The Michael M. Smith Songwriting & Production Process

When I wrote my first song I was about 12 or 13 years old. I remember the song. It was a basic chorus, verse and hook. Come to think of it, the structure was pretty solid. Classic. The title was, “I Love Him.” I taught it to my little group – Representatives of Divine Love. It consisted of my best friend on drums, my cousin singing alto, my best friend’s two sisters singing 1st and 2nd soprano and me singing tenor and playing keys. Those were such innocent, fun days. We rehearsed all the time and sang anywhere we could. We weren’t thinking about making records or making money. We just wanted to make melody that would please God and bless the people.

Here we are, some 30 years later and that is still the cry of my heart. I have concluded that God did not put me in this field to try to make a lot of money. He put me here to write and sing songs that would bless Him and bless His people. When the focus becomes the money, the songwriting becomes about making the next “hit,” rather than telling the truth through song. I want to tell the truth. I want to make God smile.

So, how do I write a song? My process has really changed over the years. I used to wait for inspiration to hit me… or for a few lyrics to drop on me. There have been some times when God just dropped a song in my spirit. But I believe that I am at that point where God entrusts me with the gift and responsibility to craft music that I know will please Him. It’s like… He used to pick me up and drive me everywhere. Then He started teaching me how to drive – with Him in the car. Now, He’s given me the keys and says, “Don’t wreck my car. And don’t go anywhere else but where I told you to go.”

Okay… back to the process. It starts with an idea. There has to be something that I want to say… either to God or to His people, or there has to be something that God wants to say. My songs take one of three directions: from the mouth of God to me/us; from our mouths to the ears of God; or from us to one another.  Lately, most of my songs are “prayer songs,” songs that speak our heart to the ears of God. They are sung directly to Him. I believe that is the proper direction of an intimate worship song. It should be sung directly to God. But then there are worship songs of celebration where we sing to each other. Often I find inspiration for these type songs when I read the Psalms.

Once I know what direction the song should take and what the message is, I now like to start with the hook. The hook carries the real message of the song. Like the song I recently wrote for my worship team, “Let’s Sing”… it started with the hook… “Come on! Let us sing, ‘Hallelujah!’ We’re delivered – let’s sing together. Come on! Let us sing, ‘Hallelujah!’ We’ve been redeemed – let’s sing.” That’s the real message. From there, I start crafting the verses. They have to answer a few questions, like “who’s doing the talking?” “Who is being addressed in the song?” “What makes the hook relevant?” The verses are all about getting me to the hook. Since attending GMA Academy I have changed my song structure approach. And co-writing with my friend, Beth Champion-Mason, had a great impact on me as well. Now, I like going verse 1 & 2, pre-chorus, hook, vamp. It’s a smooth pattern that works for most songs. Sometimes you don’t even need a vamp if the hook is strong enough. But a vamp can be a great addition.

Then I get to work on the music. Most of the time I have the tune for the hook in my head when I create it. The verses all build to the hook in their construction. The pre-chorus should be a musical buildup that lets you know something big is on the way. That big thing is… the hook! So, the pre-chorus often ends with some suspended chord.

Once I’ve got the tune roughly formed, I turn to one of my new best friends… LOGIC! It’s a wonderful software program for songwriting. I decide on my tempo and create a tempo loop – usually 4-5 tracks for a nice, wet loop lasting 4 or 8 measures. Then I loop it out over far more measures than I think the song will last. Then I play out the entire song over the loop using a basic piano patch with a rough rendition of the song. Then I crop back the tempo loop to the actual length of the song. After that, I play a solid bass line through the entire song. I come back and add strings or some atmosphere or background to the song. Then I come back and replace the piano with a really good piano track. If the song is one that I know I’m going to want guitar on, I’ll do a guitar track before the piano track – using one of the wonderful guitar patches. By the way, I have a Motif ES7, which I love. I used to swear by the Motif patches. But for the last couple of songs, I’ve just used the Logic patches. They sound great – and I can modify them pretty easily. Except, I love the Motif organ – which I used on “Let’s Sing.”

So, now that my music is set, I start tracking my sample vocals. I have to use my falsetto voice to record the soprano and alto parts and sometimes even the tenor parts. This is the most tedious part for me. I hate it when I’m “pitchy” or inarticulate. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m making a demo – not a final product. Finally, I’ll track a demo lead if the song requires it. This is the fun part for me. This is when I get to really get into the song and see what comes out of me. Sometimes the song will move me in ways I didn’t expect. I’ll find myself crying out to God or worshiping more intensely that I predicted. Sometimes a phrase will grab me harder than it did when I wrote it.  It’s often a fun, revelatory experience.

Then, I start mixing the song. This is lots of fun for me. I get to use some of the things that I learned from Rob Ulsh at MasterSound Studios and Dwayne Valentine at DVal Studios.

Once I do all of that, I give the song to one of my co-producers/MDs, Kasey Square or BJ Brown. They will often ask, “How much room do I have?” I then tell them what I’m married to in the song and what I’m open to. That lets them know how much they can change. We have great relationships. These guy are BEASTS!! While they’re tweaking the musical arrangement and teaching it to the band, I’m teaching the singers the music and listening to them to hear anything that I want to go back and change. As I listen in on the band rehearsals I’m always looking for any place where we may have developed a rub between the band and the vocals so we can fix it right then. Finally, we will bring the two together – vocals and instrumentation. Then we do final tweaking and polishing.