10 steps to making a music track

First up you’ll need some things:

  • 1 x iPod (or Sony Walkman)
  • pencil
  • 2 x sheet of paper
  • a DAW
  • a VST
  • basic knowledge about your DAW

Armed with just the pencil and paper – make your way down to a good cafe and order yourself a long macchiato. You’re in for a very busy afternoon.

  1. Pick an mp3 – any mp3
    I need to learn structure. One thing I know from screenwriting is that screenplay = structure. Website navigation dictates the structure (and ultimate success) of any website. I’m only assuming that the same goes for other creative pursuits such as tune writing. I chose Kate Bush’s Babooshka because it’s only 3:30m (plus I’d forgotten to synch Gerry Rafferty’s 6 minute “Baker Street” to my iPod Nano). Babooshka spent 10 weeks in the UK chart, peaking at number five and was an even bigger hit in Australia, where it was the 20th best-selling single of the year. It’ not complicated. The tune is made up of only 2 verses and 2 choruses. You can see 2 choruses in my piece above (the thicker bits of the sound-wave). That’s roughly the same place where Kate repeats her chorus in “Baboooooshka” over and over. The songs are roughly the same length.
  2. Paper-based analysis
    On paper, make horizontal lines (for tracks) and divide the top of the page vertically into 30 second intervals. Listen to the tune on your mp3 player at a good cafe and mark an X whenever an instrument kicks in. Make a note next to the X saying what the instrument is and listen for it again so you can make a mark (further down along and on the same track). Do this for drums (kick, toms and hits), synth, bassline and guitars. Ignore the vocals for now.
  3. Record the tune
    Record the tune in your DAW, being careful not to change the tempo of the original song. It will be used as a reference. Display your tracks as bars as well as times if you can.
  4. Open a VST
    Use a VST that has a good number of presets. I’m using TAL Noisemaker because I’m entering this month’s One Synth Challenge.
  5. Lay the drums
    Go through the presets in your VST and find something that sounds a bit like a kick-drum. Something punchy and deep. Record a hit of the drum and then copy and paste it into a midi track. Match the position of the kick with your guide track. Make a note of where the kick drum stops and starts. Is it at the beginning of every 4th bar? 8th bar? Paste the drum right throughout the entire (3:30 minutes in my case) track. You can always delete the midi / loop info wherever the equivalent drum in your guide track takes a rest. Do the same for the hi-hats, toms, cowbells. If you can’t find an exact emulation of the drum sound, use something that’s similar. Hi-hats and kick drum were enough for me. I ended up using TAL’s tom-tom to replace a bell-like sound in Kate’s masterpiece. Do the same with random percussive instruments such as triangle, tambourine etc. I use sounds with a similar tone rather than trying to be too precise. We’re not trying to redo the track, we’re just using it as a guide.
  6. Lay the baseline
    The bassline can be hard to find. Sometimes it’s a synth, sometimes bass guitar. You might even want to enter in your own little riff – but even if you’re not sure, make sure that when Kate’s bass riff comes in so does yours – and when hers stops – wrap up your riff.
  7. Lay other sounds, too
    At the approximate positions where guitar, piano and other noises are, insert some interesting sounds / loops. Spend a bit of time auditioning preset sounds. It’s more important that you like the timbre and quality of the sounds that you employ. TAL Noismaker has heaps of wonderful pitch sliders and arpeggiated noises as well as its own internal effects.
  8. Play your track alongside the guide track
    It will be an absolute cacophany! But that’s good. At least you get a sense where guide track sounds begin and end.
  9. Go your own way
    As much as you’ve paid careful attention to the original tune, you’ll find that your tune is entirely different. Now listen to just your stuff and mix the guide track right down. You roughly should have a similar structure.
  10. Less is more
    Now – be VERY critical. Whenever two sounds of a similar frequency “bump” into each other – remove one of those sounds. Sometimes this means deleting an entire track. but the more you pare away at your tracks, the clearer your new tune will be.

I hope this has been of some help to you. If so, leave a comment here and I’ll try to answer any questions you may have.

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