Friday, May 18, 2007

Recording a song

I received the following question from Michael -- what kind of recording system do you use to record your song for a day? Are you using a PA system and then recording to what? And how do you post it using quicktime?

My response was:

I started with an old cassette recorder and even used my camcorder when in a pinch. Now I have an 8 track digital recorder, Zoom MRS-802B. The system with accessories costs about $1000. This includes a condenser mike, 2 headphones, speakers, etc. From that I burn to a CD. I then use my computer and a FreeWare Program, FreeRip, to convert my audio track to MP3. From there I load it to my website. If you don't have a website, MySpace allows you to post up to 3 songs free.

If I did it again, I would check out ProTools which runs off the computer. If anyone has a suggestion, add a comment.

I'd also suggest finding an easy to use system, rather than the most advanced, unless you are a techie. Each system has a large learning curve! I use only about 5% of the functionality of my recording system.

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What to do if you suck at singing

There's a discussion on the web site, Blogging Muses about "what to do if you suck at singing." I added the comment below:

I was one of the people who was told, play the guitar, but whatever you do don't get near the mike. About 5 years ago, I decided to learn how to sing. For one main reason, to get my songs heard!

I started in group classes where I could hide my voice in a crowd. The instructor, Julie Davis, started the class with "everyone can sing, no one is tone deaf. You just need to learn how." Great advice, yet I had my doubts! After about a year, I started private lessons and am still continuing once a week with Ben Senterfit. I went through 5 or 6 teachers before I started working with Ben.

What I found out was by learning to sing, I improved my songwriting. My melodies were limited because of the limited range of my voice. With more confidence, I can play my voice like my guitar (I should say like a beginning guitar student). I also have confidence to sing in front of a crowd and my songs are getting heard.

Am I an excellent singer, no! But at least I don't sound like fingernails on the blackboard. Check out my songs, at

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Practice the easy stuff

On Monday, I was playing my latest song for a small group. It went over well, but I did make a few small guitar mistakes. This has happened at my last few shows, strong vocals, mistakes on the guitar. If you ask me what's the strongest part of my music, I'd easily say guitar.

Upon reflection, I realized that I put most of my practice time on the vocals. I worked on how I was breathing, what note to hit where, different phrasings, etc. I recognized challenging areas, practiced the transitions, and figured out how to recover from mistakes. Since the guitar part was relatively easy, I only practiced to support the voice. In essence, I took the guitar parts for granted. It's no wonder that I made mistakes.

My take home lesson is to practice the easy stuff (guitar) with the same intensity as the hard stuff (vocals).

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Songwriters - take your listener on a journey

Good songwriting takes the listener on a journey. A good way to think about it is taking a road trip.

- First imagine a long flat road with endless corn fields, your car on cruise control.
- Then imagine a hilly road with peaks and valley, occasional glimpses of waterfalls or snow covered peaks.
- Finally image going high speed on a torturous four-wheel drive road, with tons of sharp turns, steep drop offs, endless ruts and obstructions to avoid.

What kind of journey are you trying to achieve in your songwriting? In the first case, the flat road, a song like this would be great for meditation or getting ready for bed. In the last case, the crazy drive, you're trying to build the crowd into the frenzy, like in my old punk rock days. I tend to shoot for the middle case, taking my listener up a mountain, back down again and occasionally give them glimpses of a waterfall or rainbow.

What tools do you have as a songwriter?

1. Melody or chord changes (this is your landscape).
2. Volume of your voice or instrument - Start quiet and build (like climbing the mountain). Many bands add instruments as the song builds.
3. Changing your strum (but not your beat) - Fingerpick vs. strum. Number of beats in a measure (in 4/4 time take 4 strums/measure or take 1 strums/measure). The key is to keep the metronome going in your head.
4. Number of words - Wordy phrases = rushing, few words = more relaxed.
5. Pause - Stop playing for a count of 4, or don't say something when people expect it. People tune into what's next.
6. Add a bridge ( a departure) - It's like stopping to get gas, hitting a home run, or falling off a cliff.
7. Going up an octave or changing key - Take the melody up an octave (the elevator to the top).

In the song I'm currently working on, my first draft was almost like the corn field trip, one chord pattern, strong but consistent melody, no bridge. In my rewriting process, I added dynamics and ended with a journey. The trip looks like this:

- Start with a quiet intro. (get in the car)
- Build through the verse and chorus (climb a mountain)
- Quiet down for the next verse ( a little louder than the first verse) and again build to the chorus (a slightly higher mountain)
- Add a rocking bridge (base jump off the top)
- Add a pause (the parachute just opened)
- Next verse is almost a whisper (enjoy the beautiful valley on the way down)
- Build back to chorus (drive home)
- Slow down in the outro (back home)

I'm tired just thinking about the journey, but hopefully my listeners will enjoy it. If not, no refunds!!

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

New songwriting tips

An excellent songwriter, Rob Roper, has begun to add songwriting tips to my website.

Rob's first tip, Crawl First, is sage advice for the beginning songwriter. He provides some great suggestions for getting started.

Rob's second tip, Get out of the House, encourages songwriters not to write in a vacuum. Rob gives suggestions on where to go for ideas and to learn.

Thanks Rob!

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Stuck? Walk away...

I was talking with an artist today. She mentioned that when she got stuck on a painting, she'd often leave it until she felt inspired. Sometimes it would sit for days or weeks. When she finally returned, she felt she came back stronger, more creative. She said that even though she wasn't consciously working on it, her brain was still painting.

I find the same to be true with songwriting. When I write, I often take a break in between verses or whenever the energy starts to ebb. Sometimes I leave a song for minutes, sometimes much longer. I like the concept of my subconscious working on it, when I'm not. I just wish it would worker faster and harder...

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Economy of words

Today I talked with Ben Senterfit about the economy of words. We were analyzing the lyrics to a song I'm working on. The discussion centered around how much detail do you need? and How to describe something with one word instead of two? An example is hot water heater (do we really need the word hot). Ben's point was the less words you use, the more weight each word gets. Also, the less you define, the more the listener can develop their own image.

A example from today was:

I started out with "The first drop of rain falls on the mountain top,"

then went to "A drop of rain falls on the mountain top,

we ended up with "a drop falls on the mountain top."

I'm not sure if I like it, but its an option. The key to crafting a song is to have options and then pick the one that works best.

P.S. I cut the number of words in half when editing this post. It works in writing too!

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