The Process From Songwriting To Released SongSep 04, 2021
It’s time to pull back the curtain.
Don’t worry, I’m fully dressed.
I know sometimes you just want to know what the process really is from first inspiration to a newly released song that you can listen to on Spotify (or your buying/streaming service of choice).
So I’m going to do a brief dive into every step to get from A to…. Z?
There are multiple ways to write a song. Some people lean towards music-first, others towards lyrics-first.
I’ve done a healthy bit of both myself. Sometimes the song inspiration will come from a bit of imagery I like. Sometimes from a piano riff I like. Other times I’ll end up writing a total lyric without a bit of music. Other times I’ll have the full music for the chorus and verse without a single lyric.
The songwriting process has taken anywhere from 30 minutes to about 8 years. So you could say “it depends” for how long it takes to write a song. On average, it probably takes me 2-4 months to develop a song from start to finish.
Overall, I would say there are these 5 main steps to writing a song:
- Inception: The idea or inspiration
- Gestation: Time where you’re thinking through where the idea could go
- Development: Time you’re actually writing out where you want to go with the idea and what type of song you’re probably going for
- Writing: The actual writing of the lyric and music
- Refining: Making adjustments such as adding a pre-chorus, removing part of an overly-long second verse, adjusting lyrics or melodies you weren’t in love with, etc
By the end of the refining stage, you have a fully written song.
Step 1 is figuring out the tempo. So I’ll get my instrument of choice and pick a reasonable tempo and play and sing along to see how comfortable it is. No matter how comfortable, I will always always test tempos slightly north and south of the tempo that feels pretty good.
For a very real and recent example, I started at 120 BPM for a song I had just started recording. It definitely felt like it was dragging. So I upped the BPM to 124 (I usually go up and down by 4s, as common BPM’s are divisible by 4). Felt pretty decent. But then I tried 128. Even better. So I tried 132, which felt a bit too rushed. So I settled on 128 that day.
But never ever settle on a tempo the first day. Sleep on it and try again the next day. Why? Because, if you started at 120, of course 132 will feel too fast. You started playing the song at 12 BPM less than that 20 minutes earlier. With a fresh start the next day, you might find that even the 128 was a bit slow. For my song, I ended up finding that 132 was actually right.
After figuring out the BPM, it’s time to record what I call the “main” instrument. Think of the main instrument as the instrument you would play if you did a set of your songs on stage by yourself. If you’re sitting at a piano, that’s the main instrument. If it’s a guitar, that’s your main.
Once the main instrument is recorded, it’s time to put on your arranging hat. We’re going from that piano part and your unrecorded vocal to a full sounding song, so there’s some work to do.
For arranging, we basically have 3 different categories:
- Body: electric guitar power chords, leads, bass, drums, etc.
- Filler: verse guitars, basic chorus/bridge fillers.
- Atmospheres: atmospheric, sort of form a background mass of sound without real rhythm. Often very “reverb-y”.
Think of body as the parts that would definitely be played live with a 5-piece band. These are the non-negotiable parts of a song to be played in all its glory.
The filler parts tend to parts that help the recording feel more professional. They aren’t so integral to the song that anyone would miss the part when it’s not played live. Unlike lead parts, which tend to be memorable, filler parts will mostly be basic arpeggios and single notes that simply fill in the mix.
Atmospheres are going to be fairly simple parts that are usually so drenched in reverb and stuck in the background that it basically becomes a soundscape sitting in the background of your mix to finish filling it in rather than containing any parts that stick out at all. Like filler parts, the average listener wouldn’t really notice atmospheres, but they might sense something is off if you took them away.
I’m fairly convinced that filler parts and atmospheres are the main things that set the recordings you hear on the radio apart from those from your local band. Is the mixing probably a bit worse? Yes, but the main difference is how basic the local band’s arrangement is. If they’re paying for studio time, they just have to record the main instruments and get out. So it makes sense. But, if you’re recording at home, you don’t have this limitation.
The often-ignored step in between recording and mixing.
No one plays as perfectly on-beat as you hear in a recording. It sounds perfectly “tight” because it’s edited that way.
Editing is really just pushing transients forward or back to compensate for the original performance being a bit early or late.
That may be all there is to it, but this takes some time. You can’t OVER fix things or it won’t sound natural, but you also do have to make it sound tight and professional.
The processes of writing, recording, and editing all take a while. And editing is by far the most dry and mind-numbing part of this entire process. So, by time you’re done with editing, you really need something that gives some encouragement and fairly quick bang-for-your-buck.
Thank God for mixing.
Mixing honestly could take 1-2 hours for a veteran. And the first hour or so would be the first 90% of the mix. The next hour would be for that last 10% of perfection.
So what is mixing? It’s basically setting the volume and fine-tuning the sound of each individual track so they all blend together to make up one cohesive song.
Is the lead guitar too loud? The vocal too drowned out in the chorus? The piano too muddy sounding? The acoustic guitar clashing with the other parts? These are all issues that need to be fixed by mixing.
That 90% of the mix is achieved with 2 plugins:
EQ and Compression.
Put basically, EQ allows you to increase or decrease the volume of specific pitch ranges of a track and compression allows you to decrease the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a track.
After this, the use of delays and reverbs are the other most common plugins to use.
Most people probably would put vocals in the recording section. I’ve learned to love separating the work of the rest of the music and the vocals. This gives me a few benefits.
One benefit is I can record my vocal to an already-mostly-mixed song. So I won’t be distracted about how loud the guitars are or how the bass sounds super muddy while I’m singing. It will feel a bit more like singing along to a karaoke track.
Another benefit is it allows me the sense of accomplishment of basically finishing my mix before diving into the track that will take me the longest – the vocal.
Lastly, treating vocals separately allows me to give it the care it needs and deserves as the de-facto most important part of a song.
If the vocals sound good, people will forgive a lot wrong with the rest of the song. If the vocals don’t sound good, no one is interested. Also, I find vocals the hardest part to comp, simply because you feel the most pressure to make sure to get the best take.
What is comping? It’s basically taking 2 or more takes, and taking the best parts of each take. For example, I’ll take two takes and then create a new 3rd track. I’ll listen to how I sing the first line in take 1 and then take 2. I’ll keep doing this line until I’m sure which take was better. Then I take the better one, cut it out and add it to the new “comp track” I’ll be making. That’s really all there is to it.
Here are the basic steps within this category of vocals.
- Record 8 good takes: You can do more or less. The common industry standard I’ve heard is 5 takes, but I like to overdo it a bit and to have an even number that can divide by 2 all the way down to 1. You’re about to see why.
- Comp 8 takes down into 4 comps (composite takes): I do this tournament style. I’ll put two takes “against” one another, taking the lines of each that I like better. Sometimes I’ll even split by words if it makes sense.
- Comp 4 composite takes down into 2 even better composite takes: Basically the semi-finals of the tournament- again doing this line be line or even word by word, taking the best between 2 takes.
- Pitch correct final 2 takes: Before doing the final comp, this is where I like to pitch correct. I do this here for a couple reasons. One is sometimes the pitch correction will help me notice an imperfection I otherwise wouldn’t. This also gives me more to work with in the final comp with already-pitch-corrected vocals. Sometimes I’ll use the second pitch corrected vocal (the one that didn’t win) for a vocal double.
- Comp down into 1 elite take: Take those 2 pitch-corrected takes, and create that final vocal take.
From there, it’s doing all the mixing steps on the vocal.
This is a hugely important step that is often overlooked. At this point you should have everything mixed, but this is how you just add that little of bit of sparkle to the song.
Sometimes you’ll notice your 2nd verse just doesn’t build to the chorus quite right, even after the mix. Maybe you need to put some volume automation in to ramp up the volume to the chorus. Maybe you need to add another instrument or instrument double. Or maybe you simply need to add something like a backwards cymbal to add excitement to that verse-chorus transition.
Whatever little things you can do to the mix or to certain parts of the song to really make it shine is part of the sweetening stage. Your song is “done”, but it still can benefit from some little adjustments and additions.
Mastering seems to be a giant mystery to a lot of people, but it’s basically taking the mix as a whole and making it album-ready. While mixing, you’re working on the mix on a track-by-track basis, but mastering is working on the entire song as a whole, rather than track by track.This basically entails 2 things.
- EQ: Your final mix may need a bit more top end sparkle or a little more bass thickness. More often, the mix may still be a tad too mid-rangy. In this case, you’d cut some of the mids with EQ.
- Compression/Limiting: Finally, your song needs to have competitive volume levels with all the other music out there. We use some compressions and, finally, limiting to get the volume levels up high. This ensures there aren’t noticeable volume differences between your song and the professional songs. No need to keep touching the volume knob in the car!
The final step.
You have a fully mixed and mastered song. You’re proud of it (hopefully). You’re ready to share it.
If you want a free and simple place to release your music, Soundcloud is your friend. You can sign up for a free account and upload your song with artwork and lyrics, all within about 10 minutes.
If you want to monetize or put it on more utilized platforms like iTunes and Spotify and Google Play, you have a couple options.
The easiest option (and what I did with my first album) is to get a CD Baby or TuneCore account and let them handle it for you. For a reasonable price of around $99 per album, you can get CD Baby or TuneCore to distribute to all the popular platforms quite easily. The downside of this is the monetization side- these services generally take a decent cut from your total profits.
That leaves another option- make your own “record company”. All this takes is an LLC or DBA, something you can set up relatively quickly and for under $100. This option allows you to be both the artist and the “record company” or distributer. This will allow you to get 100% of the money owed to you for your music. The downside is this probably limits what platforms you can release your music to.
The good news? You can now upload your music to Spotify without something like CD Baby doing it for you. Check it out here.
And who doesn’t want to say they’re a business owner? Or, a cooler way to put it, a record label owner?
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