One of the interesting things about teaching composition is that it requires students to get used to exploring sounds, options and ultimately dealing with the fact that initially a lot of what they try isn’t going to work straight away.
There is a criteria you can set, you can work within parameters and music theory and other knowledge can certainly help in making choices that are suitable, but with that knowledge is also the willingness to take the rulebook and throw it away as that leads to innovation and originality.
Some students are so fearful of this, that it requires a Herculean effort to put anything down. To create, we need to get used to putting down bad ideas and then thrashing through them.
Almost always, there is potential to find something worthwhile amidst the ideas that are laid down, that is where thrashing can happen. What is worth keeping? What can we develop here? Will this work better if we get rid of this part or save it for later? What if we try this or that approach? How can we make this better? A myriad of questions to ask and plenty of creative possibilities.
Being open to the creative possibility is key and it comes when we give ourselves an environment where we can thrash through what we have without any judgement from the outside world. Just you and the work, and maybe some trusted people to advise you along the way.
The more I lead this utterly crazy life of creating music, the more I realise that for the most part, your best ideas will come at completely inconvenient times and that you have just got to deal with it.
I cycle across the west coast of Wales, between Cardigan and Abaraeron. A musical phrase enters my head, syncopated and an odd time feel, my head continuously runs through the idea as my legs keep pedalling. I have another 400 miles and five days of cycling before I can lay my hands onto a guitar to process that idea. Besides the delirium of burning 9000 calories a day and cycling almost the entire perimeter of Wales, this idea ceases to leave my head.
I queue up for a coffee in my student town, an opening of a song comes in my head, and I frantically write it into the notes of my phone before I order a cappuccino, to which the caffeine adds to more frantic stream of ideas that are trying to pass through somewhere other than my neurological system.
A three-hour train journey, and yet another musical phrase sets itself in my brain and is wishing to be unleashed. Fortunately, I was savvy enough to take manuscript with me on my venture but alas, a baby persistently cries within the carriage and I must persist through the piercing sound frequencies that imperatively grasps the attention from a child’s parents and forge my own frequencies that are trying to express something entirely different.
And finally I have the time to sit down and pursue these ideas in my studio space when all of a sudden a light bulb sparks itself in my head and says ‘Hello there! I am a bright new idea…I’m all sparkly and stuff’ and I retort by saying ‘Go away, I’m busy, could you have just waited a week or two?’ (I could do with a cup of tea; shall I opt for the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong or the lemon zestiness of Earl grey??? Oh, that reminds me, I haven’t eaten for nearly 24 hours as I have been too busy mixing!)
As I venture through this creative wonderland, excited yet perturbed, happy yet miserable (***The Tortured artist may well be NOT a myth, we are indeed pitiful souls…read all about it http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zara/tortured-artists_b_1605509.html). I shall eventually create such a bizarre catalogue of music that most ordinary people will deem it the product of a crazed loony toon, and suitably conclude that it will fit in none other vicinity than Willy Wonka’s Chocalate Factory, only kept alive by loyal audience members that somehow see them isolated and estranged selves within this bohemian mirror.
Maybe one day, it will all subside and the endless lament of writer’s block shall instead vex me, and I shall disappear for five years (maybe grow a vineyard, or venture into carpentry, or buy a yacht). Then one day, inspiration will once strike me again, and I shall scheme a remarkable return to which I will alienate everyone by releasing my equivalent of Radiohead’s Tree Fingers.
On average, I would say that I spend 30 hours a week looking at a screen like this.
Every once in a while, I sit there and think in order to have achieved what I am doing right now thirty years ago, I would have had to be sitting in a much larger room than my office right now, working on a mixing desk that would be the same value as a car then plugging through interfaces that would be twice the value of said car.
It’s pretty incredible how technology and software has advanced and here I am recording music on a laptop with a couple of microphones and an interface. However, the development in technology does not by default make one capable of producing a good record.
The drawback of having such an abundance of sound engineering at the tips of our fingers is that it is easy to forget the important elements of producing a good recording. A lot of the older records made in the 70’s that have become loved so fondly is because the people behind them were working with limitations.
I sat in a class at metropolis studios with Eddie Kramer whilst he told me the virtues of recording Jimi Hendrix with a four-track mix tape and it has been a revelation to me ever since that going to town and back with Pro-Tools 10 isn’t necessarily the way to achieving a good recording.
So, here are the three-essential things I believe are necessary to producing a good recording.
1.) The Song
Without a good song, a good recording is impossible. What is a good song then? The answer to that is subjective but I think it revolves around three words: and that is conviction, conviction and conviction! It’s about knowing what you want to achieve with your song, the emotion, the feeling or the atmosphere you are trying to create; that doesn’t necessarily mean including a strong chorus or hook, you may be able to produce a good song simply from one or two long notes. The more aware you are of what a song’s purpose is, the more likely you are of producing a good recording
2.) The Arrangement
The arrangement is probably where most aspiring writers initially stumble. You can have a plethora of great ideas but the key to then producing a good record is arranging them in a way that is sophisticated and logical. How much should one section be repeated? How much texture should be added? What is the role of the dynamics? Does that harmony really need to be there? When producing a record, one needs to have these questions continually running through their mind, and being decisive and honest about them when answering them.
3.) The performance
As with the song writing, it is all about CONVICTION in your performance. The delivery, the sincerity, the phrasing, the tone, the dynamics; It is about awareness of the details! In my previous record, there were some guitar solos that took me two hundred takes before I got what I wanted, other solos just required the one take. It is a bizarre process, but it is about what feels right.
When you listen back to your records, it is a very difficult task, but you have to truly ask yourself if what you are producing is at all close to what you want. It is by only being very honest with yourself, that you can expect to eventually reach as close to what you envisaged in that beautiful moment of inspiration.
5 examples of great records
There are hundreds out there, but here are the first five that came to mind, and include some of my favourite glorious moments of production. It is a good exercise for any producer, aspiring or experienced to do – sit back, relax, enjoy listening to music and finding out what they love so much about their favourite records and how it can influence their own work.