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As modern producers, we often sit down and immediately start fiddling with sounds, searching for a patch or instrument that we hope will inspire us to write something great. Even as listeners, we don’t often take the time to break apart a recording into its two major elements: the “song” and the “production.”
Song first, production later: this is a theme that we try to constantly explore and examine in Soundfly’s online course, Songwriting for Producers. But what does that mean?
Your personal workflow is something that you’ll ultimately design and modify yourself as an artist, but an important thing to keep in mind is that songwriting will always be easier, and your song will be stronger, if it starts with an idea first. Then the production can come later as you seek out interesting ways to bring that song to life and add embellishments.
Think of Painting
Music production has evolved in a way similar to painting. If you compare something like Vermeer’s almost photographic “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to something like Monet’s expressionist “Woman with a Parasol,” you can see the movement away from this hyper-detailed replication of real life to a more stylized approximation — not accurate, but still full of character and vibrant.
If you imagine for a second that the “song” is the content of the image — a woman with an earring or a woman with a parasol — then the “production” would be the treatment of that content (e.g., the style, the brushes, the medium, etc.). You could recreate the content with crayons if you wanted to, but it would just be a different interpretation of the same content.
St. Vincent’s “Los Ageless”
Let’s take a look at St. Vincent’s modern classic, “Los Ageless,” from her album MASSEDUCTION. There are several different versions of the song, each of which has been produced in a totally different style.
On the Album
The album version is a heavily produced electronic track, built around synth drums, bass, synth, and fuzzed-out guitar. There’s a deliberate contrast between the production (modern, polished, synthetic, pop-sounding), and the lyrics, which are deeply critical of Los Angeles’ pop culture. The production is therefore a device used to create dissonance and to make the song sound cynical and cleverly ironic.
The second version, recorded at Spotify’s offices in New York City, is completely different. It’s slower, and features only finger-picked guitar and voice. This version feels much more intimate and fragile, without the ironic anger of the album version. Here, the singer almost takes on the identity of a victim.
The third version is from MassEducation, a version of the original album redone as solo piano songs. This is similar to the guitar version, but feels less intimate and more dramatic, almost epic, with faint echoes of Broadway musicals and concert-hall-style gestures.
Same, Same but Different
The lyrics, melody, chords, and structure are much the same in each recording (the piano version features additional lyrics), but each sounds totally different — a clear testament to the importance of production in how a song communicates its messaging.
In this case, the songs share:
But don’t share:
- Attitude/vocal delivery
- Style genre
As a rule of thumb, the elements shared between the versions make up the song, whereas the differences are specifics of the production. Comparing each of these recordings is a great way for you to think about the difference between songs and productions.
This is a critical part of building your toolkit as a songwriter. Understanding the various ways that other artists conceptualize an idea and then develop it into full song will help us do the same.
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