Discipline in recording; switching gears

November 1, 2015 12:17 AM

Several questions about being a returning dabbler and going about making polished and not bad-weird music. If anyone could answer any of them, I'd be really grateful!

The few things I write that anyone hears make it past sketches only on the rare occasions someone's forcibly committed me to some public thing. (Just minor things here and there, and few and far between). Recording's generally a slog for me. (I'm mostly a singer, ok but out of practice keyboardist, terrible guitarist - much happier performing with musicians than recording.)

It takes me a long time to get things sounding almost half-decent, because I'm super impatient, and also not practiced or good at mixing, or finessing the tweaks that real musicians enjoy taking time with. I don't try to do something finished often, so I'm relearning everything and troubleshooting (painfully) every time.

Like I can't afford a ton of libraries, so if I want a decent horn or string sound, it's either whatever came with the package or a snippet from an analog sample that I then try to fiddle with until it's a sound I don't hate. I don't mind doing this once I'm into it, but it's a bumpy road every time. Technical hiccups stress me out. (E.g. my supposedly USB-compliant midi controller doesn't work well with the package it actually came with on my Mac, and I think one port on my laptop is just dead, so it's a game of figuring out what's not talking to what etc.)

I'm pretty slapdash with the stuff I do just for myself. I'll wind up going with Garageband because that's the only thing that works, and use the sounds that come with it (or my bad guitar playing, on a bad guitar) to get an idea down, mostly ignoring rough bits. And then I'm like, "good! that's done now" and I don't tend to go back to it to finish it off.

I'm planning to go through some of the Coursera courses on music production to come to grips with at least some of this stuff so it's less of a hassle.

Question 1: How long might it take to get to the point where I can make something polished, nicely mixed, with decent drums? (In terms of say hours per week, months, years.) I'm hoping to finish 10 songs (or tracks or whatever) before February [for reasons].

Question 2: What's your process like, in terms of going back to rough ideas?

Question 3: Any thoughts on being more disciplined about pushing through until a thing is really done done?


Also - although the only musical thing I do well at all is sing, I'm now mostly uninterested in the voice as anything but a textural element (in the music that I like now, as well). (Like I'd be happy to forget about words altogether and just use syllables, and keep them way down in the mix.) More into now, I guess, patterns, sounds, rhythms. (Never mind that I'm crap at programming drums. Still, there are little things I'd like to try.)

But I don't come from electronic music. I like what I like, but I got to that kind of music pretty late - I'm not steeped in it enough that those are natural idioms for me. So I make stuff that I think sounds neat or whatever, but I have no idea if it hangs together in a way that anyone else would want to hear. Or maybe I'll have naively stumbled onto something that might have been on in 2003, but everyone's done with it.

(I still want to try to make a few song-songs that are closer to my roots, that'll be less hard in that way.)

Question 4: What's the most efficient way to catch my ears up, so I'm not making bad-weird 2003 stuff?

Question 5: How do I trust my instincts when I'm basically fumbling? I feel like I'm starting over, in a lot of ways. I used to write song-songs with e.g. confessional-type feelings behind them, now I'm more interested in following patterns that emerge as I go.


There's also, sometimes, the thing about starting with a clear idea, even if it's a little kernel, and then trying different things out and that kernel getting lost in layers and layers of stuff. And then when you want to go back to that original intention, you can't unhear the mess you've made.

I think maybe saving versions as I go as separate files, and then stepping away from it and taking some time to forget the mess would help with that. But I think it's resource-intensive to do it that way. An external drive would be worth getting, right?

(I have a 2012 MBP with 8GB and a 2.3 GHz processor. I use Garageband and Ableton Live Lite [which never picks up either of my midi controllers without a shit-ton of troubleshooting]. I tried Reaper, could do that again, I guess. FocusRite Scarlett 2i2 for audio and M-Audio Keystation 49 es.)

Question 6: How do you manage files/early versions? Any suggestions for drives or other hardware that might help?

Thank you!
posted by cotton dress sock (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

(I'm ok with my little ideas for myself [which I still spend a fair bit of time on, just not enough], but I'd like to get them to a level where I'd not be embarrassed to share them with people. [E.g. mixed to sound ok on laptops, earphones, regular stereos, etc.])

I think part of it is that there's way too much time between my attempts at really polishing things off / doing them the way I hear them in my head (vs. as placeholders for the finished thing that I don't often get to). So I feel stuck at the steep part of the learning curve. I know it'll get easier with some commitment.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:09 AM on November 1, 2015

So I'm _very much_ a hobbyist, not anything close to making music seriously or professionally, just as a caveat. But I have been making electronic stuff for a while and I do regularly put music out there, so given that I can try to offer some advice.

Question 4: What's the most efficient way to catch my ears up, so I'm not making bad-weird 2003 stuff?

I used to worry about this, and now I don't. My strategy is to make music that I want to listen to, and I've found that if I do this, there are at least a few other people who also seem to enjoy listening to it. I do find that what I'm listening to definitely has a definite (though sometimes very indirect) impact on the music I'm making, so if you are listening to only music from 2003 that will come out.

Also, don't assume that what was a thing in 2003 isn't on any more -- I've been hearing _tons_ of elements that I wouldn't have expected from 90s/early 00s electronic music come back lately.

Question 5: How do I trust my instincts when I'm basically fumbling?

I think my answer to this might be the same as question 4. Basically, I just make stuff that I like to listen to, and then when I find I keep wanting to listen to some particular loop over and over again, it must mean I'm on to something. But this question is also partly psychological and I don't have any better advice for that side than to keep trying things. Do you have a friendly testing audience, e.g. family members?

Question 6: How do you manage files/early versions? Any suggestions for drives or other hardware that might help?

I do most of my prototyping in session view of ableton. This allows trying out all sorts of things in a manner where you can easily back out of any particular choice, though I don't know what the limitations in live lite on session view are. It varies a lot when I actually transition to arrangement view, but for most songs I've done, I have most of the key ideas / parts sketched out as session view scenes, and so sometimes I will rip up what I've done in arrangement view and start over from these prototypes. I'll also return to working in session view for a while sometimes to get my head out of the arrangement mess. I don't do a lot of other version management though. Nowadays I keep everything I'm working on in dropbox (I have a paid account), and everything else is backed up via crashplan. I'm not sure hardware is really the solution any more, though I have in the past used an external drive for some of this.

Btw I do think that reaper would be worth going back to, especially if you don't think you'll spring for the full ableton live.

but I'd like to get them to a level where I'd not be embarrassed to share them with people. [E.g. mixed to sound ok on laptops, earphones, regular stereos, etc.])

I'm only ok at this but one basic strategy is to actually mix listening to things on as many of these as possible. Ideally one would have monitors and a treated room but there's a definite limit to how much of this non-pros can do. So substitute lots of varied listening options for one perfect one.

Here's a relevant inspirational quote from Kieran Hebden [four tet] (source):
"I don't like studios very much at all," he insists. "I feel really uncomfortable in them, I always get the wrong sound and nothing works out the way I want it. I feel a lot happier in here. I know I can get the sound I want in here, because I know these speakers off by heart, I've heard a million records through them. I also like the way I can get up in the morning, sit in my pyjamas and eat a slice of toast and work. The music becomes part of my everyday life. That's become one of the defining things about the music I'm doing, I don't go and hide away in a studio to get it done, I am able to do it in this really relaxed way where it does tie in with all the other things I'm doing in my life."

posted by advil at 10:18 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've flagged your answer as fantastic, because it's fantastic. Thank you (so. much.) for taking the time to share your considered experience and thoughts.

I'm lucky in that I do have a few people whose taste I trust who'd be willing to listen to things; I just haven't been happy enough with most of what I've made to let them hear it, so far. I need to make myself put the time in to get things to that point (and maybe chill out a bit about all this!). And be a bit more confident in my guts - thank you for that encouragement.

Going with Ableton and paid cloud storage makes perfect sense, thank you. In Live Lite, you can save, and you do get a limited number of tracks (maybe a useful constraint?). I'll have another try at Reaper - it does seem more flexible in terms of making sounds per se.

Thanks so much for your encouragement, I really appreciate it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:58 AM on November 1, 2015

I learned long ago (back when I was recording with a Tascam cassette 4 track) that unless you have a "song" to record you will stuck in an eternal loop of tweaking, dabbling and editing.

Songwriting and recording/producing are two completely different tasks and should be treated that way.

So think of your DAW (GarageBand, Ableton) as a fancy tape recorder. Can you hit record on 1 track and play a song all the way through? The rest - loops, mixing, horns, reverb etc etc - is window dressing.

Question 2 - I have lots of rough ideas, but if I have to force them in to full songs I just abandon them. I prefer to work on ideas that get me excited and that write themselves.

3 - for the song I posted yesterday, UnderMapleTree, I started writing it last weekend, started recording Monday and made a hard deadline to have something done by Sunday. The deadline (and I always set a deadline) forced me to make choices. Songwriting/recording is a muscle that needs to be exercised. The more you do it, the better you get, and setting deadlines means I FINISH songs....which means I write more....and so on.

4 -I only make music that I want to hear. If it's weird, it's weird, if no one likes it, no one likes it......but I LOVE my music, because it caters purely to my tastes. It scratches every itch of mine. I tailor my music to absolutely no one but me. I'm not getting paid to do this so I experiment!

My recording studio (home office) is a zone where I can't make mistakes. The walls don't judge, if I hit a weird note no one will hear it.

Is UnderMapleTree a good song? Who cares, I loved making it. It was never a chore or a slog because the only person I had to please was myself.

So maybe take a step back and think about what you really enjoy doing and focus on that part. The rest is just knowledge you will pick up along the way.
posted by remlapm at 5:12 AM on November 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks, remlapm! Yeah, totally agree that I need to give myself some deadlines and loosen up a lot.

think of your DAW (GarageBand, Ableton) as a fancy tape recorder.

See that's how I've been doing it for some things, except I'm not anywhere near as skilled a musician as you are! Lovely playing, btw, in UnderMapleTree :) . I can't rely on guitar chops to sound that great in one or nine takes (unless it's stupid simple). I am excited about the ideas, I'm just lacking in the technical skills (in both playing and production) to properly execute what I hear or want to hear.

(I believe that electronic music is a little different (or that's my understanding) in that the sounds, loops, reverb, mixing, etc. are at least half of it; I think it's less about songwriting first and then capturing that song than making sometimes emergent grooves and patterns. But I'm obviously not an expert on either, so. And I can see what you mean about never finishing if you let yourself get too caught up in fiddling. I'm still learning, though, so it's that as well.)

Years ago, when I was in this or that band (just for fun, mind, none of them went anywhere), it would go like this - I'd come up with a chord progression and maybe a riff, and a melody and some words, and I'd have some rough ideas for the bass, drums, etc. I would then give that shit to other people to flesh out (or play, if I had a really firm opinion on something. If I could play the guitar or keyboard part for it, I would, but often not), we'd practice, and then I'd just have a good time singing / performing with them. If there was any recording, someone else would press play etc. (I hated recording as a singer, because it was usually in a dead-sounding (to me) room, there was no energy to feed off (like the ideal thing for me was playing with / in front of people with whatever energy going between everyone. flaky/cheesy yeah, but there it is, and I think you know what I mean ). Plus the whole point of recording is to lock things down to one interpretation, which I didn't like, either.

And this is totally different! To me, anyway.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:14 AM on November 2, 2015

So think of your DAW (GarageBand, Ableton) as a fancy tape recorder. Can you hit record on 1 track and play a song all the way through? The rest - loops, mixing, horns, reverb etc etc - is window dressing.

I do agree that this is very much not universal advice, as much as it might work for some people in some genres :-) The whole point of a tool like Ableton for electronic music is that it is nothing at all like a fancy tape recorder, and this is practically never how I've approached songwriting for electronic music.
posted by advil at 6:11 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't do a lot of actual songwriting lately -- I'm writing a lot of production music with reasonably strict parameters of what it needs to do and spots it needs to hit -- but here's my take.

1. HA HA HA. Songwriting is hard. Production is hard. Mixing is hard. You're trying to learn all three things at once. You can turn in ten tracks by February, no sweat, but unless you're an actual wizard, don't expect "commercial" quality results. This stuff takes years to get right. And even when you think you have it right, you'll still keep improving. You'll still turn in duds sometimes. Don't get discouraged. And use reference tracks to keep yourself on point. Knowing what you want to sound like can help a lot.

2. If I need to turn in something purely electronic, I'll usually flip through a bunch of synth presets until I find a sound that's inspiring, and then noodle out a little riff or melody or bassline and then build around that. A lot of electronic music doesn't really have multiple "ideas" in a track (this is a gross generalization and probably insulting to actual electronic professionals), instead using entering and exiting layers to provide builds and breaks and tension. This can lead to ...

3. This is problem numero uno for amateur music makers (particularly electronic music). You want to keep layering and building and tweaking until it's "done," but when is it done? You need to decide going in what you're aiming for. Do you want a 3-minute pop track? A 6-minute meditation? Something else? Have goals. Feel free to experiment, but have an end game in mind while you work.

4. I like Pandora's stations. When I try to keep on top of pop, the Today's Hits station is great. There are probably "current" stations for other genres, too.

5. Less is (almost always) more. Go ahead and layer everything 50 layers deep, but then go back and mute things to see what works and what doesn't. Make a lot of mistakes; you can always undo. And take breaks. Even half an hour of doing something else lets you come back with fresh ears to hear if you're making hits or clunkers.

6. Especially if you're not recording live audio, projects are pretty small. But I don't usually keep "old" versions. If I know I'm about to make a radical change that will obliterate old work that I might want to save, I'll either start a new project or use Logic's "alternatives" feature. I do keep everything on an external drive, though, and back everything up to both a Time Machine drive and to the cloud. If a file doesn't exist in three places, it doesn't exist, period. This gives me a little wiggle room with regard to old versions, but I've never once used it.

Also, I really like Logic for composing. It's cheap as shit and has an insane number of included sounds / plugins. The orchestral samples are pretty bad, but otherwise, if you already have a Mac, there is literally no better way to spend $200 than on Logic. Plus, if you want to use acoustic drums and don't want to program, Drummer is amazing. Alchemy is an incredible synth / sampler with a ton of inspiring presets. The stock EQ and compressor sound great. It has a great manual (which you should read if you buy Logic).

So anyway ... have fun. Don't stress over everything being "perfect" or "pro quality." It's not going to happen right away. And maybe it will turn out that the recording / producing side of music isn't for you. That's okay, too.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:13 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks, uncleozzy! All your (excellent) points are well taken :)

This has been a super educational thread for me (maybe for some other perpetual newbs? Or even regular newbs who do the right thing and improve over time lol). It's been very interesting to hear these different approaches, I've really gotten a lot out from what each of you has offered. Thanks :)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:50 PM on November 4, 2015

I learned long ago (back when I was recording with a Tascam cassette 4 track) that unless you have a "song" to record you will stuck in an eternal loop of tweaking, dabbling and editing.

sometimes i do have a song written, but other times, i just put down a beat, program and/or jam with it and either let it sit until i can think of a song - that can be days, months or years - or just improvise over it

i picked up some habits from years of working with a friend with a two cassette deck "bounce" system - sonically, the results weren't great, but in time we learned how to come up with arrangements and parts on the fly and above all, how to make decisions and stick to them - no tweaking, dabbling or editing was possible and we only had a few hours a session, so we learned to get "good enough" takes quickly

it's experience that's helped me a lot in what i do now - i generally come up with a basic fairly fast and sit on it for awhile until a song comes to me and then figure out the rest of the parts - i won't say i never edit, but i generally don't - i try to get complete takes of each track - if i screw up, i start over - i generally find the sound, including fx, that i want and commit to it - i might add more fx later, but i never start with a plain unamped uneffected guitar track - find a sound and commit to it - it's rare that i find out it won't work in a mix and i have to do another

the way you get out of the eternal loop of screwing with it is just to realize that there's no such thing as THE take - and the perfect take is often lifeless - (i wish a lot of today's artists would wake up and learn that) - do a good take and let it be

of course, mixing it can be a real pain

(and i wouldn't worry about catching your ears up - i don't think very much is new in music these days)
posted by pyramid termite at 5:44 PM on November 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Maybe "song" was the wrong word. Flow? Arrangement? How to get from a to b and back to a? Otherwise I just record a motif and hope lightning will strike with my laptop open and a guitar in my hand.

here's a good example I recorded yesterday

Very rough, just some drum loops and DI recorded guitar, not mixed at all. I looped it for 2 minutes and will swish it around in my ears until I figure out where it needs to go. I have the verse lyrics written, hell, I have the chorus lyrics written.....I just don't have a chorus.

I'm going for a Meters/Steve Cropper/Muscle Shoals vibe. A vamp in F#minor - B7 that wants to pull to a big fat E chorus.....but I haven't found it yet. So swish swish swish away with the acoustic until I work it out....and then the song will get recorded.

So there is no right way of doing things, but if you are struggling, change up your process.
posted by remlapm at 6:36 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sorry, cds, I've had a couple of beers and may well be misfiring, but I'm coming out firmly in favour of doing/making/creating that which appeals to you. whatevs. So many times in my approach to coding, to music making, to dipping my toe into a new field which I knew I had neither right nor standing to approach, I've thought I was approaching something naively, only to see talented and refined variations on the same celebrated. You Do You, as all the cool kids say.

Use the tools that are available to you. Make the music that means something to you.
posted by comealongpole at 10:04 AM on November 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Something which might or might not help: although I've not recorded anything of me recently, the technique I use (in Logic) is as follows: record a guitar part (possibly a guide vocal) live into Logic, then beat map the track to the guitar part (I do sometimes fiddle with the guitar to get the tempo to behave a bit better). Then add electronic instruments and effects and overdub live instruments. Sometimes I replace the original guitar completely.

The thing is that you can play a very simple part entirely for feel, and then replace all the bum notes while keeping the natural ebb and flow of the tempo. The beat mapping process is a bit tedious, but I like the results a lot better - it's a lot looser and more alive-sounding, particularly using Drummer. It's also a way of uniting the DAW-as-tape-recorder and DAW-as-loop-noodler techniques.

Though, of course, it's useful to have done a bit of practise with a metronome beforehand so that the song can be played roughly in time.

(But, as I say, because I'm rubbish at finishing lyrics I've not completed/uploaded any songs recently. Of the tracks on MeFiMu, I think Post War Glamour Girl was the first thing I tried using this technique and might not be the best example.)
posted by Grangousier at 3:06 AM on November 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Re: drum arrangements, I'd say, don't be afraid to be a little derivative at first -- find something you like and set yourself a challenge of making something in the same style. You'll get a new understanding of how it works, and you'll probably also make some interesting mistakes along the way that might end up taking you in a new direction.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:41 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

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