrics and for that to work, I need a few things.

Subject – who is this about? Is it me? Is it about anyone specific close to me? Or is it an imagined character in a situation I've dreamed up, as a sort of “straw man” to try and make some sort of point? (side note – I never do politics in songs, apart from the very frst one I wrote, which was an anti-Vietnam War song... written in 1995.... yeah..) Where is the character, is he/she at home, out, running from or to something?

Context – why is the character in the situation they're in? Are they leaving home for the first time? Leaving or beng forced out of a shared/ family hime?

Second order context – this is less easy to explain, so let me give you an example – you've extablished that the character is leaving home.. so why? Thrown out for having an affair? A relationship just run its course? Do you include both sides perspective in the story?

Another useful method is what I call the “keyword/brainstorm” method: pick a subject – let's say cars, for the sake of argument. Next, try and think of any and every interesting theme associated with the subject – so in our example we would be thinking of terms like power, speed, racing etc. Then set yourself the task of coming up with a first line, no more than that – keep the goals small and manageable – before long you've got somethig like “pedal to the metal in a gasoline dream”.

Yes, it's not exactly Shakespeare, but it would suit Bon Jovi down to the ground.

So with this in mind, go forth and brainstorm! See you next month.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Composition For Dummies – Just How DO You Write A Song? (Pt. 1)

TUNEICEF is well and truly upon us, students and myself are beavering away on our songs for this year (and if anyone fancies getting in on this, just drop me a line), and as usual one of the biggest questions I face from students who have never tried their hand at writing is “Where do you start?”. This is a fair point – most songs you hear on the radio are pretty heavily produced, layered vocals, drum loops etc – and when you hear the finished product you do wonder just how the hell this thing came to be.

So the trick is to start small. Find a couple of songs that you like, and start to listen critically to figure out what you like abut them. Doing this with my students, I divide things up into four areas:

Melody – the tune itself. Are there any noticeable leaps or changes that catch the ear? Do you hear high held notes in the chorus as opposed to busier, more syncopated rhythms in the verse? Even subtle things such as the verse being phrased on an offbeat whereas the chorus comes in on a downbeat can make a real difference. Those with a more experienced ear might try an identify the interval that the melody comes in on - frequently not the root of the underlying chord (as you might expect) but it's 3rd. Understanding little tricks like this can kickstart your writing.

Rhythm – anything from the tempo, the time signature to any noticeable rhythmic patterns that can become a songs' hallmark. A good example of this would be the Rolling Stones' classic “Sympathy For The Devil” - the immediately recognisable syncopated 16ths drive the song and act as a “hook”.

Harmony – the chords behind the tune. Are they diatonic (all within a key) or do they contain notes from outside the home key? Do they follow a recognisable pattern such as I, V, vi, IV? Do they contain any interesting extensions such as 7ths, 9ths etc.? A good example of this would be the Smith's “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now” which revolves around the wistful yet melancholic sound of the major 7th.

Texture – this concerns the production values of the recording. What instruments dominate? Guitar? If so, acoustic, clean electric, distorted, mildly overdriven? Or perhaps the song revolves around the piano? Or a synth pad?

Once you've got these factors pinned down, start mixing and matching – for example, one of my students picked “Friday I'm In Love” by the Cure – noticeable for it's chord sequence and arpeggios in the backing - and “Bohemian Like You” by the Dandy Warhols with it's major/sus4 riff. So we mixed up the ingredients – sus4 riff with “Friday I'm In Love” chord sequence.
Now, as a song, it was not yet massively impressive, but it got him started!

Next month, we'll tackle lyrics....

Saturday, 27 July 2019

In Deep With.. 7b5

For the last couple of months, as per my 2019 practice plan, I've been mucking around with 7b5 chord voicings and arpeggio patterns. Now, at first I must admit I really didn't expect to find anything much of use with them other than as a slightly skronky jazz passing chord, but I have to say they've grown on me and I'm starting to like the quirky majo-but-dissonant sound they produce, particularly from the arpeggio ideas.

So, first up, a little bit of theory, and then it's on to some cool practice ideas.

The 7b5 belongs to the dominant family of chords – you can tell because there's nothing denoting major or minor and dominant is the “default” status of extended chords. For those of you whose eyes are already starting to glaze over, any chord with a 7, 9, 11 or 13 after it is an extended chord. If it doesn't say major or minor, that means it's dominant, as that's the most common kind of extended chord, and ain't nobody got time to go around writing “dominant” after each chord.

A chord is made dominant by the presence of both major 3rd and b7 intervals, so a regular 7 is made up of R 3 5 7, our 7b5 takes this composition and alters it slightly – R 3 b5 b7.

Now this creates a quirky, unresolved sound, and the reason for this is quite simple:

R – 4 semitones – 3 – 2 semitones – b5 – 4 semitones – b7 – 2 semitones – R

So as you can see, a symmetrical pattern of intervals. Now, pretty much all my students have heard my rants about symmetry (and I will be posting something along those lines in the next few weeks) , but suffice it to say that humanity has evolved to see perfect symmetry as unnatural and to react accordingly – and we react to sound the same way.

More on this another time.

This also means that a chord starting on the b5 interval actually works out to be the same as the original chord: C7b5 is built from C (root), E (3rd), Gb (b5), Bb (b7), and Gb7b5 consists of Gb (root), Bb (3rd), C (b5) and E (b7).

Let's look at some arpeggio patterns:

Mapped across 3 octaves:

Notice the two shapes even though there are four notes in the chord – this harks back to the symmetry mentioned earlier.

Sequencing these shapes gives some interesting and fun results:

Looking at chord voicings, we can see the same thing

All of these shapes are relatively accessible, and make for excellent passing chords or substitutions in any kind of jazzy blues track - for example, in a 12 bar, using it as walk from the I to the IV introduces a cool chromatic twist (C 7 – C E G Bb, C7b5 - C E Gb Bb - F7 F A C Eb Note the C note remains common, but the other notes shift chromatically – Gb to F, Bb to A, E to Eb). Sequencing the arpeggios makes for a great fun quirky alternative to blues scale and minor pentatonic runs too.

So experiment with these shapes and see what you can come up with – back next month with a TUNEICEF update and a look at the composition process itself!

Friday, 28 June 2019

Ditch The Tabs!

Okay, question – how many of you, when you're practicing or trying to learn a song, default to Google “xxxxx guitar pro” as your starting point? Or “xxxxxx power tab”? Or for those of us of a certain age, delve through the multitude of guitar magazines and music books acquired over the years?

How many of you sit down and start picking out the chord sequence and solo purely by ear? Or do you tend to shy away thinking that it's going to be too tedious, too time consuming when practice time can be at a premium anyway?

To be fair, if you've never done it before, it is a bit intimidating. You're trying to separate notes out purely on sound, with nothing to guide you – it could take forever to find the first note, and then thta's just one note, what about the rest of the song? Are you going to spend an entire practice session just to find one note? How does that give you value for time spent as opposed to working through a transcription?

Well, as with all things, it all depends on where you start. You don't, unless you're incredibly gifted or incredibly stupid, start with something like Eruption, or anything hyper technical – Dragonforce, Animals As Leaders, Allan Holdsworth etc. Start simple.

Now, as we know, pretty much all electric guitar technique can trace it's way back to the blues. The first wave of players like Freddie, Albert and B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker – these are the guys who paved the way for subsequent generations to build on. This is where you want to start.

The nice thing about a blues is, as soon as you've found the key, you straight away know where it's going. Yes, there can be variations (quick change to the IV in the second bar, long V or long I in the turnaround) but you've basically got the chord sequence down.

Not only that, but you're going to be using straightforward minor and major pentatonic, maybe a touch of blues scale. And with the early guys, they would stick pretty close to a basic “position 1” pentatonic fingering, for the simple reason that with no one to teach them, they were going to stick pretty close to their comfort zones, so these notes are going to be easy to find. If your 12 bar is in D, for example, expect pretty much all the solo licks to be around D minor pentatonic at the 10th fret.

Now you're finding the notes, you can start to focus on the phrasing and articulation, and this is where transcribing really comes into it's own as a way of learning. Once you've sussed out that Freddie King is bending the C note at the 13th fret B string (for example), you can start to focus on how he's bending, how he's using vibrato, the rhythms and timing that he's using... a whole slew of tiny, intangible things that really mount up that you skip if you're just following the tab. And these intangibles do work their way into your playing, making your phrasing more mature, more confident – you're learning to speak the language, as opposed to reading from the phrase book.

There's also the fact that you often find there is a lot less going on than you think – the old guys (often using thicker strings, no amp distortion) were not cramming notes into every corner of the song, they were working within technical limitations and creating the most exciting, evocative, expressive sounds they could with a very limited toolbox. You- all of us – can learn a great deal from this. To draw an analogy, you don't learn to drive in a Ferrari. You learn in something cheap and simple and low power, learn how to control it, and gradually work your way up.

Finally, there is a wonderful sense of satisfaction to realise you're not just playing “or something like that”, you're playing the exact licks that Freddie or Albert or B.B. Played, getting into the same zone that they were in, with no one dictating to you what to play. Before long you will notice your own improvisation become smoother and more confident as you get away from playing “by the numbers”.

Certainly, it's something I wish I had got into sooner in my own development, rather than chasing technique and speed goals. Still, it's never too late – for any of us! So go and chase up “The Best Of B. B. King” or whoever your favourite is, ditch the tab for a month and see what you can pick out for yourself.