Notes on F Minor

May 25 2021 Album Diary

“Composition in F Minor” was my first ever album I tried to professionally record, mix, and publish online.

It bundles 11 songs I created over a five year period. Some are classic piano compositions, some were originally used as background music in a game of mine, and some are just … improvisations which ended up sounding fun.

As usual, listen to the album, tell me what you think, and support me if possible.

In this article I will explain the process of developing this album: what I learned, the mistakes I made, why I made certain decisions, where each song came from etcetera. (It was my first album, so you can be sure there are loads of mistakes and lessons to learn!)

Hopefully it’s interesting to read and gives you some great insights!

First, some questions

Five years seems like a long time? Yeah, when I created the album, I was halfway my bachelor’s degree at the university. In other words: I was very young, very busy with school, and did not have much time to write and produce songs.

Why do you keep calling it “F Minor”? I usually shorten the name to “F Minor”, because nobody likes annoyingly long titles. Especially in website headings. Looks especially horrible on mobile screens.

The album title comes from the first track, which is (unsurprisingly) a composition in the key of F Minor, and also by far the best composition I wrote in that period.

Aren’t you a singer-songwriter? Yes. But I also have health issues that prevented me from singing and playing guitar consistently, which is why this album is completely instrumental, and was played on my plastic MIDI keyboard.

These issues still prevent me from becoming a full-time musician, but after years of training and experimenting, I’ve found some ways to mitigate these and be more consistent with my music output. That’s why all my later albums are not instrumental.

The Idea

Over the years, I had written many (instrumental) tracks. Some of them were (apparently) good enough that others were suddenly humming my melodies, or asked for sheet music, which made me think: hey, we should share that with the world!

I decided to try and record all these songs profesionally, also because I wanted to practice recording and mixing. (I had written many more songs, but never really made any steps towards professionally releasing those, because it just seemed … daunting and I didn’t know what to do.)

The result became this album, “Composition in F Minor”. I considered many cooler titles. Like “This Is Where It Ends”, or “After I’ve Lost You”, or “Music to Soothe Sorrow”.

But in the end, those were just empty frases that didn’t really connect to the tracks, or the process, or my personality. So it all came back to that very first instrumental composition of the album, which is one of the best I’d ever written at the time. (And might still be … )

That’s why the album had to start with that song.

All other songs were selected on variety and their place in the album; I tried to alternate between solo piano songs, video game music, and more exotic music (to me, at least) as much as possible. I ended up with an 11-track album with, to say the least, a diverse set of tracks :p

Some doubts upfront

Some tracks were originally meant as background music for a video game or another project (like a video I once made for my university). You’ll notice this quickly, because these songs don’t really have a “verse -> chorus -> climax” structure to them. They were designed to be in the background and “loop” ( = once you’ve reached the end, it immediately and seamlessly returns to the beginning).

I doubted (a lot) about whether to include these. But I chose to do it anyway, because these are some of my most fun and different songs, and with a few modifications I could make them fit with the piano tracks. (At least, better than without those modifications.)

You’ll also notice that many tracks have roughly the same set of instruments (piano + strings + perhaps something that functions as a drum or percussive element). Well … what can I say? They are my favourite instruments, the ones I know best, and I had to start somewhere.

This is Tiamo from the future Nowadays, I have a proper microphone, and I’ve learnt how to record guitar somewhat properly. But if you’re doing instrumental compositions, and you DON’T have the gear to properly record something, using your piano/keyboard is the best option.

I’m just a beginner when it comes to mixing music. I have some idea of what I’m doing and what to look out for, but there are probably many mistakes, tracks that could have sounded a lot better (if they were mixed by someone else). This album was mostly meant as practice, not to lay down my magnum opus :p

If you hear something that sounds bad to you, or ruins the whole song, tell me! I’ll probably learn a lot from that.

Anyway, the rest of this article will explain the story behind each song, and perhaps any lessons or techniques I’ve learned.

1. Composition in F Minor

As I said: this is truly the main song!

I’m very proud of this composition and have probably played it to death (the first year after creating it). I’d like to say that a rigurous writing process led to this song, or the techniques I used … but it really just “happened” after 3–4 hours of improvisation.

Yes, continuous improvisation, all in the same evening. Once you’re in a flow, once you have a basic golden nugget, you just want to explore it and build something from it.

But I do know how the improvisation started. Many “sad” songs have a descending bassline. (The lowest note in each chord is one or two halfnotes lower than the previous chord.) I wanted to use that as well!

On top of that, I remember just learning how to play chords with four fingers. (Extended or embellished chords, like playing a Cmaj7 instead of a regular old C.)

Combining these, I just played the background pattern Fmin7 - Eb6 - Db6 - Cmin7 over and over, whilst improvising with my right hand.

Because I didn’t have ANYTHING with me to record, I had to keep playing, and trying, and playing, so I would remember afterwards.

Obviously, I did remember when I had time to write/record it. Even other people who walked by, noted how beautiful the composition sounded. They asked me for sheet music, which is one of the best things that can happen to you!

2. Salsa de Marzo

I wanted to record background music for a video game project I was making, in collaboration with a good friend of mine.

He said: “Try something Spanish!”

I said: “Okay!” (Or, rather, “Olé!")

In the end, it’s not that Spanish, mostly because I didn’t have the possibility of recording my Spanish guitar. So all the sounds had to be digital, coming from my keyboard, which isn’t that great.

Nevertheless, it does come close to the right atmosphere. It’s probably the happiest, most upbeat song from the album. (That’s why I wanted it as the second track. Otherwise the album would start with a handful of sad, melancholic piano tunes, that all made you feel like the world was ending.)

Because I started with multiple instruments (that complement each other), the track sounded “fuller” right from the get-go.

The lesson here? Choosing your instruments (or “arrangement”) and which octaves they play is extremely important.

That’s also why it’s hard to make a track with just piano sound big and full: you only have one instrument, with limited notes, and limited range. The only way to combat that, is to record a really good piano in a really good room.

3. If I Could I’d Run Away

This track is the result of 3 separate improvisation sessions stitched together. (You can hear that fro the fact that I needed a pause or transition between the different parts.)

This track, too, led to reactions from the people around me and requests for sheet music. (The final melody, onto which the lyric “If I Could I’d Run Away” fits, was sometimes being hummed by people after playing.)

That’s why it’s the third track. I especially like the middle part (where I play higher notes for a bit).

Tiamo from the future again: At the time, my piano skills were questionable. Hearing it back now, I would certainly have played proper patterns with the left hand, that are less harsh and … well … ugly. I love the melodies and arrangements on this song, I’m just sad that I wasn’t good enough to properly record and execute them. That’s why I’ll probably re-do these piano compositions on a new album, one day.

4. Christmas in Paris I

People asked me to write a song to support a “christmas video”.

For some reason, Christmas immediately made me think of Paris, and so the instrumentation (with the violins and accordion) was drawn to that.

Because the video was very short, the song was composed to be very short as well.

This actually disappointed me, because I thought that especially the final melody (which all instruments play together) was worthy of repetition.

Fortunately, this song wasn’t good enough anyway. The video was shortened even further for the second version, and this song was too “upbeat”, which forced me to make a “second version”.

I called this “Christmas in Paris II” and included it later on the album.

5. Alhambra

You guessed it. Video game project, my friend said: “Do something exotic!”

And I said: “Okay!”

So I searched for instruments that sounded like they could have their roots in Asia. (The word “exotic” is obviously very vague and means different things to different people. So I specified it for myself.)

At first, this caused a great lack of coherency in the track. It was four minutes of instruments taking turns to do a solo, or play a certain melody (way too many times).

I just didn’t know the instruments and their sounds well enough to make it work.

That’s why I ended up throwing away large parts and modifying the rest for this album version. (Way more than I had to do for “Salsa de Marzo”)

The biggest change is the middle part that is a bit slower and calmer than the rest. I also think this is the best part of the song :p

6. Nature of Glass

I played something on the piano and thought: “wow, that’s beautiful!”

Then I played it again and thought: “wow, that sounds really familiar!”

It turns out: I was inspired by the melody “Glasgow Theme” from the movie “Love Actually”. (Hence the title “Nature of Glass”)

For the rest of the composition, I tried to diverge as much as possible from that existing song, to prevent being a copycat (or, worse, being sued for plagiarism, in case they ever discover my humble instrumental album).

This song was perhaps the hardest to play on my keyboard. There are many tempo changes, key changes, small subtle details in the left and right hand. (Add to that fact, that I was a horrible pianist at the time, and you have hours of frustration and retracking.)

Tiamo from the future: Like with the other tracks, I’d play it much different (and more beautiful/harmonious) these days. It deserves a remaster that does justice to the arrangement.

7. Walking back from Campus

Again, video game project, same friend. We had a little guy walking around a university campus. The game never got any further: he was busy, I was busy, and we both didn’t really know where it was headed.

But that part … the start of the campus, the guy walking around, a day/night cycle … was actually very good and beautiful and fun to play.

So in my head, I still have that image of the main character walking home from the campus :p

Hence this song. It was meant to loop and be played in the background. I thought I might have to write a different ending, otherwise it ended so abruptly. But the ending is actually so well-timed and smooth … that I just accepted it and kept the song as it is.

Many people told me this was their favourite song from the album. I also used it for some clients of mine, because they picked it out as their favourite as well. (Nothing big, obviously, just as background music for a promo video they wanted to post on Facebook, or something.)

This song uses a completely different piano from all my other songs. At first I hated the sound … but then I realized I’d been listening to the same piano sound for three weeks straight, and that EVERY other piano suddenly sounded weird to me. After a short time-out, it sounded fine to me.

Additionally, this piano was meant to be mixed with other instruments, instead of stand on its own. That requires different sounds, as I’ve learned.

8. If We Grow Old

This, too, was the result of a long improvisation session.

Although, now I had learned to RECORD these improvisations, instead of risking losing the idea (when I walked from the acoustic piano to somewhere I could record)!

So the original idea was played on my keyboard, behind my computer, standing behind my desk. For some reason, it all turned out really great, without any mistakes. So the recording you hear in the final song, is basically that improvisation. (With only a few minor fixes, or added repetition for the overal structure and flow.)

The title of the song comes from the fact that, in my head, the words “If We Grow Old” fit perfectly on the melody, when translated into Dutch (my native language).

Tiamo from the future: I ended up using this song in another project: a musical I wrote. It was perfect for that, and in my head I already had the lyrics to be sung on top of it. I also did this because I do not like this recording of the song. I don’t know what I did, but the piano sounds muffled, the mouth organ doesn’t fit, and it — again — doesn’t do the song justice.

9. Christmas in Paris II

Well, most has been said about this already!

The most interesting thing here: I tried to incorporate real-life bird sounds into the song. In that Christmas video, birds were flying to and from a tree, so I tried to time those bird calls with their flight.

To make it work well, I had to adjust the pitch and tempo of all samples, to match the notes being played.

But having done that … it actually worked great! Birds are very musical creatures. It seems their calls are just made to be mixed with songs :p

(The stupid thing is, though, that they ended up deciding to make the video LONGER again anyway! So I had to stitch another 10-15 seconds onto this song. Oh well, if you’re an artist, you quickly learn that other people never know what they want and you’ll probably have to redo everything last-second.)

10. Sullen Tower

The last song that was also written for a video game project.

At the time of writing (and inclusion in the game), I was a bit trigger happy with the “Reverb” plugin. There was an overdose of echo and reverb on all instruments. Which, granted, did make it sound very dramatic and large … but also very bad.

Now it’s still the same dramatic, echo-y song … but it sounds better now that I learned to control my impulses.

The title comes from the game: you build a tower, monsters try to destroy it. Nothing special here, really.

This song is fun to play on the piano, even without any other accompaniment. Probably because it has a good tempo to it, and both left and right hand have lots to do, automatically creating that fuller sound.

(If you want to hear these songs in their original game, search “Tower of Freedom - Pandaqi”)

11. The Craft

Again, an improvisation session, turned into a full song.

I was testing a new DAW (Digital Audio Workstation = software in which you record and mix music). I had to play something to test it, but I didn’t know what to do, so it turned out to be this.

In the end, I never used the software again. I didn’t know it well enough to work fast, and I saw no clear improvements over my current software.

Tiamo from the future: In my original notes, I wrote “but maybe that’s different in the future, when I’ll record guitar, or voice, or other genres in general.” Nope. It wasn’t different. Just pick any DAW and stick to it. I tried at least 6 other DAWS over the years, and each time the conclusion was just like: “well, it does all the same things as my current software … and it doesn’t magically make me sound better”

Notes to self

Lastly, I want to share the “notes to myself” or “optional to-do list” I created.

I always do this, because I am a perfectionist and never satisfied with anything. But I need to stop somewhere. I need to be able to tell myself “okay, write down the imperfections, and then leave it alone and just publish the project

This album was my first experience with ACTUALLY trying to record, mix and publish some real songs. I’m proud of many bits, ashamed of many other bits, but it was good of me to call it done and publish it anyway.

To help reinforce this idea, in myself and maybe other perfectionist artists, I’ll share my notes here:

  1. Fine
  2. Fine. (Maybe shorter pause between end of the song and the final two melodies.)
  3. A bit “sloppy” here and there, especially at the start. I think the melody line should stay loose and varied, but that all the support could be a bit tighter ( = quantize to grid). The only problem? Sometimes the support would go out of tune with the melody.
  4. Fine. (I love the sound of the high flanger effect used on the piano. Makes it sound very digital and unnatural, but sparkly and light at the same time, which works for the song.)
  5. Fine. (The Irish background gitar can become a bit repetitive/monotone)
  6. There’s a small frequency range (somewhere in the middle) at which the lead piano becomes very shrill all of a sudden, and overpowers the background. (I tried to solve this, but really cannot find the last few issues.)
  7. Fine. (Maybe not perfectly balanced in stereo, and we miss a traditional bass instrument.*)
  8. I’d love to add sustain to these notes, but for some reason, it just WOULD NOT WORK. (Could be an error in my computer, setup, software, or chosen instrument.)
  9. The main piano (playing the melody) can be a bit shrill and lonely. Perhaps add more warmth, reduce some of the highest annoying frequencies, or add a soft supporting instrument.
  10. Tried another method for making a piano sound nice. (Split bass and high notes. Move one to the left ear, the other to the right ear.) At some parts, the supporting instruments seem to take the upperhand (strings and bass).
  11. Tried another method for stereo piano. (One piano channel, send to three channels. Two are pushed to the left and right ear, and mostly allow the higher frequencies. The third is dead center and mostly plays the lower frequencies.) It’s … fine, but a bit “muddy” because the middle frequencies are prominent, and a bit empty/rough at the same time.

As you can see, I mainly struggled with getting good sounding piano. By now, I’ve realized that it just will not happen. If you want a good acoustic piano sound, record an actual acoustic piano.

(If the piano plays a supporting role, or the song doesn’t want to sound natural, then using digital instruments via a keyboard is fine.)

Remark I also had trouble giving all tracks a consistent volume. At the time, I was such a noob at music mixing, that I didn’t realize something like “mastering” existed. And that “automation” was a thing. So I tried to manually adjust volumes all over the place, which was a bad idea.

Remark As I said, I’d always intended to make my piano compositions sound … better and fuller. I’ll probably record another album someday, with just the best piano compositions, playing them as well as I can. Doing them justice, I hope.

Conclusion

That’s it!

Hopefully it was interesting to read, you learned from the process behind each song, or just laughed at my mistakes and bad first try at everything.

The main lessons for me were:

Until the next time, Tiamo