Diary of an Album - February 2001
I guess that you are expecting the "studio log" of my new Shrapnel album. However, since I am still in the final stage (!!!) of my songwriting process and I haven't entered the studio yet - the "studio log" will still have to wait for its turn!
What I'd like to talk about now is something that I would call "composing methods". That is- how to make a song starting out from scratch! Some of the "methods" and "rules" here I've also applied in my "songwriting process" over the years and for the new Shrapnel album too… especially when I would fall into a "rut".
So, imagine… here you are with your guitar (or some other instrument) and you want to work on a song but you are not getting "far" with your work because you can't focus enough (or it's "your first song ever" and you don't really know how and where to start!) or any other reason...
The first thing to think of is which "music bag" are you intending to write in (or in which musical style) or type of song you feel like making. For example it could be a "power rock style", "slow ballad", "all guns blazing metal"… the choice is yours!
The second thing you need is a "main idea" which could be a melody or a riff that your song will be based around. Finding this "main idea" usually requires either some "noodling" on your guitar in search of an interesting phrase that you will turn into a "riff" or trying to invent ( "imagine" or "sing") some melody that you would "transfer" to your instrument later on.
The third thing to do is to define "basics" - drums and bass that is. Sometimes this can also be very helpful when you are not "getting far" with your "riffs" and "melodies"- and can inspire you to make some. The best thing would be to do this with some kind of rhythm machine. So, think about which kind of "drum pattern" you find exciting and then try to apply it to your "riff idea". You could also "turn things around" (if you don't have the "idea") and first start off with some drum rhythm with you just playing something over it. After some time you will surely come up with some idea that you find worthwhile memorizing… So, write it down or make a recording of it. After that add some "bass lines" to it. Try playing some different note values like quarter notes (in 4/4 rhythm that's when you play 1 note on every beat) or half notes (in 4/4 rhythm that's when you play on 1st beat and 3ed -for example- but you "sustain" the played note for a value of 2 beats). Knowing scales and arpeggios as well as time signatures does help because you will be outlining the harmony and rhythm here… So, if you have (let's say) a riff based around C-major tonality - you might want to use a bass line made out of C-major scale or C-major arpeggio notes (C, E, G) at least, etc…
Next thing you want to think about is - tempo. Find the right one for "your idea"! Does it work better a little faster or slower? These nuances are very important. Experiment with tempo and sometimes you will discover that what you thought would be the "great double kick bass drum rocker song" works much better as a ballad (for example)… Or you can just "fine tune" your idea to find that "groove sweetspot".
The fifth segment would be defining the "verse-bridge-chorus" construction (if you want your song to have all these parts of course!). For this you have to decide what your "main idea" is good for. Is it a chorus or a verse? After that try to build up and add the "missing links" that will enhance and contribute to the "main idea" in the best way. This is a very ambiguous part and it takes some time and experience to achieve the best results. It can almost be considered as "variations on the main theme".
Sixth part would be "thoughts" about arrangements or plainly said - details. Do you want some keyboards in there? Maybe just for the chorus part? Where does the solo come in? What does the drum play on the transition from verse to the bridge? How does the song EXACTLY begin and end? Do you want a fade out ending? How many times does the chorus repeat… once, twice? This can be a "never ending story" and limits are wherever your imagination takes you. Listening to a lot of different music and having an idea how and what some other composers are doing is valuable. Just as being a good writer requires being a good reader at first!
And finally the seventh step you need to take is making decisions on the "sonic side". This means figuring out which "tone color" works best for each instrument individually and how do they work combined together in a "song sound" situation. I am talking about determining the amount of gain for rhythm guitar, effects used for solo (wah, delay, flanger, etc…), which type of snare drum you want, reverb, hall or small room ambience,... The sounds are like colors and it's crucial how you will paint your "sonic painting"!
Well, I hope that some of these "down to earth" guidelines will be helpful to you in your own creative work! These 7 stages should be considered as a short introductory description of the least that you have to think of (technically) while making a song. Yes, sometimes songs can come out of the blue and magically appear in your mind - "almost perfectly completed". But that doesn't happen often. Songs are usually created from different parts which came up at different times, etc… and you have to string them together in the right way and complete the "composition" having in mind some other "minor details" like taste, originality, appeal potential, style, melodic invention, harmony structure, …(and a few other things which I don't want to bore you with now!) which all means one thing - HARD WORK! Remember to be patient with yourself and have fun!