The Method To My Obsession
By Chris Squire
I get a lot of messages from friends on Myspace asking for advice on either songwriting methods, home recording techniques or both, so I've come up with some tips to help any inquiring, aspiring home recording engineers with the potentially arduous process they're getting into. My methods are somewhat unorthodox at times and by no means are the be-all, end-all of home recording techniques. There are many different approaches. These are simply the methods that I choose, presented in detail, for anyone who's curious. Keep in mind that the majority of songs I post on my profile are rough drafts - demos - and that I'll eventually re-record them in a more advanced, professional studio. That's an epic process I'll get into some other time.
The benefit of working songs out in a home recording environment is that you will have had all the time you've needed to work out a lot of the kinks and you may find you have your ideas mapped out a little more concretely and your time spent more efficiently in the final stages of recording your songs. In the big leagues, they call this pre-production and this, quite possibly, could end up saving you a great deal of money that you may have otherwise spent fumbling around in some expensive studio.
Writing a Song
So you want to be a songwriter? Maybe you have volumes upon volumes of lyrics written that you've been archiving since junior high, and maybe the written content of these lyrics is of great profoundness, impressively spelled out in epic lengths and detail. The truth is as you develop the skill of making your words interact with your instrumentation, you will most likely scrap these early rants and one day, down the road, you will laugh at the unstructured babble you once called your songs. Remember, anyone can write bad poetry, but a catchy song? That's not so easy.
It's now time to put your prose on ice and focus on practicing your guitar. What kind of guitar you have and the condition it's in will have an enormous impact on your ability to excel in your playing. I recommend using red Tortex or Everly Brothers nylon picks. Plastic picks will break apart if you put any effort into your playing. Nylon picks won't snap apart like plastic, but rather wear down like the soles of a shoe. A nice, light pick will let you develop a quick strumming style, with little string breakage. Keeping somewhat new strings on the guitar at all times is important. I recommend basic 10-gauge strings, because they're easy to break in, not too fragile, and loose enough to allow some quick fret movement. And get accustomed to changing all the strings at once, so that your strings are all the same age, and have equal wear and tear.
Take your guitar to a reputable repair shop and have them do a set-up on it. This involves intonating your guitar, adjusting the truss rod, and generally cleaning it up and making sure its wires and circuits are in working order. This will help to preserve the life of the instrument and help it stay in tune. Even the cheapest of guitars can perform very enjoyably when properly cared for.
Once you start to get comfortable with your guitar, the riffs will start to ooze from your fingertips.
Now some people surely see lyrics as the focal point, the heart and soul, of a song. But I beg to differ, at least where the subject of rock and roll is concerned. The essence of all good rock and roll lies in the power of the riff. It's not that hard to put together a rock song. All you really need is a good riff. Make up a cool four-bar intro, add a chorus, maybe a bridge, repeat the verse and chorus, top it all off with a sweet crescendo and voila! You now have the framework to build your vehicle of expression to unleash upon the world.
Bringing It All Together
Now you'll need to put words to that racket. You'll want to organize your words so that they flow with the guitar and don't inhibit your playing. Start out simple. You can get busier when your rhythm becomes more fluid and you're more comfortable at multitasking your guitar playing and singing as you evolve from music fan to musician.
And pay attention to your cadence. If you don't know what that word means, look it up, learn it and let it become a natural way for you to express yourself.
Want to write more than 8 songs a year with your band that practices maybe twice a week if you're lucky? Get some home recording gear.
Learn how to make loops and samples, tempo-maps, sequencing, that sort of stuff. It may sound like techno-blasphemy coming from a rock and roll purist such as myself, but my knowledge of how to utilize those functions and the tools that create them has been absolutely serendipitous to me in the songwriting process. In the last year and a half, I've recorded around 40 original and a dozen cover songs, performing every instrument and vocal track myself. I'm currently in the midst of about a dozen more works in progress and it would be stifling to try and take on such a workload without the ability to sequence.
The typical genesis of many of the songs I've composed with the help of home recording equipment goes like this:
First I set up some microphones at my rehearsal studio. I only have four tracks to work with for inputted tracking with my recorder, so the standard set-up involved is one mic for the kick drum, one for snare, and two overheads cover my toms and cymbals. I test the recording input levels and adjust the trim knobs to make sure the levels don't clip over the redlines. Next, I set the drum machine on my recorder to click track mode and determine what meter I want to work with. I put on my head phones, hit record, and rock out for around four hours, breaking to set the meter at different tempos, and pound generous amounts of gatorade and rock star energy drinks.
Using cut and paste sequencing, I can create my own drum patterns and tracks for a song as an alternative to the synthetic sound of a drum machine. If I hear a cool beat I did that slops out shortly after, I just sample the good part and loop it. This is how my drum tracks sound so tight. Don't tell anyone. This knowledge is for you only. I don't need the world knowing that I cheated on my drum tracks. Another more traditional approach I employ is tracking all my guitars, bass and vocals over a scratch click track, then blasting the song through head phones and playing / recording authentic, live drums over the top of all that.
If you don't have a drum set or access to a drummer to sample, then a drum machine is still helpful in getting your ideas down.
This same approach can be applied to bass lines and guitar riffs. It just saves so much time it's invaluable. Remember, I'm a songwriter and until I'm finally recording the songs for my record in a real studio, my main goal with home recording is getting my ideas down in a tangible form as quick as possible. I'm not concerned with adhering to any grassroots, purist approach to making songs at this level of my scheme. I'm thinking about finishing this song fast and efficiently so I can proceed with the next twelve I have on the cutting board, and maybe even get some sleep. Even if your bass or guitar skills are not that hot, with loops and sequencing savvy, all you need is one good bar or measure and you can let these tools do the rest of the work for you.
Amp modeling is priceless as well. Most of my guitar and bass tracks recorded over the last two years were done with synthesized amp sounds obtained by plugging directly into my recorder and using its amp-modeling feature. I love it. I can pick what kind of head, how many tubes it has, how hot the tubes are, what model and year cabinet, how many speakers, how much air is running through the cab and what kind of room it's in, all simulated by the modeling software within the recorder.
Technology is wonderful. Don't be a luddite.
I play a Fender Stratocaster guitar with a Gibson humbucker pickup, a Fender Telecaster with Gibson P90s, and a Gibson SG with one P90. I play a Fender Jazz bass, Route 66 edition.
I use a Fender pro-sonic 85-watt guitar head. Orange cabinets destroy everything.
I play a three-piece DW drum set with a Porkpie Snare and Paiste cymbals. I use Vader 5A drumsticks.