What I hear a lot of, these days:
- “808” kits (in trap, dubstep, “EDM” genres)– Roland TR-808 (drum machine from the early 80s, or sampled versions of it)
- super-fast-programmed closed hi-hats (even in indie/alt stuff)… sometimes it sounds pretty lame.
- Exaggerated, dated synths (early 90s) in albums such as Halsey’s debut, and most top 100 alternative/modern rock charts (sounds/genres always go in cycles)
- heavily-reverbed grand pianos (Lana Del Rey, countless other stuff). In my opinion, pianos sound better dry, like you’re hearing them in a room. But, sometimes reverbed pianos have their place.
- very obvious drum machines/fake drums. This used to be taboo, in the late 90s or early 2000s. These days, go for it, and go big.
- Beats without hi-hats or ride cymbals (think Lorde’s “Royals”)
- “Stomped” kick drums… “four on the floor” (obviously borrowed from early 90s techno and house). Often found in new-folk music.
I’m always the first to say— try to avoid trends where possible. Be YOU. It’s cool to take sounds/production styles from other artists, but what always matters most? The song, and its lyrics. If it’s a good-enough song (on acoustic guitar and vocals ONLY, or piano/vocals ONLY), then you usually don’t need much else.
Stumbled upon this info, by Cliff Goldmacher…. thought you might be interested:
“Which do you write first, the music or the words?” This is the classic question that all songwriters get asked. In my experience, there’s no easy – or correct – answer to this one. Sometimes it’s the music, sometimes it’s the lyrics, and, often, it’s some mystical, organic combination of the two. More importantly, there is no one way to write a song. Some of the best – and worst – songs ever written were created using the same techniques. To that end, I’m going to cover four different ways to approach writing a song and some of the “dos” and “don’ts” you’ll want to keep in mind as you go through each one.
1. Writing based on a title idea/lyrical hook
Coming up with a really catchy title or lyrical hook is an art in and of itself. If you’ve got one, congratulations. Now that you’ve got it, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Do remember to make sure that everything in your lyric points to and supports your lyrical hook. Having a catchy hook only works if you build a foundation around it so that when the hook arrives, there’s a sense of drama and release.
Don’t forget to give the song real emotional content. It’s possible to be so focused on the hook and setting it up that you forget to be sincere. While the average listener might not be able to tell you why, the song won’t move them in the way that a song with genuine emotional content would.
2. Writing based on a general idea/lyrical concept
Sometimes you’ve been through an experience or have an idea for a song that feels important enough to write about. That’s as good a place as any to start.
Do capture the feeling and emotion of your concept. You obviously felt strongly enough to want to write about this idea, so immerse yourself in it and really tell the story.
Don’t be too vague. Because you haven’t started with an actual lyrical hook, you’ll need to remember to bring your overall concept to a very sharp point by summarizing it with a phrase or hook line. This hook is something you’ll hopefully come to as you’re developing your lyric around your idea. A story without a summarizing point or hook risks being too unfocused to keep your listeners’ attention.
3. Writing from a melodic idea
If you’re a melodic writer, then you’ve got a different set of challenges. Beautiful, catchy melodies are a rare commodity and should be treated with the appropriate respect.
Do honor your melody and build your song around it. Remember, people will learn your melody long before they learn your lyric, so having a good one is not to be taken lightly.
Don’t let the melody box you into awkward words or watered-down phrases. While a beautiful melody is one part of a song, it’s not the only part. Cramming in words or compromising on your lyrical integrity isn’t an acceptable approach when writing from a melody. Remember, it’s the give and take of a catchy melody and a natural, conversational lyric that makes for a great song.
4. Writing from a chord progression/groove
When you pick up your guitar or sit down at the piano, often it’s a chord progression or groove that comes first. Great!
Do dig in and develop the groove and feel. This can really set the mood of a song and inspire all kinds of interesting melodic and lyrical ideas. Also, a good groove is the very first thing the average listener will notice when they hear your song.
Don’t rely on a chord progression or groove at the expense of your melody and lyric. This is no time to get lazy. A chord progression and groove in and of itself is only – in most genres – an arrangement idea, which doesn’t really constitute a song. Without a strong melody and lyric, it’s entirely possible to have a great sounding track, and, unfortunately, a mediocre song.
As I stated at the top of this article, there isn’t one “right” way to write a song. I’d highly recommend trying every possible songwriting approach you can. Often, as songwriters, we find ourselves in a rut where we go back to the same approach over and over. While this may be comforting and even result in increased productivity, in the long run, it might not provide you with the most inspired or unique songs you’re capable of writing. Why not leave your comfort zone and try a couple of different ways of writing? You never know what you’ll get.
Good luck! – Cliff Goldmacher
Something that everyone who plays piano should work on improving is their left hand, especially when it comes to songwriting and pop accompaniment.
This page has a handful of great exercises to help people with pattern improvisation. Well worth a look, whether you read sheet music or not… if you don’t, just listen to the audio examples…. but it’s really helpful if you read music, though.
I’ve been so busy, so I apologize for not updating this blog as much as I used to… more good stuff coming soon…
From Soundfly…. I recently discovered this course while researching some material for my 9th annual songwriting/recording summercamp at the school I teach at in the Philly ‘burbs, and I think this course is really, really helpful for recording a demo at home and on the cheap…… ALL instruments, too. The entire course is two and a half hours, and well worth your time.
Do check it out, and check out more of what Soundfly.com has to offer… all of their courses are long and useful, not just this one. Really dope site.
Seriously. We are all bombarded by new/current/hot music. In the indie world, people are all about Half Moon Run, Daughter, Grimes, and First Aid Kit. They’re all great. But you know what you need to listen to more of?
Beach Boys / Brian Wilson
any 50s balladry (Gene Vincent, Flamingos, anything doo-wop)
Ya know? Man, is that music good. I’ve been listening to a lot of it this past weekend. At the end of February, it’s 61 outside in the Philly suburbs. Holy shit, man. This music’s perfect for it.
Listen to this absolute mastery… vocal harmonies… the writing…
And listen to a modern girl (Lauren O’Connell, half of My Terrible Friend, with Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose)… and her perfect spin on it:
So much to learn from all of this classic music. Man….. ya know? And I LOVE new shit… believe me… I’m always on the up and up when it comes to discovering new bands and introducing people to new, great shit… but please do not forget about where all the great songwriting started (in the 50s and 60s).
Listen to THIS, with headphones…. and FEEL this:
And feel THIS, too:
I suppose you could call this another rant….
Lately I’ve been researching a lot online (well, when don’t I… I’m a music teacher by day, so I gotta know my shit 24/7)….. and I’ve found out some truly disappointing things.
Let’s talk about 88-key digital pianos, for instance. For decades, the sound was improving, as was the feature set. Something that manufacturers NEVER cared about until recently though was having actual, usable sounds. What do I mean by usable?
Good emulations of all of these instruments can be included in all of these digital pianos, even the ones for $600 (Yamahas). Yamaha recently made a tiny little toy called the Reface CP, which has great-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, CP80, Clavinet…. and some GREAT built-in, USEFUL effects, for $500. The catch? The things are tiny, with 37 mini-keys. But… the sounds are there, and quite convincing.
Now, the major gripe I have with the major digital piano manufacturers (Yamaha, specifically) is that as of a couple years ago, they removed their standard MIDI in/out ports for their pianos less than $700. Standard MIDI in-out ports are common for a reason. MIDI lets you connect one device to another. For instance, you can get a nice 88 weighted-key digital piano with standard MIDI in/out, and have it control the Reface CP, so you have superb-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet sounds at your disposal (without having to use the mini-keys). A blessing, live (you ever try to pick up a Rhodes piano by yourself?)
So again, Yamaha removed their standard MIDI in/out ports on all digital pianos (under $700) since 2013. Casio did, too, on their Privia line (PX-130, etc, etc). Now all they both have is “USB to HOST”, which means, they can connect to other keyboards, but only if there’s a laptop, in between.
What if you want to avoid the laptop use, especially in a live setting?
Yamaha’s P-45 is less than $400, new. Great key feel, great piano sound. No MIDI I/O. Just USB to HOST port (side note– USB is often flaky and sometimes unreliable, and never securely attaches to anything on the device-side.)
Why not put the USB to HOST port on their unmovable pianos? Happily connect your ipad to it, or your laptop, as you’ll never move those gigantic beasts, anyway (the ones with the built-in stands, like the Clavinova series). Standard MIDI I/O should definitely be on the more portable pianos and keyboards.
It always baffles me that no one has tried to make a true all-in-one product, that actually sounds damn good. The only people who have done this ar Clavia, with their Nord Stage and Electro series (specially the weighted-key versions), and then Korg, with their much-loved SV-1.
Why hasn’t Yamaha or Casio done this yet? The Casio Privia PX-5S is definitely a NICE board for the money, and the sounds are tremendous, but it’s a bit ugly, and too much button-pushing through menus.
If Yamaha merged their P45 digital piano with their Reface CP…. and put a price tag of $800-1000 on it, I’m sure thousands of (non-rich) performing musicians would pick it up.. A Nord Electro with weighted keys is nearly $3000. That’s just insane. I know the pros swear by them, but they have the money to do so. What about the rest of us?
In short, find the need and fill it. Ya know?
What do I mean by this?
Stuff everyone knows, but what no one does: stop buying shit. Stop assuming the next piece of gear will make your recordings more professional and completely make your songwriting a thousand times better.
I think back to 2002-2004. I bought SO much shit.
I got a steal on a Novation Nova IIx synthesizer in late 2002. It was $999 from Sam Ash. Retailed at the time about $2500. I have no idea why it was so cheap… maybe a closeout or something. But I bought it. I loved it. I used it for a cool pad sound in the Beauty’s Confusion song “Blue Deluge”, in the chorus. And that’s all I used it for.
A thousand dollars for a cool patch sound, and an arpeggiator that was extremely fun to fool around with. The patches were all insanely fun. It was a great analog-modeling synth.
Luckily, I was able to sell it for about $1250 after getting bored with it, a few months later.
I also remember, a few months before picking up the Nova IIx, I bought an E-Mu Proteus 2000 rackmount for $800 from Sam Ash. I even bought a $200 “super-realistic strings” chip upgrade, that allowed the rackmount to add a bunch of sounds to it. $1000 for sounds that ultimately sounded pretty damn dated, a few years later.
The rackmount soon grew to be a pain in the butt, so I sold it at a loss, and instead, bought the E-Mu Proteus Keys, which was the “keyboard” version of the Proteus 2000:
This keyboard moved with me to the Philadelphia area, in 2004. I sold it about a year later, for around $300 (with the $200 string chip).
You want to hear the best part? Several years ago, E-Mu released the Proteux VX virtual instrument for free, with all the sounds from the Proteus 2000. A mere 65MB download. And it sounds exactly like the hardware.
In late 2002, I also bought a used Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 (had to drive three hours to pick it up). It cost only $450. I sold it about a year later for exactly the same price (someone drove two hours to pick it up). I loved that thing. They now sell for $1500 used. Should have hung onto that one. But I’ve found that cheap or free virtual rhodes instrument VSTs/plugins sound as good as the real thing.
I bought a Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer five separate times in my life, and sold it five separate times. First one I got for only $300 (broken joystick/pitch bend). Sold for $400. The others, I bought for slightly more and sold for slightly more about 6 months to a year later. Last one I bought in 2011 cost me only $650 (locally through craigslist). Turned around and sold it for $900 five months later (also through craigslist). I’ve found the TAL U-No62 virtual synth, and its big brother, TAL U-NO-LX sound EXACTLY like the real thing. The first thing is free. The big brother’s only $40 or so. Get a cool midi keyboard that has assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, and you can control every parameter of the virtual version, and hot damn, it almost feels like and plays like the real thing.
I have a habit of doing this a lot. Oftentimes it’s just to make ends meet and pay bills. Sometimes it’s all about checking out gear and messing with it, and then parting ways with it with someone more excited and/or experienced.
Since I play everything, I’m prone to buying a wider variety of gear. But…
These days, my studio is so damn stripped-down, it’s ridiculous. I own a handful of gear, but only the shit I truly, truly need.
In the early 2000s, I collected synths, almost… Juno-60, Casio CZ-1000, Roland Juno-1 and Juno-2, Proteus Keys PK-6, Kawai K4, Roland D-50…. what the hell was the point? None of that shit was helping me finish songs.
I owned one microphone (one) from early 2003 to 2009. An AKG C2000B. I still use it. Past few years, I’ve bought more and more mics. They’re always useful.
Keyboard-wise? An M-Audio Oxygen 61, to control ALL of my virtual synths (most of which are freeware/great-sounding). The other keyboard I own is a Yamaha P-60 digital piano (weighted keys). I teach on it and love the feel of it. I’ve owned the same one since 2005.
Drums? I have a Pacific CX kit I play out with (white marine pearl). Got it on trade. I record all my acoustic drum stuff with a Sonor Safari bop kit. My cymbals are cheap, but awesome-sounding Paiste 404 crashes and a ride, and New Beat hi-hats by Zildjian. I own a second Sonor Safari, that I converted into an electronic/triggered kit on the cheap.
Guitars? Not many. A couple acoustics (Martin and Yamaha). I have an Agile Les Paul clone ($300 with custom Seymor Duncan pickups), and a Gibson SG Special. I used to own a Fender strat, which I miss. I have a Fender jazz bass for all my bass needs. I have a modest pedalboard with relatively cheap pedals. I have a Vox practice amp, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’68 reissue, for live use.
I have your typical “must-haves” for any home studio in 2015/2016– a good USB audio interface, studio monitors, dual flat-panel widescreen displays, mic stands, different mics, a harmonizer, cheap mic preamp, and a midi drum pad (Maschine MK2)… and that M-Audio Oxygen 61.
Anything else is just not necessary.
Trim the fat. Utilize negative space in your home studio. Basically everything you need to record good music can be found “in the box” (on your computer). All of my effects (reverb, delay, compression, etc)… all “in the box” (mostly the stock plugins included with Reaper 4 and Reaper 5). The less options, the better.
It took me like 15 years to realize I didn’t need most of the shit I bought. Don’t be stupid like me. Research, and buy only what you need. Even if you’re a multi-instrumentalist…. you don’t need much.
via SoundOnSound magazine…. this is without a doubt, the best article I’ve ever read on vocal recording in a home studio, from start to finish. Seriously, this is it:
Recently, I purchased the $30 (one-time fee) for Speedsongwriting.com, by Graham English. His site promises an easy, fast way to write good songs. I know how to write songs (and occasionally good ones), but I wanted to sign up for this, to try and get better habits… and songs written faster… I mean, this is what his “course” promises.
I enjoy some parts of it, but I think a lot of is upselling scam crap. His most recent email to me is asking me to join his “Songwriting Bootcamp”, at about $200. “With this, you’ll get… blah blah blah ($197 value).. blah blah blah ($197 value)… blah blah blah”….
I didn’t sign up for that. Mainly because I’m not entirely impressed with the “value” of the stuff I’ve watched/listened to, and read, since signing up.
I’m seeing a lot of repeating things in every new thing he adds, weekly… a lot of repeated powerpoint presentations (made into streaming videos), just a lot of repeating.
I’m wondering if, at the end of this course, that I will be more pleased with my purchase.
He offers a full refund, no questions asked… if you’re not fully satisfied. I won’t do that, but…. I think a post like this might be more helpful, in not losing your money. I’m more interested in trying to help people in a legit way, than offering some “too good to be true” thing.
I’m not a stupid person….. I didn’t “fall” for his course… I decided “ya know… I’ll give it a try. I might learn something new.” But I don’t know… lots of blah blah blah, and lots of repeated stuff…. and upselling. Nothing I hate more than someone trying to upsell me, when they haven’t offered much substance, with their main thing.
I’m sure eventually Graham will find this entry. If he does, cool! Maybe it will inspire him to make a better, more helpful offering, songwriting-wise. Again, as of this moment (two weeks into the course), I’m not very impressed.
Just a heads-up, peeps…