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

Filtering by Category: Song writing

Finding time to write music

I'll tell you one thing. Being an independent musician with a few other significant full time jobs (father, husband, podcast producer), finding time to sit down and focus on writing music can be a big BIG challenge. I'm certain you know what I'm talking about.

When I've gone too long, it becomes that thing that I have to do, and not necessarily in a good way. "I must sit down and try to work on new music tonight, cause I haven't for so long, I'm afraid I might not know how to do it anymore. And if music is so important to me, then it should be easy, right?"

My experience has told me that writing because I feel like I have to is a recipe for certain disaster. It's like taking that thing you love, and setting a 200lb weight on the top of it, saying "ok, lift for two hours. Go." Doesn't sound like much fun. And creativity is rarely sparked by rules and schedules. You either have something, or you don't. Or you don't, but your mindset is such that you're into the thought of experimentation until you DO in fact have something. In other words, you don't, but you know how to get there.

When I embark on a new album, I consider it a project with an end point. I don't look at it as "oh, I'll wait until the new year and then start a diet and see how it goes" or "I'll quit smoking next week.... Or maybe the week after that, cause I'm going to the bar next weekend." 

If I'm writing material for an album, I've made a decision that the next X amount of time will be full of a lot of time spent doing the things I normally do (father, husband, job), as well as SOMEHOW making time to write, and staying devoted with that effort. Life can get crazy, but if you let yourself slide, who knows when or if anything you write will even see the light of day.

So, I set a goal. I might not know the date on a calendar when this album will see its release, but I know roughly a time at which I'd like to see it happen. Six months from now? A year from now? Doesn't really matter what I pick as long as it's realistic. Make it too short and you set yourself up for certain disaster. And in light of my other jobs in life, I still have to actually find the time in my schedule to allow all of this creative stuff to happen. Nothing wrong with setting a date far out in advance, and then finishing before then.

This next part is what makes setting a lofty goal like this a possibility with everything else I have going on in my life:

Evaluate the times during which you are alone, and the times during which you are in a house full of people. This can guide you in how you plan your sessions. Here's what I mean.

Alone time is tracking time. If I have a song with lyrics that I've finished, and a scratch track foundation for the song in Pro Tools, and I know that Wednesday afternoon from 3-5pm, I'm home alone before my family arrives, this is perfect tracking time. So I set it. And that's all I do during that time, unless I'm incredibly efficient and am suddenly left with extra time to devote to something else. But basically, if it's time by myself at home in the studio, it's the time I get to do the really loud things that are sure to disrupt the other bodies in the house. Or maybe they aren't disrupt-able, necessarily, and don't care when you turn your guitar amp up to 11 to get that nice feedback effect in the song your working on. It's still a distraction to me to think about anyone else around when I'm doing loud things. I consider this the time I do things like track vocals (lot's of layers and multiple takes of each), amped and acoustic guitar, live percussion, and much later in the process, mixing.

Occupied time is editing time. About 3-4 nights a week, I work in my studio from 9-Midnight, late hours that don't constitute my ability to scream a layer of vocals, or record that acoustic guitar track. This time is purely dedicated to arrangement, refinement of already tracked elements (like with vocals, I do a lot of alignment during this time), synth parts, and pretty much anything programmed like drums. All of that can take place without compromise inside headphone land.

Now, if I've played my cards right, I've tracked to my hearts content during those two hours in the afternoon, more than I actually need. (Hence why I recommend you track every vocal part 2-3 times and keep all of those takes) Then, when I get to my evening session, I have an overabundance of options for each part to pick from, based on whatever it is I'm working through. I don't want to think "dang, I didn't get this part today" and then have to wait until my next open slot during the day time to record it. I mean, I will if I have to, but I'm an instant gratification kinda guy. So I want those parts there when I've blocked out time for editing them.

It's all about plotting your open time efficiently to the material you are working with. Boy, this sounds like something you should keep track of to make sure you have stuff to do when you've blocked time for it! Let's talk about that next.

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.

Finished scratch project for Scan Lines

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.

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.