Don't Forget to Unplug Now & Then

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Unplug TO RECONNECT

#NationalUnpluggingDay is a social media holiday in March.

A day that encourages us to unplug—to turn off our gadgets and connect more with the analog world around us. Let's take the opportunity to extend this idea to our music as well.

Do you remember the last time your electricity went out? If you were right in the middle of working on your music were you still able to continue?

I have nothing against the creativity in EDM, hip hop, and similar styles of music but I personally tend to lean towards more traditional styles of music involving (mostly) living people playing a live instrument—both of which may need to be re-tuned occasionally and may not necessarily have an on/off switch ;-)

While I typically mix songs that wanna rock,  I've always found something special about an acoustic "unplugged" version of a great song. There can be an unmistakable energy that comes from the core words and music alone when they're not overshadowed by anything else that might distract us as the listener. That intimacy draws us closer and often reveals something deeper we didn't recognize about the song (or the artist) beforehand.

First recorded with Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton's Layla was already a classic for good reason long before his unplugged version changed a lot of people's mindsets about how the same song—performed by countless cover bands over the 20 years in between—could be performed and re-imagined. While some will always debate which version is better, I've always heard them as two equally brilliant performances of one great song. Both versions work well because there's movement and intent in both the song and arrangement, in addition to some great playing!

Can you think of similar examples you've heard? There are classic songs that can stand on their own without much else aside from a lead vocal and simple accompaniment. Some were released that way, others were unplugged later but these are all wonderfully clean recordings that capture a solid performance. Do these songs need more? Decide for yourself:

Unplug to Retain the Song's Core Vibe

There are some incredibly creative workflows available to us but with today's tools at our disposal it's so easy and so very tempting to start arranging and producing while we're still writing the song. 

When we're writing we want and need our ideas to flow but because we can move so fast with every new idea, we may not always be processing them well enough to objectively determine their impact on the song as a whole. We quickly end up with several layers of musical parts as we build out our new song. If we're not being intentional we can quickly lose sight of what was initially driving the song and lose some of the energy behind it.

All of the musical parts we've added to the original melody or groove can bring something new to the song but with each added part we also add to the risk of not seeing the forest for the trees. We listen but we don’t hear.

We become unable to hear that the song was already there, and it was working quite well before we buried it underneath too many well-intended ideas.

Experimentation and risk certainly have their place in the songwriting process but it's not uncommon to spend a lot of time and effort building out a full production of a song only to scrap it all and go back to its roots an hour or even days later. Even well into the mixing stage, the mute button can become so effective in helping the song keep the listener engaged by removing parts where they're not adding anything of real value or, even worse, when they're distracting from something more important.

Be proactive and reference the latest iteration of your song against its initial version and early drafts. Simple recordings and scratch tracks captured on your mobile device are great for this type of thing. Referencing earlier versions can help gauge your progress and either confirm that you're moving in the right direction or that you need to correct your course.

Unplug to Focus on the Basics

As you get further into your music-making workflow, remember that ultimately the song itself is more important than the added production value we often obsess over. It can be helpful to ask some basic questions about the core song you've written:

  • Does the song still take the listener on a journey worth taking?

  • Do the lyrics tell the story you want to tell?

  • Does the music compliment or distract from the lyrics? Think prosody.

  • Does your song structure work? 

  • Does your song need a bridge? If so, where should it take us? Does it?

By honing in on these types of elements to make some key decisions upfront, your production choices can actually become easier to make and easier to execute with more impact. Why? Because asking the right questions can provide direction and purpose.

Unplug to Untangle the Mess—Crafting Parts with Purpose

If you can make even a simple Lo-Fi recording of your song on your mobile device (the default voice memo app will do), you can reference that early version of the song throughout your workflow to re-calibrate your musical compass and stay on the right path to finish with clarity and intent.

  • Make a list of elements you want to enhance and work on ways to do that. Be very clear on your reasons why.

  • Make a list of elements that are distracting and work on ways to remove or reduce those distractions. Again, asking why can be incredibly helpful here.

If a part isn't working, don't necessarily throw it out completely. Making music doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing kind of thing. Nothing says every part has to be static. Many times a certain part becomes more effective when it's absent from one section and featured in another.

Varying parts throughout the song can create movement and keep the listener engaged as one element catches their ear while another fades. Soon enough, another shiny object appears to grab the audience's attention before something familiar is reintroduced to hold their attention once again.

For genres such as rock, country, and blues, you have words and music working together. Without oversimplifying, consider that usually only one of these can dominate at a given time, even within a single measure. When they're both constantly competing for attention, you start to run into trouble.

An intro or turnaround will use the music alone to establish the vibe. The verses will typically tell the story, so the lyrics are featured while the music backs off a bit until the chorus hits. A bridge might feature musical hooks with only a few sparse words while the final chorus hits 'em hard with both the words and music alternating as a powerful one-two punch combination. 

At some point, you start to notice that any changes you make no longer seem to add anything of value and in that magical moment you recognize you're done. You have to be; otherwise, the song never gets released. 

Remember: art is never finished, only abandoned.

Unplug to Rediscover YOUR SONG

Do you have older songs that could benefit from being unplugged? Maybe even the ones you started but never quite finished could be moved forward by revisiting them in a stripped down, unplugged setting. Try it with one of your songs today—just vocals and backing chords. Yes, some songs will need more but some songs can work surprisingly well if you give them a chance before you automatically assume you have to start building it up without actually stopping to listen first. By the way, listening to your song while you're playing it can be a very different experience than actively listening to a recording of it for assessment. 

The "unplugged" treatment doesn't always work for every song and that can tell you something too. Maybe the song itself still needs some work, or maybe the song just isn't suited for that type of arrangement. Some songs need more, some songs don't, but a great song will always give you a solid foundation on which you can build—if and when you want to.

If you like what you hear when you unplug your song, consider taking it a step further by releasing that acoustic version to your audience too, even when you do move (or already have moved) forward with a fully produced record. It's the same song, but now you'll have two distinct sound recordings that can potentially be earning royalties.

Unplug to Get Started

It takes an investment in time and money to complete an EP or full album and artists have to prioritize which songs to include. Some good songs never make the final cut because of the cost that might come with a full production. Many talented artists write songs that are never heard simply because they were never recorded.

To help more artists with their music, I wanted to offer mixing services that provide value, but I also want to provide songwriters with a choice—a simpler mixing service that is still affordable for every song that wants to be heard. As an independent artist you should be able to scale your efforts to match your goals for each song.

When your song only needs vocals and an accompanying instrument, today’s tools let you easily record those tracks yourself with minimal gear and without breaking the bank. Export those individual tracks and hire a dedicated mix engineer to craft a more polished sound for you and your music.

My Singer-Songwriter Special offers an affordable alternative to the typical raw and unbalanced performance video many artists upload to their YouTube channel or Instagram feed.  

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1 song, 2 tracks, 3-1/2 minutes (or thereabouts).

That covers your lead vocal and an accompanying guitar, piano, etc. that can be easily recorded with whatever gear you already have—even just a free mobile app such as GarageBand or BandLab. Recording individual tracks allows for more flexibility during the mixing process to enhance the positives and reduce the distractions to produce a clean, polished recording you can feel good about sharing with your fans.

Right now this mixing service includes one free revision plus mastering for digital distribution. A small investment of your time and $39 (USD) gives you a mixed & mastered audio file you can upload to your social media feeds, artist website, or provide to your online distributor for your fans to stream and download through Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, etc.

Get started by simply telling me about your music! I would love to hear what you're working on.

Whenever you find something of value here, please share it on social media and within your musical circles.

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Matt Recio

Quality mixing services for your music and audio projects.