Pro Techniques  
Holly Knight: Accelerated Songwriting with Pro Tools
By Randy Alberts

Knight at home in her Pro Tools Garage.
Having played in a Pat Benatar cover band in the ’80s, probably no one working for Digidesign today could appreciate interviewing Holly Knight as much as this writer. Twenty-two years ago Holly wrote “Love Is A Battlefield” for Benatar, which earned the singer a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance — as did Knight’s “Invincible” two years later. Listen to just five seconds of either song and just try to get it out of your head afterward — that’s one sign, regardless of genre, of a great song.

Knight’s credits go far beyond Benatar, though. She wrote “Better Be Good To Me” for Tina Turner (another Best Rock Vocal winner), plus hits for Aerosmith, Heart, John Waite, Chaka Khan, Rod Stewart, Hall and Oates, Dusty Springfield, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osborne, and many others. Knight was voted Best Songwriter by Rolling Stone the same year that Phil Collins, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen were up for the same award. More recently, she’s expanded her talents into television work, penning music for the shows Angel and Still Standing. And in addition to songwriting, she’s now moving into producing other musicians.

The Pro Tools Garage
After the first of her two boys was born, Knight gave up her own heavy-rotation ’80s MTV bands, Spider and Device, to write from home. Today she composes from her personal studio in the hilly coastal town of Pacific Palisades, near Los Angeles. That studio — a former three-car garage that she calls the Jewel Box — is in constant use. And Pro Tools is a vital part of her work.

“[Pro Tools] lets me render
my songwriting, arranging,
and comping ideas quickly.”
Knight says that she’s recently gone through a creative Renaissance thanks to her Pro Tools system. “I come in here every day to write,” says Knight. “Having Pro Tools at my fingertips lets me render my songwriting, arranging, and comping ideas quickly.”

Knight’s studio includes a Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel system plus a custom PC running TASCAM GigaStudio and an Apple Mac G5 with Sony Media Software’s ACID. For her Pro Tools system, Knight has a generous supply of plug-ins. She favors the Waves Platinum Bundle and Antares Auto-Tune, but she says her favorite plug-in is Serato Pitch ’n Time.

Although Knight is a classically trained pianist, her primary instrument for composing doesn’t have black and white keys. Her choice axe? A $200 electric bass guitar. She’s a decent bassist with her own playing style, but she has deliberately avoided teaching herself every note on the fretboard. “I don’t want to know!” says Knight. “I use my bass to write simple songs. I want them to come from that pure place of just putting my fingers wherever my ear pulls me. At the piano, I’m more likely to write complex music, and less likely to write rock and pop songs. Today everybody wants a big chorus and simplicity in songs.”

“Today everybody wants
a big chorus and
simplicity in songs.”
Though Knight’s songwriting credentials are second-to-none, Knight is now really passionate about being taken seriously as a Pro Tools–based producer. “I really like producing,” she says. “With Pro Tools and the Jewel Box, I’m ready to work with more and more artists and bands in the producer’s role.”

Producing is not entirely new to Knight. “In reality, I’ve been producing music for a long time. But now I have access to real budgets, phenomenal musicians, and the secret weapon when it comes to the final recording process: a great engineer. I work a lot with Mike Plotnikoff, who does Pro Tools engineering for producer Howard Benson,” says Knight. “It’s taken a long time for A&R people to think of me as a producer, but now that perception is changing.”

Knight back in her Benatar days.
Pro Techniques — Re-arranging, “comping,” and pitch-shifting
Whether she’s writing a new song or producing tracks for an artist, Knight digs deep into Pro Tools. Holly says she usually starts a new song in Pro Tools with a sketch of a typical pop arrangement. She’ll create an intro (maybe four bars), then she’ll drop in an eight-bar verse, followed by a B section, then a chorus. But of course, as songs develop, few arrangements stick to the same template.

Knight certainly understands the power and flexibility that Pro Tools software provides for re-arranging songs. “Let’s say I want to move an intro section or copy it and use it again somewhere else in the song. With Pro Tools, you can just select the entire section, copy it, and paste it into a new place. If you’re in Shuttle mode, Pro Tools will shift the rest of the song to make room for the new section. You can do the same sort of thing for deleting parts.”

As more and more tracks get recorded, Knight uses Pro Tools to put together the ultimate part from multiple takes. Whether it’s compositing vocals or backgrounds (“comping”), or fine-tuning guitar or bass parts, Knight likes to do this piece work herself. “I actually love doing comps,” says Knight. “I’m definitely a hands-on kind of producer. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get to know the playlists functionality of Pro Tools.”

When it’s time for fine tuning, Knight makes good use of several pitch-altering plug-ins in Pro Tools, including Antares Auto-Tune and the DigiRack AudioSuite Pitch Shift plug-in. To correct a flat note with the DigiRack Pitch Shift plug-in, she’ll begin by raising the note by 15 or 20 cents. Then she’ll keep tweaking it in small increments until it sounds right. “I find it’s actually faster to work with than Auto-Tune,” she adds. “Although with Pitch Shift, you have to have an instinct for relative pitch to take the best advantage of it. I have perfect pitch, so I can just record one word and go off with it alone.”

Knight turns to Auto-Tune for detail work when a project is nearing completion. “I find that Auto-Tune is better for when you’re doing a master, or you’re at the end of the production, and you need to tune a few things,” she says. “Using Auto-Tune in real time for a mix is a big no-no. That ‘Cher’ sound is lame and overused. If you can tell there’s Auto-Tune in a song, that’s probably not a good thing.”

The “Cher effect” aside, Auto-Tune can inspire new creative ideas as well as fix problems. But Knight adds, “If you’re just correcting or pitch-shifting one note here or there, the DigiRack Pitch Shift plug-in should not be overlooked.”

Serato Pitch ’n Time is another plug-in that gets a workout in the Jewel Box. “I love using Pitch ’n Time to try out different keys in a song,” Knight says. “I might have a song that’s really too high for the singer. So I’ll try out alternate keys by selecting one section, maybe the chorus and part of a verse, transposing all the instruments, and seeing if that works better.”

Knight also relies on Pitch ’n Time while writing new songs and putting together basic demos. “For example, I’ll take a loop or a single guitar chord, go to Pitch ’n Time, and copy and transpose it to several different pitches to work out the chord changes in a song. It’s a great tool for writing — I can isolate a single note or a phrase, or change the key of an entire song. To me, it’s indispensable.”