Finding My Way As A Composer

After many years of trying, I finally found a little bit of success as a composer after 2 of my songs won some high profile awards last year.  I vividly remember that it was a real struggle for me to get started all of those years ago because I was at a complete loss the first time that I actually sat down and tried to force myself to create a masterpiece from nothing – considering that I hadn’t gone through any formal song writing training. During this particular time in my life, I happened to attend a panel discussion that was put together by the local Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy. One of the panelists shared that the secret to his award winning success is that he intensely studied great songs written by great songwriters and then kept practicing his writing skills until he was able to create his own hit songs. This is the advice that gave me some direction and helped to propel me forward.

The first halfway decent song that I wrote was an instrumental that was part acoustic instruments and part digital software instrumentation created using my MIDI keyboard. It took me almost 2 months to get it all finished, which drained me mentally. I kept telling myself that I needed to find a much better approach because I couldn’t continue to spend 2 months on every song. That just wasn’t practical. I already had a copy of the Logic Pro software, which came with a demo project that had all the instrumentation and sound clips for the song ‘The Numbers Game’ by the group Thievery Corporation (see the image below).Untitled

I grabbed a pencil and some paper, and mapped out all of the instrumentation for each measure of the song. This became the template that I later tweaked to create my song ‘Metro Sonic Groove’. It took me considerably less time to finish that song because I had a plan to follow and could quickly structure my verses, choruses and the bridge. If you ever happen to listen to my first composition ‘Reflections at Sunset’ and my later composition ‘Metro Sonic Groove’, you will definitely hear the difference that it made in my production quality when I changed my approach and started off with a written plan. This approach may not work for everyone since all artists have their own creative genius that they have to find a way to tap into, but it’s something to try if you find yourself in a rut.

The first music composition award that I won last year was for my song ‘HeartBeat’. It won an Akademia Music Award for Best Ambient/Electronica song. That song came about after I entered a Mixathon48 music producer’s competition. I was sent 5 eight-measure audio files and had to create a full song around those audio stems. Unfortunately, I didn’t win that competition, so I decided to use the parts of the song that I legally owned to create another song which later became ‘HeartBeat’. At the time of the competition, I was studying and creating a project instrumentation template from Katy Perry’s song ‘Unconditionally’. I made some modifications to that template structure in order to come up with my final award-winning product.

The second music award that I won was for my orchestral arrangement of the Christmas tune ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. I entered that song into a Radio Airplay contest, and it was selected as one of the Top 200 Holiday Songs of 2015. I made that Christmas arrangement from a project template that I created based on the television show Glee’s arrangement of the same song. I had to make some minor adjustments in that all of the vocal parts became acoustic cello or digital string parts, and that seemed to fit in well with my other instrumentation choices. I’m just happy that enough people liked it to vote it onto the top 200 list.

When it comes to music composition, there really isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. Every composer eventually has to find the right artistic expression that truly represents who they are. I know some composers who will only use acoustic instrumentation and some who prefer to create their songs digitally. Composers who are looking for commercial mainstream success may have to make different choices than someone who’s composing for personal gratification, but we all have to start somewhere. I hope that you find my experiences useful as you pursue your own musical dreams.

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Software I’ve Used To Compose & Arrange

I would always get a good laugh when my musician friends from our church orchestra would talk about their harrowing tales of what they would have to go through in order to piece together a living as a working musician. For those of us who have decided not to teach in the school system, this is a very common reality.

I played in a string trio for a few years as one of my side jobs. As we started to build up a following, we also started getting a lot of requests to play music from contemporary artists such as Cold Play, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Foo Fighters, etc. There was one instance where I booked us a last minute job, so it became my responsibility to come up with 7 custom trio arrangements of pop and R&B songs within a week. The stress was very real when I found out that there wasn’t any pre-packaged music that I could buy anywhere to fulfill our client’s requests. After I calmed myself down, I had to scramble to find a solution. This is when I remembered that I had a free copy of the Finale NotePad software that came with the lesson books that I use with all of my beginner cello students. It was a mentally painful experience to become proficient with Finale NotePad in a few days while still creating professional arrangements that wouldn’t embarrass my trio mates to play in public. I don’t use this software as much these days since I have a score editor in my Logic Pro DAW (digital audio workstation), but it’s a great alternative when I need to get an arrangement done quickly and don’t want to create a whole new project in Logic to use the Score Editor.

When I first started using Finale, I would either use my keyboard to type the note name that I wanted to appear on the staff and then use the mouse to drag the note head to the correct octave, or I would just use my mouse to individually click on the lines and spaces to create a note. This turned out to be a painstaking and tedious process to go through. I now have a MIDI controller keyboard that I USB connect directly to my computer. The Finale software automatically recognizes my MIDI keyboard, so I don’t have to do any additional setup other than powering the keyboard on. This allows me to quickly play a passage on the keyboard, which then manifests itself immediately on the staff.

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Since I usually have a Logic Pro project open on my computer at any given time, that is usually the most convenient option for me to create an arrangement or composition. What I have to do is create a software instrument track and then record my MIDI note events using my MIDI keyboard (see the image below).logicsession

In this next image, you will see that the ‘Classic Electric Piano’ track is my software instrument track. Logic automatically defaulted to the ‘Classic Electric Piano’ software instrument on its own. The instrumentation can easily be changed by selecting a different option in the library window. After creating my software instrument track, I then click on the red circle in the top left hand corner to start recording the notes that I will be playing on my MIDI keyboard. The green region below contains my notes which can then be viewed on the staff in the score editor.LogicEditor

Yes, there are other programs out there that you can use to arrange and compose your music. This posting is definitely not meant to be an exhaustive discussion on the subject matter. Hopefully, you will find my experiences helpful as you make your own path through the music world.

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Exporting Audio Files From Logic Into Pro Tools

Logic Pro is currently my preferred DAW (digital audio workstation) since I’ve created all of my projects there and am more comfortable with that platform.  As a musician, I may one day need to take my song to a studio where I will need to import the audio files or project into Pro Tools.  There’s actually more of a likelihood that as a producer, I will have to send my audio files to a mix engineer should I decide not to mix my songs myself.  Here is what I do to get my audio files from Logic into Pro Tools:

Step #1 – From within my Logic session, I set my cycle bar to cover the length of the song plus 1-2 additional measures, and then I navigate to File -> Export -> All Track as Audio Files (or use shortcut keys Shift+Cmd+E).

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 4.49.33 PMStep #2 – Below are the settings that I choose.   I select the check box ‘Limit Export to Cycle Range’ so that I’m not capturing unwanted silence in my exported tracks.  My ‘Save Format’ is WAVE, ‘Bit Depth’ is 24 Bit, my saved output is going to be ‘One File per Track’, I don’t want to ‘Bypass Effect Plug-ins’ and I want to ‘Normalize’ as ‘Overload Protection Only’.

If you are sending your tracks to be professionally mixed, then you should consider checking the ‘Bypass effect Plug-ins’ box so that all of your inserts will be turned off.  This will allow your mix engineer to have full creative control over the effects and plug-ins that he or she wants to use.  I choose to leave my normalization setting to ‘Overload Protection Only’ because this tells Logic to turn down the volume on the tracks that are peaking and distorting so that they peak at 0db.

I also click on the ‘New Folder’ button to create a separate directory on my desktop for each project that I’m exporting as audio files.  When you select the ‘One File per Track’ export option, each of the tracks in your Logic project will be saved as its on individual audio file.  It helps me to stay organized by creating individual folders per song.

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Step #3 (Pro Tools) –  After checking my file folder on my desktop to make sure that all of the audio files are there, I then create a new blank project in Pro Tools and click the shortcut key command Shift+Cmd+I (or navigate to File -> Import) to select the audio files that I want to import.  Next, click on the ‘Open’ button to begin the import process.

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Step #4 (Pro Tools) – Below are the import options that I select within my Pro Tools session.  If you select ‘Clip List’ as you input destination, then your tracks won’t show up in your session workspace.  You would then have to manually move each audio file from your list to your workspace.  I also make my import location ‘Session Start’.  This way all of my tracks will start at measure 1.  Click ‘OK’ to have your audio files imported into Pro Tools at your desired destination and location settings.

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