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I've been writing songs since I was 11, and I must admit, I was no child prodigy. My early songs had three chords in the same key, lots of oohs and la las, and predictably trite lyrics, but I knew I had found my calling. Back then, I would bring my nylon-string, out-of-tune guitar into the kitchen to play my latest song to the cringing faces of my dysfunctional family. Soon, I bought one of those ugly black cassette recorders from Sears. I would set the tape recorder on the back of the toilet, sit on the closed toilet lid with my guitar, and record my songs in what I began to call "my studio." I even put a red lightbulb in a lamp outside the bathroom so my family would know I was in a "recording session" and should not be disturbed.
Playing back my first recordings, I cringed myself, but these early, painful experiences helped me become a better writer and performer. I bought an additional cassette recorder and started my own multitrack studio by playing along and harmonizing with the other recording. As you can imagine, the sound quality from cassette to cassette in a bathroom with an 11-year-old singing and playing all the parts was atrocious. But it taught me about harmony, doubling, and overdubbing—mostly by learning what not to do.
Thanks to my iChat buddy list, a songwriting partner is now just a click away. (Click to enlarge.)
I continued writing as a means of expression through high school and college, evolving from the "I hate mom and dad" songs to the "my mom hates my girlfriend" songs and eventually joining songwriters' associations. That's when I learned that writing with others could take my music to a whole new place, because my co-writers had fresh chords and rhythms, and a completely different vocabulary and rhyming schemes. The music I have co-written is probably the work of which I am proudest, because of its diversity.
So many people think of co-writing as sitting in the same room with a partner, strumming guitars or stabbing at the piano and scribbling lyrics into a notebook while recording on the microcassette deck. Though I spent many years in Nashville doing exactly that and still co-write in that manner, I have found a new approach to songwriting and co-writing through embracing computer technology.
Writing on the computer truly changed my life. I still pace in my driveway with my acoustic guitar and sit down at the piano occasionally, but my main writing partner has now become my computer. The most obvious advantages are the same ones you get with a word processor. Anything you play or record can be dragged around the screen, fixed, tuned, edited, or rearranged simply and quickly.
Contrary to the tedious debate that computers make music sterile and stiff, the computer is simply a tape recorder. It's not going to perfect every beat and note unless you tell it to. All of the over-editing that gives music recorded on a computer a bad rap (no pun intended) is in the hands of the operator. If you prefer not to quantize (time correct) your drums or tune your vocals, it's up to you.
I find value in balance. I like a human feel in my music, but I'm also a little vain about an out-of-tune note here and there. But, hey, who doesn't spell-check or retouch a photo now and then? I also believe looping, tuning, and editing should be done in accordance with the style of music. If I hired a bass player to play on two songs, one techno and one country, I would create loops from the techno performance and perhaps apply some edgy effect while I would try to leave the country performance as live and natural-sounding as possible. It's all up to your discretion how to edit your own tracks.
One of the biggest advantages of computers for me is that my computer is an unlimited source of inspiration. At any moment, I can find a great groove or drum loop with Spectrasonics Stylus RMX or from my ever-expanding collection of drum loops. I can play my guitar through Native Instruments Guitar Rig and sound like a rock goddess. I can use Synthogy's Ivory plugin and get a piano sound that continues to blow me away. I can use Spectrasonics Trilogy and play a virtual bass sound that is hard to distinguish from the real thing. There are countless effect plugins—reverbs, delays, EQ, compression, distortion, and multi-effects—that can make even a whole-note chord sound as dramatic as a spaceship taking off.
Stylus RMX is a drum-groove plugin with exceptional sound quality and unique randomization features that keep its parts fresh. Read the O'Reilly tutorial here.
Another major advantage of computer-based songwriting is being able to pick up where you left off the last time you worked on a song. Rather than having to find your notebook and rewind the cassette deck, you simply open up your file on the computer and it sounds exactly like it did when you last worked on it. I am always recording while I'm writing, and many times, I'll even use the original tracks in the final mix. It's invaluable to always be recording while I'm writing.
There are so many creative advantages to composing on a computer, but the most important to me is that it provides the capability for people to work together anytime, anywhere, on any software or hardware. Just as you can open a JPEG picture file on any computer in many different programs, you can easily exchange audio files to build up a song. Here's how I do it.
Synthogy Ivory, created by the sound designer behind Kurzweil's acclaimed sampled pianos, brings a new level of playability and realism to software pianos.
Modern-day collaboration can be done in real time using an audio/video chat application, or each co-writer can work independently by trading files back and forth. I prefer the latter. Many times, my co-writer and I will be working on the same song in separate studios at the same time. Usually we have our chat application open so we can contact one another and exchange files.
Typically, a session starts with a co-writer sending me a batch of files, such as a programmed drum part or drum loop with a bass line, and—depending on the style of music—perhaps a few synth, piano, or guitar tracks. I then tweak the chord progressions and melodic elements and send those edits back to my co-writer. Very often, I'll write a whole new section, like a bridge, and send that as well. Then I create a complete song structure while writing and recording the melody and lyrics.
Once my co-writer and I have decided on the structure and melody, we talk about what instrumentation the song requires. What do we need to replace? Do we like the tempo? Do we need live drums? Should we replace the MIDI bass with a real one? Do we need guitar tracks? If so, which guitarist should I send the song to?
Spectrasonics Trilogy is my go-to bass module for songwriting demos.
When it's time to record the final version, I use the exact same process. I work with musicians and engineers who have home project studios and high-speed internet access. I send them the song in stem files (see sidebar) through my chat app or post the files on my server. The musicians download my tracks and import them into their audio applications. Then they record their parts and upload their final tracks to me in my chat app or to my server. I then import those files into my audio application and edit them as needed.
When I'm writing and arranging, iChat makes collaboration fast and easy.
Sometimes I'll even send one song to two different guitar players so I can edit between two completely different perspectives. The song at the end of this article was written and recorded using this method.
The lack of typical human interaction doesn't work for everyone. I still work in person with people, but I have come to prefer having my own personal creative space when writing and recording. It does take getting used to and you have to be more self-disciplined. But now I maintain a schedule that allows me to work from my own studio, in my own time, and travel less, without having to pack up all my toys. This saves time and money for the musicians too, because, again, they don't have to unhook all of their gear just to come to my studio to overdub a part. They can use the two hours of travel and set-up time to make more money recording someone else's music.
At the heart of co-writing in the digital age is a chat application. Besides enabling audio, video, and text discussions, chat applications also let you transfer files back and forth. I've tried most of the chat apps for the Mac and PC, and though admittedly I am biased towards Macs, I've found there is no chat application equal to Apple's built-in iChat. Using iChat requires you to sign up for a .Mac account or use your AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) name.
iChat, in my testing, has the best file transfer speed and best audio quality as well. (Skype's file transfer is the slowest of the chat apps.) When you're dealing with large files, you want the fastest file transfer speed available. To send your co-writer a file, you simply drag the file to his or her name in the buddy list; it works the same in most chat applications. Then you tell your co-writer what tempo you're using. I recommend telling them the sample rate—e.g., 44.1kHz, 96kHz—as well. Next, they import your files into their music software.
You can also collaborate without dragging files around. My company, eSession.com, is developing a plugin that will allow anyone using any software, Mac or PC, to collaborate in real-time within their audio software.
Another approach is to pipe the output of your audio hardware through your chat program. For example, you could plug the headphone output of your audio interface into the audio input of your computer, then set your chat app to play the sound coming in from your computer's audio input. That way, your audio software is sending your music through your chat application.
When you press Play on your audio software, your co-writer will hear your song coming through their chat application. If they connect the output of their chat application (which is probably coming out of the computer's 1/8" audio jack) into the input of their audio hardware as well, then they'll be able to hear your tracks in their main speakers, not just out of the computer's speakers.
Yes, there is a delay due to internet speeds, but that's all going to change in the next year as speeds increase globally. Isn't now the best time to learn, while you're still ahead of the curve?
Ed. Note: Another interesting collaboration system is NINJAM, from Winamp creator Justin Frankel. With this free program (Windows, Mac, Linux), each collaborator's audio input is delayed by a set number of bars, so you're always reacting to something your remote bandmates played in the past. That seems crazy in theory, but it actually encourages listening and is quite fun. The jams can be recorded on each player's hard drive as they happen.
A NINJAM session, showing the integrated chat window.
Many people ask me, "Why can't I just email my audio files?" The problem is that most email services only support attachments up to five or ten MB in size. Since audio recorded at 44.1kHz, 24-bit resolution consumes 7.5MB a minute (and that's just for a mono file), a typical vocal file for a four-minute song would weigh in at 30MB. A file recorded at 96kHz would be more than double that size.
What about sending MP3 files instead? Most audio apps do allow you to import MP3s, but I would rather wait an extra ten minutes and have the full-resolution, uncompressed files to work with.
One easy way to send larger files is with upload services such as YouSendIt and DropLoad (both free). You simply enter the recipient's email address in a web form, click the Browse button to upload the file (YouSendIt supports files up to 1GB), and click Send. Your collaborator will receive an email with a download link, and the file will be deleted from the server a week later.
But what if you want a place to share files with your co-writer and you want access to these files 24/7? You can always set up your own FTP server, but that can be quite complicated. Apple has a cool feature called iDisk (part of .Mac) that puts a virtual hard drive on your desktop. It enables you to drag and drop files to a public folder that anyone can access anytime. There are also similar services like Xdrive, FilesAnywhere, and GlobalDrive that also allow you to create virtual hard drives online. These services increase in cost depending on how many gigabytes of storage you require.
Here is a before-and-after example of a collaborative recording—a simple techno-pop song called "Say a Prayer." The demo is all MIDI tracks. My co-writer Oliver Adolph and I performed all the parts in Apple's Logic Pro, communicating via iChat because I'm in Austin, Texas, and he's in Hamburg, Germany. I wrote the first verse and chorus and then sent that to Olly over iChat. He then created the arrangement and added more programmed percussion parts and synths. He sent that back to me and I edited the vocals.
Next, I imported the files into Pro Tools and mixed them down into stem files (see sidebar). I put the stem files on my server, where they were downloaded by guitarist Trey Gunn. Trey then added bass and guitar parts in his studio in Portland, Oregon. I also sent files to Peter Gabriel's Real World Studio in England, where Richard Evans added more electric guitars. Pat Mastelotto played the drums at his studio here in Austin, Texas. I sat with all the tracks for a few days and edited the parts together. Kevin Killen, the Grammy-winning engineer (and my eSession business partner), did the final mix.
Of course, the most important thing to know is how to write songs. And that's truly the most difficult part. Learning a chat application takes a few moments; learning music software and a new approach to songwriting may take a few months; but learning to write great songs usually takes years.
I've been writing songs for over 30 years now, always with room to improve. But if I hadn't taken the leap into writing and recording music on computers, I might still be recording cassette tapes in my bathroom and making my friends and family cringe. Technology has truly changed my life, my career, and my music for the better. Push yourself to move into digital songwriting; it will be well worth the small effort you'll make at the beginning.
The ideal approach for co-writing is for both writers to have the exact same audio software and plugins. Sharing work back and forth is a breeze if you have that luxury. But what if you have different setups?
Here are four rules that will help you work with anyone, regardless of software, hardware, or computer platform.
Always record to a specific tempo with either a drum loop or a click track. The more you practice recording to a fixed tempo, the better your songs will become. A solid tempo is the foundation on which a song is built in modern recording. It allows you to copy and paste sections within your arrangements and gives anyone the ability to navigate and edit your song seamlessly. They simply import your audio files into whatever software they are using and set the correct tempo.
Consolidating is the practice of taking an edited track, such as a vocal that has been punched into, and making it one cohesive audio file from beginning to end. This file is what you send to your co-writers. They will then simply import it into their software application and set the correct tempo.
You can simply send your collaborators a stereo mix of a song in progress, but that doesn't give them much to work with. What if they want to mute the vocal, bass, or guitar parts or solo the drums? If your sessions are small with relatively few audio tracks, then simply consolidate each track and send each track separately. But a session with seven tracks of vocals, five tracks of guitar, and eight tracks of drums would take a long time to upload to someone. Usually your co-writer doesn't need each individual vocal or drum track, so the best thing you can do is get into the habit of mixing similar parts into what's called stems.
Stems (also called submixes) are used a lot in the professional music world. A stem mix is a stereo mix of a specific instrument category such as vocals, drums, or guitars. So instead of sending your co-writer eight tracks of guitars or vocals, you mix the tracks down into a stereo stem with all of the effects rendered (meaning plugin compatibility is not an issue, either). Stems give your collaborators control over the mix while not overwhelming them with gigabytes of files and dozens of tracks.
Name your files. Name your files. Name your files. I repeat this over and over. So many people get lazy and start recording a vocal without naming it. If you don't name your tracks, most audio apps will simply name them generically. Then at the end of a three-hour session, you'll be left with a hard drive full of file names like Audio 1, Audio 2, etc., and if you need to send a file to someone, you won't know a vocal file from a guitar file or anything else you've recorded. So name your tracks before you record and make sure your audio files are named correctly. If you're going to work with other people, be organized.
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