Session Tip: Make a Song Map

I’ve been taking notes for the last few months during my recording sessions, hoping to come up with a few tips to make your recording experience run smoother. This is something that could essentially save you a lot of time and stress in the studio, and I wish that I had figured it out years ago.

Remember that when you come into the studio, the engineer probably isn’t even sure what your music sounds like, let alone your newest song. You’ve been playing it for months in your bedroom, but you’ll be playing it to a foreign pair of ears, and it is going to take us some time to acclimate to it. So how can you most effectively help us become familiar with your song, so we know what to do with it?

Should I Send You A Demo?

Sure. Demos are great. You can email a rough recording of your song to us in advance, and we can listen to it to get an idea of what to prepare for when you come in. But here’s the thing: Let’s say you book your session for March 24th. Cool. Let’s say you send your demo to me on March 9th. I’m going to check it out, and I’m going to say, “By the power of Grayskull, I can see exactly what Kevin did here! He’s mixed Country Top 40 with a little Coltrane, and then he went full Techno in the bridge! That’s going to be a fun session!” I’m going to close my laptop, and I’m not going to have time to listen to your song again.

On March 18th, I’m going to record six songs for a Marimba band, and on March 21st, I’m going to record a Jazz Fusion trio, who want me to experiment with synthesizer sounds for a couple of their songs. On March 22nd, I’m going to engineer a track for a 75 year-old woman, who wants to surprise her husband by singing the song that was playing during their first school dance, and she wants me to play guitar on it.

When I wake up on the morning of March 24th, I’m going to see your name on my calendar, and think, “Oh! Better listen to Kevin’s track again! That’s tonight!” I’m going to play your demo in my car on the way to the studio, and I’m going to walk into the session, generally unsure of what key the song is in, the tempo, and how you’ve decided to arrange the instruments. I could have sat down with a guitar and figured your song out, but that Marimba session was really time-consuming!

Yes, demos are great for reference. But here’s what’s really really going to help me and you and your bandmates in the studio.

Build A Song Map

This is so helpful, I can’t even stress it enough. Open a blank text document. Type out your lyrics, broken up into verses, choruses, etc. Double space them, so you have room above and below each line. Print it out, and then play the song through. While you’re doing that, just put each root chord above the word that it plays closest to. If it’s a repetitive song, you could even just write [F – C – G – C x4]. Do the same with the intro, outro and bridges, even if there are no words there— just write out the chord names.

Now go back through the song one last time, and note where certain instruments are going to enter, get louder, drop out, do that little riff thing, etc. Draw lines and arrows, and make sure they’re simple and clear. Make a copy for yourself, your engineer, your bandmates, your producer, and one copy to give to the Grammy Museum when they come looking for relics of your illustrious music career in 40 years.

This is going to save you so much time in the studio. You’re going to be able to save that extra money you would have given to us, and take your buddies out for a nice Cherry Phosphate or some egg rolls.

More than that, it’s going to be a super short cut for when you’re up in the vocal booth, and you ask your engineer, “Can I punch in right before I say, ‘And the sheep begin to rise’?” The amount of people who think I’m going to know exactly where that is on my computer screen, sometimes even before they’ve sung the vocal, just astounds me. But a song map solves that too! “Sheep… sheep…” I’ll say to myself, my finger cruising across the map until I find the verse, which I’ve notated with a number 2 pencil starts at 1:12 (pretty early in any song for a sheep analogy, if you ask me). Boom. Punch in just before 1:12.

The money and hair you’re going to save is just unreal. Map out your song. You wouldn’t ask your taxi driver to take you to a hotel in a city he’d never been to, based on directions you read out loud, recorded and emailed to him two weeks earlier, would you? Ahh, you get it.

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