In the book “Songwriters on Songwriting” Tom Petty was asked about his favorite instrument for writing. He replied “Whatever sounds sweet that day.” It sounds simple and subjective, but it’s a very real phenomenon that can be difficult to explain. What hooks the ear and makes you want to play and start writing? For the purpose of this post, we’ll focus more on treatments rather than composition.
In my studio I surround myself with a semi-circle of instruments: an upright piano, a few acoustic and electric guitars, a few analog synths (Moog Voyager, Dave Smith Prophet 08) and a short list of soft synths (Spire, Serum, Omnisphere, Operator). Every day these instruments sound different to me when I walk in the studio. One day the piano is fresh and inspiring, and other times it feels dull and lifeless. It’s especially true of physical instruments, since the tuning can vary. If I start playing a chord progression and it’s not sounding “sweet” or compelling, I’ll quickly change to another instrument.
It’s hard to say what makes your brain latch on to a sound that specific day most likely something in your subconscious is guiding the creative process – but you have to listen to that voice. It’s crucial to your workflow to translate those voices in your head as quickly as possible. Let’s take a look at some techniques that can help “sweeten” your instruments and improve the creative flow.
Tuning: tune your hardware instruments. If you aren’t confident in your tuners, find one that works for you. They don’t have to be expensive. I use the Snark SN-1 for acoustic guitars ($15), and the TC PolyTune for electrics. Add tuning plugins to your templates for easy reference. If you have finicky analog gear, leave it on and keep the AC running for stable temperature. Pianos are a pain since you have to schedule tuning sessions in advance, but they should only need tuning a few times a year. Experiment with Auto-Tune, Melodyne, or Waves Tune to sweeten existing sounds or take “found sounds” to another level.
Templates: Make sure your template is well stocked with enough options of different timbres that you can switch quickly and not lose focus. With lead sounds, I’ll often include a pluck lead, detune lead, and legato lead w/ portamento – as options to choose from.
Gain staging: Loudness is important. Use templates to deliver controlled gain staging and have the compression squeeze the dynamic range a bit. Try adding Xfer’s OTT to use multi-band compression/expansion to sweeten the sound, and remove the muddiness. This will also enhance the transients.
Velocity: Dial in the right velocity curve for your MIDI interface that works for you (this makes a huge difference). I use a steeper curve on my controller so I don’t have to mash the keys really hard to get higher velocity values. Some sounds need a variety of velocities, others work better on full blast. Focus on playability.
Simplicity: There’s nothing clearer than one voice. Sometimes simplicity equals “sweetness.” Try composing with simple timbre sounds to form the chord progressions and melodic leads, like basic sawtooth or square waves, rather than massive complex patches that paint your song into a corner. The simplicity allows larger voicings for heavily layered chords. You can always swap out the patches later with more complex timbres that fill the spectrum. It’s easy to drown out the quiet voice of your muse, so start simple.
Distortion: Add some distortion to add harmonics, sustain, and musicality. If the instrument is properly tuned and the right notes in the scale are chosen, the distortion will really sing. Try adding distortion while tracking vocals and see if it pulls out a different performance.
Sustain: the holy grail of guitar players, and it makes a big difference in your perception of the music. Add a sustain pedal to your keyboard, tweak the release settings, or get a similar effect with reverb and delays. The ear loves sustain, and it can be achieved through a variety of techniques. Sustain changes the way you play. (envelopes, distortion, feedback, spatial FX)
Transient triggers: The ear loves high frequency triggers that cue the brain about incoming sound. A simple click on a synth lead, the scratch of a guitar pick, and the downward pitch sweep of a kick drum all serve to foreshadow other frequencies in a sound. Sometimes it helps to slow everything down to half speed to hear all these components come together.
Bright balance: Use plugins like Izotope’s Ozone 6 to EQ match a pink noise curve and effectively sweeten, balance, and brighten a sound in relation to all the other frequencies. You can use it individual instruments, busses, or the entire mix.
Physical layout: Keep a few different instrument interfaces handy. The differences between a piano keyboard, guitar fretboard, and a modern device like Ableton Push are drastically different, and inspire different results. Each interface will change the chords, scales, and melodies you choose, because of the physical differences, muscle memory involved, and the physical feedback from the instrument (like the feeling of the tines on a Wurlitzer). If the piano isn’t working, switch to guitar, or compose with two hands on the Push. Use MIDI effects to transpose and restrict keys, like a digital capo to explore different possibilities and reduce your choices for easier decision making.
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