The Modern Composer: Part 1

I suspect that many Modern Producers are, like me, musicians who have learned the audio engineering craft through the recording of their own music. Some of us have gone on to work with other artists at a freelance or even professional level but I still find the most joy in recording and mixing my own material. For me, recording and mixing are natural extensions of the song writing process and there’s nothing more exciting than hearing all the instruments of an arrangement playing back for the first time through my monitors. With this in mind, I wanted to start a series of posts that will focus on music production from the perspective of a hobbyist, DIY musician. In the coming weeks, we will discuss composing and arranging music and I will share some of my own techniques for translating an idea into a fully realized audio recording. But before we get started with the more practical stuff, allow me to share a little bit about my personal journey to understand music.

In my own life, I “discovered” music rather late. That is to say that, I wasn’t exposed to Led Zeppelin or Metallica or any of the popular rock music of past decades that often serves as the inspiration for young guitar players. Instead, I had some light exposure to classical music at home when I was young and listened to whatever the guys were playing on the ghetto blaster in our hockey dressing room. As a preteen I didn’t feel compelled to listen to music on my own time or to become a rock-star. In spite of this, at the age of 10 I spontaneously decided that I wanted to play guitar (presumably because it would increase my adolescent cool-factor). Thanks to my supportive parents, I was able to take lessons at local guitar shop and learn some of the obligatory Green Day, Rage Against The Machine and No Doubt riffs of the day. This continued for several until ultimately, I became apathetic about guitar as my musical tastes changed and I stopped going to lessons altogether. Luckily this early experience provided me with a reasonable foundation for both playing and music theory which came in handy later in my life. It wouldn’t be until my late teens that I would pick up my guitar again but around that time I had an epiphany about music which would radically change my life.

My childhood music theory book: Barbara Wharram’s Elementary Rudiments of Music. Much of what’s contained in this book can be found on the internet but it has good practice exercises that you can work through to test your knowledge.

During my last year of high school, a friend of mine showed me a bootlegged copy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing live in Sao Paulo, Brazil. These were the early days of internet file sharing and as surprising as it may sound, I had never seen a live rock concert until this time. What struck me about the RHCP performance was that the guitar player (John Frusciante) was not playing the same licks or riffs from the recorded version of the songs that I had heard on the radio. I was absolutely perplexed – how did he know which notes to play? How was the band able to improvise their way through a section of the song without planning ahead? How could they figure all of this out in real-time in front of a live audience? Finding the answers to these questions consumed me and over the next few years as the answers became clearer, I transformed into musician.

At this time of musical discovery, I started meeting more people like myself. I played in a local band and jammed with new musicians whenever I had the chance. What I found was that most of these people fell into two distinct categories: those who knew music and those who felt music. The people I met who knew music often had some kind of formal training – whether through piano lessons as a child, school band or a skilled individual teacher. They talked about “keys”, “modes” and “time signatures” and could explain exactly what they were playing in musical terminology. These explanations were sometimes well over my head as a guitar player whose formal training was mostly around number-based tablature notation.

Then there were people who could simply play what they heard. These people could feel their way through playing and writing music without any intellectual understanding of what they were doing. They had an almost savant-like quality to find the notes that they heard in their head on a fret board or keyboard without knowing the note names or why they sounded correct. I was often frustrated by such people because I couldn’t analyze how they were able to do this and learn to do it myself. I could sound out a tune on my guitar or hum an ad-lib melody over a passage of chord changes, but I couldn’t put the two together quickly enough to comfortably improvise a guitar solo over a song.

Try playing in a completely dark room. I used to do this a lot with my loop pedal by laying down a brief chord progression and then improvising over it. It forces you to listen to what you’re playing instead of looking and inevitably thinking about what you’re playing!

Over the past decade, I’ve met people who were exceptionally talented and creative on both ends of this spectrum. I ended up straddling these two worlds on my quest to become a better guitar player and often wrestled with the problem of which approach was better. Today, I understand that the best musicians in the world have an intimate intellectual understanding of music theory while simultaneously being able to use their ears to express whatever they’re feeling in a pure and unconstrained way. To reach this place of musical Nirvana is no small feat and admittedly, I am not a Julliard trained composition expert. However, I believe that a good producer is someone who strives to grow as a technician as well as a musician. Simple things like filling out an arrangement with a tasteful keyboard lead or being able to identify a dissonant note within a chord can really help the overall presentation of a recorded song. Often a quality sounding mix depends on both your technical understanding of the tools of the trade as well as your ability to analyze a musical arrangement and make it better. This is especially true when you’re recording your own music since you have the time and authority to change the arrangement as you work through the recording process. Sometimes you can simply hear how things should change in song, but I find it’s helpful to know why.

In the coming weeks, I will hope to provide you with some tricks and tips for using your ears and your brain to solve compositional problems. We’ll also talk about some cool stuff that I like to use to make a song more sound more interesting like chord inversions, symmetrical rhythmic phrases in uneven time signatures and few methods for moving between two sections of a song that may not seem to fit together. Finally, I’d like to show you a tool that I use for working on ideas and how I’m able to import arrangements directly to my DAW and start recording.

Until then, what are your thoughts about arranging music and how it relates to audio production? How did you “discover” music in your life and what are some the compositional devices you’d like to learn about to become a better producer?