Friday, June 12, 2020

Visual songwriting pt 1


Recently I stumbled upon quite the gem. On my never ending search for information regarding the production processes of Phil Elverum (the Microphones, Mount Eerie), I discovered the 'Headwaters' booklet, which includes an explanation of the songwriting and compositional processes Phil underwent while writing his 2003 album Mount Eerie. What really stuck out to me was how he went about the first song on the album, the Sun. Across four pages of paper, he drew a timeline for the seventeen minute track, writing copious notes alongside many visual annotations of what instruments play when. It seemed like an interesting tactic so I tried it out.

In practice

I tried this method out for a part of an album, made up of three songs, and I found that it worked really well. While I wouldn't use it for a straightforward verse/chorus style song, its greatly helping me conceptualize this long form composition. Especially seeing as I am going to write these songs on tape where I'm not getting the visual feedback I would normally with a DAW. While I could have written something similar in the form of a more traditional score, I encounter a similar issue of not much visual feedback. (also with the fact that i cant really read traditional sheet music) I find being able to use large scale symbols and dense text helps conveys my musical meaning. At least to myself, which is really what matters most regarding this project. Also, an advantage of this is that it's fun, its hands on. I'm always trying to get more with my music.

However, planning something this extensive out on my 16 track was a challenge, but I ended up using another one of Phil's visual cues. On the back of the page I drew a row for each track, about half an inch tall, and planned out what is going to go where on the tape, and for how long. Also, I was able to see the main cues from the other side of the paper due to the marker I used to mark them out. While this doesn't give the same visual representation of the intensity of the music, it allows me to better plan out the finer details. Not only what instrument goes on what track, but how many instruments I want, if there's any double tracking, and if there are any effects which I want to use.

Sure, all of this does seem fairly straightforward in retrospect, but its something which I hadn't thought of before. Interesting techniques like this, however simple are always great. I'm always looking for new ways to meddle with my workflow. Most of the time i end up back where I started, but sometimes I strike gold and find something which becomes indispensable to me in the long run (I'll get into a similar topic sometime in the future regarding reaper, easily the most powerful daw I've ever used) 

Heres the main timeline for these tracks. Ive used a lot of visual cues to help me think about the song in a musical way, as this could have easily become a big sheet full of text, which would have been quite hard to understand/decipher. When I do something like this in the future I will probably use more colors to help distinguish various parts/instrument groups.

Here is the flip side of the same page, where I outlined what instruments go on what tracks. It's still a bit incomplete, as I reckon I'll finish filling it out when I'm actually working on the track.

Other song/applications

I recently wrote a similar style tune, very long and wandering. Moving through many different sections and ideas over 20~ minutes. This visual planning method could really be handy for this tune, even though its well under way. It could help provide a new perspective on a song I've spent so much time with already.

Also, earlier I mentioned with the visual feedback you can get with DAW's that you don't normally with tape. This project is a great example of that. Your able to see when sections start and end not just through the markers and regions, but also by the number of tracks and their positioning. However, this isn't always the best indication, as you can't really see the intensity of each track, and with big projects like this, things get cluttered really quickly. Once I'm finished laying down all the source material for this tune, I will consolidate most of the big groups down and draw up one of these timelines to help me better visualize the whole thing. This will also be handy as I plan on doing some visuals alongside this project, so I could treat the timeline as a bit of a storyboard as well.

I'm going to write a bit about this tune sometime in the future, but for now here's just a screen capture of the current project file, its pretty monolithic.

Overall, this visual songwriting style was something I found quite interesting and helpful. I hope anyone reading this would have gotten something out of it. I will later write a follow up post when I've undergone some of this production and recording, and report a bit how it all panned out. I'm foreseeing that I wont stick exactly to plan, but its still a good guide to have. Plus it allows me to just brainstorm ideas. And at the end of the day it gets me away from my computer, which I'm pleased about.

Peace n love y'all,


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