How do we start to write songs?

    The quickest and best way to develop any skill is to give it focus, time and attention – and in a way that is enjoyable and fun for you (so will most easily keep at it and progress).


    Start giving your songwriting some time. Make note of any melody ideas or words or beats or sounds that come to your mind by singing them in to your phone or saving them on your tablet or in a notebook. Play around on your guitar or piano or whatever instrument you like and see what ideas come to you. You know this much already.

    These are the beginnings for your songs.


    When you are at the very start of learning to write, be “open” to your creativity. This is not the time to criticize and judge yourself for the ideas you have, because that can stop the flow of them. Initially, just allow your ideas to come to you and to keep coming to you, take note of them, see how they develop…


    I'd recommend that you see this, especially at the beginning, less as songwriting and more as songwriting practice... just practice writing songs and allowing yourself permission for them not to be any good! Just practice being creative and open and trying things musically and lyrically.



    Personally, I aim to do some music every day. Sometimes I can't or don't, but I put time aside for music every day. However, I absolutely and without fail write at least one new song every week. This is a commitment to myself and to my music. Some weeks I write three songs or however many, but every week I write at least one. Know what happens now that I'm doing this? Ideas flow more easily and I enjoy songwriting more. I also have more and more songs to work with and choose from. It feels really good.



    As you start to take note of your ideas and begin writing songs, you will probably notice that you start to listen to songs a little differently than before. You may start to notice the structure of them – whether they have familiar structures like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-chorus – or if they are structured differently.


    You may start to hear in a different way how a song builds in intensity at points, how a verse “steps up” in energy to a pre-chorus or a chorus. Pay attention to what changes in the music at that point – is another instrument introduced into the song? Does the rhythm of the bass or the drums change or speed up? What about the song itself? Where is there a double chorus? Where is there a single chorus? Why do you think the song was written the way it was?


    You can just start to pay attention to how songs are put together and why you think something works really well and what you don’t like. Obviously, you will want your own songs to be an extension of you, and of your creativity, so it’s not about copying what someone has done before, but paying attention to and appreciating other people’s writing and production and where it works particularly well is a really nice way to start sensing how your own songs may need to develop.



    The lyrics of a song are also something you can play around with. Is there something, in particular, you want to write about? Again, this all comes back to you. Some people write lyrics that are deeply personal, some songwriters tell stories, others focus more on the sound of the words than the meaning.


    Sometimes as you develop a song, words or phrases can pop into your head. Notice what words and phrases catch your attention in movies you watch or books you read. Also, notice the sounds of these words and note how you might use words with percussive sounding consonants differently to words with broad vowels. Notice which words sound better when sung than others.


    A key element to mention about well-written songs is how they make people feel. I heard an expression somewhere about "writing the silence" - meaning writing about the things people can think and feel but not verbalize or express. Many times I have heard songs where it felt like the songwriter had been inside my head and using my words and articulating exactly how I was feeling at a given time. When you can write in a way that engages people emotionally like that, they can really feel like the song is their own. That's a pretty special thing.


    Generally, when you write more conversationally you make it easier for people to connect their experience with your words.


    Songwriting may be something you do on your own or with a friend or co-writer, with your band or other musicians. Or it could begin with you having some ideas and then bringing these seeds of songs into your practice room to work on with others. Give any of all of these methods some time and let them develop. You’ll figure out easily what works best for you and what doesn’t.



    Also, bear in mind that some days one thing will work really well for you and it may or may not work the next day. Be willing to try different things - different locations, different times of day, different approaches - and just go with what feels right to you. It's all good!


    You will probably end up spending a fair bit of time working on your songs and making sure you are happy with them and really familiar with them (and really well able to play them/sing them) before you record. Once they are recorded other people will be hearing them, playing them and sharing them, so it’s best to be really happy with how it all sounds before then.


    If you are going to go to a recording studio you will likely have a finite amount of time to spend recording your songs. So to get the best recording and spend only as much money as you want to spend, plan to have everything else (writing, rehearsing) well done and well perfected in advance, so that your studio time is literally recording time.



    With Carla Marie Williams, songwriter for Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Sean Paul and loads more

    With songwriters, Paul Williams (songwriter for The Carpenters, David Bowie & so many more) and Eleanor McEvoy (songwriter of A Woman's Heart, the best-selling Irish album in Irish history).

    How do we decide who owns the songs we write?


    This is something to agree on openly, honestly and quickly. 


    A large amount of the money that is available in music comes through songwriting/publishing royalties and placements. There are really no hard and fast rules about royalties because despite whatever is recommended, the final word goes to the writers, who can decide between themselves whatever they agree.


    Here’s something you may not know… some singers get credit for writing a song when they haven’t actually played a part in writing it at all. Some bands have “ghost writers” who will co-write a song with them but not be credited to make it so the members of the band are the only credited writers even though they weren't the only writers. Some singers don’t get a songwriting credit but they do get a percentage of the royalties. All this is agreed upon in advance.


    As a band, you can distribute ownership of a song as you agree among yourselves. You can split it all evenly. If you have a band of 5 and one of you came up with the song idea and put the biggest part of the song together, that person could get 50% and the four other band members could get 12.5% each. Or the main writer could fight for 100% of the song.


    It’s up to you. Just talk it out, be honest about what you feel is fair. And bear in mind that if your song hits big, these royalty splits will be final and your money will be divided according to these percentages, so make sure you are happy with your cut!


    I went to a songwriting workshop that IMRO (the Irish Music Rights Organisation) set up with Irish singer, Ruthanne Cunningham (herself also a songwriter for Niall Horan, Britney Spears, One Direction, Professor Green etc.) Ruthanne recommended recording all songwriting sessions and if someone is fighting for a higher percentage, ask them what part of the song they sang, confirm they actually did write it or have a part in writing the song that justifies the percentage they want and work from that.



    How do we get the best possible recording of the songs we write?


    Here’s where you can do a bit of research. Listen to a variety of bands. If you are paying close attention, you’ll start to notice different tones – a deeper tone on a bass guitar, the guitar sounds being more prominent than the bass sounds in a recording, different types of snare sounds. Pay attention to the different kinds of production and start to notice what you like best – listen for different instrumentation, for sounds or effects or filters, for the dynamics in a song, for phrasing.


    Remember that this is your music, your recording, your sound. Take time to have a clear and definite idea of what is great about your writing and your songs, what you want to emphasise or bring out in your songs. Bear in mind, also, what would best suit your songs, your music? What would bring the best out in your songs?


    Besides all that, it'd be great if you took the time to play the songs in your rehearsals over and over again and see if there are any changes that emerge in the song naturally. The better you can play the songs before you go to record the better use you can make of your recording time.


    The same goes with the vocals and lyrics - what words sound best? what words sound best when sung? can you adjust the phrasing in the song? or the tone or intensity with which you deliver the vocals? Pay attention to the meaning of individual words and feel out how you can best deliver that meaning vocally - singing a word more softly or with a harder delivery, maybe.


    Feel free to get the opinion of others you trust, particularly someone who has experience in production. Remember, also, that an opinion is just that – an opinion. Take it on board and decide what feels best to you.


    Guitar Tabs for "You Don't Know", a song I wrote for Moth Complex. Tabs by Matthias Van Stipriaan.


    What if we want to record a cover song?


    To legally record a cover version of a song, you first need to get permission from the copyright owner. You contact them, provide them with whatever information they need (they’ll usually want to know basic stuff – your band name, when you’ll be releasing the cover song, on what album, on what date etc.) If they’re happy, they’ll issue you a license, you pay them a license fee and then you’re good to go! You’ll also have to pay them a fixed percentage (statutory royalty) of every sale of the song.

    One place to start is The Harry Fox agency. You can find out who owns copyright and this site promises to provide easy and quick song licenses. I haven't used it so I can't testify to how good it is or isn't (please let me know if you check it out). It's the first place I'd try if I were recording a cover.


    By the way, you do need permission to record a cover song, but you do not need permission to perform a song live.




    How do we choose a recording studio?


    You’ll want to make sure to choose a studio that has great quality equipment, fair rates (and ones you can afford, of course) and an experienced and talented engineer/producer - and the availability of the studio may play a part. Definitely, do not try to do this part on the cheap. Your recordings are important and you'll be relying heavily on them to open doors for you.

    Check for recommendations from other bands about various studios, listen to the recordings made in the studios and with specific engineers/producers, visit the studio before you decide to pay, meet the engineer/producer you are considering working with... Take your time with this. Your recordings are important so take your time making a choice that feels right to you.

    What is the difference between an engineer and a producer?


    Sound engineers specialize in the equipment for recording and mixing sound - and in getting the best sound possible. There are studio engineers (who obviously specialize in studio sound) and you'll have seen sound engineers at the large sound desk at venues. They are live engineers or FOH (front of house) engineers.

    A producer oversees the recording of a music project. This role may involve bringing out the best elements of a song, focusing on all details of a song and the sounds within it – and sculpting the music to be the best version it can possibly be.


    The role of a producer can vary from person to person. It can involve restructuring a song completely, having a role in songwriting, bringing a whole style and sound of their own to a project or simply overseeing recording as an artist wants. In a studio setting, some Producers have a dedicated sound engineer they work with on a regular basis. In smaller studio settings, a Producer can double as an Engineer.


    If you haven't been paying attention to who produced your favorite bands, it’s worth taking the time to go back and listen to them again with the producer in mind. Check other bands this producer has worked on and compare them. Can you hear similarities in the sound? Or a similarity of approach? Or no?


    All you are doing here is listening and becoming more aware. All of this listening and noticing is to help you become more instinctively guided within your own songwriting and may help you have a sense of what your own songs might need in terms of production.




    If I am going to use a recording studio, how can I be sure that the engineer/producer I am recording with is any good?


    Firstly, make sure you have the name of a specific person you will be working with. Get examples of work this person has done before. Make sure you like the sound.

    Next have a conversation with them about your music and your songs. You are both going to be investing time, energy and money in this recording process, so you want to be sure that working together is a good fit. This is another reason why it’s important to have a clear idea of the kind of sound you want to achieve – so you can talk this through with your prospective recording engineer/producer in advance of recording - in terms you both understand - and make sure working together makes sense for you both. If it doesn’t, move on to the next one.


    You can contact the previous bands the engineer/producer worked with for a second opinion if you are unsure, bearing in mind that they may be friends. You want to get unbiased opinions. Go through the songs you have chosen to record and ask for feedback – be sure to voice any concerns and have an open dialogue and discussion. What suggestions does your potential recording engineer/producer have?


    Ultimately, the final decision comes down to you. What does your instinct tell you? Are you happy to go ahead with this person? Do you feel you can trust him/her with your songs and will be getting the best recording possible? Are you happy with the price you have agreed? Weigh it all up and make your decision.

    What do we have to organize before going into a recording studio?


    If you are going into a studio, you will want to make sure you have enough time to get what you need to be done completed and done.

    Here’s how you do that:

    1. List the songs you want to record. Choose your best songs. It’s better to have 3 songs well-written and well-recorded songs than 7 songs half-done ones. Which songs do you want to focus on most?

    2. How much time you have to record?

    3. What do you have to do within this time – drums, guitar, bass, vocals? Do you have strings or keyboards or programming? Backing vocals? List it all out.

    4. Allow time for set-up and take down of anything as necessary.

    5. Break down your time so that you are sure you have enough time to do everything.



    Make sure you have your guitars and basses ready with spare strings to hand and existing strings worn in as you prefer. Have all pedals working, have spare batteries. Basically, prepare for the worst case scenario and have a back up for everything. The worst case scenario probably won't happen but you never know what element of it might happen. Just be prepared and save yourself hassle and time.


    A quick note about vocals – it’s so important that your singer is well-prepared and ready for a recording session, which may be a lot more intense vocally than he/she is used to.

    Ideally, your singer needs to take really good care of himself/herself in the lead up to recording – doing vocal exercises daily, drinking lots of water, being healthy, getting sleep - to not only deliver in recording but also to avoid vocal strain or damage. As a singer, your instrument is in your body, so how you are physically can really affect your voice.


    * Check out the resources section at the end of this page for a Beginners Guide To Singing PDF. *



    Obviously, the better rehearsed and well-prepared you are, things are more likely to go smoothly and sound better. Still, things rarely go exactly to plan, so if you can, allow for that too!




    Pictured below: Isn't it kinda crazy to think that this is what musicians used to have to record to?!


    How do I get the best out of my recording time?


    This is key and we’ve talked about it already – be prepared. Know the songs intimately and inside out. Be thoroughly rehearsed and ready. Be on time. Have all your instruments lined up and ready to record. Be ready to work. Be focused.


    I know it can feel exciting to be in a studio for the first time working on your music, so definitely enjoy it, but if you are serious about your music, remember you are there for a purpose – to record your songs. It’s the best fun, definitely enjoy it but keep your attention on what you are there to do and enjoy that too.



    How much should this cost?


    This is hard to say, because it’s like that question “How long is a piece of string?” It completely depends on where you go and who you are choosing to work with.


    Obviously, the more experienced and successful people you choose, the higher the rate, but it is possible to get people who really are good at what they do and really love what they do and will work at a price you can afford - including successful people. Sometimes that can happen. It’s difficult to give a ballpark figure because the costs vary so much.


    The best thing is to do your research – contact different places and people, get their rates and what they offer and have conversations about your music and what you want to have your recording sound like at the end of the session and then choose what is the best for you.


    It is worth taking the time to research all of this and to do it right. Your music is the core of your band at the end of the day and a great recording of great songs can really open doors for you.



    What about recording at home?


    If you are recording in a home studio, everything you need to prepare for going into a recording studio still applies, but you are less likely to be on as rigid a time schedule at home than a studio booking often demands.


    Make sure you have the space to record your songs, the ability to record them as loudly as you need to, the best possible musical equipment and software to give you a quality recording and the best level of production you can.


    The musicians I know recommend the following: Garageband, Ableton, Cubase, ProTools and Logic Pro.


    Basic “minimum requirements” to get the best, most professional sounding home recording are a quality computer, quality speakers, quality headphones, a really great microphone (with a stand and pop shield, ideally) and an audio interface for plugging in guitar and other instrument cables and stereo outputs.


    The best resource I have found for recording at home is Recording Revolution (I've put a link in the resources at the bottom) so definitely check this site out.

    Me recording vocals in my bedroom (left) and wardrobe (right) in LA.


    What is mixing?


    When you are recording your music, you'll have a lot of recorded tracks (definitely at least one for bass, definitely at least one for guitar, probably a few for vocals and backing vocals, a few for drums etc.) You'll probably put some effects on these (compression or filters or reverb or whatever). Then you mix them - and mixing is the way all of these tracks are “mixed down” into one or more channels – usually 2-channel stereo.


    Then the sound can be further refined to get an overall recording where all the various sounds are mixed and balanced nicely (so they don't overpower or drown each other out) and for your recording to sound its best for the person listening to it at the end of the day.


    The best mix will take in to account the variety of places music can be listened to – from a high-quality stereo system to a car stereo or a laptop. A mixing engineer will bear in mind how to get the best possible overall sounding song in all of these situations. So a quality mix is really important.




    What is mastering?


    Mastering happens post-production i.e. when everything else in the songwriting and recording process is done. Mastering is the last stage.


    Mastering involves the transfer of the final audio mix to data storage (a master) and all duplications and copies of your music (i.e. your CD, your Spotify streams, iTunes songs etc.) will from now on be created from this master. Obviously, it’s pretty important to get this part right too.


    Also, very important: make sure all metadata - song titles, band name etc. - is included at the master stage.


    Special equipment is used to master songs and to optimize the sound for different systems (for everything from a car stereo to a cinema system), but no matter how well a song is mastered, the quality of what you hear still depends on your own system.

    The first Moth Complex album completed master - a very exciting day for me!

    The first Moth Complex album physical CD - another very exciting day for me!

    Do we need to do all of these things?


    Do you need a great recording, mixing and mastering? Yes. Undeniably.

    The reason for going through the process of recording, mixing and mastering is because it is the proven way to get the best sound possible.

    If you are not at that stage, that is fine. If you are at the stage of playing in a garage and jamming. Great! Do that. If you are at the stage of wanting to think about recording your songs. Awesome! All of this can serve as information and a guide for you in time.

    If you want to record at home, there is amazing software available to help you to do that, there are tutorials available online too. If you want to go the traditional route and tie in a producer and/or engineer and get your music mixed and mastered, that’s there for you to do.

    As with everything, follow your own gut instinct about what you really want and what is right for you, but if you want to get an amazing quality recording that will open doors for your in music, I believe a quality recording (whether at home or in a studio), mixing and mastering route is the only way to go.




    Where do I find a mastering engineer?


    You can check online, but word of mouth is often the best. Listen to recordings of bands you know in various situations (stereo, car, through computer speakers etc.) and see which sounds best overall.

    In the picture above with the first master of the Moth Complex debut album you'll find the contact details for the mastering engineer I used for Moth Complex (and he's awesome!)



    PDF: Beginners Guide To Singing

    PDF: Sample Recording Schedule



    LINK: Recording Revolution website