Thoughts about Writing and Recording Music on Your Own

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

I recently blogged about searching for unsigned music. Over the years, I have heard many great bands who were either signed, but not well promoted, or who were not signed at all. I’ve also heard some real crap, but the idea behind my post was that when you’re dealing with music that was not widely distributed; the greatness will become extinct as quickly as the crap. In that respect, it seems to me that doing what you can to preserve what you have in your collection is a good idea.

Since writing that post and posting it up, I’ve hit one of the websites that offer free downloads of unsigned bands, and I’ve listened to a lot of music. If I had internet available while at work, I’m sure it would have been much more by now, but that’s ok. It gives me a chance to become familiar with the stuff I actually like.

So let’s discuss the crap for a moment. It seems to me that in a few cases the bands in question are only one person with a multi-track recorder. I’m a supporter of this kind of thing. Bands are hard to get together and maintain, so if you have the patience and the creative drive to write and record stuff on your own, then certainly do so. But can I give you a couple of pointers… please?

Check Your Ego at the Door – The biggest problem with creative types is that they get into this odd mentality that “I’m special just like everyone else.” Let’s get one thing clear right now. You’re writing and recording on your own because musicians are generally flakey people. You are not writing and recording on your own because you’re just so talented that you don’t need anyone else. Most of us are collaborative artists, and you only need to listen to the average solo album to see that. Even those are usually collaborative. Even novelists get help with research, get people to read and critique, and then deal with editors, and so forth. When you start thinking, “I can just do all of this on my own,” you’re frustrated, yes, but you’re probably not right. When I do anything on my own it’s not because I want to do it all on my own, but rather that I have no backing from others.

Interesting Philosophy, but I Am Solo – Alright, so we’re presuming that you either can’t find others to work with, or at the very least, you can’t find others that want to explore your ideas. This has left you working on your own. What do you do?

Learn Basic Theory – Most musicians have probably already taken this step, but sometimes people do miss the obvious steps, so I’m stating the obvious. You need to know the rules, so that you know which rules to break and when. I’m sure you’ve heard the elitists complain about how music is just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, chorus to fade, and how uncreative is that? And what’s up with this crap about playing in key? The truth of the matter is that formats and formulas do not make you less creative. They give you a starting point to get your ideas down. As you work with the ideas further, they’ll evolve into something more original. Don’t get hung up on having to be original right out of the gate with any idea, if it’s meant to be something more than the standard formula, you’ll realize it soon enough.

Break the Rules – Once you know the rules, challenge them a little. This probably won’t win you points with listeners, but fuck ‘em. If what you write is good enough, they’ll manage to get over it somehow. Don’t overdo this unless you set out to overdo it. There is no reason to arbitrarily break rules. Both following the rules and breaking the rules have to suit your purpose.

Learn More – I don’t play instruments very well. If you handed me a guitar and said, “Show me what you got,” I’d start playing some really basic chords, and then say, “That’s about it.” In spite of that, I can tell you that the more you know, the more you can bring to the table when you start writing. Let me warn you though, as with breaking the rules, taking every trick that you’ve learned on your instrument and throwing it all willy nilly into whatever song you’re working on is a bad idea.

Too Little and Too Much – The biggest issue that I’ve found with amateur music, particularly when written by a one person band, is that it’s either too much or too little. We’ve all sat down and recorded an easy drumbeat, played a set of chords over and over, and then put down some vocals. It’s a great way to get an idea down to work with later, but it’s not always going to be instantly good. Some people can do the acoustic folk thing and do it well, but it doesn’t mean that it’ll be good if you do it. You have to ask yourself honestly if it works. You can also overdo the production. You can add too many instruments, too many crazy licks, and too many different directions that the song is trying to go in. Again, you have to ask yourself honestly if it works. If you can find anyone who will be honest, good or bad, listen to what they have to say.

Band Practice – Here’s one of those things that probably seems a little abstract, but you have to have band practice, even if you aren’t in a band. You are doing this on your own after all. You have to do it all. Well, this means that you have to practice that much more. When you’re in a band, you all get together, you take someone’s idea, and you each build around it. Even when you’re playing something that’s already been written, you bring your own thing to it. One person realizes that they’re getting lost coming out of the second chorus and they insist on changing it a little to make the transition easier. Another person thinks that what you’re playing over the verses sounds too much like what you’re playing over the chorus, and they show you something that might work better. This is called collaboration. For some reason, some people find it to be a meddlesome interference with them being cooler than everyone else in the band, but in functioning bands that don’t have diva issues, these different things are tried out, explored, and implemented if they work. Doing it on your own you don’t technically have a collaboration going on, but you need something that mimics it. Practicing the song over and over, and switching instruments frequently, is a good way to see the song from a different perspective. And occasionally picking a random change to try on the song to mimic the creative influence of others will keep you on your toes. If you feel happy with the song, pretend that you’re not happy with one part, try to fix it, and just see what happens. You can always go back if it doesn’t work.

How Do You Practice on a Drum Machine? – If you’re like me, you can’t play drums well enough to beat someone senseless… and you’re bad with metaphors. This leaves me using a drum machine when I record. Drum machines can be amazingly versatile when it comes to the sounds you can get from them, but there is a special danger to electronic music. It can seem emotionless if you’re not careful. Martin Gore of Depeche Mode (he’s the blond one) said that he primarily wrote on an acoustic guitar, even before Depeche Mode started incorporating guitars into their sound. If it didn’t capture the emotion he wanted on the guitar, he figured it wouldn’t transfer well to electronic instruments. So what about the drum machine? If you can’t play real drums, how do you capture the emotion? The best suggestion I have for you is to practice programming. Look for the beats that capture your imagination. Again, don’t overdo the tricks, but look for things that you find interesting. The biggest mistake that people make with drum machines is that they let it play the same beat over and over. Even the coolest beat in all of existence will get tedious after a while. When drum machines had low memory, this was probably a good practice, but drum machines have come a long way. There is no reason that you can’t use a small variety of beats in each of your songs. Do your own fills when you can. With some drum machines you have to, but even if there is an auto-programming feature that allows you to enter pre-programmed fills, only use those when they are what you want. Otherwise, practice getting the sound you want.

A Little Trick I Use – Have you ever noticed that when you know a song really well that you can come in right in the middle and know exactly where you are in the song? When I’m writing and recording music, I look at the composition as an exercise in making sure that no extended section sounds exactly like another extended section, similar yes, but not exactly. This can often be accomplished by varying lyrics, but sometimes you repeat lyrics, and that’s the time to switch up the basic melody, the drumbeat, or maybe even the vocal presentation. Choruses can be tricky because they’re meant to be the part that people remember after hearing the track once. This can be as simple as changing the end of chorus transition so that even if people don’t know which singing of the chorus they started listening at, they’ll know by the time the chorus ends. Ask yourself if you would know where the song was if the vocals were dropped.

Time – You don’t always have to spend a lot of time on each song. Sometimes songs will just come together, and there is no need to overkill it. But the truth of the matter is that in most cases, you’ll want to spend a little time. If you’re just trying things out to find something you like (Lennon and McCartney started out by writing approximately 100 songs to find the few that worked), then no, don’t spend a whole lot of time on it. That’s what demos are for after all. But when you’re ready to record (Duran Duran clocked in about 1,000 hours recording “Seven and the Ragged Tiger”) take the time you need to get it right. I already talked about practicing the songs to find the little changes that the songs may need. The other thing is that if you’re using home recording equipment, go ahead and record the song a few times. Get it right on the recording.

About Recording – I think I make a mistake when recording. I record the instruments right at the redline. I figure that it’s easier to turn down the volume on a loud instrument than trying to raise the volume of an instrument too low. Luckily, I like to sometimes utilize the static that sometimes occurs when I mix it too loud. The point here though is that while I think I sometimes record too loud, there are too many people who really record too soft. Be careful of this. On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve said many times that when posting online that people sometimes mistake me for being smarter than I actually am, just because I spell most things correctly, and I use punctuation and capital letters where they are valid. It’s the same thing with recorded music in a different way. If your recording sounds “professional” people aren’t as quick to dismiss it as they are when it sounds like you recorded it in your bedroom. Even if you did record it in your bedroom, you don’t want people to know that until after they’ve listened. This is part of why I said to record it a few times to get the best recording. This is why I bring up recording close to the redline. Another thing to keep in mind is that “professional” recordings often make use of instrument and vocal layering to get a fuller sound. If you have the tracks available on your recording device, consider utilizing them. You can even play the same thing on the layered track, or a minor variation, and while people won’t consciously notice it, they’ll associate it with a full sound.

Doing It All Myself: The Other Reason – It may sound like this whole thing might have been summed up as, “Do a lot of work on each of your songs.” That’s probably right. I sometimes wonder if there are people who bypass the whole band thing because it’s just too much work. Why practice every week when I can just record my songs and be done with it? The problem with this is that you learn so much more, so much quicker when you practice with musicians, and especially when you play live. If you can’t find other people to play with, then fine, record on your own. But if you just don’t want the hassle of working with other people, even with the number of issues I’ve experienced over the years, I would still suggest joining a band for the experience.

Love Is Blind – I want to finish this out with something that should be obvious to most everyone, but is sometimes lost on creative types. Not everyone thinks your kids are as cute as you do. That’s metaphor again. Creative people tend to have love/hate issues with their works. We’ve all met the person who writes crap, but is convinced that it is fucking amazing. We’ve also met the person who writes very well, but can’t seem to get past the idea that it should be better somehow. Both extremes are a bad place to be in my opinion. Striving for improvement is good, striving for perfection is futile. Believing those who tell you you’re good, while dismissing those who tell you that you suck, is a bad idea. It’s hard to tell sometimes. You put the time and energy into something, and you’re proud of the accomplishment, but at some point you have to look at it as someone who didn’t write it. What would you think of it if you heard it for the first time as written but recorded by someone else? What would you suggest to the person who wrote it? Again, we’re not looking for perfection. I have a song that I wrote in 2009, and I’m pretty sure that most people wouldn’t like it. It’s experimental, it’s a downer, and I don’t sing well. I like it. I like it enough that I would never change it, aside from maybe recording it with better equipment but still maintaining the mood. At the end of the day, you don’t worry so much about whether others will like it, but rather that you know that you produced the best song/recording that you could. That will sometimes mean a lot of work, but to quote my younger son, “…work hard and make it right.”

1 thought on “Thoughts about Writing and Recording Music on Your Own

  1. Nice post Chris – just stumbled across it. First time to your blog…

    I record a lot on my own because I just don't have the time for anything else. Like you say though… You can't beat playing in a real band! On the point about mixing it up a bit, I do find that it's often the mistakes… the little surprises… that can turn a song round. Just got to keep an open mind. Likewise, I've found over the years that less is usually more in most arrangements. Don't repeat something 50 times when once is enough. And I know it's a bit of a religious one, but I'd also say that most songs are best kept short. There's nothing worse than 8 minutes of crap…

    Yeah… I know… everyone's an expert… ha ha…

    You missed the best thing about recording on your own… You've only got to please yourself!

    Sorry… got to go jam with myself…

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