Song creation process woes

I’m curious about how people go about creating songs.

The reason being, I’m having an issue with my own process. There’s a step I hate. And I’m at that step now with a new song, haha.

Basically, when I write a new song it comes together in various pieces. I have a lot of experience writing songs on my guitar, and leaving them with just a guitar and vocal. What I’ve been learning over the past year is how to produce a good recording. So now, when I’m writing a song, there are all of these decisions that need to be made. What’s the BPM? What is the song’s structure? What instruments do I want to use for various parts, and what will they play? That sort of thing. And so as I work, I create what I call a “sketch” of the song. A proof of concept. As an example, here’s the “sketch” I created for the song I’m working on now:

I create the sketch with the intention of re-recording everything for the final song. I don’t pay a ton of attention to what mic I’m using for what, or mic placement or tone. Just enough that it’s mostly there. I haven’t practiced much so there may be mistakes. It’s just a bunch of scratch tracks.

I run into an issue when I go to record the final tracks. I like, freeze up in a way. “Okay, now these are the final tracks so they have to be perfect,” I tell myself. And I lose the vibe. I get frustrated. I really hate this step! I used to not do it at all–I’d just use what I’d recorded the first time around because I wasn’t shooting for as high a quality. The one part I don’t mind doing again is the vocal. But yeah this step in general feels so sterile to me. Like there’s nothing creative about it.

Ideally, I’d like to capture great tracks the first time around, but the problem with that is that it interrupts my creative flow. I’m just throwing ideas down. Some will work and some won’t, and it’s meant to be quick. If I were a much better guitar player and vocalist, and were perpetually in a great recording space where the heater didn’t come on sometimes and people didn’t go make noise in the kitchen randomly and I had lots of room for different mics to be set up, etc., maybe I could record great tracks the first time. But that’s not the reality.

Anyway, any ideas? How does the process work for you?

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It says this track can not be found??? Could be me??

Oh, it was my fault. I forgot I needed to use a special link because it’s a private track. Should be fixed now!

Yeah the track is “not found” on Soundcloud. Anyway, it’s sounds like you are doing what we used to call “psyching yourself out”. The vibe is essential, so any ‘futurizing’ about how perfect it needs to be or what someone will think of it kind of needs to go out the window. It’s called “releasing attachment to praise or criticism”, and yes it can be a very hard thing to do.

[quote=“Cristina, post:1, topic:1275, full:true”]Anyway, any ideas? How does the process work for you?

Perhaps change something around. If you have to record a riff or progression to remember it, do it on a memo recorder, phone, or something not related to a DAW. Otherwise, keep playing through the song and work all your ideas out - vocally and musically - to your satisfaction and then approach recording. Don’t think in terms of ‘scratch’ tracks because now maybe you are already selling yourself short. Prepare for recording, but only start the ‘session’ when you feel in the right head/heart space to give it your best. This way your first ‘raw’ tracks may be refined enough to work, and heartfelt enough to keep.

Alternately, you can keep the same process you have now, but really work on the psychology of where you’re at and why you’re doing this. Or make the ‘real’ recording completely fun and “throwaway” so that you are not sabotaging it with fear and anxiety.

Like you, I tend to feel the most inspiration and vibe when I’m first recording the song. Having to rework nearly everything seems like a chore and no fun so it’s not likely to come out well. Since I usually start with drums to have that rhythm foundation, I’ll usually do each instrument or vocal layer one at a time for as long as I can feel inspired. It does help to have some open time available and to try to finish the song within a few days, or it may fade into oblivion.

OK, the Soundcloud track is up now. I think it sounds very nice, but yeah I see what you’re saying it doesn’t sound completely ‘finished’. It’s hard to give advice on where to go with it because I don’t know all your intentions and inclinations.

While you didn’t post this in BTR, or ask for performance or mix feedback, I want to at least say what I notice. The lead vocal has an extreme vibrato in the voice that almost sounds like nervousness or trembling. I can see this quality lending emotion to the vocal and song in certain passages, but I noticed it almost constantly and it was distracting. If that’s how you sing then it is what it is, but I’d suggest at least varying that between vibrato and non-vibrato in different sections or lines so it at least sounds like movement and story development. I also found the guitar string slide noise distracting, especially in the beginning (where it’s likely to be noticed most). If there’s a way to minimize that or EQ out some of it I think it would help feature the vocal and melodies better.

The backing vocals are very pretty, and I like how you have used a lot of reverb for effect on them.

I can hear some light drums in the background, but barely. If you’re going to have drums in the track, I’d recommend getting them recorded/programmed in your pre-production process, and have them mixed to where they are audible. Having them “barely there” was also a bit distracting.

If you are doing everything yourself, then it’s kind of inevitable that you will get stuck in the phase. My problem is that I get used to the original sound and start to like it, even if it’s not what I was originally going for. Then any changes sound wrong, even if they are better.

When I hear this recording, nothing jumps out as being poorly done or rushed through.

This may sound dumb, but maybe you can intentionally make the recordings while you are arranging bad. Make them good enough to where you know what it will sound like, but bad enough to where you know you can’t use it. Then you have no choice but to re-track it.

Or, after you have the arrangement, switch up instruments. Trade out a guitar for a piano or whatever. Listen to other recordings that are going for the same feel rip off some ideas.Keep the ideas that you have in your original recording that are obviously right. For example, the higher vocals in the second chorus are an obvious keep. If it were my song, I’d add a cello in there, but I’d add a cello to everything if I could.

Thanks for your thoughts! Yeah maybe I can turn this around with my attitude. Like you said, I think it’s partly that I’m stressing out about it because I’m imagining a certain future for it, and certain quality standards. I put a lot of pressure on myself! I’ve been thinking about it some more, and I think that another part of it is that I feel beholden to what I’ve already created. Since I’m planning on re-recording all of the tracks anyway, I might as well start with a new project. The sketch served as a way to get the song in my mind and flesh it out. When I go to do it a second time, for keeps, I can give myself the freedom to use what I’ve learned from the sketch, or not, and be creative with the song all over again. That sounds like it could work. It’s worth a try anyway! I suspect that having a good time yields better results.

And yeah I understand what you’re saying about this song. It’s not mixed–well I guess technically it’s mixed, haha–but I didn’t spend much time on it. I do plan to address a lot of the things you mentioned. And yeah this song is a bit low for me, vocally, so I’ve got to practice is more and see how I want to sing it.

Haha I’ve actually thought about that! Never tried it though. I don’t think I could stand it, lol.

I definitely hear you about getting to like the original sound though. I think it takes time to adjust our ears to new things, even if they are better. I felt like that when I got my EP professionally mixed. It made me feel sick to listen to the new mixes at first, but weeks later I quite like them.

This is a pretty common story I think. I think listeners have the same experience. If I hear a live version of a song first and like it, the studio version usually sounds dumb.

Basically, if you are going to write a song, you are going to work on it until you like it, obviously. Then to change gears from there and re-track it all to sound different from the song you liked, you are going to be fighting against a lot of instincts.

Another option is to retrack your main instruments before you get too used to hearing them. Or do them one at a time. Go through and re-track the guitar only and focus on quality. Then when you drop it into your track, it won’t sound wildly different. Then you can sort of sneak the new instruments in one at a time, and by the time you are done, you have a completely new song, but you don’t have the shock of having it sound different.

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Hi Cristina,
Right now I’m working on a song in a similar way you describe. I have no lyrics yet, just a couple of (funky) guitar riffs. I started working on bass and drums and even electric piano, effects etc. So by now it’s almost an instrumental. But Í don’t feel its anything like a song and I have no idea if it ever will be one.
Usually I write when I’m on holiday: probably because that’s about the only time I’m relaxed enough to let the song write itself. Just me and my guitar. My guess is that the best songs are always written that way (could be a piano or harp or whatever of course). If the song’s no good with only a piano or guitar it’s probably not a great song. You can always change things later with arrangements and recording. Don’t worry about it while writing is my advice. Obviously I’m not following my own advice now :grimacing:, so I’ll let you bash it if it ends up becoming a song after all :wink:

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Are you recording to a click track? If you want to add other instruments then you need to record from the start with drums or click. If it’s just voice or guitar then it doesn’t matter, sounds good.

My first impression is that your voice needs to come out front more and brighten up.

I’d like to see how it sounds using some of the vocal chain plugins I have like CLA Vocals, or JJP Vocals or Maserati VX1. I try all kinds of things to make it seem like I can sing. They have simple controls for complex processing.

Glad to take a run at it if you post your seps.

I’d remove some squeaks from the guitar. Some is good to show this is a real guitar but they became distracting.

Yep I’m recording to a click track.

Thanks for the feedback, but like I said all of the tracks are being recorded again before I mix the song. What I posted was just a sketch to get my ideas down, to show an example of what I meant by a sketch.

I’ve actually made a lot of progress today. I think this mostly has to do with the sheer amount of pressure I put on myself! It’s always been my personality to do so. What helped me to finish my EP that I released recently was to tell myself, “this will be my worst EP ever.” It worked because it was my first one. What I have tried to tell myself today is that, “this will be a snapshot of where my skills are at right now. It cannot be anything more.” It’s ridiculous of me to set such a high bar when I’ve only been producing for less than a year. I have to do a bunch of songs from start to finish to get better. I think I have the most trouble with steps that involve something “final” because it’s never good enough for me. Maybe I need to meditate more, lol.

@Cristina, first of all, just wanted to say thanks for posting this thread. These are the kinds of conversations I’m really hoping to see more of and I really appreciate you putting yourself out there like that. You rock!

In terms of any thoughts I could add to what is being said, I’d add something that was stressed to me regarding live gigs that has made a huge impact to my own playing and very much applies to writing and recording.

Make a connection. In a live situation it means picking some people in the crowd that are already showing some positive feedback and perform for those people. Make eye contact. Build a relationship using your music.

Same applies to writing and recording. Although your audience likely isn’t there during this process, you can still make that connection. Imagine them sitting there in every step of the process. Play and write in a way that will speak directly to this person(s). This isn’t just about you :wink:
Having that at the forefront of your mind during the whole process can make a huge difference.
Some may consider this approach “selling out”. I would tend to disagree. It’s funny to me how “selling out” in this regard is said in a negative way. At least those that are “selling out” are actually selling :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Anyway, my 2 cents. I’ve been enjoying your work @Cristina! Keep it up!

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Hi I didn’t read the other threads. I found this haunting. I like the natural feel and even the fret noise. My fav tho was the oooo’s in the background. I’ll let the mix guru’s help you there. Like your pic too




Yeah me too - I thought it best to actually hear before commenting on song creation issues…

I think this sounds good, nice playing and a genuine performance. For me, there’s nothing much wrong with this at all - on the contrary.

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I love that suggestion about imagining that the audience is there during the process. I have never tried that. I don’t have any experience playing live, but I bet it will still help. I tend to think a lot about how I can express myself in the most straightforward and easy to understand way possible, and I bet it will help if I imagine the actual people who will be listening.

Yeah I don’t think of “selling out” as a bad thing anymore. There’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking about your audience when creating art. (In fact, back from when I used to want to be a writer, I remember that advice thrown around all the time–think about your audience.) Sure, it’s different than some sort of “pure expression” or whatever, but it’s just as valuable. And it’s like, less pretentious in a way. I think there’s a balance to be struck between what feels real and valuable to the artist, and what the fans will enjoy. And that’s what I go for lately.


Hi Cristina,
One of my key recording drivers is to capture the ‘flow’ of a song… the elusive essence that gives it an extra dimension… I felt that flow when I listened to your track, it’s there in bucketfuls… that goosebump moment of recognising and feeling the music in its natural form… but how much of that can you keep and how can you repeat it?

It’s a strange process… For me, one of the incredible advantages of a home studio over the restricted access to commercial studio space, is that you can key up songs, have them ready and waiting for that moment when things just gel creatively. Sometimes I’ve recorded a scratch track, O, a prime example is my ‘Iris’ song where I picked up a thing I’d not sung for years and then blurted it forth with piano and vocals and there was a quality to it that I just really liked and simply could not repeat at will… hah… no click track either which was a pain… But that’s more of an exception, usually I key up tracks so they are ready to go, muck about with them a bit to get the bpm right, practise through any tricksy bits and then wait…

Ideally, a window in time lets me have a couple of hours or more of uninterrupted recording time and now that i think about it, the odds of getting a good keeping take are slim but possible… there is a lot of hit and miss… Usually I sing the songs through a bunch of times, recording it all and then making up harmony stuff… once I get in the groove, I have no idea of the quality plus there has been quite a bit of practice in setting up so I hopefully don’t do too many really dumb recording mistakes.

There’s quite a bit of discipline to it all - the number of beats between sequences etc… it’s funny when I’ve been collaborating with someone and suddenly realised wonky things I’ve done like even change the time sig half way through…
waffle waffle, I’m probably way off topic now, sorry…
I guess I’m saying that usually I’m quite structured in my approach except for when I’m not haha… [wry grin] :confused:

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Thanks for sharing, Emma! I understand what you mean about “flow,” and getting in the groove. In the past, I’ve kept scratch tracks because I could not for the life of me recreate something. When I record vocals I usually do a number of takes before I start getting ones that I like. It takes some time to really get into character. I also find that when I’m practicing guitar with a metronome, sometimes the whole thing just really clicks and feels effortless and I’m playing within the groove without having to think about it. And I’ve got to be relaxed for it to happen. I guess there’s a skill to being able to get to that place at will.

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I relate to what you say as in process. One thing I do is to make sure that I continue to write as I record. I am always tweaking guitar lines and bass lines etc. adding another layer of X,Y or Z. This keeps it dynamic. Its like trying to squeeze that last little bit out of the song. I love this part of it.

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I don’t love it, but I do agree that it’s good practice. It’s never over until its over - keep looking out for that little extra je ne sais crois that might make all the difference.