Let’s start by defining the process of music production by separating it into six basic stages:
These are by no means set in stone, and are based entirely on how I personally like to think about the process. The breakdown is meant to be used as a general guideline to help organize the process in our minds. Many times, we do a few of these at once (e.g. songwriting and arranging, tracking and editing and mixing, etc.). But on average, these are the general steps taken to produce a track – consciously or not – and it’s helpful to understand what goes into each stage so we can execute it properly and get the best results.
What it does it mean to write a song when so much of today’s music is wordless? This is a great question for another article. But for our purposes, let’s say that songwriting is the process of putting musical ideas together to form a larger structure of coherent melody, harmony and rhythm. It’s the process of brainstorming that results in a beginning, middle and end.
What makes a good song? This is also highly debatable, but a question I’m more willing to take on. A good song in terms of content will depend on the listener and what they’re drawn to. It’s totally subjective. However, a good song in terms of craft can be identified more objectively, and will usually have all the elements listed above (i.e. melody, harmony, rhythm, beginning, middle, and end) and will be put together in a way that’s pleasantly recognizable while still being creative and true to the message of the music. When it comes to lyrics, I like to think of prosody – how the lyrics and music work together to support each other. It’s not enough to have good lyrics from a literary perspective. They also need to sound musical when the singer sings them.
A good song will develop as it goes along, taking us on a familiar path littered with surprises along the way to make sure we’re listening. The melody (what the singer sings) will fit with the harmony (what the guitars, bass and synths mostly play) in a way that’s pleasing to the ear, using repetition to help the listener get used to the chord progression before transitioning to the next section and a different set of chord progressions. A good song will also have a good sense of rhythm and can make your foot tap with the groove, whether or not there’s a drummer playing.
For many people the songwriting process is tied into the tracking process as they start with a drum loop and build from there, recording new ideas on top of each other until they end up with a finished song. Even though this may be a different method than the singer/songwriter who sits with their guitar and notebook to sketch out a tune, the result should still be evaluated according to the same guidelines: Are the melody and harmony catchy enough to stay in your head after the song is done? Does the track keep your attention with new ideas as it develops? Does it groove?
Taking away all other aspects of the production, if you had to play the song bare with only one instrument and a vocal (or just an instrument), is it a good song? If not, the rest won’t matter very much. But get this one right from the start and the rest will roll out with ease.
Of all the stages of music production, arranging is perhaps the least understood and most neglected. When a song has a good beat and melody but gets too repetitive after a while, this is usually a problem of arrangement. It’s the arrangement that makes a song interesting.
In very simple terms, the arrangement of a song refers to the selection of instruments playing in each section – how they’re “arranged” – and how the sections themselves are arranged within the larger timeline of the song.
If you’ve written a great verse and chorus, it’s not enough to just play them over and over, one after the other on repeat. There needs to be a buildup of some sort. For example, the 1st verse only has guitar and vocal, the 2nd verse adds the bass and drums, and the 1st chorus adds the synths and vocal harmonies. This is the arrangement of the various instruments within the song.
And just because you introduced an instrument doesn’t mean it should stay there the whole time. Sometimes you only want a certain instrument playing during the pre-chorus, or you’ll bring it in during the second half of the final chorus for climactic impact, or you’ll have a part playing only on the left side for the first half of the verse and then in stereo for the second half. The possibilities are endless. What’s important is to keep things moving. Even subtle additions can add a lot of interest for the listener, whether they realize it or not.
There’s also the question of how many sections to include. I like to judge by feel. You can usually feel when a section has reached its limits, or if you need to change something up to keep people interested. Again, the song should always be moving, even if it’s very subtle. Instruments should come in and out, building in energy, introducing twists and turns along the way. You can also talk about arrangement at the level of the harmony and what kind of chord voicings you’re using.
Whenever I think about the arrangement, I first try and pick out the one or two elements that are most important to the song and what I want the listener to focus on. Then I listen to the track and ask: What else could I do here to vary it up? Does it need anything else? Sometimes the right answer is to leave it alone. Knowing when to do this is what makes a great producer.
Now we bring the gear in. Since the recording process can refer to many things, we’ll stick to calling this stage “tracking”, and the goal is to capture a performance of the song.
A song exists in the ether. It’s just a collection of musical thoughts. What makes it tangible is a recording of that song at a certain point in time. Playing a song live would make it communicable, but it wouldn’t be tangible as the song would disappear when it’s over. It’s the recording that captures the song in a format that can be listened to continuously at will.
Tracking is the process of recording the various instruments that are used to perform a song. Usually, a song is recorded one track at a time. Every time you record a new track, you hear all the other ones you’ve recorded as well. This is the process of multi-track recording.
Why is it important to think of tracking as a separate process than songwriting? Because songwriting is a different kind of focus than performing. When you’re writing, you want your mind to be free to make all kinds of new associations and connections, so you experiment without any editing. However, when performing a song – for posterity, nonetheless – you need to use your mind to concentrate in a very different way. You need to be focused on playing in time and with the right feeling.
Although you have many editing options for fixing mistakes and helping a performance, there is a limit to what you can do while still having it sound natural, and nothing beats having a superior performance to begin with. If you try and combine the writing and performing into one process, then typically both suffer. To maximize the impact of your song, it’s best to focus on each one separately.
When you push record, give the performance of your life and think about nothing else. Every time.