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How to keep songs from losing their spirit when recording


hogger

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I'll first formally introduce myself to this forum -- Hello, I'm Nick. I've been hanging out in the keys forum for a few months, trying to share my 25 years of midi knowledge, and getting help as I try to get caught up on what's changed in the last 15 years or so in recording.

 

Now for what's prompted me to add the songwriting forum to my daily bookmarks; I'm in need unbiased advice regarding my songwriting.

 

I write most of my songs on nylon guitar, and they feel very good to me when it's just voice and guitar. Then I feel obligated to take them to the next step -- recording them. I fear that from that point on, they just get more and more bland, commercial sounding, and lose their spirit.

 

I'm a decent keys player, drum programmer, guitarist, sax, etc... Jack of all trades, master of none except MAYBE keys. When I get down to recording my songs, I feel obligated to put keys on them, and drums, and effects. And the next thing you know, it's a completely different song, and it sounds like it's been lobotomized to me.

 

I'm hoping that some of you songwriting pros here can listen to a couple of my tunes and critique the song structure, instrumentation, and uniqueness.

 

"Only Memories" is my most recent song, and the one I'd like critiqued the most. I wrote and recorded it this weekend, and tried to keep my issues listed above in mind. Nevertheless, in the end it too sounds bland compared to the feeling I get with just guitar+vocal. PLEASE critique any of the other four as well though, if you have the patience and time. Maybe you'll detect a common songwriting problem that exists amongst all my songs.

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I notice that lyrics are usually posted alongside the songs in the critique requests, so here are the lyrics to "Only Memories". I'm calling the "Fourty five and going on eighteen" part the chorus, for whatever that's worth.

 

------------------------------------

 

Aint no, people wanna die,

All the people will wonder why,

He smiled, while

The flame, gives up all his claim

Til only memories, and his name remain

 

Sixty, Five in early spring

Bought a house, and a wedding ring

By fall, we all

Made that house a second home

Til only memories and his name remain

 

Fourty five and goin on eighteen

Cars and bars, living out the dream

Til only memories remain

 

Twenty, with a baby boy

Too young, to share the momma's joy

Alone, he's shown

That life's, reward can be its own

Til only memories remain

 

Later, when the boy is grown

Together, their love is always shown

Beside, they ride

Their lives, forever they are tied

Til only memories remain

 

Fourty five and goin on eighteen

Cars and bars, living out the dream

Til only memories remain

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Hey, Nick --welcome!

 

From your description, I was afraid "Only Memories" was going to be slathered with layers of synth strings and fighting back waves of keyboard noodling. But in actuality, it was a nice, reserved little tune with a bossa feel and reserved instrumental backup.

 

Now, when I say little, I mean it has a nice, relaxed feel... not that it's short. Given the narrative duties required, this probably couldn't gracefully be cut down to a 3 minute wonder, but I think it would be stronger with some of the inter-verse spacer music removed (I'd go with just one as a kind of bridge in the latter half of the song) and with the last partial refrain of an earlier verse removed. That, as I figure, would probably get it down to 4 minutes or under and tighten things up considerably.

 

(This isn't the recording forum, but I couldn't help but feel like you may have some issues with your monitoring situation. Or, alternatively, it may be an issue of using a board with a fixed EQ and using that EQ on a number of instruments, so that a peak at that frequency built up across the mix. I didn't pop this on a spectral analyzer or anything, but I felt a distinct and, to my ear, overly-bright presence peak in the low treble. I noticed a similar peak in the part of another song that came on after [which I reluctantly turned off so I could concentrate on capturing my impressions of this one].)

 

Anyhow, seems like a game of inches from here. You've got a nice, bittersweet little song and, overall, nice music, tastefully done.

 

If, songwriting-wise, I was going to pinpoint one weakness, I'd think maybe that it doesn't really have a good focused 'punch-line' -- a verse or section that really brings it all home. A takeaway part that will have people saying, Yeah...

 

Looking back at the lyrics, though, it seems clear that the penultimate verse (which, if you were to take my suggestion about ditching the repeat of the "Fourty five and..." verse, would be the last) should, structurally, be the one that fulfills that function. Yet it seems one of the least focused and on point of the song.

 

And I often have the same problem in my own songs, seems like. It's really hard fulfilling structural requirements and capturing the essence of a song in such a way that it's not just a perfunctory summing up.

 

But that, of course, is probably the key to taking this song from one that has no big problems to one that really works and gets into the listener's heart and soul.

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Anyhow, seems like a game of inches from here. You've got a nice, bittersweet little song and, overall, nice music, tastefully done.

 

Thanks very much. I fear it's too tasteful though. All my stuff sounds more raw, less tasteful, full of life, until I record it. When I record it, it turns into elevator music. It seems impossible for me to make anything that doesn't wind up feeling slow and sleepy. I honestly don't think they start out that way.

 

Thanks VERY much for your advice. I really feel like this forum is going to help me turn a corner.

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Yeah... I was kinda trepidatious about offering up #6 as I did. Great joke but you gotta work on the punchline... a little more of a left-handed 'compliment' than I would probably like. But I suspect you're going to have to roll around in the mental mud with that one a little more before you get it to say uncle.

 

That said, when I've got something that's 95+% done, I'll often roll with the less-than-ideal parts and see if something doesn't sprout up between the cracks. [Metaphor salad, here. :D ]

 

Anyhow, one thing about chasing inspiration -- it seems like inspiration is pretty good at hiding. It's kind of like remembering something that's 'on the tip of your tongue'... sometimes you have to distract certain parts of your brain a little bit. (I'll spare y'all more wackazz metaphors. ;) )

 

 

With regard to the too-polite thing... yes, maybe, but no, maybe. You don't want the singer to go all lugubrious and start some sort of histrionics. This is about the cycle of life, after all, it's a song of things taking their place in the big picture. Still, you could do what the big boys do when they don't know what else to do: punt. Got a kid brother or cousin who's got a little fire in his belly on guitar? Have him cut a few solos (maybe one or two on nylon guitar, I could imagine a little flash of gypsy jass discreetly in there) for you and pick and choose one that fires up the song a little but doesn't overwhelm or distract. (Or maybe you know or could dig up a violinist who'd like to try working something in there? That seems like the right bit might work out nicely.)

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"How to keep songs from losing their spirit when recording"

 

I find the opposite is true for me. I write on a guitar, and I get the words, melody, etc... But I find that when I record them and add all of the other insturmentation, layers of guitars and vox, drums, bass, keys, etc... That the song "comes alive". Many times the finished product is a far cry from what I heard in my head when I conceived the tune. I have a friend from Helsinki, everything he does is a Finish product.

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sometimes you have to distract certain parts of your brain a little bit.

I read your comments, went and ran for an hour, mulled it over, and I think I've come up with a hook/chorus that fits. Maybe I can liven it up with the chorus, thus giving the song some dynamics.

 

One thought I had while running was this -- perhaps I'm hitting the recorder too soon with my songs. Maybe I should let them mature more on just acoustic guitar, make them completely stand on their own as complete songs, hooks and all, and never bring in any other instruments until they're structurally sound. I'm thinking I'm hitting the recorder with an unfinished structure, and from then on I'm bogged down in instrumentation, never spending time revisiting structure.

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It sounds good to me--I'd agree that there's no payoff for a listener, but production isn't the problem. My recordings are sometimes less life-like than my performances, though, and it's usually because I'm not comfortable enough playing with a click, or I just choose the wrong tempo--speeding up a couple of bpm can make a difference.

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I read your comments, went and ran for an hour, mulled it over, and I think I've come up with a hook/chorus that fits. Maybe I can liven it up with the chorus, thus giving the song some dynamics.


One thought I had while running was this -- perhaps I'm hitting the recorder too soon with my songs. Maybe I should let them mature more on just acoustic guitar, make them completely stand on their own as complete songs, hooks and all, and never bring in any other instruments until they're structurally sound. I'm thinking I'm hitting the recorder with an unfinished structure, and from then on I'm bogged down in instrumentation, never spending time revisiting structure.

 

This is often a problem for me. On one hand, it's really exciting taking something from idea to finished product in a day or two... but on the other, sometimes you end up with a fully developed version of a song which hasn't reached maturity yet... and then that can make you disinclined to go back and fix the problem, since it might mean doing a lot of stuff over.

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I write most of my songs on nylon guitar, and they feel very good to me when it's just voice and guitar. Then I feel obligated to take them to the next step -- recording them. I fear that from that point on, they just get more and more bland, commercial sounding, and lose their spirit.

 

 

I have been through this myself.

 

I write most of my tunes on my old Stella Harmony. These days I just go ahead and record them the way they are written tracking Stella first and then my vox. I find that this way I am able to get the emotion of the song tracked before I start adding more instruments.

 

Stella sounds pretty good to me.......how does your nylon string record? Perhaps you could back it out of the mix later and still keep the emotional impact of the initial recording.

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how does your nylon string record? Perhaps you could back it out of the mix later and still keep the emotional impact of the initial recording.

 

It's got a decent active pickup in it and it records pretty well. It's usually the first track I record, and I build from there. Once a key track goes down though, the acoustic feel is usually lost; it's a different song.

 

I've taken the consensus here to heart and worked on a chorus for the song. It seems to be much improved, and I'm very excited about re-recording it. Not sure when the family will allow me to hole up for an entire day again though like I did yesterday. I'll repost it here when I'm done and solicit critiques again, and see if I light any fires with it.

 

Thanks again for all the advice.

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It's got a decent active pickup in it and it records pretty well. It's usually the first track I record, and I build from there. Once a key track goes down though, the acoustic feel is usually lost; it's a different song.

 

 

How about restricting the music tracks to guitar(s) only? After laying down the first acoustic guitar track, build with one or two additional guitar tracks instead of keys. This might preserve the "feel".

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How about restricting the music tracks to guitar(s) only? After laying down the first acoustic guitar track, build with one or two additional guitar tracks instead of keys. This might preserve the "feel".

 

Good idea, I may try that. I've suspected that I add keys many times just because it's my strongest instrument. Thank goodness bagpipes isn't my strongest instrument.

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I listened to a few of the tracks. Nothing really jumped out to me as being totally wrong with them. Your style is very mellow and laid-back; I don't know if that's the same thing as lacking in spirit. The vocals were a little rough in places, I noticed. A great vocal can go a long way in adding emotion to a track. I suppose the musical arrangments could use a bit more dynamics as well. But then again, it didn't hurt Norah Jones.

 

The song you wanted critique on--only thing I noticed, although it wasn't overly distracting, was the drum beat. I think it was a little too simplistic, too metronomic. Maybe add a little bit of syncopation, or a few more fills. Just something to give the drums more of a jazzy feel that might be more appropriate for the song.

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Yes vox = vocals.

 

I have not experienced that. I write a song, and I can hear it in my head, and I'm no pro, so I can't actually TELL how to make it professional.

 

But I can almost always get what the intended feel of a song is onto the recording. Sometimes an all pro production can sound mechanical. Don't play so perfectly on each track! Don't mix it so well! Use less than perfect effects.

 

:::shrugs::: easy for me to say because I do all of those things by necessity!

 

;)

 

But I do believe I capture and bring to life the song concept in the recordings, when I'm done with them. And that's what is fun for me in all this.

 

Idea - brought to life.

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