BEN’S ZONE: Making Music Part 2 – Workflow

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Welcome to a weekly feature on my blog – Ben’s Zone. Written by husband… Ben. A foodie, coffee obsessed, ex-smoking, ex-drinking and Ridgeback loving Dad. Who is also seriously into his fitness.  You can find him on the blog (mostly) on Sundays. Enjoy!

Making Music Part 2 - Workflow. Picture of Ben from behind sat at desk with guitar in his hands and computer screen in front of him.

Making Music Part 2 – Workflow

The first and most obvious question is, what is a workflow?  When I say workflow in relation to making music, what I mean is I have an order of doing things when I write songs and that order and the actions that go along with it comprises my workflow. 

The next obvious question is, why, when music is supposed to be fun, do you have things you do intentionally to make it loads less fun and a bit of a chore?  Well, it’s because I like writing whole songs and I don’t get loads of time.  So it often takes me weeks to do a single song.  That means I often forget where I was or what I was doing when I was last working on it.  I didn’t use to have a workflow and the net result was I’d write a riff or something that I would want to work on with Rob (other band member) and by the time he’d arrived I would have forgotten some or all of what we were going to work on.  We also lost a ton of stuff we ‘wrote’ and subsequently forgot about.  So I came up with a workflow. 

It’s not earth shattering, it’s just how I get from the initial creative spark to something recorded and arranged.  I’ve broken it down into a roughly chronological flow here but it’s not always a step by step process.  Another advantage of my tracked workflow is that if I find myself with some time to work on music I can look at where I am with each of the songs I have got going and can decide what to do.  I might need to write and record a bass line, for example, or tart up some drums.  So if I have a bit of time I can look at what needs doing and find a focus.  

This is a very boring thing to do, but I actually track all this on a spreadsheet.  I use a spreadsheet as I know the basic stages of my workflow and by putting them in as columns on by one and filling in the cells with colour when it’s done I have a simple visual tracker of where my music is.  Here is a screenshot for people who have not seen a spreadsheet before.

Screenshot of a spreadsheet - with song names down one side and stages of song making listed across the columns. Progress highlighted in green.

So I will work through left to right in the various stages to describe my process.  Even in a band setting I use this now as all it does is represent where a particular song is in relation to completion, stages can happen simulatenously or sequentially.

Writing the Basic Melody or Riff.

This is the first stage for me.  The instrument I am most comfortable and proficient with is the guitar and, for whatever reason, the riff or melody is the first thing I use to build a song.  The first thing here is I allow myself time to sit down and muck about to see if I write anything I like.  This is separate from practise which I do every day.  Sometimes I pop out to my cabin and play on my amp for this, often I set an amp sim up in the lounge and have a play while the kids are in bed and Laura is elsewhere.  The important thing is I don’t just expect creativity to happen, I put aside time to do this.  A riff I think of mid way through a work meeting is no good to me as I will have forgotten it by the time the meeting is over.

I try and get into the music side as quickly as possible when I sit down.  I avoid messing about with tone as I’m just sketching at this point.  I’ll go for a clean tone, or a bit of crunch or whatever but keep it utterly basic.  The last thing I want to do is to burn time tweaking knobs.  I set up a basic project in Reaper and I arm it for recording.  If I come up with anything I like (I can tell if I like it as I’ll play it over and over) I make sure that I record it.  That’s that really, get a sketch down of a riff I like.  If I can I write a chorus for it and after that we’re good.

Basic disciplines are that I give the song a working title when I save it, Monday_<date> tells me nothing but a silly name often brings thing back to mine.  I have Reaper set to create a new folder for the project and to store all related media in that folder.  This helps later on.

The last thing I do before adding the song to the spreadsheet is listen back to it the next morning.  Doing creative stuff is fun and makes you feel good but it also distorts perception.  I always reckon I’ve written the next big rock song on the night but I only proceed if it sounds workable over my morning coffee the next day.

Write and Record Rough Guitar Track & Adding Drums.

This is probably the bit I find the hardest, going from a single riff or melodic device into a full song.  Not only does it involve writing stuff like choruses, it also involves setting out the arrangement of the song.  Often what I do here is record a verse and then copy it either side of a number of bars of silence.  Then I listen to the verse and play in the silence to see what sounds good and come up with a chorus that way.

During this phase I’m often arranging the drums.  As I’m without a drummer due to lockdown this is all done with midi drums so it’s simply a case of finding a beat for the verse and chorus, any fills that I want to use and then slotting it together.  This is normally happening as I am thinking about the overall arrangement of the song.

At the end of this stage what I’ll end up with is a drum track for the length of the song which I can use as a metronome and guide to record a rough guitar part.

Recording rough guitars is exactly that, the sole purpose is to see that the drums work to help me write a bass part.

Write a Bass Part

This bit is simple as I can’t play bass.  All I try and do is to work out the root notes of the guitar parts and to copy that.  Bass seems simple until you actually try it, it’s not at all simple and so I try not to overreach.  Sometimes I do throw in the odd octave here and there but the bottom line is that it’s there to serve a purpose, nothing more.  In terms of tone I try and keep it simple because it’s easier to get it sitting in the mix and it draws attention to my poor bass skills.  The main objective I have with this is to try and create a bit of a groove with the drums if I can.

Do the Proper Guitars

The next step here is to mute the rough guitar and use the groove as a guideline to record a guitar part where I am pleased with the playing and the notation.  I still don’t spend too much time tweaking the tone here, I just get something that sounds close to what I want.  I always record a dry signal and so if I want to mess with the tone later then I can.  The most important thing is not locking in to the grid lines on the sequencer but to get everything sitting tight with the drums and bass.  Once I’ve got the performance recorded (and I tend to do this in one take rather than punching in as I haven’t quite worked out how to punch in properly) I usually duplicate the track a couple of times and put them into a sub-mix (folder track in Reaper).  I use the multiple tracks to widen the guitar by slight panning and also just to make it sound thicker.  I put a compressor on the main track and look for a guitar preset to sort of glue it all together.

Lyrics / Vocals

Before I get any further I do the lyrics and record the vocals.  I’m not a singer and so I’m rarely pleased with my vocals but the fact is, if you have bass, guitar, drums and vocals you have a song, if you have drums, bass, guitars and a full orchestra then you have a half completed song.  So I sit down with a cup of coffee and the song looping, I write some lyrics as best I can and I sing them as best I can.

Add extra bits

The last part of the process for me is adding on extra bits.  Sometimes this is nothing at all, sometimes it can be quite complicated.  I have a penchant, for example for mellotrons and will try and put them into everything.  It may be that I feel like a solo might work well with the song and so I’ll try and write one.  If I do put lead guitar in I tend to have this a a separate track and during the solo I drop the volume on the rhythm guitars just a touch.

What I try and do, as I work, is to get things sounding how I want as I go.  I’m no good at mixing and so while people do ‘fix things in the mix’ I would not know where to start.  Working in this order drums –> bass –> guitar –> vocals –> anything else i mute everything and bring each element back in turn.  If I notice something comes in and the sound gets muddy I put an EQ on that track and basically move dials until I get things clear again.  I do not find that part easy.  I try and remember to make small changes and if I am trying to get rid of mud I cut, rather than boost.  Once things sound as clean as I can get them I go back and do small boosts to get the sound I want.

So, that’s how I do it.  I’ll end on the 3 best tips I have for writing tunes as an amateur:

1. Record everything as you never know when you’ll come back to a riff or an idea.
2. Transcribe riffs, making a note of tuning.
3. Remember that perfect is the enemy of good.

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