What Songwriters Need to Know

Find a drummer, one who can keep time & swing.
Songwriters are generally guitar players, who sometimes mistakenly believe music should speed up & slow down.
All competent drummers understand this to be wrong, as music needs to stay in time for it to be listenable.
It is the ability to swing around the beat, which makes the music feel faster or slower.

Drums are the heartbeat that drives rock & popular music.
A great drummer can take a good song to new heights, a sloppy one will kill it.

The best rap & electronica artists have this similar understanding, in their use of sampled & programmed beats.

A singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist needs accompaniment, otherwise the songs quickly suffer from a sameness of sound.

Bass players are often their own breed of rock musician, maybe because they are relatively uncommon compared to guitar players.
The best bassists are the ones who play bass only.
Like anything else, one needs exclusive devotion to an instrument to become truly proficient.
Guitar players who double on bass have trouble with correct fingering technique (without a pick), and never get the true bass sound & feel.

The bassist is the critical link between guitar and drums.
They must know how to play in time while swinging in the pocket— otherwise known as groove.

With an on-time drummer and groovy bass player, the nucleus for a tight rock sound is established.
Extra support comes in the form of a lead guitar player, and any other gifted musicians that can be found.
Most songwriters are not ace guitar players– and rock records often need one.
Any other support to fatten up & round out the sound, with brass or other stringed instruments, should have classical and/or jazz training.

It is well-understood among musicians, that the best players are all in the classical & jazz domains.
It is much more difficult to be a good jazz guitarist, than a good rock guitarist.
Classical music is even more demanding.

All serious musicians have egos, so make such you have the goods when approaching them.  Treat them with respect, but set reasonable boundaries so you aren’t tolerating head-case nonsense.

Not really a bass player

Not really a bass player

Assembling the right players to go with strong songs, is only half the task in recording a great album.
Studio recording & production is the other half.
Understanding sound and how to record it is a blend of science, experience & artistry; so find a real producer.

The best producers understand the importance of establishing a neutral listening baseline, by “pinking” the recording studio; amateurs aren’t even aware of this concept.
“Pinking a room” means setting up a reference microphone, so a pink noise signal can be measured throughout the studio; and then equalized flat, using a real time analyzer (RTA).
Any room that isn’t acoustically balanced through architectural design will have places where certain frequencies are favored or filtered out, due to the way sound bounces off the walls and other objects.
A knowledgeable producer will equalize (pink) the studio– anywhere microphone recording, monitoring, and playback listening occurs. [1]

Failure to do this will cause errors in distortion and loss of select frequencies.

Example: An unpinked studio has a hotspot in the low-midrange frequency (250 Hz to 500 Hz– a common problem area) where the producer sits, causing distortion errors in monitoring & mixing playback. 

If uncorrected, the tendency will be to lower those frequencies because they sound too loud.   An inexperienced producer mistakenly thinks the recording is too hot in the low-mids, when really it’s distortion in that range, created by the room itself.  Therefore the low-mids get mistakenly lowered in the recording & mix-down, disappearing in the final song when played externally, on a different set of speakers or headphones.

Mix-down is where all the separate tracks (drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.) are put together, with effects & stereo placement.
While mixing, the producer’s job is to create fullness in all dynamic ranges (low-mid-high), with tightness, punch & clarity.
The most useful effects for all instruments (including vocals) are compression & reverb.
Auto-tune & equalization are helpful as a vocal sweeteners, and are required by today’s listening standards if singing isn’t pitch perfect.

After the songs have been properly mixed, the album is then mastered.
Mastering is defined as final compression & equalization of audio material, so it plays loud and evenly on all audio systems.
This can now be easily accomplished with freeware. [2]

Pro Tools for PC

Pro Tools is considered today’s industry standard for sound recording.
Unfortunately it comes with a lot a baggage, which doesn’t seem to get enough frank discussion.

Firstly, any honest audio producer will tell you that Pro Tools has serious stability issues, and is infamous for crashing at any time.
Another major problem is incompatibility with non-Apple plug-ins, as many freeware effects (compression, reverb, auto-tune, etc…) won’t operate on Pro Tools.
Also, updates for purchased plug-ins often require more money, and it all starts to feel like a money pit after awhile.
The overall audio quality has also be described as “boxy”, meaning the snare & kick drums sound like they’re being played on cardboard.

The above photo is Pro Tools for PC, which has even more stability issues.  Even this Express package (a bare-bones 8-track console) is a memory hog, using every ounce of a computer’s resources.  If other program’s are running, crashes will be even more frequent.  Updated mixes should be backed-up constantly, to avoid a sudden loss of productive work.

This synopsis of band theory & audio recording may seem a long way from songwriting and creativity, but learning these lessons is essential.  At some point, a songwriter has to give up control of the project, and place it in the hands of other professionals.  This writer is not a drummer, bass player, or producer; but familiarization with these basics allows new songs to flower with artistic creativity, and ultimately achieve a professional level of audio fidelity.

The more a songwriter knows of this, the more he/she can helpfully guide the process.  This knowledge is required for making music that other people will want to hear, as writing a great song just isn’t good enough; it has to be captured into an acceptable recording & polished into an exciting final production, otherwise it falls flat onto deaf ears.