November 2, 2015
Adapting Your Song Structure for the Studio
Your band has just finished listening to a studio mix of the song that is most requested by live audiences. As silence descends, everyone looks kind of confused. It’s just not happening. Everything is played “correctly”, but it doesn’t really pop and snap like it does on stage.
Maybe that long build between the verse and the hook sounds repetitive. The volume increases, but there’s no crowd egging you on, no wave breaking into the chorus. Maybe the abrupt halt between the end of the chorus and the instrumental breakdown sounds forced and kills the momentum; the wowed audience – waiting breathlessly to hear you come back in right on beat – is not there to cheer when you do.
Whatever the specific problem may be, it’s only a matter of time before you realize an old favorite needs to be reworked if it’s going to sound good on an album. Of course, rarely do you have unlimited time in the studio and as such it’s rarely worth sitting around in the studio addressing a problem of this magnitude. If you get stuck on a song that is integral to the album you’re producing, it’s often best to move on to something else for that session. It will save a lot of aggravation and wasted money. Instead, set up a rehearsal to focus on resolving the issue, whatever it may be.
Once again, there are innumerable hypotheticals that could exemplify this problem and its solution. Here is a solution to one of those described above:
The Build that Built Too Long
In a live setting, it’s the hottest part of your show. The band hammers out eighth notes together, all the while building from the subtlest pianissimo to a thunderous fortissimo before crashing wildly into the band’s best hook. The crowd loses its collective head and rose petals and panties shower down on you from all sides. In the studio, it just sounds…dumb. Everyone agrees. You decide to take 5, set up a rehearsal, and agree on a new direction for the day.
That night, you all get together to work it out. It can be difficult to conceive of a better way to play what has worked well for a long time and a good place to start is by identifying what’s wrong so you can do the opposite. You may not end up liking the opposite, but it will get you out of your rut.
If you’re dealing with a long build that relies on live dynamics, try going with something shorter that relies on musical cues to propel the song. For instance, if the build is typically four bars long, try going with one or two; instead of hammering out the same chord using eighth notes, write a 1-bar line or play a passing chord on the “and” of “3” that resolves to the chorus.
Once you’ve taken this first step, you will very likely be inspired and have some fun figuring out how to bring excitement to the song in a studio setting. Who knows: you may find that it brings new life to an already-reliable show stopper.
In all cases, it’s important to remember that this is about the songs and how they work in a given setting (in this case, the studio). This isn’t about individual musicians or even songwriters (although care should be taken not to dilute the songwriters’ vision). And, while these issues can be frustrating and difficult to resolve, they are also fertile ground for creative inspiration. That’s the beauty of creating and sustaining musical entities such as songs: what stumps you today often results in new directions tomorrow.