How Song Development Works (with Audio Examples)

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How Song Development Works (with Audio Examples)

HERE'S HOW THE SONG DEVELOPMENT PROCESS WORKS, USING A CLIENT'S SONG AS AN EXAMPLE

PHASE 1 - FORM & STRUCTURE

This is the process of "refining" the structure of the song. This can include removing sections, adding sections, changing or moving lyrics, changing chords, and more. In the case of this client, we made some changes to the lyrics and added an instrumental section with a different chord progression. We also modified some of the picking/strumming patterns in her guitar part. This process can go very quickly or take quite a while, depending on how much you've refined your song on your own.

For some great tips on popular song forms, check out this article (even if writing a "hit song" isn't your goal, you will still find it extremely helpful when thinking about song form). 

PHASE 2 - SCRATCH TRACKS

Once the structure of the song is finalized, we lay down scratch tracks. Scratch tracks are quickly-recorded tracks that are used for arranging purposes and are eventually replaced by the "real" performances. Scratch tracks are most often recorded to a click track. If you aren't used to playing with a metronome, start practicing now; it will save a lot of time in the studio! For this project, after deciding on a tempo, she laid down both her guitar and vocal scratch tracks. 

Everyone should have a metronome. For iPhone or iPad, we recommend the Pro Metronome from the App Store (it's free, so you have no excuse!). But there are a ton of choices for every platform, so go get one you like and start using it! For a stand-alone metronome, this article helps break it down for you.

PHASE 3 - Instrumentation (arranging)

At this point, we consider what instrumentation the song calls for. If you've thought about this ahead of time, this process can go much faster. In this case, she wanted to add djembe, bass, and piano. Additionally, I introduced strings, acoustic drums, and mandolin as possibilities. Due to limited time - and because we were happy with the result without it - we ended up scrapping the mandolin idea. Before proceeding to the next phase, we experimented with these ideas to make sure we were both pleased with the strategy we laid out for the song. 

To help you think about what instruments you might want for your music, spend time analyzing (i.e. critically listening to) the music you like...preferably with good headphones. Write down what instruments are present, when they entered the song, and what they did specifically. You may need to listen to the same song multiple times, but the more you do this, the easier it will be for you to choose the right instrumentation for your own songs.

PHASE 4 - RECORDING TRACKS

This is the fun part! Depending on the project, we might start adding instruments to the previously-recorded scratch tracks or we might lay down a final guitar or piano part first. In this example, we recorded the final acoustic guitar tracks first and added the rest of the instruments to that. When adding the support instruments myself, I usually like to work independently and here's why. It's easy for your ears to get "worn down" while picking samples, deciding on a specific drum beat, listening to take after take, etc. We usually get a much better result if I do most of that on my own and then have you listen to it with fresh ears. That is how my client and I worked together. Once I finished each part, I emailed it to her to listen to as many times as she needed in order to fully realize her opinions and reply decisively. This was much more efficient than trying to make on-the-spot decisions in the studio. Either way, once we get all the instruments in place, we'll work on tracking vocals. 

To prepare for a vocal session, sing your song at least 50 times (not in one sitting!). Decide exactly how you want to sing every note. Once you get in the studio, if you feel like improvising a little bit, that's totally fine. But most likely, having spent time on the details beforehand will really help you get the most out of your session. 

PHASE 5 - MIXING AND MASTERING

When we're happy with all the tracks we've laid down, it's time to get it mixed. Again, it usually works best for me to work independently and then let you listen with fresh ears. Once we perfect the mix, we will send it to a mastering engineer who specializes in this process. This is a very important step which many people are not aware of. For more info on mixing and mastering click here.

To prepare for the mixing process, take note of all the songs that have elements you like - the boomy kick drum, the weird synth sounds, the simplicity of the instrumentation, and so on. Thinking about how these elements could apply to your music, prepare a list of songs with every attribute you like for each one. This can really help ensure that your mixing will come out sounding exactly how you want them to.

SONG DEVELOPMENT - AUDIO EXAMPLES

Below are 3 examples of the song mentioned above, one for each of the 3 tiers of production we offer. Every project is different and varies quite a bit...but this should give you a general idea of the kind of sound (really, number of tracks) you'll get at each tier of production. 


For more info on song development and the recording process, please check out our FAQ page.

To purchase Hannah Middleton's original song "Waiting For You" on CDBaby, click here

All content copyright 2015 by Jeremy Cays Productions

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5 Reasons You Need a Producer

5 Reasons You Need a Producer

  1. With a good producer, your music will reach its full potential.
    This is probably the epitome of what a producer does. Producers have a variety of skills, but the ability to refine music until it reaches its “zen” moment is arguably the most valuable. Whether you’re a band or a solo songwriter, your music can always improve. A good producer has the ear – and the mind – to help bring your songs to the next level. 
  2. Producers have a great deal of recording experience, which will help make your project smoother and yield better results.
    In other words, a producer has your best interests at heart and has the knowledge and skill to help you reach your goals. Producers make their living off of overseeing recording projects, which means they’ve gone through the process many times. With so much involved in turning your individual songs into a commercially-successful product (and a product you’re happy with!), it would be wise to utilize the wealth of knowledge a good producer has to offer.
  3. Producers typically have connections to other professionals in the music industry.
    Whether it’s studio musicians, promoters, venue owners, or agents, producers can usually connect you with people in the industry that can help your music reach a broader audience. This is a valuable commodity that’s hard to come by.
  4. Producers help you stay on budget (sometimes even saving you money).
    This is often an overlooked aspect of recording. Producers have a much better idea how much things will cost than you do and if you hire a good one, they’ll be looking for ways of saving you money. A lot of it comes down to planning, preparation, and good decision making but there are other tricks producers can employ that will dramatically cut down on the cost of your project.
  5. Collaboration is more fun!
    Working alone on a song is often necessary. But working alone on song after song can be draining. Collaborating with a skilled musician/arranger (most producers are both) can breathe new life into songs you only wrote half of…and others you thought were finished. Generating ideas back and forth not only provides the best opportunity to end up with a killer song…it’s also just a lot of fun. 

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Aspects of recording a project

What are the different aspects of a recording project and how can I best prepare?

  • Writing your song(s) and ideally performing them multiple times before you record
  • Arranging your songs for a recording
    • Your live versions might not translate well to a recording, so think about how they'll need to be tweaked in order to make your listeners happy.
  • Budgeting for your project
    • A consultation with the studio is a must, especially for first-time recording artists.
  • Tracking
    • Repetition
      • To be fully prepared to record, you should sing/play your song(s) 50-100 times before going into a recording studio. Repetition will not only help your performance in the studio, it will refine your song. If you're a singer, think about whether the high note should be in your falsetto or chest voice, where your breaths should be, etc. If you're a lead guitar player, work out your solo ahead of time. Drummer? Learn how to tune your drums properly. There's a lot you can do before going in to record that will save time AND get you better results.
    • Plan the Process! 
      • In which order are the instruments getting recorded? If you're a band, are you playing live or single-tracking? Are you recording to a click track? These are all things that require planning ahead of time. If you find that wading through all the details is overwhelming, consider hiring a producer. For more info, see our blog post "5 Reasons You Need a Producer".
  • Editing: Comping, Pitching, and More
    • Comping
      • A lot of people don't know about this step. Also, it can be a little controversial. In the olden days, people had to record a song all the way through just right or they'd have to do the whole thing all over again. Nowadays, we do something called comping. This is where you record 3-5 takes and as long as they are all accurate and don't suck in general, we'll go through them and pick the best parts, either section by section or phrase by phrase, creating a "composite" track of all the best parts. Some people are opposed to this and it is not required by any means. But it can get you the best result in the shortest amount of time, so we typically "lean that direction" for most projects.
    • Pitching
      • At JCP, we strive for a moderate approach to pitch correction. We like to fix the out of tune notes while not turning you into a robot. If you want the "autotune" sound (which is basically a stylistic choice), we can certainly provide that. If you don't want any pitch correction, we'll leave it alone. But "everything in moderation" tends to work well in the pitch correction process.
    • Timing Corrections
      • So you and your band worked really hard on your song, in writing, arranging, and tracking process. The song are finished but as your listening, you notice there are still a few places where the timing just isn't quite right between the bass, guitars, and drums. If you'd rather not bring your gear back in and re-record, JCP can fix many of these timing problems in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Mixing
    • This is where we take all the instruments in your song and blend them together to perfection, using compression, EQ, reverb, delay, and more.
      • To prepare: Be aware of the music you like the sound of, especially music that inspired your songs. Prepare a list of reference material for JCP to listen to - as detailed as you can make it - that will help your mixes turn out exactly the way you'd like them to.
  • Mastering
    • Many people are still unaware of this extremely important process. Mastering takes place after all the songs are mixed. Rather than working with individual instruments, mastering engineers work with whole songs. They listen with "fresh ears" to determine which frequencies to boost and which ones to cut. They apply compression and limiting to the point that the overall volume of the track is at an industry-standard level. And they make sure each song on your album is at the same overall level.
  • Layout/Graphics
    • What your product looks like will hugely determine how many copies you sell. Spend time giving it a look that represents the overall tone of your project and will make people want to buy it.
  • Duplication
    • Think about how many copies you will be able to sell. Give yourself a goal to reach but be realistic so you don't end up with piles of CDs laying around collecting dust.

To download a copy of this blog post, click here.

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