The Evolution of a Song

August 14, 2008 9:22 PM

I love seeing how people take the germ of an idea they've had and mold it into a song. I'd be really interested in seeing peoples' processes, illustrated with before and after recordings.

I've had this idea since the Beatles' Anthology showed me that sometimes even they did shitty demos. I love seeing how a song grows from a weird little riff or a jam into something entirely different or just more polished and produced.
It would be great if people could post songs they've recorded as demos, riffs, different stages; and then the end result.
I realize that the way Music is set up now kind of limits this approach, which is unfortunate. Ideally, it could be simpler to do stuff like this; especially collab threads where you could post a rough track and have people add to it; but that's another problem for which I do not know the solution.
I attempted an "evolution"-type post a while ago with a so-so song that I happened to have a lot of versions of. (I was trying to make it more about the progression idea than the crappy song, but I don't know if that came across.) I uploaded the "final" version* as the post and then linked to a bunch of demos and riffs on a file-hosting sight, which was kinda sloppy, but I didn't know how else to do it.

Any ideas of how to make this more fun, feasible or do-able are so welcome.

*Oh, and if the end result sucks, well, that just adds to the fun/discussion.
posted by chococat (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

I think this is a great general idea, actually. I wish I had more properly-evolved songs, but I tend to write and record in such a rush that I don't end up with more than the first-shot track for most songs.

The meta/implementation question—how to, I guess, accommodate multi-song posts or songs-in-comments posts—is a good one, but I have no idea what the mefi-side answer would be. It does seem both (a) potentially complicated and (b) just asking for an amplification of the server storage requirements for Music. The short answer is Host It Elsewhere And Link, but running the notion by Matt and pb might not be a bad idea in case they have any brilliant/enthusiastic thoughts on the subject.

chococat, I think the example you linked, of your Never Gonna Stop recordings, is a great as-things-stand approach to this sort of thing, and I'd love to see people do exactly that. Even just posting demo+polish as a pair (either in here, or as a mp3 + extra link post to Music itself) would be cool.
posted by cortex at 9:55 PM on August 14, 2008

I also think this is a good idea. As I see it, there are two separate issues here: giving the listeners extra insight into the songwriter's process, and giving the songwriter feedback while he/she is composing.

For the former, I think hosting demos offsite and linking them inside the polished version's post works well -- it doesn't clog up the Music page with "what do you think of the guitar riff I just wrote." (Not that we're in danger of the Music page clogging up just yet, but you know.) For the latter, though, we'd lose the opportunity for discussion and criticism of the work-in-progress recording(s) if everything gets spit out at once.

To that end, I haven't personally had a problem with people just posting two separate MeFi Music threads with the same song -- see, e.g., The Great Big Mulp's "Flyball's Lament" (1, 2) or ludwig_van's "Summer's Ending" (1, 2). That gives people a chance to incorporate any feedback from the community.

On the other hand, things might get unwieldy if we go more than two threads -- what do you think?
posted by danb at 10:53 PM on August 14, 2008

I thought the way chococat did it was quite effective, and I really appreciated the idea behind that post. I agree it would be great if more people did the same thing because I too find the whole creative process of songwriting extremely interesting. I hope to share some insight into a song or two of mine in the future. I think I'm slightly worried about doing so because it feels very private to reveal early versions, and possibly even more frightening to have it confirmed that, indeed, the early version was better than the final. But that's also part of my fascination with the process... so, eventually I'll post something when I have an interesting process to share.
posted by edlundart at 12:18 AM on August 15, 2008

I think I'm slightly worried about doing so because it feels very private to reveal early versions, and possibly even more frightening to have it confirmed that, indeed, the early version was better than the final.

It's a weird thing, that. As much as anything, I think a rough simple demo of a song can carry with it a lot of charm that comes out of that stripped-down here-goes-nothing feel, so a later polished take can be both better in terms of fullness and production quality and kind of lacking in that charm at the same time.

I remember when I first post At the Open Mic and it was pretty well received, I think in part because there was that kind of element of charm to it. When I finished my album that month, I had ended up rerecording that one from scratch, and the end result was a bit different: less bouncy energy, more piano-driven (like the whole album; this version fits the whole more effectively), some of that, uh, open-micish spontaneity and lofi fun missing on the far side of the recording mill.

(And any of us should be so lucky as to get this kind of remix treatment from a fellow mefite. I love what mexican did with that track, and though it's mostly a matter of sheer timing it's worth noting that he did it to the original demo. I don't think there's really as much space on the finished track to even do something like that.)
posted by cortex at 2:14 AM on August 15, 2008

Some form of simple version control when uploading?...(although I think we may be looking at a peculiar meaning of the word "simple" in this context.)
posted by Jofus at 2:14 AM on August 15, 2008

This is a cool idea. I like hearing different revisions of the same song. My workflow doesn't, generally, generate multiple versions (with the exception of one song that I've recorded maybe 4 times since 2001 and still haven't gotten right), but I'd dig hearing others'. I think Jofus' spliced-together post works well (although it'd be nice to post where the cuts are, for skipping-and-comparing purposes; I'm very impatient).
posted by uncleozzy at 6:09 AM on August 15, 2008

Well, I've posted a kind of a contribution to the discussion - one song, three versions, one night. See what you reckon.
posted by Jofus at 6:31 AM on August 15, 2008

I did this and suggest using the tag roughmix.
posted by lothar at 11:31 AM on August 15, 2008

In my opinion, this is definitely something that Music should have. I think all of us share that curiosity for other musician's processes, liner notes and for all sorts of behind-the-scenes detail.

I think I've said it before, and sorry if I'm being repetitive, but I think we could have each song's page (I mean, the page that opens when you click on a song's title) redesigned to be something similar to what cortex did with his album Manifests.

There you have:

1) a space for the lyrics,
2) a space for the story that inspired the song (or the story of how you came to record it),
3) a space for the demo (or the different versions) and
4) a space for the "final" version. As a bonus, cortex even added:
5) scans of the notes he did while writing the songs.

That design is somewhat similar to what we already have and it offers many extra possibilities. Perhaps something that we could have in it, if implemented, is the ability to keep uploading new versions under the mp3 section (to a max, of, say, 5 or 10 if the admins want a limit).

If it's a matter of votes, I vote in favor. I'd like to go into further detail, but I am really, really busy right now (I move out of the country on Sunday), yet I didn't wanted to let this post go without contributing ideas to it and saying that it would be reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaally nice to have that feature implemented (or figured out, as its shape is not decided yet).

I'll come back to the discussion next week.

(and chococat, I've been too busy to comment, but that song of yours was great and that post was one of the best I've seen, thank you very much for taking the time to put together something so detailed).
posted by micayetoca at 3:11 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh yes, one of my first posts was about a vamp in its first stage, then with a better recording, and then improved upon by a much better musician than i am. I also posted something and later included in a different track some recommendations that were made. But all this is far below the achievements of some songwriters featured on mefi and some of the stuff really deserve to be described at various stages of completion.
What I would suggest is maybe opening a separate section where users could post a track which could be modified by everyone (including the very first poster) in the same thread. The same page would show comments and the modified track in various incarnations in a chronological way. It would also allow collaborations.
posted by nicolin at 9:58 AM on August 16, 2008

What I would suggest is maybe opening a separate section where users could post a track which could be modified by everyone (including the very first poster) in the same thread.

I'm not sure we really need anything new for this, so much as just have someone start up a Talk thread and sell the idea; folks can use that thread as the place to discuss development ideas, post links to their work on the song and discussions of same, etc.
posted by cortex at 10:21 AM on August 16, 2008

A fair amount happens on paper, no? Here's what I do:

1. If it's a song with words, I write out the rough lyric in pencil in a spiral notebook. This never happens in order. I'll leave space, write things down as they come to me. Often times arrows show up on the page showing where certain phrases go. Sometimes I erase, sometimes I strike-through.

2. I do some drafts. Sleep on it. Tweak particular words. Quite possibly I need to do more revision than I usually go in for.

3. Lately, the words go onto staff paper, also in pencil. These are spaced and hyphenated so notes can fit above.

4. I like lead sheets, and sometimes put the song into notation software. But that's usually after it's been recorded and been around a while.

5. For recording, I audition a few sounds, then get going. Usually I have an idea of how the thing will go. I'm a lousy recording engineer. I don't do zillions of takes, and use punch-ins now and then. Pretty much everything's a demo for me.

I know this isn't done via audio, but hope it addresses your question.
posted by AppleSeed at 9:09 PM on August 19, 2008

Joe Mathlete did something similar on his blog. The evolution of one his worst songs from the album version to the live version several years later. I was considering posting it to the blue but I'm shy so here it is.

Part One: Album Version

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven
posted by minifigs at 8:00 AM on August 22, 2008

Here are some before and afters of mine:

The Road: Demo, Final
Julia: Demo, Final
February Third: Demo, Final
The Spy (Part 1): Demo, Final
The Spy (Part 2): Demo, Final
Summer's Ending: Demo, Final
posted by ludwig_van at 9:11 AM on August 22, 2008

This is so great to hear, so far. Hope it keeps going.
People unleashed on mine, so I feel entitled...
It's amazing how many times I think the first version is the best, and maybe it's psychological, it would be interesting to see if I felt the same way if you lied and said the last was the first.

cortex, the first version of At the Open Mic is the best. Your second piano-y version sounds really Canadian to me, like from Degrassi or something. That's not a bad thing, but I like the original best.

Jofus' song is amazing, but really it's different takes of the same song, same night; which is quite a different idea.

nicolin really got what my idea was...a fragment of an idea that evolved into a song.

I loved hearing the different versions of songs, but most of them seem like finished songs recorded different ways.
For example, ludwig_van posts demos and finals, but I'd love to hear a ludwig_van sketch, pre-"demo" arranging, like a test recording of chords and notes with "la la la's" before there's words, you know? Am I the only one who does that?
Just curious, not bitchy.
Keep on rockin' in the free world.
posted by chococat at 11:29 PM on August 22, 2008

For example, ludwig_van posts demos and finals, but I'd love to hear a ludwig_van sketch, pre-"demo" arranging, like a test recording of chords and notes with "la la la's" before there's words, you know? Am I the only one who does that?

I don't do that very often. I probably have two or three "just gotta get this down" recordings somewhere that were attempts to preserve an idea that might otherwise get away, but usually if I have the time to set up my recording gear and lay down an idea, I'll take the extra 15 or 30 or 60 minutes to try and build it out into full demo anyway.

It's an interesting question. I should go looking.
posted by cortex at 6:55 AM on August 23, 2008

Yeah, I never do that. I'm very good at keeping a lot of musical ideas in my head. Sometimes I'll write things down on paper. But to me, making a recording, even a demo, feels like setting a song in stone, even though I know it doesn't have to be. But recordings are for when I want other people to hear something, since I can already hear it perfectly well in my brain. I don't think I'd ever bother with a recording unless I had all the lyrics and structure in place, and then I can never help recording a million and a half overdubs. I'm terrible about it, really. It's such a hassle. My setup could be a lot better.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:08 PM on August 23, 2008

a test recording of chords and notes with "la la la's" before there's words, you know? Am I the only one who does that?

Apparently not.

posted by micayetoca at 8:06 AM on August 25, 2008

Here's another example of before and after, actually, that shows some development from an initial draft to the final version.

I recorded a half-finished demo of It's Only Portland When It Rains that features a somewhat different melody than the final version; there's also a vocal harmony break in the demo that's replaced by some piano work in the final album cut. Piano does a lot of work done otherwise by improvised lead guitar line in the final cut, as well. Here's the final album cut.

There are also somewhat different choices in the arrangement—the length of different holds, the timing of the harmony vox in the final chorus loop, the longer intro and a longer instrumental break in the final cut. For all that, though, its interesting to me listening and seeing how much of the arrangement ideas were in place by the time I recorded the demo—it's pretty unusual for me to have done that much arrangement work, even in my head, before I've finished the lyrics on a song.
posted by cortex at 9:12 AM on August 26, 2008

A little contribution to this thread, even though not as raw as could be:

1) Belfast, the godawful analog tascam demo (listen at your peril).
2) Belfast, the more decent version that I was never really satisfied with.
3) Belfast, a home recording that wasn't performed with the same care as the "decent" version, but I like it more.

If anyone has comments on that song, they would be greatly appreciated, not many people commented on it when it was posted.
posted by micayetoca at 9:59 AM on August 27, 2008

If the whole song doesn't come out REALLY quickly - chords, melody, lyrics - I usually throw it out.

This means that I don't produce many new songs. It also means that I don't crank out bullshit that all sounds alike (overworked, overthought musical plates of beans).
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:14 AM on November 18, 2008

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