3 Common Mistakes of Lyric Writing

As a producer, one of the things that is most apparent to me is the difference between an amateur and professional songwriter – even if that amateur is talented and doing well in their career. Many bands and artists come into the studio with what initially seems to be a great song, but in the process of putting down the vocals, it can become increasingly apparent that the lyrics have not had the same level of development (or writing expertise) as the rest of the song, often with basic mistakes that can leave an otherwise excellent song fundamentally flawed.

Lyric-writing is a craft as well as an art – words have more or less power and meaning depending on the order and context in which they are conveyed, and knowing some tricks to getting the maximum impact (and least amount of song self-destruction) from your lyrics should really be of high priority. Of course, there are no “rules” in writing, but there are observable effects on the listener depending on how you construct the lyric, and you can simply choose to use these tools or not.

Here’s my three worst contenders for shooting yourself in the lyrical foot.

1) Don’t use perfect rhymes

This is probably the most amateur mistake of all.
Try to use other types of rhymes instead – eg family rhymes, internal rhyme, additive, subtractive, assonance or consonance rhymes.
Although a part of our brain always desires perfect rhyme, we have come a long way since the early days of songwriting, and all those obvious perfect rhymes have been so well-used that they are now totally cliched and too-predictable.

Get yourself a rhyming dictionary (there are online versions too, although I prefer the MasterWriter app) and choose rhymes that are less obvious and maybe pleasantly surprising. Instead of using the perfect rhyme “Bread” and “Head”, maybe use a family rhyme – eg “Bread” and “Web” or “Tear”. In singing, we generally tend to rhyme vowel sounds, and the consonants matter less. Check out books/articles/workshops by lyric guru Pat Pattison for more details on rhyme types.

Note that sung rhymes are not usually the same as written rhymes, so make sure you sing them as you write to make sure that they ARE singable.

2) Use “spotlighting” effectively

There are natural accents within a musical bar that will automatically highlight or spotlight to the listener any word or syllable placed upon it. These spotlights tend to be on the downbeats of the bar, plus a big one at the end of a line, and even bigger at the end of a verse.

Ignorance of this behaviour means that you may end up with “nothing” words like “the”, “and” or “but” placed on these prize positions in the bar rather than your cool meaningful words.
This risks weakening your lyric and can even undermine the meaning of it by placing importance on the wrong word.

Back in 2007 I wrote a song, just before going to a Pat Pattison workshop, that included this lyric:
“The tide is slowly rising, Blood red sun on the horizon”
Spotlighting these words:
Tide, slow, rise, bloodred, sun, the, horizon.

Notice how “the” has a spotlight that it really doesn’t deserve?
I fixed it in this example by removing it from the spotlighted position:
“The tide is slowly rising, Blood red sun on ….the horizon”
Here’s the link if you want to listen (warning – ultra-demo quality!): Tied up in Knots
Note also that “rising” and “horizon” rhyme when sung. 

And in relation to syllable position:

3) Don’t put the “emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble”*.

As much as possible, try to sing as you would normally speak in conversation. If you don’t, you risk breaking the meaning of what you are trying to get across, and it can sound contrived, amateurish, or just like you haven’t taken the time to make the lyric fit the music properly.

You should be able to read your song lyrics out, spoken-word fashion, and the phrasing shouldn’t be too far away from how you sing it. Or vice-versa. This is most noticeable when you’re going for an “authentic”-style delivery (rock/blues/indie) rather than stylised (r’n’b, soul, pop) – accenting the wrong syllable can instantly break authenticity. The listener will go “huh?” and the flow and belief is broken.

There are many more lyrical tips than this, of course, and some equally or more important, but the best idea is to do a proper workshop or short course on it, or at least get a decent book or two about how to structure your lyrics.

For those of you who balk at being told what to do – I remind you that these are not rules as such – they are simply based on observable effects on a listener, and you can still go ahead and do whatever you want.
Sometimes you might need to make a call between including a word that adds the perfect meaning to your lyric, and having to jam it in there a bit more clunkily since it doesn’t quite fit. But you should definitely be aware of the risks on how the listener will receive and decode your meaning when you decide to do things like this.

And finally – you should ALWAYS use some kind of rhyming dictionary – otherwise you are relying on a choice of only the rhymes that you can currently remember. Which is often only a small fraction of the huge amount of available rhymes – many of which are probably more interesting than the one you can currently think of. 

*As spoken by Mike Myers in “A View From the Top”.

References:

Pat Pattison: Essential Guide to Rhyming (Formerly titled Rhyming Techniques and Strategies) Berklee Press, distributed by Hal Leonard January, 1992
You can order all these three books – Writing Better Lyrics (second edition), Essential Guide to Rhyming and Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure for a special price here

Jason Blume: Writing Hit Lyrics with Jason Blume – get the book here

8 Top Logic Pro 9 Features

Bounce Track in Place

Here’s 8 of my top features in Logic pro 9. If you have any others – feel free to comment!
Click on the pictures for larger versions.

 
8 Bounce-in-place, for either track or region. Bounces down either your audio instrument MIDI regions or your audio regions – with or without plugins – to new audio regions and then mutes the original track or region. Great for rapidly “printing” any special processing or pitch-fixing plug-ins like Melodyne into a solid file. Note you can also do this for EVERY track simultaneously should you wish to export all your tracks into a different DAW program for mixing or something. Closely related to…

Freeze Track – the Two Modes

7 Freeze Track – you can freeze a track either just after the instrument (or less-usefully after an audio file I suppose), or after all the plug-ins and the fader, depending on how much load you want to take off the processor and how much control you want over tweaking plug-ins. Basically it does a cunning invisible 32-bit float bounce of the track (which you can go and copy from its folder if necessary) and then disables plug-ins/instruments on that track – in other words swapping processor power for hard-disk speed. It still sounds exactly the same but now you have more CPU power to do stuff. You can still un-tick the freeze button at any time to do some editing etc. Essential when you inevitably have so many plug-ins and instruments in your project that it won’t play!

Replacing or Layering Drum Track

6 Replace or layer individual drum tracks – need to fix up or bolster those poorly-recorded kicks, snares or toms? Logic can automatically detect the drum hits on an audio track (you can adjust sensitivity), then you can choose a replacement (or layered) drum sample which is then automatically imported into a new EXS24 sampler which is placed underneath the original track with a handy MIDI trigger region to play it.

Convert Audio Region to Sampler

5 Convert to sampler – this is cool and ridiculously easy. You can either select a strip-silenced bunch of audio regions on a track, or you can let Logic identify the transients in the audio region/s, then it will automatically pack all those audio chunks into a sampler assigned to MIDI notes ready to play. And then mute the original audio regions. Oh, and it conveniently creates a MIDI region that plays those samples exactly as if they were still the original audio files – so it recreates the source audio exactly. You can delete this if you want to do something different.

Select Sampler Options

Final Converted Sampler Track with MIDI region

Making Groove Template from MIDI Region

 4 Create your own grooves, or match your MIDI stuff to live drums. You can do this in a few ways – using the “Audio-to-MIDI” groove template under “Factory” in the Sample Editor window, or recording a MIDI track while you tap along with every 8th or 16th note on a MIDI keyboard, or use the drum/replacement doubling trick above. Once you have a MIDI file, select it and go to the region inspector pane, click on the “Quantize” drop-down menu and select “Make Groove Template”. This can then be applied to any other MIDI or Audio regions.

Audio to MIDI Groove Template

 

Region Gain

3 Region Gain – many users of Logic still don’t know you can use the little region inspector panel top left of the Arrange window to adjust the individual gain for each audio region.  It can replace the use of automation in some cases – just cut up your regions and set the gain for each one. It handily does this before it goes through any plug-ins in the channel strip (although this can be a problem if you have compressors inserted and you’re trying to use it instead of automation – the compressor may “fight” any gain changes).

 

Capture Record Button

2 Capture Record. This mysterious little button is like magic. Say you’re just been jamming along on your MIDI keyboard or controller in Logic, then you realise you’ve just played something absolutely amazing, but “oh no!” you haven’t been recording!

Fear not, just press this little button and what you just played will magically appear as recorded. If the button doesn’t show up for you – Ctrl-Click on your Transport bar and add it.

Tip – use “Take Folder” mode for your MIDI cycle recording – even more useful.

NB: This doesn’t work with audio unfortunately – unless you use the sneaky “Punch-on-the-fly” mode trick. When “Punch on the Fly” mode is selected under the Audio menu, Logic is ALWAYS recording any armed audio tracks whilst playing-back. You just need to actually hit “record” for a second while it’s still playing to let Logic know you want to capture and hence retrospectively grab what you just played.

Take Folder

1 Take Folders. Most people know about this one but it still bears mentioning. Record while in cycle mode, then just swipe the bits you want to keep from each take. It’s a fantastic way to get great vocal takes and Apple really has this one nailed better than the competitors. Many people aren’t aware of all of its cool features though.

Some additional tricks are; creating alternate versions of your comp (good for backing vocals or doubling lead vocals), exporting particular comps to duplicate tracks, editing the audio itself (eg trimming or moving parts) while comp’ing a good take, tagging the best bits as you go, or editing the size of the looped section (and folder) if it chops off the beginning of the loop each time.
You can also manually create a take folder out of various selected audio regions for creative purposes and you can also cut the take folder into chunks if needed.

What are your favourites?