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Music Life: 05 - Technology Is Your Songwriting Partner
By Brian Donovan - 08/21/2008 - 11:25 PM EDT

Why is technology your songwriting partner?  Easy, because like a good friend, technology is always there for you to help you be yourself, make your life easier, less stressful and supported.  And just like a good friend, technology shouldnít be abused.  So, we need to be wary of over-extending our stay with technology.

Hereís what I mean: all too often, if you have the slightest inclination toward using technology, we love the coolness factor of being able to make it do something.  How many times have you heard a friend, or yourself for that matter, say something like, ďI got this new piece of gear, look what it can do...!Ē  Before you know it, your creativity is spent and you havenít done anything except put another musical tidbit in your "drawer" to frustrate you because it's not finished.  An idea to add to your heap of unfinished ideas.

Thatís not the attention, but playing with the coolness factor of any piece of gear can sap your spark, no matter how cool and effortless it seems.  Why?  Because you have to be partially in your analytical brain in order to operate gear.  Have you ever been in a moment, and something went wrong with the gear you were using to capture your brilliance?  Right.  Instant stop sign.  Frustration.  Anger.  You name it.  And so, you probably didnít finish what you were creating after that happened OR you didnít like the final outcome because of it.

So, hereís how to take the coolness factor out of the equation.  When sitting down with the cool toys: youíre not writing, youíre arranging, totally NOT the same thing.  Letís break it down: when youíre inspired to write, youíre inspired...thatís it. When youíre REwriting, thatís analytical.  When youíre arranging, thatís analytical.  When youíre recording, well, you get the idea...

Hereís what I do: first of all, Iím a minimalist, (refer to my last installment where I described how I sold everything I owned and traveled the country by myself) and so I donít like carrying a bunch of things around in my pockets.  Not a notepad, a pen, even a recorder.  So, I rely on the technology I am already carrying: my cel phone.  Most cel phones have audio recorders built in and the newer, fancier ones have flash ram card slots for extra storage.  Iím carrying it anyway, and since all of my inspiration is stored on my laptop until Iím ready to rework it to perfection, I can easily record ideas on my cel, then transfer those ideas to my computer via bluetooth!  (I don't even have to plug it in!)  Phew, inspiration captured and I never have to worry about the quality being less than perfect because, well, itís a cel phone, I wasnít supposed to get good quality anyway.  So, the pressure is off to get a stellar recording of what is JUST an idea for later revision.

Now that I have put the effort of capturing my inspiration in the effortless category, I'll look at the cycle of how one of my ideas becomes a finished song, and then detail the easiest way to make this happen.

For the most part, when I have an idea, I'll jam on that idea (usually on guitar) until it becomes part of a song, we I will come up with other parts of the song, rewriting along the way, and when I have my song pretty much how I want it, I'll record a scratchy, stereo recording of myself loosely performing it.  Perhaps even to a click if I feel daring.  I'm not focused on the quality of playing or recording, just the writing.  Then, I'll put that stereo recording (with ALL it's imperfections - and there are MANY) into some kind of multitrack program on my computer.  In this case, probably Garage Band.

(At this point, bear in mind that I still have that stereo recording on my ipod, so at any moment, I can listen to a full song that I've written.  This does wonders for my songwriting self-esteem.  Even if the song is less than perfect, it's still a whole statement of my creativity.)

So now, even with this super rough, horribly recorded, scratchy stereo recording, I'll start to arrange the song into a demo, by auditioning a drum loop, (or several) playing an electric guitar part, playing acoustic drums, writing a piano intro, adding an exotic instrument, and so on and so forth.  Whatever I feel the song needs.  Again, I'M NOT FOCUSED ON THE QUALITY OF PLAYING OR RECORDING, just the arranging.  This is a GREAT time to check out that new piece of gear!

So now what?  I'll setup an official recording session in my Pro Tools session with a proper click track, and the tracks I feel I'll need to get great recordings of great performances.  This is ALL analytical, but with all the writing and arranging out of the way, I'm fine with switching my focus now.  So, after all the prep time, I usually take a break.

Why?  To relaxed my ears, soak in the rough arrangement I did, and to switch my mental focus into full-on studio-mode.  I have to be my own producer in this next phase, judging performances and critiquing if the arrangement is really working for these tracks.  So, that's what I'll do...

I'll record the various tracks in any order I think is appropriate for the song and that's it!  After a day or so, I'll mix, but I never mix a song the same day I write it.  It's funny how sometimes you could love a track, only to come back tomorrow to find that it's completely weird!

Using this outline can greatly simplify your dependance on new gear for the latest sounds while you're working on a new song.  So write your next masterpiece, THEN arrange it, THEN record it....

Until then, appreciate the horizon...

Brian Donovan is a songwriter in Los Angeles, CA, graduate of Berklee College of Music and has been working in the music industry for over 12 years.  Check out Brian's newest CD: "Mugu Point" at his website:  www.BrianDonovan.com




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