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Writing and Producing a Song From Start to Finish

There are lots of ways to write a song. Some people begin with lyrical ideas, or hooky phrases that get caught in their head. Others begin with the melody they can't stop whistling. They may need a musician to add chords and/or melodies for them, or they may be capable of doing it themselves.


Others yet start with a few chords or riffs and mumble out melodies over them in nonsensical phrases, leaving the lyrics to figure out for later. I'll show you what that looks like and take you from initial idea through developing it, rehearsing, recording, editing, mixing, and finally mastering it, using a track I'm currently working on called "Richelle". This is the method I gravitate toward most of the time but there are many, many other avenues people take to create music.


Pro Tip: In steps 1-4 ALWAYS be using something to record yourself while you're coming up with ideas. I generally use voice notes on my iPhone. I can't tell you how many times I've lost good ideas because I forgot to hit record. Trust me. So frustrating!!


Step One: Play chords and mumble sing...a lot.



Note that the example above was recorded after the fact to give you an idea of the first step of my process. I didn't have the melody as developed at this stage in reality. In step two below you can actually hear the real beginnings of the song start to take shape.


Step Two: Inspiration


I met Richelle one summer and was instantly enamoured. After our first date I felt inspired to write. So I pulled out the chord progression above, which I had been tinkering with for awhile, and began to add some emotional context to the chords. I decided this was going to be a love song inspired by my relationship with Richelle.


That emotional context is important. It drives the process for me most of the time. I find it easy to start a song, but much more difficult to finish it until there's an emotional component. Below is a snippet of the voice note I made the day after our first date. You can barely hear what I'm doing but it was enough of a starting point. I'm sitting outside noodling around with some ideas on my acoustic guitar, doing my mumble thing. You can hear the song starting to take shape (note that my mumblings are now starting to have more lyrical content. Once the inspiration comes I usually find the words I'm looking for as I sing through the melody countless times):



You can hear how I've found a line that I like and I'm trying to build around it. Some of the ideas I came up with got scrapped. Part of the reason is because writing is RE-writing. I have thousands of voice notes on my phone of song ideas, many of which are duplicates of the same idea slowly morphing as I try different things. For example, this song started off as a bluesy acoustic thing. Watch were it ends up.


The other part is because Richelle and I had a rough breakup and I went back and finished the song while I was going through that. Which brings me to an important point about why I make music. It's part passion for creation, part coping mechanism. A lot of us musicians feel feelings strongly and it helps to distill those feelings into tangible representations that exist outside ourselves instead of keeping it all boiling inside. It's tension-resolution. That's the essence of music, after all.


Pro Tip: If you have an idea out of the blue, write it down. I have hundreds of random one-liners, or even paragraph-long descriptions of interesting things to write about. I will sometimes jot down epiphanies or philosophical observations about life, the world, the universe, etc., and try to work those ideas into a song. Then, when I'm in the mood to write I can look back through my notes and pick out the poignant ones.


Step Three: Jam it out


After I have some ideas that I really like, I usually get together with my main man Jimmy Nguyen, keys player extraordinaire and co-producer on many of my tracks. In the voice note below, notice how we are just loosely jamming out the ideas and trying out new ones. I'm still mumbling random stuff, but the melody is now solidifying, and we have a chorus with lyrics pretty close to completion. Those anchors help give substance to build off of. Also notice how the song is now moving toward a Motown vibe.



Step Four: Pre-production


The pre-production step means it's time to make a more comprehensive demo. I'll normally call up a bassist and drummer to come to my studio to work out what we call the bed tracks. Bed tracks are essentially the basic parts we are all going to play. They typically do not include lead guitar, vocals, horn sections, lead lines, and other things like that. For me, the purpose of pre-pro is to lock in the drum and bass pattern that everything is going to be built off of when we start recording for real.


By this stage I've already got arrangement ideas percolating. For example, I already know there is going to be a horn section during the bridge and outro so I plan accordingly. Here's a clip from the pre-pro session:



Now the Motown vibe is really coming through. Thinking back to when this was just a bluesy acoustic idea makes you realize how songs can develop from one thing, into something completely different as you re-write and introduce new elements.


Pro Tip: Listen to the recording of your pre-production session 5 million times. When I am in the writing mode, I generally don't even listen to other music. The song I am working on is on repeat and I am listening for things to fix, coming up with new ideas, and thinking about the arrangement.

Step Five - Arrangement


As I said above I knew I wanted a horn section in this tune. The style almost demanded it. As such, I had to decide which horns I wanted and notate the parts so I could hire players to come into the studio and sight read the charts ("chart" is musician jargon for sheet music). For this recording session I had some of the guys from Toronto's BANGERZ Brass come in. They did a fantastic job.


You want your bed tracks to support the horn section, meaning if there are horn patterns you want accentuated, the band should be playing those patterns too. That means that by the second pre-pro rehearsal I should know generally what those parts are so the band can add that rhythmic support.


For notation I use a program called Sibelius. I can notate parts for each instrument and hear them back. The video below was part of my Instagram story. I was making some last minute adjustments to the horn parts. This is what is looks/sounds like:




Step Six: Booking the session & recording


Alright! Now we are cooking with gasoline. It's time to book our recording session. But more importantly, plan it out the entire session in detail. Look at the floor plan of the studio you're booking. For this session we used Union Sound Company. It was the perfect choice because they had space for a big horn section and a lot of vintage equipment to help make the Motown vibe sound authentic.


Block out where every player will be standing/sitting and rough out how much time each section will need...then add an hour. This is important for the recording engineer to know how to set up the studio for your band. For example, we spent 4 hours laying down our bed tracks, so I had the horn section arrive to overdub (record on top of) their parts in the afternoon. You don't want to have your musicians pointlessly waiting around for hours, and you want your engineer to have an idea of what he needs to do to keep the session moving along. By the time we were done beds and horns were arriving, our engineer was already setting up their mics.


Most studios will provide an engineer but my go-to guy is Phil Spencer. He's a wizard. Not much more to say on that. Here's a little peek into the session:





Step Seven: Editing


If the magic happens in the studio, editing can be thought of as the dark magic of the music world. Most people don't realize how many hours of editing went into a track they are listening to that sounds pristine. They assume their favourite musicians were able to lay down a perfect take in the studio. Sometimes that might be true, especially in the old days. But now, I doubt there's much you're listening to that's not heavily edited.


Once trick that is indispensable is the composite edit. You essentially make a composite of numerous takes for each instrument or vocalist. Watch the video below to get an idea of why this process is important and why it can be tedious and meticulous work. The software I'm using is called Pro-Tools, and it's the software of choice for most professionals.





Step Eight: Mixing


Mixing is what makes recorded music sound delightful. It can take 3-12 hours depending on how big the recording session is and how many elements there are to mix. You will adjust the volume of each track and maybe even send some instruments more toward one speaker or another (this is called panning). For example, I might pan my lead guitar line to the right so that it doesn't interfere with a vocal line that is centred.


I can also adjust the EQ of each track. This is important to make all the instruments or elements mesh together. For example, I might remove some of the low end from the piano so it interferes less with the low end from the bass. Adjusting the EQ like that allows instruments to live where they are supposed to, have some more room to breath, and fit together more harmoniously.


Automation is also important. I can automate almost any effect, but let's use volume for example. Most tracks won't have consistent volume all the way through a take, so we can bring down parts that are too loud, and bring up parts that are too quiet, making the performance sound more level and sit properly in the mix. You can represent the volume of a track in a line and literally draw in where in should be quieter or louder. The recording software will automatically adjust the volume based on that line as the song plays.


Check out this video for a quick recap:



Step Nine: Mastering


Remember how we could edit every individual track in the mixing session to make sure every part is interacting the way it's supposed to? Once that process is complete we "bounce" the entire mixing session out of Pro-Tool into a single .wav file. So now there is only one track to work with that encompasses every element. We then master that one track.


Mastering is similar to mixing, except we are making the adjustments on the final track. We can add more high end, low end, punch, grit, and level out the track if certain elements are popping out too much. In this part of the process we also add all of our meta-data to the track. That includes the track title, artist, and ISRC code which is used to track where the track is being streamed or played. My man for mastering is Reuben Ghose at Mojito Mastering. He's got some awesome analog gear, is superb at what he does, and can turn around a master pretty fast.


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So that was my process for "Richelle"! There are many parts that I'm sort of glossing over in an effort to keep this post digestible, but the general idea is there.


Of course, I use other methods of writing sometimes. For "Nice Guy" I was messing around with Ableton Push and came up with a cool riff that eventually went through most of the process above and became my debut single. For another song I'm working on now it started off as a piano riff that I beat boxed over:



What's your process? If you have any questions or comments leave them below or shoot me an email at max@maxblackmusic.com


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