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A Recipe for Song Construction

By Tweak

Page 2

    Ready to start refining the song

    Listen to the song at this point   I muted the piano then copied the sequences to another track and assigned a low whistle from Absynth.  When I added the Celtic Hammered Dulcimer I started feeling the song.  But the song is far from finished, its just a draft at this point.  The intro, ending and break need development, the drums fleshed out, the bassline repaired.  But I have a sense we are going somewhere.


Give Life to the Skeleton

  • Continue to orchestrate, add instruments and supporting tracks
  • Work on each track till it does what you want it to do. Break the rules of form if necessary. If it doesn't "fit" you need...

Transitions!  Add gaps, pauses, extra bars. These really add drama and excitement.  

  • Remember that nothing is sacred at this point.  Don't be shy about changing instruments, ripping out tracks, re-recording tracks.  Use the mute button to get an idea of how things sound without one of the tracks. 
  • Double parts that need emphasis.  Doubling is simply this: Copy one track to a new track and assign a different instrument.  For example, if you have a violin section playing a melody, transpose the copy down 2 octaves and let the Cellos play it.  Let them play it together or let the violins do it 2 bars, the cellos the next 2 bars, back to violins for 2 then let them both do it for the last 2 bars. 
  • Fix and fill out the drums--add and delete parts so it does not sound mechanical, unless you are writing disco :).  If you were using looped midi drum patterns or track aliases, it is time to turn those loops to real copies.  Make each bar of drums unique, even if it is just changing one hi hat.
  • Add frills, ornaments and transitions.  Percussion like tamborine, cowbell  (yep), congas, shakers, bells, etc can really help a song move.



    Listen to the song at this juncture.  You can see from the tracks I added a whistle from Albino for the choruses.  A thick pad from Atmosphere and some clean percussion from a Logic drum kit helps fill out the song.  Notice also I filled out the drums with similar, but unique 8 bar patterns.  The song is at a fun point and there are still possibilities open.


Prepare for The Rough Mix

  • Set the track volume and pan for each channel. Give each instrument is own sonic space. Pretend you are in the front row and you are looking at the stage. Always center the bass and kick drum to get started.
  • Go through each track, cleaning up bad notes, trying alternate patches
  • As the mix progresses, it is time to start deleting parts that do not have a function or impact on the song.  Be ruthless. At the end of the mix, we want every element of the song to contribute to the strength of the whole.  If you have non-contributing elements, mute them to see if their absence hurts the song.  If not, delete them.  
  • Start setting up FX patches and track EQ, get the overall mix level tamed so that the final output is under 0db.  Don't get too hung up on tiny mix details yet (that comes later).  Just get everything "in the ballpark" where they start to "gel".
  • Elements that need to be louder than other elements throughout the song are candidates for a track compressor.  This could be a vocal track, or dominant instrumental track. 


    The arrangement nears final form

    At this point I fixed most of the problems with the song structure.  I extended the 1st verse to 16 bars from 8, cleaned up the intro and ending, and added a new reverb percussion track.  At this point there is no doubt that the song has got me and its meaning is starting to unfold.  I've started to pay attention to mixer settings at this point localize the sounds in a pleasing way. 


    The mix is started


Every Song has a Story


  • Sit back and listen. What does this song Mean? What is its message? What is it Like? If you really like it, a word or a phrase or some kind of meaning will pop up. Think of the whole song in light of the new found Meaning.  
  • Ask yourself what it would take to make the piece truly memorable. The meaning will tell you what to do.
  • Do that. The song will start sounding like a story. Now you are ready for tweaking of the...
  • Climax!  Copy chorus 2 to chorus 3. Things to try: Double instruments,  Possibly write a new variation on the melody. Possibly put the melody and countermelody on top of each other--see what happens.  
  • Tweak the climax, add, delete, transform, extend. You are the boss. Make a Statement. Go all out. Triple instruments if you have to, stack them sounds up.
  • Write the Ending again if necessary  
  • Go back to each part, starting at the last, this time, and tweak it all down to where you are happy
  • Add slight tempo changes, track offsets--especially the snare---, and add humanization if appropriate to quantized parts.  
  • Listen. What needs to be changed to make the story a good story. Do it. This may take an hour, or a week.
  • Turn on the master deck, set levels, and do a rough mix.  


Rough Mix

Listen to the Rough Mix.  I have named the song, re wrote the intro, ending, cut many notes out of the bassline, added more layers for the main "vox" that carries the melody.  I started the mix by EQ-ing a few tracks and adding compression to the drum track. 


The meaning of this song started to arrive.  I started calling the song "Telstar's Daughter", reminiscent of a very early electronic music piece called Telstar.  This meaning completely changed the direction of the song away from its soft rock underpinning to a harder electronic form.  So I got to work tweaking out drums and looking for novel combinations of drum sounds to give it a modern vintage flavor.  Then I decided to punctuate it with vocal samples.  Just my monotone voice through a huge rack of effects.  "Our mission, is to develop the tools..." Ok its corny, but hey, have you seen the price of corn this year? 

The meaning has arrived

A few things you might notice.  General housekeeping.  I have all 7 drum tracks grouped at the top of the arrangement.  Notice how I alternate kits for the verse and chorus.  Notice I have a track for just kick drum.  This lets me set the kick volume independently of all the other drums.  Now look at the bottom 4 tracks.  Those are vocals snipped up.  Each of those tracks has a different set of effects.  Because this is a space tune, I care much less about sound quality than I do about finding something cool.  In fact, I am going out of my way to obliterate sound quality from these tracks.

I ask myself if I am happy with it.  The answer is no.  Its getting big and time consuming.  It may be time to stop or take extreme measures to save it.  But that is the way it goes.  Sometimes you get a great song done in a few hours; other times like this time, it takes days and you have to fight for every bit of sonic interest.  I know I have the choice to dump it.  Many times it is better to kill a project than let it eat up week after week for nothing.  Yet with the vast array of tools we have at our disposal, I could still get radical and come out alive.  So stay tuned to see what I do next.


Concluding the song

OK, days passed and I decided to hard tweak (remix) the song using a special remix method. But that is another class! Now I feel a little better about it.  Definitely not my best, but that it made it on Soundclick is a sign that it is a cut above the thousands of songs I have that never made it that far.  You can listen to it on my Soundclick site.  Or you can stream it from here at 

I hope you are able to see and hear the song construction process in a new light.  There is nothing magical about the process.  Its really a matter of building good composition habits.  The recipe I have shown you has been with me for over 15 years and I have not changed it much I first wrote it out.  But that does not mean you have to follow it (or any other method) like religion. Indeed, it does not matter how you get there.  It just matters that you get there. 

 I wish you the best of luck in your songwriting process



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Further Reading:

Sound on Sound's Tips for Pop Arranging by Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser.  This is a great article, a 'must read' and its free, courtesy of Sound on Sound


 Want more tips like this? 

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Using Compressors
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Using an AW1600 Recorder
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Studio Racks List


Cool Quote:

"For the introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole state; since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions."

Plato (c. 427347 B.C.), Greek philosopher.

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