One month. Four weeks. 28 days. 40,320 minutes during which the 30-odd Song-A-Day participants that gather on any given year write music. A lot of music. More music than many of us might have thought we had in us in total, much less annually. And yet, here we are with thousands of songs and recordings behind us.
A famous quotation about the theory of relativity, often attributed to Einstein, but probably just a good anecdotal joke by a reporter goes like this:
When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.– Almost certainly not actually Albert Einstein
Pretty funny, and reasonably accurate. But what if you have a nice girl sitting on your lap while you’re sitting on a hot stove? That’s Song-A-Day.
Getting Better All the Time
This was my seventh consecutive year participating, and the fourth year I successfully posted at least 28 songs or tracks.1I typically use “song” and “track” synonymously. I am now officially batting over .500. As of today, I have posted six cover songs and 157 original works – an average of 22.4 original songs each year – almost one every two weeks. If we omit the 2020 outlier, it’s almost 26 songs per year. None of those would likely exist without this amazing challenge and community.
The stats are fun and it’s interesting to see the story they tell, but as I reach the end of this one, I feel this sense that I’ve proven I can do this, and do it consistently. That doesn’t mean I’m stopping, but maybe I’ll feel a little less pressure in the future. I doubt it, though.
This was another best of times/worst of times year. In contrast to last year, I felt like I was having a decently consistent month from a quality standpoint, especially with regard to my mixes and production work, but it also felt like it was far more effort than any previous year had been.
That turned out to be wrong, though. It turns out I’ve thought that every year. By the following year, I’ve forgotten what a slog it all was. The human brain’s ability to filter out trauma and pain as part of the memory function is remarkable.
Just before posting this, I learned that another participant has decided that this year was his last to participate in earnest. I haven’t reached that point, and am not sure I will any time soon, but I am doing a bit of introspection on what I want Song-A-Day to be for me in the years ahead.
Lighten Up, Francis
A big change this year occurred on the 10th when I posted Just Kidding. This silly birthday song for my father had been recorded on January 31, but it was done in a day, and met all of my internal Song-A-Day rules so up it went and all of a sudden I was ahead of schedule. Or at least on schedule.
I’m a night owl and always have been. When I have no external demands on my schedule, I start working mid-afternoon, mostly on busy-work things, and hit a creative start mid-evening. Prime time for me is normally somewhere between 7 pm and 2 am. Prior to the tenth, this meant that I was under pressure to post a song for the day that had already expired.
The new schedule allowed me to do my final mixing on monitors instead of headphones, and also allowed me a mental and aural break. Fresh ears do wonders both compositionally and sonically!
I owe a huge thank you to fellow participant Seersha. I was watching one of her livestreams on Twitch and had mentioned how I’d been self-censoring / self-restricting because I had this internal pressure to produce a good album. She said, “sometimes you just have to wing it” and she was correct.
It helped me get out of that “I’m making an album for myself” mindset and get back to just focusing on writing. Not only did that allow Just Kidding to take its rightful place, it helped me get back to experimentation and exploration. Obverse View, Kaleidoscope Badland, and No Moleste likely would not have arrived if I was still all clenched up about everything.
Rules & Regulations
The spirit of the challenge is to record something every day and every participant has their own internal measure of what that means. Some are simple quick-hit ditties, some are instrumental improvisations, some are singer-songwriter demos or sketches, and some are full-on productions. Some people post one thing every day, others “pull a Berkman” and post a bunch on a single day. Many of us hit all of those things over the course of the month.
Most of the years I’ve participated, I’ve given myself some additional criteria or goals and they have always been more restrictive than the official rules, which don’t really exist anyway. In 2018, it was not doing the same genre more than two days in a row and satisfying Derek Greenberg’s challenge to write styles I’d never done or wasn’t comfortable with. In 2019, it was to write more than half of the month as songs with lyrics and vocals. In 2021, I don’t know that I had any formal goals or constraints – I was just trying to recover from 2020 and the ongoing global insanity.
Hey, Man, Are You Cool?
This year, however, was a strange one, as both of my official rules started off as (and basically remained) just jokes. First, while enjoying happy hour at the neighbors’, I was semi-jokingly challenged to make every song four minutes and twenty seconds long and see if anyone noticed. I semi-jokingly accepted as long as I could also use multiples like 2:10 and 8:40.
By the time someone did notice, I was so far into the joke that my internal desire for structure and consistency made it almost impossible for me to stop. By the end of the month, only three tracks deviated from this.
Now I Know My ABCs…
The other joke condition, secretly self-imposed, was that I would do all of my song titles in alphabetical order. A on the 1st, B on the 2nd, and so on. As usual, I thought I was being all sneaky, but my neighbor saw through it pretty quickly – she didn’t mention it because she thought it was so obvious that I must be hiding something else in there.
Both of these constraints were interesting challenges, but I wouldn’t do either of them again. The time constraint was arguably more useful, because it’s good training for film scoring to have to fit whatever you’re doing into a very specific timeframe. It got in the way too much, though, as many of my songs were either too short or (more commonly) way too long for what they were.
As an example, when I’m writing slow/dark ambient, I tend to land somewhere in the 5-7 minute range, which is just about right for both theme development and allowing the listener (normally me) to “sink in” for a decent amount of time, but not so long that it becomes boring. For these, four minutes feels unfinished, and eight minutes is just too much.
The alphabetical titles rule was overly restrictive. It wasn’t a problem for the more abstract pieces, as the title isn’t too important. I’m super-thankful that Worlds Apart included that lyric, because while writing it, I had forgotten that I was supposed to be titling the song with a W. It ended up a good thing, though, because I might otherwise have titled it “If I Can’t Find Me,” and I think “Worlds Apart” is a stronger, more poetic title.2It’s also the title of one of my all-time favorite albums and prog-pop stand-out, Saga: Worlds Apart
It turns out another participant was also doing the alphabet thing, but was somehow able to jump letters if she missed a day. If there’s a silver lining to this constraint, it’s that there were probably some days in there where the fear of missing a letter forced me to keep going when I was ready to give up. And, no, I didn’t pick my cover song because it started with a V. Well… not entirely.
An unofficial goal, but one that I kept coming back to, was getting away from my comfort zone instruments, especially Omnisphere, Stylus, and Tantra, and exploring the software and hardware that I don’t automatically reach for. Hive2 and Diva (u-He) were big winners this month, as was XLN Audio’s XO.
Tale of the Tape
Just a few more statistics, because I find it helpful when I’m looking back over the years. The 4:20 constraint resulted in an average track length of 4:23, which bests 2017 by 3 seconds. I also exceeded last year’s total time by seven minutes for a new record of two hours and three minutes of new music. Using CDs from the 90s, that’s two very full albums. Using the 70s/80s instead, it’s closer to three. Total time since 2016 is now close to nine hours of music.
The shift to being a day ahead put me in a new operational mode that I really liked a lot. I’d write in the evenings/early morning hours, go to bed when the composition was complete or I had my basic mix finished, then do the final mix in the morning of the day on which the song would be posted. I didn’t keep metrics on actual time spent in the studio, but if I had to guess, I’d say that most songs took somewhere between 4 and 10 hours to produce. That’s all-inclusive: writing, composition, arranging, recording, production, mixing, and mastering.
I don’t get playback statistics from the Song-A-Day site, but here on my own site I had 300 streams, covering 75 different tracks and 37 listeners. Even knowing that I’m one of those listeners and that you can deduct at least 28 of the plays (I listen to each track in full when I post it for quality assurance), that’s still a pretty decent month, and I’m grateful to everyone who took the time to listen to my explorations!
Ok, Who Won?
As I wrote last year, this isn’t a competition, even though my hindbrain keeps trying to make it into one. It’s absolutely not a competitive environment, and it would be ludicrous to try and pick a “best” song out of everything that was posted this year.
That’s not going to stop me from doing it to myself, though. Because I have found it helpful to read back over what I was feeling and thinking in past years, I decided to try something new this year and create a couple of lists. If I had a strong feeling about a song when I wrote it, I almost certainly discussed it on that day’s entry.
Those feelings change rapidly, though, and even just a few days can radically change my thoughts about a song. The normal pattern is an extreme opinion when I write it (positive or negative), then a swing in the other direction over the next few weeks, and eventually a normalization as I listen to the entire month’s output over the following year. The following list reflects what I think today, March 1, 2022.
Forced Order Playlist – “Best” to “Worst”
This is obviously super-subjective. In fact, it would probably be different if you asked me to rank them tomorrow, or even later today. I’m not even sure what criteria I’m using, it’s just the closest I can get to the ones I think are better/worse in some general sense. As an example, the bottom two are also the last two I wrote, but I guarantee that they will have higher play counts by next year than Just Kidding or Lambent Memory, because they have better long-term replay value for me.
- Spicy Bee Ray Toler 2:40
- My Girl Ray Toler 4:20
- Henotic Cryptography Ray Toler 4:20
- Going Under Ray Toler 4:08
- Blue Saffron Ray Toler 4:20
- Unregistered System Ray Toler 4:20
- Primrose Waltz Ray Toler 2:10
- Existential Transcendentalism Ray Toler 4:20
- Lambent Memory Ray Toler 4:20
- In Time Ray Toler 4:20
- Obverse View Ray Toler 4:20
- Clastic Monolith Ray Toler 4:20
- Quixotic Intent Ray Toler 4:20
- Agnostic Prophet Ray Toler 4:20
- You Betta Ray Toler 4:20
- Kaleidoscope Badland Ray Toler 8:40
- Repurposed Asset Ray Toler 4:20
- Xenophobic Tourism Ray Toler 4:20
- Fluvial Desert Ray Toler 4:20
- Doxastic Truth Ray Toler 8:40
- Just Kidding Ray Toler 3:15
- Worlds Apart Ray Toler 4:20
- Zenith Quasar Ray Toler 4:20
- Transcendental Existentialism Ray Toler 4:20
- No Molesté Ray Toler 4:20
- Villa Greenleaf Community Orchestra (Pure Moods Cover) Ray Toler 2:10
- Adescential Biolith Ray Toler 4:20
- Cobalt Dendrite Ray Toler 4:20
As far as what people have told me, Spicy Bee is far and away the popular favorite and the one they share with friends. Not surprising, as it’s a good song from a craft standpoint and the execution was decent, not to mention that humorous songs get a little more lift. Other “I really liked…” songs include Obverse View, Zenith Quasar, Repurposed Asset, and Quixotic Intent.
If you have a top five list, please leave a comment below – I’d love to see what other people liked most.
Wins and Losses
In the same spirit as the ranked playlist, here are the things I feel good about and the things I wish I’d done better as of this moment in time:
Mixing: My mix engineering skills have gotten a lot better. I attribute most of this to one simple thing: practice. It’s hard not to see at least some improvement after 163 tracks. A big improvement this year, however, came from my acquisition of the Brainworx SSL 9000 J plugin. This emulation of one of the best mixing consoles of all time simply sounds great to me. It’s also nice to have the things you really should do to almost every track (low/high cut, compression, gating, EQ) in one place.
Mastering: I’ve relied on Ozone for several years, but wanted to get away from it since the company has changed to a business model requiring a monthly tithe from the masses. I didn’t even install it at the beginning of the month, and it only took two A/B comparisons between Ozone’s version and mine for me to know that my new tools were at least as good, if not better. I’m still largely relying on algorithms, especially in Gullfoss, but I’m making a lot more manual choices.
Overall Quality: Even in the early days, I had a sense that I’d leveled up with regard to overall song quality (composition, arrangement, performance, and production). Everything was just generally solid. There were a few “swing-and-a-miss” bits, but my average was up.
Effective Use of Tools: I bought my rhyming dictionary in the very early 90s and as a permanent fixture in my backpack, it has quite literally been around the world with me multiple times. The spine finally cracked this month. Younger Ray would sadly recycle it and buy a new one. Older, wiser Ray is embracing the wabi sabi of it and celebrating a life well lived. I won’t be repairing it with gold, but maybe gold-colored duct tape.
Passion: I broke every nail at some point during the month. I had even been keeping them really short, but there were a couple of times on tracks like No Moleste where I was just having a rockin’ good time and playing hard. My poor Kurzweil is finally going to get the keyboard maintenance it so richly deserves later this year.
New Genres: This month saw my first ever rave/techno (You Betta) and drum-and-bass (Repurposed Asset) tracks. A minor win, but a win all the same.
Time Management: I felt like I ignored the real world even more than I have in the past. Laundry piled up, as did the dishes; cleaning simply didn’t happen, nor did most of the bookkeeping. I filled my entire day with either writing music or writing about writing music. I’d like to try and work on a better balance next year.
The Time/Alphabetical Constraints. These ended up being more detrimental to my overall creativity than a helpful limitation. I won’t repeat these, though they were interesting challenges to take on.
You Gotta Risk It to Get the Biscuit3Motivational quote from my former co-worker Felipe I didn’t take a lot of major chances this year. There was little experimentation. I didn’t have anything that stuck out as an awful failure. My average quality was up, but with little chance for a breakthrough.
No Guitar: I really intended to do some guitar work this year, but ended up avoiding it.
Neither Wins nor Losses
Not Enough Song Songs: I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, the point of the month is to remove the friction of going into the studio to write music. Any music. Any sound. Anything, just get in there and do something; exercise those muscles! On the other hand, it’s not necessarily the exercise I really need and this is the musical equivalent of me skipping leg day. Part of the issue here is an increasing unwillingness to explore topics because everyone’s so sensitive, intolerant, and knee-jerky. I probably just need to get over that. Another part is…
Production: It’s difficult for me to not produce a track. In 2016, I had a few songs that were just me and a piano, even though I could have done a lot more with it. In the following years, I did more and more and more production and that’s not a bad thing. It’s helped me with not only those skills, but also with my songwriting and arranging because it’s all part of the overall process. But I may try to be a little more “raw” in favor of spending time on the songcraft next year.
I very much appreciate the time you have taken to listen to my music and read my posts – more than I can adequately convey. I write music because I am compelled to do so and have been that way most of my life. Knowing that others have heard that music and even gotten something out of it is indescribably rewarding.
I largely write on this site this as a journal, but if there are topics or techniques you’d like me to cover more or other things that would be helpful, please let me know. I’m fine with this being a forest full of silent, fallen trees, but it would be even better if they were helping others achieve their own goals and challenges.
I always give a list of the instruments, software, and gear I use on each song’s individual page. This year, I thought I’d also include some of the more general tools I use to produce everything related to my Song-A-Day efforts:
- WordPress – the content management system that powers this site
- WordPress Theme / Blocks: GeneratePress and GenerateBlocks4Mini-rant: Sadly, the WordPress world has become infected with that refuge of greedy executives, incompetent business planners, and lazy developers: subscription-mania. This is why parts of this site are now broken or missing (I’ll work on it now that I’m not on deadline). I’d rather have a simpler, less-trendy layout than be held hostage every year just so I can keep my website looking the same as it has for over a decade.
- Writing: Scrivener. If you do any kind of serious writing, this is one of the best environments you will ever come across.
- Image Editing: Affinity Photo and Designer
- Digital Audio Workstation: MOTU Digital Performer
- Audio Interfaces: MOTU 24Ai, Behringer ADA8200
- Audio Monitors: JBL LSR4308P
- Microphones: Neumann TLM-103, AKG C3000, Shure SM-58, Shure SM-57
- Headphones: Sony MDR-7506
- Rhyming Dictionary: The Complete Rhyming Dictionary (Clement Wood / Ronald Bogus)
- High-Falutin’ Vocabulary: The Phrontistery
Image Credit: Mysid (original image cropped)
- 1I typically use “song” and “track” synonymously.
- 2It’s also the title of one of my all-time favorite albums and prog-pop stand-out, Saga: Worlds Apart
- 3Motivational quote from my former co-worker Felipe
- 4Mini-rant: Sadly, the WordPress world has become infected with that refuge of greedy executives, incompetent business planners, and lazy developers: subscription-mania. This is why parts of this site are now broken or missing (I’ll work on it now that I’m not on deadline). I’d rather have a simpler, less-trendy layout than be held hostage every year just so I can keep my website looking the same as it has for over a decade.