Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Big Reveal: Coming Clean About Cheating

(With Songwriting and Recording Technology)

There, that catchy blog post title should've gained me more reads than usual, which is borderline deceptive.  I'm not a cheater with songwriting (never stealing melodies or lyrics) or recording (although increasingly, I'm letting software do more of the work for me).  It can almost feel like cheating for someone who used to do both things the hard way, what is now the old way, and what younger people just getting into recording have no clue about.  You get used to the tech available when you start, maybe embrace newer tech as you move forward that makes things easier.  Maybe you learn how hard it was for people way older than you, and appreciate how easy you have it, but probably not.

I don't cheat on my taxes, so let me get those out of the way first, or my wife, for that matter, although pouring my time and attention into a hobby like writing songs and recording music instead of devoting it all to her could be.  Fortunately, I have her full support.  Being a non-performer, at least I'm not on the road and can do it all from home.  Technology is always evolving, and I've used it to cut down on the effort and time it takes to get the songs out to you guys (so I have more time with her), but sometimes using such shortcuts can make what you do feel a little less genuine somehow.

Being somewhat of a loner lends itself well to being a solo artist, so I have that going for me.  Being somewhat of an introvert, however, does not so much.  In the few bands I participated in, I just naturally fell into the lead guitarist role.  I'm not a natural front man or lead singer, being more inclined toward a behind-the-scenes band leader role.  In my day job career as a professional technical writer, I've often been the only person on a team who has that particular role, and I like being a lone wolf.  Although I am happy being a team player, I tend to gravitate toward individual sports.  I'm maybe an overly-independent person, but I have a great deal of self-reliance.  All these traits lend themselves well to being a do-it-all-myself person who writes songs and records myself singing and playing them.

As Mac Davis once said, it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way.  I do the best I can, yet I "humble-brag" from time to time herein.  I'm proud of believing in myself and never quitting with my songwriting/recording hobby and for pretty much totally figuring out how to be a solo artist on my own.  Pride is dangerous though, so I've decided to come clean about not doing absolutely everything 100% from scratch.  I've mostly done it the hard way, without asking anyone for help, but I have taken advantage of free and low-cost things to make it easier, and sometimes, it almost feels like it's cheating.  I'll explain.

A Level Playing Field

The affordability of software tools and how-to information levels the playing field for most, but purchasing power can provide significant advantages for higher quality outputs.  Having a budget for booking time in professional recording studios, using better instruments and equipment, hiring top co-writers, session musicians, producers, engineers, photographers, video directors, and marketers are what the major labels have that people like me do not.  Their artists have a lot of help, and comparatively, it doesn't seem like fair competition, yet my music is in the same marketplace.

Amish Raking Hay - Photo by Joe Schneid, Lousville Kentucky

An Almost-Amish Approach

While it's still possible for mere mortals to have their music available in the same streaming services as the superstars, you've got to make hay while the sun shines.  There's something to be said for taking an almost Amish approach to avoiding technology and working the old-fashioned ways whenever possible, but doing all of that yourself means you must take advantage of modern conveniences, which is not the same as cheating on tests at schools, doping in sports, insider trading in the stock market, gambling with loaded dice, or rigging elections.  Making records is not like making furniture, however.  You can't really do it without electricity.

Playing Covers vs. Writing Originals, Never Co-Writing

I am a completely self-taught songwriter.  I've written hundreds of songs totally by myself.  In places like Nashville, they can't fathom anyone NOT co-writing.  When compared with the many people I've run across in my life who played an instrument, most never write their own songs.  They just learn to play and sing covers of songs other people wrote.  Perhaps surprisingly, the people I know who took formal lessons as children seem to be even less likely to ever write their own songs.  Two things set me apart from the pack a bit - the fact that I write songs at all in the first place, and also that I do it alone.

DIY in Singing, Instrument Playing, Home Studio Recording & More

I am also a self-taught singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, recording/mixing/mastering engineer, music producer, and music video producer.  I do my own album cover art.  I created and maintain my own musician website.  I have my own independent record label and music publishing company.  I handle all my own social media.  I haven't had the advantage of attending a performing arts high school, didn't get a college degree in music, have had no formal training, didn't take lessons as a kid, learning all of this on my own as an adult.  

Free Advice On The Internet

I have, however, searched for and took advantage of free helpful information on the internet for most of the above, and without it, wouldn't be in the position of being a totally self-contained DIY solo artist who has released 11 full-length studio albums of original music over the last 20 years.  I've looked up free songwriting advice on the internet, and also various templates like song forms, tools like chord family chart diagrams and rhyming dictionaries, and instructional advice on recording techniques.  So, I haven't completely done it all on my own!

Liner Notes and Questionable Credits

I have respect for musical artists who write their own songs, without any co-writers.  I also have respect for musical artists who play multiple instruments.  I'm maybe thinking of artists like Paul McCartney or Prince.  The more things they do themselves, the more I'm impressed.  I know it's possible to write a song with your voice, hum, whistle or otherwise tell musicians what to play like Michael Jackson did.  Other types of artists like Beyonce check a lot of crucial boxes with the looks, dancing skills and singing chops, but sometimes need 20+ people to write her a song, and isn't typically seen playing any instruments.  Oddly, she is supported by famous male rappers who seem to get angry she doesn't win more awards, even though she's won tons of them.  

I never care if an artist I like has won any awards or not, I just like their music, but that's just how I am.  I don't care what they look like so much or if they can dance well either, come to think of it.  I'm a liner-note reader due to becoming a music fan in the 1970s when albums ruled, and the more credits an artist has listed, the more I'm impressed.  Taylor Swift's liner notes show that aside from one album, she co-wrote most songs in her catalog with others, even though being a songwriter seems to be a big part of her persona.  I realize there's always been dishonesty in music.  Lobbying for awards happens.  Elvis got publishing rights he didn't deserve.  Payola happened.  Paying for fake streams happens now.

DIY is Rewarding

As an artist myself, I do a lot of things myself because I enjoy knowing the end results are all me.  I would be hesitant to give up the control and enlist others to help even if I could afford to hire them, but I can't.  It's probably obvious I need all the help I can get!  It's really challenging to do it all yourself.  No one can be good at all of it.  It can be fun to try though.  If you like my music, I take all the credit, and if not, I have no one to blame.  Except the songs on which my wife Lenore plays accordion, that is.  She deserves all the accordionist awards!  Otherwise, the results are authentic and (usually) satisfying.

Taking Advantage Of Tech

Aside from getting people to help you, another thing that can be done is to use information technology and software that makes it easier.  My first songs were pen or pencil on notebook paper or legal pad, with my brain as my thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, and only way later did I realize a word processor application on a personal computer made lyric editing way easier, and you could look up rhymes for free online with the internet.  This was amazing and new-school at the time.  Cassette recorders were around in my youth, and then later you could get these 4-track recorders, which opened up a whole new world.  Just about the time I got around to trying one out for a couple years, the ability to record digitally on a comptuer with unlimited tracks happened.  Normal people who couldn't afford time in a real recording studio could actually afford these.  Compare that to paying $100/hr. in a pro studio, and you see how having your own setup for home demos with unlimited free takes was a major time saver.

What used to take a room full of recording hardware, instruments and various physical equipment, you can now accomplish with a few mouse clicks and key presses.  I like to record quickly while the urge strikes after writing a song, and get everything down how I envision it while it's fresh.  Anything that lets me do that more efficiently is cool.  I have used computer-based tools and music recording technology to save space, time, money, and a lot of labor.  Sometimes the use of various software tools can feel like it's cheating, and too much of it can be a bad thing.

Tools Evolve

Before all songwriters, singers and musicians are replaced by artificial intelligence robot bands, I wanted to be honest with you about my use of technology when I record songs I write.  I'm firmly rooted in the rock era, the album era.  The shift to pop and urban music happened along with the digital age, now the streaming age.  We're currently and supposedly in a post-album era, but I still release albums, and I still write rock songs, so that makes me a trend-bucker. Isn't every song on every album sort of a single anyway, now that the way we listen is via streaming?  We've evolved to having compressed, lower quality MP3 audio streamed to our phones from the cloud, and instead of mixtapes, we have playlists.  I just like to wait until I have a bunch of songs and release them together, but I guess that's weird now.  Now AI is making the music for us.

Keeping It Real

First of all, it might not go without saying that unless you're an all-acoustic bluegrass band recording live with real traditional instruments without pickups into a single microphone, or even with each player with their own microphone for that matter, live and simultaneously and in real-time with each other, you're taking advantage of some sort of technology to record with that makes it less authentic.  I have respect for people who get it done the old-fashioned way like that.  Bonus points for doing that direct to vinyl or analog tape, and more bonus points for being a true folkie with the ancient Alan Lomax field-recording style.

Traditional folk, jazz and bluegrass music, and its fans, especially appreciate minimal usage of technology.  Electricity is allowed vs. turning a physical crank on a wax cylinder or something really old-school, and some medium for playback, but as little else as possible preferably.  If you've ever been to a place like Preservation Hall in New Orleans, you see (and hear, of course) the best way for live music to be enjoyed, in my opinion, live in a small great-sounding room with no PA or amplification.  They offer the real thing with no digital trickery to mask imperfections.  

Some Music Tech Becomes Unavoidable

Technology helps musicians sound better than they really are, we all know this.  For example, the Beatles recorded several songs per day, all live with no overdubs, on analog gear to tape early in their career, but later on really embraced the new technologies that became available and pushed the envelope with loops and the whole studio-as-an-instrument concept.  They originally thought overdubbing was cheating!  Digital recording, drum machines, and synthesizers only started being experimented with in the 70s, seeing widespread use starting in the 80s.  This is when it really started getting more fake-sounding with arguably too much pristine sonic perfection.

Too Much Can Be A Bad Thing

Blatantly obvious mistakes and imperfections and undesirable noise in music can irk your very soul, I understand this.  It immediately wrecks the listening experience when the groove you were getting into is interrupted by anything that is noticeably "off".  That said, I have a tolerance for the ebbs and flows of music "breathing" in various ways, and the inclusion of happy accidents and pleasant surprises that may at first sound off but take the music in interesting new directions.  Technology often removes these aspects that can make music less robotic and more human.

Do we really need all of our music to be absolutely perfect?  As a listener and as a recorder of music, I say no.  On the other hand, if you've heard any of my music you likely already know I need all the help I can get.  Today's popular, mainstream, major-label music, especially in the pop genres, is a little too overproduced though, a little too perfect, and mechanical. If that's all you know due to your age and exposure, it's a little sad. 

The Evolution of Popular Preferences

I suppose the music listeners of the world expect and demand that digital perfection now, which might signal the decline of lo-fi/DIY style music like I specialize in, which would be unfortunate.  The younger generations not seeming to have much interest in rock music anymore is scary enough, but the old traditional folk, blues, jazz, hillbilly and bluegrass styles are definitely on the decline it would seem due to the popular present-day preferences for electronic precision.

There are modern hybrid progressive sub-genres of them, but the original styles of those all-acoustic, microphone to analog tape to vinyl records have a great sound.  We lost something with the evolution from records to cassette tapes to digital mediums like CDs to MP3s, sound quality stuff you could hear then that you can't as much now, a degradation of sonic qualities only people like Neil Young can explain well.  

The genres from the early days of commercial recording have definitely lost popularity.  Probably something similar goes for pre-rock big band swing and classical as well.  I don't know for sure, and I claim no expertise in these things.  Just a general observation.  Electronic drum machines and synthesizers dominate the current popular trends.


When any solo artist has a recording that features more than a vocal and a couple of instruments on a single song, they used multi-tracking to record it, meaning other parts were overdubbed onto what was played live to begin with.  The mixing together of multiple, separately-recorded tracks itself is arguably on the verge of cheating.

Click Tracks / Metronome

I do sometimes use a click track in my headphones when laying down my first rhythm guitar track, which is usually how I start recording a song.  I sort of sing along with the song with the lyrics in front of me in my head as I record it.  Because I use an acoustic guitar played into a microphone, I don't sing along with the rhythm guitar track so as not to have bleed, but also so that the lead vocal I record later can be isolated.  I then turn off the metronome click track thing when laying down all other tracks, and make them match the rhythm guitar track.  This works best for me as far as avoiding lag, delay or latency or whatever that is called.

MIDI and Virtual Instruments

Musical Instrument Digital Interface is I think what MIDI means, and although it used to involve some weird-looking port/plug thing, it now somehow works with a USB cable.  Such is the way I plug in my MIDI keyboard to my computer.  I bought one a while back, and it's one of the really small ones where you have to press a button to switch octaves because it's like 1/4th the number of keys of a piano.  Used in conjunction with my digital audio workstation software, I can make it sound like a piano, organ, electric piano, anything really.  Millions of virtual sounds available.

Single-Key Drumming

Including drums.  I previously blogged about my recording process herein, in which I described how I'm not a drum kit guy, but rather a hand-only drummer with a basic 3-instrument setup of djembe, snare, and hi-hat I use one of those nylon brushes with for my drum sound.  I have often recorded each separately.  

So, if it's a 3-minute song, that's 9 minutes of listening to the song all the way through while hitting one of them when I thought appropriate.  This gave me a way to not have bleed, but also to be able to pan each as desired, and to do the EQ/compression/reverb, etc. on each individually with a single microphone.  

For years, it worked.  I also have a set of congas/bongos and various other percussion things.  One at a timing it, I would give each its own track.  I never got a good kick drum sound with that djembe, and the muddiness competition with the bass track, despite trying different microphones and settings, wasting time and money.  

I have tried out full drum kits before with some success, thought I might get one someday, and still might, but probably not.  The coordination with the foot pedals didn't come naturally, but my hands are not bad.  Hence, my decision to go with that setup.  The drawbacks are many, including a room full of drums that take up a lot of space, albeit a "minimalist" kit of sorts.

When I discovered my keyboard could be configured to have the keys make any drum sound in the world practically, I realized it was something that would offer improvement in my sound, ease of use, and take up less studio space.  I now 1-finger tap a key for each drum sound, which still takes the same amount of time.  I've tried using multiple fingers at once and essentially playing a full drum kit with kick, snare, toms, hi hats & crash, but that gets a little more complicated.  

It takes more coordination and timing, precision suffers, and you can't route each to its own track for panning purposes.  I've released some songs where I did it that way, and it was fun, but I just centered the drum track in the mix, and the relative volumes of each were not great in the mix, despite having the velocity-sensitive feature.  So, I went back to the one at a time, single-finger, single-tap technique, which takes the length of the song for each still.  Since I was already familiar with recording this way with actual drums, it came easy.

There are virtual drummer software applications and drum loops out there that I've played around with briefly, but they are a little too perfect and fake sounding.  What I do is still me.  It's still me physically pressing down on keys with my fingers when I think I should while listening to my other tracks.  You don't need headphones for any MIDI keyboard recording either, no mic bleed possible, which is awesome.  I just like speakers better when possible.

Single-Key Chord Playing

Another arguable cheat is I list myself as the keyboard player on many of my songs, which is true for the right-hand melodic and solo stuff, but the left-hand chord stuff is 1-fingering.  My keyboard, in conjunction with some software I have, lets you configure a single key to play a whole chord.  Since I haven't taken the time to learn piano chords - not sure if I ever will or not - it's so easy to lay down a rhythm piano or organ track for a 3 or 4 chord song by hitting 3 or 4 keys, which I usually nail in one take.

I free up space that pianos, organs and drums would take up.  These "virtual instrument" sounds a key on my keyboard can be configured or "patched" as they say to play are seemingly endless.  I can get violin sounds, horn sounds, anything.  Pretty cool.  They are very realistic sounding, and how hard you press on the key affects the sound, if you want it set that way.  

Keyboard Bass

On many of my songs lately, I even use the keyboard for playing bass.  Dial up the sound and walk it with the fingers instead of playing the actual bass guitar.  The sound is more pristine anyway.  Figuring out what notes to play is equally time consuming on a real bass than on a keyboard, and I don't have to pick it up, plug it in, and/or tune it, so less prep time.

Efficiency Enhances Creation

Once I have a song written, ideas of how to arrange it and fill out the sound with instruments immediately occur to me.  The faster I can get it recorded, the better.  I'm all about speed and convenience and keeping the work area uncluttered.  Less instruments, less cables, less hassle setting up microphones or amps or plugging in, etc., and then unplugging after and putting it all away, whatever.  

So, if I can do bass, drums, keyboards, etc. all on a handy little keyboard already attached to my computer and ready to go, the rest is all just selecting the right sounds in the software with a few mouse clicks, and I'm ready to go.  Get it down quickly while the idea is fresh, I say.  Why not?

I always try to nail each track all the way through live, and usually do.  It's a fun challenge to get it right in one take.  Sometimes I've tried splicing in a fix, and although I figured out how to do it with the software, I usually delete a mistake track and totally do-over for the satisfaction.  A weak area is knowing when to place the crash cymbal.  I can get the math right counting in my head, but I never quite know where they should go.  If you determine what you want to do before hitting record, it's usually all pretty easy.  

"Comping Vocals"

Except for lead vocals, that is.  I also try to nail my vocal takes all the way through, and often take the same approach, but I have way more do-overs.  I have tried to "comp" the best parts of multiple takes before, but the selection and bounce mouse clicks involved are cumbersome to the point that it's easier to just start again fresh each time, and it sounds more natural and cohesive if all in one take.

It's Not Really New

I'm talking about all these things as if they're new, but they're not.  Today's young superstars  may not have any idea music used to be made live in studios with giant physical mixing boards with knobs and dials, and real instruments played into microphones, and tons of hardware equipment taking up warehouse-size rooms.  Most people record the way I'm describing here now, and have for a long time.

It's All Good, Except

The following can sound great, but are arguably a little closer to cheating on the spectrum:

  • Quantization:  They also use quantization which matches up everything to a tempo, which I've experimented with, but don't do.  Hard to get the math right with that latency thing happening in a multi-track situation when most tracks are not MIDI. 
  • Auto-Tune:  They also use auto-tune, which again I've experimented with, but don't use.  Sounds too fake, plus you have to actually know what notes you're singing to use it right, and I have no idea.  
  • Auto-Harmony:  This is probably also why I'm completely dumbfounded when attempting harmony vocals - not easy at all.  I know they have software that can create harmonies for you as well, but require music knowledge and math skills probably, so I haven't checked them out yet.  
  • Auto-Drummers & Loops:  Most people probably also use the full virtual drummer and drum loop software, I suspect.  At least keyboard drumming requires timing and precision and physical interaction, and even though it's fake, it sounds real.  I did use a fake drum loop on my rap song once.
  • AI Mastering:  Although I haven't tried it, I might someday.  Machine learning does the mastering automatically to some degree now.  This also seems like cheating, but if it's accurate and you like the results, it's faster than constant tweaks, knob-turning, fader-sliding, patching in racks of hardware equipment and multiple playback testing.  I have however, created my own automation scripts to run for various mastering steps like EQ and compression processing.

"In-The-Box" Recording

Entire songs can be done with a MIDI keyboard and a vocal, especially the mainstream commercial major label pop stuff.  These modern Swedish pop producer/engineer/songwriter dudes like Max Martin likely use 100% virtual everything, taking full advantage of tech to fully produce entire songs for artists where everything is done in-the-box except lead vocals and maybe a guitar, then they just bring in the female pop star to do lead vocals into an actual microphone they later automagically make perfect.  Send them off to do their dance video, and good to go.

Outright Theft

I haven't covered sampling or just straight-up song stealing, but you've all read the copyright lawsuit news involving famous artists.  Seems to be on the upswing.  Sometimes it can be accidental, but as someone who takes great pride in my original creations, I struggle to understand why anyone would want to intentionally rip off someone else.  Yes you might make some money, but you'd feel no satisfaction.  The satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself (and knowing you taught yourself how to do it) is the greatest reward of all.

Summing Up

When you have a day job, a family, a personal life, other interests, etc., you need to maximize your hard-earned free time for your songwriting/recording hobby.  There's something to be said for people who knew how to do something the old way before a new technology made knowing how to do it obsolete.  

As everyone's mom told them, just because everyone else does it, doesn't mean you should, but new tech becomes commonplace, and it's not so much to keep up with the Joneses out of a sense of competition, it's about making things more convenient.  

Few chefs make their own croissants anymore because it's so time consuming.  Google that to verify, then Google the Julia Child show of the from-scratch way - it's fascinating and deserves respect, but no one does it anymore.  Although it's more pure and rewarding to do things from scratch, you can give yourself advantages to save time.

Therefore, I'm "cheating" (leveraging technology) in several ways out of convenience and lack of skill and/or owning instruments.  Using free online advice and tools, software, software instruments, effects processing, automation, etc. are things I've slowly embraced, but sometimes it feels wrong or too easy.  In the near future, if not already, there will be popular songs people pay to listen to that did not involve any human beings at all, which is scary.  That said, I like to be transparent about taking a few shortcuts in my music making.

In your head, you can run through the alphabet to find the right rhyme, but a free online rhyming dictionary is so much faster, so I use one.  I sometimes listen to a click track when recording my first rhythm guitar track instead of going with my natural timing to make it easier to follow when laying down bass, drums & other tracks later.  I not only record in a multi-track environment and do overdubs, I've also spliced in fixes, and have done comping on lead vocal tracks.  I get the sound of a piano or an organ without needing to buy a piano or organ.  I get the sound of chords by pressing a single key without needing to know how to play chords.  I get the sound of drums by pressing a single key without needing to know how to play or own drums.  

It's one of the reasons I prefer being a recording artist only and not a live performer:  I can make myself sound a little better than I really am!  That said, I prefer to keep my studio recordings as real as possible so that if I ever do play them live and solo with just an acoustic guitar, they're not drastically different than how they sound on the record. Attending and remembering live shows is great.  However, the prominent way you enjoy your favorite artists is listening to their studio-recorded music, which is more likely to be available in the future.  As a music fan, some live versions on live albums are great, but it's the studio albums and songs that have the real staying power. 

As you can now understand, I'm all for taking advantage of tech for convenience and efficiency in recording music, and I'm slowly teaching myself to embrace some of it.  I use noise reduction software, for example, just because it really makes stuff sound better to not have as much microphone noise.  On the other hand, I try to not use much reverb or other effects.  I come at this from a perspective the old folk people have in wanting to capture everything as clean and pure and real as possible without cheating.  That's one of the reasons why I intentionally stick with acoustic guitar as opposed to plugging in with an electric and using a bunch of effects.  

There are grey areas with the use of effects and digital processing, and soon if not already, AI is going to be churning out hit songs without human beings.  That is truly scary, and truly cheating if any humans take any credit for it.  What I do now is all about maximizing the efficiency of time spent writing and recording.  I don't go overboard, and what I do is far from actual cheating.  I take advantage of far fewer tech tools than most artists these days, I suspect, so I'm far from cheating on the spectrum.  

Glad I'm not too tempted by these newer technologies and prefer a sound that is as real an organic as possible, while still keeping my hard-earned free time spent of these things as efficient and as easy as I can.  I like to make it sound analog even though it's mostly digital.  Hope you appreciate this.  I do it because of my own style preference, but also because I know my listeners like it that way.  I'm glad you do!  As always, thanks for listening, liking my throwback style, being patient with me as I slowly embrace newer tech, and thanks also for reading this blog.

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