Is Your Song Record-Ready?
Reading Time 7-8 Minutes
5 steps to check yourself before hitting the studio.
What does Record-Ready mean?
Much like all things in music and art, there are many ways to describe this concept. Personally, I would describe record-ready material as being effective in intent, emotive in nature and thus ready to be completed in the studio and released out into the world for your audience to receive.
You wrote it, so it should express something you’d like it to express. It’s art, so it should also elicit some sort of response from people (positive or negative, engagement is never a bad thing), and not just “It’s amazing!” from your Mom (Hi Mom!) or best friend.
Before going any further, the answer is YES. The question (in the back of your mind) is to do with overthinking things and just recording the material:
Of course there are times when the music just courses through you; when the muse and the elements align to send you songs that are already perfect. Realistically however, 98% of the music that 98% of us write could do with a once-over, or one last look before your studio sessions. That is, there is often still some necessary and important work to be done.
Do you have a Good song or a Great song?
The difference between art that is good and art that is great is miniscule, to be honest. Some songs are just hits from the moment they are conceived, and the reasons can vary from trendiness to your artistic image. One unmistakable trait of a truly great song is that it consistently continues to attract listeners.
This point is a lot to do with honesty, with/to yourself and from others. You should be prolific with your writing (or your band’s writing, as it may be) because it’s statistically impossible for every song you write to be great. You need to write consistently and often because songs #49 and #50 are going to be objectively much better than song #11. Hand in hand with that, you should not be reclusive: art is a constant feedback loop, and at a certain point everyone needs an outside perspective to bounce ideas off.
Whether it’s another artist friend, a collaborator or co-writer (You don’t do that? Then get into it) or even a mentor (Don’t have one? Then get one), you have to be able to open up to someone comfortably, and that someone must be one whose opinion you value and trust. This person (or people) has to be 100% truthful without sparing your feelings at times. They should be able to tell you that the main hook for your Tropical House track is 100% the 2nd chorus to Pippin (Hey, it could happen) or derivative somehow without you getting defensive. That way, when they tell you that this latest song is probably the best you’ve written, you can take it at face value.
Is the song in the correct key (for the Vocalist)?
Let’s be real: if you write songs that feature vocals, that will be the central focus of the listener’s experience. Thus, doesn’t it make sense to spend some (or a lot) of time working on something as fundamental as the key of the song to make sure that it’s in as perfect a spot as possible?
Depending on your own workflow, there are a couple of ways to approach this:
If you are the singer and also an instrumentalist, move the chord changes around and get a feel for what the different sections sound like in various parts of your vocal range. Some sections will be mellower, lighter or more vulnerable, while others will be gritty, maybe more aggressive or emphatic. Figure out (or remind yourself) what your intent is with the song, and what is most effective and emotive in getting your message and emotions across.
If you are a producer or songwriter, or a singer/songwriter with some technical facility, make basic MIDI demos of your songs. Whether you are using the stock instruments in the DAW of your choice, or your favourite sample libraries and an arsenal of gear, you have the ability to transpose keys for complete arrangements in no-time so as to workshop the song with your vocalist(s).
If you play an instrument, you probably have favourite keys or positions you write or play in (Guitarists, I know how much we all love riffing in E), and that’s not a bad thing. Just consider that writing, recording and performing music is a team effort, with your vocalist’s instrument playing a vital role in your overall success, and for that purpose you may need to stretch out and explore unfamiliar (to you) keys for those killer riffs.
Think of this: “Hotel California” is an iconic song, it’s safe to say. It once used to be a good song that Don Felder wrote on guitar. After Glenn Frey and Don Henley crafted some great melodies and lyrics to it, they found that the original key (E minor) was not in a great range for Don Henley’s voice. They chose to work at it in the studio, lowering the key progressively down to B minor where the vocal felt the best and the rest, as they say, is history.
Does the song get your message across?
I know, I know, your song transcends earthly trappings and art is all subjective anyway.
However, there must be something that compelled you to write the material, correct? And when you sing/perform there must be some place that you draw your emotions and energy from.
There is some reason or compulsion that makes you do what you do, whether it’s introspection, self-examination, criticism, joy etc., and an effective song gets through to your audience with some of that feeling. Whether you like to spell things out, or leave much to the listener’s imagination, a great song will be something that your audience relates to and relates to you through.
You should expect that your audience (or a listener) can get the jist of your material on the first listen. If that isn’t the case, don’t fret; there may be something you can do that makes your song simply more effective at getting through to people.
Don’t despair: Getting ideas through effectively to people is a mystery and art in itself, and we can only get better at it by creating more often. Read through the lyrics - could they be streamlined in any way? Can you place or shift emphasis on certain words or ideas? Maybe that third verse could actually be the opening verse. Are all of the musical/melodic elements supporting the lead vocal? Could there be too many elements fighting for the listener’s attention at crucial times in the song? Is your chorus clear and concise?
There are many reasons why the intent of your song could become lost within the process. Ask yourself some or all of the questions above and move ahead.
Does it elicit a response from listeners?
The above point dealt with the specifics of your art and the nuances of creative expression. This is titled “...eliciting a response”, and not “...the correct response” since audiences express their sentiments differently.
What you should be doing at this point (presuming that you have gone through the previous items) is getting your music in front of people so that you can see what they do in response to it. You should play people a demo (Oh yeah, demo your songs, and often!) and watch them. I mean it: look at them while they listen to your song. Do it in an unobtrusive and non-creepy way so that they can relax and sincerely connect with the music itself.
Do they nod their head? Tap their feet? Does their breathing change? Do they smile or frown? These may seem like obvious things, but being able to gauge another person’s response is invaluable to your process. Think of this as using a focus-group, as is done routinely in advertising. If you play in a rock band, throw a new song into the middle of a set and see if the audience is responsive. If you are an acoustic performer, playing demos for people might be the best approach. If you write EDM or any music that is supposed to get people moving, get your DJ friend (don’t have one? Make one!) to spin your track and see if the dance floor erupts when the drop hits.
The point is not to change what you do and who you are based on audience feedback (or the above suggestions), but to make sure that who you are and what you do always comes through in your art and in the way that you intend it to.
Keep Writing, Make Decisions & Move on.
Hopefully the above points have, at the very least, been food for thought, or inspired you to actually look over your last batch of songs and get them ready to track and release.
The best thing you can do as an artist is to keep creating. The more consistently you do it, the better you will be at it. Use the the above steps as part of your process if you wish, but always keep moving forward!