Yellowgold

The official website showcasing the music of Yellowgold, produced by Jason Howell.

Filtering by Category: Organization

Balancing between listening environments

The Neverending to-do list!

I had my Evernote to-do list down to one measely item on one single track before listening to the entire album this morning at the gym. And now, it looks like this!

I listen to these songs in a number of different ways. And each environment offers a different take on what I have to do. The tricky part is balancing these tasks between those environments. It's a challenge for sure.

  • I listen through my studio Mackie HR824's (but quite honestly, my current studio setup isn't the best for mixing situations, so I tend to do this less than I'd like.)
  • I listen through my AKG K-240 MKII (which tend to be a bit soft on the high end.)
  • I listen through my Sony MDR-7509's (which tend to reveal upper mid harshness VERY well. If it's harsh while wearing these, trust me, it's harsh. These are great for determining vocal parts that require De-Essing attention.)
  • I listen in my Prius stock stereo (exaggerated low end, flat on the highs.)
  • I listen in my Subaru Outback stock stereo (pretty decent imaging, actually, plus I've listened to SO MUCH MUSIC in this environment that it's second nature to know how it might translate.)
  • And today, I listened through my Bose MIE2i in-ear headphones at the gym, a noisy environment.

Each different location is a new opportunity to see what might need adjusting. In a perfect world, I'd be mixing and mastering in a perfectly tuned studio with adequately treated walls, sound paneling, while sitting in the perfect position centered between the speakers and out away from the desk, with no reflections yadda yadda yadda. But let's face it. I don't have the time nor the dough to throw at doing all of that to my little office space that acts as my studio. So what I'm left with is a number of different listening environments. And if I can strike a balance between the things that need to change within a track, and how those changes will sound in each environment, then I'm on to something. After a long enough time, I can get to a point where a track simply sounds good in all locations. THAT'S what I want.

So yeah. That list will likely empty and fill quite a few times over the next phase of the project, as I'm really trying to get to the finish line of production, and dive head first into the official mastering stage. Each adjustment takes time, too. Hell, just loading each project takes time, making the adjustments, bouncing the tracks, moving them over to dropbox, etc.

Also, think of it this way. At this point, I'm also really searching for the proper sequence of the tracks. Something that flows and doesn't jump around, both stylistically and harmonically. That's another entry in and of itself, but playing with the sequence gives me many opportunities to continue to find things to fix and add to the list.

Now, next I PROMISE to deliver on my promise from yesterday's post to talk about programming drums to source material that never had a click track to begin with. Look for that on Monday (unless a baby comes. Any day!!!)

Keeping track of to-do items

When you are planning out time to write your music to jive with your busy schedule, sometimes its important to know exactly what you wish to accomplish during that small chunk of time you have.

Evernote is my friend yet again in this regard, but really any way of taking notes will work. I have a note right now that contains every song I anticipate for the upcoming release. Under each song is a checkbox list that I add to anytime I'm out and about, listening to my rough copy bounces of those tracks. The second something pops in my mind in regards to a change or addition that might need attention, I get into Evernote, and add a line item next to that song describing the action, as well some rough estimation as to when in the song this correction needs to occur (if necessary.)

This sets me up beautifully for those times when I have studio time in my calendar, and I'm not sure where to begin. I scan through the list, pick out an item that works for that moment, and do it. There's nothing like enhancing that track with a new element, AND also removing it from the to-do list. I don't know about you, but removing anything from a to-do list is always gratifying.

To Do list in Evernote

I use Evernote in this way every day. Its how I make sure that those spur of the moment thoughts actually find themselves into the finished product. I get a ton of random ideas, and in reality, some of them don't end up working out. But a lot of them do. And when I go back and listen to the songs later, often its those line-item elements that make them even more detailed and structured.

In the mastering stage, I continue this process. "Oooh, that track is just a tad too harsh on upper-mid frequencies." That gives me something specific to address the next time I sit down with the song to work on it next time, instead of stabbing in the dark TRYING to find some busy work to do.

I'm not finished with the album until those lists are clean. Period. If I have a correction that needs to be made on a track, it goes in the list and doesn't get removed from that list until I've either tried it and passed on it after executing it, or I've instilled it into the finished song. For me, this all goes back to the fact that I will hear that idea every time I listen to that track, if I don't at least test it out.

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So Cold, the first track on The Mellower, is one case where I rushed it and have forever regretted it. And I admit, it's likely something that only I will ever notice, but its a thought in my mind EVERY SINGLE TIME I hear that track. The main guitar chug that starts at the very top and lasts all the way through the song has a slight reverb tail on it that never quite sat well for me. Sounded a bit too digital, not organic enough, and definitely mixed too high. I couldn't tell you at this point why I never corrected that before mastering, but I didn't, and I KNOW it was on a list or corrections.

Don't make that mistake. Trust your gut. If you listen to something and say to yourself "Man, that word was a little harsh on the ears", chances are, it actually was, and will continue to be, until you address it. BOOM. Put that sucker in the list. Then follow through with action when the time is right.

Digital Audio Workstations as song writing tools

This exercise is all about viewing your Digital Audio Workstation as something other than simply a production platform.

DAWs like Pro Tools are amazing music production platforms. And most of the time, that's all that I think of them to be. Ways to produce an idea we already have into a completed recording. But DAWs are actually amazing song writing tools. There's a distinction here.

Think of it this way. You have a bunch of random ideas in Evernote, all disjointed, but all solid ideas in and of themselves, such as:

  • This might work great as the verse.
  • This is a riff that, well, I'm not sure what to do with it. Maybe a bridge?
  • This sounds like a good instrumental block. Maybe an intro? An outro?
  • This is the beginning of a chorus.
  • This is another random piece, not sure where it goes.

As an exercise to spur inspiration, you could record each of these ideas to the tempo of your new project in a Pro Tools session. Then make each of those blocks a region of it's own. Now each idea is represented by a region on your timeline. Now it's easy to reposition them across the timeline and build a basic barebones foundation for the potential flow of your song. Play around with it. Take what seems like a chorus and try it as a verse. Freestyle some nonsense lyrics over the top and maybe something will jump out at you that you can't ignore.

"Yes. THAT is something." If that happens, well, I'd say you just found your catchy chorus. Play with it and have fun.

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In this way, you are using Pro Tools less as merely a production platform and more as an organizational tool for your songwriting. A temporary digital notepad for your various ideas allowing you to unify them into one cohesive track.

Playing around with the blocks at this stage isn't intended to necessarily create a finished product in this sense. It's meant more for determing the order of the ideas you have for a particular track.

Once you have the order of things, create an audio track and record freestye guitar as you play along with that structure. Play through along with your scratch track regions enough times to understand the flow and solidify it as the progression of your new song. You might find that the more you play through it, the better and more cohesive it all sounds together. Sometimes the disparate regions in and of themselves can sound a bit disjointed at this early stage, but if the chord progressions work, and you can get through the song with your guitar in one mediocre take, you might find that there's a glimmer of hope there. A launch pad to jump off from.

I suppose it's all about getting to the point where you are inspired by what you are writing. So much so that it becomes less about trying to create something that moves you but rather, following that which is moving you without trying. And I suppose that is the core of inspiration right there.

And keep in mind that writing all of your songs this way might not be the best approach either. In my own practice, I'v never written a song start to finish with this method. But I utilize the overarching goal of this exercise in many of my projects to bring in parts to songs I'm already working on, when they need that special kick in the pants. 

I might expand a part of the track I'm working on and run through a quick idea I placed in an old Evernote, to see if it fits in somewhere. I might spend 10-15 minutes on just this experiment, and if it works, it's obvious. If it works, my brain turns off and I follow that inspiration. if it doesn't, I usually know cause I'm trying to shoehorn it into place and it becomes more work than fun. So then, I'll simply stop, revert to my saved version of the project and continue on with what was working before that little experiment. No harm done.

Starting a session

Here's the beauty of the template file you just created. With one, now, starting a session is pretty darn easy. It used to be that I'd have an idea, fire up Pro Tools, create a new project, and then begin to stumble my way through creating the tracks needed to even get to the point where I'm comfortable laying down any music. I'd create an audio track, assign the audio input to the track, plug in my guitar, realize that I assigned the wrong input, troubleshoot my routing, scratch my head... and after a while, I'd lose my steam dealing with setup. The administrative stuff clouded my creativity and in some instances, completely shut down my motivation to create. With the template file, it's as easy as creating a new session from that template file, and getting busy immediately.

BPM Tap for Android

Usually the very first thing I do when starting a new project is find the tempo. I use an app on Android called BPM Tap to figure it out but there are a million ways to do this. (for instance: iOS and in your browser to name a few) Using BPM Tap, I simply run through the song in my mind, close my eyes so I'm not distracted by what I see on the screen, and tap along with it playing in my mind for around 10 seconds. The nearest rounded whole number is what I'll use in Pro Tools.

Since it's just me producing, I'll remove the bypass on my Click track, and play through a few times with my guitar, just to get a sense for whether or not that tempo actually matches what I have in my mind. Or further, maybe a different tempo actually works better for that song. Sometimes I'll try out a few different tempos just to see.

A new project with scratch tracks and markers

Without too much preparation, I'll hit record and try to make it all of the way through the guitar part along with the click track. I am not too worried about playing amazing. This is a scratch track. When I'm done recording one full way through, I now know the length of the song. I also have an idea of where each section of the song happens.

Markers are my friend here. I'll now play through the song and drop a marker at important points of the song: Start, Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus, Bridge, Verse 3, Chorus, Outro, End. (as a quick no-brainer example.) Also, if I have any tricky turnarounds that don't follow a rigid 4/4 timeline, or something in my mind that is associated with a particular point of the song (ie. Drum fill here, Crescendo to noise, Two octave harmony, Claps, etc.....), I note those where I envision them.

Memory locations for my scratch project

Markers are helpful to me in the early stages because it allows me to maintain a focus of my vision, long before there's much of anything to go off of. Think of them not only as guide posts, but also as reminders of what you had intended for the song from the beginning. Don't get too detailed and in the weeds with them, but broad guidelines that give you a general sense of the arc of your song.

Then I might spend some time laying down the basic vocal tracks, again, just as scratch tracks. Everything that I am doing right now will likely be replaced later (unless of course something REALLY works, in which case I'll gladly keep it.) This is all done purely to give me the skeleton of the track and to see what works and what doesn't.

So this is all fine and good if you have a structure for your song in advance of beginning your session. What if all you have are pieces to this unwritten song, and no structure? That's up next.

Creating a template for future projects

Do you have a template? If you don't, I'm going to share some things that I've done that REALLY help keep you on track with all of your projects.

Templates are important for a couple of reasons:

1. They allow you to save time getting into your new project when it really counts. Often the very start of my new track is when I'm most driven to start something new AND often that is also when the idea for something is freshest in my mind. A template allows me to get right to the production part without any hassle along the way.

2. When set up to my taste, a template allows me to define a standard approach to my song production. This saves me in the long run cause, for example, my guitar tracks are always color coded the way I expect. Or, as another example, I always have 4 vocal tracks dialed in since I almost always have two doubles for each vocal harmony. Those are just a few examples.

Creating a template might take some extra time in the beginning, but sometimes it's good to open up a few of your older projects and take a good look at how you structured them in the end. Is there a reverb that you always use in an auxiliary bus? Is there a master bus compression that is always there in every track? (You might keep it bypassed or deactivated in the template so it isn't ON by default but that still saves you time of looking for it later. It's already there.) Do you route similar instruments to a comp track for easy mixing later?

And as you use the template for projects after the fact, refine them. Sometimes I'll use a template a few times and realize I have this new thing that I do with new tracks. So the next time I load up the template to use it for a new song, I'll take the two minutes to add to it (or subtract from it) and re-save as the template file (or a brand new one if I have multiple approaches for different style tracks.)

So how do I set up my template file? I work in Pro Tools, so all of this happens there. Here are some of the main tweaks I've set up:

My template project

  • 1 Click track (bypassed)
  • 1 Aux bus for ALL all (basically, an aux stage before the master output)
  • 1 Aux bus for ALL vocals
  • 1 Aux bus for ALL drums/percussion
  • 1 Aux bus for ALL music (not already covered by previous aux busses)
  • 1 Aux bus for ALL effects busses
  • 1 Aux bus for ALL guitars (then routed into the ALL music bus)
  • 1 instrument track with Battery loaded up, favorite drum preset loaded (routed into ALL drums)
  • 1 Bass track (routed into ALL music bus)
  • 1 Piano track (MiniGrand, deactivated, routed into ALL music)
  • 1 Guitar track (mono, routed into ALL guitars)
  • 1 Guitar track (stereo, routed into ALL guitars)
  • 6 vocal tracks (for harmonies and layering, routed into ALL vocals)
  • 2 Aux busses for reverbs (routed into ALL effects bus)
  • 2 Aux busses for delays (routed into ALL effects bus)
  • 1 Aux bus for mic input
  • All Vocal tracks (not including aux bus) assigned to Vocals group
  • All Guitar tracks (not including aux bus) assigned to Guitars group

I've also color coded each type of instrument track, so I can easily tell at a glance what each track is.

The reason for all of the "ALL" aux busses is simply that I have finally stages at which I can mix the major components of my track easily. EVERYTHING is routed to one of those. Need more vocals across the board? Easy to do with the All Vocals bus. Interested in seeing what the project sounds dry without effects? Mute the ALL FX bus.

The ALL All bus is a last stage before hitting the master output. If I've messed up along the line and mixed everything a bit too hot, I can turn it down here before hitting the master output where I might have some bus compression staged. Ultimately, though, if I'm in the red at this point, I usually end up re-mixing the entire project before its competed anyways. But its nice to have this easy control while I'm CREATING music.

Over time, by using this template repeatedly, I spend less time worrying about setting things up, or understanding what I'm looking at, and more time actually creating. Important when you simply want to get that idea out as efficiently as possible.

Next, I'll discuss how I get started with a track using my template file.

Organization and rediscovery

Before I dive into starting a new project by creating a session (in my case, using Pro Tools), I want to point out something that has become very important to a component of how I write.

Keep projects organized

First, organization is key. I have a hard drive named Projects and inside, folders for every year. I have folders dating back to 2006 and more unloaded onto backup media outside of my Mac Pro. In each folder, I name a particular project:

"mmddyy name of song"

Easy to find in chronological order. Even if I don't yet know the name of the song I'm about to create a project for, I'll grab some sort of characteristic of it or single word from the limited lyrics and name it that way for easy recall later.

I realize that the best way to name files chronologically is traditionally "yymmdd" so they always sort in order. I choose this different method because I don't want every single project I create to be chosen from one single directory. Too many to select from when I simply want to find something and move on. Instead I've opted for month folders, and within those, files named as I said above. That makes it easy for me to find projects fast without having to sift through EVERYTHING I've ever created. Which is a lot at this point. Just go to the year, and select from a smaller number.

Archiving my projects like this also affords me the ability to step into my little time machine and check out ideas from the past. Often, I do this to mine for old ideas that, though I may have liked where they were headed, either hit a stand still or got sidelined by the start of a new project.

One thing I've found is that, many times, an old idea might stop dead in its tracks and lose steam. For a number of reasons, I simply stop being inspired by an idea. Maybe I just kind of get tired of the idea, and can't muster up the excitement I once had for it. Maybe I've heard it one too many times during production that I simply can't think my way out of a corner. That might mean that I lose interest and move on to the next exciting idea.

But going back in time to some of those ideas later, and taking pieces from them to apply to new projects can be very refreshing. It's like a recycling bin for new material. Taking those pieces that still hold value and applying them to something new. Further, I sometimes go back to an old project and attempt to reinvigorate the idea entirely.

Yamaha MT120S 4-track recorder

Take, for example: "Living Life", a track on the upcoming album. It takes it's main guitar part and programmed drums from a song I had started to scratch out more than 10 years ago, way before I ever produced music on computers. I had a Yamaha MT120S 4-track tape recorder and consequently I have close to 25 cassette tapes filled with hours of recorded material. One track from that large library of material always seemed to have a certain vibe that I really liked, though I never considered it a complete work. Here is a clip from the original 4-track tape and warning, it was only ever a rough idea. Never fully fleshed out, so its pretty raw:

Now flash forward to 2009 when I decided to try and take a stab at recording that idea and turning it into a better sounding, better produced version of that old song.  Here's a clip:

No matter what I did, I just couldn't get the vibe quite right to what I had envisioned in my head. The guitars definitely worked, the drums were OK if not a bit boring, and the vocals just felt too drawn out and stale. It felt like I was trying too hard to make something work that just wasn't going to happen. There were things that I liked and things that I didn't. So I never completed the redux.

Flash forward to January 2013 when I was mining through old recordings and stumbled across that 2009 recording. I muted the vocals, and the guitars and drums immediately got my mind stirring. I had an idea for a revision to the drum part. But even better, I thought to scrap those old vocals entirely and start from scratch. This can be a bit of a challenge when a song has travelled with you for 10 years. It's very hard to hear something like that with different ears. You simply expect that its only life is THAT way.

But I hit record and started to freestyle vocal parts with nonsense lyrics. It all fell together and within five minutes, I had a brand new vocal approach. Within a half hour, the lyrics were written to accomodate. Just that change inspired a continuation of that song that I had practically written off entirely years before. It's almost like finally closing the chapter of a really long book. Here's a small unmastered clip from the track off the upcoming album:

Just that change in lyric and vocal approach completely kicked me back into gear on a project that's more than 10 years old. It's very rewarding.

No one idea is sacred. Stop. Rethink. Start again.