Do you write songs from the heart or from the head?

Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises.  Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess.  “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.”  The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.”  This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.

Most songwriters and musicians know the history of the Beatles.  In the early 60’s, before they were famous, they played for hours every night in clubs in Hamburg, Germany.  They learned their chops, got better at harmonizing together and playing tightly together.  Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers, describes this as the 10,000 hours rule: practice anything for 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert.  The Beatles played more shows in a few short years than many contemporary bands play in their entire career.  Gladwell uses evidence-based examples to show that the most successful people are those who put in the time.

In another book, Blink, Gladwell champions the subconscious mind as a powerful decision maker, and how little information can be beneficial in making positive, snap decisions.  He cites such examples as fine art experts who can spot a forgery at a glance (and can’t explain how they know they’re looking at a forgery) and orchestras who hold blind auditions to reduce conscious biases.

So let’s bring this back to our central question.  It may be possible that songwriters who feel they channel their songs from some outward source, may in fact be so well practiced they make decisions in a “blink” and rely more heavily on their subconscious experience to guide their songwriting decisions.  “That chord progression just felt right.”  On the other hand, some songwriters are deliberate and conscious in their writing, and know the reasons their songs work the way they do.

I recall clearly learning to play the drums many years ago.  I started with simple rhythms on a single drum, and practiced many hours to coordinate my hands and feet on a drumkit.  The moment I could successfully coordinate kick drum and snare hits with a running cymbal rhythm, something in me clicked and I’ve never forgotten how to do it, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve last played a drumkit.  These days, I don’t think about it – I just follow my subconscious to feel the beat and play along.  If I’m playing in an unusual time signature, like 5/4 or 7/4, I need to engage more of my conscious mind.

I think the same applies to songwriting.  As songwriters, we can rely on our ability to “blink” and know if a songwriting or performance decision is the right one.  However, we can also study more conscious tools of songwriting to change things up, overcome writer’s block, and think outside the boxes we have created ourselves through our experience.

For myself, how do I answer the question of do I write from the heart or the head?  Historically, I’ve been a head-dominated writer, but lately I’ve been “consciously” relying more on my snap judgements, and perhaps surprisingly, they’re mostly right.  So, like everyone else, I’m somewhere in the middle.

Let us know how you look at your own process.  Do you write from the heart or the head, or both?

Song Talk Radio articles

I’m a regular contributor to Song Talk Radio’s blog and newsletter, with writing original content on topics of interest to our songwriter audience.

Check out my articles at the Song Talk Radio website.

What does it mean to be an “amateur” songwriter?

On Song Talk Radio we have a wonderful variety of guests and songwriters, and one way to group them is whether they are professional or amateur songwriters. Often, when we refer to amateur, there’s a negative connotation that implies a less polished, unsophisticated, or otherwise lesser craft. When we talk about being professional, it implies a polished, well-considered, or elevated craft.

However, if we consider the word amateur and its inherent meaning, there’s a better way to look at it.  Amateur is derived from the Latin amatorem, which means “lover of.” So, if you love writing songs, you’re an amateur. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing. Surely, many guests on Song Talk Radio, both amateur and professional, are superb songwriters.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Those songwriters who have devoted their careers, either full-time or part-time, to songwriting and performing, tend to have more polished and carefully considered songs. But consider if this is because they are “professionals” and earn money from their songs, or because they have made a decision to approach their craft with commitment, seriousness, and time.

Also consider the advantages of being an amateur writer. You don’t have to answer to anyone, or consider if your songs are “radio-friendly.” You can take risks, be experimental, and pretty much do as you please. (Another caveat – yes, there are commercial songwriters who can and do pretty much as they please and still sell records.)

The bottom line is if you love what you’re doing, you’re an amateur. You can still put in the time and commitment to polish your craft, and above all, embrace your amateur status with passion, integrity and creativity. Keep on writing.

Evolution of my home recording studio

I recently purchased a new audio interface for my studio, after the mic inputs on my old one starting giving me static or no signal at all. I thought it would be interesting for others to see how I went about making the choice of which interface to buy, within the framework of the evolution of my studio.

So, even though I starting making MIDI-based instrumental music on my computer back in 1988 on a Commodore Amiga 2000, I didn’t really get into audio recording until around 2002 on my first Windows-based PC. One of the first purchases to be made was an audio interface.  At the time, I had a Roland D70 synthesizer, a drum machine, and (potentially) a microphone. I knew that I only needed to be able to record one track a time into the software on my PC. The first thing I learned was the difference between consumer-level “audio cards” (e.g. Soundblaster) vs. professional interfaces.  Primarily, the professional ones allow you to more effectively record audio while playing back audio at the same time. This is essential for any multi-tracking studio.

I opted for an M-Audio 24/96 interface, which was really just a PCI card with 2 RCA inputs, 2 RCA outputs, and MIDI in and out jacks. I fronted the interface with a 12-channel Behringer mixer with an Alt-bus (or submix bus). This allowed me to send only the keyboard, or only the mic signal, for example, into the M-Audio to be recorded on the computer, while still using the mixer to listen to playback from the computer and my keyboard.

Understanding this flow of signals, both MIDI and audio, was essential to making the purchasing decisions. Suffice to say, I figured out exactly how I was going to connect everything before ever laying down a dime. (Incidentally, this process also allowed me to know and purchase only the cables I needed.)

Over the next few years, I slowly expanded my studio to include monitors (speakers) and a couple of guitars. The extra inputs on the mixer made it easy to patch any of these extras in and use the alt-bus to send each one to be recorded on the PC.

The home studio, circa 2006
The home studio, circa 2006

Of course, as with most budget-gear, the Behringer mixer started crackling and hissing with static after a few years of use. At this point, I figured a multi-input interface would be a good idea. This would allow me to eliminate the hardware mixer entirely, thereby simplifying gain staging and improving signal path quality. I opted for an E-MU 1820 in 2007, which had a digital PCI card and a “break-out box” with 2 mic inputs and a few analogue inputs. Of course, it also had MIDI I/O.

By this time, I had sold off the old Roland D70 synth and got a CME U7 keyboard controller and a Roland JV-1010 sound module on eBay. This, together with the plethora of virtual synthesizers on the computer made my old Roland seem very quaint and limiting. I also gave up on the guitars (instead investing in killer guitar software).The EMU interface served me very well for several years. I attached the Roland JV-1010 and another drum synth to the other inputs. Theoretically, I could record up to 8 tracks at once, but the opportunity to do so never came up.The one limitation with the EMU was the lack of a dedicated output knob. I ended up picking up a Mackie 402-VLZ3 mixer which was used as a glorified volume control and mute button for my monitors, and in a pinch, I could also use its mic inputs if I needed.

Finally on to my latest setup. On July, I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface. While my old EMU allowed me to record up to 8 tracks at one, the Focusrite only allows 2. I figure if I hadn’t needed more than 2 inputs in the last few years, chances are I’m never going to. It has a dedicated volume knob, so I no longer need the Mackie mixer. However, my Roland JV-1010 has nothing to plug into (previously it plugged into line inputs on the EMU). This is not such a big loss, as I haven’t used the Roland in several months, since software synthesizers and samples are getting better and better.

The Focusrite is wonderfully simple. The only driver interface is to set the latency buffer. No software mixer panel, no built-in effects suite, just pure input and output. I picked the 2i4 model over the 2i2 model to have the variable control over the input vs. playback monitoring, and I thought I could use the extra outputs to feed into my Mackie, but didn’t end up using them. Plus I prefer to have real, old-school MIDI connections rather than USB for my keyboard.I did also check out the Presonus 44VSL interface, which has 4 mic inputs, for a possible future when I might actually need to record more than 2 tracks at once. The Presonus was more costly, but quality-wise felt and sounded about the same as the Focusrite. However, I was unable to get the latency for software synths to work – it was quite bad, in fact. I chose to shop at Long & McQuade, who offer a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy, so the Presonus went back and I kept the Focusrite.

So I think the take-away message here is to really examine your needs, do your research, and make informed purchases. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get good quality sound. If there’s one truth to the evolution of my studio, it’s this: the longer I do this, the simpler my system becomes – in other words, fewer parts. Part of this is the fact that newer computers can handle more of the workload, so your outboard gear can be pretty minimal, but part of it is also understanding signal flow and boiling your setup down to the essentials.

The studio earlier in 2013
The studio earlier in 2013

Brave Daughters

I had a strong reaction to the 2012 gang rape case in India, which made international headlines in December. Revolted as I was from the crime, equally unsettling was the call from the Indian public for violent retribution upon the accused (not yet tried or convicted) men. I read several articles from different sources, and found one piece of news very compelling.  The father of the victim told the media to stop referring to her as a “rape victim” and rather as a “brave daughter.”

I first wrote the lyrics, taking the viewpoint of the friend who was also victimized in this case. I knew I wanted the words to come across with anger and passion, and I looked to Nine Inch Nails for sonic inspiration. I don’t think I got quite to the level of intensity of Mr. Self Destruct, but hey, I’m not Trent Reznor, nor do I really want to be. But it’s nice to have a reference to work to.

Have a listen below, and see the lyrics below the player.

Download the full album for free.

We went out for the night
We’re not looking to fight
A violation on our ride
A crime you don’t care to hide

What harm do you see?
In the freedom that we
In a brand new milieu
We choose to pursue

Brave daughters
Victims of sons
Fathers in tears
What have we DONE!?

They are blind and mute
No voices to refute
The power you yield
Impossible to shield

Anger in the streets
Calls for your defeat
An eye for an eye
Makes us all blind

Brave daughters
Did you no wrong
Why punish them all
For what you have DONE!?

I Am

It’s been more than 25 years since I started writing music, and over 10 that I’ve been writing songs with my own lyrics. This is my very first published song for which I did my own singing (thank goodness for pitch correction).

I Am started out as the lyrics to accompany the music I had written for Brand New Door.  After mulling over feedback I received at a songwriter’s meetup group, I decided to rip apart the lyrics and music and create two new songs instead.

I took a different approach to writing the melody for I Am.  Normally, I would develop a melody on keyboard, then hand it off to a singer to finish off the track. This time, I laid down the music bed and developed a melody by simply singing whatever came to me. I intended to provide a “real” singer with my scratch track to base their performance on. However, my friend Sunny (who song Brand New Door for me) convinced me that my phrasing and tenor fit the song better than his, and more importantly, that he could pitch correct my performance for me.

So I gave the vocal another shot, and as it turned out, my new track required fewer corrections than my scratch track. Kudos to me! Sunny sent me the corrected version, and I added a touch of vocoding and synthesized harmony.

The lyric is a critical take on religion and spirituality, with a west vs. east structure.  I figure if I’m going to sing my own songs, may as well start off with something light ;).

Download the full album for free.

I am ethereal
Without matter and formless
At once essential
And vague omnipresence

I’m all the unknown
And all false certainty
A captor to your thoughts
A source of fear and doubt

Between subject and object
Between matter and form
Between the earth and sky
Should we accept the norm?

I am the observer
To all your bias
I’m the divider
To body and mind

I am the passion and the poet
I convey all breath and being
I perceive and I conceive
A world of emptiness

Between something and nothing
Between the ego and id
Between nature and nurture
Is your self well hid?