Songwriting Workflow: What I Learned from a Month of Daily Releases

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Every year, the shortest month comes around, and at the forefront of my mind is the plethora of songwriting challenges which permeate the internet at large. Some of my favorite artists have famously committed their time in this dreary month (at least here in New York) to hunker down and dedicate serious hours to composing new material.

Every year I think of how outlandish an undertaking that month must be for each of these artists, taking tens or hundreds of hours to build a whole new world, and create the kind of consistency in their day-to-day life, even in the shortest month of the year, to get it done. And every year I’m shocked at how many actually come out the other side with a whole new body of work!

This year I was finally in a position to take a little extra time to dedicate to my own craft, and the future of my work as a composer, producer, and songwriter. But simply making new music every day wasn’t complicated enough for my strange, twisted mind. I had a bigger, broader vision for what this project could be, and what it would entail.

In my work composing underscore for podcasts like Limetown and The Wilderness in the last couple of years, I’ve greatly expanded my sound palette and the speed of my production skills, especially when it comes to moody, spacious, ambient electronic beds. I was interesting in harnessing these skills towards the service of songwriting and creating new work for myself. I wanted to see if I could compose, produce, mix, master, and release a full one-minute vignette every single day for the month of February. (*Listen to the full collection of 28 tracks below.)

But wait — there’s more.

In 2018, I spent much of the year taking photographs of light against surfaces — mainly walls, mainly in my own house — and pondering what it means to have the presence of mind to witness and absorb these curious shapes the light depicts and projects on these surfaces. I decided to choose a selection of these photographs as inspiration (and cover artwork) for each minute-long single.

Once I’d completed the music, I’d have a selection of 15 of the best images to have printed and framed as fine art and installed in a small gallery near my house. Each viewer could then spend 60 full seconds not just viewing each photo print, but hearing it, too, in an immersive multimedia experience.

I want to tell you about the music side of this challenge, the process of creating it, and what lessons I walked away with at the end. I wanted it to feel like it was all of an ilk, and of the same world. Admittedly I am not operating on the level of writing and producing a “radio-ready” pop song each day, and I don’t pretend to be. That said, composing, producing, and releasing a tune a day (along with an accompanying Instagram video version) took anywhere from 2–5 hours a day. Let’s just say, I never felt like I was slacking.

Each day, I had to decide what portion of my day I would dedicate to writing this music, which tools (instruments, DAW, recorded vs. MIDI elements, etc.) I’d include, what world they’d live in texturally, and which photo to score. The photo didn’t serve as a “visual score,” just an initial inspiration to combine with the day’s mood and to help jumpstart my creativity for that day.

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I didn’t quite have the liberty to take entire days “off,” but that also added fodder to experiment in a lifestyle on which I’d like to base a workflow in my future: balancing composing and producing for myself with day-to-day responsibilities and commissioned work (including my work as a Soundfly Mentor!). Well, after 28 days of sometimes exuberant and sometimes gruelling sessions of composition, I came out the other end with 28 professionally rendered minutes of new music — success!

But what did this songwriting challenge do for my long-term success and progress as a composer? Well, I learned a few things.

1. I write best in the mornings.

When I started the month, I began each day writing my new music some time between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., usually running until a reasonable lunchtime. However, at some point in the course of the month, my life got busy. I began to have work assignments I needed to get in to people towards the middle of the day, and that meant postponing my personal writing ’til late afternoon or evening.

By that point in the day, though, I was exhausted. I had expended most of my most valuable creative hours to other work, and at times had trouble even keeping myself awake enough to complete the piece I “needed” to post by the end of the day. In a few days in the final week of the challenge, it was all I could do to finish a piece that was “good enough” in my mind to post and sit alongside the other pieces I felt were much stronger already.

2. The workflow I developed maximized the crossover between my efficiency as a producer with the efficacy of my creativity as a composer.

I wanted to keep myself creatively focused through every step of the process, making sure that I was actually vibing off of and enjoying what I was doing, rather than just doing the work for the sake of the work itself. But I didn’t have all the time in the world, either — which turned out to be an effective restraint in bolstering my creativity.

Here’s how that ended up looking.

Step 1: Sound Design

I started with loose sound design. I knew I wanted these pieces to live in this sort of ambient, moody world, so I only had a handful of options to choose from for sound sources. I got a lot of mileage throughout this process by recording simple piano lines and then running those recordings through Reason’s Grain Sampler plugin.

Step 2: Compositional Development

If I didn’t start with a chord progression or melodic idea right off the bat, I’d figure out how I could mold what first idea I had into more of a solid arc and movement across the full 60 seconds of the piece. I thought of these as broad brushstrokes on my canvas.

Step 3: Additional Sound Design and Shaping

Next, I’d frame the main idea with additional textural sound design, and also start adding plugin effects — often time-based effects like strange echo and delay patterns and heavy reverbs, as well as interesting tremolo and panning effects for added development and production interest.

Step 4: Mix and Automate

At this point, I’d dive fully into mix phase, getting the balance right and automating elements like volume and low-pass filter frequencies to help the piece sound cohesive, and also fine-tune the arc of the piece over the full 60 seconds.

Step 5: Polish, Master, and Distribute

Lastly, I’d add a basic template onto my master bus (any character-adding plugins I thought were appropriate, some very light glue compression, light overall EQ, and limiting). Then I’d bounce the track, create a video with the accompanying photo as artwork, and upload these to Distrokid (my chosen digital distributor) and Instagram, respectively.

The composition and production stages of the process did sometimes blur into one another. But by keeping the process largely siloed and constantly moving forward instead of cyclically, I was able to keep my creativity engaged and alert at each stage, while also moving through the process efficiently.

3. Even one-minute songs have to have an arc.

As Tierra Whack so masterfully showed us last year, even 60-second moody masterpieces need to follow the common arc of a story, with an exposition, a development, a climax, and some falling action into a conclusion.

In fact, many of my sessions (which often feature heavily automated volume and effect parameters) gathered a fairly consistent look and feel when observed from the 30,000-foot vantage. Once I’d figured out that this sort of “arc” shape was going to work for me, I was able to develop a fairly consistent step-by-step workflow to my writing sessions (that I hope to continue to develop into a full-length record of vocal songs at some point).

4. Consistency is, by far, the hardest part of this kind of challenge.

Through all kinds of scientific study, we’re very aware here at Soundfly that consistent, incremental improvement of skills is the best way to make great gains over the long term, rather than in short, heavy bursts of study or work. And yet, I found that the hardest parts of getting through the month — even when I got into a flow and a stride both with my workflow and my day-to-day routine — was not letting life get in the way, continuing to prioritize the “work,” not giving into resistance, and showing up every single day in order to do the work and move myself toward my goals. 

While I’m incredibly proud of the accomplishment itself of building this body of work, writing every day, and choosing my art first in such a meaningful way, I’m far more excited for what comes next: setting myself up for success in my art tomorrow, and the next day, and every other day moving forward in which I choose to overcome resistance, believe in myself, and trust the process. I just hope I can keep that flow going.

Continue learning with hundreds more lessons on mixing, home audio production, music recording, beat making, and so much more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like: The Art of Hip-Hop Production, Modern Pop Vocal Production and Songwriting for Producers. Subscribe for access here.

Elijah Fox at the piano

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