Sunday, May 13, 2012

In between: Your riffs < your song.

The common misconception when hearing the music of a certain band, as pointed out in the first text of this blog, is that the music just magically happens. The people just play riff 1, then they know exactly what will be riff 2, until the bass player suggests we´d use his riff as a chorus, then repeat and get back to the drum break. And voilá, we have a song! It´s all magical fairies, common intuition and the speech of the Old Gods. Ia! Ia!

Well, not exactly.

Behind most songs you hear, it´s more than usually possible that there´s actually a huge think- tank behind every single decision and a note. Quite often, especially when time goes by and bands get more and more professional in their career, they start to think more carefully about the song structures. It´s not about "will this sell" but rather about "is this good enough for my baby". This is an important thing to keep in mind: To put it bluntly, melodies and riffs are which sell. Arrangements are what only makes your melodies and riffs into their full potential. Drawing parallels to "trying to be more commercial" on that would be the same you´d call your wife a whore when she´s putting more effort to her looks on an important night out.

With a lousy arrangement and production, you can ruin a perfect song. With a superb arrangement, you can turn minced meat into filet mignon, and this is usually how the commercial pop music world works. Or, if you´re talented enough, you can do that filet mignon from the start and finish the catering with an applause. In, which case, you´re probably Max Martin and you don´t have to read any further.

Your job as a composer for your own band is to make the best out of your (or someone else´s) riffs and turn them into a song. With computers, it´s easy to try different stuff. And with computers, it´s even more easy to wander endlessly on a Swamp of Endless Solutions Where Every Idea Is Bad Because You Forced Them. When thinking about arrangements alone, don´t force them. Take a break. Let them rest and do something else. Within a couple of days you might know exactly in which order to put them and how will that last chorus end. Always think about the big picture.
Two biggest issues you constantly face are either "will this get boring" and "is this too chaotic and fast- paced arrangement". Find the fine line between those two, and you´re halfway there already.
When thinking them with bandmates, get feedback. Try their ideas. In many cases, you´d be surprised how well their structural ideas work when combined with your snippets, because they haven´t got deaf in the process but have fresh ears for the big picture. If you run into an dead end, do not hesitate for asking help. Send the song to the bass player and ask him to give it a spin and give his FIRST reaction after it. Then ask him to listen it again and ask the SECOND reaction.
If it differs radically from his first (bad) impression, you are on the right track. However, if he still insists the song is bad, there´s a huge chance that it is bad.

Don´t take it personally- for every hit song there are 132 shit songs. The more you compose, the more you realize that some day you are on fire and some day you´re rather...extinguished. It´s not the end of the world. However, take a note why is it bad. Let´s face it - to convince your bandmembers about this awesome song you made you need the following ingredients:

1. Killer riffs and other parts, like a catchy chorus or a "hook".
 So, you actually started to read the small print why? This is why you fail, my young Padawan. :D

2. Killer arrangement.
Note to self: The transitional parts aren´t supposed to be killer riffs. You can refer them as "the riff behind the solo". Actually, in order to not to exhaust the listener there has to be something dull, too. Sometimes too much information is too much. Besides, it makes the killer stuff even more outstanding. Be it just a 4- bar open E with a drum beat or a 2- bar break, you need it every now and then. Don´t judge yourself for that.

3. Killer presentation of the song.
In order to convince people, you need most likely to make a demo. This is a double- edged sword: on the other hand, the more polished and thought the demo is, the better you can sell your idea. On the other hand, a demo which leaves more room for improvements and imagination, might sell the idea even better as the listener can draw his own conclusions and imagine it the way he´d like to hear it. Your call, really, how to do it. It´s all about for whom and in which situation you´re going to present the song. And we all know how FUCKING ANNOYING is to do the "ok and the vocals would go like NA NA NANANAA HUM DI DUM with this riff and here I need a bagpipe and oops, I´ll rewind a bit, we missed that part as I was speaking on top all the time".

And this is why your song probably wasn´t convincing enough. Your riffs were good riffs, but no- one realized it because your song sucked. Like children, your song isn´t ready when it´s out from the womb. That´s where the actual bringing up starts. It will be finished the day you let it go spreading it wings to the world. You might shed a small tear but at some day you will let you children go, knowing you did your best. Your riffs are babies, your songs are young adults leaving home. That´s the difference.
Take Amon Amarth for example. Any idea why they hit so huge? Except for years in business and a very well-selling image? The riffs might not be the cleverest and newest in town. And they do sound a bit alike each other. So why did they make it so big? I´ll tell you why. Simplicity. Arrangements. No futile and boring parts. Those songs are like a trimmed engine. Your and mine are like a Fiat Punto from 1991. Or a milk truck engine on downers. You wouldn´t probably enter a Nascar race with a superb racing car bought new from the store yesterday? No, you´d spend TONS of time trimming it into the best possible shape before entering the race. Now why wouldn´t you spend some time to your song too in order to give it what it deserves- the best possible trimming before unleashing it?

You should spend at least 25% of the time you work on riffs on the arrangement, preferably 50%.
That´s what separates the big boys from the ones which never made it. I could safely say I spend roughly as much time arranging my music as I spend composing it. Did I make it big? Unfortunately, only physically.
But hey, at least I try. Do you?

PS: No, before you ask- my intention has never ever been hitting big with any of my bands. In fact, I detest the idea. But as a musician, my ultimate goal is to make fucking good songs. Probably needless to clarify, "fucking good songs without sacrificing a single bit of my artistic integrity." You probably knew this already, but I just wanted to point it out. 
And for the record, I really don´t think there is much difference between a member of Origin or Max Martin in how they feel about their musical creation at the end of the day.

1 comment:

  1. "Those songs are like a trimmed engine. Your and mine are like a Fiat Punto from 1991."

    Well, Amon Amarth didn't write a half-hour song that's interesting all the way through, so you've got one over them. (Not saying they're bad, though).