I’m beginning to feel “writing in the studio” is an oxymoron. In fact, it seems that writing a song and recording it are two totally different activities, and need to be treated as such. What got me thinking about this was how easily I could write songs when just sitting down at a piano or guitar, yet how difficult that process became when sitting in front of a sequencer. But I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be this way.
So let’s investigate what I call “fast tracking”—using a sequencer/DAW in a way that’s optimized for writing, not recording or editing. With this process, I finally feel I can write on a computer as easily as on an instrument. Of course, different people approach the creative process differently, but I think I’m typical enough that many of you will find the following tips helpful.
GET UP AND RUNNING ASAP
Inspiration comes and goes fast: One way to prolong the state of being inspired is to exploit that inspiration as soon as it hits. Do everything you can to speed your computer’s startup time (such as periodic defragmentation), and remove all of those little memory-hogging programs that load at startup but you don’t really need.
Next, create templates and layouts so you’re not just staring at a blank screen. Templates deserve an article of their own, but there’s nothing like having an “instant environment” that’s optimized for writing, with instruments, patterns, track assignments, and so on ready to go. If you can’t start laying down tracks within 30 seconds after opening your DAW of choice, there’s a problem.
START WITH MIDI DATA, NOT AUDIO
Sure, a MIDI piano probably won’t sound as good as that 9 ft. Bosendorfer you picked up on eBay for $200 (we can dream, right?). But when writing, keep a piece of music as malleable as possible. You may need to change key or tempo as the piece takes shape, and while it’s possible to make these kinds of changes with digital audio thanks to time and pitch-stretching, MIDI simplifies the process.
USE A SOFTWARE “WORKSTATION”
Quite a few plug-ins (like IK Multimedia SampleTank 2, Digidesign Xpand, and samplers such as NI Kontakt, MOTU MachFive, Steinberg HALion, etc.) are essentially multitimbral workstations with a boatload of sounds. Having a template that rewires Propellerheads’ Reason into your DAW is another excellent option. But even a simple plug-in—like a basic General MIDI instrument—is usually all you need to sketch out a tune.
The advantage to using a single multitimbral plug-in is that it’s really fast to create tracks: Insert a MIDI track, assign it to a channel in your plug-in, assign a sound to the channel, and press record. Although you could create a template with a variety of instruments assigned to a variety of tracks, a multitimbral instrument simplifies matters.
THINK SCRATCH TRACKS
The object is to write a song, not to play a bunch of perfect takes. A good song in the conventional sense consists of memorable elements like melodies, strong lyrics, and a flow— not nailing the perfect bass timbre. You can always clean up your parts later, but when you want to lay down a part using a particular instrument, just do it. Don’t agonize over the sound quality, or your playing. Copy and paste to create “placemarkers” rather than play all the way through. Of course, most of this won’t make the final cut, but so what? The object for now is to build a song and arrangement, not a recording.
AVOID EDITING AS YOU GO
The single biggest inspiration-killer when writing on a DAW is editing. Editing is a left-brain activity, not a right-brain, creative type of endeavor. Laying down a part, then trying to perfect it, is a sure way to have inspiration take a hike.
For example, consider MIDI velocity levels. When I’m writing in Ableton Live and doing a drum part, because I play parts in rather than program them, there can sometimes be undesired velocity variations between hits. Rather than tweak velocities, I just add a Velocity MIDI effect set to compression (Figure 1). This evens out the note velocities, but because the original data is unchanged, if the part ends up being a “keeper” I can always remove the FX later and do more detailed velocity editing.
Remember, what makes a great song is not great tweaking; that just makes a great song sound better. Concentrate on what matters most— the emotional impact on the listener.
WHAT ABOUT VOCALS?
If you can get down some key lyric ideas and a melody line, that’s fine. Don’t have lyrics for the second verse? Hum the melody, or just say nonsense syllables. You can always fix it later. Even if you only have lyrics for a couple lines, get them down and move on.
KEEP TO THE ESSENTIALS
All those “ear candy” parts—the cool double-time shaker, the melodic bells that come in during the solo, and so on—should be added only when the core tracks are down. Ear candy can be another distraction that, unless it’s an element that’s vital to the song, should be left for later. And don’t even think about adding reverb, EQ, etc. The only reason to add a signal processor is if it’s an essential element to the song, like a tempo-synced delay that’s mandatory for the particular rhythm driving your tune.
THE LAST WORD
Although I’ve given some specific tips here, the main point is attitude. Once you shift your brain so that it understands the difference between the writing process and the recording process—and I do believe these are indeed different animals—that’s half the battle. The other half is having the discipline not to get sidetracked during the writing process. Since figuring this out, my DAW is now as good a songwriting device as an instrument. In fact, in many ways, it’s even better.