Songwriting Tips: How to record great vocals at home by Sven-Erik Seaholm
The human voice is easily the most recognizable of sounds, at least to other humans. Even before we are born, we listen for, recognize and respond to our own mother’s speech and inflections. In pop music, from Rock to Rap or Rhythm & Blues, we still find ourselves instinctively searching for that fundamental element. While the magic of music lies in its power to imply or inspire a wide array of feelings and emotions, when it comes to details and specifics, only words will do.
This places a great deal of importance on the quality of the vocals, both performance-wise and in a technical sense. No matter how great the song, groove and arrangement are, it can all be quickly undone by the entrance of a weak, pitchy, or poorly recorded vocal performance.
In the recording process, the only surprises we’re looking for are pleasant ones. A consistent approach helps to minimize unforeseen distractions that can eat up precious time and energy. There are many facets to this, including the recording environment, the choice of microphone, preamps, headphones, effects and the physical comfort and wellness of the singer himself/herself. While each voice is as unique as the individual that possesses it, there are measures you can take to minimize the negative aspects, while maximizing your listeners’ enjoyment.
The space is the place
It all begins with where the singer will be performing. Most home studios don’t have an acoustically treated isolation booth available, or even a room besides the area we’ve set aside to record in. The first consideration, then, is determining what this available space sounds like and how it influences the sounds generated within it. (See Eric Ferguson’s “Recording Fundamentals” in this and several previous issues for detailed discussions of room acoustics.)
Reflections coming off walls and windows can affect things in drastic ways, multiplying some frequencies or canceling out others due to the sound bouncing off hard surfaces and arriving at the microphone slightly later. This is why iso booths are so ‘dead’ sounding: they’re essentially taking the influence of the room out of the equation.
There are a number of ways home recordists can address this phenomenon. Moving the mic as far away from the walls as possible is a good idea. Treating those walls with sound-absorbing materials like blankets, carpet, foam and even eggshell cartons are equally time-honored solutions (although these tend to deaden highs and leave lows unaffected,and the non-foam solutions are fire hazards). Closets work great—provided there’s enough space to keep things from becoming too claustrophobic!—due to the sonic damping qualities of the clothing. If you’re looking for something that’s more ‘pro’ in looks, performance, and safety, check out solutions from Auralex, Primacoustic, Foam By Mail, and other vendors.
A more portable (and slightly easier to install) fix is a reflection filter, which surrounds just the microphone with acoustically absorbent materials; it’s essentially a tiny vocal booth that you can pick up with one hand and attach to a mic stand. Besides the smaller footprint, the added benefit is a reduced amount of ambient noise (computers, air conditioners, etc.) coming in as well. sE Electronics made and still sells the first Reflexion Filter which gave this type of product its name; many competing models are made by companies ranging from Primacoustic and Auralex to CAD (the Acousti-shield 32 is reviewed in this issue).
Mic check... 1, 2, 1, 2
Once you’ve got the actual vocal recording area established, it’s time to set up a microphone. There are several types to choose from and no one mic will be exactly right for every given situation. That said, large-diaphragm condenser types are generally the most suited to vocals, due to their extended frequency response and ability to capture subtle nuances. This can make them very versatile too, which is a consideration if you’ll need to be using it to record other instruments as well, i.e. acoustic guitar and small percussion instruments like shaker eggs and tambourines. They do however, require phantom power from a preamp or mixer to function. Tube condenser mics don’t, because they use their own power supply to power the tubes, which can impart a bit more warmth to recorded sources in the process.
Some condenser models also offer selectable polar patterns like omni and figure-8, which actually bring the room back in to the sound. Omni mics also minimize the proximity effect, the increased bass response that comes from getting closer to the mic in the standard cardioid pattern. There are many great condenser mic manufacturers to choose from, with AKG, Audio-Technica, Avantone, Blue, Earthworks, Lewitt, MXL, Neumann, sE Electronics, Sennheiser, Shure, Sontronics, and Telefunken among many fine choices.
A pop filter is a necessity as well, and its proper placement is key (see Figure 1). It should be set parallel to the mic’s diaphragm, at a distance that not only provides protection from plosives (‘P’s, ‘D’s ‘B’s ‘Fr’s and other blasts of air), but keeps your vocalist from “eating the mic” by standing too close to it.
Position the mic so that the diaphragm is pointing comfortably toward the singer’s lips. It should be high enough to keep the singer from slouching, but not so much that he or she is straining to reach it. I often tilt it slightly downward as well (see Figure 2), which picks up more chest tones and helps minimize plosives.
Dynamic mics like the Shure SM58 can make a fine choice when dealing with exceptionally “bright” voices or aggressive musical styles, such as Metal, Indie Rock or Rap. In fact, many successful singers like Bono and Björk often use them when recording, because they are familiar and stand up well to handling noise. This allows them to ‘perform’ in the studio much as they do in concert.
While it is certainly true that professional results can be obtained using “ordinary” microphones, the best advice is to purchase the best microphone and cable you can reasonably afford for this important task.
Preamps, eq and compression
The next link in the vocal recording chain is the preamplifier. Microphones typically have very low output levels. A preamplifier (or preamp) increases this signal to line-level, the signal strength required by effects and other devices in your signal chain.
For many of us, the only preamp available is the XLR mic input on our mixer or digital audio interface. There is generally an associated Trim or Gain knob for fine tuning just how much the signal is boosted. Most likely, there is a single red LED light that will illuminate when your signal is clipping, exceeding the recommended level and causing distortion. Having the singer go through some of the loudest passages during setup will help you to find this level, at which point you can turn it down slightly until the clipping disappears. The quality of your preamp can’t be overstated, because an inferior one can degrade the sound of even the best microphone.
EQ (or equalization) is the salt and pepper in your sonic pantry. Some microphones sound great right out of the can, while others could use a little more or less of certain frequencies. You might want to add a bit of ‘air’ around 12 kHz, for example, while de-emphasizing muddiness by pulling things down 2 or 3 dB at 250 Hz.
Less is definitely more when it comes to eq and if you can get by without it at this stage, all the better. Why? Because eq is yet another form of distortion. You are permanently altering the signal by moving these frequencies (and some of their neighboring ones) around and potentially creating other problems in the process. Too much salt or pepper can’t be easily undone, and putting off some eq decisions until after tracking helps us get the seasoning just right. It also provides a clear path “back to square one”, in case we wander too far away from the point at which we started mucking about in the first place.
Compression is another wonderful tool fraught with potentially damaging side effects. A compressor reduces the difference between the loudest and softest portions of your signal. One of the main benefits of using compression is that you can place your vocal much higher in the mix without having it jump out at the listener. The right amount just sounds “mo’ better”. but too much of this good thing can squeeze all of the life right out of a performance.
At first, using a compressor can feel about as intuitive as flying a helicopter! There are several parameters that need to be set and each of them affects the others: Input Gain brings your signal to the optimal level where the compressor can see it. Threshold is the point at which the compressor starts to do its work. Think of it like the height line at amusement-park attractions: everything above this line gets on the ride, everything below it remains unaffected.
Ratio controls how much you attenuate the signal, once it rises above the threshold. A ratio of 2:1 means that for every 2d B of volume increase above the threshold, the perceived volume increase is only 1 dB. A ratio of 4:1 signifies an even more drastic reduction in volume, because for every 4 dB jump in volume, it’s being heard as a 1 dB jump. Considering that 3 dB is essentially twice as loud as 1 dB, a ratio of 3:1 renders your peaks half as loud as they would be without compression. Compression ratios of 10:1 or more (up to infinity:1) are actually called limiting, creating a ceiling above which the signal never rises; this is usually used in mastering to prevent digital overloads that cause loud distortion, but has musical uses as well.
Attack is the time it takes for the compression to kick in. This controls the amount of transients you’re allowing to pass though before turning down (or attenuating) the signal. Slightly longer attacks allow the initial smack of a drum or pluck of a bass string to get through before the body of the note is compressed, giving a feeling of more “punch”, while shorter ones can smooth over plosives and spittiness in a vocal.
Release defines how quickly the compressor “lets go” of the signal, returning it to its normal state. You may have heard of compressors exhibiting “pumping” or “breathing”. This refers to the volume constantly rising up at the end of notes, as the compressor releases the signal. Slower release times make this anomaly less noticeable, but a fast release can be used at quicker tempos.
There are two basic types of compression knees, which are labeled simply enough “soft” and “hard”. Hard knees are easier to explain, in that they work pretty much as I’ve described to this point; everything above the threshold gets squashed by the amount you’ve set your ratio to. Unfortunately, this can be less “musical” sounding than a soft knee compression slope. Soft knee means that the dividing line between compression and no compression is rounded off, so that compression comes in at a lower ratio right near the threshold. This makes for a less noticeable effect upon the signal. Used on vocals, the net result might be described as more “natural” sounding.
Finally, Output (or Makeup) Gain simply takes your effected signal and turns it back up to an optimal level. Since compression lowers overall signal levels, makeup gain assures that your signal’s as loud, on average, coming out of the compressor as it was going in.
De-Essing is a related form of this effect; it’s a form of sidechain compression, which affects only a narrow frequency band. De-essers are usually set between 4–9 kHz to combat excessive sibilance (‘S’, ‘Sh’, and ‘T’ sounds). As useful as this is, it’s also advisable to skip this step during tracking, as it is very easy to overdo it and end up giving your vocalist an unwanted lisp. I generally wait until mixing to employ this effect. A great ‘old-school’ solution is to attach a pencil to the front of the mic with a rubber band, at the center of the diaphragm (see Figure 3). This can work wonders on taming those pesky ‘hot spots’, while retaining the sonic character of your mic.
Many manufacturers include preamps, eq and compressors housed within a single unit. These are commonly called recording channels. This all-in-one approach streamlines and simplifies the vocal chain, reducing the amount of time spent patching cables and tweaking parameters. Great examples of these are the PreSonus Eureka and Studio Channel, Universal Audio’s 6176 and the Joemeek oneQ2.
Let’s get physical—advice for the vocalist
It can’t be overstated that singing and/or rapping is a mental, spiritual and physical endeavor. Just as an athlete needs to train, practice and rest for a big game, so too does a vocalist. Some folks seem to only sing at the gig or in the studio, even though their ‘instrument’ is always at hand!
My advice to them is always, “Sing!” Sing in the shower, sing in the car, spit rhymes while you’re walking or working alone. You need to have an intimate knowledge of your voice and everything it can do. Solo a cappella singing helps us to define our pitch relationships and at the same time, strengthens muscles and builds confidence. Practice supporting your breathing from your diaphragm. Try holding out notes at low volumes, focusing on keeping the pitch steady. Try them with vibrato and without. Try to explore horn-like sonorities and other timbres to find your own unique set of tones and textures. Most of all, sing the songs you’re going to record. The vocalists who come in and get those magic takes most quickly are rarely the most talented ones; they’re simply the most prepared.
Pre-session concerns extend to diet and other activities as well. Avoid greasy foods, sugars and especially dairy products prior to a session, as these all contribute to phlegm and mucous issues, as does smoking. Drinking alcohol may well make a vocalist less inhibited, but that usually comes at the price of fatigue and poor intonation. No one’s asking you to become an angel overnight, but when it’s time to sing in the studio, it’s time to set some vices aside.
Lots and lots of water should always be on hand, and don’t be shy about suggesting a sip between takes. This not only helps prevent fatigue, but keeps vocal chords clean and lubricated. It also improves one’s energy and mental acuity. Some vocalists prefer to have hot tea or coffee, but these can dehydrate as well. Hot water alone can really do the trick in some cases.
Can you hear me?
Once you’ve got everything in place, including a music stand for lyric sheets and the right amount of light, it’s time to don the headphones. If your vocalist is in the same room as you, you’ll both need to be wearing them in order to keep the backing tracks from bleeding into your vocal takes. Most mixers and recording interfaces have one or two headphone outputs, which (in addition to a headphone extension cable) may be all you need. Those needing a few more headphone outputs may need to turn to a headphone distribution amplifier, like the Aphex HeadPod, ART HeadAmp, or the PreSonus HP60.
The vocalist should be able to hear himself/herself clearly in relation to the track. Some even prefer to take off one earcup for monitoring. If they do this, be sure to have the singer close off the unused earcup against their skull or neck, so that the ‘phones don’t bleed or cause feedback. You can also pan all audio to the side in use, so the other earcup gets no audio. Also be aware of “crunchy” sounds coming from the headphones themselves, as all that plastic and faux-leather can be as noisy as your grandma’s vinyl-covered couch!
Adding some (non-recorded) reverb on the vocals can inspire confidence and make your vocalist less self-conscious, but try to use as little as possible; I personally find people sing much more in-tune without it.
Vibe is king
Let’s roll! The best advice to give your vocalists at the start of the session is... nothing. Let them settle in and get used to the situation. Even if they come in at the wrong place, or start with the wrong lyrics... whatever. Just let it slide for right now.
Why? Because instructions bring the thought process into what should ideally be a ‘feel’ process. As soon as someone begins to actually think about what they’re doing, it can come at the cost of some of the more creative and intuitive aspects, like emotion and improvisation. This is why some of the first takes are the ‘magic’ ones. Once singers begin to analyze their performance, they’ll keep score of all the negative things that happen as much as the positive.
Your job, aside from making sure to record even warm-ups and run-throughs, is to encourage them. Everything you tell your vocalists will take on added significance once they feel they are under the proverbial microscope. Choose your words carefully and render them with empathy. Let them feel that you are in this together, which in fact you are. As frustration levels climb, tempers can flare and sessions can end abruptly. It’s imperative that you keep things running as smoothly as possible. Be of service to them, so that they may be of service to the song.
Begin by running takes from beginning to end, so that you record full performances in each pass. For one, you’ll be able to see where the vocals are supposed to come in, where the verses and choruses are, etc. You will also be getting vocal takes that are emotionally in context. Just as a story develops as it unfolds, so does a song. As a result, your third chorus may differ significantly from the first one, as the tune progresses.
Once you’ve recorded two or three takes, you can then go through and address problem areas. Maybe you’ll go over the hook a couple more times, or punch in to fix that one line in the bridge, etc., until you’re sure that you’ve got all the material you’ll need to edit together a solid, cohesive performance.
Slicing & dicing
This process of stitching all the best bits from multiple takes into one master vocal track is often referred to as comping. “Wait, that’s cheating,” I occasionally hear people say. To them I say this: If my job is to capture you and your sound, I want to be sure I’m representing you on your very best day.
“But we only do one take when we play live,” is often the response. Yes, but your audience only hears it that one time at a show. Conversely, a recording is meant to be enjoyed over and over again, which can magnify even the smallest flaws and detract from the overall listening experience.
This first thing to do is listen through the takes and find the one that sounds best overall. This will be the foundation of your master take and you’ll be bringing in pieces from the other takes to replace sections, lines, words and even syllables. See Figure 4 for a sample section of a vocal comp in PreSonus Studio One. The process is actually simple, if not always easy, and it can be a bit time-consuming as well. Break it down into multiple passes, to remain focused and retain perspective.
During the first pass, listen to the overall performance and flow. You may hear a line and wonder if there’s a better version of it in another take. Audition them until you find one you’re satisfied with, cut and paste it into place. Go back a few measures before that section and play it so you can hear the edit in context. If it sounds good, continue on. Repeat this process until you’ve gone through the entire song, and then play the whole song back, making notes of edits that maybe don’t work as well and find suitable alternatives to put in their place.
On the next run-through, we focus on the details. Solo the vocal track and listen for clicks, bumps, crackles and less-than-perfect edits. Remove the audio gremlins. Delete or mute areas where there are no vocals, taking care to tame or even eliminate breaths. Great care should be taken not to suck the life out of the performance by editing things too tightly; ideally, you’ll take out what’s distracting while leaving the positive human elements in place. All edits should be as smooth and natural sounding as possible. If you run into one you just can’t get 100% right, take the track out of solo mode and listen to it in context. You may discover that it sounds just fine. If not, try a different take or have the vocalist re-sing it.
The final vocal editing pass concentrates on intonation—making sure the vocal is in tune. If there’s a note that’s a little off key, I prefer to open it in Celemony Melodyne, or tune the note “by hand” by slicing the clip at each end and transposing it up or down by a very small percentage until it sounds right. Melodyne, Antares Auto-Tune, or similar products can be used over the whole track if you want, but getting it close first minimizes the Cher or T-Pain effect (unless of course that’s what you want) that comes as a result of making the tuner work too hard. Online audio examples 1 and 2 illustrate what a vocal sounds like before and after this process, you’ll find them at: http://www.recordingmag.com/ resources/resourceDetail/396.html
Finally, we sweeten the vocal, polishing it with a little eq, maybe a touch more compression or limiting, some subtle de-essing and subsequently adding some reverb and/or delay to add a sense of space and dimension. We want the vocal to sit prominently in the mix, but we need it to blend with the other tracks as well. Too much vocal level can make it sound disconnected or even obscure other crucial elements in your arrangement. Too little can diminish its power or leave listeners scrambling to find a lyric sheet.
When mixing, it’s always important to remember that the elements within your mix are not merely placed between the left and right of your stereo field, but front to back as well. Reverb can help us to further establish this sense of depth.
Faster tempos and dense arrangements will generally require smaller spaces and shorter decay times, while ballads and lower track counts can afford us a little more sonic “elbow room”. This is where presets can come in handy, as there are invariably several that carry names like “Vocal Room”, “Vocal Plate”, “Lead Vocal Hall” and so on. This gives you a good place to start from, and many times, the only other consideration is how much reverb to use.
You can add the reverb directly to the track’s insert and bring its Mix setting down to around 30% to start with, or you can set up an effects bus to which you can send more than one track, i.e. lead and backing vocals and a little of the snare drum. This helps to give your instruments a common space to exist in, helping to glue things together more in the process.
Predelay is another parameter to explore, as it gives you several milliseconds before the onset of the reverb. This can be used to help clear up some of the cloudiness that reverb can cause, enabling your vocals to be significantly more intelligible. A slapback delay, a single echo of the vocal, can be a good choice for similar reasons, especially if synced to your groove’s tempo. Longer delay or echo settings can be used subtly in conjunction with reverb for a more modern and polished sound. With every song, it’s best to explore the gamut between Tom Petty (dry) and Fleet Foxes (wet) with the effect’s balance, as each song has its own character and therefore it own set of needs.
Take ’em for a ride!
Once you’ve got your vocal sounding great, it’s time to listen to it in the context of the song one last time. Listen for sections where the vocal may be sticking out a little or denser passages that may be drowning the vocals a bit. Lowering or raising the voice to offset this is commonly referred to as “riding the vocal”, and can go a long way toward making things sound more professional overall.
If all of these tools and concepts seem a bit daunting (not to mention expensive), take heart. Several software manufacturers have developed all-in-one solutions that include some or all of the previously mentioned effects. Again, starting with the supplied presets will familiarize you with the program more quickly, saving you several wasted hours of head scratching. iZotope, The Plugin Alliance, Waves and Antares all present great choices in this regard.
Whether your tuneful adventures involve crooning love songs or spitting fiery rhymes, the connection that is made between your music and your listeners hinges on how engaging your vocals are. Keeping these concepts in mind throughout the vocal recording process will help ensure that bond is a strong and lasting one.
(This article is reprinted with permission from Recording Magazine)
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter. His latest release is Seaholm Mackintosh’s Monarchs. Check out his website at www.kaspro.com.
For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
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For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Write Not Just Any Song, But A HIT Song!
Q & A With Songwriter Robin Frederick
Interview by Lorenz Rychner
Robin Frederick is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records, executive producer of more than 60 albums, and an in-demand lecturer on the music industry. She has written and produced hundreds of songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. In her two books, Shortcuts to HIT Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, both of which we reviewed in this magazine, we found a treasure trove of good advice of the kind that can only come from someone who knows whereof they speak. Ms. Frederick has that kind of track record.
In this issue of Recording we focus on the recording songwriter, and we asked Ms. Frederick to address the kinds of questions that we trust will be on many readers’ minds.—LzR
Q: I want to make some money—how do I know what songs to write to make that happen?
A: Like any business, you need to give the music industry something they can sell in today’s market. The best way to do that is to study current hit songs. If you have a genre in mind when you write, it will help a lot when you’re ready to approach the industry. To find a genre you’re comfortable with, check out the music charts online and in music industry magazines. Look for hit songs you like. (Don’t study the ones you don’t like!) If you’re not familiar with these songs, listen to them on iTunes or a stream-on-demand music site. Ask yourself what it is about the song that appeals to you. How does it make you feel? Is there a lyric or melody technique you could try in a song of your own?
Q: How can I “emulate” a song without stealing from it?
A: Studying hit songs is the quickest way to pick up new songwriting techniques. You’re not looking to write a new song based on the hit—it’s a way to learn and practice songwriting craft. Songwriting is a lot like learning to ride a bicycle. You’ve got to get a feel for it, find your balance, before you can really ride on your own. Emulating a hit song is a little like putting on training wheels. It will help keep you on track and heading in the right direction as you develop new skills.
To practice songwriting with a hit song as a guide, find an existing hit with a well-defined structure—easy to identify verse and chorus sections—and a good hook. The hook is usually the first or last line of the chorus. It should be memorable and sum up the overall feeling of the song. Learn to sing the hit song’s melody. Once you can do that, write a lyric line of your own that you can comfortably sing to the hook melody of the hit. (Again, the hook is probably the first or last line of the chorus. If you’re not sure which one, then just pick one to work with.) Wherever the hook appears in the original, repeat it in your “training” version.
To get a feel for how your lyrics sound when sung to a contemporary hit, fill out your chorus. Write more lines that support your new hook, its meaning, its emotion. Be sure they fit comfortably into the hit song melody. You don’t have to stick to every note and syllable, just get close.
Now, write a lyric for the verse. It should lead to your chorus, supporting it with more information about what the singer is feeling or experiencing. Notice whether the hit song uses images to paint a picture. Try using images in your lyric. If the hit song features conversational phrases, then you do the same.
That’s really all you need to do for this exercise. Now you’ve got a feel for the way a hit song is structured, how the lyric expresses the theme, and how it feels to sing your lyrics to a contemporary hit melody. You’re starting to “ride the bicycle.” Just remember, the hit song is copyrighted. You can’t use any part of the melody or lyric in a song of your own. The best idea is to use this as an exercise. Study successful songs and you’ll be successful!
Q: I have trouble writing melodies to go with my lyrics. Any suggestions?
A: You can use the natural melody of speech to help you find the melody that lives in your lyric. Just speak your lyric out loud with a lot of emotion. The more emotion you put into it, the more melody you’ll hear! That’s because we use the melody of speech – the pace, rhythm, volume, and pitch—to express our feelings. Try it for yourself: Say the phrase “Oh, no” in a high, fast-paced tone. Now, say it again in a low, descending voice. The first expresses anxiety, the second sadness or resignation. The words didn’t change, just the melody of speech.
What’s the emotion you want to express in your lyric? Speak the lyrics with that emotion in mind and see where the melody takes you. Then preserve the pace, the pauses, and the overall up and down movement of the pitches. Try exaggerating them to create a basic melody. It’s a good idea to record this raw melody idea so you can come back to it later. You can add chords and a rhythm track to hear how your melody would sound in a song. Feel free to play with it, change notes, add a pause, start on different beats. If you get too far away from your original idea, just go back to your recording.
Q: My friends like my songs but people in the music industry tell me they’re not commercial, my lyrics are too hard to follow and I don’t write big choruses...
A: If you’re looking to pitch your songs to the mainstream, commercial radio market—either for yourself as an artist or for someone else to sing—then you really do need to keep your listener in mind at all times. Give them enough information to make them feel that they’re right there with you experiencing what you’re experiencing. For instance, if you’re using a lot of poetic imagery, you might want to alternate that with some straightforward, conversational lines to make sure the listener doesn’t get lost. Your friends know you, they know what happened to you and how you feel, but radio listeners are complete strangers. To evoke a response from them, you might need to strike a balance.
Big choruses are important because they grab and hold the listener’s attention. For radio airplay that’s a must-have. However, there is a market that doesn’t require big choruses: songs for film & TV. This fast-growing market often prefers a simple, strong refrain line to underscore the emotion in a scene, rather than a full-blown chorus which could distract the viewer.
Q: What’s the winning formula for a hit song?
A: There really isn’t a formula. But there are song craft techniques that have proven to connect with listeners, and these are essential if you want to reach a broad audience—song structure, melodic contrast, lyric imagery, are a few. That said, the first thing you (and every songwriter) should do is express what you feel with honesty. Do that first, then go back to see if you can broaden the appeal by adding more song craft to support your theme and give it more universal appeal. Adele is a great example of a hit songwriter who blends personal songwriting with craft in a way that’s compelling for listeners.
A successful song applies song craft in a creative way, so the song sounds fresh. For instance, I love what’s happening with melodic contrast and momentum in many current hit songs. These are two techniques that listeners really love, so you should be looking at them. But it’s how you use these within your song that will make it both original and commercial. Song craft is a challenge to your creativity; it’s not there to stifle it.
Q: I don’t know what to write about.
A: There are some themes that are universal. Most people have been in relationships, enjoyed times of celebration, and most have experienced loss. These emotions are universal, not the specifics of what actually happened. Try writing a song that evokes a feeling. How did you feel when a relationship broke up? What did you feel physically? What kinds of images paint a picture of those feelings?
You can also look outside yourself for song ideas. Watch a movie or TV drama. Choose a scene and write a song that expresses the feelings, the situation, or attitude of one of the characters.
Try a different angle on a familiar theme. There are lots of songs about how bad it feels to break up with someone. How about a song about the plus side? If you’re a shy person, try writing a song from the point of view of a confident, outgoing party animal!
Q: I have trouble with my hooks, they’re just not catchy enough.
A: A good rule of thumb: Keep your hook short to make it more memorable. You could use a simple, conversational phrase, just a few words. In my book I cite three that were successful hits: “You had a bad day” (“Bad Day” by Daniel Powter, Billboard #1 for 5 weeks in 2005); “Truth is I never got over you” (“Truth Is” recorded by Fantasia, #1 for 14 weeks on Billboard Adult R&B Airplay chart), “You’re gonna miss this” (“You’re Gonna Miss This” recorded by Trace Adkins, #1 on Hot Country Songs).
Once you have a short phrase, imagine what your listener will want to know when they hear that hook, what questions will they be wondering about? What kind of a bad day and why? Gonna miss what? This tells you what the rest of the lyrics should be about—filling in the rest of the story that the hook hints at. Think of your hook as a mini-version of your song.
Q: I have trouble making my verses and choruses different enough, they all sound the same.
A: For a radio hit, your chorus has to grab attention, to shout from the rooftop “Here I am!” No more explaining, no more background information—this is the heart and soul of your song. To make sure listeners notice the chorus, use one of the most effective song craft techniques—contrast. Contrast gets attention!
If your verse is fast-paced and wordy, consider smoothing out the pace of your chorus. Hold out the notes a little longer, give the melody a more fluid feel. If your verse is in a low note range, try putting the chorus in a higher note range. A sudden jump upwards of even a few notes will catch attention and raise the emotional intensity of the song.
In fact, you’ve probably noticed that hit song choruses are often in a higher note range than the verse. That’s because when we get emotional, our voices tend to rise. By putting the chorus in a higher note range, you make use of a natural response. Listeners automatically hear more emotion in a chorus that’s in a higher note range.
Q: I can’t seem to come up with a good melody that doesn’t already sound like a lot of existing songs.
A: You’re not alone; this happens to all songwriters! A melody that sounds like a lot of others, one that’s generic or clichéd, is often just the first melody you came up with. But successful songwriters don’t stop there. They treat it as raw material, a place to start, not the final melody of the song. In fact, you can rewrite a melody, just like you rewrite a lyric.
First, take a look at the individual lines of your melody. Are they all starting on the same beat? Try varying the start times of your phrases. Starting a line on the 3rd beat of the bar or an upbeat is a great way to add a fresh sound. (The “and” in “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and” is an upbeat.)
Are all your lines a similar length? If so, here’s a quick fix that really works and will give you melody a contemporary edge: Add a couple of notes and words to the end of one line and run it into the next, creating a single long line. Or you can start a line earlier, eliminating the pause at the end of the line before. Varying the line lengths will add interest to your melody. Eliminating pauses will add momentum.
Rewriting is both fun and creative. Enjoy yourself and try new things. Remember, if you don’t like the direction your song is going, there’s an “Undo” button. Just push it and get back to where you started. Then try something else. There are endless possibilities!
For more about Robin Frederick, visit her website at www.robinfrederick.com. Her books are published by TAXI Music Books at www.songwritingbooks.com.
This article is printed with permission from Recording magazine. For more information on recording magazine, go to: http://www.recordingmagazine.com
For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net
USA Songwriting Competition presented a showcase at during world renowned "SXSW" in Austin, TX:
Danny Fast Fingers
Rachael Sage (Honorable Mention Winner)
Andrea England (Finalist, 12th Annual USA Songwriting Competition)
Berteal (Finalist, 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition)
Michael Wesley Stinson
Michael Wesley Stinson
Watch more videos here >>
*Hosted by Mike Abb
For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net
THE POWER OF SIMPLICITY
by Danny Arena
As the boundaries of country music continue to expand, it’s easy to get so caught up in modulations and syncopated rhythms that we can forget the power that a strong, simple melody can have. In my songwriting classes I teach at SongU.com, I try to make a point of giving one assignment to write something simple musically.
SIMPLE ISN’T EASY
While a melody may be described as "simple" by someone, the writing of it is usually far from easy. It involves achieving a perfectly natural balance between repetition and change so that the song is easily singable, but not boring. In this column, we’ll look at two of the components that make up a strong, simple melody. We have a tendency to think our own melodies may become dull when a musical phrase is repeated two or three times. As a songwriter full of musical ideas, it’s easy to end up with a song that has too many melodic ideas. In truth, some of the most well-known melodies like, "Yesterday" (Lennon/McCartney) and "Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" (Leigh) rely heavily on repetition. If one of our main goals as a songwriter is to write something that's easily memorable, then by far the best technique available is the power of repetition.
The downside of repetition is that too much of it can bore the listener. I like to think of it this way. Suppose you were eating spaghetti with red sauce for dinner four nights in a row. Probably by the time the third or fourth night rolled around, you’d be tired of eating the same exact meal. Now, imagine that you change the meal slightly each night: the first night - spaghetti with red sauce; the second night - Chinese sesame noodles; the third night - lasagna; the fourth night - penne pasta with garlic and olive oil. By making a few changes, the same meal can still be satisfying. It’s like that with your music - a little variation goes a long way.
As an example of the power of repetition with change, let’s take a look a hit song my wife, Sara Light co-wrote with Arlos Smith called “Home To You”. The verse consists of a total of eight measures, but only two musical ideas, one of which is the following two-measure pattern that starts the song:
What makes the melody particularly memorable is the fact that this musical idea or motif is immediately repeated two more times (see example below). By the time the second verse rolls around, the melody is very familiar.
From the song, "Home To You" written by Sara Light & Arlos Smith. © Mamalama Music (ASCAP)/Good Ol Delta Boy Music (SESAC). All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.
Although the initial musical idea (in example 1a) is repeated three times in a row, there are several subtle variations employed that help keep us tuned in to the music, allowing the repetition to work its magic without us becoming bored.
VARIATIONS KEEP THE LISTENER TUNED INTO THE SONG
Notice the first time the musical idea appears, the chord pattern is a G chord followed by D (with an F# bass). But when the musical idea is repeated, the chord pattern changes and an Em7 chord is substituted for the G, which is then followed by C chord. This small harmonic variation in chord structure the second time allows us to return to the initial chord pattern again (G, D/F#) for the third time with fresh ears. Also, notice that each time the two measure musical pattern repeats, the melody begins the same, but ends a little differently. This is a type of variation commonly known as melodic variation and it is often due to the changing of the chords in the musical motif as in the case here. Finally, notice that rhythm of the melody changes slightly each time the musical phrase is repeated but is close enough to the original musical idea that it still reinforces it.
So the next time you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio, try to listen for some of those subtle variations in the music. They may be small, but they can make a big difference.
Hope to see you on the charts.
About Danny Arena
Danny Arena is a Tony Award nominated composer and professional songwriter. He holds degrees from Rutgers University in both computer science and music composition, and serves as an Associate Professor at Volunteer State Community College in Nashville, and an adjunct member of the faculty at Vanderbilt University. In addition, he has been invited to teach songwriting workshops throughout the U.S. and abroad, and performs his original songs regularly in Nashville at venues like the Bluebird Café. As a staff songwriter for Curb Magnatone Music Publishing, he composed several songs for the musical "Urban Cowboy" which opened on Broadway in March 2003 and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and a Tony Award for Best Original Score. He is also the co-founder, CEO, and one of the main site developers of www.SongU.com, which provides over 100 multi-level courses developed by award-winning songwriters in addition to online coaching, co-writing, industry connections, and pitching opportunities.
For more information on 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net
How Do I Sell My Songs?
by Molly-Ann Leikin, Music Industry Mastery Coach
Songwriters always ask me, “how do I sell my songs? Can you show me how to sell my songs? Please help me sell my songs.”
As songwriters, we don’t sell our songs. Anybody who tries to buy your music is a thief.
Nobody buys lyrics, either. That, too, is a scam.
As songwriters, we earn royalties when our songs/tracks are recorded and released on CD’s, performed for profit on the air – radio, TV, online, and licensed for use in TV shows, movies, commercials, and downloaded all over the web.
When CD’s of our work are released for sale, the songwriter usually gets half of the royalty income, called a mechanical royalty, which at the moment, is 9.2 cents per track per copy sold. When this money is collected, our publishers send us royalty checks each quarter.
A large chunk of the money earned by songwriters comes from performances for profit on the radio, TV and online. Here’s how that works: there are three performing rights societies in the US - ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. (Most countries outside the USA have their own societies). To collect performance royalties, you have to join one of the societies. They keep track of when and where our songs are broadcast, from a 5000 watt station in Beserk, MI, to a 100,000 watt station in Manhattan, and send royalty checks directly to us based on the number of paid performances logged in their random samplings. As songwriters, we also receive checks for foreign performances in most countries around the world. A few still refuse to pay, but we’re working on that. Domestic royalties are distributed quarterly. Foreign are distributed semi-annually.
Since we rarely know where are songs are performed on the air, and when, it’s always a delicious surprise going to the mailbox and finding a royalty statement, plus a nice, fat check, showing our songs have been sung and performed on the radio, in movies, TV, and downloaded in countries whose names we can’t even spell.
But we don’t sell our songs. Ever. Ever. Ever.
For more information about how to market your songs so they start creating income streams for you, I’ll be glad to set up a personal consultation, either by phone or email. Thank you for understanding that for legal reasons, any material sent to me without my consulting fee, must, regrettably, be deleted immediately.
© 2013 Molly-Ann Leikin
Molly-Ann Leikin is an Emmy nominee. The author of “How To Write A Hit Song” and “How To Be A Hit Songwriter”, she has written themes and songs for over five dozen TV shows and movies, including “Violet” that won an Oscar.
After marketing consultations with Molly, five of her clients have won Grammys, seven more have Grammy nominations, and so far, over 6200 of Molly’s lyricist and composer protégées have placed their work in TV shows, movies, on CD’s in commercials, and their songs/tracks have been downloaded all over the web. It all starts with a consultation. www.songmd.com
For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
State Of The Music Artist
by Mark Cawley
With my blogs and coaching I’m always hoping to inspire, share stories and always, always tell the truth at least as I know it. The truth is a pretty valuable thing to hear in a business of dreams. So with a backward nod to Clint Eastwood here goes.
If you’re an artist or writer and you’re still working a plan based on an outdated model, you have to adapt or die. It’s the ugly truth. Somehow the artist in us wants to be above the businessman and let someone else deal with it. That time is long gone and time to embrace what IS working. This is not breaking news to most people reading this but I still have lots of writers and artists coming into my coaching with unrealistic goals like landing a major publishing deal with a big advance . There are a few exceptions but for the most part that hasn’t existed in Nashville or anywhere I know of for a long, long time. Same for a major label deal.
There are so many really good writers and artists falling by the wayside because nurturing a “baby writer or artist” costs too much these days. It makes perfect sense though. If you’re a publisher or label and the pie has shrunk, you just don’t have the money to gamble with. If you give that big advance how are you going to make it back in an era of free fall music sales? This is why you’ve been reading about things like 360 deals for the past few years as well as seeing projects stay “in house” as much as possible. Reading Bob Lefsetz letter is a good way to stay up with the conversation. He’s read by most industry people as well as artists.
There’s help. Writers, artists, producers, industry pros and publishers are making themselves available in unique ways these days though workshops, online seminars or, as in my case, coaching . There is some real crap out there, so do your homework, but if you dig you’ll find experts who have actually done what you want to do and are willing to share.
I’ve been reading a terrific book called Platform by Michael Hyatt recently and it’s perfect info for any songwriter or artist looking for ways to get noticed. Michael has been the head of Thomas Nelson Publishing here in Nashville dealing mainly in Christian books but has a music business background as well.
One of the things that struck me was a section about turning really good authors away because they weren’t willing to use social media. They want to write and be left alone. Let someone else promote. These writers in his world and in the music world are going unpublished. Michael wrote the book as sort of a “how to” to help them navigate the new model of self-promotion.
The point is there are resources to help you adapt to newer models. Facebook fan pages, blogging and tons of other ways to be heard and create and nurture a fan base. The Internet is your marketing person and you can do it… by yourself and …it works. It’s not near as romantic to think about tweeting and blogging to let people know what you’re creating but none of us wants our music to exist in a vacuum so… we promote and network. We ARE the business and that’s a great thing!
One last note..if you play live go out and do it, everywhere,everynight!!
Mark Cawleys’ songs have appeared on more than 15 million records. Over a career based in LA, London and Nashville his songs have been recorded by an incredibly diverse range of artists. From Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Wynonna, Diana Ross and Chaka Kahn to The Spice Girls, Tom Scott, Kathy Mattea, Paul Carrack, Will Downing and Pop Idol winners in the UK and around the world. He has had #1 records in the UK and throughout Europe as well as cut’s in Country, Jazz & R & B. His groundbreaking website “Song Journey” created with Hall of Fame writer Kye Fleming was the first to mentor writers from around the world one on one online. He is currently writing and publishing as well as helping writers and artists in the US, UK and Australia with a new one on one co-active coaching service. Visit www.idocoach.com for details.
For more details on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Universal Music reaches groundbreaking deal with publishers
The National Music Publishers' Association has negotiated a far-reaching licensing deal with Universal Music Group on music videos, the group announced on Tuesday.
It is the first major-label deal to pay royalties to songwriters and music publishers for videos.
The pact also could end up providing additional royalties for songwriters and music publishers in emerging platforms like ringtones.
It comes as many musicians have grown more frustrated about the lack of financial compensation they receive for use of their work in new media services like Vevo and YouTube.
As a sign of how tense the relationship has become, last February in TheWrap, Matt Pincus, founder and CEO of Songs Music Publishing, slammed Vevo for earning $150 million in revenue without cutting independent publishers in on the money.
"Are record companies to blame for relying on shoddy language to withhold royalties, or is it Vevo's responsibility to insure that the songwriters that helped it pull in $150 million this year share in their success?" Pincus wrote. "Whatever the case, this issue of fairness must be addressed."
Vevo is a joint venture music video website operated by Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Abu Dhabi Media, making Universal's participation key.
"The agreement announced today is an important first step in resolving industry-wide music video issues," David Israelite, NMPA president and CEO, said in a statement. "UMG deserves credit for being the first record label to partner with the entire songwriting and music publishing community through this model licensing deal."
Under this license deal, music publishers will grant the rights necessary for the synchronization of their musical works with music videos, and, in return, receive royalties from these videos based on a percentage of Universal's receipts.
The agreement also enables songwriters and music publishers to receive retroactive compensation for past use of their musical works in UMG's music videos. In addition to music videos, the agreement provides songwriters and music publishers compensation for additional UMG product offerings including ringtones, dual disc, multi-session audio and locked content products.
For more information on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Songwriting Tip: Composing For Film & TV
By Brian Tarquin
There is more to composing than just buying a computer and a handful of plug-ins! After 20 years composing for television and films, with three Emmys and seven nominations, I’ve come to rely on instincts and input from producers and music editors around me. It’s a team effort, and the sooner you learn this lesson, the better.
1. Get the Vibe. Remember you are composing music for the show, which will be heard by its fans. Understand the viewers and what works between score and picture. In Ken Burns’ Civil War series, what worked was that beautiful solo violin melody, not blazing metal guitar. Proper background score is a key to a successful series.
2. Understand exactly what the producer or music supervisor wants.This can be a very tricky thing. It can change from day to day and from moment to moment. I found that it could become confusing if more than one person gives you directions. The best thing to do is ask for musical references from the main person giving the instructions. For example, if they are requesting a vibe like Led Zeppelin-meets-Metallica, then make sure you get your project’s creative team to specify what elements of each band they like and how they want them combined. Ask as many questions as possible to nailing the exact vibe they want.
3. Don’t rush it, take time and get it right. This really pertains to composing for new clients. Even if you are juggling many projects, as we all seem to do, give it the time it deserves. Clients can sense when you are rushing and not giving it the proper attention. Remember the kids in school who had six weeks to do their final paper, but waited until the night before to do it? By showing the client that you care about their project, it will almost ensure you a continued relationship for future projects.
4. Use real instruments when you can, don’t rely on plug-ins and sample CDs. As a guitarist and recording artist for many years, it is annoying to me that there are so many electronic composers today who take the shortcut and substitute talent for computer plug-ins and samples. Instead of getting a real drummer they use some drum “extraordinaire” plug-in and samples from CDs of horns and bass. It makes no sense––just hire real musicians to make it sound as authentic as possible. Back in the day, I remember laboring through sessions getting musicians to nail the right sound before the digital era and plug-ins; it actually was a great challenge to see if you could achieve the sound for the project and a real feeling of reward when you did.
5. Don’t reuse old cues. This is something we are all guilty of––yours truly as well! In all my experience I’ve found that trying to rework old cues to try to make them sound different for a new client is more time consuming than actually composing from scratch. And trying to pass off an old cue to a new client thinking it’s “close enough” is bad business, because nine out of 10 times the client will have so many changes that you will be doubling your work. I don’t know how many guys do this, but it’s a lot like trying to turn a polka song into an electronica tune and passing it off to the client. Believe me, they will know!
6. Watch the show and understand how the music is used. Believe it or not, there are composers out there who do not bother to watch the show they are composing for, which seems like a recipe for failure. Set your DVR to record a few episodes and see how the music is synced to picture and compose accordingly. Before I even start composing for a new show I always watch a number of episodes and then go back to the music director and ask what specifically worked for those shows in regards to the music. I also like to throw out ideas to the music director before I proceed, to see if I’m on track.
7. Make sure to send WAV samples (no MP3s) for approval. I’ve learned not to send MP3s to people, because no matter how many times you explain to them that it’s an MP3, they always get bothered about it sounding “too compressed and lacking bottom end.” Well, that’s because IT’S AN MP3 and you’re listening to it on COMPUTER SPEAKERS!!! Then of course they look at the file size and say, “Oh, okay then, never mind.” So there goes a half-hour of my life I won’t get back!
8. Never send a demo sample! Man, this is such a catch-22, you can’t believe! Clients always say, just send a demo so I can hear how it’s coming along. So you send a rough mix to them and the first thing they say is, “It Sounds Like A Demo!” Well DUH, it IS a demo! So if you are going to play something for anyone for the first time, it should be the final mix of the song. Back in the early days of being a recording artist I remember the record label would always tell me to just send demos or rough mixes of the songs “so we can get an idea of what you are working on.” These were the days before I had a nice recording studio; my setup was just a Tascam DA-88 and a cheap Carvin mixer. So off the rough mixes went and the label would come back with, “It sounds like a demo!” Well yeah, that’s because they are demos that you said were okay to send!
9. Keep in good communication with the producer or music supervisor. This is one of the most important things to do. Always check in with the client, especially if you have a long lead-time for the final deadline, because ideas can change. For example, that song they told you to emulate at the start of the project may have changed three times and the client might have have forgotten to tell you. Of all my advice to you, this is the most crucial! I’ve been involved in projects that started off as heavy metal, then midway became techno and then finally wound up as a punk song I had to compose from scratch. Yes, it’s a lot of work and chasing, but it’s all part of the gig.
10. Never say “That’s the best I can do!” Many of us have been at the end of our rope with certain clients, for one reason or another––you want to say “I’m done, you do it!” I certainly have been there with a few people, but the best thing to do is ask for an extension if the changes they request become too much. Step away from the project for a few days, if possible, then come back to it with fresh ears and appease the client.
[This Article is reprinted with permission from June 2012 issue of Music Connection magazine]
The multi-Emmy-winning composer-guitarist Brian Tarquin has established himself as a top TV composer-recording artist and owner of Jungle Room Studios. Some of his accomplishments include writing the theme music for MTV’s Road Rules, as well as producing music for many other TV shows such as CSI, ABC’s Making The Band, Extra, Alias as well as the Keanu Reeves film, The Watcher, and many more. Visit Tarquin’s music catalog at http://bohemianproductions.net/musicsearch.html. To see his recording facility, Jungle Room Studios, visit http://youtu.be/P9QEUO1K0pw.
For more information on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
YouTube has reached songwriting and publishing deals with BMG Rights Management, Christian Copyright Solutions, ABKCO Music, Inc., Songs Music Publishing, Words & Music, Copyright Administration, Music Services, Reservoir Media Management, and Songs of Virtual.
The deals mean that artists such as Adele, Cee Lo Green, Foo Fighters, The Rolling Stones and Sam Cooke amongst others, will be able to share in more of the revenue that the YouTube community yields.
Using a Content ID system music publishers can now identify the works of songwriters whether the compositions appear in an original sound recording or in a cover version, using information provided to Youtube by the publishers.
In a blog post, the streaming site said: "We’re committed to making sure [artists] works can reach the widest audience, and that the singers and songwriters will continue to be appropriately compensated for these works that we all love so much."
These new deals, along with the licenses from the publishers who have opted in to last year’s deal with the NMPA / Harry Fox Agency, will allow YouTube to monetize nearly all of the user generated videos with music on YouTube.
For more information on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net