Scratch tracking in search of a focused idea
Sometimes the best way for me to get excited about working on a new song is to force myself to spend time putting a rough version of it together. Scan Lines, a track from the upcoming album, started in just this way.
I created a note of a few lyrics for a new unwritten song a couple of months ago and it sat dormant in Evernote. I later had a new idea on my way to work one morning, and made an audio note singing that idea in its rough form. Somewhere along the way, both ideas merged into one.
Jump to two weeks ago when I was searching for another track to begin work on. I dug through old Evernotes to find something that caught my attention, and this combined note jumped out at me.
I was moderately inspired by the idea alone. I quickly matched the key on guitar, and learned the basics of the track. It was still missing something that would work as a developed chorus, and aside from the verses and a general idea that it start with nothing but drums and a very basic repetitive guitar part, I had little to work with.
Instead of dwell, I fired up Pro Tools, and punched out what I *did* know at that point. I knew how I wanted the drums to sound on a basic level, so I quickly recorded some live drum triggering with my keyboard, grabbed a 16 bar chunk of that performance, and quantized them so I could loop it and have it sound good. This would also give me the proper back beat for the foundation that lies beneath the rest of the harmonic elements of the track. Playing along with a drum track that represents what you have in mind (even at such a basic level in the very beginning of the process) can often inspire you to play a more focused guitar layer over the top, as opposed to doing this all over a basic and mundane click track.
With the drums in place, I ran through a few full plays on acoustic guitar and stumbled my way across a few good variations to what I had. As I was recording while I did this, it became easy to then pick those variations apart and work them into proper chorus ideas and what has become an instrumental break towards the end of the song.
With the acoustic guitar scratch track in place, that freed me up to start to construct very rough attempts at some of the other layers. Bass came next and though I didn't perform perfectly (not the point at this stage), it created a nice low end foundation to build off of. Sometimes, adding the bass layer early on really wakes my inspiration level up and invigorates me. It fills out the sound and if a track is lacking that low end power, sometimes I have a hard time getting really excited by it while I work.
Next, some electric guitar. I envisioned the chorus to be a big bang in from a verse that is layered with lightly distorted guitars (more dirty than distorted) into full on distortion complete with feedback in the chorus parts. I tried to quickly mimic what I had in mind for those transitions.
With all of those scratch tracks in place, all I have left to really get a sense for *if* the song is worth pursuing is to lay a few vocal tracks. Mind you, at this point, I had maybe 20 words of lyrics written from that very first Evernote I wrote a few months back. So my vocal takes were sprinkled with much repetition of those lyrics as well as some freestyling. The freestyling allowed me to play around with the rhythm of my vocal delivery. If I liked the rhythm of my delivery enough, I'll later find lyrics to match that.
All in all, I ended up with around 7 tracks of audio after about 1 hour of time. And none of this is done in an effort to finish anything. This was merely an exercise in pursuing an idea I had, just enough to determine whether I could get excited about spending countless hours bringing it up to some completed form. Think of it like an artist's quick sketch on paper with a ball point pen. IS this going anywhere?
If a song gets me, I find myself repeating the song in my head endlessly, as I've discussed in previous posts. And I wasn't able to shake this one. What comes next is some sort of ah-hah moment where I realize something that could be done to improve or sharpen the idea in my mind even further. And along with that, usually the unavoidable feeling of momentum, where I couldn't keep myself from thinking it through and eventually working on it, even if I wanted to. If that happens, then I know it's a song that's worth my time.
In the case of Scan Lines, a few later breakthroughs on the instrumental part, and later, an additional vocal layer during the chorus that turned out to be the primary focus of that section really motivated me. I've now spent close to 10 hours on Scan Line over the course of a few weeks. The point is this: In the beginning, all I had were a bunch of disparate ideas, seemingly lumped together by one potential overarching project. After spending an hour scratching out a rough timeline, the project took a focused form that enabled me to get excited about it. Evidently, that hour was time well spent.