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The 80s have made a comeback. Popular culture is now saturated with Def Leppard t-shirts, high top shoes, skinny jeans and "Stranger Things".

If the 80s had a soundtrack, it would be a Synthwave album.

Synthwave is a genre of music driven by keyboard synthesizers (synths), electronic drum beats, and more synths. The music will often feature saxophone, electric guitar and vocals. Instrumental songs are just as common as those with vocals. Adjectives to describe the music include dreamy, cinematic, and romantic.

Album covers predominantly feature neon, purple, chrome, and cyberpunk themes. They ooze an "80s" vibe.

To start with Synthwave I suggest listening to Timecop1983. Specifically the first two songs from his album Night Drive:

The first song, "Static" features another Synthwave artist The Midnight. As an aside, many Synthwave artists collaborate and feature one another on their albums. They utilize the borderless internet to exchange audio files and form collaborations even though they may live hundreds of miles apart. 

The intro in "Static" gives a classic 80s/Synthwave/Cyber punk/Blade Runner mood. Rain, lightning, and the synth envelop you. Transporting you to a Tron or Matrix inspired world. The mellow vocals (a Synthwave staple) add another layer of richness and build on the dreamy mood.

The second song on in the album is "On the Run". This instrumental is a classic Synthwave song. The mood, the synths, the electronic drums. All fuse together to create feelings of floating through a cyber world of 1s and 0s.

Today (2018) the Synthwave genre is strong. Artists from all corners of the world are producing albums and hitting the road to perform live. You can hear full albums on YouTube and discover new Synthwave artists using the Recommendations. The album covers make them easy to spot.

Here are a few of my current favorites:

Timecop1983

The Midnight

Nina

FM-84

Night Runner

Com Truise

Flip That Switch, my "internet based international rock group" has a new song out, "Throw Time"! For background on how the group came to exist check out this past post.


Play the song!

Get the song!

Song credits:


The writing and recording process for "Throw Time" was similar to group's first song. However this time I tried a new approach to writing lyrics. I'll get to that in a second.

For writing the music I started with a few guitar riffs and came up with chord progressions for the Verses and Choruses. I came up with transitions for each section and pieced them together.

The opening riff of the instrumental section (1:59) came about from a spontaneous jam session. I liked the feel of playing the riff so I added to it and then slid the section into the song.

The guitar solo in the intro was a last-minute addition. Originally that section was going to be rhythm guitar drums and bass only. However I was inspired by the power of the opening guitar solo of Majestic's Losers Shades of Hell. So I composed a guitar solo to imitate that mood.

I recorded all the guitar parts at home and sent the files to Tony who wrote and recorded the drum parts in his home. Drums and Guitar were then sent to Rocco who recorded Bass. The song then traveled to Valentino who recorded the vocals. All the recorded parts were accumulated by Rocco who then mixed and mastered the song.


Writing lyrics has been a big challenge for me in the past. I'd suffer from blank page syndrome. I'd play the song and stare at a blank page waiting for inspiration to strike. I'd toss around phrases and often not land on anything I was happy with. This lack of a process resulted in frustration and lack of progress.

Thus with this song I decided to come up with a system to focus my attention. Having a system established constraints so that I could channel my creativity. It was much more productive to work within constraints, versus having an open-ended "write anything you want" blank page.

My system was three steps. Come up with a song theme. Come up with a takeaway message from each section. Then write the lyrics.

The theme for this song is accepting that time is finite and realizing that throwing time at your "thing" (problem/goal/dream/challenge) is no longer a viable solution.

It's realizing that the thing you keep postponing or procrastinating may no longer happen. You'll eventually run out of time to throw. And thus you must change. The realization may result in hyper focus so that you can overcome the challenge with a new approach. No longer just throwing time. Or the realization may be that it's time to move on. Let it go. No more time will be thrown.

With the theme in place I created an outline of messages based on each section of the song.

In verse 1 I focused on the ideal settings to create. In that rather than sitting down and doing the work, you spend more time trying to get in the "mood" to create. Plus the idea of waiting for creativity and inspiration to strike, as though by divine intervention.

The resulting lyrics:

Waiting
For the ideal moment
Just need time

The perfect setting to create
Blank page reveal yourself

In verse 2 I focused on the topic of 10,000 hours. Someone that put in the hours but didn't get the expected results. And how endless distractions (especially in modern day) are vying for your time and attention.

I spend ten thousand hours and yet
The dream is not here

And my will feels this constant duress
Temptations take my time from me

Verse 3 is the realization that it's finite. And now channeling this realization to become much more deliberate in how you spend your time.

Next time
I'm aware
Will not fall
To regret

I see
The scarcity
Everyday
I control

In the chorus I wanted to reaffirm the idea of now deliberately throwing time. It's not just a default reaction. It's a deliberate action and choice.

I take hold
Driving fear
I take hold
Spending clear

Throw time
Throw time

Putting these constraints on myself greatly helped with channeling my focus on getting the lyrics done. Without the constraints I would struggle to make decisions and progress with the lyrics. Sometimes creativity needs freedom but other times it needs constraints. For it can be intimidating to stare at a blank page and think of something to say when anything can be said.

Introduction

I'm extremely excited to write this final part of the series.

The song "An Unexpected Me" is finally done and released under the band name Flip That Switch. The song took a new direction (compared to the song described in parts 1 - 4) and I'm extremely happy with how it turned out!

This post will focus on the writing and recording process of this version of the song. If you're interested in my gear and how the project originally started, check out the previous posts:


Play the song!

Get the song!

Song credits:


Where have I been?

For this series I wrote the introduction post on October 1st, 2015. Part 4 came July 18, 2016 and now part 5 on March 3rd, 2018.

Why the heck did it take so long to finish the song?!

When I wrote part 4 I had all the guitar parts recorded and lyrics written. I started looking for a drummer to collaborate with but couldn't garner enough interest in that version of the song. Then life got busy, I lost motivation, and shelved the song for another day.

And somehow an entire year flew by.

Then in Fall 2017 a few things happened. A new band called Cyhra released their debut album "Letters To Myself". I was blown away by it! In particular how catchy and memorable the songs were. For example check out the chorus in their song "Heartrage". Listening to this album started to rekindle my interest in writing and recording music again.

Around that time I also attended a few incredible live shows (including Rammstein and Iron Maiden). I noticed how certain songs would draw a particular energetic reaction from the audience. The audience would get engaged with the song and want to move and dance to the groove. Capturing this groove, something you can bob your head up and down to, was what these artists excelled at. Getting a person moving and excited is what made the live experience of rock music so much fun.

So I began to imagine how fun it would be to write a song like that. A song that rocked, grooved, and would be fun to play live. A song that captured that vibe.

I listened to what I had recorded in part 4 and found that my song had none of those characteristics. It wasn't a rock a song, it didn't groove, and I wouldn't be excited to play it live. And yet it had potential. The riffs and chord progressions could be repurposed. The song needed some electric guitar distortion and a new arrangement.

I also realized that my intentions when starting this series of blog posts were not focused on writing a song. Instead I put more focus on this series of posts, the song became an afterthought. That's why I lost interest in the music after writing part 4.

And so I shifted my mindset.

I put all my focus into writing the song. Specifically a rock song that I would be excited to play live. A song that could garner that same audience reaction I saw when attending the aforementioned live shows.

And yet I had apprehension. Here I was about 2 years after I wrote the first post in the series thinking of redoing the song. What was going to prevent me from putting the song on an indefinite hold again? Was it going to take me another year just to re-write the new version?

As a solo song writer I often struggle with "writers block". I come up with a section (say a verse) but then not know where to go next. My internal dialogue fields questions like was this new section interesting enough technically and musically? Was it good enough for the song? This perpetuated into self-doubt, indecision, and ultimately blocked me from continuing to write music.

And then I read this advice from Tim Ferriss. Whenever he hits writers block in a project, he asks himself:

What if it were easy?

This question became my mental approach and panacea.

I set the intention that if I hit a roadblock during the re-writing process I would ask myself, what if this were easy, what would I do?

This approach empowered me to make decisions during the re-writing process. So when I did hit a roadblock I would ask myself, what if it were easy, what would I play in this section? It wasn't literally playing the "easiest" thing, but playing something, anything. Then making various tweaks and moving forward.

The mindset was to keep moving forward. Make decisions.

This helped me unlock my creativity and allowed me to re-write the song in a reasonable amount of time. So instead of trying to write the perfect song, I just wrote what sounded good to me with the intention of moving forward and getting it finished.


Re-writing the song

The first version of the song sounded like this:

This version has some cool riffs and chord progressions, but the arrangement isn't very exciting.

So I set an intention: re-write the song so that it grooves and rocks. So that it would get a listener to bob there head up and down and want to move with it.

I came up with a Def Leppard inspired riff that became the intro of the song (first 30 seconds). Through jamming I came up with the chords for the pre-chorus which connected nicely into the chorus chord progression I repurposed from the first version of the song.

Like Lego blocks I began to piece together individual sections. I had an intro/outro, verses, pre-choruses, choruses, and a solo section. I focused on the connections between each section to ensure they were seamless and tight. I didn't overthink them, asking myself constantly: what if it were easy?

I now had the blueprint for the second version of the song. It sounded like this:

For the final version of the song I re-recorded all of the guitars to tighten and clean them up. For my recording process read part 4 in this series.

Next up was writing the vocal melody and lyrics.

Writing a vocal melody was a bit foreign to me. To get started I utilized an approach taught to me by my music teacher. The approach is to essentially analyze the music of a composer you admire to break down the relationship between the harmony, melody, and rhythm.

I really like the chorus in the song "Holding Your Breath" by Cyhra so this is where I applied that approach. I figured out the chord progression by ear and then learned the vocal melody on the guitar.

This gave me insight as to how the vocal melody sounded and played on the guitar. Thus I was now thinking like a vocalist, but instead of singing I was playing the melody on the guitar. I then used this mindset to write the vocal melodies on the guitar for An Unexpected Me.

Here are the melodies I came up with (you'll hear the lead guitar playing the vocal melody):

Now I needed to write lyrics for these melodies.

This was a major challenge. As I sketched out several ideas nothing felt right. So I started Googling "how to write lyrics" and I came across a site whose first point of advice was to not write clichés such as "I walk this road".

I looked at my notebook of ideas and one of the first lines I wrote was: "I walk this road".

So yes, my lyrics needed some work.

I took an approach by starting with a theme. In this case it was "expectations". Thinking about where they come from and how much they define us and our experiences. Going on this theme I started to match up phrases to the vocal melody.

Over time ideas started to come together and I finally had lyrics I was happy with:

Let's set the stage where you enclose on me

Display your force amorphously

I feel no choice

Lost voice

Living to your demands

What if I could

Split from your pull

You are the way I measure up

You are the way I see

Break from you

Break from you

Break from you

Will not concede

Expect an unexpected me

Now I will try to push

You willfully

No more moments you'll take from me

Now that I'm aware

Of your stare

Always there

Awaiting me

Your strength falters

My view is altered

I now had the guitar parts recorded and lyrics written. It was time to find other musicians to join me on this song!


Recording over the web

This song would still be in demo form had it not been for the incredible musicians I was fortunate enough to collaborate with. I give these guys my biggest thanks for bringing this song to life and making it sound so much better than I imagined!

I started my search by looking for a drummer. I wanted someone who was technically proficient, had a great recording sound, and had a groovy feel to his playing.

My strategy was to search on YouTube for drummers covering songs that influenced me. I felt that if the drummer had a solid performance, they would have the right mindset and feel that I was looking for in my song.

I found Tony Parsons through his insanely good cover of the Genesis song "Dance on a Volcano". I then saw his cover of "Fallen" by Symphony X. I was sold, this was the guy I needed!

I sent Tony the song demo and he agreed to add drums to the track. The only direction I gave him was make it groove. I fully trusted his instincts and was blown away by what he came up with. He captured the exact feel I was going for by making the drums groove and propel the track forward.

Even though Tony is physically in a different state from me, the recording process was straightforward. He sent me his first version by adding drums to the guitar backing track I had sent him. I sent him some feedback for a few tweaks, and we then had a final version of the drums. The power of the internet!

Tony sent me each individual drum as a separate audio file, and these would then be added to the final audio project for when the song was ready to be mixed. Here are the files:

image

Next I started to look for a vocalist using the same YouTube "cover a song I like" strategy.

I found Valentino Francavilla covering the song "I Don't Believe In Love" by Queensrÿche. I was blown away by his performance. He not only technically nailed the song, but brought his own unique voice to the song.

I was determined to get this guy to join the song!

While I was pitching Valentino I started to look into the guitar and bass player who covered the song with him. Enter Rocco Pezzin.

Rocco turned out to have a swiss army knife skillset of music production. Not only is he a monster guitar player, but he also specializes in bass and music production.

I contacted him and he agreed to collaborate by adding the bass guitar and mixing and mastering the song. Sharing my 80s metal influences I only needed to give him limited direction as to how I wanted the song to sound.

When he sent me his first version of the mix (including bass guitar) I was truly impressed. The song was starting to come together!

During this time Valentino recorded the vocals. He sent his recorded files to Rocco to be added to the mix, and Rocco then sent me a mixed version that included all the parts.

I had a sense of what to expect from the vocals given that Valentino utilized the guitar melodies I had sent him, but I was still really amazed by his performance. He added various tweaks, intonations, and harmonies that I didn't have in the guitar melodies. He knew the style and vibe I was going for in the track and he absolutely nailed it. The song had come alive and was ready for release!

By the way, Valentino and Rocco are based in Italy - the power of the internet!


What's next?

While writing "An Unexpected Me" I started to write another song. This new song currently has the guitars and drums done, and I'm now working on the vocal melodies and lyrics. Not sure yet when this second song will be released, but it is in progress!

The current vision for Flip That Switch is to release two songs, and then it's a big TBD.

As inspiration strikes I may compose additional music and continue to release as singles. But for now the plan is to just release two songs.

As far as "An Unexpected Me", it was a tremendous pleasure to collaborate with Tony, Valentino, and Rocco on this song. The beauty of finding the right people to collaborate with is that with limited direction they will contribute in ways you couldn't have anticipated. Because of shared musical influences these guys knew exactly what the track needed!

I can now bring closure to this 5 part series.

This is my blueprint for recording a song.

The guitar is a diverse instrument. When I meet a guitar player my first question is what kind of style do they play? Singer songwriter? Jazz? Rock? Classical? Flamenco? Even within rock you can specialize in various sub-genres: shred, 80s, classic rock, surf rock, punk, speed metal, etc. Each style demands a unique musical approach and technical proficiencies on the instrument.

The use of a guitar pick is one example of a technical difference in playing certain styles. In classical and flamenco guitar a guitar pick is not used. For the 80s rock style of electric guitar that I play a guitar pick is mandatory.

Guitar picks come in all shapes and sizes. The primary difference among them is the thickness, measured in millimeters. A very thick "heavy" guitar pick is 3.0 mm. A flimsy "light" guitar pick is 0.7 mm. You can find a pick any size in between: 2.0, 1.7, 1.0, etc. The weight of the pick impacts not only the tone produced by the guitar, but also its playability.

For tone, you have to consider the type of music you are playing. Staying with the 80s electric guitar theme, if you're playing the rhythm guitar part of "Crazy Train", a light pick will produce brighter tones which are desired when playing the chords in the song. A heavy pick will produce duller tones that will make the chords sound bland. A light pick will glide across the strings with less precision which is exactly what you want when playing rhythm guitar. A heavy pick will be more abrasive when strumming chords, and hence will result in duller tones.

Things are flipped when you reach the guitar solo in "Crazy Train". The flimsiness of a light pick will no longer be advantageous as the lack of precision becomes a negative. Playing a lot of notes fast will become a challenge because the light pick lacks the precision the heavy pick has. Making a change between a 0.7 mm pick to a 2.0 mm pick could make a tremendous difference in not just guitar tone, but the playability of the solo. With a 0.7 mm pick I would likely miss notes and the solo would sound messy. Yet the precision of the 2. 0 mm pick would lower the risk of missing notes and likely make the notes in the solo cleaner and brighter.

A difference in millimeters can make a huge difference on the tone and playability of your guitar.

How do you listen to music? Do you focus on the beat? The vocals? The lyrics? Or is it just background noise?

Several years ago my music teacher introduced me to an exercise that changed the way I hear music. The exercise is simple, but it's benefits are vast.

As I've reflected on it I've realized it's a practical and fun way to develop certain non-cognitive skills (aka emotional intelligence). Emotional intelligence is a "hot" topic at the moment (see Unselfie book, VR and Empathy, Emotional Intelligence skills) as we are starting to recognize and quantify it's vital importance in life success. And yet emotional intelligence topics are alarmingly absent from a traditional school curriculum, and if you're an adult, you're on your own to figure it out.

The challenge with non-cognitive skills is there isn't a formula for teaching them. How do you teach someone creativity? Taste? Focus? I've found that certain exercises can be used to hone non-cognitive skills. This music listening exercise is one of them.

I classify non-cognitive skills into two categories: practical and influential. You develop the practical skills by doing the exercise. For example through this music exercise, you'll develop skills like listening and focus. Influential skills are indirectly influenced by this exercise. You don't practice these skills, but doing the exercise influences their development.

Take creativity as an example. Creativity isn't something you train. It's a result of your experiences and influences. Doing an exercise that allows you to recognize and appreciate someone else's creativity influences your own creativity "muscle". By experiencing an influential skill you see what's possible. Your mindset is altered and your collective experience allows you to build on it and apply it in your work.

This listening exercise will impact different influential skills for different people. For me, this exercise influences my appreciation for nuance, taste, and creativity. And the cool thing is I've been able to apply these skills to many other facets of my life.


The exercise

So what is the magic exercise? The idea is simple. Pick any song, grab some headphones and play the song. While the song is playing focus on one instrument. For example if you're listening to a Beatles song, start by focusing and listening to only the drums for the entire song. Hear nothing else, just the drums. Then replay the song and listen to only the guitar. Then the bass guitar, and then the vocals.

The idea is every time you listen to the song, you focus on a single instrument. Analyze the tone. The part being played. For the repeating section of a song (verse 1 versus verse 2, chorus 1 versus chorus 2) does the musician play the part exactly the same? Or do they embellish it? You may find musicians will add slight embellishments throughout the song to keep things interesting.

As you're doing this you may find it to be meditative. You'll need to focus in on specific parts and block out external noise. Focus on the instrument. If you generally focus on vocals and lyrics when listening to music, this will be a very rewarding exercise.

Here is an example of things I notice when listening to a song in this manner. I've found well-produced pop songs tend to work really well for this exercise as they are engineered to perfection. One of my favorites is Savage Garden's "To The Moon And Back". Here are some things that jumped out to me while focusing in on the different instruments.

On the 3 pre-choruses, notice how the vocal harmony only occurs in the 3rd one (3:27). It was not part of the first (1:08) or second (2:18). Why did the producer decide only to do a harmony on the 3rd one? One idea is that the first and third pre-choruses share the same lyrics. But the harmony in the 3rd one keeps it different from the first. So now each pre-chorus is unique. You'll find the great musicians are all about adding slight variety to keep things interesting.

The lead vocal remains at dead center of the mix throughout the song. This is nicely juxtaposed by the second vocal just before the chorus. Notice how the second vocal is audible in both the Left and Right channels and sounds much wider. It's mixed to give a nice contrast and lead you the listener into the chorus.

Check out the keyboard lead that kicks of at 0:14. Engrain that sci-fi melody in your mind. Now jump to 2:18. Can you hear that same melody being played in the background? It's slightly buried behind the vocals, drums, and guitars, but it's there. It was introduced at the beginning of the song and is layered throughout the pre-choruses to maintain the song's cohesiveness.

The bass guitar is the ideal instrument to focus in on in this song. It's not very prominent, and you have to really focus to hone in on it and block everything else. I bet you may have not even noticed it before, but it does a lot for the song! The bass is most prominent when it's first introduced at 0:31. Notice the cool syncopated rhythm it's playing. The bass goes silent at 0:42. It's back at 1:00 but it doesn't do much, just plays whole notes. But it's there to build the listener to the chorus, and once the chorus hits, the bass starts grooving! Check it out at 1:22.

The guitars have a ton going on. The primary thing to notice is you have the lead guitar in the Left channel, and the rhythm guitar in the Right channel. You can hear this at 2:07 and 2:17. Notice how in the Right channel you have a pulsating "clean" guitar rhythm (very U2-esque), while in the Left channel you hear the electric lead guitar play a few lone notes. It's never too much, just a little a bit to keep things interesting. Why did the producer decide to "sprinkle" those little guitar leads in those sections? Nuance, taste, flavor.

Those are some examples of things that jumped out at me. There is much more to discover in this song, and in your favorite songs. I hope you'll find this exercise interesting and helpful.

Happy listening!