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As songwriters and producers, we strive to write and record a better song each and every time we sit down to work on our craft. In the process, and over time, we eventually develop efficient methods for streamlining the execution of our creative activities based on what has worked well for us in our past.
Or at least, we should be doing so. It’s obviously easier said than done — and with the world turned upside down for artists these days, it isn’t always easy to commit long hours to honing our craft.
But here’s the thing. Streamlining is one of the clearest paths to success in the music industry that I personally know of. For one, if you want to be releasing music frequently for your fans to hear, it pays to have a system in place so you’re outputting high-quality material that sounds like you every time.
Zak Waters (a.k.a. Pretty Sister) talks about his personal system for prepping for cowriting and production sessions in the below interview.
But, it also helps for collaborations, getting hired to track parts for other artists, and especially when it comes to writing for film, TV, commercials, or any other visual media (theatre, dance, etc.). Streamlined processes help artists meet deadlines and stay on schedule, which in turn makes collaborators and employers happy; and a reputation like that tends to lead to more paid work.
So let’s get into some essential ways that we songwriters and producers can have a quicker output time without sacrificing the quality of our tracks. And before we do, if you’d like help streamlining your own work from a professional songwriter, producer, composer, or engineer, Soundfly offers custom mentorship sessions focused on getting you closer to your personal goals, and achieving the sound you’ve always wanted.
Streamlining Your Songwriting Process
1. Know Your Process
There are typically four approaches to begin writing a song: starting with harmony, melody, rhythm, or lyrics. Any of these four can act as starting points, but there’s a strong likelihood that depending on which you start with, it’ll affect the outcome of your music.
For instrumentals, I personally find that writing a chord progression, followed by a melody, then rhythm works well for me. If you are just starting to learn how to write a song, it might be a good idea to try to write four songs starting from each of these approaches and seeing what turns out the best for you personally.
Alternatively, if you’re a seasoned writer or someone who is constantly writing, try to do a deep dive into your process and take notes about how you typically start songs, and where your work tends to lose momentum in the process. Knowing your process will make it easier to optimize.
2. Identify Trends
Part of knowing your own songwriting trends comes from being able to listen and analyze songs in the same style of music that you are writing. This doesn’t have to mean researching global, Billboard trends though — it can simply mean identifying the tendencies of certain songwriters.
Next time you listen to one of your favorite artists, listen to 5-10 of their songs and try to pick out details, such as the following, to spot any patterns:
- What are the chords that they use?
- What kind of melodies?
- Does this song change key, or tempo, at some point?
- What are the rhythms?
- How about the lyrics?
In turn, these are some of the things that you might want to focus on when analyzing your own songwriting, or making efforts to streamline it.
3. Collaborate with Other Songwriters
After identifying the strengths and weaknesses in your songwriting process, you might ultimately hit “writer’s block” in an area that can be a bit weaker to you. There are tons of ways to get past writer’s block and move your ideas forward with a bit of pushing, but a perfectly suitable approach is simply to seek out collaborations that can help you fill the gaps in your own songwriting skillset.
These days, collaborating with other songwriters and producers is easier than ever; even despite the social distancing we’re facing. But first you need to find those collaborators and co-writers. If you sign up for a monthly Soundfly subscription, you’ll get lifetime access to our community Slack forum, where musicians and artists network and engage in collaboration every day! Give it a shot.
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Streamlining Your Production Process
1. Know Your Direction
Alright so we’re moving on from the songwriting process and delving into production, but don’t get the impression they’re totally exclusive from one another. They just require different methods of streamlining.
So, whereas with songwriting, you’d be listening to other artists’ music to identify the chords, melody, lyrics, and rhythm, in production you should listen for the arrangement elements. That might include drums, synths, other instruments or sound design, and also the tempo, the beat style, the timbral identifying elements, as well as an electronic effects added in.
For example, in singer-songwriter music you might be more accustomed to hearing a clean acoustic piano rather than a distorted electric guitar. Or, you might hear an 808 bass in a hip-hop beat where you’ll hear a live bass in a funk track. A common approach is to create a list of instruments and sounds that you hear in your song in advance, based on what you’d expect in other songs of the same style.
And how do you go about that? Well, it helps if you’re listening to a lot of different music and taking notes about the instrumentation. For example, in Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘N’ Nite,” here’s what I might write down to give me direction for my instrumentation, if I’m also looking to make a low-tempo, hip-hop beat like this:
- Pluck synth
- Synth bass (it sounds like the bass has some distortion in it towards the end)
- Vocal samples
2. Learn Your DAW
Whether you’re working in Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, or any other DAW, it’s essential that you know your way around the program so that navigating it doesn’t take up a large part of your production process. If you’re spending twenty minutes trying to find where the reverb plugins live, that’s going to kill your creative momentum.
It’s important to know the basics of tracking your instruments and quantizing your MIDI notes to your desired rhythms, tempos, and sound palettes. From there, understanding the basic plugins that your DAW comes with and when to use them (or when not to) will be a huge time saver for you.
3. Create Templates
Creating a template that you can use in your DAW is a great way to be able to just open your program and start your creative process right away. Think about the instruments that you use in all of your tracks. Or, how about some of your go-to plugins that you know you’ll use?
This will take some of the time away from preparing yourself to write and rather allow you to write instantly; not to mention mix an entire album or EP that sounds consistent.
Overall, having a good grasp on the songwriting techniques that work best for you personally, and streamlining your creative process, will help you succeed in music. I’m sure of it. If you can start quick, work with comfort and familiarity, and deliver on time, there’s no stopping you!
The good news is, it’s never too late to start streamlining. With enough repetition, you’ll naturally become familiar with your own work and processes enough to learn where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Good luck!
Continue learning with hundreds more lessons on mixing, DIY home audio production, electronic 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 unlimited access here.
Joseph Capalbo is a songwriter and producer whose work has been played on major networks all over the world, including NBC, ABC, MTV, E!, Oxygen, NHL, Hallmark Channel, global non-profit organizations, and more. He recently wrote the theme song for E!’s new docu-series, Reunion Road Trip. He’s one of the primary mentors for our Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords course.