Posts Tagged ‘ Preproduction ’

Poetic devices

Who here writes lyrics? Who here works with lyricists?

If so, you might have experienced the difference between functional lyrics and poetic lyrics.

Functional lyrics tick all the boxes – they make sense, they rhyme in all the right places, they tell the story, etc. But somehow they’re boring. They don’t move you. They’re not special. Poetic lyrics, on the other hand, are special. They speak with a unique voice. They’re fun or witty or profound. They’re not just words – they’re magic.

Sometimes you might be working with some lyrics that need a touch more poetry. But what is poetry? What makes lyrics poetic? You need to employ poetic devices. Broadly speaking, poetic devices are writing techniques that make the text more musical by crafting the sound and rhythm and the way the words form meaning in our minds. If you’re working with lyrics that need a bit more magic, try these techniques:

  • Imagery – Evoke the senses! Don’t just write about what happened – write about how it felt, how it smelled, how it looked. How did it taste? What did it sound like? Engage the listener’s imagination and prompt them to imagine with their senses. The more you do this, the more evokative and immersive your lyrics will be.
  • Metaphor – Write about a subject as if it’s something else. This is a way to add a lot of nuance and meaning to a passage without getting overly wordy or bogged down in description. Also, by linking two otherwise-unrelated ideas, your listener’s mind will be more engaged and stimulated.
  • Simile – This is very similar to a metaphor, except that with a simile you are making the comparison or likening explicit. As a simple example, ‘your love is the ocean’ is a metaphor, and ‘your love is like the ocean’ is a simile. Similes often work well on a smaller scale – just a line or two, whereas metaphors can be effective for whole sections or even whole songs (or more!).
  • Personification – Give a non-person entity human characteristics. Non-person entities can be objects, emotions, locations or even ideas. These can be given human characteristics such as desire, speech, or even emotions. This gives a greater sense of life and fantasy to the lyrics.
  • Point of view – Tell the story from another angle. Often a story can be completely transformed by simply telling it from another point of view. To give a boring story an interesting twist, try telling it from an unconventional point of view. Including multiple points of view within a single song can easily make it too fragmented, but can be very exciting if done well.
  • Juxtaposition – Putting two unlike or unlikely things together. This can be in the content of the story – for example by combining themes. It can also be done musically – for example by combining different composition techniques or singing techniques. Juxtaposition works in a similar way to metaphors – the unlikely combination of ideas engages and stimulates the listener’s mind.
  • Alliteration – Repeating the first consonant. Alliteration allows words to affect a listener by always drawing attention and asserting the added instances of a sound (sorry!). This is particularly effective for significant lines – such as those in a chorus. Alliteration emphasises strings of words and helps make them more memorable.
  • Rhymes – Rhymes are the most common poetic device used in songs. Most songs have s clear rhyming pattern – commonly the last syllable of a line will rhyme with the last syllable of the next line. Also common is the last syllables of lines 1+3 rhyming, and the last syllables of lines 2+4 rhyming. Try to go beyond this – try different rhyming patterns, or even multi-syllable rhymes. Rap music is known for pushing the boundaries of how rhymes can be used.

You’re probably already be familiar with some of those techniques, but hopefully this list will give you some ideas for taking your lyrics to the next level.

Also, keep in mind that good lyrics aren’t always necessary! It’s possible to get away with poor or unimaginative lyrics if other aspects of the song are strong.



Preproduction: Rehearsals

Practice. Seriously. Do it.

You wouldn’t believe the number of times an artist has brought in an unrehearsed musician to a recording session. It’s a time-waster to be sitting in the studio with a bunch of people waiting around while the guitarist figures out what chords to play.

Ditto for singers: Know how to look after your voice. Know your lyrics. Know how you’re going to sing each part of the song. Know your harmonies. Come prepared.

What’s this got to do with producers and preproduction?

A producer can help the artist with the rehearsal process. In many cases, the artist is quite capable of organising musicians, working out parts for them and conducting rehearsals. In some cases, however, the artist needs a little help.

Organising musicians is something that a producer can naturally help with. Quite often, an experienced producer has a wide network of musicians to draw upon – wider than most artist’s group of friends. For specialised tasks, a producer can often find the right musician for the job.

Writing parts for musicians is also something that a producer can assist with. This can range from scoring string sections to jamming with a bassist. The producer’s experience in working with a wide range of music provides the perspective and knowledge of how to make best use of musicians for a project. A producer with classical music training is especially useful if classical musicians – such as string players – are to be used on the project. Classical musicians often require notated music to be provided. Alternatively, an arranger can be hired to score the parts.

Conducting rehearsals is another activity that a producer can do well. The producer’s skill and experience in project management makes a big difference to the smooth and effective  running of a rehearsal. Rehearsals involving several musicians also has the added complication of having to coordinate mutually-available session times and booking rehearsal studio time. Again, having the producer take care of this allows the artist to focus on the song and the performance.


Preproduction: Enhancing expression

Music is expression.

It is a way of expressing ideas, aesthetics, and emotions. There are things that can be expressed through music that cannot be translated to any other medium (including written language).

When I speak with an artist about expressive range, I’m referring to the range of variance in a particular aspect of the sound. For example, the expressive range of the human voice can be thought of in terms of volume (soft to loud), pitch (low to high) and tone (smooth to harsh). And then there are also factors relating to articulation and melodic composition.

All instruments have some degree of expressive range. Some more than others. For electronic musicians, synths can have a huge expressive range. Even stock loops have an expressive range through the use of editing and effects processing.

The expressive range of each part of the song can be used very effectively when it supports the overall structure and contour of the song. For example, the chorus (or recapitulation) of a song might need to have high energy. As well as density to the mix by adding more parts, also look at the parts that are already there:

  • Drum parts can get more complex and syncopated
  • Basslines can become more sustained or more animated
  • Background rhythm parts can become more regular
  • Melodies can get higher
  • Harmonies can be thicker and fuller

Often an artist will bring in a demo recording using loops that are static (unchanging) throughout the whole song. Even if the loops sound great and perfectly capture the vibe of the song, they can make the whole thing a bit uninteresting to listen to. Verbatim repetition has an effect of flattening the contour of the song.

Exploring and enhancing the range of the song requires exploring and enhancing the range of each individual part in the song. It’s not enough to simply add more layers at the high points and remove layers at the low points. It’s easy to fall into this trap because it works. Really. Simply adding and removing layers is an effective way to shape the contour of the song. But there’s so much more that can be done. And the producer’s role is to dig deeper and go further than the artist, in order to better realise the potential of the music.


Preproduction: Clarifying creative direction

Creative direction can be a real ‘gotcha’ when working as a producer with an artist. First of all, it’s absolutely critical to be clear who is the creative director for the project. As a producer, my projects roughly fall into two categories:

  1. The artist is the creative director. For these projects, the artist has a clear idea of how s/he wants to express the songs. The artist will choose the genre and approach to instrumentation for the project. The artist is the visionary. For these projects, the artist is hiring me to make those dreams into reality. I leave my own personal taste at the door, and I must adopt the taste of the artist. Working on these projects, it is essential to understand the difference between effective composition/production and personal  taste. When I make a suggestion to improve the music, it must be a suggestion that is consistent with the artist’s own tastes and goals for the project. That sometimes means accepting (or even making suggestions for) musical choices that are not to my taste. Where the artist disagrees with me, it is my role to educate the artist and help them understand why my suggestion will help them sound more like how they want to sound. Obviously, this requires a high degree of sensitivity, understanding and mutual trust.
  2. I (the producer) am the creative director. For these projects, I am in charge. I call the shots. I get to make music that excites and challenges me. Where I use other collaborators – artists and musicians – they are coming along for the ride. Where the previous scenario is of the artist hiring me for their project, this scenario is more like me hiring the artist for my project.

Once it’s clear who is driving the creative direction for the project, it’s then important to establish what the creative direction is – for the whole project, and for each song. This is a discussion that need to be had in terms of colours, textures, feelings, instruments, etc. Sometimes this is quite clear and direct, other times the artist is less clear – either s/he doesn’t know, or has difficulty expressing it.

When establishing the creative direction for a project or song, it’s important to share common ground – common reference points so that you both know that you’re understanding each other. Often an easy way to start this process is to present some musical references – I often ask the artist to bring in some favourite CDs that capture some of the essence of what s/he wants to achieve.

Another good resource for establishing common vocabulary is the AMG mood list: I like to choose a selection of words from this list that captures the creative direction of the project. This selection of words is also a useful resource when working with other contributors – such as session musicians and graphic designers.

Once the creative direction is established and agreed upon, the artist and myself can intelligently and constructively discuss various aspects of the instrumentation and other musical aspects of each song. I can make suggestions that the artist hadn’t thought of – but still support the creative direction of the song. The artist can more easily explain the intent of the song. It gives us a framework to decide whether ideas are appropriate or not. It helps give us the courage to discard good ideas that don’t fit.

Without establishing the creative direction for the song or the project, confusion and miscommunication is inevitable. It makes it difficult to tell the difference between effective composition/production and personal taste.

After all, how can you take the artist’s music to the next level if you can’t agree on what the next level is?


Preproduction: Tightening structure

Another important aspect to consider in preproduction is the structure of the song. For vocal songs, this is often addressed when working on the lyrics. Sometimes this is enough, sometimes it isn’t. Approaching structure  separately is often necessary when there is a strong instrumental component to the song. This includes vocal songs that have distinctive sounds or textures. This is where the vocal is not the only driving force or characteristic feature of the song.

In assessing the structure of the song and identifying ways it might need to be improved, it’s essential to understand concepts such as contour, proportion, development and coherence. I’ve already written about these here:

Usually artists present demos that have some good ideas, but are undeveloped. They might range from a collection of ideas (sometimes even in the same key!) vaguely arranged in a structure, to fully-realised compositions that are just a little loose around the edges.

Sometimes I need to do a lot of work with the arist to present their musical ideas in a way that flows and makes sense. In extreme cases, I need to rerecord parts just to make sense of the structure. This is often because the sections are in different keys or tonalities in a way that doesn’t make musical sense, or because individual tracks are too heavily processed (typically compression or distortion) in a way that can’t be undone or pulled back.

When it’s only a nip and a tuck required, it’s because there are sections that are too long – they spend too much time without contributing much to the story of the song. In other cases additional parts are recorded or rearranged to give the song a more defined shape (contour) and progression (development).


Preproduction: Polishing lyrics

Last week’s post mentioned polishing lyrics as one aspect of preproduction. Typically, an artist will present a song to the producer, and the producer will work with the artist to improve the lyrics.

Often artists get precious about their lyrics – and for good reason – because they’ve worked long and hard to come up with sixteen structured lines that rhyme and tell a story. It’s not easy! The last thing they want is for some outsider to rip up their hard work and make them feel inadequate.

It’s important to remember that a good producer’s role is (usually) not to reinvent the artist in their own image (or fantasy). A good producer’s role is to help make the artist sound more like how s/he wants to sound. It’s not about personal preference or taste – it’s about looking at ways to make the existing song more effective in expressing the artist’s intent. This is why experience is so important.

I often start conversations with my artists along the lines of “I see what you’re trying to achieve here, and I’ve got some ideas for how we can do that even better”.

When working on lyrics, often improvements fall into these categories:

  • Themes. Sometimes an artist will present lyrics that are unclear or confusing. This is often the result of the lyric being pieced together from multiple scraps, having been written in several sessions (often with big gaps in between!), or coming up with a great line and not having the courage to throw it away if it doesn’t fit the song. Often the artist doesn’t (want to) realise the song is confusing because s/he understands the intent perfectly – the clarity is lost in translation from the mind to the paper. Improving lyrics along thematic lines require identifying the primary (and secondary) themes of the song, establishing the thematic arc of the song, and shaping the lyrics to focus on those themes and fit within the arc. Most of the time, this doesn’t require much change – a few strategic cuts and shifts is often enough to break through.
  • Structure. Sometimes an artist will have great lyrics for a song, but the song suffers due to too much repetition – or not enough repetition. In some cases it’s just one section that meanders aimlessly and loses momentum. In other cases the lyrics tell a story that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Once structural issues are identified, it’s usually quite easy to remedy. It’s not about making a song conform to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure – it’s about assessing and understanding the song on its merits and developing a structure that tells the story in an effective and memorable way.
  • Flow and melody. In a lot of cases an artist will have slaved over the lyrics for a song, but the flow and melody appear to be an afterthought. The giveaway is when there are unimportant words emphasised and important words de-emphasised, or there are awkward moments where a lot of syllables have been squeezed into a short space of time. Sometimes the solution is to simply change the melody. Other times the lyrics need to be rearranged slightly. Not all words in a song’s lyrics are equally important – some words are pivotal, some are emotional, some words are merely passing words necessary for clear grammar. The pivotal and emotional words should be sung with more emphasis – by given them more time and giving them higher pitches in the melody.

A lot of the time, a song’s lyrics don’t need to be changed much. On the occasions that the lyrics need a *lot* of work I usually spend a session with the artist identifying and discussing the issues and tell her/him to rework the lyrics and present them again another day. As a producer, I avoid writing lyrics for the artist. I sometimes suggest changes, but it is always up to the artist to make the changes. Ultimately, the lyrics are the artist’s ‘voice’ and s/he must be absolutely comfortable delivering them.


About preproduction

Preproduction is an interesting topic. If you’re a solo composer/producer, you might never have encountered it. If you’re a singer/songwriter about to record  in a studio, you might be wondering what it is and whether you need it. If you’re a producer working with an artist, either you know this or you need to know this.

Put simply, preproduction is what happens after compositiong/songwriting and before recording. It might cover one or more of the following:

  • Polishing lyrics
  • Tightening the structure
  • Clarifying instrumentation and creative direction (sound and feel!)
  • Enhancing expressive performance
  • Directing rehearsals

Essentially, this is the point at which the songwriter has written the song and taken it as fas as s/he can alone. It’s at this point that an experienced third party (a producer!) approaches the song with a fresh set of ears and provides advice and assistance to take it to the next level.

For a lot of music requiring live performances (such as bands), this is the perfect opportunity to make these kinds of improvements. Sometimes it’s possible to to things like changing the structure or a few lyrics after recording, but it’s usually difficult to make it sound natural.

For composers and producers working on electronic music (electronic performers?), this line is blurred. Often composing, performance, recording and mixing all happen in parallel – all together. For these kinds of projects, taking time out to devote to preproduction probably seems archaic and unnecessary.

However, even electronic music benefits from the advice and guidance of an experienced third party – even if that role isn’t called a ‘producer’ anymore. For the electronic music workflow, it’s usually more appropriate to bring in the third party toward the end of the mix. This is when the composer/producer has taken it as far as s/he can alone. For a traditional recording workflow, this is too late because audio recordings of live performances are not easy to change… but for the electronic music workflow (especially when using MIDI and software instruments) even drastic changes such as changing the chords or key of the song can be made after the mix is finished. While this is essentially the same ‘preproduction’ that traditional songwriters and producers know, the name itself can be misleading!

Maybe we need a new name. Any ideas?