How To Write and Produce a Song From Home (During Lockdown)
The past couple of years have been difficult since covid reared its ugly head. All of a sudden we were confined to our houses, isolating from the people we love and watching the world become a much quieter place. We all had to deal with the sudden shift in many different ways and, as a musician, I found writing this song really helped me to come to terms with my situation. I sang about coming to terms with who and what I had taken for granted and to remind myself, as well as anyone who would hear it, that this struggle of loneliness and uncertainty was universal. We are not alone.
From then I’ve been able to produce this song and create a music video for it all from the comfort (or confines, depending on how you see it) of my room! Today I’d like to share with you the process, from start to finish, perhaps it can be of interest to you. There is no right or wrong way to create art, but by sharing our creative process I believe we can all learn from and be inspired by one another :)
We will go through:
- Creating a Song
- Producing a Song
- In the future I’ll write a follow-up article detailing how I created a Music Video in Unreal Engine 4
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Part 1: Creating a Song
Know Your Limitations
We all have parts of our creative process where we aren’t so confident and when it comes to music creation mine is my ability to play instruments. I am not the most gifted when it comes to this so usually I approach songs with my musical limitations in mind, while also trying to improve. I do like to push myself to learn new skills but I also have to make sure that I can play a melody confidently. We can’t be good at everything, and getting to know your limitations and boundaries can aid your creativity to explore within the realms of your own skills, instead of hoping for something that you cannot yet achieve.
A good way to know your limitations is to learn other peoples songs, playing cover songs is a great way to learn new chords and strumming patterns and get a feel for what comes naturally and what you still need to work on. I personally struggle to stay motivated when following guitar lessons or classes because I need an end goal to work toward, however if I am learning a new song and realise that I’m struggling with a new chord then I will be much more motivated to research and practise until I am comfortable with it.
Playing covers of other peoples songs will also help you to reach out beyond your skillset so that you can take inspiration from what you have learnt through playing their songs. You might learn a new chord and decide to play around to see what other chords sound nice with it, or learn a new strumming pattern and incoorporate that into something unique. Eventually, once you get into the swing of learning and playing songs, you will begin to instinctually understand what chords work well together. A lot of the time I will play a chord and instinctively know what the next chord should sound like, even if I’m not sure which one it is yet. It’s all about experimenting, exploring and trusting your instincts.
When writing a song I often have intent to play it live some day. Because of this I mostly stick to slower paced songs with either simple chords or plucking patterns, so that I know I can learn and play the song confidently, even if under pressure. If I were a more talented guitar player then I might even come up with riffs to build a song around as these can be very catchy and highly unique, but until then, a melody will do.
Once I find a nice progression of chords and plucking or strumming sequence I will begin to sing along to it. Most of the time I’m not sure exactly what I want to say at this point, I instead focus on finding a pitch and rhythm that is fun to sing, memorable and loops nicely with the music.
There are three main ways I come up with the lyrics for my songs:
- I already have a good idea of the topic that I’d like to sing about, this is most often when I am feeling conflicted or low and I need to work out my complex emotions through song.
- I find a sentence or rhyme that that I like when I’m working out the melody and I go along with that, trusting my instincts.
- I look back upon my past poems that I have written at random times, during the night, on the bus, during breakfast. I make sure to write down any poem or other idea that I have so that when I’m struggling for creative ideas I can use them. I keep all of my poems on Google Keep, but anywhere is fine, Discord, a Notes App or even a good old fashioned journal!
No matter how you decide to approach writing a song it’s always handy to have a phone, notebook or a laptop at the ready to write down potential lyrics and rhymes. This song was written at the onset of the pandemic, when I had just began to work from home for the first time and was unable to see my loved ones, so I knew that I had many fears and worries that I needed to work out through this song.
A well-established song structure is: verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / chorus. I try not to overcomplicate the structures of my songs too much, playing with combinations of: intro, verses, chorus, bridge and outro. However, it can be fun to challenge these norms a little, perhaps by starting with a chorus instead of a verse. It’s always fun for both yourself and your listener to change up your song a little by the last verse or by adding a bridge, this could be by simply adding another line or chord or even by changing the tempo. Overall I find that once you get a feel for the initial verse and chorus it’s very much a process of trusting your instincts. Keep going over what you have and, even if you’ve stepped away from your instrument, keep singing and repeating the song to yourself. You never know when a spark of inspiration might hit!
Once I am happy with a song I like to record it live. There is something beautiful about a raw piece of music that is recorded as if it were listened to in real-time, and I know that if I have it recorded like this then I won’t forget it and can revisit it in the future if I decide it needs polish. To record these I use my Yeti Nano microphone and Garageband on my Macbook, this is so that I can record where I wish as my laptop is easily mobile, I can even record in the woods if I want to! I often put a bit of reverb over the track to make it sound a little nicer but ultimately that’s all it needs. I uploaded the acoustic recording of this song onto YouTube, you can watch the raw version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyMATtDew_g&ab_channel=YagmanX
Part 2: Producing the Song
Find a Brilliant Producer
If you can, I’d urge you to find a producer or at least make time to learn production yourself. You don’t have to do everything alone or be great at everything and sometimes the best ideas come from collaborating with others! I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jaime at HoriZen Productions for many years now and he has helped me elevate my music to a whole new level. Usually I visit his studio when producing my songs, however due to the circumstances this was not possible, so I have had to record the music and singing seperately from home and then send it over to Jaime for him to mix. It was quite the learning curve!
When bringing a song to production I am always narratively led and view the song as a story. The feel and meaning of the song is the driving force behind any of the musical choices, including what instruments should be included as well as the tempo, beat and overall pacing. I make sure to write a document which includes the song narrative and theme direction, as well as lyrics and any reference songs so that the producer and I can share the same vision for the song moving forward. Sometimes we’ll even share a spotify playlist where we can both add reference music, however this is usually for larger projects like EP’s.
This song’s theme was isolation so I wanted to keep it very stripped back to help give the audience the feeling that they were listening to something very intimate. I imagined it as though the listener would be right there, in my room with me.
Producer, Jaime, and I thought that including some ambience would be a nice way of adding a human layer to the song which aligns with the narrative. When in lockdown the simple joy of being surrounded by nature and people, all living their day to day lives, became something that I missed. Even as an introvert, I craved life beyond my own four walls. Once it was safe to spend more time outdoors I bought a Zoom H1n portable recorder and wind shield (very important in windy England) and went to my local park where I recorded the ambience of the life that I saw there. I recorded children playing, friends laughing, dogs barking and birds chirping amongst softly rustling leaves. Any talking was mostly ineligible as I did not want to invade anybodys privacy, although there is a cute exchange between a woman and her child at the end of the song. I wanted all of this to be a part of the song as a reminder that the world is still there waiting for us, no matter how hard it gets.
This ambience was used throughout the song to enhance the beginning and end, but also the third verse where it becomes more prominent during the line ‘open the window’, to sound as if a window was being opened. It’s small details like this which help to build upon the overall narrative and will hopefully leave a lasting impression upon the listener.
I recorded the guitar parts using the software Reaper on my PC and my Blue Yeti microphone. I attempted to keep in time with a metronome at 92bpm, however I still find playing to a metronome quite difficult so it took a good few attempts to get this right! The best way I found to record was to focus on getting at least 3 decent takes of different parts of the song. I’d record the verses, chorus and end seperately with little breaks in between as I found that my concentration or timing would break if I put pressure on myself to record the whole song in one go. By recording multiple takes Jaime could then choose which audio sounded best and I could cross my fingers and hope that at least one was in time! Recording from home also proved challenging as I don’t have the same noise cancelling setup as there is at HoriZen Productions. I attempted to rectify this by hanging a sheet by the microphone and putting acoustic foam panels on the wall behind my mic, however there were still instances where background noise could be heard throughout my recording (most notibly from my own headphones, so I had to turn those right down). Jaime did a wonderful job at noise reducing these raw audio files in the end.
Once the ambience and guitar track had been put together by Jaime I recorded the main vocals using Reaper and my Blue Yeti again. Very much like with the guitar, I recorded each verse and chorus seperately and gave Jaime multiple takes so we could mix and match to see what sounded the best. I can be very picky when it comes to my voice so there were quite a few weeks where I kept resinging parts until I felt semi-confident in what we have. You can keep working on something forever and it will never be complete or ‘perfect’, so you must know when to stop. This is why I like to give myself soft deadlines so that I hold myself accountable and do not keep working on the same project for a lengthy amount of time. Once the main vocals were in we added harmonies over the top. This is always a collaborative process where both Jaime and I will experiment with different harmonies to see what sounds best. When we have chosen them I will give Jaime multiple takes of these harmonies and he will layer them together to give them a more mystical, airy quality to the sound.
Mixing the Song in Cubase
Jaime used Cubase to mix all the above elements of this song together as well as Buss processing to fine-tune the final mix. I am no expert in this field, however, he made an extensive video detailing the production process, so I’ll let him give you more information below:
Creating a Music Video from Home using Unreal Engine 4 coming soon…
I was initially going to include information on how I created the music video for this song within the same document but this one is getting quite lengthy already so I’ve decided to split them up into two. This will be coming soon…
At the end of the day music is an artistic expression and there’s not point to any of it if we are not getting something out of it personally. It’s not what I do full-time but I find it helps me live a fullfilling life as well as giving me a medium to express myself and even understand myself more through. I hope this insight into my creative process can be of use to you and I wish you the best in everything you do :)
I also have a free horror game ‘Perfection’ on itch.io and you can listen to my music on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/6LNpYenRbkQC7KQGXxxBZx?si=aXUF019oRGettcVjCjXBpg