How to write a pop song

My students are currently hard at work writing pop songs, many of them for the first time. For their benefit, and for yours, I thought I’d write out a beginner’s guide to contemporary songwriting. First, some points of clarification:

  1. This post only talks about the instrumental portion of the song, known as the track. I don’t deal with vocal parts or lyric writing here.
  2. This is not a guide to writing a great pop song. It’s a guide to writing an adequate one. Your sense of what makes a song good will probably differ from mine, whereas most of us can agree on what makes a song adequate. To make a good song, you’ll probably need to pump out a bunch of bad ones first to get the hang of the process.
  3. This is not a guide to writing a hit pop song. I have no idea how to do that. If you’re aiming for the charts, I refer you to the wise words of the KLF.
  4. You’ll notice that I seem to be talking a lot here about production, and that I never mention actual writing. This is because in 2014, songwriting and production are the same creative act. There is no such thing as a “demo” anymore. The world expects your song to sound finished. Also, most of the creativity in contemporary pop styles lies in rhythm, timbre and arrangement. Complex chord progressions and intricate melodies are neither necessary nor even desirable. It’s all in the beats and grooves.

To make a track, you’ll need a digital audio workstation (DAW) and a loop library. I’ll be using GarageBand, but you can use the same methods in Ableton Live, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc. I produced this track for illustration purposes, and will be referring to it throughout the post:

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Ableton Session View and instrument design

We usually think of “recorded” and “live” as two distinct and opposed forms of music. But technology has been steadily eroding the distinction between the two. Controllerism is a performance method using specialized control surfaces to trigger sample playback and manipulate effects parameters with the full fluidity and expressiveness of a conventional instrument. Such performance can take place on stage or in the studio.

Controllerism is attractive to me because I came to music through improvisation: blues, jazz, jam bands. I spent years improvising electronic music with Babsy Singer, though she did the beats and loops, not me. My life as a producer, meanwhile, has involved very little improvisation. Making music with the computer has been more like carefully writing scores. Improvisation and composition are really the same thing, but the timescales are different. Improvisation has an immediacy that composing on paper doesn’t. The computer shortens the loop from thought to music, but there’s still a lot of obligatory clicking around.

It’s certainly possible to improvise on the computer with MIDI controllers, either the usual keyboard variety or the wackier and more exotic ones. Improvising with MIDI and then cleaning up the results more meticulously is pretty satisfying, though my lack of piano skills make it almost as slow and tedious an input system as the mouse. Jamming on iPhone and iPad apps like Animoog or GarageBand is better. What they lack in screen real estate, they make up for with form factor. Making music on the computer comes to feel like office work after a while. But you can use the phone or the tablet while lying in bed or on the ground, or while pacing around, or basically anywhere. Multitouch also restores some of the immediacy of playing instruments.

There’s also the option of recording a lot of vocal or instrumental improvisation, and then sorting out all the audio afterwards. This is the most satisfying strategy for infusing electronic music with improvisation that I’ve found so far. You get all the free-flowing body-centered immediacy of live jamming, with no pressure whatsoever to be flawless. However, then you have to do the editing. It’s easier now than it was five or ten years ago, but it’s still labor-intensive. It can take an hour of work to shape a few minutes of improv into musical shape.

All of this time, I’ve had severe DJ envy, since their gear is designed for immediacy and improvisation. It’s a lame DJ indeed who meticulously stitches together a set ahead-of-time in an audio editor. However, DJ tools operate at the level of entire songs. It’s not easy to use Serato to write a new track. I’ve been wanting a tool that gives me the same sense of play, but at the scale of individual samples rather than entire songs.

Enter the APC40. The form factor resembles an MPC, and you can use it that way, to trigger one-shot samples like drum hits or chord stabs. But the intended use case is for Ableton session view, starting and stopping the playback of loops. By default, loop playback is quantized to the bar, so whenever you hit a pad, the loop begins playing cleanly on the next downbeat. (You can set the quantization interval to be as wide or narrow as you want, or disable it completely.) Playing your loops live makes happy accidents more likely. Of course, unhappy accidents are more likely too. But those are easy to fix in Arrange view. When I discovered that NYU has a little-used APC, I signed it out and started teaching myself controllerism. Here’s a picture of it.

Learning how this thing works. Major musical challenge.

It seems complex, and it is. The Starship Enterprise quality appeals to my tech nerd side. Creating an Ableton session for APC playing is like inventing a new musical instrument, every time. After you design your instrument, then you have to learn how to play it. On the other hand, if you design your instrument right, the actual playing of it can be fun and easy. When I set up the APC with some Michael Jackson samples and let Milo try it, he figured out the concept immediately.

Can a two-year-old live remix Michael Jackson with an APC40? Let's find out!

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Shared sample projects

My students at NYU and Montclair State are beginning to venture into producing their own tracks. There are two challenges facing them, the small one and the big one. The small challenge is learning3 the tools: remembering where the menus are and which key you hold down to turn the mouse pointer into a pencil, learning to conceive of notes and beats as rectangles on the piano roll, troubleshooting when you play notes on the MIDI keyboard and no sound comes out. The big challenge is option paralysis. Even a lightweight tool like GarageBand comes with a staggeringly large collection of software instruments, loops and effects, even before you start dealing with recording your own sounds. Where do you even begin?

The solution I’m using with my classes is the shared-sample project. Students are challenged to build a track out of a particular sound, or set of sounds. The easy version requires that they use the given sound, along with any additional sounds they see fit to include. The hard version, and for me the really interesting one, requires that they use the given sound(s) and absolutely nothing else. I was inspired in creating these assignments by the many Disquiet Junto shared sample projects I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. I’m trying out my own project ideas on MSU advanced audio production independent studiers Dan Bui and Matt Skouras, and will soon be giving shared-sample projects to my beginner-level classes as well.

The first assignment I gave Dan and Matt was to use eight GarageBand factory loops to build a track. They were free to do whatever processing they wanted, but they could not use other sounds. Also, they only had an hour to put their tracks together. Here are the loops:

Eight loops

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Reflections on teaching Ableton Live: part one

My music-making life has revolved heavily around Ableton Live for the past few years, and now the same thing is happening to my music-teaching life. I’m teaching Live at NYU’s IMPACT program this summer, and am going to find ways to work it into my future classes as well. My larger ambition is to develop an all-around electronic music composition/improvisation/performance curriculum centered around Live.

Ableton in action

While the people at Ableton have done a wonderful job documenting their software, they mostly presume that users know what they want to accomplish, they just don’t know how to get there. But my experience of beginner Ableton users (and newbie producers generally) is that they don’t even know what the possibilities are, what the workflow looks like, or how to get a foothold. My goal is to fill that vacuum, and I’ll be documenting the process extensively here on the blog.

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Remixing Verdi with Ableton Live

Later this week I’m doing a teaching demo for a music technology professor job. The students are classical music types who don’t have a lot of music tech background, and the task is to blow their minds. I’m told that a lot of them are singers working on Verdi’s Requiem. My plan, then, is to walk the class through the process of remixing a section of the Requiem with Ableton Live. This post is basically the script for my lecture.

Verdi remixed

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Composing improvisationally with Ableton Live

I just completed a batch of new music, which was improvised freely in the studio and then later shaped into structured tracks.

I thought it would be helpful to document the process behind this music, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I expect to be teaching this kind of production a lot more in the future. Second, knowing how the tracks were made might be helpful to you in enjoying them. Third, composing the music during or after recording rather than before has become the dominant pop production method, and I want to help my fellow highbrow musicians to get hip to it. Continue reading

Repetition defines music

Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful book by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, called On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind, investigating the reasons why we love repetition in music. You can also read long excerpts at Aeon Magazine.

Here’s the nub of Margulis’ argument:

The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

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Animated gifs and electronic music

I was looking at a collection of perfectly looped gifs on Buzzfeed and thinking about how they remind me of sample-based electronic music. In both cases, you’re taking a piece of a linear recording and making it cyclical. Do it wrong and it’s extremely irritating. Do it right and it’s mesmerizing. I’ve given a lot of thought to how looping a segment of audio changes its meaning, but am only just starting to think about the visual equivalent.

George applauds

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Teaching math with the Drum Loop

I’ve undergone some evolution in my thinking about the intended audience for my thesis app. My original idea was to aim it at the general public. But the general public is maybe not quite so obsessed with breakbeats as I am. Then I started working with Alex Ruthmann, and he got me thinking about the education market. There certainly a lot of kids in the schools with iPads, so that’s an attractive idea. But hip-hop and techno are a tough sell for traditionally-minded music teachers. I realized that I’d find a much more receptive audience in math teachers. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between music and math for a long time, and it would be cool to put some of those ideas into practice.

The design I’ve been using for the Drum Loop UI poses some problems for math usage. Since early on, I’ve had it so that the centers of the cells line up with the cardinal angles. However, if you’re going to measure angles and things, the grid lines really need to be on the cardinal angles instead. Here’s the math-friendly design:

math-friendly Funky Drummer lesson

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Another radial drum machine

I’ve been working on my thesis app this whole time in the serene knowledge that there’s very little precedent for what I’m trying to do. However, I just learned that I’m wrong, that there’s an app out there with a lot of broad similarities to mine: Loopseque, made by Casual Underground. At first glance, I was alarmed; had I been scooped? Has all my work been in vain? The superficial similarities are hard to miss:

Loopseque

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