HER MAJESTY'S BLOG (ARCHIVE) -
(Royal Ideas for Songwriters, DIY Recordists and Musicians)

The Value of Listening
By Mark Bacino

In this post, I thought I’d touch on the simple act of listening and the value it holds for us as songwriters.

With all the amazing tools of communication available to us today making it easier than ever to share and get our thoughts out into the world, there seems to be, sadly, a definitive shift toward “talking” rather than listening.

As songwriters (and human beings) we all want to be heard, but we also need to remember that our output is only as good as our input. Our creative engines need the fuel of inspiration, and that inspiration can only be absorbed when we’re listening and open to receiving it.

So today, in the spirit of radio silence, fight the urge to post that 20th tweet and try listening to the birds (or Bird) instead.

Enough said…

 

Tempo Basics
By Mark Bacino

Timing in life, as they say, is everything. It’s obviously pretty important in music, too, so let’s talk tempo.

As songwriters, we think of tempo as the most basic of basics. Tempo, or the speed at which we perform a song, is sort of the quiet engine, the driving force behind all our tunes; yet, because we consider it so "Songwriting 101," tempo can sometimes become songcraft’s sadly neglected middle child.

The hard, cold facts are these: Perform a great song too fast and you’ve lost the race. Play a great song too slow and the only animal left in the barn when you finish will be the turtle you rode in on. Your audience may never intellectualize your tempo miscalculations, but they will certainly feel them and sense something’s "off."

Disclaimer: I have to admit I’m pretty horrible at picking the right tempos for my tunes. Conversely, I know a lot of songwriters who are just plain naturals at the process (hate them). If you’re one of the former, here are a few survival tactics I’ve developed over the years:

• Recording

Before you begin to record those new songs with your band, have all your tunes' tempos decided upon and documented via the BPM (beats per minute) standard of tempo measurement.

Despite your drummer’s claims of his "killer" feel and his promises of an early departure from the bar the night before recording, the studio is a bad place to pick tempos. There's just too much going on.

Every home Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) comes with a click track and BPM tempo controls. If you have a DAW, use these tools and mess around with your tempos offline, on your own time. Even record yourself with just one instrument and a vocal at different tempos and listen back until you find the right tempo that works for each particular tune. Then write them down. Even if you don’t plan on recording to a click (aka fixed time) in the studio, your pre-selected tempos will make for a great reference/starting point.

Don’t have a DAW set-up at home? Check this metronome app for iPhone or this free online metronome. These will help you get the job done. And if all else fails, get your hands on an old-fashioned metronome.

Another tempo-finding hack I’ve employed goes like this: Think about your new song and try to recall a favorite tune from another artist that might have a similar vibe or feel. Dig out that artist’s track and try and figure out what tempo their song lives at. You can do this by using the "Tap" function in your DAW or app.

Once you establish the model song’s tempo, apply that BPM to your tune. It may not be perfect, but it probably will be close. Adjust accordingly and quietly give thanks to super producer Jack Douglas for helping you pick out a tempo for your song via that old Aerosmith record.

• Live

The same thoughts above apply. Before leaving that dingy rehearsal room and stepping on stage, try and get your tempos in place. If your drummer is tempo-challenged (and a bunch of good drummers are, believe it or not), they make a lot of tempo-keeping gear for live application that can be used as an on-the-fly reference. If you can, use these tools. They will stop you from playing that 45-minute set in 15 (Been there, done that).

 

A Songwriter’s Pocket Checklist
By Mark Bacino

Though often reserved for the mundane realms of the shopping cart or office Post-It note scene, a good checklist can be a helpful tool in any situation — a collection of stripped-down, simple reminders that quickly focuses the mind toward the core of the matter.

At the risk of appearing clinical or oversimplifying the often amorphous process of songwriting, here are three song-centric bullet points you may find helpful/worth running through before declaring any new composition complete:

• Does it have a good beat? Can you dance to it? No matter what style/genre you’re working in, remember the hook is king. Does your song have at least one melody, chord pattern, phrase, riff or groove that will (potentially) grab the listener and make them want to sing along, cry, scream, dance or bang their head?

• Say anything? Do your song’s lyrics make a definitive statement whether they’re obtuse, simple, serious, silly, etc.? Be it “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Love Shack," each makes a strong statement of intent.

• Do you feel it? Does your song convey a strong feeling or mood? Although both are quite intangible, they are still very real commodities. Never underestimate the power of creating an emotional connection between you and your listener.

Despite its grocery list leanings, hope you found the above checklist helpful and worthy of keeping in your back pocket; a little something to refer to next time you stroll down the songwriting aisle.

 

The Pros & Cons of Using Virtual Instruments
By Mark Bacino

As more and more songwriters set up Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) at home to demo their ideas or make full-blown recordings of their work, they find themselves face to face with a myriad of tools, options and choices they may never have encountered before.

Today I’d like to talk about one of those tools: the virtual instrument.

• Virtual Reality

For those who might be unfamiliar, a virtual instrument (VI) is a software program/plug-in (basically a sampler) that offers the user a virtual version of a real-world instrument that can be played or programmed via MIDI control; there are piano VIs, drum VIs and so on.

These days, there are many VI software packages on the market, and even the most basic of DAW software comes equipped with at least a few VIs. As you can imagine, the benefits of these amazing tools can be great, but like all game-changing innovations, there’s also a potential for overindulgence.

• Keep it Real

Now don’t get me wrong, I use VIs all the time. They’ve allowed me to do things with my recordings that would have otherwise been costly or impossible. When I needed an orchestra at 3 a.m. while working that TV ad deadline, my string VI was there for me. When only a rare, vintage Mellotron keyboard sound would do on a particular recording, my trusty M-Tron VI came to the rescue. As you can tell, l really do love and appreciate my VIs although honestly, when it comes down to it, I have to say I love real musicians playing real instruments a whole lot more.

As songwriters, we’re always striving to capture that little slice of humanity in every song we write. It’s ultimately that piece of real-ness that, hopefully, will allow our creations to connect with other human beings. As such, when at all possible, why not strive for the same authenticity in the recording of our songs?

As good as that drum VI might sound, realize it can never truly recreate the subtle nuances achieved by a live drummer behind a real kit. No matter how cool you think you sound playing your Hammond B3 VI, remember you’re still no match compared to a master sitting behind the real thing who’s dedicated his whole life to making that box howl.

So the next time you reach for that trumpet sample, if budget and time allow, stop and ask yourself if you know a horn player. Chances are you do, and if not, your band-mate probably does. Why not give that player a call, have him come by and breathe some real, non-virtual life into your tracks?

 

Quick Compression Overview
By Mark Bacino

Whether you’re a studio engineer or a home recordist, compression is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal while recording and mixing. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most misunderstood and misused. Here’s a quick compression overview (& a link to an additional resource) to help take a little mystery out of the elusive concept of compression.

• A compressor (or limiter — a compressor on steroids, so to speak) is a processor the primary function of which is to electronically control spikes in volume (transients) present in an audio signal. It can, for example, automatically tame peaks in level on a vocal track and reduce those peaks by an adjustable amount. Once those spikes in volume have been controlled by a compressor, you are now free to raise the new, more consistent, overall level of said vocal in your mix without the danger of signal overload.

• In addition to its main leveling function, compression can be used as an effect to “fatten” a sound or to extend the length/loudness of a sound’s decay.

Two hundred blog posts could probably be written on the subject of compression. Educate yourself on the topic; begin by watching this great tutorial on compression basics, and don’t be afraid to experiment. That said, if you’re confused about compression (and if you are, you’re not alone), refrain from using it on that “mission critical” demo until you get a handle on the ins and outs.

 

A Quick EQ Primer
By Mark Bacino

If you’re a novice, home recordist diving into your first mix, you may think, “EQ? Yeah, sure, I got this.” But before you start turning all those awesome, virtual knobs, you might want to stop and ask yourself how much you truly know about the subject. “EQ,” equalization, or the process of adjusting the balance between frequency components within an audio signal, is a deep topic worthy (and the subject) of many books, blogs, etc. Do your research; educate yourself, check this video tutorial for starters, but before you do, here are a few EQ basics to prime the pump:

• Try cutting frequencies before boosting them; If, say, an instrument in your mix sounds dark/muddy to your ears, don’t immediately add top end, first try to remove some bottom or low-mid from the signal by either lowering the volume level of those frequencies or by utilizing a high-pass filter to gain the clarity you’re looking for. Boost frequencies only when cutting fails to achieve your desired result. Cutting rather than boosting will keep your mixes phase coherent.

• Think of the sonic space in a mix as real estate. In order for instruments to be heard clearly, they must be assigned their own frequency-based parcel of land, so to speak. If too many instruments try to occupy the same space in the frequency spectrum, they’ll sound muddled and loose their definition. Attempt to carve out unique, frequency homes for as many elements of your mix as possible.

Again, education is key. Try to learn as much as you can about EQ and the fascinating world of frequency that exists between 20 Hz and 20 KHz.

 

A Harmony Primer.
Creating and Recording Vocal Harmonies
By Mark Bacino

A “Her Majesty’s…” reader (shout-out to Curtiss) recently asked if I could offer some basic thoughts on the nuts and bolts of creating and recording vocal harmonies for a song (a source of frustration for said reader). Harmony is certainly a lengthy and complex topic to distill down to a few paragraphs, but here goes something...

(Note - I'll be talking vocal harmonies here but keep in mind the same ideas can be applied when creating harmony lines for instrumental parts - a harmonized guitar solo, a string line, etc.)

So you just recorded an amazing lead vocal for your song and now you want to add a few direct harmonies to the choruses to make them lift, adding some excitement.

Ok. First off, some semantics; when I say "direct harmonies" I mean a harmony line that follows along with and sings the same lyrics as the lead vocal melody line. I make this distinction to differentiate between lyric based harmony and, what I would call, "pad" type harmony parts; more famously known as "oohs and ahhs." The basic ideas I'm about to lay out below will use the direct brand of harmony for sake of example, but the same thoughts can certainly apply in the creation of pad based harmonies.

• Act naturally. Some folks are naturally very good at singing harmonies by ear, creating lines off the top of their heads. Don't dismiss this method of harmony making as "only for the pros." You might be better at creating off-the-cuff harmonies than you think. Sing along with your lead vocal track and experiment with improvising a direct harmony line. See what you come up with. You may stumble upon something very standard that just plain works or you may discover a line that also works in a unique and interesting way.

Of course, technically speaking, there are "right" and "wrong" harmony choices according to the science of music theory, but that said, if it sounds good to your ear, then it's cool. Plain and simple. The only rule in music is there are no rules.

• Ebony and ivory. If improvisational, harmonic exploration isn't your bag and you just want to create some stock, "by the book" harmonies, grab a pen and paper and head on over to your piano/keyboard (or grab your guitar).

Now certainly, at this juncture, it would be helpful if you were well versed in the ways of music theory but if you're not, no worries (although I will be assuming you have a very basic knowledge of what notes populate each, specific key).

First, find your chorus' lead vocal melody line on piano (or guitar). Get it under your fingers. Sing along as you play it to make sure you're playing exactly what you sang in the octave you sang it. Now write down the melody line notes, in sequence (C, E, etc). Once you have them written down, time to find their harmonic counterparts.

For argument's sake, let's say we want to sing an interval of a third (a common harmony choice) for our direct harmony part. Look at the notes you wrote down for your lead melody line and one by one, again in sequence, find the third note in the applicable scale from each individual lead note and write it down. For example, if your first lead melody line note is C (in the key of C), then count 3 notes from that note to find your harmonic third. In this case, that would be E. Next, find the third from your second lead melody line note and so on. Once this process is complete, you should have a harmonic partner note written for every note in your lead melody line.

Now, play your newly discovered harmony line on piano (or guitar). On its own it may sound odd or melodically challenged but that's ok. Begin to sing the harmony line, with your lyrics, and try and commit it to memory. Once you have it stored in the old gray matter, try singing the harmony line along with the recording of your lead vocal. See how it sounds. If it sounds cool then congratulations, you have a harmony part that's record ready!

However, if you're having trouble singing this "weird" harmony line along with your lead vocal line or you find yourself loosing your note, lapsing back to singing the lead melody line, etc. no problem, you are not alone (trust me, been there done that). In order to remedy this situation, head back over to the keys/guitar and your paperwork and re-teach yourself to sing the harmony line. Once you think you've got it down, go back to your recorded track, but before you hit play, mute out your lead vocal. Now, with just the backing track sounding, sing your chorus harmony line as if it were (a slightly odd) lead vocal line. Practice it. Get it in pitch and in time just as you would any other lead vocal and then, with your original lead vocal still muted out of the mix, record the harmony line on a separate track like it were an alternate universe lead vocal. Once the harmony line is down, un-mute your lead vocal and blend the harmony vocal with said lead vocal. If you recorded your harmony line in pitch, in time, with the same phrasing, etc, both vocal tracks should match up nicely and, shazam, you have a harmonized chorus.

Now, of course, there are many other factors to consider (too many to cover in this limited space) when talking harmony. What's outlined above is just a very basic, jumping off point to get you started. However, before I wrap, here are a few additional points to think about:

- If you'd like to add another harmony part to the above described and recorded, two-part harmony section, creating a three-part harmony group, repeat the above outlined piano-pen to paper, discovery process. This time though, instead of a third, find partner notes a fifth away from your lead melody line notes. Again, memorize, record and blend.

- If your lead melody line is sung in a higher octave, you might consider singing your harmony line in a lower octave, under or below the melody line. Conversely, if your lead melody line is sung in a lower octave, consider singing the harmony line higher, above the lead line.

Go forth and harmonize.

 

Pre-Production
By Mark Bacino

Ok, so you’ve just finished writing a great song and you’re excited to begin getting it down. Before you hit that virtual record button, here’s a pre-production checklist worth a run-through to help ensure your new tune is ready to hit the hard drive:

• Is your song concise? Are there sections that could be discarded or shortened in efforts to tighten up the overall structure?

• Are your song sections ordered in such a way that’s consistent with the genre you’re working in (e.g. in the pop genre, having a chorus that repeats at logical points throughout the song)?

• Write your song’s structure down on paper (verse, chorus, etc.) and see if it makes sense from that perspective. If you’re still not sure your structure’s the best it can be, pick a similar tune from a favorite artist that falls within your genre and dissect that song’s structure on paper as well. How does it differ from your song’s make up? What structural ideas can you borrow from that model song and apply to your tune?

• Establish a tempo. Use your recording software’s click/metronome function and play around with how your tune feels when performed at different BPMs (beats per minute) ‘till you find a tempo right for the song.

• Establish a key. Many times a song will be written in a key that may not suit the vocal range of whoever will be singing the tune on the recording. Play the song in various keys with singer on hand to make sure you have the right fit.

• Type up a lyric sheet for your song with chord changes included. Having this information in print will be a big help during the recording sessions to both singers and players alike. Typing the lyrics will also afford you, the writer, the opportunity to re-analyze, edit and improve your lyrics before recording commences.

• Record a demo. Before “official” recording begins, it’s helpful to get a simple version of your song down with just an acoustic guitar or piano and a vocal. This exercise will help you road test all the choices and tweaks you’ve made via the points listed above and will also give you a better sense of the overall quality of the tune when listening back. If the song moves you with just one instrument and a voice, you’ll know it’s ready and worthy of a proper recording. If it doesn’t excite you, better to learn that before you’ve recorded your fiftieth theremin overdub.

• Arrangement. Begin to plan the specific musical parts that will populate your song and make decisions as to what instruments will play those parts on the recording (e.g. rhythm guitar parts will be played by acoustic guitars, bass lines will be played by synth bass, etc.). Try to create parts in addition to the basic - drums, bass, rhythm guitar/keys and vocal. Think of possibly adding some melodic lines played by different instruments that will artfully weave in and out of your recording, lending it some excitement and color. The possibilities are endless (but don’t go overboard). Get your ideas down on paper, creating a road map of sorts for your tune. Once you begin recording, this document will point your song in the right direction (despite any detours, welcome or unwanted) and will help get your song where you want it to go.

• Rehearse. If you’re planning on recording the basics of you song (drums, bass, rhythm guitar/keys) with a band live in the studio as opposed to building the song from the ground up in the overdub process, rehearse the players. Then rehearse them some more. If you intend to record to a click/fixed time, have the drummer practice playing along with said click at the song’s chosen tempo. When musicians are well prepared and know their parts, they tend to stop thinking their way through takes while recording and start to actually play/perform.

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