If you’re a fan of the Rolling Stones, you’re probably familiar with the story of Keith Richards coming up with the lick to “Satisfaction.” If not, here’s the story: the classic guitar riff came to him in the middle of the night, and luckily, he had a cassette player by his bed and was quickly able to record the idea. Upon waking up the next morning, he listened to the tape and soon realized the rest of the song. Aside from this being a cool page from the book of rock history, there’s a great lesson in it: every musician should have an easy way to document a musical idea.
Musical inspiration is often immediate. You may be messing around on your instrument or driving in the car, and suddenly something hits you. You think of a great melody, a new bass groove, or a beautiful lyric. The only problem is that this idea can slip away as quickly as it appeared. In this situation, the goal is to capture the essence of the idea in any way possible. Thankfully, technology has resulted in any number of ways to document the creative process. The goal is figuring out what will work for you and what to use when you only have a few moments to take down the idea.
In this day and age, musicians (hobbyists or professionals) are extremely lucky to have a number of top quality recording programs at their disposal. Logic, ProTools, Ableton Live, etc., have turned many a basement or dorm room into a studio. These programs are used to record everything from demos to gold records, but they certainly aren’t necessary, or particularly efficient, when it comes to taking down an idea. First off, they’re stationary… they are confined to a desktop or laptop and you need to have some kind of interface to plug in to. The program takes a few minutes to boot up, and by the time your computer is ready for the idea, you may have lost it. If you happen to have it ready to go, it’s a great tool and can be perfect for recording ideas, especially if you want to copy, paste, and create loops or layers.
For those of you who don’t have a program like ProTools, you certainly aren’t out of luck. If you have a Mac, you probably have Garageband, which I happen to like just for the sake of convenience. Although it’s good to use an interface, if you simply want to have a record of the idea you create, you don’t need to bother hooking anything up… you can open up the program, create a basic track, capture the sound of your amp via the internal mic on the computer, and hit record. Will the quality be great? No. Will it provide a medium to record so that you can revisit the idea later? Yes.
If you’re away from your computer, don’t worry! There are plenty of hand-held devices, including your cell phone, which can satisfy your needs. Companies such as Zoom or Tascam make portable devices that you can keep in your gig bag in order to record rehearsals or that you can sit on your desk to record yourself practicing. They’re useful tools to have, but again, not totally necessarily. For those of you who have iPhones, you don’t need to bother with some of these other devices. The “Voice Memo” utility gives you the ability to press record within seconds, and then transfer the file to your computer later on. This is the modern day tape recorder… the quality isn’t great but it does the job just fine.
With any of these recording devices, make sure you begin the process with a test run. Try recording roughly 30 seconds of music and then listen back to the track, just to make sure that the levels are audible. When you’re recording bass via a room mic, it’s easy for the bass to distort (especially if you’re playing low notes on the E string). This may require you to turn down or change the location of the device. You certainly don’t need to spend much time finding the perfect place in the room, but you do want the recording to be an accurate representation of what you played. Given the nature of bass frequencies, chords are fairly difficult to decipher later on, regardless of the recording quality. If I’m recording a chord progression, I’ll usually make two tracks… the first track will be an arpeggiation of the chord, so that I can clearly hear the voicing, and the second track will be the actual progression.
Now all of these electronic devices are great, but for those of you who take pride in being “old school,” you can utilize the good ol’ pen and paper method. I happen to be the least tech-savvy person around… I still enjoy using my paper academic calendar to keep track of my schedule (as opposed to iCal) and I refuse to get a Kindle, although I read books all the time. At this point, I have to give a big “thank you” to Moleskine for making those pocket-sized black notebooks. I try to keep one with me at all times… in my purse, gig bag, or backpack, just so I can make notes of any creative spark. This may include song lyrics, poetry, an interesting situation, a hook, a song idea, or a chord progression that I want to explore later on. Even though I love having an iPhone, the creative process seems more organic when using a pencil to put down ideas, as opposed to fingertips on a screen. Another great reason to have a physical “creative diary,” is that you can peruse the book and revisit past ideas. I enjoy paging through the diary while at the airport, waiting for a friend, or wanting to work on an idea from years ago. It’s great to be re-inspired and make headway on forgotten ideas… suddenly you stumble upon buried treasure.
Whether your note taking process involves a great sounding recording, scribbles on a page, or an iPhone voice memo, the ultimate goal is to somehow capture your idea. This documentation of the creative process will serve you well in the future, because it’s a whole lot easier to forget an idea than it is to create one. Just think, if Keith Richards never recorded that idea in the middle of the night, no one would get no satisfaction.
What do you use to keep track of your ideas for safekeeping? Tell us about it in the comments!
Photo by Carbon Arc