I work for a computer aided design company and like listening to music. Sometimes worlds collide. For example, Pete Kelsey is an Autodesk Key Accounts Technical Manager and used to be in a band called Dr. Ruth. That's Pete in the red rectangle below. I grabbed the picture from an old Facebook post.
Of course, we have Robert Green who is both a well-known CAD Manager and a less-well-known musician. :-)
Shaun Bryant is Owner/Director of CADFMconsultants in the UK, a company that provides training on Autodesk Computer Aided Design (CAD) products and associated Facilities Management (FM) consultancy and training.
Since 2006, Shaun has also been a singer/songwriter. He is endorsed by Hofner Guitars and is also a member of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors. Here's a picture of Shaun from his music site.
I mention Pete, Robert, and Shaun because I thought of them when Autodesk made its learning materials available through iTunes University.
As a Todd Rundgren fan, using iTunes University, I happened to have been listening to lectures that Rundgren had given when he was a visiting music professor at the University of Indiana. He described his songwriting process. I mentioned this to Shaun who suggested that I write it up as a blog post, so here goes.
Basically, what Rundgren described can be outlined as a series of steps. As a programmer, I decided to depict them as a flowchart.
Note: The section below is written in first person, paraphrasing what Rundgren said in his lecture.
Consider new influences.
An artist is only as good as his/her influences. If you don't consider new influences, you will wind up coming up with the same song over and over. As someone with an extensive discography, I carefully consider what I am doing in an attempt not to repeat myself.
Ask yourself, "Am I writing this song for myself or for someone else?
If for yourself:
Consider the limitations of your own voice.
If you are writing for yourself, often your style of singing influences what you write. Folk music is often material that has been passed down via the ages. No one really knows who wrote the songs. Today we have singer/songwriters who express a unique perspective. Unfortunately, often the strongest singers have the least attractive melodies because their voices can make up for anything that is not there melodically.
Consider subject matter besides traditional material.
There are other things to write about besides love songs. Most artists come out with only one album annually, so you basically have only an hour to talk to your audience for the entire year. Make your words count. Express something you really feel.
If for someone else:
Select an aural spectrum.
If you fill the entire aural spectrum for an entire album, with the lowest lows to the highest highs, it results in a "tired feeling" for the listener. It's work for the listeners to separate what appeals to them. There's a documented psycho-acoustic phenomenon to back this up. So choose a subset that reflects your style.
Select subject matter relatable to a wide audience.
When writing for someone else, you can't express a personal viewpoint. If has to be something universal that anyone can express. The song won't be associated with your persona. You have to write them and be willing to let them go. Creating songs by consignment is a skill. Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach were consignment artists who made their livings via patronage. Sometimes the subject matter is determined by that patronage. This forces an artist to write to someone else's target — to pick up on their goal. You need to be able to separate the singer from the song. You want a message that other people will want to adopt and identify with. When writing for someone else. the deadline effect actually helps the writing process because the songs have to get done.
Select a topic.
I generally have a theme for an album. I don't know specifically what I am going to write about, just have a general idea. I allow those general concepts to inspire the writing of the music.
Write the music.
In the old days, artists would:
- Write a song and get it completely written.
- Practice performing the song until they had it down perfectly.
- Enter the studio and record their performance.
With the advent of laptops as studios, artists can now:
- Come up with an idea.
- Try it out.
- Use the studio as a feedback mechanism and work through it.
Artists can play/record/listen to evaluate the qualities of a song. Writing and recording are indivisible. They can fill out the arrangement and build up an evocative structure.
Record the music.
I write all of the music for an album, and then I record all of the music. I am hoping that by doing something musically, it will inspire me lyrically. It's sort of like starting cranky car. It's hard to start, but once it does, you want to keep it going, so I work on the music for an entire album instead of one song at a time.
Write the lyrics.
Once I have the music recorded, I listen to it. I ponder it. I think about what I might write without writing anything. I allow my subconscious to aid the process. There have even been times where I have dreamed complete songs like "Bang The Drum All Day" or "The Waiting Game." I will wake up with a song in my head, go over to my studio, and try to capture as much of it as I can before I forget it. Often the songs come out like childbirth. I have this gestation period, and then the words just come out. Sometimes I can write the lyrics in about 20 minutes. I do need solitude to clear my head of everything and focus on what I want to write about. Writing lyrics is the hardest part. For creating music, there is less articulation — everything's on a 12-note scale. When it comes to lyrics, there are many, many more words to choose from. The goal is to express your ideas in as few words as possible. You should avoid choosing words simply because they rhyme, when instead, you should be choosing words that say something about yourself. What can make a song unique is an unusual combination of words and phrases. The best songs are ones where you express your unique viewpoint on something that people have in common.
Record the vocals.
When working as a producer, I often have to get artists to perform without their voice being affected by the fact that they are being recorded. I tell them to imagine that they are singing the song to an audience.
Record the background vocals.
As someone who sings my own lead vocals and my own background vocals, I use a trick to record my own background vocals. I record three versions: a low, a medium, and a high. I can use multiple combinations of those, staggered just milliseconds apart, to create the illusion of a large choir that's doing the singing.
Mix the music.
When mixing an album, it's best not to have the artist in the room with you. When mixing the New York Dolls album, every band member kept saying "Make me louder." For your own albums, you want to take the songs and have what is called "the center of the record." It has a certain sound. You then have songs that deviate from that in little ways, but not too far off. The result is an album with variety but has a certain sonic consistency.
It's great when two separate parts of my life come together.
Song design is alive in the lab.