Saturday, August 26, 2017

How I Write and Produce Songs with BAND-IN-A-BOX (PART 2)

How I Write and Produce Songs with BAND-IN-A-BOX


If you’re new to Band in a Box or have been using it for a while but are unsure of where to go after you’ve created your song, this is a great place to start. A nice basic mix of your tracks will improve your project almost beyond belief and will encourage to you continue creating more great music.

This series assumes you have already created a song with or without vocals and are ready to create a basic mix. Initially, there are some general steps to follow when mixing your project which are more science than art. The art comes later, and is much more subjective.

If you don’t have your own song yet you can load one of the sample songs from your favorite STYLE in Band in a Box and work with that. Ideally you would have already exported your tracks to a DAW like Real Band or your own favorite. You can also simply utilize the MIXER in Band in a Box to explore the possibilities.

For the purpose of this instruction I suggest you use a good set of studio style headphones. You’ll want something with a flat frequency response that does not color the audio by boosting frequencies anywhere in the range. You can listen later with your studio monitors to compare what you’ve created. Using headphones initially will help you hear the effect of panning, which means where a track sits in the panorama (pan) or stereo spectrum of the mix; for example, is your guitar track left or right of center, or right in the middle? You get the idea.


- If you have a vocal (a temp or “scratch vocal” will do) set the volume to zero DB.
- Set the PAN of your vocal to exact CENTER or ZERO..
- Pull the volumes of all your other tracks all the way down so they are inaudible.
- Make sure you have no effects like reverb or delay on any track for now.
- Set your master volume to a comfortable level in your headphones.

Remember: “Engineers who fry their ears, find themselves with short careers.” Live by it.


For now, set the PAN of each track according to the following list:

Vocal - CENTER Nothing else ever gets set to CENTER unless it’s a lead instrument solo. “Walking” on the vocal is bad form and no singer will like it if you do that.

Bass - 5% - 10% left OR right of center, but opposite of the drums

Drums - 5% - 10% left OR right of center, but opposite of the bass.

Guitar or Piano - Set your basic accompaniment instrument about 25%-35% left or right of CENTER. If you have more than one accompaniment instrument, like a strummed guitar AND a fingerpicked guitar, set them opposite of each other.

Other instruments - Set any other instruments further out from CENTER in the mix for now. 50% -70% is a good range. These would include instruments like electric guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, etc that are “sweetening” instruments or ones that might be used for solos later in the song. Try to place instruments that have a similar frequency range like fiddle and steel OPPOSITE of each other. Don’t overload one side of the stereo spectrum with instruments in the same frequency range.

Backup vocals - This will be discussed at a later point. For now, if you have backup vocals, push them to the outside of the mix. 100% either left or right of CENTER and opposite each other if you have multiple vocals.

NOTE: The goal here is BALANCE in the mix. You should visualize your mix as you would a band onstage and attempt to give each instrument it’s own sonic space. No crowding.


Choose your main accompaniment, guitar, piano, etc and gradually bring up the volume while listening to your vocal. Watch your VU meters and make sure the vocal stays out front in the mix.

Next bring in the bass, and drums, and listen to the mix as you bring them in to be sure the vocal is still out front of the mix.

Do the same thing with the rest of your instrument tracks while listening. Generally, other instruments will be softer in the mix than your vocal, main accompaniment, bass, and drums. We’ll get into fine tuning the mix later.


If you’ve followed the steps above you now have a basic mix that should be satisfactory for now. You can use this mix while replacing your scratch vocal with a better take, or add intros and outros, or instrumental breaks, depending on what you want to hear in your song. Keep any additional tracks away from the vocal, giving them their own sonic space in the mix.

Learn to “hear” the different instruments in the mix. Good listening is an invaluable skill that takes time to develop. Once you have it, you can put a mix together in minutes. Unfortunately, you’ll also be able to hear bad mixes in others’ productions. Once you get good at it, you’ll find yourself becoming a critical listener. You may find this ruins your listening experience of other people’s music. Sorry. You now have “producer’s ears.” It goes with the territory.

There’s much more to come in this little series including using EFFECTS like reverb and delay, and using BUSSES to group your tracks for fast mixing.

Have fun!

Bob Buford, Producer

Saturday, August 5, 2017

How I Write and Produce Songs With BAND-IN-A-BOX (PART 1)

How I Write and Produce Songs With BAND-IN-A-BOX
by Bob Buford

For me songwriting begins with a story…

What is it you have to say to your audience and the world in general? What’s moving you to write this song? An event? An emotion? Another song you heard? An artist you like?

You can write a song about anything. But will it be worth all the work to get it to a final product and will anyone else care when you’re done? These are important questions. Because if you’re excited about the subject or theme of your song, you’re more likely to put your true feelings and emotions into it. Besides, I think that is the core reason for writing anything.

While it’s true that a lot of songs begin with a melody riff, a beat, a chord progression, .I think it’s just as difficult, maybe more so, to begin with any of those methods as it is to begin with a great lyric or song idea. Also, I really think that the mood of your song idea i.e. heartbreak, love, anger,  whatever it is, will suggest the key, the tempo, the chord progression, and the overall “feel” of the song. That’s why I always begin with the story.

To me the hardest part of writing a really good song is coming up with a great song idea, hook, or title. I believe this is where you need to spend some quality time with yourself, thinking about what it is you have to say. You need to get a little personal and bare your soul at times. We all share many common experiences in our life’s journey even though we might think at the time our own experience is fairly unique. Look for that commonality in your songwriting and then put your personal experience into it. If you’re someone who finds it difficult to share your emotions and experiences you may find this a very big challenge. But if you can get past that hurdle you’ll most likely be rewarded with something meaningful and lasting that also moves others.

A now here’s a little enlightenment on the technical side of songwriting. If you’ve ever spent any time at all in a commercial recording studio you’ll really understand what I’m about to relay here. If not, let me give you a bit of an education.

If you think you have a great song, with a fabulous hook, a great melody, and a unique song structure, that the world just has to hear, you’ll have to record it so you can get it out there. If you want a quality production, and who doesn’t for their future hit, you’ll probably need help. If you decide to go the conventional route and take it to the recording studio here is some of what you’ll encounter:

  1. Commercial studios are NOT cheap. You can expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $150 PER HOUR or more for studio time. Even the most basic songs will take several hours to track, edit, master, and copy to a CD you can take home. The average for most studio songs is ten hours or more. If you’re math is any good at all you’ll realize you’ve already spent somewhere between $450 and $1500…for ONE song. If you’re only recording a guitar/vocal or you’re lucky enough to have a competent, well-rehearsed band, you might actually be on the low end of that cost estimate.

  2. If you don’t have a band and you need to hire other quality musicians to play on your song you’ll have to pay from $100 to $200 per song for EACH musician. So a four piece band say, bass, keyboard, drums, and guitar could cost you another $400 to $800 per song. Starting to get the picture?

  3. If you need to rehearse the band so they can get comfortable with your song, that’s more studio time, and band time expense. If you need to have someone arrange the song and create charts for the band, that will be extra.

  4. If your song requires harmony or background singers that will be another $200 to $600 per song just for their performance, extra for rehearsal space and time. Even if you can sing your own harmonies, you’ll still have to pay for additional tracking time.

  5. Final editing and a take-home copy of your song, even if you don’t have it professionally mastered, will add at least an hour to your cost. Professional mastering will set you back another $100 to $500 depending on how you have it done.

  6. Time, that is your own personal time, to accomplish the above tasks will probably be weeks, not hours. To coordinate with the studio, musicians, etc doesn’t happen at a moments notice. You have to schedule it based on the studio’s demand and the availability of musicians and singers.

  7. The final cost for recording one song, as you can see, can easily be thousands of dollars. And you won’t really know how your song will sound until the process is completed. Hopefully you’ll like it or…it’s back to step one.

I haven’t outlined all these costs to discourage you but to show that turning a song idea into a final produced product can be amazingly expensive. My first album of original songs cost over $20,000 to record, edit, master and duplicate, so I know what I’m talking about. There is, however, another way.

BAND-IN-A-BOX: The Songwriter’s best friend.

I’ve been preaching to other musicians and aspiring songwriters about this program for over twenty years. And I’m always surprised how many are not familiar with it or think it’s a toy or a gimmicky piece of software. It’s not. If you’re songwriter YOU NEED THIS as much as you need a great song idea, an instrument, and a voice. Yes. It’s that important.

BAND-IN-A-BOX cuts through all the cost and red tape mentioned above and it does it at a fraction of the cost of even the least expensive studio-recorded song. Not only that you’ll get some of the best studio musicians in the world playing on your song at a moment’s notice. They will play for hours and days for no additional cost and you’ll be able to experiment with as many different musicians as you like to get that perfect sound. They don’t care if you change the key or the tempo or even restructure the song progression. The don’t need charts and they’ll even give you alternate performance takes to consider.

The Acid Test

Several weeks ago, I had this same discussion with hit songwriter and platinum producer, Jim Mason, while recording some twenty-three new song demos for him to submit to his record company. Jim has produced hit albums for Poco and Firefall and many others. He penned the lyrics for the hit song “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” with Paul Stooky (Peter, Paul, and Mary) many years ago. But for all his experience, Jim was not familiar with BAND-IN-A-BOX. Oh, boy. This was my big chance. I could actually introduce a successful producer, songwriter to the software and get a professional opinion.

To say Jim was amazed would be to understate his response. I know how Jim produces because he produced my first album and I know how he works and what he looks for. So, I was able to show him how BAND-IN-A-BOX is able to create an equivalent studio experience and a quality final product with minimal cost and maximum convenience. He was particularly impressed with the list of professional musicians, many of whom he knows personally, that were on REAL TRACKS and the ease with which their performances could be changed. I remembered one of his favorite lines working with sidemen in the studio: “I like what you did there. Now let’s do something a little different.” BAND-IN-A-BOX can do that with ease.

As soon as I introduce Jim to the STYLEPICKER window and the over 5,000 styles and song demos, I totally lost control of the recording session. Luckily, we were done tracking his songs for the day. Because for the next two hours he listened to every band style that caught his eye and ear, the related demos, and commented how “This is great. I’m getting all these ideas for songs just listening to this.” Really? Imagine that.

I’ll end this part of the article by saying that this was the highlight of all my years of promoting BAND-IN-A-BOX to musicians and songwriters. If a pro like Jim Mason is blown away by BAND-IN-A-BOX it seems to me anyone who aspires to create music would do well to seriously consider it.

Your Action Steps For This Article:

  1. Sit down with your computer, or a pad and pen, and put some thought into your next song. Really think about it. If you need help try a book like “Song Starters” by Robin Frederick or any of the many other helpful books on songwriting. Whatever you do, come up with something you love. A great idea. A great lyric. A great melody. Time spent on this step is the most important in the whole process. BAND-IN-A-BOX can then take you the rest of the way on your songwriting journey. This step should take as long as it takes. It’s the foundation for everything else that  follows.

  2. Write a short paragraph about your song that tells any reader in a few sentences what the song is about. There should be a beginning, a middle, and an end to the story you’re telling. What is the repeatable theme or hook that describes the story?

  3. Expand your paragraph into lyric form, without worrying about rhyming, or song form, at least for now. Verses give the story details and choruses repeat the theme or hook of the song. This is a very generic exercise. Keep it simple for now by putting only one thought or statement on a line. Continue until you have the whole story.

  4. Once you’ve decided on a story or theme for your new song and you have at least some basic lyrics, decide which individual artist or band your song would sound best with. Is it folky like a John Denver song? Country like Hank Williams? Country Rock like the Eagles? If you can identify a band you’d like to emulate you can open the STYLEPICKER and begin auditioning styles and bands for your song. Listen to the demos with styles you like. You can even load the demo and edit the chord progression, pick a key and tempo of your song. Be sure to save your song with a new song name in a new folder (MYBIABSONGS) so you don’t overwrite the BIAB demo or something else important. Now go back to your lyrics and see how you can fit them into the new chord progression. Make changes until you find something that you like. This is an important step. You will be building your song on the decision you make here. Make a good one. Personally, I would never go beyond this point until I was totally satisfied with my song. Exporting tracks to your DAW, sweetening with intros and breaks, adding vocals and harmonies, and mixing are for FINISHED song ideas. But, we’ll get to all that later.

Once you’ve progressed this far with a song title or hook and found a band you like you’ve done most of the hard work. Start polishing your lyrics and chord progression. Remember you can change any of this at any time. All you’re investing is your time.

There’s More To Come

There will be other articles in this series coming up. So please stay tuned for the more personal technical and creative aspects of my songwriting with BAND-IN-A-BOX. This is gonna be SO much fun.

Bob Buford