How Do You Use Reference Tracks for Arrangement and Production Ideas?
Welcome to the final part of our in-depth series on being a one-person production machine in your home studio, especially if you’re writing and performing all the parts by yourself.
This week we will be sharing an exclusive opportunity to join us as a member of the Bedroom Producer Program, a 3-week workshop where we help you create a better workflow for cranking out songs in your studio, but first, let’s talk about reference tracks.
You’ve often heard of reference tracks in the context of mixing, and you may even have read the in-depth article we have on that sorta thing here. But what about reference tracks as inspiration for your arrangements?
Here’s what Ed has to say about that in our final post together.
Just like you, certain artists and albums have worked their way into my mind. I repeatedly return to them when I focus on arranging and producing.
Here’s a brief list of my go-to artists and albums.
R&B, Rock, Soul
- Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On and Here, My Dear
- Stevie Wonder – Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finale
- Fleetwood Mac – Rumors
- Jethro Tull – Aqualung
- Lewis Taylor – All four of his albums (a little-known genius, you must discover him)
- Donny Hathaway – Everything is Everything
- Brian Wilson – Pet Sounds, Smile
- Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom, Brutal Youth, When I Was Cruel
- Tom Waits – Mule Variations
- Steely Dan – Aja, Gaucho
- Joan Osborn – Relish
- James Brown – Live at the Apollo
When I’m cooking or before bed or when I need to listen without words…or when my wife asks me to put something on…I reach for jazz. Straight ahead, Bop, Cool…I don’t care what it’s called. These are the treasured jewels of my collection. Classical music aside, they came before all the other references I’ve shared and you can hear their influence.
Although I’ve included one album for each, that’s just a place to start. If you haven’t discovered them yet…how deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?
- Oliver Nelson – Blues and The Abstract Truth
- Duke Ellington – Ellington Indigos
- Thelonious Monk – Criss Cross
- John Coltrane – Blue Train
- Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
- Gerry Mulligan – Jeru
- Dave Brubeck – Take Five
- Lee Morgan – The Sidewinder
- Horace Silver – Song for my Father
- Art Blakey – Moanin’
- Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage
- Hank Mobley – No Room for Squares
- Bill Evans – Alone
This category is for the elites. I’m aiming to limit this list those who write their own lyrics and music. I’ll try to keep it short.
- Elvis Costello
- Sam Phillips (a woman, not the guy at Sun Records)
- Joni Mitchell
- Leonard Cohen
- Carole King
- Bob Dylan
- Paul McCartney
- John Lennon
- George Harrison
- David Bowie
- Johnny Cash
- Tom Waits
- Billy Joel
- Burt Bacharach
- Bruce Springsteen
I used to blow classical music off. (I was very young and inexperienced.) For our purposes, by “classical” I mean everything from Early Music to Romanticism. That said, here’s my classical-genius (very) short list. Grab anything by these composers, sit back, listen…and learn.
Get Inspired By Getting Out
Producing music by yourself is a daunting task. Get out of your studio and into the world. Listen to everything around you…not just music but that fan clicking in the corner or the refrigerator hum that’s been there the whole time. Ideas don’t come from thin air. They come from attentiveness, observation, focus, and most of all…a playful attitude.
A Waste of Time?
Nothing is too stupid to try even if you ditch it at the end.
I’ve worked for months on songs that sit on my hard drive, fully produced and ready for release…but they honestly are not my best work. I’ll never release them.
Were they a waste of time? No.
They led to other material that I could not have created without investing all that “useless” time producing something that wasn’t up to snuff.
Things build up, one piece on top of the next, and balance delicately to achieve something more than any single part. Layers of detail combine to create something that lives and breathes – something human and magical and so worth your time.
Is It Really All About “Likes”?
There’s a lot of talk online about how you must get your music out there.
“Why would you bother creating anything at all if you never intended to share it with an audience?”
Somehow, the idea of creation often gets tangled up with the idea of adoration. If your self-worth depends on your success as an “artist” – you’re in for a rude awakening. If you find fulfillment in the very act of creating, do you need an audience that reaches beyond your “F&Fs” (family and friends)?
Only you can answer that question.
But keep in mind that your F&Fs are perhaps the most worthwhile audience you can aim to communicate with. Who better to understand you and appreciate your unique way of experiencing the world?
Maybe that’s just me talking about me. And – like everything else I’ve written – if you get something from it, great…if not…just forget it and move on.
(And try to enjoy yourself. Life’s too damn short.)
I sincerely hope these ideas and techniques help to enrich your experience of creating your own work. I know how great (and how frustrating) working alone can be and I think it’s important to share ideas and help like-minded people identify and achieve their goals. If you feel I’ve done this successfully, please drop me a line and let me know. It really helps to hear that what you’re doing makes a difference to someone somewhere.
Ed Elefterion is the Artistic Director and founding member of Rabbit Hole Ensemble, a critically acclaimed Brooklyn-based theatre company. A student of jazz trumpet, Ed began composing music before he focused more intently on theater. While never directing musicals (he doesn’t like them), his theater productions always reflect a strong aural awareness. Built on rhythm, tone, and volume, his productions engage the ear as well as the eye. His sound designs are all executed by live actors in full view of the audience.
In 2010, he focused more intently on learning the art of mixing and mastering. Since then, he’s worked with many bands local to the Woodstock area of New York, where he now lives. His first mixing and mastering job was for a rock concert recorded at Daryl’s House, a venue made famous by the internet and by its owner, Daryl Hall. As “Ed Charles” he has released two albums, Last Little While and Stay. Both are available on Spotify, iTunes, and all the usual streaming platforms.
His latest album, Some Other Life, was inspired by his recent enthusiasm for the life and times of Billie Holiday. A live performance of the album – and the stories that inspired the songs – is currently in rehearsal.
Stay Tuned for the Bedroom Producer Program
If you’re looking for a great method for understanding how to arrange your songs to sound more interesting and exciting, even if you’re using virtual instruments that you play all by yourself, then stay tuned for our announcement about the Bedroom Producer Program that starts this week.
Thanks for reading!
Ed & Björgvin