Sunday, June 26, 2011

Re-Writing the Wrong

Hey there 5 followers!

This week I'm going to talk about the part of the songwriting process that separates the pros from the wanna-be's: re-writing.

Dump the Cliches

If you're like me, you have sometimes had to use "filler" lines in your songs for moments when you were not at your most creative. Maybe you had to resort to some cliche rhymes or cliche ideas just to get your ideas flowing out onto the page (or virtual page).  Once you have your  basic structure together,  complete with the rhyme schemes, chords and verse/chorus or bridge chorus framework, it's time to dig in and  get the thing finished...and that's usually the first step  in the long and arduous re-writing process for me.

Line Up Your Verb-Tenses

After I have eliminated all of the horrible cliches and found better ways to say cliche things,  I go through the song and make sure I have verb-tense agreement throughout the song. This can be a huge PITA, because verb-tense issues are not always obvious, especially in modern story songs where the first two verses are in past-tense and the bridge or the final verse is in present tense.

Tighten the Image

Once things are all lined up as far as tense goes, I start to go through the song and mercilessly eliminate all words that DON'T MATTER. Think of it as Strunk & White applied to songwriting.
Here's one of the things my father keeps repeating to me even though I've heard it almost every single week of my life: once you get everything in your song more or less where it's final position is going to be, "tighten the image" by getting rid of words, phrases, lines--even whole  verses if they do not contribute to the clarity of the song (he didn't invent it--he stole it from Kris Kristofferson).

I think it would do songwriters a lot of good to revisit The Elements of Style. One thing I keep returning to in that book is the part where they tell you that adverbs will steal your soul (I'm probably paraphrasing).

Play With Pronouns

Once I  have made it as tight as I  can, I like to play the pronoun game. Luckily, this is really easy with modern word processors. You can do a simple search/replace with all the pronouns and see if your song feels better with "she's" in the place of "he's."  Then just save the new versions with a different name.

Fun With Point of View

Another fun thing to do during the rewrite process is to change the point of view and see if that makes the song feel better or worse. For example, while I almost exclusively write my songs in first person, I will always do a rewrite in second or third person and compare the overall feeling with the original. It's a good exercise, try it, you might find new and interesting ways to say the same old stuff.

Even after I've gone through all these steps, I don't think I've finished. I don't finish songs so much as give up on them. Not really. But there can be things that bother me about particular songs for years, until in some moment of lucidity, I rewrite a verse or clarify a chorus and everything becomes better.

Try this stuff out. And get The Elements of Style. It will do you worlds of good.

Omit needless words.

(...sounds like Musashi)

This week:

Mostly listening to songs that are in various stages of completion trying to figure out how to...rewrite them...

Terry Allen

King's X


John Prine's that for diversity?

As always, you can buy Jodi Ann's latest CD, "A Brief Moment In Time" from her in downloadable-form here: If you would prefer to have a physical CD, email her:

See ya next week!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones

Hey there 4 followers!

This week I've been busy going through a bunch of my old lyrics and sort of culling the good stuff from largely generic and predictable stuff that's in my virtual notebooks. Do you ever do that?

Some of these things were written in some fit of inspiration, only to fade out the more I worked on it; some ideas were way too good for my skill level at the time; some are just fragments with no place to go.

I used to have notebooks full of this stuff: half-written songs, lyric shards, sketches, maybe just a mental picture of a situation I should write about, but I don't have any notebooks anymore. I've switched all the notebook material to Google Docs, so I never lose it.

Anyway, that's sort of been the process this week. Last week, I wrote about mostly a musical dry spell, or rut, but this week's topic is more about writer's block, for lack of a better term.

The Blank Page

There you are: in front of your blank piece of notebook paper, or your blank word-processor document, trying to write something amazing. I think that's probably the first mistake: expecting to write something amazing from the start. Don't be afraid to be terrible.

If you've been writing for a while, you should have a lot of "recyclables" laying around in notebooks and various documents. Here's what I do when I find myself wanting to be creative, but not really knowing where to start: I just randomly click through my title pages and my sketch pages, hoping that something reaches out and grabs me. Sometimes it does, and I get a song finished (or get it further down the road towards "finished"). Sometimes I beat my head against the same brick walls.

I have this specific song I've been working on for YEARS. It's an a idea that centers around Dumbo's magic feather. I've written two versions of a chorus, from two different points of view. I think I've settled on the version I'm going to use, the problem is this: the chorus I've written is one minute and thirty seconds BY ITSELF.  Three choruses would be four and a half minutes long...without any I like the chorus so much that I can't bring myself to destroy in order to make it a reasonably listenable duration.

When I find myself staring at a blank document and having no good ideas worth committing to virtual paper (and also not following my own rule and being deathly afraid to be terrible), I revisit this song and see if I can make it work.

When I get tired of beating my head against that particular wall, I've been looking through the other half-finished songs I have in process at the moment and trying to work them a little further down the road to completion. Sometimes, though, this kind of interesting thing happens: I'll work on a piece of a song, a chorus perhaps, and I'll vaguely remember that I have a verse that may work with it hidden in the stacks of half-finished remnants locked away in the vault of misfit songs...and I'll put them together and in a sort of William S. Burroughs "cut-up" way. I've gotten really cool things to happen after some minor tweaking.

So I guess that's the point of this repetitive yet rambling missive: write a lot and keep EVERYTHING because you never know when a little fragment of a half-forgotten song can help you through a song you've been stumbling over for years.

Stumbling blocks into stepping stones.

This week:

It's been a whole year! Thanks Howard!  O_o

Weird. I had a Guy Clark dream last night. What does that mean?

I have also been recording the instrumental I mentioned last week and going through the drums and bass on "Till You Come Home."


The Bridge

The Band

Reading Some alternative history....yeah...Harry Turtledove...interesting.

Happy Father's Day Dad! I hope all is well!

Please go to and download her latest CD, "A Brief Moment In Time." I produced, mixed, arranged, and played all the instruments on it! If you'd rather have a physical CD, contact her at: I think you'll agree that her songs and her vocals are awesome!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Discomfort Zone

I've been writing a lot lately, and I've started to notice some things about myself and my writing process. Here are some of 'em:

- I mostly write in 4/4...don't think I've even written a 6/8 waltz.
- I tend to write at tempi around 80 beats per minute.
- There are three or four chord progressions I use to the point of monotony
- I use similar rhyme schemes
- I over use "falling" imagery
- Since I have this great template in REAPER that I use as a basis to record all my songs, I tend to create arrangements that sound the SAME.

...there are more, but you get the idea.

What do you do when you get in a rut? I think one of the coolest things you can do is expose yourself to styles of music you don't normally listen to. So that's what I've been doing this week, with the help of Jamendo.

You've heard of Jamendo, right? If not, allow me to introduce you to this free-to-download Creative Commons music portal.


In this age of media overflow and an environment where ANYONE can make a recording and release it on the internet to be largely ignored in perpetuity, clawing yourself up and out of the obscurity hole can seem like a daunting prospect. Because there is so much music being released, music has lost much of the value it used to have...enter Jamendo.

Jamendo is a royalty free host for musicians that have abandoned the traditional music publishing model. Everything that an artist releases through the site is released under at least a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. This means that users and consumers are allowed to copy the work and listen to it on any device, with no further permission required. You may even redistribute the content as long as you correctly attribute it to the creator of the work.

This basically allows people to try out your songs for no risk and see if  you are worth supporting. Pretty interesting. The music is sort of the "loss-leader" get-your-foot-in-the-door kind of advertising for shows or merchandise, or physical cds.

Basically, I went scouring Jamendo this week to sort of pull me out of my rut. I listened to all sorts of stuff that isn't generally the genre I write in most of the time. I listened to ambient electronic music, weird french folk music, some death metal, some blues, some new-agey guitar...when I found something I liked, I downloaded it and stuck it on the iPod.

I think it's an interesting experiment to do for those of us trying to make our way in the traditional music publishing industry: try writing some Creative Commons licensed music, and see if you fair any better while you're waiting for your songs to be cut by Rascal Flatts. I propose an experiment: I'm gonna try to record a fair bit of instrumental music that is more or less drum loop based and more toward the electronic music side, and release them on Jamendo.

It will allow me to do a few things:

1. Experiment with recording in Ardour, so I can get over the crazy learning curve associated with that program, and finally abandon the proprietary music software world once and for all (that's the real long-term goal)!

2. Experiment with instruments, chord progressions and arrangements I would not normally be able to explore in the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song form.

3. Learn more about Audio in Linux in general. Learn how the Linux software synthesizers work, learn how the Hydrogen drum software works and learn about making drum kits and layered samples.

So there's the experiment to kick me out of my "Comfort Zone" and into my perpetual "Discomfort Zone" where I can force myself to be creative all the time, and not become stagnant.

This week:

Danny Malone
Josh Woodward - this is a find from Jamendo
Jonathan Coulton

I started a slow electronic-type piece this week, complete with synth bass, strange ambient wind sounds and Dream Theater-like guitars (without all the fast weedly bits).

Still working on a song called "Till You Come Home" programming bass and drums right now....soon to re-record acoustic guitars...

Don't Forget!!!! Jodi's new CD is available! I am the Co-Producer, Engineer and I played all the instruments! If you want to hear some awesome songs, and hear my production style, grab a copy! You download it here:, or you can order a physical CD directly from her: Let me know what you think!

Have lots of ideas for other songs...just gotta find time to focus on them.

See ya next week!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How the Demo Comes Together: Part 5 (the last!)

Hey there non-followers (and new real follower)! We're almost done with this nonsense!

Last time, we got the vocals recorded, comped and tuned. Then we imported the tuned vocal back into our project and saved.

Now on to the last section, before we leave this topic for a while:

Preparing for the Mix

The very first thing I do when I have determined that I am not recording anything else--when the song is finished, the arrangement is more or less done and the I can't think of any more cool parts to interlace in between the vocals, I open the  File Menu, navigate to the Save As... dialog and save the project as projectname.mixprep.

In this case, it is Blogsong.mixprep.

Now I can remove all the extraneous vocal takes and guitar takes and get down to the reality of the mix.  As you can see, I  have elimiated the original drum track, the MIDI track for the drums, the MIDI track for the bass.

Final Editing

At this point, I start to chop away all of the unneeded material: the noisy beginning, where I'm waiting to play; and the endings, where the bass (and all of the other instruments, for that matter) needs to fade to silence.

At this point I start to really think about compression, EQ, reverb and what I'm trying to accomplish EMOTIONALLY in the song. From the over-arching EMOTIONAL content of the song, I will get ideas as to what the compression, EQ and reverb are supposed to sound like.

Adding Effects

There are plenty of free VST compatible effects that work well with REAPER in Linux. REAPER also comes with a lot of effects. I'll show you the ones I use to get sounds.

One caveat though: if you're used to using expensive proprietary effects that used iLok-style copy protection on Windows...get used to disappointment. Anything that required an iLok will not work in Linux through matter how hard you matter what crazy copy-protection hacking you me. There are many forum posts dedicated to the woes of trying to use iLok effects in Linux. In short...YOU CAN"T.  Now stop whining and make some music...

The scope of this post is to get a good basic balance happening...not an actual MIX (with automation and fancy bells and whistles).

So here's how it tends to happen for me:


I usually start with the drums. I use the Compressor that comes with REAPER and a little of the EQ that it also comes with to get something that really starts to resemble a Kick Drum, a Snare Drum, the HiHats and the OverHeads.

Like so:

Kick Drum Compressor:

Kick Drum EQ:

For the rest of the instruments in the drum kit, I'm basically using these same two plugins over and over again. REAPER makes it a little easier by having presets for each instrument that sound pretty good, but they ALWAYS require a little extra tweaking to get them to sound right in context--this is NEVER a "set it and forget it" type of a situation.


Again, I'm using the two REAPER-supplied staples most of the time. Let me stress that this is just for a good balance that I can put on my iPod to listen to for a while before I actually go in to do a FINAL mix.

And again, I'm starting with the appropriate Bass preset and tweaking it a little so that it fits well with my other tracks.

Electric Guitars

Next come the electric guitars. You guessed it: still using the built in compressor and EQ.  Sometimes I use a stereo widener, depending on what I need these guitars to do.  I also treat the guitars slightly differently, with slight differences in the EQ shape and the compression attack and release.

I also pan them to some degree. When panning, I think about whether I need the Vocal to be intimate or not-so-intimate, and whether there needs to be a sense of space in the middle of the mix or not. In this particular song, I'm panning the electric guitars hard left and right (to get them out of the way and to leave the middle open for the vocals and acoustic guitars).

Here are the effects on Electric Guitar #1:

The effects on Electric Guitar #2 are similar, but the EQ has more low mids boosted.

 Acoustic Guitars

For the acoustic guitars, I'm using...yeah...the built-in compression and EQ with the acoustic guitar presets tweaked a bit to fit the song.

Also, naturally, each guitar is treated seperately, so there are slightly different settings on each guitar--a little faster attack on one, a little bit of a different EQ curve on another.

The thing that these two guitars share is a free stereo-widening plugin called, oddly enough, WIDE.  I use this preset exactly the same on both guitars. It adds a nice "wideness" to the stereo image of each guitar. Makes the sound of the acoustic guitar to seem wider at the edges--like the sound is emanating from somewhere slightly to the outside of your speaker placement.

So here are the effects on Acoustic Guitar 1:



And Stereo Widener:

For the second acoustic guitar, basically all that changed this time is the EQ curve. I won't bother showing you a screen shot, the EQ just has a little bump at about 10k.


For the vocals, you may remember that I applied the effects at the end of last week's post, but I never told you which effects I applied.

I applied them at the end of the vocal editing so I could hear what I was working with.

I'm sure you could guess which effects I am using for this rough mix...yep...REAPER's compressor and multiband EQ again:

Sometimes, depending on the track, I use a free VST de-esser plugin from digital fish phones  called Spitfish to tone down some of the sibilance in the vocal track.  The vocals on this particular track were ok. No de-essing needed.


For this rough mix, I'm not too concerned about any crazy awesome reverb layering and tuning. I'm just concerned with putting a general reverb on the band to make it seem like these virtual people are playing in the same room...together. I also put a little reverb on the lead vocal just to differentiate it from the rest of the band. Doing the reverb this way is good enough to listen to for a bit while you plan what you're going to do for your REAL MIX...

One of the cool things about REAPER is that any track can become an auxillary track just by way of routing. I make two tracks, one for Band reverb and one for vocal reverb. Then I send all of the tracks that aren't the vocals to the "Band Reverb" or sometimes "Guitar Reverb" track and use--you guessed it--the built in REAPER reverb with its "sweetverbo" preset. I set the room size to about 75 ft. I also do away with the early reflections that come form the "Echo Generator" section of the preset...I just don't think they sound all that great.

For the vocal reverb, I use the same preset, but I change the room size to 40ft.

Final Balance

From there, I just try to set the levels where they should be for the whole song. This is a ROUGH MIX.  Its purpose is to give me something to listen to that I can use to plan the FINAL mix...complete with cool effects, cool panning moves, cool automation and a lead vocal that sits where it needs to sit throughout the song. So here I'm just trying to get everything to sound...well...balanced.

I also like to use a compressor across the master fader. I use PSP's Vintage Warmer. Again, because I'm using it in WINE in LInux on an ANCIENT computer with no 3d acceleration, the normal interface looks like this:

So...I have to use the alternate user interface that looks like this:

Here's what the mix window looked like when the balance was where I wanted it this time:

So there you go. My demo process. In five parts. Usually I can get all of this done in about one week, from writing to this stage (Mixing is a whole other animal).  I think next week we'll get back to some songwriting know, all that stuff that comes before you press record.

This Week:

Been playing more with Musescore notation software. It's a really nice open-source software package.

I've also been threatening to do some guitar transcription. Been learning a Robben Ford solo using Play it Slowly.  It allows you to play things back at any rate, but still keeping the pitches in the correct register.

Read The Dead and the Gone . Gotta love post-apocalyptics!

Been listening to  The Homemade Hit Show. It can be inspiring.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Robben Ford, apparently.

Don't Forget! You can get Jodi Ann's Latest CD, "A Brief Moment In Time" here, if you want to download it:

or here if you want a physical CD: 

See you next week, for something about...songwriting.