songwriting and producing

An Engineer’s Approach to Songwriting and Producing

So, you're a tracking engineer/producer, and you've got a band in the studio. Great! You're ready to start the recording process and make their song sound as great as possible by just micing up their instruments and just recording them play, right?

While this might sometimes be the case, other times the song that the band presents to you might need some help making it sound as good as it possibly can. In this article I'm going to share with you how I view songwriting and some of the ways I personally make suggestions when I think a song isn't as powerful as it should be, because at the end of the day, if the song you're recording isn't good, then it doesn't matter how awesome you can make it sound in the mix. Our job as engineers is to serve the song.

The Macro of Songwriting

When I'm listening to the whole song through, one thing going on in my back of my mind is “Does this feel like a song?” That's a broad way of putting it, but basically you're listening to the structure of the song and how it flows, making sure there aren't any awkward transitions or anything that immediately sticks out as sounding off.

Often times I'll do this when I'm hearing the song for the first time, and I think that's the best stage to apply this because you're not desensitized to the song. You haven't heard it a million times like the band has, and you're listening to it like any audience will. So, if something is sticking out like a sore thumb, that's probably the best place to start. You'll have to use your own judgment for this as we all have different tastes and preferences.

How long does the song feel? A good song should keep the listener engaged the whole time they're hearing it. So if you're listening to a three and a half minute long song, and wondering when it's going to end or go to the next part, there likely isn't enough musical work in there keeping the listener engaged. If your song is three and a half minutes, it should feel like it, and if your song is seven minutes, it should probably feel shorter than it actually is.

The easiest thing to do, and sometimes the most effective in this situation, is to just simply cut some of the parts of the song, or make them shorter. The way I think of this approach in my head is “Get to the point and then get out of there.” Does the build up in the song need to be a whole minute long to get point across? If you try cutting it in half and it just doesn't hit as hard, then keep it. If you cut it in half and it hits just as hard, then maybe it was a better decision for the song as a whole.

The next thing I like to look at macro-wise is the dynamics of the song. Songs need contrast in order to work their magic. High points and low points that give the listener an atmosphere to delve into. If there aren't enough strategically placed low points in the song to contrast with the high points, then those high points just won't hit as hard in context.

If you run into a song that doesn't have enough dynamics, you can try taking instruments out of a section and reintroducing them later to create a more “empty” sound that resolves with a “fuller” sound. You can also do the opposite, by keeping all the instrumentation the artists wrote, and then later adding more instrumentation to give it an even fuller sound. The idea is to just take the listener through a journey of mountains and valleys. No one likes a super hero movie where the hero is constantly kicking ass without any problems, you need some kryptonite.

The last thing I'd like to mention is actually a technique I heard from my friends in the band Gatherers. When asked about their writing process in an interview, they stated that they'll often write their music to “visual cues.” Specifically, they stated that while writing one of their songs, it “had to sound like someone was digging a hole.” This kind of synesthesia approach to songwriting can be an interesting experiment to try. Many times when musicians are writing a new song, they might reference other songs or ideas they've heard before. Writing your music with something other than sound in mind could yield interesting results!

The Micro of Songwriting

In this section I'll be talking about all the small nitty gritty details that add up to make your song more interesting. If you've watched the Metallica documentary “Some Kind of Monster” you'll know that they lovingly refer to boring riffs as “stock.” It's a great phrase, really, because anything that's “stock” has all of the fundamental aspects of being a good product, but none of the spice that separates it from it's competitors.

Often times, a band can be completely defined by all the small details that they add into their music, which is why some artists will spend hours upon hours just finding the right guitar tone or effect. It's those small details that maybe you won't catch on your first listen, but being able to write a song where a listener can discover new things about it each time they listen is an amazing thing.

I'll start with the idea of repetition. Repetition can be a great thing if done right, but it can also be abused, and quickly make you lose interest. Just wrote the amazing face-smashing head exploding part ever? That's great! Just try not to repeat it for thirty-two measures straight. My point is, to keep the listener engaged, you need to introduce some spice here and there. If you must play your riff for thirty-two measures, maybe add some different notes, or change the tone of what your playing.

You can also try adding different elements on top of the underlying riff to keep things interesting. A great a example of this kind of songwriting is Ed Sheeran's “Shape of You.” The whole song is essentially the same staccato piano part, with different elements and vocal melodies being added and taken away, changing the entire feel of each section of the song. While this is admittedly more of a macro idea in this particular song, you can apply this technique to each section of your song by introducing and taking away elements in the section.

This next idea is kind of a subsection of repetition. Often times, songs will have a repeating chorus, or verse, or even both. What I personally like to do to make these repeating sections stand out more from the last is the same idea stated above. Add or take away something. Add another harmony layer in the vocals of the second chorus, add tambourine, change the bass-line, add a lead guitar in the background- Anything that will differentiate the two parts from each other will ultimately add more interest and character in the song, keeping the listener on their toes. You can even completely write new parts while keeping the same meat and potatoes of the original.

Another thing I like to do is listen to the song and pay attention to any empty spaces that might arise. Sometimes while writing a song, you'll be so used to the grooves and various instrumentation going on, you'll fail to see little pockets of empty space where nothing interesting is really happening. You can then go in and fill these little pockets of space with a small interesting little fill, or sound. It doesn't have to be something crazy either, you can do something as simple as adding a percussive hit, or a delay from the vocals/guitar.

Again, this comes down to your own individual taste, so you'll have to use your judgment. There are even times where that pocket of space is exactly what the song needs to give the listener a break from all of the information being thrown at them.

I personally think hip-hop artists are the kings of using this technique, usually in the form of “ad-libs.” If you listen to Congratulations by Post Malone, for example, you'll hear plenty of little ad-libs throughout the song that ultimately add more interest and character to the song. Some of the examples might sound kinda silly in this song, but I guarantee that if you took all those ad-libs out, the song wouldn't have the same impact.

Parting Thoughts

I'd just like to state that these are just my opinions. Every person and artist has their own tastes and unique way of viewing music. You may disagree with some of the things I've stated, but I hope some of my views give you some ideas while writing and arranging your own music.