Irony – The Making Of

Posted by on Aug 31, 2013 in Production, Song Analysis | No Comments

The ever beautiful Z

The ever beautiful Z

I realize its been quite a while since I’ve dropped a tune on y’all but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy.  I’ve got a lot on the table for the upcoming EP and today I get to share one of those tracks with you.  The track is Irony and features the angelic vocals of my good friend Z.  Writing this track was a year in the making and, at least for me, it was one opportunity after another to try something totally different.  Now we’re going to talk about the details, maybe they will inspire you to work on some music of your own…

Irony – The Making of

First things first, here’s the song.  Listen to it, get it in your head, this is what we’ll be talking about:

This track started out as a learning exercise.  I was actually trying to see if I could clone a song from one of my favorite artists Booka Shade.  I didn’t actually get very far but before moving on I came on with a progression of chord stabs I really enjoyed (you know those stabs in the bridge?).  The riff from that exercise actually sat around for an incredibly long time before I knew what to do with it, almost a year in fact.  I picked at the song and over time I got some of the elements worked out but the song was missing something.

One night, when Z came over to work on Tonight, I had her warm up on Irony to see if anything interesting came out.  Sure enough, it did.  So much awesome that I decided to keep the majority of the session.  I just love the natural feel of improvisation, although it came with its own set of challenges.  Using the improvised tracks I worked on an arrangement and eventually had Z come in for a couple more recording sessions that were a bit more directed.  We worked on a simple chorus line and took some influences from old school jazz to complete the track.  Quite a few hours of vocal edits later we have the track you see before you.

Interestingly enough, Logic X came out while I was starting to mix the track (remember those Logic X posts?  Guess what I was working on?).  It ended up being more of a curse than a blessing but I was still able to get through the track.  Interestingly enough, some of the bugs I thought were exclusive to Logic X were actually available in Logic 9 as well.  Oh well, at least Apple’s maintaining Logic again.

With all that being said, here’s what we’re going to talk about today:

  • Structure and General Music-ness
  • Improvisation and Managing the Vocals

Structure and General Music-ness

Although I won’t go into much detail as a typical analysis blog, I did want to spend a few minutes to talk about the track as a whole for a bit.  The structure is actually a pretty typical pop structure.  It works like this:

I-V-C-V-C-B-C-O

You’ve heard this structure a million and a half times.  You don’t have to take my word for it, but its pretty common.  This is an approach my old bands would use pretty often.  I liked the idea of taking EDM out of its element a little and I wanted to get back to my roots.  Granted, I’m hardly the first guy to do this, but hey… worked for me.

With a structure that clearly repeats itself, its important to keep the devil in the details.  I’ve learned a lot doing song analysis and I most certainly applied that here.  Each chorus has elements that make it unique.  Extra drum hits, pads, vocal edits and effects, among others that would show up in various sections as the song progressed.  The verses have these features as well but the vocal lines were so different other song elements weren’t as necessary to maintain interest.

I had a general philosophy behind how I was going to arrange the track.  I really wanted this flowing vocal instrument that could be weighted down by something a little more human.  I also didn’t want to blow my wad right away so I really wanted to save my exciting riff for the big finish (a la Booka Shade). Following that, I also wanted to apply some principles I picked up doing the last round of more traditionally structured EDM tracks (breaks and builds!).  I think I did a good job of putting all of this together but hey, the next time will be even better.

Screen shot of Irony in Logic X

This is what she looked like when she was all done.

Improvisation and Managing the Vocals

Improvisation was big throughout the track, from the initial recording of Z to how we approach the end of the song on a whim.  In my band days all of our music was written via improvisation, we just rehearsed until we memorized what we made up.  I feel that this style of writing brings something incredibly natural to a song and it was something I felt I had lost over the years.  I often try not to do anything in particular (it really helps if music just flows for me), but I wanted to try to get back to the era of jamming with the band.  Electronically this gets a little harder to do, but isn’t impossible.  Let’s face it, 6 guys who are masters at their instruments feels a whole lot different than me building a layer at a time on a computer, even if I play the parts in.   In this case the ‘jam’ was mostly Z, and this provided a unique set of challenges, but I’ll get to that soon.

The end of the track was a little special.  There’s a great documentary series I’ve been watching on Jazz (The Ken Burns one, WATCH IT.)  Feeling inspired I said to Z, “Hey, gimme some jazz singin” and she busted out some scat-like vocals.  I can’t describe to you why I like this sort of thing so much, but it was awesome.  This was all out of nowhere, we didn’t plan it, but it was great.

How do you improvise in the studio?  Well, the first thing you do is…:

Make shit up

But its not quite that simple.  Well, it is, but all kinds of factors come into play.  For example, you have to have a vocalist willing to make shit up.  I find that most people can do it as melody and the human voice are best friends, but vocalist’s confidence can be a big factor here.  When a vocalist sings for you they are really putting themselves out there; this can be incredibly difficult when they aren’t sure of what they are doing.  With Z we’re great friends and have been for a long time, on top of that, she’s incredibly confident in her singing ability and generally fearless.

Let me stop here and say that the above paragraph is important for EVERY vocal performance.  I can’t stress this enough.  A confident, relaxed vocalist, regardless of whether or not they are improvising, is going to deliver a vastly superior performance.  This tidbit of social engineering is paramount as a producer (yep, it helps if people like you).  With that being said, improvisation takes it to the next step – helping someone stay comfortable and confident when they have no idea what they are going to do.  If you sit there and judge the crap out of them or try to direct them you won’t get the spirit of singer to shine – and this is exactly what we want to get on the tape, their unfiltered soul.

With that being said, we’re still talking about unrehearsed music here.  The reality is, without practice, things are seldom going to be flawless like the forever rehearsed perfection we’re used to hearing on the radio.  If you ask the singer to re-record you may never get anything close to what they did again.  You might, but this is a risk you need to be aware of.  Now if you get things good enough, this is something you can work around.  I have a couple bullet points that helped me make the improvised magic work:

  • It doesn’t have to be perfect, just mostly good
  • You’re improvising, make up way more shit than you’ll need!
  • Save the slight misses with some clever editing and effects

After Z was finished recording I probably had 10-15 minutes of audio to work through.  Its important to be meticulous, go through everything and find what speaks to you.  I spent a lot of time just going through all the audio, cutting it up, playing with it, and figuring out how to make it fit.  Slowly but surely you gnaw away at the audio until it starts to form a song.  Its important to know when you have too much and when you’ve got things just right; its going to be way too easy to have too much in this situation.  Be harsh though, if something’s not working, throw it out.  If it almost works but not quite.. set it aside (maybe you can get the vocalist to try that one piece again).  You’ll probably throw out a lot, that’s ok.  Just toss it.  Don’t spend a lot of time making decisions either or you’ll seriously do this stuff forever.

This process ultimately yielded 3 tracks, Vocals Left, Vocals Center, and Vocals Right.  I was going for ethereal so I had a lot of leeway with how I could use the vocals.  I lied, 4 tracks, I also had the Chopped Vocal.  That one was a hack, a happy accident (I threw some plugins at it and it sounded cool).  You only get so much out of certain textures so the chopped vocal added some contrast that I quite enjoyed.

The song went through a number of phases as I worked on the vocals.  First there was everything.  I picked what I liked, edited, arranged.  Eventually looked like a song.  As I moved some vocals out of the way to make room for others, I’d get ideas (dun dun dun.. the bridge!).  After a while I knew I had most of what I needed but I wanted a chorus.  Z came in and we wrote some words and recorded that.  Again I ended up with way more material than I knew I’d need and I cut it down in much the same way.  Finally, I used a similar process to get the outro vocals worked out.

Once I had a general arrangement with the vocals there were a number of clean-up passes.  As I would edit and tweak, I’d find issues in the singing (these are too be expected).  I used this technique a bunch Z had an issue:

  • Identify trouble vocal spot
  • Cut
  • Add a fade
  • Automate some delay near the fade
  • Tweak, tweak, tweak until it sounds right

If that didn’t work, I might try a fade and then to make the issue with another vocal or instrument.  If I really couldn’t get things to work.. I threw the vocal out.  I tried some other audio ninja-esque things, like splicing in similar notes for long sustains, but that stuff is really hard to get right.  I also tried Logic X’s FlexPitch to see if I could fix things a couple of times; it didn’t work well for me.

One final note on vocals – since I was using three tracks panned to different places it was important that I maintained some balance.  If you have too much going on left or right things start to sound a little odd.  I had enough material that would work for most of the song and this balance was easy to maintain.  I only had one part of the song where I couldn’t work this out, pan automation did the trick.

Z

Conclusion

This is the song that made me feel like I could edit vocals like a champ.  Its important to be fast.  This means knowing your hot keys as well as making sure you make decisions.  Your gut instinct is quite right most of the time; if it doesn’t feel right out the gate – toss it.  I think improvisation lead to a song I never could have dreamed up on my own.  Its very exciting for me to have this magic process come about.  I’m hoping to use this process to write more songs in the future.  I love seeing what comes out of someone and I love being there to help nurture it.

With that being said, the entire process wasn’t perfect.  My big mistake was trying to port a mostly done project to Logic X.  I did this because I wanted to see Logic X up close and personal but it cost me a lot of time.  If I was working on an album, I’d probably hold on an upgrade in the future (well, duh, but hey, I really wanted to try it out).

I also have a need to get better with my tools.  Vocals are still new to me.  I can edit ok but I could still edit better.  Perhaps its a good time to try and find some exercises eh?  FlexTime saved me a couple times but I’d love to be better with FlexPitch (and figure out how it vs FlexTime works.. because it wasn’t straight forward to me).  I wondered what I could have accomplished with a beefy tool like Melodyne too.  Finally, some more techniques under my belt will be a good thing and they’ll come with time.

Sure there’s more to share but that’s all you get today.  This track will be on my upcoming EP.  I’ve got a ways to go but I wanted to share something with you all.  I hope you enjoy it and please send me any feedback, should you have any.  Cheers!