musician/non-musician collaboration tips
March 17, 2005 11:38 AM   Subscribe

Tips for a musician collaborating with a "non-musician"?

I'm a musician who has been working with a "non-musician" (plays no instrument, little composition experience) for a few years now. We work mainly with Reason and Live, he usually writes the funky-fresh beats and I work on the badass melodies/hooks/sounds (which is a nice complement to each other). But we seem to be in a downward spiral of productivity, and haven't completed anything in a long while.

Working in looped based music, we seem to get stuck in these loops (ha) and can't seem to get to the linear composition part of writing, something that would end up a song or track. I'm thinking this problem might have something to do with our backgrounds - I'm using my guitar/bass/keyboard experience, he's more of a knob-twiddler/button pusher/programmer.
posted by hellbient to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
No advice, but coming as I am from the same background as your friend, I'm looking forward to the answers. I can compose fragments that sound really cool, and then I go nowhere with them.
posted by squidlarkin at 11:49 AM on March 17, 2005

Write the whole song first, on actual instruments (maybe this should be your responsibility). Lay out every mile marker of the song and keep a basic shitty beat throughout. Don't do any arrangement or mixing or tweaking at all, just get the basic structure down with one lead instrument like maybe a strumming guitar or simple piano chords. THEN tell your friend to populate the structure with beats and knob-twiddling, while you concentrate on recording various melodic instruments and filling out the structure with a proper arrangement.
posted by edlundart at 12:01 PM on March 17, 2005

It's all subjective as hell but here're some thoughts that may or may not resonate:

Take a look at your interface? I started making beats with software and eventually I managed to get an MPC. The MPC is unbelievably clunky in lots of ways compared to my software but for some reason it makes the horizontal (adding length) part of composition (which was always the hard part for me with software sequencing) really really easy.

Electronic "instruments" are so varied - and the UI of a bad program can prevent me from making beats as easy as an out of tune guitar. I personally have problems with the interface of both Live and Reason and I find I prefer using multiple smaller and simpler programs for specific tasks. Lately I've been doing almost all my software stuff with the DSP chip in my soundcard, using some funky open source drivers. I don't know how you're feeling but I've always found interfaces can exert huge influences that you barely notice till you find a new one.

Try to find a balance between vertical (adding tracks) and horizontal composition. I tend to start with short loops, and as i add tracks I extend the loop. once the loop gets long enough that it's hard to edit, i'll usually make two copies of it and use mutes and editing to try and make a nice change up in the second copy, even just dropping out all the melody or the drums after a four bar loop can be enough to inspire the next logical part. It's easy enough to add new tracks to a loop, so once you've built up a few ideas - ideas that either go with each other or clash with some but not others - make a couple of copies and erase what you don't want instead of trying to add a new part. Think in terms of subtraction - mass of the stuff we all like is minimal - so ruthlessly chop out the bullshit!

Be drastic too - save a backup and go buck on your beats - copy/paste some stuff staggered on top of each other and pitched different ... erase random bits ... odds are you'll find some unexpected funk somewhere that goes mad nice with the beginning part

as the more musically inclined party you might need to be the one that pays a bit more attention to form. unless you're trying to be crazy out there or something, once you have 4 or 8 measures you'll most likely want to be going to the next part. drop out the drums on a change and make your partner compose a new drum line.

Making short tunes helps sometimes. Try making a 1:30 song. Copy the loop out till you have that many of them. Carve out a structure. It'll be short enough you can pay attention to the whole thing without getting overwhelmed.

Last but not least, sit down and listen to that artist that makes you itch to make beats for as long as you can stand it, then 'splode out on the machine! Hope this hits the spot and good luck. :)
posted by 31d1 at 12:34 PM on March 17, 2005

Once personal computers became powerful enough to facilitate audio production, there were suddenly countless nonmusicians making “cool noises” on the computer, but unable to complete a song.

If someone plays a conventional instrument, a certain amount of practice is needed before they can make it listenable. Over the course of getting familiar with the instrument, musicians usually get a sense of song structure, theory, etc. Anybody can make interesting sounds on a computer without much work and it gives them the false impression that they can write full songs just as easily.

If you’re already a competent songwriter, I second edlundart’s suggestion. Someone new to music will likely just slow you down. Write the song and let the computer stuff enhance it. Encourage him to try his own compositions on the computer, and if he seems to get the hang of it after a while, he can get more involved in the songwriting. If the drummer can’t play guitar, the band isn’t going to have him playing guitar. If the sound designer cant write songs yet, he shouldn’t be writing songs.
posted by yorick at 12:53 PM on March 17, 2005

(This post is intentionally vague.)

Here's a pop formula...

Chorus (repeat and fade)

Here's a way to compose a non-loop-based "song" instead of a loop-based "track"...

The "story arc" is most obvious in dramatic productions but it's everywhere. Overcoming adversity, the reluctant hero, leaving home, the surprise at the end of a quest, falling in love, falling out of love, etc...

Find an arc in [your] life. It could be a simple as One Man's Journey to Find the Perfect Banana-to-Cheerio Ratio.

Then, in slow motion, take yourself thru that experience and map the emotions to musical concepts. Then, shuffle those musical concepts around into a song.

Whether or not the resultant song evokes the feeling of the original Banana Ratio Quest, it'll have some resonance with some part of the human experience.
posted by Moistener at 12:59 PM on March 17, 2005

some good answers here, guys!

great thread.
posted by fishfucker at 1:56 PM on March 17, 2005

My experience with looping suggests that loops often get so dense that any real music tracks can't compete. Also, given your situation, since he is not a musician and has no background in learning to play music, he has reached the limits of his creativity.
posted by mischief at 2:12 PM on March 17, 2005

Your problem sounds like one of form. Decide what kind of form you're going to be working with (binary form and ternary form are two simple and popular examples). Then decide how many bars each section is going to be and come up with the basic structure of each.

If you're not thinking in terms of sections, phrases, etc., the piece is likely to get away from you.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:44 PM on March 17, 2005

ludwig_van >>> If you're not thinking in terms of sections, phrases, etc., the piece is likely to get away from you.

Nail on the head. Most electronic music is based on 16- (house, techno) or 32- (trance, generally) bar phrases, further subdivided into 4's, 8's, and 16's. Try working backwards from there. Come up with your hook/melody/whatever. Say it's 4 bars... so you'll actually want four iterations of the hook in a 16-bar phrase, for example. With that done, you can then work out how long the 'peak' of the track needs to be. With that done, you have an idea of how long the buildup to that is likely going to need to be. So, sketch in some basic beats, work out melodies/basslines/backing parts to fit in.

All that said, I tend to start with beats & bass, and build up from there; having a fairly instinctive idea of how the phrasing in dance music works helps a lot there.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:12 PM on March 17, 2005

When I was a kid, I remember reading about how Will Rogers taught himself to write well by taking passages by authors he admired and trying to rewrite them himself.

Apropos to the "form" discussion, you may consider doing the same thing yourselves, only with music. Take a song that you both like, break it down to its most basic elements, and then rebuild it in your own style. Keep in mind that you're not making a cover of the song - you're sort of reverse engineering it, taking the form, chord changes, beat, etc. and making something that is uniquely your own.
posted by joshuaconner at 12:52 AM on March 18, 2005

Response by poster: wow, all good answers, as different as they are. Which is a good thing, because our problem is at least two-fold - the what and the how. Alot of it does stem from the technology, as 31d1 and others mentioned. I've got my loop that goes with his loop, now what? Do I send him my Reason file and work on one computer? Do we both exchange files and work on the composition separately? Do we stop and name a file the same thing, then start at 1:1 and work together? Next praque I'll dive in and begin asking these questions, and figure out the best way to work it.

The interfaces are becoming less of a problem - I've grown accustomed to Reason's layout, and I'm getting there with Live. And the other half is, as many above mentioned, I guess he's just not used to sitting there listening to something over and over and over, and crafting a piece like I am. I love it, I don't get tired of the repetition, it becomes ingrained instead of grating.

But what this thread helped with was just knowing which questions to ask, and we have to face each one of them, instead of shrugging our shoulders and playing the loop another 350 times (which, by the way, has it's place).
thanks all!
posted by hellbient at 9:41 AM on March 18, 2005

I forgot to say: save early, save often, don't be afraid to delete, and multiple versions are your friend. (This is something I'm hoping to be added in to Reason 3. Floops has supported simple saving of multiple versions for quite some time.)
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:15 PM on March 18, 2005

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