Category Archives: Album Month


Album Month Days 14-23: You Don’t Get To Go Back

Nothing in the history of the world has ever gone to plan. Plans are like beautiful dreams of a world that unfolds beneath you like a yellow brick road wherever you want to go. Hm…., too many similes. How about this: as John Lennon is reported to have said, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” A full ten days has gone by since my last a Album Month completion point. What have I been doing? The stuff of life, I guess.

I spent two days building a greenhouse wth my dad. I now have a sunburn in the shape of a tee shirt. I also spent a day celebrating an important birthday (not mine). I made a lot of food. I played with a toddler quite a bit. For whatever reason, though, it remained difficult to make it into the studio to work, except for the last three days which have been intense.

Cowriting Rules

There are many reasons why cowriting is a great idea. Cross pollination is one. The synergy of two like but different minds working together to make something great. The “alignment of incentives” that arises from mutual ownership is also pretty good (I’ve had more than one licensing deal come about through the connections of my cowriters). But, my favorite aspect of it is that, most of the time, I don’t have to write all the lyrics.

That’s exactly what happened with this latest song. In fact, in between greenhouse-building sessions, I was wondering what I would work on next when my friend and writing partner Adrianne popped up out of the blue with lyrics to two songs we had worked on months and years ago. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. And, just as she passed them on to me, reporting that she was stuck on them, I was suddenly ready to start working on them. So that was awesome.

I just spent the better part of three days working on this song called “Don’t Get To Go Back.” Adrianne presented the chorus to me as a song fragment years ago. I was immediately entranced by it, but we could never seem to make any headway on it. Then years went by and lots of stuff happened to the both of us. In preparation for Album Month, I did a reasonably comprehensive search through all of my song starts to curate the ones I thought might be worth working on and found this little gem in the rough again. Right before Album Month began, I told Adrianne that I’d found it. She remembered it and another song that we’d started about a year ago. And then I didn’t hear from her for two weeks. Then, like a Christmas present, she sent me complete melody and lyrics to both of them.

So, that’s why cowriting rules.


Album Month Day 13: Chasing the Minnow

After spending days swinging for the fences, I wanted to try something more lightweight. I gave myself four hours to go from concept to completion on this one. I never know when this kind of exercise will yield fruit… or rotten eggs.

I’m not sure about it yet. It doesn’t SUCK, but it’s not the freshest thing I’ve ever done, either.

I’m any case, it was interesting to blast something out without second-guessing myself. Every effort, every decision I made was very quick with no looking back. It will be interesting to listen to this again in a few weeks to see if it has any merit at all.


Album Month Days 8-12: Chasing The Whale

I know the spirit of Album Month is not to get hung up or precious about anything in particular. But, the creative process is strange and unpredictable. That’s sometimes the most frustrating thing about it—creation from nothing to something has its own pace unrelated to your own schedule and preference. That’s been true of the last week of Album Month. The scope of the song I’m working on now has grown far beyond my initial conception and is taking far longer than I expected it to.

A few posts back, I described the strategy of moving fluidly past roadblocks by moving on to something else with the intention of, like skipping a hard problem on a timed test, coming back to it later if there’s time. Every extra day I work on this behemoth of a song, I wonder if I’m violating my own self-imposed rule of fluidity. What stops me from moving on is a desire to explore. I’m not actually stuck. I’m exploring. I’m exploring different arrangement ideas, exploring production and mixing techniques, exploring ways to increase the quality of my work with the tools at hand, building skills and honing craft. The value of Album Month—for me—is to impose motivation, consistency and discipline on a process that has traditionally been none of those things. Ten songs in a month is a guiding principle, but not to be achieved at any cost. I want to be proud of my work when I’m done. I want to learn along the way. I don’t want to rush through it and have ten new songs that the world doesn’t need to show for it.

Ebb And Flow

One of the valuable experiences of Album Month is managing the ebb and flow of this process and the tension between wanting to keep moving vs opening up space to allow work to develop. Some things just take longer than others. However, there is great value in consistent effort, even with inconsistent results. Creation has its own pace, but the ebb and flow of progress within the scope of consistent effort is very different than “waiting for the muse.” Steady work is the fertile field that allows the seeds the muse brings to grow into their fullness. Ok, that metaphor was a bit over the top. But, you get what I mean. Album Month is an occasion to push aside distractions to create something of value. That means I don’t get to sit around eating nachos hoping a great idea will somehow pop into my head. It also means that I don’t get to gold-plate everything I’m working on until every detail is absolutely perfect. But, it also means that I get to pursue an idea if it wants—needs—to be pursued.



Album Month Days Five, Six and Seven—Words, Words, Words…Lyrics

There’s no way around it. I love to write songs—in fact, I have to; I get restless and fidgety if I haven’t written or worked on a song in a few days. But I HATE HATE HATE writing lyrics. Composing is a delicious process with a flow to it.  Lyrics are a different story altogether. I rarely feel like there’s a flow to writing lyrics. Quite the contrary. I’m often stuck for days or weeks on lyrics. Many, many promising song starts have withered on the vine for lack of a rain of words.

In the early days, this wasn’t so much the case. I once sat down and wrote lyrics to two songs back-to-back. I’ve had speed writing sessions with other writers that yielded as many as five (weird, but charming) songs in an hour. But, as my standards have increased, so has my struggle finding the right words.

A practice that I now mostly follow of writing the chorus first has helped. You sort of write backwards from the chorus, then a prechorus that ramps into the chorus and a verse that supports the whole towering pile of goo. That, at least, grounds my efforts in the context of a specific theme. But, it’s no panacaea.

I find lyric writing to be like attempting to assemble a dense, multi-dimensional puzzle in the dark while wearing mittens. Perhaps because I’m a giant word nerd and a meticulous, persnickety and detail-obsessed editor, I constantly battle multiple competing tensions: between the banal and the precious, cerebral, intellectual or just plain purple; between the beguilingly circumspect and the plainly vague and confusing; between the sing-songy stuff of nursery rhymes (here’s a mid-thought tip: if children dance to your songs, you are doing something incredibly right–and they don’t even care what the words are) and the puffy ramblings of a self-obsessed poet wannabe. And then, there’s the simple diffuculty of trying to figure out exactly what I’m trying to say.

I’ve heard anecdotes about the second verse being the hardest to write—because if you write a first verse that perfectly pays off the chorus, there’s nothing left to say in the second verse. That’s sometimes a problem, but really, the whole enterprise is fraught with difficulty.

After all the sturm und drang, almost nobody cares what your lyrics are when they listen to your songs anyway. Song lyrics are near-universally ignored as long as the groove is there and it’s fun to sing along with—unless the lyrics are wrong. When the lyrics are wrong, everyone notices. It’s like a sixth sense people have. So, while it seems like a lot of effort for little return (except for the satisfaction of enjoying your own achievement and getting to sing the nice words you made up), you have to at least put in the time to get the lyrics not wrong.

Music Or Lyrics First?

 Because I find music much easier to write than lyrics, I often start with music and melody. Unfortunately, that leaves me painted tightly into a corner trying to write good lyrics that are fun to sing but also make sense, rhyme, have prosody and fit the melodic rhythm. I’ve recently been trying it the other way around—start writing lyrics with no music or melody in mind. I wrote a song not too long ago that was culled from a multi-month stream of texts between me and a friend. That worked pretty well. There was a nice flow while I was writing and then I was easily able to drape them over a melody. The danger, though, is that it can be kind of rambly. It’s hard to get punchy pop gold that way.

Good Enough 

For the past three days, I’ve been hemming and hawing trying to write lyrics to a song start that I rather like. I have brought the full power of procrastination to bear upon it. Then, in a quick burst this evening, they all poured out. Like some part of my brain was grinding away in the background and needed these last three days to get it all working right.
Do they suck? I don’t know. But, in the spirit of Album Month, they’re good enough for now. Next step: try to actually sing the song.
Compass Rose

Album Month Day Four

Today I put a first-pass vocal track on “How It Ends” and did some quick mixing. I kept the tempo the same, but had to raise the key a step to make it work right for my voice. That’s the advantage of all-MIDI instrument tracks–I was able to find the right key in about two minutes without having to re-record anything.

Unfortunately, another hidden disadvantage of keyswitching sampler patches reared its head. Keyswitching is a way of recording alterations in non-note aspects of a MIDI performance–in my case, the articulations of the cello patches. The particular articulation you want a passage to be played in is recorded as a note outside the range of the instrument. This is a lame way to do it for many reasons, but in this case, transposing the MIDI track also transposed the articulation “notes,” making everything sound very strange. Easy to fix, but annoying that it was a problem in the first place.

All that aside, I managed to get a track that I’m reasonably happy with:


Deciding what to work on next is interesting at this point. My inclination is to keep working on this song to polish it a bit more. The lead vocal could use some work–the performance in places could be tweaked and tuned; the chorus melody, except for the initial phrase, is in the same range as the prechorus melody which makes it a bit boring; there’s room for some harmonies; the instrumentation could be a bit more lively.

Buuut–in keeping with the spirit of Album Month, I think this is a good stopping place for this song. It’s pretty well represented in its current form and I think I can use the time I would normally spend tweaking better by starting on the next song. If I have time later in the month, I’ll come back and tinker with it.

So… what to work on next? I’ll revisit my candidate pile and see if anything jumps out at me. If not, maybe I’ll work on something brand new.

Waterloo, the Charge of the Guards, 18th June 1815

Album Month Day Three

Today, I started production on my second song of Album Month. It’s a song that I had mostly written last year, but hadn’t gotten around to producing. So, I spent the lion’s share of today building out the song bed, experimenting with different instrumentation choices and drum beats.

I’m pretty happy with these one-day results. I may work on the production more in the future, but it’s shaping up nicely for a first pass on the song.


Album Month Day Two

Yesterday, I discussed the motivation and rationale for Album Month. I was happy with the progress I made on the first song. There’s still a bit of polishing on the lyrics (and, maybe, the melody) to do so today, I spent most of the day organizing and communicating with my fellow writers.


One of the great things about the Internet (and, yes, I’m old enough to capitalize ‘Internet’ and to say things like ‘the great thing about the Internet is…’–as if it wasn’t an ambient part of our civilization that no one needs to comment directly on anymore. “The great thing about electricity is…”) is that it’s trivially easy to collaborate on musical projects. Back in the day, collaboration was done, by necessity, directly with each other in practice rooms, living rooms and studios. Now, though, I have numerous musical collaborators all over the world, some of whom I’ve not actually met in person. But, that hasn’t stopped us from making great music together.
Of course, there are more or less successful ways to collaborate remotely and I’ve tried many of them over the years. I tend to have three different modes of remote collaboration, each with their separate set of tools and workflow:
  • Sharing thematic, lyrical and structural ideas in text documents
  • Sharing rendered mp3s of songs in-progress
  • Sharing whole Logic or Pro Tools session files
(Interestingly, all of these methods are asynchronous. I have tried to use tools like FaceTime, but I find that synchronous communication technology is too cumbersome to be effective–in fact, I don’t even like talking on the phone anymore. But, I digress…)
What follows are some of my favorite ways and means to collaborate in these different modes.

Sharing Text With Google Docs

  • Easy sharing of text documents
  • Simultaneous editing and in-document chat
  • Support for annotations and revisions
  • Oh my god, I totally can’t find anything in google docs, ever. Google docs defies any kind of reasonable organization.
Even though sharing text files with Google Docs can be frustrating–especially if you tend to work with inherently disorganized and chaotically-minded ADD songwriter types–all other methods of text-based collaboration have proven far more difficult. The worst is collaboration that devolves into long-ass email threads, the least common denominator of all collaboration tools. Email collaboration is a literal f*ckfest of cat-herding, rat-holing, idea-losing madness.

Sharing Stereo Files With SoundCloud

I’ve tried many different ways to share stereo files, usually bounces of productions that are in-progress to garner comments or as stems for others to record their own parts against. Most notably, I’ve tried Box, Dropbox and SoundCloud. SoundCloud wins, hands down.
  • Stream-based organization means you don’t lose things buried in oddly named folders
  • Playlists let you lasso related items together, but no nesting means you can’t go totally crazy
  • Inline comments (awesome feature)
  • Easily shared via email/text/whatever as well as embeddable in websites all using the same tool
  • Best online audio player out there
  • Decent privacy settings
  • Social networking capabilities for when you want to actually publish stuff
  • There’s a limited number of minutes of music before you have to start paying extra… but, whatever. That’s true of everything. You don’t get something for nothing.

Sharing Project/Session Files

I have to say, I don’t have a perfect solution for this one. The problem is that projects/sessions, with their gigabytes of audio data, are so large that they push the boundaries of the sweet-spot use case for cloud storage and sharing. I used to use DropBox for it, but many of my collaborators were too frugal to pay for the extra storage they’d need. I would really like to use Gobbler. Their functionality is great, but their price point doesn’t really provide enough value to justify it. I’m already paying DropBox for extra storage *and* I’m getting close to my data caps on iCloud and SoundCloud. I don’t want to have to pay to cross another, very use case specific data threshold. Cloud storage is just like physical storage–there’s almost nothing that you store in there that’s actually worth the lifetime cost of renting the space.
For now, what I tend to do is nominate one person as the producer and that person keeps the project file locally and does all the modifications. All of the different contributors work with rendered stereo files and send stems (see above) back to the producer for final mixing. It’s not perfect, but it works well enough.
One thing I might try for this is BitTorrent Sync which works similarly to DropBox, but is peer-to-peer sharing. There’s no third party “in the cloud” to charge you a fee. But, you do have to contend with the unreliability of peer-to-peer communication with other people and their varying levels of connectivity and technical competence.


I didn’t get any actual new work done today, but I did do a bunch of organizing and handed off the song from yesterday to my writing partner. I’ll circle back with her in a few days to see what she’s come up with. In the meantime, I have a new song waiting for me to tackle it tomorrow.

Album Month Day 1

Today is the first day of Album Month proof of concept, wherein I attempt to write and record a ten-song album in thirty days.

The Goal

To write and record at least ten songs in thirty days. They don’t have to be perfect, but you should be proud enough of them to play them for your fans at your next show.


Songwriting and music production is hard. It’s even harder when psychological and technical difficulties get in the way. Some of the biggest hurdles are:
  • Preciousness–getting stuck on a song (sometimes for weeks or years) because aspects of it aren’t perfect.
  • Procrastination–songwriting is uncomfortable sometimes because it requires a great deal of effort. Many songs don’t get written because you don’t sit down and actually write them.
  • Not the right gear syndrome–there’s a prevailing myth that you need expensive hardware, studio time, and software to make good recordings. While it’s true that those things can lead to spectacular results, they are by no means a requirement. It’s possible to make great sounding music with a laptop and a few hundred dollars worth of equipment (see below).


I propose an intensive, one-month challenge with purposeful constraints designed to factor out these hurdles. The constraints are:
  • Time–you’ve only got three days to write and record each song. You’ve given yourself the gift of this dedicated time to work on writing and recording. Whatever else you *could* that you don’t absolutely have to gets put off until after album month. So, no procrastination. And, because you don’t have time to be precious and obsessive about each detail–don’t be. You know how when you’re taking a test and you only have a few minutes per question? If you don’t know the answer right away, move on to the next one and circle back to what you’re stuck on later. The same holds true with album month. If you’re stuck on an aspect of a song, move on to another one. Come back to it later. As the end of the month nears and you are ready to revisit your sticking points, you’ll have explored many other possibly fruitful avenues of writing instead of wasting time being stuck. And, when you do address the problem areas, the compressed time frame will force you to make decisions and take action that may not be perfect, but it at least it will be something. At the end of Album Month, you may not have ten perfect songs, but you *will* have a significant body of work that you may further polish and refine until you’re happy with it.
  • Equipment–there’s a minimum amount of equipment (and knowledge to use that equipment) that you need to record anything. But, the minimum bar is quite small to get decent sounding recordings. If you already have a computer, some recording software, and a microphone (if you want to record yourself or other singing–which, of course, you don’t need if you want to produce instrumental music), you don’t need to buy or upgrade anything. If you have that stuff, but don’t know how to use it like a pro, that’s ok. You don’t need to be an expert to get your songs recorded in a simple, effective way. If you don’t have any of that equipment, you can get it all for a few hundred dollars plus the cost of a computer–or, if you don’t have a computer, you can use your iPad or iPhone. The music production tools for mobile devices are seriously awesome these days.


I’ve been doing home recording for a while, so I have a fair amount of gear. Here’s my main rig:
  • Apple MacBook Pro 15″ w/ 8 GB RAM
  • Apple Mac Pro w/ 6 GB RAM
  • Avid MBox Pro 3 (audio interface)
  • Midiman Oxygen 8 MIDI keyboard (discontinued)
  • Nektar Impact LX49 MIDI keyboard
  • Microphone & cable
  • Logic Pro X
  • GarageBand for Mac OS and iOS
  • Avid Pro Tools 9
  • Propellerheads Reason 6
However, you don’t need all of that to have a fruitful Album Month. Here are a few sample rigs you could use to get great results. (Note, my suggestions are all Apple hardware based because the Apple ecosystem is fantastic for music production. I will endeavor to update these recommendations with non-Apple alternatives in the future.)

The Laptop Solution

  • Any macbook–more RAM is better, but if you’ve already got a macbook, use it.
  • An audio interface (the thing that gets audio in and out of your computer).  Here are some good ones for under $500:
    • PreSonus AudioBox USB–$99. This might be the best value out there for Windows users, considering it comes with the very usable PreSonus StudioOne software.
    • Focusrite Scarlet 2i2–$149. Focusrite makes great hardware–their preamplifiers are legendary.
    • Apogee One–$249. Apogee is the gold-standard for analog-to-digital converters (the things that convert sound waves into digital audio and back). The Apogee One is a slick package with nice meters. But, a little more expensive than other quite good options.
    • Apogee One for iPad and Mac–$349. This is a good option if you plan to record on a Mac *and* an iPad or iPhone.
  • A MIDI keyboard or other controller (optional). You don’t actually *need* a MIDI keyboard or controller to record stuff. I do a lot of composing on-the-go without one (like in cafes and hotels and stuff), but if you are comfortable playing keyboards or drum pads and you don’t need to be especially mobile, it can make things go a lot faster. There are *many* options to choose from, each tailored for a specific purpose. Here are a couple that are very portable and work well with mobile, laptop-style recording:
  • Recording software. If you already have recording software you like, use it. If not, I highly recommend GarageBand (or, Logic Pro, if you don’t mind a steeper learning curve). GarageBand is insanely cheap, quick to learn and easy to use, and comes with great built-in sounds. Perhaps the *biggest* reason to use GarageBand, though, is the Drummer feature. If you make music that uses acoustic drums, Drummer may be your new best friend. Drummer lets you pick a drummer with a particular style (as of this writing there are more than 16 different drummers, each with their own personality and playing style) and start with some basic beat patterns by that drummer. You can then adjust how complex and how loud you want a particular section to be and the drummer automatically alters his/her playing accordingly. I’ve tried many different ways to get reasonable sounding drums in my productions, but nothing sounds as convincingly human as GarageBand and Logic’s Drummer feature. Of course, recording a great drummer on a well-tuned, well mic’ed kit in a good-sounding room is great, but if you don’t have the time or resources to do that, Drummer is an awesome alternative.

The Desktop Solution

  • Any Mac–more RAM is better. iMacs are great because they’re not too expensive, they’ve got room for enough RAM, and they have a built-in monitor.
  • An audio interface. Any of the suggestions from the laptop solution above will work well, but if you want to invest in more features, it’s nice to have more inputs and outputs, good input/output meters, separately controllable headphone and monitor speaker volumes, and high-quality preamps and converters. I would recommend anything from Apogee or Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU). I have converters and audio interfaces from both companies that have worked well for over a decade in constant service. Other good options (that I don’t have person experience with, but know people who do) are offerings from Focusrite, PreSonus, Metric Halo, and RME.
  • A MIDI interface. Again, you don’t *need* one, but if you’re investing in a higher-end solution, you’ll probably want one. There are many options depending on if you want weighted keys, performance pads, parameter controllers–the list goes on. Go to your favorite music store and try a bunch of them to see what you like. I’m pretty happy with my Nektar Impact LX 49. I’ve also got an M-Audio keyboard with weighted keys that I don’t use much because the keys are too stiff for me. If you’re a keyboard player, this is a highly personal decision.
  • Recording software. See the recording software recommendations in the laptop solution above.

The Mobile Solution

It turns out that GarageBand for iOS is *fantastic*, given the limitations of the user interface. It’s great for recording basic ideas. There are also incredibly cheap and really excellent audio tools for iOS. If you play guitar, check out JamUp and Bias from Positive Grid. Bias is a *great* sounding amp simulator that allows you to swap out individual components (like different tube types, transformers, tone networks) as well as cabinets and microphones. You can export your custom amp designs into JamUp to mate them with effects simulators, play along with recordings in your iTunes library, or record ideas into its built-in 8-track recorder.
Part of the proof of concept for Album Month is to see if the constraint of this minimum set of equipment and insanely cheap software is a boon or a bane to the spirit of getting songs made with as few obstacles as possible. More on this section to come.


There’s nothing stopping you starting from scratch, but if you’re like me, you have a lot of ideas and song starts rumbling around in the attic of your mind (and lying around all over the place on your computer). I decided to prep for Album Month by doing two things:
  1. Fine-tuning my production workflow so that I could get a production complete from start to finish in 24 hours or less. This includes figuring out exactly which software I was going to use, what recording processes I’m going to use, and working out all of the hardware and software issues.
  2. Gathering up and reviewing all the song starts I’ve recorded over the years that have some promise of developing into something cool. I used Gobbler to find all of the song files hiding in the nooks and crannies of all of my disks. Then, I listened to everything and collected the ones I considered as contenders into one folder. I also set up a syncing process to keep my laptop and my desktop in sync with each other. I’m using Unison, but if you want a very easy to use solution that doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t have any storage caps (like Dropbox), you might try BitTorrent Sync.


My workflow process is now pretty straightforward:
  • I start by getting the chords, lyrics and melody to at least the first verse and chorus sorted out. Once I have that, I can start blocking it out on my computer.
  • In Logic, I create arrangement sections for the intro, and first and second verse and chorus. If I have a bridge and the final chorus/outro done, I add that too.
  • Then I use a simple chord instrument (like a Rhodes or Wurlitzer stage piano) to block out the chord changes.
  • Once the chords are blocked out, I create a Drummer track and go through the different drummers and patterns to find the right beat.
  • Now that the backbone of the song is ready, I start filling it in with different instruments. A tried and true combo is piano and/or stage piano, B3 organ, bass and drums. I start by using only MIDI-based software instruments (including a MIDI-based bass instrument) rather than recording any audio. This way, I can easily play around with the tempo and the key without re-recording anything.
  • Once I’ve got the right key and tempo, I back-fill any acoustic (or outboard electric/electronic) instruments–including the bass and any guitar.
  • Then, I put the vocals down and do a rough mix.

Day One Results

I started Day One with a song that my co-writing partner Heather and I had worked on about a year ago. We had a first verse and chorus, but only a very rough scratch recording.
In the morning, I blocked out the song on my laptop in bed as I drank my coffee. When the basics were done, I moved downstairs to my studio and started working at my desktop. By the early afternoon, I had most of the instrumentation done and figured out the right key and tempo. When everything sounded right, I fleshed out the lyrics of the second verse very quickly (20 minutes) and recorded a first pass of the vocals.
Here are my Day One results–