What did I say about writing rap lyrics and learning Ableton Live on vacation? Well it’s over now and I’m certain I didn’t do either.
After a day of “normalizing” back in San Francisco I have now sequestered myself in the studio. I’ve even produced some lyrics. All I can say is, when you get in the zone or flow or whatever you call it, write as much as you can. That’s a place hard to get back to. Although I’ve come up with some topics I like they aren’t exactly lyrical.
Here are some examples. Keep in mind the theme of the song is someone turning 40 or go listen to it in my last post.
- Alexander the great had an empire when he was 30. By the time he was 40 he was dead 8 years. You are doing better then that guy. (I once got a birthday card with something like that on it)
- Every time you look in the mirror you see something new. Hair is missing from a good spot and growing where you don’t want it to.
- As an example of shifting interests I give tips on maintaining a lawn. “First I let it dry, mow it down, apply some weed control, rake out the thatch. Hey, where did everybody go?”
I guess you’ll have to hear this stuff in context to make full sense of it. The issue I’m having is these sentences don’t fit into the syllable patterns I need them to. And even if they do the accents aren’t in the right places. For example, I might have an “s” sound where a vowel would work 5 times better. As I listen to what I wrote two years ago I realize how well it works.
Ok, new day. This is actually day 3 of semi writer’s block. Let me tell you what has worked. Two days in a row I woke up slightly hungover and had immediate ideas. This morning I wrote what will become that extra verse. Just sticking with it for 3 days has helped. Every day my thoughts became more… congealed.
And what didn’t I do to shake the writer’s block? I took breaks. I walked away for a while. I broke out the large artists notebook (I like to write on spacious black pages). I listened to some rap I like. I listened to some William S Burroughs giving advice on aging. I re-read the old email from Katie that started this whole thing. I tried to list the themes I’d covered in the old lyrics so that the new lyrics would be fresh ground. I paced the room bouncing a tennis ball while thinking lyrics (something I heard Paul Simon does). I searched online for “things that change when you are 40”. That actually lead me to include “lawn care” in the song. I played drums for a bit to clear my mind. I went to a site that generates Brian Eno’s oblique strategies. I flipped through 10 and considered each. Then I got to this one, “It is simply a matter of work”.
And it was.
It’s funny how things work. Many years ago I thought about trying some rap. But I could never put it together and I knew it. Rap is harder then you or I think. If you are a rapper you already know this. For those that think rap isn’t music or think it’s easy please try writing/producing a rap song.
Two years ago I wrote a rap song for a good friend’s 40th birthday. I should take on more of these requests because they end up producing some good stuff. This is what I finished in two days and sent off to him.
I talked about the importance of perspective. This has had 2 years. I’m sure I like it. I’m sure it fits with the album theme. It needs an extra verse. It’s needs some production. I’m hoping to finish at least the lyrics out here in Maine.
I’m on vacation. As my homework I’ve taken on writing these rap lyrics and trying Ableton Live.
I think I’m ready to move on to the next song.
Here is what the latest version sounds like.
Here are some notes on what’s changed since the last version.
- Completely re-tracked the vocals. The old ones weren’t rehearsed enough.
- Added drums in parts. Again, here is that pattern I see popping up all over my songs. The kick is only present in the chorus.
- Added strummed acoustic guitar chords leading into the chorus. Reminds me of Pink Floyd.
- Added bass. I’m starting to convince myself I know how to think in bass. One thing I have over a sessions guy is I know the material very very well.
- Added shouts. Screw!
- Added a siren type sound. It’s actually my voice being pitched around by an auto tuner. I was shocked at how well that worked.
- Piano rhythms change up throughout.
- I used a paper towel to get a pizzicato acoustic guitar sound.
- I added some internet found sound for the Bart announcement.
- Added heavily distorted drums at intro.
- Added some vocals as pads. Heavy delay. Some auto tuning up an octave.
Here is an example of the pizzicato guitar.
Here is the auto tuned vox effect. There is a bit more then auto tune on this. But auto tune is doing all the pitching work. This is just the stock plugin that comes with Reaper.
Next up a rap song. Something that was fully produced once before. But at the time it was a one day rush job. I didn’t get the sound I wanted.
The importance of gaining perspective. After working on a song for a while it’s easy to loose perspective. Sometimes a throw away part is my favorite in hindsight. This has happened enough for me to get smart about it. Now I record a lot of ideas and review them after a day or two.
A good monitor mix. I have never been in a studio where the monitor mix wasn’t rushed and needed tweaking (Granted most of my studio recording was under “budget strain”). A good mix lets you hear the relevant parts of the music so you can pitch, stay in time, and “feel” the music as you perform . It let’s you hear the nuances of your performance if you need to. Take the time to get it right.
Why do I bring this up? I’ve been doing a quick and dirty monitor mix. I used headphones that were way too bass heavy. That was actually the biggest issue. Now I’m using some AKG 240s. It’s night and day. I can hear little details in my voice. Pitch better. Hear the music better.
They are open headphones. Imo open headphones always sound more open. They have less resonant cavity. Could the music bleed into my vocal tracks? Sure. Maybe a little. Ask yourself what’s important? The world’s cleanest album or a good vocal performance? From that perspective it’s easy.
Another tip worth mentioning; monitor with one ear open to the room. My voice never sounds natural through headphones. It always does in the room.
Summery: Here is a list of production tips that have worked for me. Just jutting them down as a reminder. This list isn’t static. I’ll be updating it as I discover new ideas.
Drums: (I’m using BFD2 but these ideas aren’t specific to BFD imo)
- Humanize velocity. When I do this the drums have more excitement… human quality? I wonder if differences in velocity can be perceived as timing variations? I’m using the global BFD parameter here. Not sure if you can do it per drum unless you use the grooves page.
- Add swing timing. Sometimes I like this. Other times it doesn’t work at all.
- Dry drums: Try dry hi-hats with the quickest decay. Try dry snare direct mic. Don’t use ambient mics at all. Ambiance can take up a lot of mix space.
- Velocity to dynamics: Try setting at 100% for lots of dynamic variation.
- Try adding my acoustic kit a la Beastie boys low-fi drums.
- Use the sm7
- Double the voice. You might have to do many short takes to get spot on doubles. As a variation try recording at different distances or with a different timbre to the vox.
- Instead of moving the mic off axis to reduce high end leave the mic parallel with the floor and sing off axis.
- Get a good monitor mix with non-boomy headphones. Hearing a good mix is important for the performance.
- Set the compressor up for normalized audio. Record several takes, explode in place, normalize, add compressor.
- Play a real bass. It just sounds better. A real performance has more interesting articulations.
- Add some transistor type distortion. This adds high end that is harmonically related.
- Record at half time. This allows me to play faster stuff I normally can’t. When played back at normal speed it doesn’t sound quite the same as real time playing but it’s a sound.
- Vary the rhythm.
- Vary the accents.
- Add the sustain pedal. This gives things a certain dissonance that works on some songs.
- Strings can be muted with things like a paper towel. This gives a soft puckish sound.
- As for vox leave the mic static and rotate the guitar to get the right balance for the song.
- Try hard panned doubled performances of simple strummed chords.
- Try using the vox as a pad a la “Terrible Doubts”. Use massive delay as I repeat phrases/sounds on the mic
- Remember I can capture any sound routed through my sound card. Think “found internet sounds”. Cntr clicking on the output channels will route them to my DAW.
- Autotune can be used to slowly pitch up anything with a stable pitch. It can used to pitch a sample to several different notes to follow a chord progression.
- The reverb in my bathroom sounds very good on some things. Try committing to some of my house reverbs. A portable recording device can be used to monitor the song (Zoom recorder). That way I don’t have to lug my whole rig, mics, cables.
Editing that video made me think of process. I think process happens when you do something for a while. A predictable pattern emerges. For example, tracking the drums first. So you follow this pattern and it alleviates some of the “not knowing” anxiety.
It’s a double edge sword though. Sure a defined process may be calming but it’s also kind of static.
I think it’s important to realize that progress doesn’t have to be linear, predictable, or have a pattern. That thought can save you some frustration.
During the video edit I started from scratch several times. It seemed like I was going nowhere. But when I finished I realized what was going on. I was learning each clip of video and figuring out where it best fit with the music. Each aborted attempt was progress in disguise. Unless you realized that you can get really frustrated. I know I did.
The same could be said of producing a song. This song is called “Screw Tonight”.
I originally recorded it as a joke. But given the theme of this album it fits right in. I just have to take it from demo-singer-song-writer land to album-land. So far it’s not going well. Let me list what I don’t like.
- The dampened guitar is too harsh. Try different mic placement, using thumb instead of pick, recording for samples and assembling them on timeline.
- Voice should be softer. Try different performances at different mic distances. Try adding melody line with piano under vox. Try singing it softer. Duh.
- It needs more interest. More changes. Listen to Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique for ideas. The Beasties are very good at adding interest but still sticking with a theme.
- Drums aren’t fitting.
I listen to music different then my own and think about how it’s put together. I think this is a helpful producer exercise. For example, Paul’s Boutique has all kinds of ambient sounds coming in and dropping out. They don’t grab your attention like the drums and vocals but they change the feel of the music.
Here it is so far.
Update: Haven’t heard from the Wing Girls. I did get a charming auto response. Maybe someday I’ll be saying, “Due to the overwhelming amount of emails we [I] receive each day we [I] will not be able to respond to each person personally.”
Here is the video that inspired “City Hall”. Shot on my iPhone. Apple, tempt me to sell out please. Every man has a price. Mine is lower then you think.
Still haven’t decided on the next song. Tomorrow I’ll attempt to catalog the “domestic life” song ideas. See if I come up with a full album or close.
Short post. It’s really about the video.