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Magic Formula For Songwriting?

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Hello everybody. I hope you’re doing marvelously well. We’re back with another FAQ Friday. That is Frequently Asked Questions.

As ever, please subscribe, hit the notification bell, and you’ll be notified when we have a new video.

Okay, so we have some wonderful questions this week, and we’ll start off with this one.

How do you start a song? Is there a magical formula, or at least one that works 80% of the time?

Well, the answer for that really is, is in what context? When you say start a song, do you mean start producing, or start writing?

Interesting question, because if it’s production, if it’s literally producing a song from scratch, I’ll have the artist sit opposite me, we’ll both have acoustic guitars, or they’ll play piano, or if they don’t play an instrument, I’ll be playing the instrument, and I will work through the song, and I’ll get the key, the arrangement, and the tempo figured out, and then we’ll build — you know, we’ll put a click track down, or a shaker, or a tambourine, etcetera.

If there’s tempo changes, we’ll build a tempo map, and then we’ll send them in, and they’ll put down a scratch, like an acoustic guitar and a vocal. Sometimes live at the same time.

In fact, usually I do one take of it live, and then I might replay the acoustic, and then re-sing over that. Ultimately, I like to start from the ground up. For me, all of the best songs, as far as production, start from the ground up, which means having the arrangement being great, the tempo being perfect. Any other kind of issues I want to come across, like lyrics, melody, etcetera, are all done in that pre-production process.

So that’s how I start a song. I make sure that I have a scratch vocal and at least one instrument down that feels right that we can build from.

Now, if we’re talking about songwriting, there are some similarities. If I’m co-writing with the artist, for instance, again, we’ll be sitting in this room here, both have acoustic guitars, piano, whatever it might be. Little keyboard, whatever the instrument the artist may or may not play. We’re sitting and we’re working together.

I like to start thinking about what do you want to write about? What exactly are you trying to say? When you’re first in a room with an artist, and this is a massive conversation that could literally go on for two hours, so I’m going to try to keep it to some bare facts here, but if I’m sitting in a room with an artist, and I’m just getting to know them, that’s part of the process. Getting to know them. Finding out what is current in their lives. Where are they at? Relationships, you know, belief system, you know, getting inside their head a little bit, and allowing them to get to know you. Might spark an idea of what you want to write about.

So if you’re in that situation, you’re writing from scratch, you need a common ground, a common understanding. We’ve all loved and lost. We’ve all had some incredible happiness, and we’ve also had some tragedies. There’s — all of us as human beings have common ground that we can connect on, and some of us are vocal about it, and post all over Facebook and let everybody know, and others of us, tragedies happens, happiness happens, good and bad things happen, and we bottle them up a little bit more on the inside.

So it’s good when you’re in that situation, great I should say, for you to try and find that common place with your artist, so that you know what you want to write about. What do they want to say? What do they want to communicate? Because even sometimes, they’ll talk to me and suggest something, or at least, I’ll pick up on something, and I’ll start asking them about it, and they’ll go, “No, I don’t really want to write about that, I want to write about something else.”

I think just asking the question, “What do you want to write about?” is a little awkward. You can ask the question, but I think you want to create a relaxed atmosphere, where you can communicate and write together.

Now I, as well as a musician and a melody writer, I’m also a lyricist, so when I write with people, I will either have pen or paper, or often, a laptop open, any one of those situations, and I’ll be jotting down ideas, and we’ll bounce stuff off each other.

So starting a song for me, when it comes to writing, is about getting into a comfortable place with the artist. Having the artist feel comfortable to open themselves up and be creative, because often you’re going to be writing about loves, or losses. Things that are a big deal. A huge deal for all of us as human beings. So you need to find that place where they feel comfortable with you.

Question about songs on an album. In the process of making an album, how and when do you choose the track list?

Hmm. Great question. I would say invariably, 90 plus percent of the time, it’s at the end, which actually is very, very, very difficult. [laughs] It just is. I remember when The Fray were making their second album, there was a lot of discussion about the track order, and I think what ended up happening is — and what happens very often in modern records is the singles, or the big songs get kind of loaded towards the top.

In a day, and a time when iTunes was starting to just grow, back in the mid-2000s, it was always our concern when a new album came out, because people would click the first song, and it had to be a hit. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t click the second. Having the second one needed to be another single, or another great song in order for them to click the third one.

So what happened for the longest period of time, all of the singles — if there was three singles on the record, they would all get loaded to the top of the album, and that, in some ways, just in some ways, makes a bit of a mockery of an album.

For instance, I’m working at the moment — just started working with The Matthews Brothers, which if you follow me, you’ll know, today we were going through songs. We went through about five different songs for the record, and those five songs that we went through were in order in pre-production, in order of the way the band felt like they should be presented on the record.

For instance, there’s three songs in a row that have little interludes, or interstitions between them, and it’s all part of the process. We’re just listening to piano/vocal demos. That’s all. Just piano/vocal demos raw. Live vocals sung over a piano, and we’re already thinking about how they’re going to relate to each other.

I feel like when you listen to those great records, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, you know pretty firmly that there was a lot of thought put into how that album flowed. I know the 9 Inch Nails record, which also had Bob Ezrin involved, Downward Spiral has a similar flow, courtesy of Bob Ezrin coming in and helping on that.

I think a lot of the great records — like, could you imagine Dark Side of the Moon, for instance, in a different order? Can you imagine Queen’s A Night at the Opera in a different order?

Some of these seminal records, which are considered to be some of the best works of art of all time, have a flow to them. I imagine that during the recording process, a lot of thought was put into not just how the songs were recorded, but how they would relate to others.

That, to me, is the sign of a great album. It’s not the ten songs, you know, mid- to late-90’s album that all sound like the same song, and there’s one or two singles. You know, albums that we all hold up in high regard as being production masterpieces have a flow to them, and I’m sure if you’re asking about that track listing thing, if you want to really get the great track listing, think about it as you’re recording. Think about how they relate.

It’ll also affect how you do outros. How you might do fades. How you might do intros to the next song. And regardless of singles, and having hit songs, even with having those, you want to have an album that flows regardless, because if you have a fan of their band, they’re going to listen to an album. They’re going to listen to the whole album.

Do you use whisper tracks?

Heck yes. I love whisper tracks. I mean, I put whisper tracks, octave tracks, scream tracks, you know, full setup. It really depends. One of my favorite singers, as you know, and many of us, of course, is David Bowie. David would do a lot of stuff where he would have a vocal with an octave underneath, usually lower, sometimes above.

He would also do things where he would talk the lyric at the same time, so you might sing a lyric and then talk against it like this.

I think there’s a lot of that examples on Scary Monsters, the album. There’s a lot of great vocal techniques. There’s a lot of different ranges he uses, a lot of different voices he uses. Whisper tracks, as you were asking about, are very particular.

I do actually use the Waves Morphoder plugin to create that whisper track, just to add that air to the vocal. Properly recorded, whisper track itself is phenomenal, just whispering along with a vocal can just give a really incredible energy. I’ve done that quite a lot of times, and I find it to be really, really effective to create a hauntingly amazing vocal.

What happens to all the song material recorded and mixed when the album is published? Does it go to the band, artist, or to the record company, or do you keep it all on backup drives?

All of the above. Basically, we’ll have multiple drives. Traditionally, when I’m making records, I have three drives. I have drive 1, drive 2, which are mirrored at all times. We always have things on two drives. So when I’m doing things like major label records, there’s going to be — I’m going to be recording on one drive, backing up to the other, and then mirroring. So we might go into an overdub on drive two, another overdub on drive one, and then they’re mirrored. So those two drives are continually the same. They’re always backed up.

The third drive is always what we used to call “The mix drive.” So what that would do is that would take consolidated files, not all the thousands of playlists, just the files that were being used in the final mix, and that was copied onto the mix drive.

The mix drive was then available to be sent to an external mixer. For instance, on The Fray’s second record Michael Brauer mixed. On the first album, Mark Endert mixed. All of these different guys were available to mix the record, and so they would go to the mix drive, and then we would either upload from the mix drive, quite often using — You send it, it was called in those days, and you can use DropBox or whatever, but that was taken from the mix drive. You have consolidated, final mixes, ready to go. Final tracks with all of the chosen files in it.

The reason why we do that is the last thing you want to do is give 200 gigs of one song to a mixer, upload that, and watch him try to download — him or her try to download over three days. You want to have it skinnied down. A skinny session is another phrase I’ve heard many, many people talk about.

So then what happens is the label often will want to have a backup of everything. All of the multitracks, everything. And sometimes, it’s just a mix drive, but essentially, what would happen is like, we would copy that to another drive, and give them everything on a drive.

Often, they will then back that onto all different types of materials. I’ve heard 100 different ways to back it up, but ultimately then archived, and that’s the archiving process is then archived again.

If it’s an independent band or artist, they will probably want to take a drive away with them. I believe that I have kept pretty much everything I’ve done. That’s the reason why I have so many hundreds of drives. I always have a backup, or at least an original of every band I’ve ever worked with, and I think it’s important to, because they might come back to you in as much as ten years time and say, “Hey, I really liked that second song we did on album number three. We need to remix it, can you give me all of the tracks?”

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And they won’t have it available, and the label won’t remember where it’s archived, and all kinds of crazy stuff like that. Or they’ll say, “It’s archived, and it’s” — they call it iron mountain — “It’s in an iron mountain, it will take us three weeks to get it. Can you just send the song to me again?”

So I think as a producer, an engineer, and a mixer, I think it’s really important for you to keep your own copy of every song. It’s also good for your business, because if somebody comes to you and you want to remix it, you’re more likely to get the gig and keep the gig if you have the files.

If you go, “Oh, I don’t have the files,” they might go, “Oh, okay, I’ll just have John next door mix it.”

You know what I mean? I think it’s good to have your own archives, and your own backups, but yes, the label will want a copy, and more often than not, the band will want a copy as well.

How do you feel about using channel fader for volume automation, versus using something else to keep the fader free?

That’s a really good question, because I know what you’re asking. Quite often — in Pro Tools, you have the volume trim function. That was something they brought out a few iterations ago. What is that?

Well, one of the problems was when you’re writing in volume automation in Pro Tools, at least in that DAW, you could write some complex stuff in, and then if you wanted to bring the whole track down 1dB, you have to highlight the whole thing, grab the ends, and then try and pull it down, and often, it would do this. It would all mess it up.

Volume trim allowed you to go into that mode, take all of the automation, and turn it up or down. But it also allowed you to automate the automation.

What do I mean? I mean, you might’ve done this complex automation on every vocal, but you only want to turn down the bridge. So you go to volume trim, you’ll highlight in volume trim the bridge area, turn that down, keeping all of the volume automation, bringing down the level, but the choruses around it would stay high.

So volume trim was a really, really good tool, however, I understand what you’re saying with fader stuff, because something that’s also kind of nice is when you’re using multiple plugins, and maybe the last plugin in your chain, you’re mixing, you love everything about it, but the snare is like, 1dB just too hot.

Do you go in there and mess with the automation? Do you go in and do volume trim? Do you do all of this kind of stuff? Or do you just literally go to the last plugin in the chain, before it goes to the channel, and turn it down output 1dB?

It’s so quick and easy to do that, so I understand what you’re saying. Very, very often, I will go to the last plugin in the chain, and turn it down a tenth of a dB. Don’t even have to go in there and change my view and do all of this stuff. It’s a quick, easy way for that solution.

So I understand. So often, I will do what is easiest and quickest, because if you’re being creative, you want to move quickly, you have an idea, you want to realize it, you want to check it out. You don’t want to have to lose interest and lose that creative spark with having to do 50 different things.

So I understand what you’re saying. I do often use the last plugin in the chain and just turn it down slightly, or I’ll go to volume trim and select certain areas if I want to keep the automation rides, but I want to take a chunk and just generally turn it down.

What is your criteria for deciding when a mix is done?

Oh, that’s a good one. I think for me, these days, I’ll pull up a song. Here’s a good example. I mixed a couple of months ago, the new Rick Springfield record, and they sent me the roughs, and we open up the songs, and the roughs were fantastic, because they’re really well recorded, particularly, guitars and vocals. Guitars and vocals were absolutely outstanding. I mean, it was Tim Pierce playing on Rick Springfield himself, who is a phenomenal guitar player, for those of you who don’t know. Watch him play acoustic online.

So really talented players. You know, and Tim is not only a great guitar player, but he’s a tonemeister. He has a huge amount of guitars, a huge amount of pedals, and huge amounts of amps.

So what does that mean? It means that everything made sense in that mix. All of the guitars sat together. So when I listened to their rough, I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, this is really, really good.” However, the drums just don’t slam and hit as big as the guitars do, and it’s — no disrespect, I mean, they were really well recorded drums, but they needed to be mixed. Drums don’t just record themselves. You know, guitars very, very often in the hands of a great player, are the feel, the articulation in the hands, the pedals, the amplifier, everything.

You can often, in the right hands — like, when I say often, like, 90% of the time, you can bring up a track and say, “That is the sound that I want. I just want it to be slightly brighter, or just run a little high pass and get rid of some of the rumble.”

That is essentially — that is a big, big deal. I think when you think about things like that, when I’m listening to the song, I make a decision at the beginning. So when you ask me, “How do I know when a mix is done?” I have decided what I want to go from A to B.

I used to spring for one, because it’s quite an easy analogy. The guitars, vocals, sounded great. The drums needed some work, the bass needed some work. The vocals could’ve been brighter and I could’ve had fun with effects and stuff, but essentially, I just launched into it, I went, “Okay, get these drums huge and slamming.” I mixed the drums slamming the way I wanted, incredibly exciting to match the incredible Tim and Rick guitars. Pulled them up around it. All started to make sense.

Got the bass, put a little bit of grit on it, made it a bit more aggressive. Gave it some “rah.” And pulled that in. Then I took the vocal, I made it just a little bit brighter, tried some interesting effects on it, got the compression just right, and the song was done.

It sounds simple. It is in some ways. It’s simple because I was standing back, and I made a decision before I mixed the song by listening to the rough, what I wanted to do. So my answer to your question is when I have fulfilled the criteria that I have setup, I think if you go into mixing a song, just starting like guesswork, if you’re going in and you’re watching a tutorial, and it’s telling you how to boost and cut things, that’s okay, but you need to look at the song, listen to the song as a whole from the beginning, and decide what you believe you need to do to make it more exciting.

Do the drums need to be bigger? Do they need to be smaller? Do the guitars need to be more angsty and aggressive? Do they need to be less angsty and aggressive?

Does the vocal need to be super out front? Does it need to be more in the track? Decide what it is when you listen to that rough, or just those raw tracks that you feel like it wants to go.

That is not as difficult as it sounds. What you have to do is this. Trust your ears. You love music. You’re a guy or a girl that is watching this channel because you love making and recording music, which means you already have taste, and you have an opinion.

Now, take your taste and your opinion on what you like and why you like it, and listen to those tracks. Those raw tracks, or that rough mix, and go, “You know what, I like this, but I want to do this, this, and this.”

And then that is your criteria. Your criteria is like, “Have you fulfilled?” Your mix will be done when those things that you have decided you want to improve and make great are done.

And it might be that you fulfill it, and then you put it aside, and you come back the next day, and open it up, and you want to tweak it some more.

That is fine. That’s called giving yourself the ability to take some time away and really be honest, but I do it all the time. We’ll come back to the song the next day and tweak two little things, and just take it across the finish line, but ultimately, just to reiterate, for me, listening to the song at the beginning, and having a clear picture of what I want it to be, and trusting my ears. Trusting what I want.

Once I’ve fulfilled making it what I want it to be, then to me, the mix is done.

What is your favorite chair for mixing?

This is the one area I don’t think anyone should skimp on. My back is killing me and I’m looking for a better chair.

What a wonderful question. Okay, so we have these different chairs here that actually, we were gifted a couple of years ago by an Academy member who took pity on our ripped up chairs, so thank you ever so much. That was very wonderful.

What are these chairs that everybody has in the studios? The chairs that everybody prefers in the studios are called Hermin Millers. You can look them up. They’re not cheap, but they are the preferred chair of 90% of studios.

So I’d highly recommend checking it out, however they, once again, are not cheap, but otherwise, I would say go to IKEA, go to any furniture store, and you know what I’m going to say? Go and sit in the chairs. Go sit in them. Feel around, twist them around a little bit, and decide, are they going to be comfortable?

Do they have some lumbar support on the back there for when you’re leaning over and you’re giving yourself a back ache? These are important things.

But there’s nothing better than just testing. These aren’t particularly rare chairs. You can get them from most places. I think if you have a massive budget, then of course — or a big budget, at least, the Hermin Millers are the way to go. They’re the most popular studio — like, when I go to a nice studio, they have Hermin Millers.

Alright, well I hope that was very, very helpful, because you all rock. Thank you for being such an incredible community. Here it is, it’s a late night, it’s gone midnight and we’re filming. It’s been a wonderful time, and I really appreciate everything that you do. You’re an incredible community. Please leave a bunch of comments and questions below, and have a marvelous time recording and mixing

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Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at producelikeapro.com.

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