How to finish writing a song

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So you can play an instrument, program a pc, sing a lyric, whatever … you even, shock of horrors, have ideas for song of your very own! You start them but time and time again you get so far through and then … the dreaded fog sets in and you can’t for the life of you think how or why to finish the song, ‘til sooner or later hey-ho you start another song. The cycle continues and all you do is build up a back catalogue as big as the Beatles, only these gems aren’t quite worth as much.

It’s like continually getting to second base but not ever getting home with the girl. Well I’m sure even Don Juan had to go home with a few mingers in his time to figure out the games to play. So it is with songs. Sometimes you’ve got to make and finish a load of bollox just to understand the process and feel complete.

There is one thing I realised early on, and that was if I wanted to make it as a producer then I needed to finish the tracks I started, maybe that was things rolling in from my engineering life i dont know, but i knew it had to happen. I’ll twist Peretto’s Rule on its head and say you probably learn 80% of the tips in the final 20% of the tune. It’s only when you’re pulling everything together that you realise which bricks need slinging and where the holes in the frequency wall are, and then figure out how you fill them.

When I speak with people, even friends who I consider far more talented than I, it’s a common problem I hear of: starting tunes and getting so far into them, and then for some reason or another that’s as far as it goes.  I like to think of myself as a jack russell dog, a tenatious little bastard bitting at the ankle of the idea and never giving up until its rolled over and given me the treats… some songs I’ve worked on and off for over a year… I got that nailed in the end, that’s satisfaction I’ll tell you.

I’ve written a previous post on the type of system you need to produce, but this covered everything. I’m now going to narrow in and pull together the steps for finishing and idea for a song, focusing squarely on the process of the song. I’m taking it you’ve read the other post and that you have your system down.

1) You have an idea, a riff, a vocal, a melody… fine. Let’s get it down in its raw form, make a few variations while the vibe if flowing, don’t worry about perfection here, also don’t spend ages making variations. In its crudest form a song is intro, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, outro. That’s only 4 variations of idea at max that you need.

2) Decide on your vision, what’s your instinct of how the song should go? style, genre.  E.g. If it’s going to be played in clubs, does it make you want to dance?

3) Decide the tempo, set this in your DAW

4) Select several commercial recordings that are in similar vein or have key elements that you want to incorporate

5) Get a 4 bar drum track down. Copy it and add a fill for 8bars, and then repeat so you have a 16bar drum loop

6) Fit your vocal, riff etc to it, until that 4 bars groove

7) Copy that 4 bars and make 8 bar phrase. Add a twist at the end to signify progression through the phrase.

8) Copy the 8 bar phrase and make a 16 bar phrase.

9) Focusing on the first 8bar section. You have Drums and riff. You’re now going to add in a track for each key element – bass, sub, hi percussion, lead 1, lead 2, fills, FX. You do this till you have a 8 bar section will all the main ingredients for the tune. By adding and taking away individual elements of that loop you should be able to build and progress the tune. Don’t spend time perfecting the sounds here, just close enough is all you need. Don’t waste time and inspiration perfecting something that will probably change anyway due to context/other sounds later. It’s my experience that unless you have the most amazing sound or riff ever – you need 3 elements going at any one time! One of those needs to be something that subtley evolves, so that your mind doesn’t feel like its listening to a loop, even if it is! But if you need more than 8 tracks running at once, then the ideas arent strong enough! Don’t be afraid to bin elements, remember your vision from step 2. If it doesn’t fit or it prevent you meeting this, bin it… be ruthless, the public listening to your track will be!!

10) Copy that 16 bar drum pattern to a fresh area in your DAW, then double it to be a 32bar section. then proceed to layout the base section of the type of track you making.  For example house – intro (32bars), drop (8 bars), section 1(64 bars), break (16bar), section 2 (64bars), outro (32 bars)

11) Now lay each of the various elements from your 8 bar loop throughout the sections where they should go to give you the basic arrangement, percussion intro, initial riff, drop etc. Till you have a crude arrangement.

12) Taking notes, You can now see clearly when you play it back through where and when you need to add elements to get correct build, where variations are needed etc. This stops you getting stuck in loop form. You aim to be laying out the main arrangement within a couple of hours. Take a break, make a brew, listen to a few bits of inspiration and then get ready to crack on again…

13) Now working linearly from start to finish adding all the little bits to the track to make it polished. Swooshes at the start, little tweaks to patterns, rolls and white noise, FX to leads, and perc at intermittent points.

14) tweak sounds… checking frequency spectrum of the track. I have EQ on every channel and it’s better to take away than to add, unless that the FX your trying to get.  Drop off the lows of anything that is above 200hz to avoid sub issues. Also its often good to scoop a little of frequencies that a doubled on various instruments so that your sounds are clean and not muddies by have numerous sounds stacked on the same frequency. Consider harmonics in the track too, we’ll touch on this in a later post!

15) It’s a dance track, so the kick needs to pump through the mix of everything else – side chaining… check this previous post

16)  When you’re happy with the above, bounce down the mix and play the track against your reference tracks. If this sounds good quality wise then take the track and mix it in and out of a few other tracks so see how it would work for a DJ, this is key and you can also hear any frequency holes etc when your laying it against a commercial track.

17) Sit back have a brew and smile… now leave the track for a day or so and come back when your mind is fresh

18) Revisit and adjust as necessary or send to all those you love

Thats it folks! …. follow these steps and I’m sure you’ll get a dance floor shaker of a tune sorted in no time!…pigs dont have to fly!

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be sure to send us the results via Soundcloud for consideration in our ‘Featured’ artist reports…

Any questions jus hit us up below…

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