by Ryan Thomas
The songwriting process is a very personal thing — everyone does it differently. My bands' songwriting methods have varied wildly over the years. Some bands write as a group, where others learn songs written by a single member. For this column, I'll focus on my most personal and intimate songwriting method: writing and recording songs by myself.
Writing and recording music solo is something of a practice in vanity. Like a woman putting on her makeup, it becomes a matter of taking something that is positively and inherently "yours" and changing, augmenting, and rearranging it until it suits your tastes. Because I play all of the instruments, I have total control over the result. In some ways this writing method is advantageous and makes my life much easier, but there are numerous problems and pitfalls as well. The main advantages of working alone include being able to work at one's own pace and methodology, having total control over what is or is not played and the lack of conflicting egos.
One of the most obvious advantages to writing and recording by myself is that I can work at my own pace. Because I am the only member, I don't have to account for other people's schedules and working habits. Simply finding the time for three or four people to get together can be challenging. I also don't have to move my instruments or equipment to someone else's house or worry about arranging transportation for bandmates.
Everyone has different work habits, and working alone avoids any conflicts that could occur. Some people prefer short practices and writing sessions with frequent breaks, where others prefer to lose themselves in long, drawn-out sessions. In group writing sessions, a musician may hear a part in his head, but be unable to perform the part without some practice. This creates an awkward period while the rest of the band twiddles their thumbs and tries not to doodle around on their instruments while they wait for him to learn the part. When working alone, this is not an issue. Additionally, some musicians do not like to change things once they have been arranged as a group — it takes time and effort, and everyone must throw out material they already toiled to create. Alone, a songwriter can put as much or as little effort into revision as he sees fit.
A solo writer/recorder has total control over the content of her compositions and arrangements. Put bluntly, when I write alone, no one will insist upon playing a part that I don't like. When I write and record a song alone, I know and perform every nuance and subtlety. Slight accents converge together on the guitar, bass and drums, creating a cohesiveness that is hard to recreate with a group. One would think this problem could be ameliorated by strong communication and practice but egos get in the way. It is impossible to continually and repeatedly instruct a bandmate as to the minutia of a song's details and hope to remain in an amicable relationship.
Egos are probably the main issue that arises in a band-style writing/recording methodology and the avoidance of these issues may be the main advantage of writing alone. The problem with a good arrangement is that there are usually one or more fairly boring parts that hold down the structure of the entire song while a couple of different parts do the interesting things. Listen to the below clip of Jackson Browne playing Running On Empty.
For 90 percent of the song, the bass player and drummer are playing very simple parts that, while boring alone, work with the keys and guitar to drive the song forward with that relentless cycle of D resolving to A. Without the bass player holding that A root, the song wouldn't sound anywhere as cool. Over it all, David Lindley and Jackson Browne are doing the interesting things that the audience remembers, but their parts are no more important to the song than the simplicity of the rhythm section. However, some musicians may balk at the idea of playing something far simpler than their aptitude allows. When I write by myself, I get to play the simple parts that hold down the song and the more intricate and interesting parts that will be remembered. It's the best of both worlds.
Egos come in to play during recording and mixing as well. It can be extremely difficult to produce a great take on command. Recording a part that sounded good on the stage is like looking at it through a microscope where every flaw is magnified 100 times. Suddenly, the part isn't as perfect as it sounded with bad stage acoustics and a wall of blaring amps. Getting a musician to retake a part numerous times to get something usable is tedious to the engineer, who, in turn, is straining the patience and ego of the musician. Additionally, when the tracking is finished and it is time to mix the song, everyone wants their part to be the loudest and most noticeable. No one wants to be told that their part should be quieter for the good of the songs' overall impression. When I record alone, I don't have to worry about hurting anyone's feelings or dealing with the conflict of interest that results from playing a part and mixing the song. I just make it as good as I can and move on.
Obviously, there are a lot of great advantages to writing and recording songs by one's self, but the truth is that there are just as many disadvantages to this method. Be sure to check back for the next installment, where I expound the problems inherent with solo recording and writing.
Ryan Thomas is a songwriting, home-recording engineer from Lincoln, NE. After this article and his thesis, his bandmates through the years probably think he hates them! But he doesn't.You'll see in the next article. Read more at HiltAudio.wordpress.com.