Gye Greene's Thoughts

Gye Greene's Thoughts (w/ apologies to The Smithereens and their similarly-titled album!)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Brain dump of music advice

OK -- here's a "brain dump" on various pieces of advice for songwriting musicians.

This is an extension, of sorts, from an earlier blog entry that also gives advice -- although that earlier entry focuses more on career aspects.

Note that I've tried to group my thoughts by theme -- but the themes themselves may not be in the optimal narrative order.  Ah well.


IMO there are two types of songwriters: those that "just" write the words and melody lines (and basic chord structures), and those that also include the arrangement and recording/producing aspect as part of "the song".

If you're the type that also things in terms of the arrangement and "studio trickery" (e.g. "For the intro, let's have someone singing backwards!!!"), and you're at all technically-minded -- this is good.  It means that you can do a lot of your own production work -- which removes a layer of impediment between the sounds in your head and getting them down on tape (or, "on disk").

IMO, a song is a good song if it passes the "singing in the shower" test.  If a person only hears your song one time -- and the next time they find themselves singing/humming it in the shower -- then it's a good song:  it's catchy enough that a person remembered it.

If you write lyrics, and then keep singing the "wrong" words -- it probably means that revised words are actually better.

Always carry a notebook with you, to jot down ideas.  I used to use the "scraps of paper" method -- but these end up getting lost.  Better to have a series of notebooks.  (Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, kept notbooks.)  Also:  try to transcribe your ideas into your computer, on a regular basis -- in case you misplace your notebook!  (I'm missing the lyrics to a song I wrote -- I don't remember where I put my previous notebook:  gah!!!)

Royalties:  for "recorded" versions of the song, all the band members get equal royalty payments for the "sound recording" (as it's technically called). And then the songwriter(s) get an equal payment (I believe). And then the producer (who decides "Hey -- you should add an extra chorus on the end. And we should add some piano behind verse two...") gets the same amount as the songwriter. This means that if your four-person band has a #1 single that sells a zillion copies -- and **you** were the sole songwriter **and** were the producer -- then they each get 1/12 of the total royalties -- and you get 2/3 + "1/4 of 1/3" of the royalties (I **think** my math is right).

Presumably for this reason, the band R.E.M. has always shared songwriting credits: **all** songs are credited to "Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe". That's pretty cool.

From Wikipedia: "All songwriting is credited to the entire band, even though individual members are sometimes responsible for writing the majority of a particular song.  Each member is given an equal vote in the songwriting process; however, Buck has conceded that Stipe, as the band's lyricist, can rarely be persuaded to follow an idea he does not favor.  Among the original line-up, there were divisions of labor in the songwriting process: Stipe would write lyrics and devise melodies, Buck would edge the band in new musical directions, and Mills and Berry would fine-tune the compositions due to their greater musical experience."

Also, if someone does a cover version of the song, then **you** still get "songwriter points" ("points" = "royalty credit") -- and your bandmates and the producers get nothing (because the cover version only owes the songwriter -- because they've **recorded** a new version). This is why some movies and t.v. shows use cover versions of a song, rather than the original version: it's cheaper -- less royalties.

Copyright:  You can copyright your songs for a reasonable price:  you fill in a form, and send the form plus the supporting documentation (e.g. a recorded copy of the song) to the Library of Congress. When I last did this (20 years ago?), you have a choice between copyright the songwriting, or the sound recording itself.  Go for the songwriting.

It costs the same to copyright an "album" as an individual song (I did an "album").

By filing, what you're really doing is proving that your version of the song came first, before someone's rip-off version. Although -- in this day of YouTube, the "uploaded on" date might be sufficient proof of "who was first"; dunno.

Music lessons:

My view is that music lessons have their role -- but for most songwriters you could better spend your money elsewhere.

My position is that what people **really** need is someone more experienced than themselves to "mentor" them and serve as a resource ("am I holding my hands right?"; "why is my amp making that weird sound?"). Beyond that, you "learn by doing".

If you're inherently interested you will practice a lot, and get better. And if you never get around to playing, and the **only** reason you actually practice is because you know you have a lesson coming up on Tuesday -- well, maybe you shouldn't be playing that instrument...

I would agree that an exception would be to, yes, take some lessons if you want to play highly technical music (e.g. classical; jazz).  Or, if you want to play in a specific style (e.g. "heavy metal" guitar).

But if you're just playing an instrument as one of your "sound-generating tools" that support your songwriting and recording -- then you will end up writing to the level of your ability, and getting better over time, the more and more you play.

So:  you could pay for lessons -- or you could buy a guitar AND an amp AND some effects pedals -- and figure it out yourself (with the help of knowledgeable friends, and/or the internet). :)

True, an actual instrument teacher will give you tips and tricks. But so will reading relevant magazines, much practice, and geeking out with other users of that instrument.


If you had a thousand dollars to spend on music gear -- and you're a songwriter that records your own songs...

Depending on the style of music that you enjoy -- or "no style -- just whatever suits the specific song" style -- with some of that $1,000 I'd suggest picking up a guitar, an electric bass, and some sort of keyboard (even a cheesy Casio-ish one). If you perform "out" you'll need some sort of guitar/bass amp -- but if you're mostly just recording then you can just plug directly in.

With the above set-up, you can basically create any music you need to.  Oh:  and a drum machine, and a soprano recorder.

If your primary instrument is the keyboards, then the world is your oyster:  you can "fake" any other sound you need.

If your primary instrument is a fretted, stringed instrument (ukulele?  guitar?), then you can "wing it" on most other fretted, stringed instruments (mandolin, guitar, bass, balalaika, banjo...). And if you purchase one of these "additional" instruments, you'll teach yourself pretty quickly.


If you're just beginning guitar and don't have a strong preference between acoustic and electric guitars, I'd say get an electric guitar:  although getting started with an acoustic is slightly cheaper --  you can make an electric guitar sound (mostly) like an acoustic if you play "clean" -- plus, you can make a bunch of additional sounds with effects pedals.  Whereas with an acoustic guitar, you  can really only sound like an acoustic.

Plus, if you're a female:  we need more women playing electric (IMO).

Broadly speaking, electric guitars have single-coil or humbucking pickups.  Single-coil guitars have a "thinner" or more "cutting" sound, whereas humbuckers tend to sound "heavier" or "fuller".  So it depends on the type of sound you like.

If you have small hands:  short-scale basses do exist.  Or, you could try playing a guitar through an octave pedal (although there may be a slight delay).  Or just do keyboard-based basslines.

If possible, buy a used instrument:  cheaper, and they have more mojo.  Try pawn shops, eBay, Craigslist, etc.  But, bring someone that knows about that instrument, so that you don't buy a bad instrument.

And reserve a little bit of money to get the guitar and bass "set up" (e.g. intonated, setting the action [string distance from the fingerboard]) -- although an experienced guitarist or bassist would be able to do that for you.

Recording gear:

If you're recording to a computer, you may want to pick up a USB recording interface, rather than just plugging in to the "microphone input" of your computers.

Unless you're micing a full drum kit -- or using multiple mics to record many instruments live -- a two-input unit should suffice in the early stages.

Technology is advancing so quickly (and home recordists do upgrade!), so you'd probably be able to pick up a used one that's only a few years old. Something like this would be fine -- -- but also see --

Behringer has a reputation as a slightly cheesy brand, but I've found them perfectly fine -- and well-priced. But for the slight cost increase, I'd probably suggest the Prosonus unit for $90.

In the late '90s I used to order online from both Musician's Friend and American Musical Supply. I ended up preferring AMS -- but I don't remember why. And that was 15 years ago -- so their customer service and range of products have possible changed.

Drum kits:

I always feel bad for drummers because their gear is so expensive compared to entry-level guitar or bass gear -- and because it's hard to find a place to practice (the size of a drum kit, plus the noise (no volume knob!).

Depending on your aims (e.g. "you've always wanted to learn the drums"), you may want to consider a drum machine (I recommend something along these lines -- -- **much** cheaper if "used", of course (I have an old Boss "Dr Rhythm" unit, but I don't know if they're now priced as "collectable"...), or perhaps an electronic drum kit.

Electronic drum kits don't "feel" the same as "real" drum kits -- but they are **similar** -- and have the **huge** advantage of being somewhat smaller and having a volume knob (and a headphone jack!). And the arm-leg coordination that you develop **will** cross-transfer to "real" drum kits -- although there would be additional nuances to learn.

BTW -- if you look at "musician wanted" ads, there tend to be more "Drummers Wanted" ads than "Drummer Available" -- so if you **do** get good at the drums, you'll be highly valuable! ;)

My number 1 drumming tip: During the song, keep the snare drum going.  Unless you're going for an "effect".

My number 2 tip: Simple is perfectly fine (e.g. Meg White). As long as it's steady -- and suits the song. ;)

Tip #3: If you do get an "acoustic" drum kit -- there are at least five distinct sounds you can get off a high-hat. ;)

And at least three distinct sounds per "regular" cymbal. And three sounds per snare. Including this.

Recording tips and tricks:

I'd super-recommend subscribing to Tape Op magazine. It's a recording magazine that's free to subscribe to if you live in the U.S. (the advertising pays for the publishing costs), and it has a very strong "DIY"/"Do what works" orientation. This means that they treat 4-track recording as equally valid as ProTools-based digital recordings through $120,000 mixing boards. And they have a wide range of articles, tips, and gear reviews -- beginner through advanced -- e.g. how to mic a guitar cabinet, gear reviews, interviews with producers and engineers, etc.

Reverb gives a sense of space. So vocs with no reverb sounds more intimate, like the singer is right in front of you; loads of reverb makes the singer sound more distant (although there are tweaks to this).

ALSO, no reverb can make the singer sound **bigger** ("in your face"), whereas reverb can actually make the singer sound **smaller** (e.g. "lost in a big room").

Try to own at last two mics: different microphones have different tonal qualities, so you can strategically use them to optimize the sound you want. It could be that one suits your voice better, or whatever instrument you're recording.

Stereo micing -- even if the mics aren't "matched" (even completely different mic models!) can add a lot to a recording. For example, point at two different parts of the instrument; or have one pointing AT the instrument, and one pointing away (to get the "room sound"). Then pan them slightly L and R, to achieve separation.

Dynamic mics (e.g. the Shure SM57; reasonably priced, and an industry standard) don't have the same fidelity as condensor mics. (Not necessarily "bad" -- just "different".) Ribbon mics lose a little top-end detail -- but that makes them good for sources that can be a little harsh, such as brass or certain voices.

Cascade Microphones makes really good ribbon mics for an incredibly reasonable amount of money. But that's probably a "later" purchase. :)

Bathrooms can provide some usable natural reverb. Walk-in closets can provide some nice "dead" recording booths (although it won't kill the bass frequencies -- just the mids and highs).

Use EQ to "carve out" space for different instruments -- esp. if you have a full mix with a lot of instruments in the same frequency range. For example, my vocs and the bass strings of a guitar are in the same zone -- so I'll slightly cut the guitar in a certain frequency to let my vocs stick up.

Also with EQ:  do wide boosts, and narrow cuts.  Unless you're going for an "effect".

Panning will also allow separation between instruments.

A clever trick for turning a mono signal into quasi-stereo (i.e. slightly fuller-sounding) is to copy it to another track, then delay that track by just a few miliseconds. Then mix the delayed track just a little louder -- and pan the two tracks to opposite sides. Psycho-acoustically, we perceive first-arriving sounds to indicate the sound source (e.g. if the sound reaches your L. ear first, and THEN your R. ear, you interpret the sound as being on your left). But we also use the relative volume to gauge the location. So if you tweak these two parameters -- but in opposite ways -- then the two interpretations cancel each other out.

People are conditioned (evolved?) to focus on voices -- we know what voices are "supposed" to sound like. So make the vocs sound good, and then make everything else fit around it. (Unless you're **intentionally** trying to make the vocs sound muffled, etc.)

Similarly, if you only have a limited number of mics (or channels), and you need to record vocs plus something else, at the same time, then put the better-sounding signal chain on the vocs.

Compression can make things sound punchier and/or stronger -- but it also changes the tonal quality a bit. Compression is powerful, but a little tricky to get the hang of. But it's fine to start with "recipe" settings.

A highly-recommended compressor -- at a reasonable price -- is the RNC--1773.

If you end up geeking out over the recording aspect, you will end up owning a range of mic pre-amps, compressors, reverb units, etc. -- or their equivalent plug-ins. But if you end up using recording in a purely utilitarian manner, that's legitimate, too (of course!).

Have fun with samples and sound effects! (The Beatles did it (e.g. "Yellow Submarine"; you can too!)

The fidelity of the recorded song is important -- but 1950s and 1960s music still sounds fine today -- because the songs themselves are catchy (Buddy Holly!!!  Beach Boys!!!  The Beatles!!!).  So, a catchy song with an "acceptable" quality of recording will trump a masterfully recorded, boring, song.

Music career:  

Some musicians "start their own label".  This gives you control, and lets you keep more of the money -- but it also means way more time invested in the "business side", which means less time actually writing and recording music!  (Likewise, "being your own managment".)

If the "business side" appeals to you, then that will influence your decision, of course. But you only have a certain number of hours in the day -- so any time spent promoting your music, shipping copies of your CD (and bumper stickers, and posters...) is time you're **not** spending recording and songwriting. Although, the internet age has automated a lot of this -- so it's a lot less labor-intensive because a lot of this can be outsourced to "t-shirts and coffee mugs on demand" websites, music-purchasing websites, and the like.

Umm -- I think that's it.  For now.  ;)


Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home