View Profile Michael-Flaherty


McFarland, Wisconsin

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How I Write Music

Posted by Michael-Flaherty - September 13th, 2020

Last week I worked on a submission for the Newgrounds Underdogs' Audio Contest. You can listen to the song Here, I think it turned out alright. I don't really have a well thought out method for how I go about writing songs as I don't have too much experience writing music to deadlines, but I thought it'd be fun to document my process so I could look back and think about how to improve that process and also share it for anybody who might be interested. If you don't know about the NGUAC and you didn't feel like clicking that link, basically you have 2 weeks every round to write a song from scratch, just any kind of song as long as it's completely original. It took me over a week to make and then I proceeded to make adjustments right up to the deadline. Here's how that week went:

Day 1 (Sunday 8/30)

I had set a goal for myself that I'd try to make a little bit of real progress each day, and today that progress would be figuring out what the heck kind of song I wanted to make. There were no guidelines for what kind of song it needed to be so the possibilities were endless and creatively intimidating. I asked on the forums during the previous round how people were going to start their music making process and the response I got was to "just play with your toys", and then a reply to that reaffirming that that was indeed a good response. So that's how I started the day, loading up Reaper, loading up a VST piano and played trying to find good nuggets of melodies by just playing around. I made sure to record anything I was doing that I'd consider remotely interesting, once I recorded a good hook I would build on a it. Here's a brief snippet of something I wrote that day. There's some rough piano playing in here be warned.

Link: somewhat interesting idea

I think this could have been built into something but there was the issue that I just wasn't excited about it at all. This was my first takeaway, the value of taking a moment to really think about what excites you in that moment. There may not have been any official direction for what kind of song it was supposed to be, but I was internally very excited to make a specific type of music: that being a song that was fast, upbeat and high-energy, I don't know why but that's what I wanted to make and now I had some kind of direction. 

I really like the song "Love Together" by Nona Reeves, it's the Japanese theme to the Parappa the Rappa TV show which includes zero rapping, but definitely lots of fun energy. I've always wanted to create something with this sort of style so I started making a disco beat.

Disco Beat Idea 1

Disco Beat Idea 2

For some reason these didn't excite me either. I then wrote this


And then went to bed.

Day 2 (Monday 8/31)

More composing, building on that last idea. Below is render of the whole project from this day. If you scrub through it you can here some inklings of what would make it into the final song.

Day 2 Render

I am making a bit of a mistake here, and it's the same mistake I made last round, and probably a mistake that I will make in the future. If you're writing music for the world's best musician then probably anything you compose will ultimately sound OK when preformed. When you're writing for yourself and you're not quite in the "world's best" bracket then there are limitations on the things you can write. I have a decent size collections of VSTs over the years and can emulate most instruments but that doesn't mean I can emulate those instruments very well. Again, the song ultimately turned out OK I think, but (second takeaway) you should write to your strengths, write to what you can actually end up producing. Here I am strictly in theoretical land just writing any melody I'm excited about that that's going to sting later.

Day 3 (Tuesday 9/1)

Here's a render of what I did this day if you just want to scrub through, don't recommend actually listening to it all.

Day 3 Render

The goal at this point was to compose enough bits that I can string together to call a real song. At this point every section of the final song (minus the ending) has been represented in some fashion. Now finally time to acknowledge my lack of actual music making and try and make this composition come to life.

Day 4 (Wednesday 9/2)

It didn't go well. I had a good grip on the melody and chord progression of the song, but still didn't really understand what style of song I was creating

Day 4 Render

Although I think the opening sounds kind of fun, as it goes into the melody it just doesn't sound right to me. Takeaway 3: don't start panicking and labeling yourself as a failure and question your value as a musician and as a human just because you had a bad day of music making. Making something bad is a good learning experience, and now I had a better idea of where this song was going. Yesterday I watched a interview with Tony Hawk and his big life lesson after 40 years of skateboard was to persevere, and you can achieve your goals if you push through and put in the work. What I'm saying is I am just like Tony Hawk.

Day 6 (Friday 9/2)

I was busy Thursday. Also I just came up with another takeaway: if you write a song over the period of a week and continuously save different versions so you can write about the process as a blog post, you should probably refer back to those old versions a little bit because I think they include some elements that should have been incorporated into the final song.


Today was more of a success, it's starting to sound like the real thing.

Day 6 Render

and I finally discovered what the style of the song I was making. I started the whole process thinking I wanted to write something disco inspired and I what I was actually writing was more of a Mario Galaxy inspired song. This was useful information. We finally have a good sounding melody with a nice string patch (a combination of a fast legato string section and the SWAM solo violin), the rhythm is right, the bass is where I think it should be, but the arrangement still feels a bit empty to me. It needed chords. Just holding down a pad triad was boring, Plucking some chords with the same rhythm didn't add much. Plucking chords with syncopated rhythm was too chaotic. But anyway at this point I actually felt like I could really make the song I was writing and that felt good. Good feeling for a Friday.

Day 7 (Saturday 9/3)

I was able to achieve the goal I set out for today which was to make a rough version of the entire track, here's the render:

Day 7 Render

And a visual aid why not


Fixed that chord issue by basically copying the marcato strings of the Octopath Traveler theme.

I don't know if this is super obvious advice or not, but something I do when making a rough outline of a song like this is to really limit the amount of tracks I use. I want to see the whole song with the least amount of clutter on screen as possible. If adding another track that duplicates the melody makes the song 10% better, I don't add it, I think this gives you the most flexibility for changing the arrangement of the song (which didn't happen much after this, but happened on this day) and also makes you think about what is most important. And that example may have made the song sound better because it was hiding the flaws of the other melody track. Start with something simple and confident, then add complexity and polish. 

I haven't discussed the tech I use really, so I'll make a couple notes on that.

  • IKMultimedia MODO Bass sounds really nice, and I was using that for a while but something sounded a bit off about it and I discovered late on this day that it was out of tune. I routed it through the tuner VST and it was off on every note. I was not able to fix this issue, switched to an FM8 custom bass patch.

  • MODO Drum is really great, highly recommend. If you load up any default patch it sounds super reverby and compressed, but I'm able to get the sound I want from it with a little tweaking.

  • I use a lot of AudioModeling SWAM instruments, I've been wanting these forever and just recently purchased a big pack of them. They sound so good except for the flute which is odd, I think normally any flute patch on a keyboard, even when they sound especially fake, sound pretty pleasant, but I wasn't really happy with this. I still ended up using it for harmony parts.

  • As you can tell if you're familiar with these plugins, I really prefer the physical modeling style VSTs, they don't sound 100% like the real thing ever, but the flexibility and simplicity of these plugins (because they're just trying to emulate 1 instrument usually) is so nice. Also sampletank 4 would just straight up not load in with the rest of the project sometimes.

  • Reaper is the best DAW and if you disagree you are not a serious hard core musician like me. I don't really think that, but hopefully that spicy take gets me some clicks.

Day 8 (Sunday 9/4)

Basically finished the song.

Day 8 Render

With the issue that I discovered when I compared it to any other song. The mix was absolutely terrible. No high end. To much reverb. Really quiet. Again questioned my ability to make music, I did not learn the lesson of takeaway 3.

Day 9 (Monday 9/5)

Fixed the mix more or less. No real magic to this process, make sure everything is set to the right volume, use some compression and EQ to turn down anything unwanted that the volume faders didn't take care of. Every track had a send to a long reverb, I added a short high end reverb to fill that space a bit. I made sure it wasn't to centered, pan anything that needed to be panned, if something should sound farther back instead of right up on the mic put some reverb on it (I use Pro-R for that, I use Valhalla reverb plugins for the send reverbs), make sure to add a limiter on the main track after all this and don't set it something crazy high (I read once to set it at like 7db, I did 9db) and the result is something much cleaner. If I'm missing anything basic here let me know, I'm definitely no pro at this.

Day 9 Render

All the Remaining Time

Made some small edits, the strings were really dry, some things needed cleaning up. Didn't do too much.

Sometimes the inspiration for a melody and then the creation of a song can come quickly and naturally, this certainly wasn't the case this time, but I still had fun. I definitely can think of a whole lot of problems that still need to be fixed but honestly I only have so much endurance for one song, and it's possible the problems are never-ending and you just have to call it done at some point and walk away.

If you enjoyed this let me know and I'll do this type of thing again. Thanks for reading!

tl;dr my process is:

* play around on the piano until I find some bits of melody I find interesting

* realize what kind of music I actually want to make

* compose out a rough draft

* realize I don't have the skills to create it and feel like a failure

* I try to create it again and then feel alright

* I compare my finished work to other people and feel bad again

* I fix it and feel alright a second time

* play some THPS



Comments (1)

It was actually quite nice reading this. Perhaps the process might differ from one song to another, but more posts like this are always good. (Especially if put on the front-page. And, if you have a list of people who would like to be subscribers, then you can @ mention them when posts like these come up.

Speaking of which, count me as one of them.)