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7 Things I Learned Writing & Recording a Song Every Day for a Month

This past January, a friend invited me to join a group of musicians who, twice a year, spend a month writing, recording, and sharing a song every day. The term “song” was interpreted loosely, with participants submitting instrumental, spoken word, and sound collage pieces along with more traditionally defined “songs”. The goal was not to release finished, fully-developed music — it was simply to write and record a song every day, whatever that happened to mean to each person that day.

I was reminded of an anecdote I had heard (which I learned, while researching this article, originally came from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles) in which a ceramics teacher divides his class into two groups. The first group would be graded on the quantity of their work — a certain amount of pots would earn them an “A,” a certain amount less would earn a “B” and so on. The other group only had to produce one pot, and their grade would be based on the quality of that one pot.

When the end of the semester came around, the teacher realized that the “quantity” group had actually produced higher quality work than the “quality” group. The reason was simple: while the “quality” group was waxing philosophical about how to make the most perfect piece, the “quantity” group was busy practicing their craft, learning from their mistakes each day.

I’m not mentioning this story to suggest that I wrote 31 great songs in a month (oh man, not even close!). I might have written four or five I think are really worth developing, maybe eight or ten if I’m being generous. Regardless of what happens with the material I came up with that month, I got some insights into both my composition process and music-making, in general, that I could not have gotten any other way.

1. It’s Ok to Lean on Your Strengths

This might seem like an obvious statement, but it can be easy to take for granted. I think many music makers — myself definitely included — want to push themselves: trying new ideas, learning from styles that are unfamiliar, embracing new sounds, or simply doing things differently today than yesterday. Challenging oneself to learn new skills and to grow as an artist is a great thing to do. I personally hope that I never stop doing it.

That being said, when the “record” light is lit and we’re struggling with something outside of our wheelhouse, that struggle tends to come across in the recording. Though I learned something new every time I tried something unfamiliar, the songs that were the biggest stretches rarely turned out to be my favorites. The songs that were the strongest generally came from a place where I was confident and well-practiced in what I was doing.

My takeaway from this? If a musical idea seems “too obvious,” it might just be that it comes from a place where you feel comfortable and is well understood. We all have different strengths as musicians and producers. Don’t be afraid to use them!

2. More Time Doesn’t Always Equal Better Results

You may have heard the expression: “work expands to fill the time available” (also known as Parkinson’s Law). If you give yourself a day to write and record a song, you’ll take a whole day. If you give yourself three hours, you’ll do it in three hours.

Sure enough, that was how my month of songwriting went. To be clear, my shortest sessions (under an hour) did not yield especially strong songs. But generally, I found that the specific tasks that would add time to the process often lacked any tangible benefits. Sometimes, one more take was exactly what I needed to nail the part. Other times, I’d record another take only to find that it was not really better than the previous takes. Then, when I went to comp it, I had one more take to sort through while I was comping, which in turn added more time to the process.

I know firsthand that time spent getting extra takes in the studio can be time well spent. But my month of songwriting really reinforced the idea that time management in the studio really matters. Setting reasonable schedules and sticking to them helps to get better results with less wasted time. Chasing some kind of elusive “perfect take” started to seem like an especially bad use of time in light of the next realization I had…

3. Many Mistakes Just Don’t Matter

As a producer and engineer, I spend a lot of time working with artists to iron out the wrinkles in their performances. We edit, we tune, we polish — until the final product is free of moments that make us cringe.

When I was hurrying through my daily demo recording, I cringed a whole lot. Usually, I’d finish recording a part and think, “there were one or two really bad flubs in there…” and I’d resolve to edit them later. But by the time I had finished building the arrangement, I’d hardly notice those flubs that had made me wince during tracking. They certainly didn’t make me like the song overall any less.

Obviously, there are some major caveats to this idea. If a take strays far off the click, or an instrument goes very out of tune, you’ll likely regret not fixing that kind of problem. But I’m more inclined to think twice now before I automatically start editing takes for timing, or tuning a vocal. It just might be that there’s something else I can do with that time that will help the song a whole lot more.

4. First Takes Can Be Magic

This point is sort of a logical extension of the last one. If many mistakes won’t ultimately register to the listener as mistakes, then that makes the unique energy of an artist trying something for the first time in front of a microphone that much more appealing. Especially in the context of a meticulously produced track, a lead vocal or melodic instrumental part that has the rawness and excitement of a first take can really stand out.

Dogmatically accepting only first takes comes with its own set of potential pitfalls, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a recording philosophy. But recognizing when a performance has an energy that overshadows its blemishes is an essential skill for any producer. That performance arriving on the first try only makes it that much more special.

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5. Hold Back on Judgments While You’re Writing

When I’m working with clients, the critical side of my brain does a lot of heavy lifting: does this melody work over these chord changes? Is that kick sample right for the vibe of the song? Was that guitar take too loose? Is this synth masking the vocals? But writing music, especially writing it at a song-a-day pace, required that I effectively shut down that part of my brain while I was writing.

I would often find myself operating well below my A-game as I wrote, especially while writing lyrics. But getting hung up on a bad lyric, or a drum groove feeling too repetitive, would lead me to spend more time than I had for writing and recording that day. The solution was always the same, a famous “cure” for writer’s block: lower my standards and press on!

I’m a big advocate for getting things right while tracking, not delaying important decisions for later in the production process. The goal for this month, though, was not to craft a perfectly realized recorded version of a song, it was to finish a song. Many days, that meant choosing to finish a bad song rather than abandoning it and not finishing any song.

Though I produced lots of work I’m not eager to share that month, I’m grateful for every musical dud I stuck with to completion. Not only because many of those bad songs still had some good ideas, but because…

6. Creative Momentum is a Real Thing

Getting in the habit of regularly writing made it easier to get focused each day. I began to care less about impressing myself with the day’s composition and became more interested in the process for its own sake.

That attitude made it increasingly easy to approach each day with renewed energy and enthusiasm. On days where I knew I was writing something stupid, I could relax and enjoy how fun it was to record a stupid song. I knew the next day would bring something different. On the days where I came up with something I genuinely liked, I was better able to appreciate the feeling of being inspired.

7. A Community of Collaborators is a Great Motivator

The Song a Day for a Month (SADFAM) community was incredibly supportive. Though having someone you trust to give you honest criticism can be very important, I think the members of the group had a general sense that completing each day’s song was an accomplishment on its own and that negative feedback could be saved for later.

More than anything, just knowing people would be listening each day helped me to reach the finish line on each song. I looked forward to hearing other member’s submissions each day, and I got extra excited when I finished a song I knew some members would like.

I was often surprised by which of my songs generated the most positive response. My best-received composition of the month was probably one that I initially considered being a throwaway. Having that regular reminder that others heard my work differently from how I heard it added a level of discovery to the process.

For so many of us, making music is a solitary experience, whether it’s making beats on a laptop or strumming an acoustic guitar on the couch. Finding a way to connect with a sense of community changed the process of composing entirely for me. I wouldn’t recommend artists release every single recording they make to the public, but finding a group of people to privately share new work with can be invaluable.

Conclusion

At the end of my month of songwriting, I couldn’t have been happier with my decision to participate. Not only did the experience reignite my enthusiasm for writing music for its own sake, but it also allowed me to reconnect with the experience of the artists I work with. It also deepened my appreciation for the value of dividing up the process of making music into distinct stages, separating writing from production.

Not feeling pressure to complete arrangements or to be precious about my recording techniques and mixing allowed me to think first and foremost about the core aspects of each song: the lyrics (if any), the melody, the harmony, the structure. If I had to lower my standards to finish something, I can revise and update the compositions, knowing the foundation of each song is solid.

I was struck by the idea, at the end of the month, that the process was similar to sprouting seeds to start a garden. Every day I planted a new seed, knowing that many of them simply wouldn’t sprout. Now, I can try to nurture the ones that did sprout, into becoming fully developed songs. A few probably won’t survive that transformation, but the process will be rewarding either way, and I’m confident the ones that do will be strong. As I write this, in the Spring of 2020, the SADFAM group has planned an extra round for April, so I may have a whole new crop of ideas to choose from very soon.

You may have noticed that I conspicuously did not include even one song from my song-a-day run. It should not be surprising that spending an average of two hours on a song, from original concept to final mix, did not yield my best work as a producer or engineer. It felt like a bad move to include that material on this platform where I write about production and engineering. For those of you whose curiosity is piqued, you can hear my work, and the work of so many other talented artists, at songadayforamonth.com.

Danny Echevarria

Danny Echevarria

Danny Echevarria is a producer and audio engineer born, raised, and based in Los Angeles. When he isn't tightening his mixes or sawing a fiddle on the honky tonk stages of the greater LA area, he can be found chasing ever-elusive fresh mountain air. Get in touch at dandestiny.com.

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