By Julie Kathryn a.k.a. I AM SNOW ANGEL
I’m an artist, songwriter and producer. I produce my own material, as well as tracks for other artists. This means I have the pleasure of shaping nascent creative ideas into fully realized songs. I always appreciate it when producers demystify their process by sharing the nuts and bolts of their workflow. Ultimately, each producer develops her own process over time.
This is an overview of mine…
I’ll admit I’m more passionate about music production than I am about songwriting. Still, I think a well-written song is the most important aspect of a track – more important than performance or production or the mix. For this reason, I take my songwriting very seriously.
The Concept. I usually write with a specific idea in mind. For example, I recently sat down with the intention of writing a song about an alien landing. “Out there” song concepts like this one can actually turn into interesting and relatable songs, since listeners tend to find their own personal meanings in what they hear. If I’m not working with a lyrical concept, I might focus on a specific musical idea. I’ve written songs that contain only minor chords, only major 7th chords, or even just one single chord. These challenges help me break out of my natural patterns, ensuring that all of my songs don’t sound the same.
Writing. I typically do most of my writing alone, but I also really benefit from collaborating. I’ll occasionally co-write; and even though it can be a challenging process, it has led to some of my best songs. I also work with a songwriting coach, Tony Conniff, both one-on-one and in his weekly workshops, which has been so helpful in expanding my musical palette. I almost never write the same way twice. I might work out a guitar riff or bass line and then build a song around it.
Or I’ll start with a full lyric, or an instrumental synth track. In the case of “Desert,” I spent months wrestling with various edits before the song felt right to me. One of my final changes was converting the time signature from 6/8 to 4/4.
Creative Workflow. The bulk of my production work happens in my home studio. I usually begin my process in Ableton Live, which is my favorite digital audio workstation (DAW). Once I have a song’s basic form and chord structure, I settle on a tempo and key that feel right.
Next, I start laying down instrumental tracks. I add anything that feels good at the moment — a mix of hard and soft synth sounds (Native Instruments’ Massive and Reaktor are two of my favorite synth plugins), electric guitar (my Telecaster or vintage Gibson hollow body); atmospheric sounds (wind, vinyl crackling), and rhythmic elements (percussion, drums, and beats that I create either with Ableton’s MIDI programming function or by chopping up and manipulating samples from my library).
I love to reverse a vocal sample and add an exorbitant amount of reverb, then warp the timing of the edited sample and treat it like a synth pad.
I don’t seek out an endless supply of sounds and plugins; I’ve learned that a more limited selection forces me to be inventive with my production. To achieve a dreamy aesthetic, I sing oohs and ahhs, which I manipulate in various ways: chopping up and sampling, distorting and re-pitching. I love to reverse a vocal sample and add an exorbitant amount of reverb, then warp the timing of the edited sample and treat it like a synth pad. Sometimes, I re-reverse the warped sample; this reversal of the reverb creates a cinematic effect that can add drama at key transition points in a song. For “Desert,” I used a short reversed vocal sample, combined with a reversed cymbal sample, throughout the song to add texture and dynamics. I also layered synth strings (using Ableton’s “Orchestral Strings”) to enhance the song’s emotional content.
Insights often manifest when I’m tired from a long night of engineering and I begin making mistakes. For example, I might place an audio clip at the wrong place in a chord progression, or accidentally crank the delay or tremolo effect on an instrument. A lot of times, these mistakes sound really interesting, and I feel compelled to follow these unexpected threads of creativity.
In Ableton, a track’s tempo – and sometimes even key – can be changed without drastically compromising or distorting the sounds that have been recorded. If needed, I continue tweaking these parameters throughout my creative process until I find the song’s sweet spot.
Mixing is both nerve-wracking and extremely important. Skillful mixing is simultaneously an art and a science.
Once I’ve established the instrumental landscape, I create a rough mix. I streamline the track, deciding which elements should remain in the song. If two sounds are redundant, I remove one of the instruments from the mix or I EQ the two sounds to compliment one another other (rather than step on each other). While I do spend some time treating individual sounds, I try not to get bogged down in the intricacies of mixing at this point. Next, I record “scratch” vocals for both lead and harmony. I try to craft interesting harmony lines, and I generally avoid patterns that sound too traditional or folky.
Final Vocals, Mixing, + Polishing. At this point, I export all of my individual files as audio tracks and switch to another, more traditional DAW – LogicPro or Pro Tools – for final vocal tracking and mixing. If I’m the one singing final vocals, it can be helpful to have another engineer at the helm while I focus on my performance. Because the harmony parts have already been worked out, vocal tracking is usually relatively efficient. I like to “comp” vocals on the spot, immediately after tracking.
The next stage – mixing – is nerve-wracking, yet extremely important. Skillful mixing is simultaneously an art and a science. My favorite mix engineer is Jason Cummings, who works at The Cutting Room. I send him all of my individual tracks, as well as my rough mix, which he uses as a template for the sound I’m trying to achieve. Jason is able to expand my vision, making what I’ve sent him sound richer and more three-dimensional. Jason is also a creative producer; if I think a track needs additional vibrancy, I ask him to add his own production touches while mixing.
Initially, I was hesitant to mix tracks myself. In the past year, however, I’ve created several final mixes, some of which will be featured on Female Frequency Volume One (an EP I produced as part of the all-female music collective I co-founded in 2015). Through a combination of research, YouTube tutorials, mix comparisons, and trial and error, I’ve honed my use of compression, EQ, reverb, delay, and other effects. Although I still have much to learn in this area, I’m now able to carve out frequency space so that all of the sounds remain audible and sit comfortably in a mix.
Adding an element in a key spot can help make an electronic track feel more human. Even an unexpected one-bar instrumental breakdown or a “beat repeat” sequence can add much needed spontaneity.
Whether it’s me or someone else rendering the final mix, I continue to shape the song’s arc during this stage, listening for moments that could benefit from last-minute tweaking. One thing I love about electronic-based music is that it doesn’t necessarily matter where the sounds came from, or whether or not they’re “real”. By that same token, however, this genre can sound sterile and cold. Adding (or removing, or modifying) an element in a key spot can help make a track feel more human. Even an unexpected one-bar instrumental break down or a “beat repeat” sequence can add needed spontaneity.
Finally, if I’m releasing a song in an official capacity on iTunes and Spotify, I opt for professional mastering. Peerless Mastering in Boston is my go-to mastering house. Mastering makes the track sound professional and radio-ready – and not like something I recorded in my apartment!
Next Steps: Live Audio Production
If a song is going to be performed live, the next order of business is converting the track into an interesting audio-visual experience. As you can see in this “Desert” in-studio performance, I used Ableton Live in conjunction with various instruments and MIDI controllers. I also programmed lighting to correspond with the music. (I did this by MIDI-mapping various lighting parameters in Ableton using a DMX plugin.)
My live production process is rather involved and probably warrants it’s own separate blog post. For now, enjoy this in-studio performance video!
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I AM SNOW ANGEL is a sound that fuses digital and organic elements, that’s both earthy and ethereal. The music is composed, performed, produced, and engineered by recording artist Julie Kathryn. Kathryn is also the co-founder of Female Frequency, an all-female collective “dedicated to empowering women and girls through the creation of music that is entirely female generated.” Her newest EP, Desert, is a project that illustrates the subtle complexities of desire, passion and longing.