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How do songwriters make recordings that are in time?

Here's what I've tried:
1) Recording with a metronome.
OK, now my songs are in time, but are different (e.g. quantized/snapped to the beat inappropriately) in places. I believe these issues, at least in part, stem from the fact that I've never transcribed the song I'm playing -- I usually don't know where exactly the beats fit into the rhythm or amongst the words.

2) Transcribing/Carefully counting out each phrase, then recording with a metronome
OK, well I guess this is probably the fool proof way, but, as an amateur it can take me days. In fact, while I've tried this many times, I don't know if I've ever gotten past the first few bars.

3) Making a drum track:
Well, I've tried this with a bunch of songs, while I've had more success with this than option (2), I've never been happy with the results. My thought is always to cut up a recording into (relatively in-time) pieces, record again where necessary, make a drum track, redo the guitar over the drum track (or the cut-up guitar), redo the vocals once the better guitar is down. Somehow this never works out like I planned.

4) Make a drum track using the groove track feature of GarageBand, then re-record using the drum track I was inspired to make this post after spending several hours failing at writing midi drum phrases that would tell GarageBand how to warp this song correctly into time (in hopes it would give me a recording that I could use make a better drum track to help me play the song in time).

So anyways, I feel like I'm going about this all wrong, or maybe it's just hard. There are so many things to try doing or studying or practicing. I'm feeling overwhelmed and hoping for some advice that will give me direction and motivation. Any idea what I need to study or practice in order to overcome this hurdle?

  • You do this the same way that every human performer learns to play or sing in time. Learn to count a rhythm, and then practise, practise, practise! If you don't already play an instrument, start learning one (it doesn't matter much what instrument). You won't succeed in getting something in time "mechanically" until you can hear in your mind what you want to accomplish - if you can't actually identify what is wrong, you can only fix the problems by getting lucky. – user19146 Oct 17 '16 at 0:48
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It's going to depend a lot on what you do with it next. Listening to the song, the guitar is fine on timing - the vocals wander a bit, but that's probably the way you want them to. I usually put a drum track down first, as a reference for all other tracks. Try to find the beat that's most appropriate, but that's not all that easy. Tempo-wise, experiment to find the optimum - often, I've recorded a whole track, only to feel that it's not quite the right speed or feel. I still find it's better than a click track, or metronome, as it feels like I'm playing with 'proper' drums. And it's easier to re-record a small section. Whether this track stays at the end is a decision made later. But, it's far more tricky matching a perfect drum track to what's already been done, as you found out!

With that simple but regular drum track it's relatively easy to put fills in later, when you've got the rest of the tracks down, and you can hear where there's space for them.

If you want to put other instruments - played by others - onto the recording, they will likely need a solid rhythm to follow, it's much easier. They won't necessarily even need to hear the vox track.

If that's all you want - vox and guitar - then does it need to be any closer in solid tempo than it already is?

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I think you're slowing down a bit over the course of that Soundcloud track (solid songwriting effort btw), but other than that it's the same feel and tempo and meter all the way through, no half bars or dropped beats or funny business. I think you just need practice playing along with an external time source, and getting used to the idea that the downbeats are there whether you're emphasizing them on the guitar or not. GarageBand's groove track feature is great, but it'll take some fiddling to get it to fit the feel you have there, and I wonder if that might not be what's tripping you up.

The simplest thing would be just a kick on the downbeats (one thump underneath each of these words: "this", "never", "any", "better"). Do you tap your foot in time while playing? If that doesn't come naturally, that's the first thing to learn.

To start with, slow it down, way down. After decades as a self-taught guitarist, I've been taking piano lessons, and my teacher keeps telling me to slow down when I screw up. Finally I started listening, and it's almost unbelievable how much that helps. It's like a superpower.

I may be totally off base on this, but I get the impression you do everything by instinct and feel, without thinking about it. You just charge at it, and it just happens. You're very musical that way, but now you've run into something where you charge at it and it doesn't happen. So you need to learn to put things on a more conscious basis.

UPDATE

The chorus hook is stuck in my head. Bravo!

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There are four classes at Berklee Online that address this. Songwriting is a craft, so it takes experience, but there are some rules. Lookup the books that are used for the classes on Berklee Online songwriting courses. Read those, and study those by actually doing the exercises. They are good books.

The course names are:

  1. Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies
  2. Lyric Writing: Writing Lyrics to Music
  3. Songwriting: Harmony
  4. Songwriting: Melody

The first one just takes you through the types of rhymes, strong syllable identification, song structure, and developing rhythms from written songs. The second in the list, takes you through writing an effective song to a given rhythm set - which is often the approach that songwriters have to take. The third class speaks for itself, but it takes you through exploring different harmonies in a workshop format. Same for the fourth one. I am in the last classes at Berklee, but can safely say that if you go through the books in a disciplined manner, that you will become an effective songwriter and understand just about every approach to support your creativity.

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