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

Filtering by Category: Scratch Recording

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.

Screen shot 2013-02-06 at 7.36.10 AM.png

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.

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.

More on Evernote

Evernote is fantastically designed, and incredibly versatile. And for writing music, it's become indispensable to me.

I wrote in my previous post about how I use Evernote to make audio recordings of the ideas that pop in mind. Just a few things to add to this.

Often, an idea gets recorded into Evernote, and that's it. There it sits, waiting for me to revisit (or not) at a later time. Sometimes I find that once I lay down that big idea and then continue on with my life, an extension to that idea emerges organically.

"Wow, that would make a perfect chorus or if anything, act as a bridge to something." So I just hit record again, and this new idea gets added to the same note. Sometimes, a single Evernote for a single idea has 3-4 recordings, all spur of the moment recordings of me mumbling my way through chord progressions and vocal patterns. In aggregate, that often adds up to a complete song, albeit split amongst a few separate recordings. It takes me a little time to sift through it later, but think of it this way.

I can sit down to Pro Tools and belt out the initial idea, and create a region out of it. Then I can lay down the 2-3 attached ideas and make regions out of those. With that, I can use Pro Tools to play around with the order of those ideas and see how they can all fit together to create one complete song by positioning those regions throughout the timeline. It's using Pro Tools less as a production platform and more as a song writing tool. Adding multiple ideas to one note in an effort to keep everything neat and contained for later reference, and then using your DAW to help create the structure of your song can be a great way to get the ball rolling.

Evernote is particularly strong for lyrics as well. Lonely Nights, a track from the upcoming album, started as a quick recording while I was driving, humming a bass and rough vocal idea over the top. The cadence for the vocal line that I had in my head fit the words "lonely nights" and those words made it into the recording repeatedly because of it. I named the note Lonely Nights so that later, it would be easy to scan through my notes and identify that one idea. About three weeks later I was playing through some of the old ideas in Evernote looking for a source of inspiration for a new tune, and ran across this one. Played it, and didn't think twice of it. Moved on.

Lonely Nights in Evernote

The next day I was laying down for a nap with my daughter. When I awoke from a brief nap, I had a large part of the music from the Lonely Nights Evernote recording cycling through my mind. And the lyric, the name of that note, was attached to the chorus. To my surprise, a few other pieces of the lyrics began to fall into place. After ten minutes of laying there, I had written nearly all of the lyrics for the song, all based on that notation and my associated recall of the audio recordings. I hurried out of bed to a computer and wrote the lyrics into that same note. So now I have a note named Lonely Nights, a huge chunk of newly written lyrics, and 3-4 audio recordings of the different parts of the song that I'd hummed, all attached to one single note. I had almost everything I needed to then take all of that, organize it, and begin to create a start to finish song.

I walked out to the garage with my acoustic guitar and my tablet. And again, this is where the flexibility of Evernote shines. Because it syncs to multiple devices, my tablet automatically had the entire block of lyrics I wrote. I sat in the garage and worked out the rest of the lyrics while playing and singing everything from the note displayed on the tablet. It literally all fell into place. And having Evernote on many devices means I can pull up the lyrics and read from the tablet while I play since I certainly don't have them memorized yet. It has replaced writing lyrics on a lyric sheet by hand.

In the case of Lonely Nights, the entire song is a byproduct of my access and integration of Evernote into my song writing process. From the musical ideas, to the off-the-cuff title, to the remainder of the lyrics... if not for Evernote, this song might never have seen the light of day. And in retrospect, that would suck cause it's absolutely one of the strongest tracks on the album.

Integration of this kind of system can change how you write. It certainly has for me.

Documenting that fleeting song idea

Record that idea in any way possible. But only when you are confident that hitting that shiny red record button isn't going to suddenly derail your train of thought.

How many times have I sat down to record a song trapped in my mind, only to realize that once I hit record and played a few notes, it all unraveled underneath me. And sometimes that can wipe the idea slate clean. Or mangle it to a point where its hard to recover and get back to the unaltered original idea.

So then, one thing I've done that makes this process pretty seamless is use a little app on my phone. You may have heard of it.


Evernote is awesome. Seriously, I love this app for so many reasons. The service itself is incredible, and yes I know, Evernote isn't the only service that does this sort of thing. But it happens to be the one I use regularly these days.

I have a Notebook called "Song Ideas." When I'm ready to record that idea, I create a new note in that notebook, hit the Audio record button, and lay it out. The reason an app like Evernote on my phone is so invaluable is that I always have it on me. I'm never without my phone.

So, for example, if I'm driving and that awesome hook pops in my head, I hit record and sing it into the phone while I'm driving. I'm usually completely off key, and have little to no sense of any lyric, but I record whatever I might need to recall the idea later. Recall of the idea when it matters is the important part. I record enough to make sure that I'm leaving an accurate bookmark of that fleeting idea for when I have time to actually hash it through and turn it into something tangible.

A sample of my Song Ideas notebook in Evernote

Often I'll start with the bass foundation and hum that, then I'll start at the top and sing whatever lyrical pattern or harmony I have in my head. I'm always assuming that each part layers on top of the other. So later, I can listen to the recording and lodge that bass line in my brain and later the vocal line. If I'm comprehensive like this in laying down my idea into Evernote, I can easily remind my brain what that song sounded like to me way back when I recorded it. It's almost like a mental multitrack session in a strange way. For me, it's almost not enough to reconstruct the idea later. I need my brain to be taken back to the place it was when that idea was born. And the more I can lay down in an audio note, the easier it is to get back there later.

Not to mention, so many time, in laying down these ideas, something happens that was never part of the plan, but works so well that it makes its way to the final product. This often happens lyrically, because in my mind, I'm rarely thinking about actual lyrics this early. It's all about the melody and the harmony of the instruments in my mind. But in laying down those structures with my mouth representing each instrument (including what is intended to be the vocal line), I make up words that fit the cadence. And sometimes I get on a roll with lyrics that don't make a whole lot of sense, but sound pretty darn nice together. That can turn into something that does make sense later. It actually helps me out cause it gives the song a bit of a lyrical direction.

The big picture here is this: Do whatever it takes to take that idea in your mind and get it recorded in some way, comprehensively, so you know you can listen later and recall that state of mind in an effort to turn your idea into reality.

Up next, a further look at how I use Evernote to enhance song writing.

Writing with your dreams (part two)

The second time I wrote a song with my dreams happened a few months ago. And it was incredibly satisfying thanks to the complicated dream scenario. This one gets a little "Inception" so try to keep up.

 Photo by  Allie Holzman

Photo by Allie Holzman

I had a dream that I was having a dream that I was playing my guitar for a group of people. It was a complete song, with verse, chorus and bridge all in tact. In retrospect, I'm surprised at how detailed the song was in a dream state. I was sitting with a guitar, playing a song where I was singing the words "Sexy, sexy bones." Yeah, I know, kinda weird. I'll get to that strange lyric in a bit. Hey it was a dream, ok?

After I played the song in what seemed to be its entirety, I then awoke from my dream within my dream. So I'm still asleep, mind you, but now, in my dream, I'm awake from the dream I just had playing guitar. In my dream, I now realize that I just had a lucid dream playing a song and I knew that all I wanted to do was get it recorded before I forgot it. So in this dream I left wherever I was at to head home as fast as I could, looking to get it recorded in any way possible. On the way, I passed person after person, each one slowing me down. Each one talking to me on my way, distracting me from my mission. The entire time, I had the song I'd heard within my dream within a dream looping in my head over and over and over again. I distinctly remember people approaching me, their lips moving and hearing only a faint voice coming from their mouths. Much louder was the song in my head, purposefully cranked up to drown them out. By god, they would NOT get me to lose a grip on this song!

In my dream I made it to the front door of my house, and bam. I stopped dreaming and started to actually awaken. But again, I realized very quickly what had just happened and, with that song still fresh in my mind, I lay in bed for nearly 30 minutes (or so, I think... it was quite a while but, of course, I never opened my eyes so who really knows.) I forced myself to stay in that hazy space as long as I could, letting the song and all of the details that I still recalled etch themselves in my brain and saturate.

I finally allowed myself to open my eyes. I walked to my studio, shut the door, picked up my electric guitar, hit record, and figured out the key. My electric guitar wasn't plugged in cause I didn't want to waste any time. I played what I had, which was a good amount. At one point, you hear my daughter enter the room but dammit, that didn't stop me from getting it all out there. 

Here's that recording:

First, the audio quality is pretty bad. That's thanks to Evernote, my personal note taking app of choice these days. This might be one of my few complaints I have of the service. I love the ease of use, but the quality is very low and I'm sure that's in an effort to allow you to throw more notes into their cloud storage without eating up space. But regardless, it always does the trick as my personal go-to notepad for ideas.

The thought was to get anything and everything associated with my fading memory of the dream out in recorded form before it disappeared completely. It's cool listening to this now, as the track is now already complete and I get a rear-view mirror perspective on what the track became, and where it started. Actually, the final version is pretty close to this bare bones approach. Though the chorus is changed and refined a bit in the final version for the album.  And I added a little instrumental part in the middle with some moody reverb soaked vocals for effect.

Now, the name. Sexy Bones. (sigh) I had a hard time with this one. Normally, I'd operate under the assumption that a song written in a dream is kind of a beacon, saying "this is what you should do, trust me." In this cause, that particular phrase was a little bit of a challenge for me.

Taking a step back a little bit: Lyrics are ALWAYS the hardest part for me when it comes to writing songs. I've never been too fond of writing lyrics, and often, in an effort to speed up the production of a song, I'll record myself playing the song multiple times as I play around with vocal harmonies and out of that ad lib approach, a theme or series of lyrics will appear that is good enough to use in the song. I'll form the song around one of those themes, and that at least gives me a direction where before, I had none lyrically.

I was fine with the idea of writing a song called Sexy Bones, but... what on earth does that mean? Am I writing a song about a necropheliac? No thank you. Maybe something more direct like a song about Karen Carpenter? That wouldn't have been too bad, actually, but what do I really have to say about her? Not a lot, so no. Maybe I was being too literal. So then, what's the abstract reference that a lyric or song title like Sexy Bones implies? Nothing was coming to me.

Ultimately, I looked at alternatives like Lazy Bones, and though I liked what it could be, I was still running a bit dry on lyrics to support that idea. Then I thought of Heavy Bones. Phonetically, heavy sounded close enough to sexy. And Heavy Bones seemed to instantly paint a picture in my mind that fit the sad tone of the music. And so it became Heavy Bones.

 Photo by  Veronica Belmont

As for the song, after that initial idea was put to tape, I think the rest of the song wrote itself in recorded form over the course of the next four days. Piece by piece, layer by layer. I also took great care with the lyrics for that song as it ended up being about someone I used to work with at CNET, James Kim. He drove his family into the mountains of Oregon during a family trip, and the GPS got them lost so they found themselves stranded in the dead of winter. You can read about the harrowing story here. 

There's no denying that it's a sad song, befitting for such a tragic story. A man as respected and loved as James Kim deserves a song dedicated to him and his family. It makes it even more special to me to know that a dream inspired the foundation of the track.

I'm setting a lot up without actually giving you a listen to the final track, I realize that. But I suppose its something to anticipate when I release the new album in the coming months.

Next, I will show you some ways that you can take that idea floating around in your brain, and actually get it recorded. I'm not talking about making it a fully realized song quite yet, but taking that idea, and making a note of it so you never lose it again.

Writing with your dreams (part one)

I suppose one key point here is that you have to be able to dream lucidly to pull this off effectively. Or at least work on trying to recall your dreams every morning. It's something I've done for as long as I can remember. Back in High School, I was so fascinated by lucid dreaming that I checked out a bunch of books from the library on ways to enhance that ability and effectively turn it on as I slept. I'm not entirely sure that reading those books actually enhanced anything when it came to my ability to dream lucidly, but the intent was there. And throughout life, I've always tried as best I could to retain my dreams when I wake in the morning. So I'm sure it helped in that pursuit.

With "Writing on the Wall", I awoke from a particularly spaced out and foggy dream in that it had a very particular mood to it. And as I was jumping through that universe, I recall a very specific moment where I had a guitar, and was playing to myself a super slow, hazed acoustic guitar melody and singing part of what you hear in the recording. Something along the lines of "Never seen so far the writing on the wall. Illusions are clear....{yadda yadda}." I also heard an orchestral string over the top.

I awoke from that dream and lay silently in my bed. In that morning haze, I lay there, fully realizing that I had played a song in my dream. Thankfully, I could remember the chord progression, a unique identifying riff, the vocal melody, and roughly some of the lyrics. I lay there stone cold for about ten minutes, forcing myself to stay *just underneath* being fully awake. Awake enough to understand that I wanted to retain this song but just underneath full awareness to keep the dream I had within comfortable reach in my mind.

One thing I'm sure anyone can agree with about dreams. If you've had a dream that hits close enough to that waking moment, it's those first few seconds/minutes right after you start to come back to waking life that you still remember anything at all about what you just dreamt. It's when you wake up and make a concerted effort to really *try* to remember the dream that the details start to push themselves just far enough out of reach that the entire landscape begins to get mushy and fade away. It can be pretty frustrating. It's like you know that there were people there, or a place, but try as hard as you might, that image fades further and further away until, not ten minutes later, all you remember is that you had a good dream and nothing more.

So then, the trick here is to force yourself to dwell in that semi-awake state for as long as you can, all the while letting that song loop in your mind. The longer you stay silent, the more of a chance you have to really absorb what was there in the first place. It's tricky, but it works.

Once I felt comfortable with what I had, I allowed myself to awaken fully. And I'm not kidding you, the very first thing I did, aside from wiping the sleep from my eyes, was charge into my studio, hit record on a minidisc (remember those? Perfect for spur of the moment idea recordings), pick up my acoustic, find the key that I dreamt in, and start to find my way through the progression. I knew I had to act pretty fast cause the longer I really *thought* about it... or tried to remember "that one part", whatever it may be, well then I'm suddenly trying to recall specific details of my dream. And as I stated earlier, you run the risk of losing it entirely when you do that.

So I made sure I acted on pure instinct. And uttered what I had, most of it complete nonsense. The point wasn't to suddenly have a great song. The point was to get as much of the details of what I had dreamt out into a recorded form so I could refer to it later. Now unfortunately, try as I might, I was able to dig up that first recording. I did find, however, the second recording that I made that same morning, after I had combed through the first one and solidified a few ideas. I'm struck by how much of this early recording made it into the final song, lyrics and all. Most of the lyrics were pure instinct and made up on the fly. Most of them stayed in the final track!

It doesn't sound very good, I'll attest to that. Hey, I hadn't even had any coffee yet, so give me a break. But. It was incredibly effective.

With this bare bones recording, I had the germ of an idea, and a new song to focus my attention on. Here is the final track in its entirety.

Writing a song in this way is not necessarily something you can just set out to do. Unless, of course, you have so much influence over your dreams that you can will yourself to play new music in them. But I will say this. This kind of experience tends to happen to me when I'm engulfed in making music in my waking life, partiularly when I'm working on an album. It's like my life is so influenced by the process of writing music, that I begin to dream about it. Kind of like when you work your ass off at your job and then find yourself having a stress dream where you are at your job working. Same thing. The influential things happening in your waking life can affect the things you dream about.

So what's the takeaway, if there is one? Well, if you are inspired to write music, I'd say something like this might be more likely to happen for you. And if or when it does, it's all about doing the things you need to do in order to *capture* that idea (that "capture" part is something that I will emphasize repeatedly over the next few posts) Song writing for me is all about capturing those fleeting ideas before they fade away. So do what you have to do to make that happen. Once it's captured, it can never be taken away from you. The same can't be said about uncaptured dreams.

Now, this isn't the only time this has happened to me. Up next, I'll talk about my most recent occurrence of this, a track from my upcoming album, Ever One.