Maybe gardening is your hobby, or woodworking, or tinkering with a car, or making clothes or jewelry, or cooking. Anything that keeps your mind engaged is worthwhile, isn’t it? We all like different things.
I like to write for fun. I like to make music, too. I’m realistic and know I’ll never have money, fame or recognition from this. But is that the point? As I age, I realize the more I throw myself into being creative, the richer I feel, no matter what anyone else thinks of it. It’s exercise for the brain. And when I don’t exercise in that way, I feel slack inside and empty.
For the past several years, I’ve worked hard at home recording. My voice bothers me. My musicianship is adequate at best. But I feel like my imagination is pretty strong, at least when it comes to musical ideas. Alex, a friend of mine, enjoys the same stuff. He and I work on music together sometimes. Whenever I finish a song, I send it to him. He’ll be honest about it and have suggestions on how to make it better. He is far beyond me in the engineering aspect. And I like to give him tracks to polish, because they always sound more professional after he’s messed with them.
We both like weirdness. He made one percussion track on something we did by scratching his fingernails on his sofa, then putting a flange effect on it. It sounded cool. I asked, “What the heck is that?” I laughed when he told me. I never would have guessed how he did it. He cleaned out a bunch of stuff from his house and before he put anything in his rented dumpster, he jumped up and down and recorded the massive rattling. It was a strange and effective percussive noise.
It’s hard to say why a song grabs me, but the “why” is the art of it. Even simple tunes always have something nuanced happening. If something works, then it has some tonal quality that is pleasing. Even some “low-fi” music can hold that. Sometimes the amateurish recording holds an authentic sound, but why?
When it comes to recording, every little thing matters. And the more I do it, the more I realize this. I also understand now that I don’t know a universe of “little things.” But learning more and more little things is so fun.
When I first started writing songs, I just wrote on top of guitar progressions or riffs. Then, I played in bands, and we would take an idea and work as a group to add or strip away from the original idea. I really miss this. But life intervenes. And coordinating practice time with three other adults became too difficult with all of our various obligations.
But the digital age brought home recording software, such as Garageband, Logic and Pro Tools. And I basically have a studio while sitting in my recliner. Making music is just a really long string of one question repeated over and over: does this please me?
Occasionally, I’ll start with a guitar idea. But usually I find some sort of drum idea in Garageband or online, then write on top of a beat. There are so many free drum samples online. I often download more than one beat for a tune with the same tempo and occasionally blend them to make a new sound. I set the beat for five or six minutes. I’ll then sit with an acoustic or electric guitar, my bass, or my keyboard. And I’ll start writing a part. I’m just trying to feel something. What grabs me? I might record eight bass lines to a beat. I’ll then eliminate the ones I don’t like and keep three or four. I can use these for changes in the song. I do the same with guitar and keyboards. The song becomes a huge process of elimination. I flood a track with lots of ideas, then I try to strip away all that isn’t needed. I’m humming melodies to myself as I do this.
Once I have some parts determined, I work on identifying good tones for the instruments. I record all instruments directly into an interface or pre-amp (a little box that sends a signal from the instrument to the computer). Once I’ve put down good tracks, I have so many ways to manipulate the sound. I can make the same track sound either pretty or angry, depending on what I apply to the signal. I’ve downloaded free amplifier plug-ins that sound really good. And I tend to stick with a couple of amplifiers for my guitar and bass. I can raise tones a fifth, or drop it a fourth. I can add delay or reverb. I can pan any noise left or right. I can alter the frequency range through EQ adjustments.
I do all of this through headphones, but later I’ll play the music back through speakers to see how the song sounds in the room, not through headphones. It’s amazing how different this typically is. What sounds good in headphones often sounds terrible once it hits the air in the room.
I sit with my music and listen over and over again. I might put the song on my phone and drive with the music playing through car speakers, humming a melody as I drive alone to work. Once I have a vocal melodic idea, I start trying to fit lyrics with the right syllabic phrasing. The vocals are always the hardest part. I wish I had that beautiful tone. It’s a gift for some and I didn’t get it. But I’m perhaps passable if I sing in a limited range, which sits in my throat somewhere near my speaking voice. If I hit writer’s block in terms of lyrics, I sometimes pull out books of poetry and look for phrases that hold something interesting. Once I find a phrase, I can usually stack other words of my own on top of it. I usually have to re-record my vocals. And I very rarely reach a point of satisfaction in that regard.
I then mix the tune and let it sit for weeks, while moving on to the next song. I typically feel different about the things I create once I’ve had some distance from them. Fresh ears are important.
I’ll occasionally put out an “album” online. But this is sort of beside the point. The value is simply the time I spend going down that mental rabbit hole. That tunnel of musical fun sure beats worrying about the world and the vast realm of things I can’t control. I think all mental pursuits that put your mind in a nicer place hold value. My home “studio” won’t put out any hits, but it’s a place for me to get lost in a good way. Do you have that place?
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.