Jenny Murray caught up with Steve at the Song Shed and asked him about guide tracks – the first – and in many ways – most important building block in the process of constructing a finished song production

JM: Tell us what a guide track is

Steve: It’s the song! We call it a guide track because it’s our reference point. Whatever we do, musically, we always go back to the guide track to make sure it’s working. It’s how the writer has written it – it’s their words, their tune. It’s how we start the process of turning it into a production.

JM: So how would you describe the perfect guide track?

Steve: What we’re trying to do is to get from the songwriter, an idea of how they see their song in terms of structure, chords, melody, lyrics, tempo, feel, style etc. So the more of that information the songwriter can provide, the better start we have. If the song is worked out, it is possible to have all of that in the guide track. And that might be just a voice and acoustic guitar. But, depending on how the song is sung, not only can we get the structure – chords, words, tune and so on, we can get how the writer is feeling and that will give us clues about the direction we need to take with the instrumentation, style and so forth.

JM: So you’d rather have the songwriter work all that out before you start?

Steve: Not necessarily. But that’s what we’re trying to achieve to get us that first building block. Sometimes that’s done for us by the songwriter and sometimes we get involved in helping the songwriter get it there. In a lot of cases, songwriters come to us with just a few ideas – maybe some words or an idea for a tune. Then we get involved in filling in the missing bits. A lot of what we do is to work out chord structures and arrangements for somebody’s tune.

JM: What about writing the song for them?

Steve: We can do that, yes. If you want a song for a special birthday, a celebration, a wedding whatever, we can do the whole lot. Or we can hold a session or sessions with the client and help them write the song. Anything’s possible!

JM: Do songwriters always know how they want their song to sound?

Steve: Well yes, usually. Sometimes they give us a reference track – a song that’s out there on the market, as a starting point. But often, you’ll find that the song takes on a life of its own as it develops – and that’s the magic, I guess! On the other hand, a lot of folks are happy to let us develop the song the way we see it. It works both ways.

JM: Tell us about recording the guide track

Steve: Again, there are many ways you can do this. The easiest is to visit us here in Buckingham. It usually doesn’t take long to record but, again, it depends on how well the songwriter knows their song and how much he or she has worked it out in advance. Still, it’s usually an hour or so’s work. Or visit a local studio with your guitar or whatever.

JM: What if they don’t have access to a studio?

Steve: We have worked with all sorts of guide tracks in the past – including songs sung into a phone or scribbled lyrics or something on an email. Whatever you have, we’ll find some way of working with it. We’ll get the guide track put together from that and off we go!