Songwriting Tips for Music Producers
Nowadays there are a lot of people who don’t play an instrument but instead become producers and learn how to write songs using computers. This post is for you.
By programming instruments you can write full songs without ever touching an instrument, and can later get musicians to record what you wrote if you wanted to.
This is just another approach to writing music and is completely valid. I personally write on guitar, but when I put the song in a DAW, I find a lot of the time this can affect how the song is written, and even change major parts.
So, there is a lot of overlap between songwriting and production and I want to talk about some of these things to help producers who write songs.
Making Songs Translate Between Recording and Live Performance
Keep in mind the following advice can vary a bit based on genre. If you are a DJ or make electronic music this might be less important since the live performance involves so much playback of recordings.
But, if you are writing songs for performance with a live band, and you’ve never played with a live band or don’t have a live band to test the song with, this is going to be important for you.
Let me tell you my experience with making things translate. I write on guitar as well as a DAW or something like Guitar Pro.
I’ve come across this issue where sometimes a song sounds great in a recording but when it comes to the live performance, it doesn’t always measure up if it’s too detached from the experience of playing the song live.
Things can sound a bit robotic and symmetrical as opposed to fluid and dynamic.
Sometimes it might not sound as thick and powerful when performed without all the studio production.
Songs not translating are hard to describe but if you’ve been stoked about your recording only to be left wanting by how it sounds in practice I think you know exactly what I am talking about.
What does “not translating well” mean/look like? Here’s a few examples
- Robotic drums: The drums sound too symmetrical, robotic and predictable. You can tell they were programmed and not written by a drummer.
- This might not be as noticeable in a recording but when played live, the drums won’t add as much emotion to the song. You see it all the time in rock and metal with drums that were programmed and the snare and kick repeat the same pattern too much like putting the snare in the exact same beat every single measure with no variations or tasteful details.
- A real-life drummer puts in subtle changes and details into their playing. Their playing is dynamic, not just in how hard and soft they hit things but also with things like ghost notes, details with the hihat and cymbals, and playing slightly ahead of the beat, on the beat, or dragging slightly behind the beat to add more emotiveness.
- If the drums are too robotic, then even if you play with a live drummer it will be very obvious the drums were composed in a DAW and not by an actual drummer. The key here is FLOW.
- Bad arrangement: There is a lot you can get away with in the studio when you have the power of technology and automation at your disposal. Live performance might be a different story.
- When played live, the song’s arrangement will really stand out, and if it is a bad one, it will sound disorganized.
- When it comes to playing something live you can’t EQ and compress everything to sound perfectly placed. If instruments are competing a lot for the same space in the song it will be hard to make sense of them.
- Bad arrangement can also make the song sound like there is something missing in specific sections.
- For example, maybe in the studio you made the bass do some high notes when what the song was asking for was low thick notes for dramatic impact. Something like this would be more noticeable live than in the studio.
- Or maybe the song needed a keyboard pad but in the studio you didn’t put one in the song because you decided to lengthen and EQ the tail of a reverb to fill up the space instead. That could cause the section to sound really empty in a live performance where the reverb tail might sound less prominent.
- Guitars that don’t match the rhythm: Rhythm is a highly visceral thing and there can be a disconnect when you write rhythms in a DAW vs playing it with a band.
- Grooving with other instruments is something that is much easier to do when you are playing in person because it helps you physically feel the rhythm of the instrument in front of you and not just hear it in a recording.
- The drums and bass are often the leaders when it comes to rhythm in a band. You want to make sure that the guitars and other instruments support the rhythm section when they need to.
- There will also be times when the guitars or other instruments have the spotlight and the rhythm section has to support what they are doing.
- Be careful in the studio when making rhythms as they might not translate well to a live performance.
- The guitar could have a rhythm that doesn’t match but is not very noticeable in the recording until you play live with a drummer and bass player and realize the guitars don’t groove at all with them.
- Programming instruments that are physically impossible to play: This one is huge and especially a problem when programming drums, but also other instruments.
- Unfortunately drummers only have 4 limbs at the moment. Don’t program things that require more!
- If you are writing the parts for different instruments on a MIDI keyboard remember that there are things you can play on keyboards that are not physically possible on other instruments because of the way they are constructed.
- For example, some chord voicings that are playable on keyboards are not playable on guitar, not just because of how the instrument is constructed but also because keyboard players have 10 fingers to do a single chord with, Guitar players have one hand and maybe some extra open strings. Make sure you check.
- Recording vocals beyond the physical limitations of the singer: This one has a bit of leeway because if you see bands play live vs recording, singers often sing things differently live to compensate for overdoing the studio magic in the recording. However…
- Singers need room to breathe between phrases. If you don’t leave any space it will make it very difficult to perform the song live.
- Singers have a limit on how long and how hard they can sing for in a single performance.
- Don’t go all out in the studio and make the vocals so taxing that the singer can’t do the full song without tapping out.
So as you can see it can be tricky to write for instruments you don’t play. Each instrument can feel like a completely different language.
What you can do about it:
So what can you do so your songs translate well from the studio to a live performance?
- Make sure that what you wrote is physically playable by an actual person.
- If you have friends that play the instruments you are writing for, ask them for feedback on how human and physically playable what you wrote is.
- Learn the basics of the main instruments you use often in your songs so you can see what is possible and not possible, and the mannerisms that are common to the instrument.
- Use similar reference songs and compare the instrumentation with what you wrote.
- Watch live bands with similar instruments and see how they play songs live vs in a studio recording. You’ll notice sometimes they will make adjustments for live performance.
- Visualize yourself playing the instruments when you write. Air drums, air guitar, air bass. It sounds a bit dumb but it helps. Especially with rhythm.
The 2 Repetitions Rule
Another good tip for producers writing songs is the 2 Repetitions Rule.
Essentially you want to bring in something different or new to the song every 2 repetitions of a song section.
For example if you have a Verse chord progression, then after repeating the chord progression twice you either bring in something different or new.
This could be a melody, a variation on the same thing you are playing, a different rhythm, an accompanying instrument or ear candy for texture or maybe a new chord.
The point is to keep the song moving forward.
Don’t hold on to this concept too tightly. It’s a great guideline to follow but it should be applied on a case by case basis. It’s just a good way to ask yourself if your song is staying on the same thing for too long.
If you’re repeating things more than twice and nothing new is happening, try adding something new or different and see if it sounds appropriate or too early.
It helps keep your song moving forward, evolving and keeps the listener’s attention over the whole song.
Ask yourself if the song is asking to move forward or if the pace is slower and you want to get a more stationary type of vibe. This might depend on your genre.
A pop, rock, or metal song usually moves forward at a very fast pace, but something more ambient might be asking to stay a bit longer on the same thing. Use your best judgment.
2 to 4 Chords per Song Section
Songwriters who overanalyze a lot can fall into the trap of adding too many different chords to their song. This of course varies depending on genre, but in general it’s good to keep things as simple as possible.
A lot of songs in general have around 2 to 4 chords in each song section. This can of course be more but it’s a good general place to start.
For example, the chord progression of the Verse might be 2 chords while the Chorus might be 4 chords. And the two sections might even use the same chords.
So you could have a song that looks like this:
Amin | Emin
Amin | Emin | Gmaj | Dmaj
Unless you are playing something more complicated like Jazz, Prog, Fusion etc, a lot of songs don’t have that many chords. They usually have 2-4 chords and maybe sometimes they throw in some extra chords for transitions, variation, or to move the song forward in some way.
The point is, you don’t need a ton of different chords in your progressions to make it good. It’s ok to keep it simple.
Using Chord Inversions to Smooth Out Changes in Bass
In music there is something called Chord Inversions. In a nutshell, chords are made up of 3 or more notes and the lowest note is the bass note. However, you can change the order of the 3 notes so instead of playing the chord with the first note as the bass (also called the Root note), you play the chord starting on another one of those 3 notes as the bass note.
Cmaj chord notes – root position
1, 3, 5
C, E, G
Cmaj chord notes – first inversion
3, 5, 1
E, G, C
Cmaj chord notes – second inversion
5, 1, 3
G, C, E
You’re still playing the same notes, but in a different order, and the bass note is one of the other notes.
This can help to smooth out your basslines so there are less big leaps and more subtle, smooth changes. It can even give some interesting voicings to your chords without making any big changes.
If you want to know more about Chord Inversions I wrote a blog post about it that will tell you how to use them in a simple and easy way. Check out the post How Do Chord Inversions Work in Songwriting?
Chord Inversions are an essential tool for producers to know so they can make songs sound more professional and organized.
Using Chord Extensions and Modes for Textures and Colors
Another great tip for producers is to use Chord Extensions to add color to a song.
Let’s say you have a simple chord progression made up of major and minor chords.
You play the same chords on a guitar and on a keyboard pad in the background. However, since they are both doing the exact same thing, you feel like it sounds too basic and simplistic and want to add some extra color and make it more interesting.
You could keep playing the same simple chords on guitar but on the keyboard pad, you could add an extra note or two to your chord. This will add some more color to the chord which can give you a more specific vibe.
Of course, you have to be careful what note you add so it doesn’t sound jarring and dissonant.
In addition, Modes are another great tool for texture and color. Modes are essentially the “moods” of music.
Some moods are Major and some are Minor. It can help give complex moods like Heavenly, Joyful, and Happy but with an Edge for Major Modes, and Mysterious, Threatening, Sad but Hopeful for Minor Modes, among other moods.
I wrote some blog posts that talk more about using Chord Extensions and Modes in songwriting which can give you some guidance and best practices. Check out these posts:
- How to Use Chord Extensions in Songwriting
- How to Write Songs Using Modes
- How to Write a Captivating Song in Dorian Mode
- Crafting Darker Songs with the Phrygian Mode
- Writing Songs that Soar Using the Lydian Mode
- How to Write a Mixolydian Rock Song
Make Sure There are Enough Hooks And Melodies in the Song
Every song should have at least one thing that is memorable about it. This could be different things. Maybe there is a catchy rhythm, maybe there’s a cool effect, or maybe there is a riff or melody that really sticks in your head.
Whatever the case, make sure there is something memorable to hook people with.
In general, you should also make sure your song has an appropriate amount of melodies.
Producers need to be able to know when and where a song needs a melody to carry the listener’s attention. This could be a big, spotlight-grabbing melody but also smaller low key melodies for vibe and texture.
Low key melodies are also a super useful tool for producers for creating small variations in similar song sections.
For example, you could have a Verse, and then in the second Verse just repeat the same thing but add some low-key accompanying melodies in the background. This can help create interest in similar song sections without doing something completely different.
Complexity and Simplicity in Song Structure
Song structure is one of the basic building blocks of a song. You don’t usually want to get super fancy here. A lot of songs have the same structures and still sound completely different.
That being said, producers and songwriters need to make sure that not every song has the exact same structure so their songs don’t become too predictable.
It’s ok to experiment with throwing an extra bar here or there so things are not always just 4 or 8 measures the entire song. It’s ok if every once in a while you make a phrase or chord progression 3 bars long instead of 4.
Everything is permissible, but when things start to sound disorganized, go back to sounding basic and see where you can stay simple and where you can throw in some spice with something different.
A good balance between simplicity and complexity often yields great results.
Here’s a few blog posts talking more about song structure:
Wrapping it up
As you can see, these are the types of songwriting details that are crucial for producers to keep in mind. They sometimes blur the line a bit between production and songwriting because it could involve writing small parts for the song or even adjusting important things like arrangement, song structure, etc.
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