Using Spreadsheets as Song Planners
Do you use a computer to help you make music? Then why not go the whole hog and use it to keep track of your songs? Vincent Taylor shows that there's more to computer spreadsheets than merely adding up figures.
It was a source of great amusement to the resident engineer and my fellow musicians when I first turned up at the recording studio with a 2ft by 4ft sheet of stout cardboard with a one-inch grid drawn on, three large sheets of acetate, and a set of overhead projector pens. Amusement turned into annoyance as the masking tape came out and numbers and lines of every hue began to appear on the acetate sheets, while everyone else was unpacking the gear and setting up the drum kit.
I had decided - somewhat unilaterally - that we were no longer going to find ourselves scrabbling around in the middle of the session looking for "the bit where the bass does that run" or "that drum break with the paradiddle - I think it's the one just before the guitar solo, or was it after the third verse?" What I had done was to set up a simple song planner and a song plan for each of the songs we were about to record. They showed which instruments would be recorded onto each track and at what stage in the song each would begin and stop playing.
The song plans helped us to record better in three ways. They incorporated the usual engineer's track/instrument list so that we knew where everything was and could eventually scrap the guide tracks and record over them. We could ensure that we had left nothing out (how many times before had we got to what we thought was the end, only to realise we still had the tambourine part or the third vocal harmony to do?). They also allowed us to use the limited number of tape tracks to full effect by dropping in our embellishments on the blank sections of already recorded tracks. This last little trick does have its drawbacks, however. Dropping in cymbal crashes onto an existing backing vocal track can mean you have to be very quick on the draw readjusting the equalisation or levels when mixing.
But the song plans really came into their own during mixdown. We drew vertical arrows, in a different colour to the track/instrument lines on each song plan, to indicate fader level changes for each track at the point at which they occurred in the song. Thus, not only could we fine-tune the mix during practice runs and keep a complete record of it (in much the way automated desks do nowadays), but also we could stand each plan in front of us during the final mixdown and accurately place any level changes.
Structured song plans won't guarantee you a hit single, but they do save time, money and heartache when recording. Surprisingly, they are probably needed now more than ever. With the growth of home recording - though some homes are looking more like professional studios, while studios try to look more like homes - and the increasing popularity of multitrack sequencing via MIDI, there is a lot more to keep track of.
Technology has widened the number of options and made for much greater control over the song development process, but this has forced an unprecedented requirement on the musician to become organised. In a field of endeavour where disorganisation has been, in the past, a respected code of practice, this is a difficult pill for some musicians to swallow.
Consider how songs used to be produced in the bad old days. The songwriter sat on the end of the bed with an acoustic guitar and wrote the basic song. It would then be arranged and rehearsed with the band in a rehearsal room or studio. The band then saved up and booked into a recording studio, coming out with a stereo master tape.
Today, it appears, songs are written on MIDI keyboards, often over a rough, looped drum pattern, arranged on computer using a multitrack sequencer, then mixed and recorded onto a small multitrack tape machine using MIDI-to-tape synchronisation. Sometimes, only the main vocal line is left un-sampled and un-synthesized. And all of this takes place in the relative comfort of your own spare room!
There are fewer people involved and much less moving about. This creates an illusion that less organisation is needed. In fact, I'd argue, you need more. Writing and editing on a computer-based sequencer means you are composing, arranging and determining the performance parameters all at once. Advances in technology have compressed what took many hours and several brains (not to mention digits and limbs) to produce, into something which one person can undertake alone and, incidentally, is far less unsettling for the neighbours.
We mustn't forget, though, that the creative and organisational input to writing, arranging and performing is now being provided by a single brain instead of several. Those of you familiar with micros will be aware of the benefits of extra memory and, after all, isn't the brain where memory originated?
Like good systems analysts we start by trying to break down the song producing system into its component parts or tasks. However, there is a problem. As I have already mentioned, composing, arranging and performing take place concurrently when using a MIDI sequencer. Multitrack tape recording, mixing and stereo tape recording are usually the second and third stages. As the process does not break down easily into several distinct tasks which take place at different times any more, we have to concentrate upon where the music data resides at each stage. So what we are doing is defining our information requirements. Let's split the data into MIDI and audio first.
The MIDI data is held in the multitrack sequencer (though some people prefer to use the sequencer built into their synth for the very early stages of composition). We enter the data via a keypad, MIDI keyboard or other instrument, computer keyboard, or (occasionally) as a system dump from tape or disk. As the song develops we need to keep track of various items: which 'instrument' (and by that I mean musical oart) is recorded on which sequencer track and on which MIDI channel; which MIDI output device (synth, sampler, drum machine, etc) is going to play it; which voice it will use (ie. the name and location on disk, cartridge or internal memory), and any other relevant program information. We also need to know where each 'instrument' or part starts, stops or restarts. This introduces the dimension of time in musical bars or measures, minutes and seconds, and sometimes the units known as MIDI 'ticks'.
Inspection of sequencer tracks will tell us exactly, to the beat or tick, where a part begins or ends, but most sequencers do not provide a good overview of an entire track and certainly not of a complete song. Standard computer screens are just too narrow, and the resolution too low. Within the overview we need, the start or end bar of a part is sufficient to help us edit or later record. Also, wouldn't it be useful to know how far into the song we were in minutes and seconds at each stage, in order to prevent the intended three minute single becoming the 12" extended mix by default?
The MIDI data is converted into audio signals by adding the sampled or synthesized sounds during playback. At this stage we might want to make a note of the effect settings, mixer channels, and the equalisation and volume levels on the way to the tape recorder. We will certainly want to note what we are putting on each track. As audio tracks tend to cost more per unit than MIDI sequencer tracks, you will probably have more of the latter at your disposal and will want to plan the order of recording and bouncing down onto the multitrack tape machine. Only by planning your bounces can you minimise the number of generations of tape recording, and so keep the tape noise as low as possible.
Finally, any effects settings, equalisation, and stereo panning should be noted from the final mixdown to 2-track tape in case a re-mix is needed.
The MIDI data section of your song plan should be a grid showing time, in song sections, bars, minutes and seconds, or ticks (or all four), increasing to the right and tracks, channels and instruments listed down the left-hand side (see Figure 2).
The audio section splits into three parts: mixer in, multitrack tape, and mixdown. The mixer section should cover your own mixer's control options and become a record of the basic settings for each instrument or part as it is recorded (Figure 3). Similarly, the multitrack tape section should indicate the options on the machine you are using. Figure 4 shows a useful, adaptable table I have devised for planning the recording of several instrument parts onto a 4-track tape, using bouncing down techniques and including a MIDI-to-tape synchronisation track.
Remember: if you only have a couple of output devices (rack or keyboard synths, sampler, etc), try to ensure that they are each playing a part every time you record a track, in order to keep down the number of generations of audio signal.
Lastly, the mixdown section would look similar to Figure 3, noting all of the relevant settings used on the way out to the stereo mastering machine. In order to time fader level changes I found it useful to go back to the MIDI section (Figure 2), enter the fader settings as numbers or a simple instruction (eg. fade in, fade out) in the relevant bar, and to utilise the printout during mixdown.
Pen and paper is the most obvious way of doing all this, though a pencil is better for editing. In fact, it is the huge amount of editing of parts, positions and settings which prompted me to begin thinking of other ways of making a record of a song's parameters in the first place.
Large acetate sheets overlaid on a grid of tracks or channels and song section or bar markings mean that you do not have to re-draw the grid every time you edit the song structure. This format can be made large and clear, and water soluble pens allow you to edit freely.
Another option is the use of a computer spreadsheet. Essentially, a spreadsheet program gives you a grid of 'cells' on screen into which you can place words or numbers. Columns are named alphabetically (A, B, C, etc) and the rows are numbered (1, 2, 3, etc). Each cell is uniquely identified by its column letter and row number. So, cell C4 is in the third column along and fourth row down.
The great strength of the spreadsheet, which is based upon accountants' ledger paper, is that it will perform calculations upon the contents of selected cells automatically. For instance, it can add up a column of figures and place the total in another cell. If one of the numbers in the column is altered later, it will automatically recalculate the total, saving a huge amount of time on figure work.
A spreadsheet can perform quite complex mathematical operations, such as calculating loan repayments, raising the contents of a cell to a power, stripping off all the numbers before the decimal point to give the fractional part of a number only, etc.
Almost all micros now have relatively inexpensive spreadsheet packages available for them, and some even come bundled 'free' with the computer. As an alternative, a worthwhile purchase is an 'integrated' package. This will usually include a word processor, spreadsheet, and database facility all in one. Moving from one application to another is made very quick and simple, and the packages can even cost much less than a dedicated word processor, spreadsheet or database, because the latter tend to include a very sophisticated range of functions, many of which you may never use. I developed my song plans on Migent's Ability Plus (an inexpensive integrated package) and tested them also on Computer Associates' SuperCalc/4 (a very powerful, but expensive package) both running on an IBM PC compatible, and found no problems. Neither package was by any means stretched by the application and both, usefully, have a sideways printing facility.
This is one feature which is very useful, if not essential, in turning your spreadsheet into a song planner. On screen you will be able to view areas of the song plan well off to the right, towards the end of the song. However, unless you have a printer that can handle A3 size paper, or a plotter, it is unlikely that the whole song will fit across a standard A4 page. By turning an image of the song plan through 90 degrees and printing out the plan down the page instead of across, the program lets you have hard copy of the complete song. If you are using continuous paper, this means that it can handle a song of any length.
It is relatively easy to set up all of the song plan data sections (MIDI, mixer in, multitrack tape, and mixdown) on a computer spreadsheet. You enter the text or numbers in the appropriate column, as shown in Figures 2 to 4. Spreadsheets allow you to insert, delete, copy or move rows or columns of data at will, so editing the whole layout is possible at any stage of developing the song plan. I created a column for each bar (see Figure 2), and set the width of each column to four characters. Most spreadsheets usually allow you to set column widths for a range of columns at once, rather than each one individually, which saves time. The track, channel, instrument part, voice/pattern, and output device column widths can be tailored to suit the names or abbreviations for your own set-up.
Once you have designed your song plan, but before you enter the information relating to a particular song, save the spreadsheet file and use it as a master 'template' each time you want to create a song file, by making a copy of it, naming the copy after your song, and entering the data relating to your song into its own new song plan file. That way you avoid having to duplicate entering the layout of the song planner for each song.
Entering and altering the track, channel or instrument listings is simple. You just enter the numbers or names in the appropriate cells. I have used arrows to indicate the start and finish of a part in terms of the bar when it comes in, drops out, or comes in again (Figure 2). These are just made up of a '<' character and three hyphens (ie. <--- ) to signify a start bar, a series of four hyphens (----) to signify that the part continues for the bar shown, and a reversed arrow symbol ( -> ) to show where a part drops out or ends. Having created these symbols, I copied them into the columns marked 'Bar: 1,2, 3, etc' to form the long arrows on each row, which show where each part starts and stops in the song.
Moving an entire part from, say, track 3 to track 8 is also easy. You mark off the data in the row corresponding to track 3 as a 'range' of cells (eg. A11 to Y11) and tell the program to 'move' the entire marked range to its new location (eg. A16, or row 16 of the spreadsheet). In fact, this process is very similar to moving marked sections of a sequencer part between tracks, only much faster.
Any alterations you may make to effects, equalisation, volume or pan settings, or to which part goes on which tape track, can be noted on your paper printout as you record and edited on the spreadsheet afterwards to maintain a neat, accurate update of the song as it develops. It is this clear printout of your song that is invaluable, as it gives you that overview which you can't obtain otherwise. Ideally a multi-tasking micro (such as the Amiga), two micros, or a program such a Microsoft Windows, which allows you to flip between sequencer and spreadsheet, would give you the best control for immediate updating of the song plan as you develop it, but we'll leave that one for the studios.
Is this all just a lot of fuss? Obviously, a spreadsheet song planner is going to take time to set up and time to edit to keep the song plan up to date with your song as it exists on your sequencer, multitrack tape, or stereo tape. I have included many bits of information about each song, some of which you might want to keep a record of. Your song plan should only be as complex as it is useful. Any of the four sections described can be left out, or others added.
But what about all this time spent away from actually composing, performing, arranging or recording? It is very tempting to spend all of your time on the more creative or interesting parts of producing a piece of music, but how many wasted hours have we all spent trying to create that perfect sample or synthesizer voice to no avail, or come back to a sequencer song file or half-finished multitrack tape having hardly a clue as to what state you left it in or where anything is?
Using a song planner can give you more effective time for actually making music. You will have a handle on the complexities of a piece, which you may find refreshing in a world where the degree of control you can exercise over your music is tens of times greater than it was just five years ago.
Spreadsheet song planners are not the ultimate solution by any means. It is highly likely that MIDI sequencer programs will begin to incorporate much more comprehensive song planning tools than at present, or that complementary packages will be developed akin to voice librarians and editors. There exist specialist software programs called 'project planners', designed originally to cope with managing major construction projects, which produce horizontal bar (or Gantt) charts showing start and end dates for all the tasks which make up a project: design; demolition; foundations; main structure; roof; fittings; decoration, etc. The structure of these programs is very similar to what a good song plan should be. Perhaps some enterprising software house might be interested in copying their design to produce a dedicated song planner and song library program.
In the meantime, try dusting off that spreadsheet program you received when you first bought your micro. Turn it into a song planner, and see the wood as well as the trees for once.