When inspiration strikes it’s important to write it down. Thankfully I did this while on holiday two months ago, when a chorus and a rhythm with lyrics turned up uninvited over breakfast. A couple of weeks back while leafing through my list of song starters, I thought these ideas too good to leave uncompleted. The lyrics and chords didn’t take long to flesh out; my big problem seemed to be finding the right rhythm pattern.
The drum track
I was the drummer in the first band I was ever in, at age 17. I was an awful drummer then, and I’ve not played since. In my writing I often use a mix of odd measures and tempo changes, and have found that most drum sequencers are tedious to work with. For my first two albums I created drum tracks note by note in a MIDI editor, and this gets especially tedious especially quickly.
But it turns out my problem had already been solved for me. I bought EZ Drummer 2, and the “tap to find” browser quickly found me options with the right feel. They didn’t sound right, mind you: they were all cymbals and snare. But then I edited the patterns, moving the “power hand” to the toms and dialing back the number of ride and crash hits. This gave me pretty much exactly what I’d heard in my head all those weeks before. An hour or so later I had a complete drum track: amazing!
I made a structural mistake at this point: I left about 24 bars for an instrumental without any clear idea of what it would be. Next time I’ll have at least a chord pattern before deciding how many bars I need.
My Digital Audio Workstation of choice is Reaper, but I’m a somewhat lazy user. I tend to discover new features either by accident or when I go looking for a solution to a specific problem. To upskill, I’ve started following The Reaper Blog on Twitter, and that was where I learnt about subprojects.
Subprojects are a powerful Reaper feature that lets you embed other Reaper projects within the song you’re working on. I used them for the first time on “Heaven on Earth” and found that, while they’re not perfect, they do solve a couple of ongoing issues for me. First, they reduce the complexity of the song tracking interface to something manageable (get those 32 harmony tracks out of there!). Second, they allow me to monitor with all effects engaged, without audio dropouts or stuttering. You’d think an Intel i7 processor and 16GB of RAM would be ample but, no, some plugin manufacturers think nothing of chewing out 4GB.
I split vocals into three subprojects (verse, chorus and “Now’s the time” choir), guitar into a subproject because the effects I used were such a drain. And my Realivox Blue sessions were a separate subproject too. Essentially any complexity which won’t require constant tweaking during the mix is subproject material.
There’s another positive I’ve noticed while working with subprojects too. I’m much more inclined to add tracks and be creative within a subproject than when I’m working in the main song, especially if the main song already has a couple of dozen tracks. This may not be anyone else’s experience but, for me, it’s a good thing.
I’ve mentioned EZ Drummer 2. Other instruments on “Heaven on Earth” are my no-name SG copy guitar with the Zoom G3Xn effects unit. I use the Zoom as a DI box for my Danelectro bass too (just select an empty effect).
On top of the guitars there’s the Korg MicroArranger keyboard, which provides strings, flute, brass, pads, synth lead, sound effects and the bass in the chorus. That’s about all.
I’m not a singer, but I’ve found a couple of tools that help me get by. Well, judging by the reviews, almost get by.
The first is my Antares Autotune pre-amp, which I parallel on the vocal mic and feed into my headset on the least intrusive setting. Hearing the corrected pitch in my ears gets me back on track very quickly. Then there’s Little AlterBoy. It’s a relatively CPU-intensive plugin, but if you want to thicken a vocal or make it more airy, duplicating the lead channel and transposing the new track down or up an octave (then pulling it back in the mix until you’re not really aware of it) works wonders; I did both on the verses of “Heaven on Earth”.
The chorus has five vocal takes: one dead centre, one slightly left, one slightly right, and two further to the sides pushed up an octave with Little AlterBoy. I also played the melody line on electric guitar to flesh it out.
The “Now’s the time” choir has twelve harmonies, four of which are octave bumps using Little AlterBoy. I get a lot of use out of this plugin.
Additionally, there are a couple of guest appearances from Realivox Blue; the soprano lilting on top of the choir at the end of the third verse, and augmentation for the final chord of the song. Realivox Blue promises to be a useful addition to the arsenal, and I look forward to getting to know it.
If you’re a vocalist who thinks “Heaven on Earth” would suit you, I’d be delighted to send you the backing track and hear what you can do with it. Similarly if you’re a instrumentalist and want to have a bash at the second half of the instrumental. I’m a songwriter, not a performer. I’m pleased with the way much of “Heaven on Earth” has turned out, and I’m keen to improve it.
You can contact me on Twitter: @leighelse.