Monday 11 May 2020

Reflections on Quarantunes so far

My friend Jim Byrne asked me how I can be so prolific, so I thought I would gather my thoughts on that. For context, I have been doing a lot of writing and recording, and sharing the results on Bandcamp as 4 Volumes (so far) of Quarantunes, over about 8 weeks. All new material, all done really for my own entertainment. 

My Bandcamp Page is there, and all of Quarantunes are available on a pay-what-you-like basis. 

Since the lockdown started, I've been playing more often, and the writing process follows the P G Wodehouse advice to writers - "First apply the seat of the trousers to the surface of the chair".

Partly it is a lucky run, in that a lot of the ideas that I have been working with have been fruitful, but also partly it is because I am spending more time writing and I am working harder to move ideas from concept to implementation.  

More detail on the technical side of recording is in Technology Post - which may be of interest.

If I am thinking about writing, I might think about chord structures, or voicings, or how to arrange a set of chord changes that pedal on a note. While that is interesting, and rewarding, there is no air moving. So if I want to write, I pick up an instrument, and make sure that Reaper (which I use to record) is up and running, so that if creativity strikes I don't need to put the guitar down and then risk losing the moment.

Occasionally I will start with a tune in my head - that is a joy, and gives me a really straightforward entry to the process. I think that most songwriters will know about that, so I won't detail that too much. Over the 40 ish tunes on Quarantunes so far, I think 3 or 4 of them had that blessed start.

So here is what I have been doing that has lead to lots of outputs.

I start out by playing - usually in Reaper - sometimes with a couple of chords, sometimes to look for a sound that is interesting to play with. If I am playing guitar that might be a Fender Bassman with a shimmer, or it might be a hot Marshall. Or if I am trying things on Keyboards it might be a Hammond or a Fender Rhodes with all the options for varying those sounds. Then the interaction between the notes/chords I am playing and the sound leads to some forward motion in terms of melody or rhythm, and I narrow in on a tempo. Tempo is vitally important for shaping an idea, 3 bpm can make all the difference between a tune that has space to breathe or one that feels hurried. (Both of these are valid options for following an idea - it might be desirable for a particular tune to add additional pressure by playing it so it feels slightly too fast - but I prefer to find the sweet spot in the middle).

I also write on bass guitar - sometimes I will set up a drum loop and play bass along with that, then mess around to find something that draws my ear.

Whatever the idea is, whatever instrument I am playing, I will play with the idea for a while, getting a combination of melody and rhythm, and record fairly quickly. That helps me to assess it, and I will record several takes and variants, and then listen back to work out how to extend or augment or amplify that idea. Sometimes the first thing I have played becomes the intro, sometimes the verse - and very occasionally it ends up as the catalyst for the whole thing but does not actually make it into the final piece. I had one that started with a set of descending keyboard chords, which I then played off, analysed, built on, and finally created four related sets of chords. By the time I took stock of them, I realised that all of the children of that original set were richer and more interesting than the original set, so I took the hard decision of abandoning the original set and building a song from the children.

There is a tension between the creative stage ("plinking at chords to see what happens") and the editing stage ("can all those chords really be majors?" - "where's the tune gone?" - "is that in time?") which demands some careful navigation. For me, it is important to let it flow as much as possible, at the risk of careering away, as opposed to jumping on immediatelt to shape the ideas as they are coming through into a structure. I can always tidy up the timing of a performance later, so I want to let the ideas flow where they need to go.

I then build other parts around it - in the Quarantunes recordings I have generally only been working on one at a time - and try out some form of arrangement. I find Reaper easy to use for this - cutting and pasting chunks, saving revisions, easy to undo changes.

In the recordings for Volume 4 I have spent more time than before on the drums - most are still loops of actual drums but I have been using Sitala as a Midi drum interface and that has led me into a bit of a timepit as I try to finesse that, chase a different ride cymbal ... and marginal timing on that. Still worthwhile though, because being able to work with new Midi drum loops opens up more grist for the songwriting mill.

Another method that I have used is to set myself a challenge - write something that uses 9ths, or write something at 157 bpm, or something funky at 111 bpm. That does not always lead to a new tune, but sometimes exploring that challenge and then listening back to it sparks something else.

In general, I try to finish a recording session with getting some kind of rough mix as an MP3. That lets me put it on my phone or my iPod so I can have it in the background while I am cooking or pottering around. There are several different levels of listening, and I have found it better to get even a rough clunky mix - drums too quiet, guitars all on the right hand side, keyboards coming and going - is better as part of the process so I can then put my editing head on when I come back to it. That can also help identify components that can do more - there is a big difference between the close listening as part of the writing process and the background listening when most of your mind is distracted by a different task, like cooking.

Lastly there is the final mixing - I don't rush that, and try to wait until I am happy with the recorded structure, sounds, arrangements. Some tunes have been stripped down in the final mix, others have had a new bass part added, or guitar accents.

Overall, I think I am making my own weird world of sound, which I find comforting in these troubled times.

If anyone has some questions, or thoughts on this, please feel free to ask

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