This Article Originally Published November 1997
by Frank Fuchs
Not long after the rush and release of writing a song, comes the realization that you will need to record it. And while we hate to write anything in stone, especially things related to the creative process, there are, nonetheless, several recording Facts of Life that you should be aware of. A basic roadmap of that recording process can be outlined as follows:
- Form (the structure of the song's verses and choruses)
- Instrumentation & Rhythmic Feel
- Vocals (lead & background)
- Lyric Editing & Arrangement
In setting up your studio, try to have the instruments that you normally use, permanently patched into your mixer—keyboards, drum machines, mics, etc. Designate one side of your mixer for these instruments and leave them plugged in all the time to reduce set-up time and cable madness. Leave the other side of your mixer (say tracks 1-4 or 1-8) for your tape return. While recording, try to get as much level to tape while avoiding overload and distortion.
Begin by playing the form of your song on keyboard or guitar along with a basic drum groove. Add a reference vocal at the same time or as an overdub—using a separate track for each.
Now, listen to the track. Does the structure hold together well? Are the words able to flow with the groove? Does the lyric feel rushed or forced? Adjust the tempo and chord patterns until they feel right. Does the melody of each section work well with the arrangement and is there some melodic development and contrast from one section to another?
Once you are satisfied with the structure, go back to the instrumental track and begin to fill it out. Either play keyboard or electric bass and define the groove of each section. Bass parts add the harmonic bottom and hold the rhythm section together. With a drum machine, you can add variations to each pattern, creating separate verse and chorus parts to shape your arrangements and get away from an overly mechanical feel.
If you're using a computer, set the external sync and the computer will start the drums when you press "play." You will be able to change any of your drum parts as you fill in your track. If using live drums, play to a click track. When playing with MIDI stuff, don't rage against the machines! Watch your timing—a live feel helps mechanical tracks, but be sure to play within the grooves and watch your transitions.
From bass and drums, move on to keyboard parts and guitars or your favorite instruments. Begin to add colors to the song. Regardless of the musical genre—blues, techno, country, rock—the process is the same. Always monitor the vocals so you can work within the parameters and emotions of the singers. No wild solos that step all over the lyrics or clash with the melody. The band should support the song. Your creativity as a writer lies in your ability to perform magic with words and music.
Now you are ready to update your lead vocal track. If necessary, redo the performance to bring out the emotional impact of the lyric or melody. Take care of any loose ends in terms of phrasing and intonation. Edit lyrics if necessary, removing filler words. Does the vocal work with your new arrangement and instrumentation? It is not unusual to start from scratch and do it all over again, if you haven't captured your original feeling.
Create background vocals if they are appropriate for your song. If adding harmonies to a chorus, follow the phrasing and lyrics of the lead vocals and, if possible, use other singers to add color and texture to the vocal track.
When mixing your tracks to DAT or cassette, make sure to keep the vocals as the centerpiece of your song. Try not to shy away from your vocal, which is a common songwriter hang-up. The strength of your composition will come through if you don't bury it in overdubs.
Overall sound and production are important, yet a good song will always shine through. I remember Joe Cocker telling me the story of how he came upon the song "Up Where We Belong." He was listening to an old scratchy guitar/vocal demo with what seemed to be a drum hit on a kitchen table. "The verse was ok," Joe told me, "but the soaring melody of the chorus—the power of that melody and lyric was all I needed to hear." Naturally, Joe went on to remind me several times that the song was a Number One hit!
All of which proves that if you write a great song, the rest will take care of itself. The fun is in the creating, so have a good time.