Tech Tip:Setting Song Orders Via Spreadsheet
Spreadsheets Are Good for More than Doing Your Finances
by Craig Anderton
Determining an album's song order is never easy, partly because if you want to know for sure whether the order works or not, you need to listen to the entire project from start to finish. Only then do you realize there are some minor problems—like the first four songs all end in fadeouts, or you have three consecutive songs that feature the same vocalist. So you try another order, and listen again...
But there's a quicker way to come up with a possible song order: Use a spreadsheet to create a matrix that lists as many song parameters as possible—not just tempo and key—to help sort out what might give the best flow and coherence. Of course, different types of music require very different parameters, but the point of this article is to present a general approach—hopefully you can adapt this concept to your own music.
CHOOSING THE PARAMETERS
The more accurately you can quantify a song's characteristics, the easier it is to come up with a meaningful matrix. Fig. 1 shows how I used a spreadsheet program to create the matrix; let's discuss the parameter descriptions.
- Title, Tempo, and Key are self-explanatory.
- Attitude describes, however inadequately, the song's main emotional qualities. This parameter is needed mostly to avoid bunching up too many songs with the same kind of feel, but also gives an idea of the basic emotional "road map."
- Main Lead describes what provides the main lead in the piece. Some of my tunes use actual vocals, some use vocal samples arranged to form a sort of lead line, while others have an instrumental lead (e.g., guitar).
- Guitar indicates the degree to which various tunes feature guitar (my primary instrument). For example, I didn't want all the songs that featured guitar solos to run together.
- Intro is how the song starts. I included this parameter because I once came up with a song order where two songs in a row started with sustained guitar fading in; separating the two worked much better.
- Out is how the song ends. For example, you don't want all songs that fade out to occur right after another. But also, by looking over the Out and its subsequent Intro, you can get a feel for how the songs hang together.
Also note that the 1st and 7th songs are in blue, and the 5th and 11th songs in red. This is because I tend to think of a CD as having two distinct parts. This isn't just a throwback to the days of vinyl; by giving each half its own identity, I think it's a lot easier to listen to a CD all the way through, because the experience is more like listening to two shorter CDs back-to-back. On this CD, an "intermission" separates the two halves. This instrumental transition has no real tempo and consists primarily of long, dreamy lead guitar lines, so it's a good place to "reset" the rhythmic continuity and start over. The second half has a nice climb from 102, to 110, to 130, then a brief dip down to 125 before closing out at more neutral 101.
TESTING THE ORDER
Here are three useful tools for testing song orders.
- If you have a portable player like an iPod, Zen, Zune, etc., transfer the tunes to it and create various playlists. Listen to them and live with them for a while to determine which ones you like best. A similar idea is to burn a CD with all the tunes, and use a CD player that lets you program a particular song order.
- Create one huge sound file with all the cuts, then open this up in a digital audio editor capable of creating a playlist. Use the playlist to try out different orders. You can usually audition the playlist transitions, often with a user-settable pre- and post-roll time.
- Most CD-burning programs make it easy to arrange songs in a particular order, then play through them. Generally, it will also be easy to listen to the transitions between songs. And of course, once you get the order right, you can burn a CD.
It doesn't really matter what spreadsheet you use (the screenshot shows an old version of Microsoft's ubiquitous Excel; the Open Office spreadsheet works just fine too, and it's free). In fact, you don't really have to use a spreadsheet at all; a word processor will often do the job, or for that matter, paper and pencil.
This may seem like an overly-clinical way to determine song order, but think of it as an idea-starter, not a dictator. At the very least, it will probably help indicate which pairs of songs work well together. The matrix also provides a point of departure, which is always easier than just starting with a "blank page."
The final arbiter of a good order is your ears, but check out this approach and see if it's as helpful to you as it has been to me.