Reflections on Rock Music: How to Become a Songwriter…

Originally posted 2009-04-20 23:38:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Regardless of which genre of rock music you listen to, chances are that you are a fan of songwriters.  As recently as the fifties and even into the sixties, it was considered par for the course to have the songwriting separated from the performance.  For instance, consider Lieber and Stoller’s contributions to Elvis Presley’s catalog.  Johnny Cash wrote some of his songs, but he certainly covered more than he wrote.  And this was an understandable system.

Somewhere along the line, the singer/songwriter became a closely watched and more appreciated commodity.

It really began in the sixties, predominantly with Dylan and the Beatles.  Both acts began by playing traditional music and covers before they started writing their own music.  Whatever it was, something struck them, and from that point forward, it only made sense to record their own material.  This most likely contributed to the legendary heights that sixties rock music reached.  Consider Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s groundbreaking records that truly sounded like nothing that had come before.  Take Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ experimental and, in the case of the latter, concept albums that literally changed the texture of album making as we know it.

Meanwhile, don’t forget all the other singer/songwriters who emerged during that period and since.  Brian Wilson went so far in the mid-sixties as to stop touring and devote his attentions one hundred percent to songwriting and arranging lush, complicated — and, of course, beautiful — background tracks, perhaps best showcased on Pet Sounds and the finally-released SMiLE (the latter of which literally drove him crazy).

Since then, some of my personal favorite bands and individual artists have been, first and foremost, songwriters.  Take Warren Zevon’s unique brand of songwriting, particularly his dark humor and literary references.  Or R.E.M. and their contributions to the genre now known as “alternative rock,” wherein Michael Stipe purposely cut out electric guitar solos and — at least in the band’s early work — muffled the lyrics so that there was no single set of understood words for each song.  It was literally left up for interpretation.

Later acts have split off in a range of directions.  For instance, acts like Ben Folds, the Barenaked Ladies, and the Wallflowers have clearly taken their lead from classic sixties songwriters and then added their own unique lyrical and instrumental twists.  Other bands, such as Pearl Jam and Wilco (to name only a couple), continue to make music that stretches and redefines the boundaries that have previously been set for rock music and songwriting in general.  (This is a painfully short list of five contemporary bands that I love, but they are enough to provide fodder for conversation…)

So, based on this, how does one become a songwriter?

If you’ve always wanted to be a songwriter but were never sure how, or even if you’ve just been curious, then this list is for you…

1)  Rebel Against Something

This is a requisite coming-of-age process for all you prospective songwriters who hope to make it to the big time.  Whether you have grown up in suburbia or on the streets, there are always reasons to rebel.  For Bob Dylan, it was the dull realities of daily life in a dying mining town in Minnesota that caused him to see music as an escape.  He has described his exhilaration as he tuned his radio in to whatever distant stations he could pick up.  Others, such as Eddie Vedder, found music as a way to channel their emotional reactions to what they experienced and witnessed around them.  Vedder reflected on such experiences from young adulthood as abusive relationships, dysfunctional people, and secrets being kept from him.

2)  Show Your Distaste for Tradition and “The Man”

Once you’ve begun the process of rebelling (and perhaps even winning over the masses), it’s time to stick it to “the Man.”  The Beatles’ history epitomizes this development.  They certainly didn’t go from “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” overnight, but one thing is certain: the more they rebelled, the more fans flocked to Beatlemania.  Bob Dylan brought a giant light bulb to a press conference, refused to communicate in a straightforward manner with any member of the press, and plugged in — full volume — at the Newport Folk Festival.  The Moody Blues promised they would record a classical album, then turned around and used the studio time alotted to them to record their own original material for Days of Future Passed.  Pearl Jam fought the good fight against the “convenience charges” implimented by Ticketmaster, and Eddie Vedder, after a fan threw a copy of Rolling Stone onstage during a concert, wiped his butt with the magazine, explaining to the crowd that RS printed a cover photo of him without the other members of his band in the shot.  When Trent Reznor tired of record label interference and corporate nonsense, the Nine Inch Nails frontman began releasing his music online — including his 2008 album The Slip — for free.

And the list goes on…

Perhaps the best example of the importance of this step in the successful songwriter’s career is found in the Beach Boys’ decision not to play at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival.  For the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, they were labeled as “them” instead of “us” by many music fans.  It is arguable that the Beach Boys’ clean cut image that skyrocketed them to success in the early sixties ultimately led to the band’s decline in popularity.  Ah, the irony…

3)  Go Through Rehab

This sounds like a terrible and heartless suggestion to make to you.  Yet, while there are some artists who have not gone through rehab, there are indeed many great musicians and songwriters who have had to face their addictions and other demons at some point in their careers.  Recently, Jeff Tweedy underwent rehabilitation to deal with an addiction to painkillers.  He, like many other artists in the past, was asked what the effect would be on his music.  (I was delighted with his reply — essentially, he said he was feeling better than ever and that his state of mind can only have a positive effect on Wilco’s music.)

Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash was asserted by many to be his way of stepping back from the spotlight after a wild tour overseas where he was known to take downers before the acoustic half of his show and then take uppers during the intermission before coming out with the Band.  He was quickly setting a precedent that no individual could survive.  Brian Wilson, of course, withdrew from music and life in general for decades after failing to release SMiLE; it is apparent to anyone who has seen him recently that he still battles with those personal demons.

If not rehab, then every songwriter certainly needs to undergo a period of reflection after a fall from grace.  Take the case of the Barenaked Ladies’ Steven Page, who recently left the band in the aftermath of his cocaine bust.  To read many so-called fans’ scathing rants against him online, you would think you had stepped back into Puritan times.

(Still, I can imagine that he will only be stronger for the experience, and I can’t wait to hear what his next album will be like…)

4)  Have a Family Period

As a songwriter, you may lead the life of a rock star for a matter of years, but eventually everyone has to bring it all back home.  This is the point at which you must find a wife, have one or more kids, and attempt (probably unsuccessfully) to live an ordinary, anonymous life for a while.  The most notable example of this truth is Paul McCartney whose utter failure to accomplish domestic normalcy has been given a name.  It’s called Wings, his band for much of the seventies.  The lineup, much to the chagrin of his earlier fans,  included his wife, Linda.  The lyrical content was often nonsensical enough to make even the most gullible, innocent three year old ask, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”  And yet this is a rite of passage for all music fans, as well.  We’ve all gone through a Wings phase.  Go on, you can admit it…

The Barenaked Ladies have been in a family phase for years, evidenced most recently by the masterful Snacktime.  Ben Folds briefly indulged in the “normalcy” of family life, recording such simple, touching songs as “Gracie,” but his 2008 album Way to Normal strongly suggests that he’ll be a bachelor for some time to come.  Dylan’s so-called family period lasted from the aforementioned motorcycle crash until about 1974 when he apparently got the itch to tour and record music again.  As he sings in the Planet Waves deep track “Something There Is About You,” “I can say that I’ll be faithful.  I can say it in one sweet, easy breath.  But to you that would be cruelty, and to me, it surely would be death.”

Pretty much speaks for itself…

5)  Um… Continue to Write Songs!

So, after all these steps, phases, and experiences, what’s a songwriter to do?

Continue to write songs, of course!

At this point, you can pretty much choose career paths from a plethora of options.  For instance, you could “find religion” and record a series of records devoted to expressing your spirituality.  You could get more personal and vulnerable by going acoustic for an album, or for that matter, turn to harder rock and roll to showcase your newfound rage over a breakup.  Why not record music for a different genre?  (I would recommend country music, as that seems to be the going trend these days.)  Oh, and don’t forget to release an album exclusively through Wal-Mart, although that’s probably best reserved for a planned reunion or comeback album.  In the meantime, you can always record four non-album tracks per release and split them up, offering one exclusively at iTunes, Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart respectively.  It may seem like you’re screwing the fans at the time, but don’t worry; you’ll eventually release a rarities CD that will contain all the non-album tracks.  Put your heart into those non-album tracks now, as there’s nothing more disappointing — and perhaps more predictable — than a sub-par rarities compilation.  Consider it an investment in the future… a future in which you may be writing songs more slowly than ever and yet still be in need of a record to satisfy your contract.

If none of that works, you can take a break from writing for a while to work on covers.  Record a traditional album?  Contribute to a compilation of covers for a famous artist?  Join a supergroup?

The opportunities and options are endless…

Whatever you do, don’t stop caring about what you’re writing and recording, because you’ll always have a fanbase out there that will buy whatever you put out, be it a masterpiece or a recording unworthy of serving even as a paperweight.

So, good luck, and we’re all counting on you!

How To EQ Your Recordings – Tips on Equalization from a Music Producer

Originally posted 2009-09-01 22:53:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome new and longtime fans of the Laptop Sessions to this very special article that I believe will help a lot of aspiring musicians and recording artists make their recordings sound professional while recording them at home.  This article isn’t just in lieu of recording my usual Tuesday night Laptop Sessions acoustic cover song music video- my list of covers to do is actually longer than ever- I just had the urge to write an informative article that many people will find interesting and useful.  Before getting down to business, let me note that I’m hoping to record an extra-special cover song music video this week for inclusion on the music blog next Tuesday night, so stay tuned!

I’ve always battled with trying to make my home recordings sound professional.  I went out and spent hundreds of dollars on acoustic foam that I hung on the wall (and by “hung”, I mean attached to the wall by spray glue, permanent wall tape, and Gorilla glue), invested in some computer processing plugins for my music, and bought great microphones and amplifiers.  But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get that “home recording” sound out of my songs!  I do have a few tricks now (one secret way of getting the most volume out of my recordings and another to clear everything up), but that’s after the mixing occurs.

This article is meant to focus on the tweaking that should be done while mixing a song down to a 2-track stereo pre-master.  After you’re done recording, go into the EQ (or equalization) settings on your workstation, which I’m assuming is digital nowadays.  I use a DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation)- a Tascam 2488 24-track recorder.  I love it and I really can’t see myself upgrading for any reason for a very long time.  My brother prefers to use the computer and uses Sony’s ACID.  Some use Pro Tools, but I never got into it, even though I’m a huge Mac fan.  To be honest, I use Final Cut Pro for video editing, but I’m not really a fan of that, either.  I used to LOVE Sonic Foundry’s Vegas (before Sony bought them out) for video editing.

One more point before we get to the EQ settings- back when I recorded using analog equipment, I never had to deal with equalizing the multitracks of my songs.  Truth be told, I actually still love analog recording, even though I always worked towards removing that hiss that goes along with recording on old fashioned cassette tapes.  You see, with digital audio recording, you reach a peak at “0”- if your volume goes above zero, it’ll “clip” and you won’t hear anything- maybe a bit of digital distortion.  But, with analog recording, you could allow the levels to go into the red a couple of decibels and still get clear recordings (to a certain degree).  Thus, all my old analog masters are much louder and fuller.  Plus, since there was more room for me to boost levels, individual instruments stood out in the mix more.  Of course, I realize now that what I was doing really wasn’t the “proper” way to record and mix, but honestly, the results were there, so “proper” isn’t really a good argument for me.

Onto EQ- basically, I’m going to give you some pointers on how to EQ certain tracks so that your audio doesn’t sound muddy when you mix it down to a 2-track stereo pre-master.  The theory behind cutting some of these “bands” of equalization (say all the sound below 50Hz) is this: Say you have 24 tracks like I have on my DAW.  Well, when you record, you’re recording ALL the possible sound spectrum that your microphone or pickup can handle.  Then, the DAW records every possible piece of sound information it hears because DAW’s are digital and can pick up any sound, especially when it’s uncompressed PCM files (like .wav or .aiff files on your computer).  The theory here is much like the file-size savings you get when you convert something from a .wav or .aiff file to an .mp3 file.  You get essentially the same sound quality, but at a tenth (or less) of the file size!  How is that accomplished?

Well, with mp3s, it’s a combination of a couple things- first, it compresses the data in a special format that’s smaller in file size than a standard uncompressed .wav or .aiff.  That part doesn’t matter to us here.  What matters is that all-important second piece to the mp3 compression- mp3s don’t carry ALL of the sound information that uncompressed files do.  So, for instance, a high quality mp3 file will have all the sound frequencies, minus the very, very high and very, very low frequencies.  The vast majority of humans don’t hear these sound frequencies anyway, so shaving them off the sound file doesn’t alter the sound we hear that much.  But, since there are less frequencies (and thus, less information in the file), the file size gets smaller.  Now, if you have a lower quality mp3, one of the ways it gets the file size down is to limit the sound frequencies in the file further.  That’s why you get a low quality mp3 that sounds like it’s coming through a phone- there’s not as many frequencies in the file, so the size is smaller, but the sound is affected more.  Once you start cutting into sound frequencies that humans can actually hear, you start altering the sound of the music file.

So, how does all that relate to EQ-ing your music?

Well, we’re essentially trying to do that same second-piece of the mp3 process, but track-by-track.  And, we’re not trying to save file size, we’re trying to save from that “muddy” sound that home recordings get.  So, why does that “muddy” sound happen when you mixdown your recordings?

Well, I’ve always noticed that the sound coming out of my 24-track is pristine during regular playback.  But, when I mix it all down to a pre-master, I notice the difference.  That’s when the recorder tries to blend all your tracks together and fit 24-tracks worth of sound into just two tracks- a left channel and a right channel for stereo.  As you can imagine, that’s not an easy task and there are a lot of “assumptions” your recorder makes when mixing down.  For instance, if two tracks have a sound playing at the same frequency and at the same volume, your recorder may decide to give once precedent over the other during the mixdown process, which brings one sound out and drowns the other one out.

Also, have you ever noticed that live acoustic recordings, such as one person singing with an acoustic guitar and nothing else, always sound so much clearer and louder, especially when it comes from a home recording?  Well, that’s because you only have two tracks competing for their share of the sound space.  And since a guitar and one vocal track don’t compete for as much sound space as, say, a guitar and bass would (without EQ, that is), you get a much clearer recording.

So, the idea is this: we have 24 tracks of sound that use every single possible frequency.   That means that the bass guitar track, even though the part you really want to hear (most of the time, unless you’re Brian Wilson) is in the low frequencies, it still contains a recording of ALL frequencies, from low to high.  Now, say you had a vocal track.  Vocals take up a very specific range of EQ frequencies, as the human voice can only go so high or low- most of the time, we’re right in the middle.  Well, the recorder also records ALL possible frequencies on this track, as well, including ones that would conflict with your bass track.  Now, add two acoustic guitars, electric guitar, piano, drums, etc. and you have every single one of these tracks with sound information in every single possible EQ band.

But, the point is- Every instrument or vocal track only needs certain frequencies! So, why would you have 24 tracks all have hum in the 80HZ range (say from a furnace that was on next door that your microphone happened to faintly pick up) and drown out your bass drum, which thrives in that frequency?  (Just a note- that furnace sound at 80Hz may sound very faint on one track, but multiply it 24 times over and you’ve got a major problem that you wouldn’t have been able to fix without EQ)  So, every instrument needs its own sound space to live in.  If you reduce the number of tracks competing for a certain EQ frequency band, you’ll give every instrument its own “pocket” of sound space in the mix and nothing will get drowned-out.

I will also point out that this is my least favorite part of the recording process- it’s tedious, there are SO many options (do I cut by 3 db or 4 db?), and since you have to go track-by-track, it takes forever.  But, this process is the single biggest reason why my recordings don’t sound “homemade” anymore, so it’s definitely worth the effort.  I just have to remember to go back and read that sentence the next time I go to mix a song…

I figure the best way to go is by instrument:

Vocals: Ah, a very important part.  For vocals, especially recorded at home, you’re definitely going to want to make them brighter and to remove those bassy undertones that appear in the recordings.  For each vocal track (which for me, is plenty) I reduce sound at the 225Hz mark (most EQ setups will allow you to pick a frequency and when you either boost or reduce that frequency, it’ll boost or reduce the frequencies immediately around it, too).  I reduce at 225Hz a lot, up to -10 db, but make sure to listen back in case you’re altering the sound too much.

Then, I boost at 4kHz (that’s kilohertz, as opposed to Hz, or hertz- Hz (hertz) are lower frequencies and kHz (kilohertz) are high frequencies) to bring out the main range of the vocals, as that’s where most of the sound information in a vocal track lies.  I’d give a boost of about 3db.

Finally, if you don’t have a great condenser microphone, don’t worry!  You can breathe some life into your vocal tracks by giving a 1 or 2 db boost at the very high 10kHz frequency.  This will help brighten your vocal tracks.

Guitar: For guitars, especially acoustic guitars, I cut everything below 100Hz, as this will interfere with our bass drum sound- something that should be avoided at all costs.  I cut to -10db here.  Then, you can boost about 3db anywhere between 150Hz and 5kHz, depending on your guitar and the sound you want.  If I have two acoustic guitar tracks, I’ll EQ one with a boost in the lower frequencies and the other with a boost towards the high frequencies to give a balanced, different sound to each.  I like bright acoustics most of the time, so I’ll go towards 3kHz, but for some mean electric guitar, you may want to keep it around 1000Hz.

Bass: Again, you’d think this would be the “lowest” EQ space in your mix, but it’s not- you need that space for the bass drum or your song won’t have a beat!  So, give a cut at 250Hz and below of about 3db.  If you’re like me and like a “crunchy” bass (listen to the bass on “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys and you’ll hear what I’m talking about), you can brighten the string noise of the bass by adding a couple decibels to about the 3.5kHz range.

Bass Drum: The all-important bass drum lives in the “bottom” of your EQ mix.  Increase the 80Hz frequency (by as much as you want, but start at 3db) or you can go up to the 100Hz mark, if you think it sounds better.  Between 150Hz and 600Hz, though, you’ll want to cut the EQ so it doesn’t interfere with your bass or possibly your guitars, depending on your decision.  So, here, cut quite a bit: up to -10db.  For this, you can also add a bit of “bite” at the 3.5kHz range.

Snare Drum: Also important, you’ll want to get rid of that “boxiness” sound at around 900Hz and maybe give a boost (we’re talking a couple of decibels here) all the way up at 9kHz for some brightness.

Cymbals: Cut anything below 200Hz on these almost completely- why would you EVER need those low frequencies from a cymbal?  This is the perfect example of useless sound information that would muddy-up and get in the way of your bass drum.  Give another cut (slight- maybe 1 or 2db) at 1.5kHz to take away some of the annoying ring and loudness from the cymbals that will cut through your mix too much.  You can also apply these changes to a tambourine track.

Some other tips:

– Cut at 50Hz to reduce microphone “pops” on your audio tracks- I hate when a great take is ruined by a popped “P”, so this should help.

– Piano is a tough one because it actually uses many of the frequencies in the sound spectrum.  But, to make it sound more “aggressive” (Jerry Lee Lewis, anyone?), boost your EQ at around 2kHz.

– To give some “sparkle” to your guitars, especially acoustic, you can give a 1 or 2 db boost to the 10kHz region, as well.

I hope these tips help you out while mixing your recordings.  I know they certainly helped me!  But, just like the old “leading a horse to water” adage, I figured it was best to first educate you on why this process is so important and why it works before giving you the info. you’ll need to get great sounding recordings, even if you’re rocking out in your home studio.

If you have any questions/comments, arguments/beefs, let me know by leaving a comment below!

“Solitaire” by Wilco – Chords, Tabs, & How to Play

Originally posted 2009-06-29 09:24:14. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

For the acoustic cover song music video, CLICK HERE!

“Solitaire”
Wilco

(Capo I)

Intro:   E    F#m7    E    F#m7    E

E
Once I thought the world was crazy,
F#m7
Everyone was sad and chasing
Happiness and love and
I was the only one above it.

Once I thought, without a doubt,
I had it all figured out.
Universe with hands unseen;
I was cold as gasoline.

E      G               F#m7
Took too long to see
F#m7   C               F#m7              E              F#m7    E    F#m7    E
I was   wrong to believe in me only…

Once my life was a game so unfair
It beat me down and kept me there.
Unaware of my naysaying,
F#m7                                              E
Solitaire was all I was playing.

INSTRUMENTAL:   G    F#m7    C    F#m7  (x3)

Took too long to see
I was wrong to believe in me only…

** These chords and lyrics are interpretations and transcriptions, respectively, and are the sole property of the copyright holder(s). They are posted on this website free of charge for no profit for the purpose of study and commentary, as allowed for under the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law, and should only be used for such personal and/or academic work. **