The function of a producer is to unite an artist with their vision while keeping it relevant to their audience. That sounds like a complex task, and it is. For my newest track “This Cross” I tried to modernize my sound by incorporating popular elements which support my emotional intention.
Problems In Producer Plaza
I have noticed that not many people are catching on to my sound. Maybe you are also suffering this fate. What can we do to lure in unsuspecting listeners?
We can give them candy but that’s tricky until 3D printers come with sugar filaments. Perhaps we should bribe them, but that’s the opposite flow of money we prefer. Hmm, what can a creative person do to attract music consumers?
I know! Let’s make stuff that sounds like what everyone else is doing. Hey, it works for everyone else! Ok, let’s not copy but we should steal.
Steal Like A Thief
In the past, I talked about Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist. This is really a wonderful tome that should grace the floor of every aspiring songwriter. In it he talks about how to extract influence from your favorite artists without becoming a copy cat.
With that spirit in mind, I’m opening up my own workflow for you to peek into. After all, I haven’t been producing my entire musical life so I must be doing something to make these tracks. Yes, my secret is analysis and what better to analyze than music which moves you.
In the following 2000 words, I’m going to show you how I made this song “This Cross”. I break down the individual elements and then, later, do an impromptu lesson on lyric writing. Whether you’re a music maker or Hexspa Fan Numero Uno, I think you’re in for a treat. ¡Ándale!
Let’s talk about how I made this track. The first thing I started with was the 808. Being that I’m modernizing my sound, “This Cross” is Trap-based.
I used a song almost called ‘shady pony’ by an artist that rhymes with ‘eighty ferry’. Someone said they stole the arrangement from another song so I stole it back. A groove only gets you so far though.
In fact, my 808 kick wasn’t working too well initially. I decided to use a shortened 808 from Native Instruments’ Battery as my punch layer. Naturally, the 808 functions as the sub layer.
There were additional references that I used including: “Hard in The Paint” and “Versace Python“. When I make tracks, I emphasize one primary reference. Those, in contrast, functioned as secondary references.
I probably used them to come up with ideas for the percussion. Noticeably, “Hard in The Paint” is very much more aggressive than my primary, and secondary, references. It’s for this reason that I made it my ‘maximum aggression’ point of contact.
You probably notice that I’m talking a lot about references. You’ve surely heard of this technique. The basic idea is that everything in music is relative.
At this point I’m going to expand on that further before going more into the specific instruments. Referencing is a concept I wish I knew about earlier in my musical journey. I couldn’t have made “This Cross” without this technique.
It’s likely that I learned about referencing just before I started Berklee Online, then called ‘Berkleemusic’. I made a cover of “Take Me Home Tonight” so there the reference implies itself. Additionally, I made a track called “Kinda Girl” which, besides using samples, allowed me to implement ideas from other songs directly.
That latter track made more general use of references. Being new to production, and wanting Dubstep influences, I put wubs into that track. Funnily, I put them in the high lead part for the intro.
The former track took ideas from bands like Mindless Self Indulgence and their use of Rock and Electronic sounds. Interestingly, I actually emailed Jimmy Urine back around 2002 asking about sampling. He said, “Atari is your friend.”
Well, I didn’t use any Atari sounds for that, or any subsequent, track. What I did use was a basic, and I do mean basic, sine wave for the intro lead. I figured at the time that, if I’m going to use synths, I should begin from the bottom.
Anyway, all this is just background for how I learned to reference other songs. When it came time to make my debut EP, Uncomfortable EP, I really needed to reference. That project led me to taking specific musical ideas like the slide guitar from “More Human Than Human” and Ozzy‘s vocal delivery.
One of the most critical elements that comes from a reference is the form. If you’ve ever been stuck in an ‘eight bar loop’ then this is your golden ticket. In fact, that’s how the ‘Eight Bar Embryo’ series got its name.
I, too, was stuck in the dreaded loop. Making little loops like that is way too easy. The real music comes into play when you have development, contrast, and surprise.
“This Cross” takes the ‘midnight pony’s’ form pretty explicitly. This form, while probably not totally unique, is very interesting. Let’s look at it a bit more deeply.
Building A Better Groove
Over at Berklee, they say that, “All we’re selling is grooves and hooks.” That might be true. However, how can you make a groove that’s worth a listen? What will separate your groove from the thousands of other grooves online?
My answer to that is: buildups. As I mentioned earlier, real music starts happening when something has already happened. If that’s too vague then allow me to specify.
Let’s say you’re a guy that gets a lot of girls. Every day you go out with a new girl and they’re all very hot. A new girl in your life isn’t going to rattle your ribs like it would if you were perpetually single.
That single guy gets pretty stoked any time any old bat face looks his way. Music is just like these two guys. On one hand you have expectation and, on the other, you have surprise.
If your entire song is nothing but neck breaking grooves and catchy hooks then you have a problem. Your music is basically junk food. I can almost bet you money that your favorite artists are less one-dimensional than that.
Specifically to “This Cross”, the entire song is a two-part repetition. The intro is a build, the verse is a groove and then it repeats. The thing that keeps it going is how I manage my instruments.
The intro has the build melody with a fade in distortion. The second build has vocals on it. The third build is even more dense yet.
The same thing goes for the verses where the groove is. What really caught my attention was the groove after the first build/chorus. It just kind of hangs out by itself and makes the song sound like it’s only just starting there.
So I already talked about the 808 kick for “This Cross”, the intro/build melody and the form. What I haven’t mentioned is the other instruments. The lead synth that plays in the verses is pretty cool.
While it’s a fairly basic patch inside of Native Instruments’ Massive, the hard part was placing it. See, some people say that every instrument needs to sit in its own octave range. While that’s true, exactly which octave was what tripped me up here.
Again, I used my reference for a cue. Originally, I had that melody down an octave. However, after experimenting with different placements, its current position is where I kept it.
One of the hardest things I have to do is singing. Not only is singing a unique challenge but so is vocal production. I really do feel like producers who don’t sing have it easier.
“This Cross” probably started life as a voice memo on my phone. I can confidently say that my iPhone has changed my life. Sure, I used voice memo apps in Android but, with its easy sync to iTunes, Voice Memos is a godsend.
There’s just something about that organized connectedness which helps me as a songwriter. If you make music then you know that organization is half the battle. Should you find yourself struggling in this area, I highly recommend getting you an iPhone and using the hell out of Voice Memos with iTunes.
After I made my voice memo and established my 808 groove, the next task for “This Cross” was probably finishing the words. I just realized that I have rarely been discussing lyric writing here on this blog. Let me give you a few insights into my workflow.
Just as I rip forms from songs that I like, so do I mirror that activity with lyrics. You see, words and music need to have a form. The word they use to describe poetic, or lyrical, meter is ‘scansion’.
If you’ve ever heard of ‘iamb’ or ‘trochee’ or Shakespeare then you have experienced poetic meter. This is the system of strong a weak beats which divvy up a line of words. Now, if you’re interested in this then great but I hereby advise you not to dive too deep.
Going Off The Deep End
Digging into poetic meter, you will soon find that it’s exceedingly complex. Indeed, no two poets can agree on the definitions, let alone the practicalities, of analyzing poetry. Just a brief browse over to genius.com will show you that not even contemporary lyrics are immune to this madness.
Let me tell you that, really, only three things are necessary to know. They are:
- musical setting
That’s it! Let’s briefly look at each of those in turn. That should be more than enough for you to take something useful away.
Real quick, let me mention that there is so much more to lyrics than that. Things like puns, other wordplay, concrete imagery, cultural references, and the like are critical to grasp. Here, we’re just talking metrics rather than content.
A Measure Of Worth
I talked about the concepts of ‘iamb’ and ‘trochee’. Those are the weak-strong and strong-weak metric units, or feet, respectively. What about three-syllable words or different rhythms?
In that case there are other metric feet available. In fact, Wikipedia has a great entry on prosaic feet that you can check out here. Really though, if you just break your lines down to strong and weak, you will be fine.
An old concept in music is that of ‘twos and threes’. Well, you can use that here too. A quick tip I can give you is to create contrast in your lyrics by using disyllables and trisyllables. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks…? Sorry, no trisyllables there. Just wanted to throw in some of the great bard.
Once you have a rhythmic skeleton on which to hang your words, it’s time to steal rhymes. I don’t mean bite phrases from the hottest SoundCloud rapper. What I do mean is steal his rhyme placement.
While I’m throwing out musical cliches, let me stick in one more general. They say that we all look the same in a boneyard. Well, rhyme schemes are no different. Once you start peeling back the layers of words to the structure underneath, you will see that many songs use very similar rhyming patterns.
Concepts like ABAB, AABB, and ABBA (dancing queen), apply to song structure, melodic and rhythmic structure, and rhyme scheme as well. Now before you get up your butt about hitting you with some school stuff, understand that you can put these letters anywhere. Indeed, I hear many lyricists rhyming weak beats, consecutive phrases, and more. Be creative!
Set And Setting
To finish off my lyric lesson tangent I want to discuss marrying the words to the music. We all know that poetry is not song. Neither is song really poetry. Yet, the two can combine to create wondrous worlds.
The problem lies in the juxtaposition of two metric systems. Music has it’s own strong and weak beats. We already know that poetry, or lyrics as they’re about to become, is subscribing to another altogether.
As long as you appreciate this difference then you can set your words in musically relevant ways. In music, beats 1 and 3 are strong whereas everything else is weak. Sometimes you might want to start your lyric before the measure, on it, or after it’s begun. Thus concludes this random tangent on lyric writing!
I’m going to conclude this essay on my newest track “This Cross” with some quips about melody writing. Remember the two things we sell? Here’s the one that’s not groove.
The more I look into the workflows of successful music-makers, the more I see how interlinked their groove and melody writing are. These people tend not to write melodies away from the track. I encourage you to experiment with this.
Just remember that melodies need all the contrast and development as your other elements. You can use varying rhythms, placements, melodic arcs, and motives to keep it hopping. When writing songs, do not forget to prioritize for the melody!
Writing music can be extraordinary difficult. I’ve heard that some producers take up to 300 hours to finish certain works. While I’d surely die before competing that track, I too feel the pain of creative labor.
I really wish more artist would divulge their secrets like this more often. Then again, the guys at the top are probably doing way more fun stuff than giving everything away online. Even so, we can all benefit from checking out each other’s workflow.
I showed you how I thought of each element, how I made many of them, and how I borrowed from other tracks to give my own work cohesion. Hopefully this was helpful to you because it’s helpful for me to write it.
If this has improved your life at all then please consider supporting me. Hexspa is my full-time activity but it should pay much better. I know that many of you go to work and have a few extra bucks. Put that money to good use, support my dream, and even get extra goodies out of it.
Specifically, I uploaded this song to Patreon, along with a sweet bonus wallpaper, for my $5 or more a month contributors. In addition, for that amount you also get bonus Ninja Trainings on synthesis in which we deep dive into Native Instruments’ Massive. Or, just send me $5 so my girlfriend doesn’t have to pay for my whole 12 pack 🙂
I publish content every Monday, 4PM PST. You can subscribe to my Newsletter or on YouTube, hit the bell icon for notifications, to get updates. Thank you so very much for reading and I’ll see you next week.