Monthly Archives: February 2012

SONGWRITING: Coming up with vocal melodies

Triadic melodies make for the catchiest types of vocal melodies. What is a triad, you ask? Well, it’s the three notes that comprise major and minor chords. If you pick any major scale, and take the root (1st note of scale), major third (3rd note of scale) and the perfect fifth (5th note of scale, of course), those three notes make up the major chord of that scale.

C major – made up of C E G (1, 3, 5)
D major – made up of D F# A (1, 3,5)
A major – made up of A C# E (1, 3,5) and so on.

Same is true for building triads on a minor scale… though this time, the third is flatted of course (minor scales have a lowered third in them, as opposed to a “regular” third, like in the major scale).

A minor – made up of A C E (1, b3, 5)
E minor – made up of E G B (1, b3, 5)
D minor – made up of D F A (1, b3, 5) and so on.

If you write a song, let’s take for instance… a three-chord pop song…. and the chords are G, C, D, and then back to C… it’s very easy to come up with a vocal melody pattern, primarily using the notes from each chord (the triad notes).

G – sing either G, B, or D, or any combination of these.

D – sing either D, F#, A, or any combination of these.

C – sing either C, E, G, or any combination of these.

Sure, writing a melody might not sound terribly interesting if you’re only singing those three notes over each chord, but that’s where  “passing notes” (notes from the scale of that chord that aren’t the 1, 3 or the 5) come in. If you combine your triad notes with passing notes but always come BACK to the triad notes (and sing them the most frequently), in your melody… you’ll find it’s pretty easy to put melodies together, vocally. It just helps to know your scales… any teacher would tell you over and over again to practice your scales. They’re not only used to practice your technique and build speed and flashiness (and for soloing), but they’re also used to write vocal melodies… nearly all the time (especially if you get stuck).

Still stuck? Email me with any questions (my email is in the Contact info of my main website –, and I’ll explain in further detail.

The most important thing to remember is “1, 3 and 5”. Sing those notes the most often in your melody, and use other passing notes that are a little more tense or create movement (from that scale of that chord you’re singing over), and again, you’ll find that piecing together melodies isn’t as hard as it first seems.



RECORDING: Home Studio Setups At Various Costs, For Noobs

Home recording is becoming more and more affordable… it’s ridiculous just how affordable it’s becoming. My #1 inspiration these days (musically, and music-business-wise) is Jack Conte of Pomplamoose… he said it best (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember his exact words… something to the effect of):

“There has never been a better time to be a musician. All the tools are there. You’d be a fool not to use them.”

With that said, I’ve done a lot of thinking about setups, and eventually I’ll put up some YouTube videos talking more about it, but in the meantime… let’s do three levels of home studio budgets… from the VERY bottom/minimum ($350-450)… to $1500. Let’s assume you use a laptop, and not a desktop… so we’ll narrow the audio interface choices to USB interfaces, instead of internal PCI cards (though I highly recommend PCI interfaces over USB interfaces — less recording issues, usually, but these days, USB interfaces are quite stable).

Chances are, you already have a guitar and/or keyboard or piano… so, that’s one less thing (or two) to buy!!

Ultra-Low Budget ($350-450)

– Computer (you already have it… cost: FREE)
– Recording Program (aka DAW)
For PC: Reaper recording software (download it legally and for free, HERE)
For Mac: Garageband (comes free with your Mac)
– Audio Interface (spend no more than $150)–
recommendations (the first six I highly recommend above the others):
Alesis M1 Active 320 USB Monitors/Audio Interface ($90) – not much bass, but speakers PLUS audio interface in one! Plus they sound great!
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface ($149)
Presonus Audiobox
USB Audio Interface ($149)
Tascam US200
USB Interface ($149)
Tascam US122 MKII
USB Audio Interface ($109)
NOTE: some people have had problems with Tascam, but I dig their stuff.

Yamaha Audiogram USB Audio Interface/Mixer ($129)
Lexicon Lambda
USB Audio Interface ($119)
M-Audio Fast Track MKII USB Audio Interface ($119)
Roland Tri-Capture USB Audio Interface ($129)
– Sennheiser HD202 headphones ($30) – they sound great, they’re lightweight and cheap
– a decent, cheap condenser mic– don’t spend more than $130! (recommendations: MXL V67g, Octava MK-219 (available used/ebay only, for around $130), MXL 770, Studio Projects B1, CAD GXL2200, MCA SP-1, etc)
– mic stand (preferably a boom mic stand), pop filter, mic cable (total $40)

Low-to-Medium Budget ($600-800)

all the stuff I listed above, plus:

– a pair of cheap, powered/active studio monitors (if you don’t buy those Alesis M1s (recommendations: Behringer MS16 ($75), Samson MediaOne 3A ($100)
– a midi keyboard (recommendations: Alesis QX49 or M-Audio Oxygen 49 – each is $150) if you like to lay down ideas on a keyboard or mainly write on a piano, or…
– a midi pad controller (such as the Korg PadKontrol (highly recommended – $170) or Akai MPD18 – $100) for all you hip-hop producers and beatmakers out there

Higher Budget ($1250-1500)

all the stuff I listed above, plus:

– a good mic preamp (try to spend $500 or less)
Presonus TubePre Version 2
Golden Age Pre73 MKII ($350)
Focusrite ISA One ($500)
used/ebay: M-Audio DMP3, Art MPA Gold (good luck finding one, no one wants to part with theirs), True Systems P-Solo
– a second widescreen flat-panel monitor for your computer if you don’t already have one ($150). Once you go dual-monitor, you never go back to a single.

BONUS: The Hip-Hop Beatmaker Budget (up to $1500)

WITHOUT an “MPC” – you don’t need one, and you’ll waste money and time if you invest in one (even used). Stick to software and MIDI controllers… more RAM, more storage, more possibilities, and much faster to put together beats than the “traditional” way. Any hip-hop producer worth his weight and know-how would agree. I will put up a video on YouTube sometime in the future clearly demonstrating the difference and why software is better.

– Computer (you already have it… cost: FREE)
– Recording Program (aka DAW)
For PC: Reaper recording software (download it legally and for free, HERE)
For Mac: Garageband (comes free with your Mac)
– Audio Interface (spend no more than $150)–
recommendations (the first six I highly recommend above the others):
Alesis M1 Active 320 USB Monitors/Audio Interface ($90) – not much bass, but speakers PLUS audio interface in one! Plus they sound great!
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface ($149)
Presonus Audiobox
USB Audio Interface ($149)
Tascam US200
USB Interface ($149)
Tascam US122 MKII
USB Audio Interface ($109)
NOTE: some people have had problems with Tascam, but I dig their stuff.

Yamaha Audiogram USB Audio Interface/Mixer ($129)
Lexicon Lambda
USB Audio Interface ($119)
M-Audio Fast Track MKII USB Audio Interface ($119)
Roland Tri-Capture USB Audio Interface ($129)
– Sennheiser HD202 headphones ($30) – they sound great, they’re lightweight and cheap
– a decent, cheap condenser mic– don’t spend more than $130! (recommendations: MXL V67g, Octava MK-219 (available used/ebay only, for around $130), MXL 770, Studio Projects B1, CAD GXL2200, etc)
– mic stand (preferably a boom mic stand), pop filter, mic cable (total $40)
– a pair of powered/active studio monitors (recommendations: Behringer MS16 ($75), Samson MediaOne 3A ($100) or if you really want to go all out, get KRK Rokit 5s for $300/pair (I love mine).
– a midi keyboard (recommendations: Alesis QX49 or M-Audio Oxygen 49 – each is $150)
– Native Instruments Maschine MIDI pad controller/software ($600)
– a collection of vinyl records, and/or royalty-free sample libraries

Be sure to read everything on and also, join the forum at, to get very helpful tips and advice on how to get started if you’re completely new to this!

RECORDING: MIDI controllers don’t “make” sound by themselves, they “control” sounds in a program

I can’t count how many times I’ve come across people (personally or YouTube commenters) who buy a MIDI keyboard controller (M-Audio Axiom, Oxygen, etc)… or a pad controller (Akai MPD18, Korg PadKontrol, M-Audio Trigger Finger)…. and wonder why they’re not getting “sound” from it.

News flash: MIDI CONTROLLERS DON’T MAKE SOUNDS on their own. They need a software program that has sounds built in to it (aka “virtual instrument”), to “control” the sounds of that virtual instrument. That’s why they’re called MIDI CONTROLLERS. Midi controllers merely send data to and from the computer. They do not have sounds built-in.

I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but seriously, a MIDI controller is not something you can just buy and expect to work right out of the box. You have to have a basic understanding of how a MIDI controller “communicates” with a recording program/sequencer (aka “DAW” which stands for “digital audio workstation”) .  DAWs interact with MIDI controllers in basically the same way, but unless you know the ins and outs of using a DAW or virtual instruments, it’s kind of overwhelmingly confusing. Ultimately, it’s a matter of research and reading, something people don’t do enough of, when they are getting into home recording. You know the old expression RTFM? If you’ve never see those letters before, they stand for “read the fuckin’ manual.” Haha. Ok, all jokes aside…

Here’s a great YouTube video clearly explaining what a MIDI controller is, and how it interacts with Garageband for Mac. Please pay close attention to it.

Here’s another great video, by Lewin at GaragebandandBeyond (YouTube):

And here’s a great page on the Tweakheadz website that explains what MIDI is, what it can and can’t do, and how to set it up in your home studio (very detailed):

Hope this helped… if it’s still confusing, it’s a good idea to google your butt off and find out as much as you can about MIDI controllers and how to use them in your setup. A combination of that, and having a friend who already has a home studio and knows his or her way around it is another great thing. Good luck!

RECORDING: The great mic preamp debate. Are they REALLY necessary?

So, for years I’ve recorded my own songs without using any dedicated mic preamp… just whatever was in my mixer. All mixers and audio interfaces these days have built-in mic pre’s, and if they didn’t, the microphone basically wouldn’t generate any signal when you sang into one. Built-in mic pre’s are usually sufficient, and these days, with digital, compressed music (MP3 and iTunes/AAC/m4a), it’s very hard to distinguish a song tracked with a dedicated mic preamp or built-in mic pre’s.

Since 2001, I’ve used a Behringer MX2004A mixing board. A few cheap condenser mics (MXL, CAD, and an AKG C2000B) and that mixer (into an M-Audio Delta 44) was my vocal chain.

Last week, I finally sprung for a dedicated mic preamp, the Focusrite ISA One. It’s a $500 mic pre, with a good amount of settings and also has a direct input for bass guitar or any line-level signal.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week doing A/B tests… singing exactly the same (as close as I can) using the mic preamp, and using that same microphone and the Behringer mixer’s mic pre. I’ve dabbled with EQ settings and tried to get them to match up exactly. And I set markers in my recording software so I can just hit a key and then hit another key and play the different takes seamlessly… and really… REALLY listen to see if I can hear a difference, on monitors, and two different pairs of headphones.

I want to say that I couldn’t really hear a difference at all, between the $500 Focusrite mic pre going directly into the M-Audio Delta 44, and just the mic & mixer’s pre (without the Focusrite). I really want to say I couldn’t hear a difference at all. But I could!

It’s slight, but it’s there.

The dedicated mic pre does make my microphone sound better, fuller… warmer, AND, there’s less hiss (about 6db using the Focusrite). I get 6db more hiss/noise when using the microphone directly into the mixer, at the same gain/level. So, there’s definitely a quality difference.

But to most ears, you probably won’t hear a difference at all.

Take for instance, my Smiths cover of “The Headmaster Ritual” that I did last summer. There is no mic pre used in this video. It is that MXL going directly into the Behringer mixer, and then right into the Delta 44. I added some EQ, reverb, slight delay, and compression in the recording program. I think it sounds fine. A little high-endy when coming through laptop speakers, but that’s to be expected.

Last night, I did this tiny clip of Rogue Wave’s “Eyes”, using my dedicated mic pre. I recorded the acoustic guitar with the same mic I did the vocals with (MXL V67g)… and both were run through the $500 Focusrite. I do believe there’s a warmth/fullness/cleaner sound with the dedicated pre. It’s pretty evident. Then again, I did track the vocals basically right up on the mic (for the Rogue Wave clip), so there’s a proximity effect going on (adding more fullness).

Rogue Wave – Eyes clip

So, to the age-old question of “Are mic preamps REALLY necessary?”….. The jury is still out. I honestly don’t know. But I do think it will improve my recording quality overall. And if it doesn’t, I’ll sell it. I really don’t have a lot of experience with dedicated mic pres yet (just a few days)… but so far, I like what I hear.

update (2/24/2012): After extensive tests, comparing my mixer’s built-in pre’s against the Focusrite ISA One’s… I decided to return it and stick with my built-ins (with a slight upgrade, mentioned below). I just got more hiss from the Focusrite, no matter what I had my gain set at. Sure, I could get more volume without the mic clipping or whatever… thus, “fuller sound”, but ultimately I didn’t think it made much of a difference. I probably would need to spend a great deal more time with it (and more extensive tests, which I didn’t think could be possible after the testing I did)… just to see if it was worth the investment. Instead of going back to my main setup (mic > Behringer mixer’s pre’s > interface) I decided to get rid of the Behringer mixer entirely and add an M-Audio Omni I/O to my Delta 44 (the I/O provides mic pre’s, more inputs and routing, plus 2 headphone outs). You can only get the Omni I/O from ebay as it’s been off the market for years. Now my signal path is mic > Omni I/O. Done. I get basically the same quality without the dedicated pre… many audiophiles and studio engineer snobs would argue that it was a horrible decision, but really… the song matters most, then the mic, then the performance through it. From there, it’s all tweaking this and that and mixing the track. If the song isn’t interesting/melodic and better than most of the shit out there, then no one is going to give a shit about your studio upgrades or high-end mic pre. That being said… I’m still on the hunt for a dedicated pre, haha! Maybe this time around, the Golden Age PRE 73 MKII (it’s $150 less than the Focusrite). We’ll see…. I know, I know… back and forth, with my decision. Enough of the blabbing about mic pre’s and studio upgrades. Let’s just write and record some damn songs! 🙂



An “arpeggio” is simply a chord that is played one note at a time, randomly, or in a pattern.. could be fingerpicked, or played using a pick. It’s as simple as that.

Here are some examples of guitar songs written using arpeggios:

These days, arpeggios are pretty popular in music…. in the 90s, not so much. So don’t be afraid to use them, as the main piece of your song, or to accompany a different part, and make it more colorful and interesting!

RECORDING: a basic, cheap small studio setup for a singer-songwriter

There are countless videos on YouTube about how to buy a small home studio setup if you’re a singer-songwriter. Some of the videos are better than others, of course.

Chances are, you already have a computer (you’re reading this blog on it, I’m sure). Next step? A good audio interface.

Audio Interface

An audio interface (aka “soundcard”) is essential if you want to have your recordings sound decent. An audio interface averages around $150-200 for a decent one, and way up for the better ones. If you’re just getting started, a cheaper one would be best.

There are three types: USB (most common), firewire (less common), and PCI/internal (even less common, but the best option in my opinion). No matter what you go for, make sure the unit has “phantom power” (required for condenser microphones which I talk about in the next section).

I’ve found that for the money, the Focusrite Saffire series are great (USB or Firewire), as well as the Tascam US-200 or US-600 (USB). The Focusrite are slightly more expensive. They’re great for what you get, though.

As far as PCI interfaces go, I’ve been using my M-Audio Delta 44 since early 2003, and I love it. They can be bought for $150 new, and they’re worth every penny. Just make sure your computer has a PCI slot (laptops don’t of course, these are for desktops, only). You’ll also need a little mini-mixer or mic preamp with phantom power as the Delta 44 does not have inputs for an XLR mic cable, nor phantom power.


Condenser Microphone

There are a few types of microphones, and you can easily get lost in the types of mics. Stick with “condenser” microphones for studio applications. Condensers are very sensitive mics and because of this, they’re very clear and you can hear every detail, vocally… that’s usually what you want in a vocal performance, especially for hip-hop and stuff.

Condenser mics require additional voltage for them to work, called “phantom power”, and most good audio interfaces have a phantom power switch. That’s also why the mics are so sensitive to detail.

My recommendation for condenser mics are the MXL series. They run anywhere from $80 and up… the best value in my opinion is the MXL V67g. It’s a $100 microphone, green and gold, and really works pretty well overall for a lot of things (vocals, acoustic guitars, tambourines, shakers, etc). You can hear me use it on all tracks of my Weepies “World Spins Madly On” cover video:

So right now, between your interface and mic, you spent about $300. Not too bad. If you’re mainly a guitar-based singer-songwriter, you have everything you need, sans software.

Software / Recording program aka “DAW”

Mac users are very familiar with Garageband. It’s a great, simple program to lay down demos and gives you a lot of fun options to mess around with. PC users aren’t so lucky, but… there’s a free program out there called Reaper (well, it’s not “free” per se… they want you to pay for it, but what’s cool is it will never expire… so even though the program will “nag” you every time you open it, it will still work just as the first day you downloaded it, so DOWNLOAD IT!). It’s more complicated to use than Garageband, but it’s more powerful. You can download it at I can’t show you how to use the program through this blog, as it would take too long to explain… but, search the forums at the Reaper site, and also search YouTube for tutorials on it. It’s such a great program in so many ways.

So there you have it… a $300 investment (well slightly more… as you’ll need a mic stand, mic cable, pop filter, etc), and you can start recording your song ideas. $300 is not that much money if you really think about it. So do some research, and pick up that gear… and watch YouTube videos constantly about how to record at home… and also visit and for tips and advice if you are going into all of this blindly.

Good luck!

SONGWRITING: books that WILL help you write better songs

YEARS ago, I wrote reviews for a few songwriting books that truly raised the bar, compared to ALL songwriting books before them…. they’re all by Rikky Rooksby (British guitar instructor at Oxford University, and a well-known author of music books and guitar magazine articles).


The first is How To Write Songs On Guitar (Rikky Rooksby). This book truly covers it ALL, seriously. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about writing songs on guitar (and not just using open chords and/or open chords plus a capo)… he covers triads, extended chords (7ths, added 9ths, suspended chords, etc. etc)… he talks about chords that fit together, how to write melodies (instrumental and vocal melodies)… and, he gives countless chord progressions, and talks about the songs that use those chord sequences. He teaches how to do fingerstyle/folk stuff… he even goes over arranging songs and how to record guitars and use different voicings so the recordings don’t become too monotonous or boring…. AND… he has a chapter on writing better lyrics. If you’re going to buy ONE book on songwriting… buy this one.

Amazon always has it for around $14, and it’s a friggin’ steal. I’m not kidding. The Updated/Expanded 2nd edition has a better layout, and mentions EVERY band when a song that uses a certain chord progression is given as example… so you can quickly look it up and hear how it goes, or how that progression goes. Truly a book worthy of your time. My songwriting improved tenfold after buying that book, no joke. I can’t believe it’s been ten years since I first discovered it.



Rooksby has an entire series of songwriting books…. here are their names, in order of release date:
1 How To Write Songs On Guitar
2 Inside Classic Rock Tracks (dissects 100 songs from the 50s to now… arrangement-wise, and also gives 100 really solid writing tips). Don’t be confused by the term “classic rock” – he means “rock songs that are classic”.
3 Riffs (this isn’t that great, but worth a read)
4 The Songwriting Sourcebook (I’ll talk about this more after I list all the books)
5 Chord Master (basically a very elaborate guitar chord dictionary)
6 Melody (mmm… this isn’t that great, either… but it has some good stuff)
7 How To Write Songs On Keyboards (very, very good.)
8 Lyrics (the best book EVER for lyric ideas)
9 Arranging Songs (another very good book)
10 How To Write Songs In Altered Guitar Tunings (confusing, but very good)



Now onto The Songwriting Sourcebook. This is a perfect companion to How To Write Songs On Guitar.

This covers chord progressions and arrangements, for each part of a song… intro, verse, chorus, bridge (aka “middle-eight”, outro, etc)… it talks about the science of how the chords create expectation or surprise.. and how everything goes together in a cohesive manner. FANTASTIC BOOK. There are 20 instrumental songs on the accompanying CD, and they cover various styles… really interesting arrangements, but the strength of the book comes from everything on every page. This book is a little more expensive ($16 on amazon) than How To Write Songs On Guitar, but again… a great companion book.






Lastly, is Rooksby’s book “How To Write Songs On Keyboards.” This isn’t as comprehensive as How To Write Songs On Guitar, but it still covers a LOT of ground, and the best part is, you don’t really need to know music theory to write songs on piano or keyboard, if you have this book. Nearly every example is on CD… and he really covers EVERYTHING… no joke. The only thing that will make your piano/keyboard songs better is actual piano technique that comes from private lessons, usually (doing the fancy finger things that great piano songwriters do). But you will learn a TON from this book.







Three books that will totally kill your writer’s block, forever. Seriously. It helps to know at least a little music theory, but even if you don’t, you’ll be able to get a lot from all three of these books, especially the first.


SONGWRITING: Two famous & catchy chord progressions

The “One-Five-Six-Four” and its little sister, the “Six-Four-One-Five” – it’s the same chord progression, just starting halfway-through it. These chord progressions have been used in COUNTLESS hit songs… ever see that “Axis of Awesome” video on YouTube? Or the “Pacalbel Canon Rant” video? Proof positive, this chord formula works. It might be cliche, but ya know… I’ve heard this progression all over countless GOOD indie records, too. Use it if you get stuck.

I – V – vi – IV

C G Am F
I V vi IV

or in the key of E

E B C#m A
I V vi IV


vi – IV – I – V

Am F C G
vi IV I V

or in the key of A

A E F#m D
vi IV I V

SONGWRITING: Chord progressions that fit together

Here’s my first entry on my new blog, Songwriting and Recording Tips…. chord progressions that fit together.

When I first got into music and songwriting, I wrote everything by ear, just “feeling” stuff that fit together. It’s a fine way to write, as it’s the way I usually write (I don’t think much about music theory when I write songs… I just go)… but, later I found that it’s extremely helpful to at least know the “Nashville Number System” which is the way most good, catchy songs are written. Ultimately, most good songs are boiled down to only SIX CHORDS total (usually). Here’s how it works:

Take any major scale… we’re going to use C major, and then A major.

C major is C D E F G A B C (in between the starting and ending notes is the scale “formula” 2212221 (whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step). This 2212221 (think of it like a phone number without the area code) 221-2221, is the major scale formula… always. It never changes! So if you pick any starting note (the “root”), you just use that formula in between each note from beginning to end, and the major scale is made (be sure to not repeat or skip letters/notes, and to use all sharps or all flats if you need them, and not a combination of both).

So, now… simply assign Roman Numerals (you’ve seen an old clock before, haven’t you?) to each of the notes, like this:

I ii iii IV V vi vii

You might be wondering, “why did he use lowercase Roman Numerals on some of those?” It’s simple… the lowercase Numerals mean “minor chords” and the capital Numerals mean “major chords”. Hang on, you’ll understand in a second…

When you build the major scale, you’re establishing a “key”… the scale is the same as the key. Ever hear the expression “that’s in the wrong key” or “I can’t sing in that key, it’s too high”… or “what’s the key of the song?”. Each scale is a key, and each key has chords that fit it, and sound perfect together. This is the Nashville Number System.

So now, all we have to do, is rename the notes to CHORDS…. like this:

C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
I ii iii IV V vi vii

Now if you know your basic open chord shapes (which all songwriters should know), you know all of those chords, except B Diminished (Bdim). The diminished chord is basically useless in pop/rock/indie songwriting for all intents and purposes… so let’s kill it, and now we have a total of six chords that fit together (we don’t count the last C because it’s already there in the beginning):

C Dm Em F G Am
I ii iii IV V vi

SIX CHORDS…. that’s it. Play around with them, and you’ll see that everything you play, in whatever order, sounds good… because all those chords fit together.


Let’s now build the notes of the of A major scale using the 221-2221 formula (and at the same time, we’ll assign the Roman Numerals and the chord types, while getting rid of the diminished chord that falls on the 7th scale degree):

A Bm C#m D E F#m
I ii iii IV V vi

All the chords above now fit in the key of A major. One of the most famous songs in A is the Beatles “In My Life” – notice the first two chords (before the singing) are A and E…. and then when the singing starts, you have A and F#m, and a few other chords. Those three chords I just mentioned are all above, and they belong to the key of A major.

For those of you who love to use a capo (I’m definitely one of those people)… throw it on random frets and do all of the shapes above (in the key of C, or key of A) and you’ll STILL notice that all those chords fit together and sound great together. It’s such a simple thing to learn, but it’s essential.

Comment with any questions… or shoot me an email!