HomeBlogscaptaindownbeat's blogDylan Bell Producer's Blog #1: The Art of Song Selection

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So, you're making a new CD, with brand-new rep. Your first task: choosing the songs. You'd think this would be easy, but it's surprisingly difficult. How do you even get started? Read on...

A lot of groups, rather than use pieces already in their live performances, will create a whole new album "from scratch". This is the approach we've taken with the upcoming Nylons CD. It's certainly more challenging, but also that much more rewarding: by the time the album is done, you have a whole new show to give to your audience. Choosing your songs is a combination of brainstorming, individual song selection, and filtering. Here's how we did it.

STEP 1: BROAD STROKES

Get together as a group and start with raw, unfiltered brainstorming. No song titles yet, just talking about concepts. Why not talk about song titles? Because your talk about album concept will devolve into a "hey, check out this song" listening party... which can take forever without any real direction happening.

After our initial brainstorm, we decided on the following factors:

- we wanted a jazz-flavoured album that takes the group in a new direction, but still has that "Nylons sound"
- a couple of "standard jazz" pieces
- possibly something with some foreign-language elements (Brazilian, Spanish, or something)
- a couple of originals from band members (if suitable for the album)
- album would be 12 tracks

STEP 2: THE "SONG POOL"

With all these parameters in mind, have all group members go home and choose 10 songs (we have 4 members plus one producer... if your group is big, maybe choose 5 songs each). Give a hard deadline for this, and if possible try to have them all come in at the same time. This way, each list isn't affected by what someone else wrote on theirs. When you send out your list, include links to the songs.  No-one's going to vote for your song choice if they don't know it, and they probably won't put the effort into doing searches on the 50+ songs they have to check out!

STEP 3: "ME TOO"

Next, take a look at everyone else's lists, and start listening... by yourself. Why listen alone? That way, you can be honest about whether of not you like a song without any pressure or negativity. Put your initials beside songs you also like... as many as you want. You'll see patterns start to emerge. In our case, anything with 2-3 votes made the first cut. Give this about 3 days to a week from the first deadline: it takes a while to listen to all the songs that get sent around, but shouldn't take any longer than that.

You should now have a shorter list: in our case, from 60 songs to about 25. Some songs will emerge as clear winners: if they make it through the filtering process (below), they'll likely be on the record for sure. You'll end up with several "no"s and a whole lot of "maybe"s.

STEP 4: FILTER

Now, look at the songs and start narrowing down, not by what songs are "best", but by reasons why you can't/shouldn't do the songs. This gets a little more subjective.

"It's been done a cappella". This was the main criteria for me. The Nylons came to be known as a pioneering group, so covering songs already done, especially by several a cappella groups, was out. Why be a follower when you can be a leader? More importantly, covering another song already done a cappella will beg comparison to other versions... and unless yours is hands-down the best, or at least more original, than it'll always be stuck with the "It's not as good as..." label. I learned this the hard way: on another project, I had chosen a song and arrangement that was considered the "definitive a cappella" version of that song. The reviewer's remark: "Why did they choose that song and arrangement, when it's clearly associated with that group?"

"It's not really a great song".
Obviously a subjective element, but helpful especially when doing a newer song. Will the song stand the test of time, or is it a "disposable hit" that's trendy now, and will be forgotten in 5 years? One positive things about choosing older songs is that they've already proven that they stand the test of time. You want your album to do the same.

"It's too well-known/overdone".  Shouldn't a really well-known song be a perfect choice? Not really. You want to be able to put your own stamp on any song you record. If it's The Most Famous Song Ever Done, there might be a definitive version that, again, yours will always be compared to. Or, people may respond with "Yawn... not that song again!" If you choose the right songs, and arrange and execute them well (another topic altogether), people might even think your version's better than the original. (There's a great thread on this on the forum).

Here's one suggestion that will help with this. Think of an artist you want to cover. Think of their top 10 songs... and eliminate the first 5. The remaining ones are still great, well-known songs, but they may be more open to reinterpretation. Your listeners may hear the song and say "I totally forgot about that one... but now I remember it. Cool! Nice job with it!"

"It can't be recorded".
Trust me... it really sucks to record a song, only to find out that you can't get the rights to it! It's pretty rare, but it can happen. Check to see if the songs are represented (more threads on how to do this in CASA/RARB forums), and if a particular song/artist isn't represented, it may eliminate that choice. Heads-up... don't try to cover Prince!

CHARACTERS IN A PLAY (or pieces of a puzzle)

This is how I think of the playlist for an album. Like characters in a play, each song should feel like it has a purpose: this one's uplifting, that one's just pure fun, this one's more dark and serious, and so on. As you narrow down your selection, you'll start to see relationships between the songs. Song A may seem like an odd choice, but Song B somehow ties it in together. Maybe Songs C-E feel all the same: you may want to swap one out with another, or make a conscious choice to really change up the arrangement on one of them. Once you start getting a feel for how the pieces fit in with each other, you'll see the puzzle come together.

KEEP IT ORGANIC

Chances are, you won't have every arrangement done and learned before your first session. This is a good thing: it means you can let the song choices and arrangements adapt and evolve as the album progresses. Since I was producing, recording and arranging this album, I was arranging in between recording sessions. We started with 3 songs to learn before the first recording sessions, then as we got a feel for how they were going, we'd sit down and meet to discuss the next few songs, based on what we had just recorded. We continued this pattern until all 12 songs were done. The end result is a playlist that has lots of variation but still feels like it hangs together.

Choosing the songs is a total balancing act: there are so many great songs to choose from, plus keys/style/feel to think about, plus balancing your soloists... it can make your head spin. Choosing songs for the Nylons record was probably the hardest part of the process, but if you follow these steps it will make it much easier... and then you can finally get going!

About the author:
In a word…multifaceted. Juno-nominated, multiple-CARA-winning Dylan Bell is a performer, composer/arranger, music director and producer/engineer. As an a cappella singer, arranger and producer, Dylan has worked with many of the world's renowned vocal groups including Cadence, the Swingle Singers and the Nylons, as well as his own groups Retrocity and the FreePlay Duo. He’s played stages across the world from his native Toronto, Canada to Stockholm, Sweden, to Calcutta, India, and his compositions and vocal arrangements are performed everywhere from Arnprior to Zurich. Dylan also has a secret life as a freelance multi-instrumentalist, touring internationally as a pianist, bassist, and guitarist. Visit Dylan at www.dylanbell.ca.

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