With a text narrative, few authors nail it on the first draft. [Even Keyboard contributors? Say it ain’t so! —Ed.]
Often the purpose of a first draft is to catch an inspiration, get
ideas down, and then edit them into shape later. Songwriting with DAWs
can work similarly. You can start the process with MIDI and keyboards,
transposing pitch and changing tempo painlessly until you’ve found the
right groove and song structure. Then you can start recording audio. But
let’s dive one level deeper, and consider the best workflow and mindset
to take advantage of a non-linear “fast track” approach to songwriting, and bust creative block in the process.
Non-linear “modular”recording. DAWs don’t have to run linearly throughout a song. If you’re inspired with a melody, hook, lyric, anything—hit record.
You needn’t start at the beginning. If you have an idea for a chorus,
start recording well along the timeline. Of course you can record at the
beginning and move sections around later, but you can also think of a
song as being modular, and create modules for different song sections
along different parts of the timeline.
What about vocals? If you haven’t finalized the key
and tempo, you have nothing to lose by singing nonsense words and
placeholders to get vocal/melodic ideas down. However, pay attention to
the phrasing; I did a song recently where the words made no sense but I
liked the phrasing. Later, I fit the “real” lyrics to the phrasing. Note
that, if needed, you can use a host’s DSP to stretch the vocal’s time
or transpose pitch as the song goes through changes; the fidelity isn’t
important, as this is just a starting point—not a “scratch” vocal you
might want to use.
Choose your development path. After roughing out
one section, one option is to work on the rest of the song. But another
is fleshing out a section further before moving on. Add some placeholder
drums, bass, pads, whatever. Work on lyrics for this one section.
Rather than being a distraction, this can often define the song further
and make creating the rest of it easier, providing you don’t get bogged
Group the section’s elements. After a section is
reasonably complete, group its clips together (assuming your host has
this function) so you can move the section around as one block. As the song takes shape, you can copy this to stake out space
for another verse, chorus, etc. The clips in the chorus section shown below (started somewhere in the middle of the
timeline) are grouped into a single block, which makes it easier to
experiment with different arrangements.
Browsing the “chord library.” One of the most
useful projects I ever created was an audio chord library of various
chord types—major, minor, ninth, diminished, and so on—that live in a
browser folder. To create the chords, I loaded a sampled
guitar, specified the chord notes with MIDI data, and then bounced the
notes to an audio track to create individual chords (which provides much
more consistent results than playing a physical guitar). This concept
works with any instrument, but dry electric guitar notes have a fairly
“neutral” sound. As I've organized mine (see image below), the chord library’s major and minor chords are available for easy access; less common chord types are in folders.
Hosts usually let you preview files in a browser. So when
writing something like a verse, I’ll drag chords out of the browser and
into the timeline. Being anchored to the timeline, they follow tempo
changes. As the chords start to take shape into a progression, I’ll play
through them and when they stop, I’ll click on chords in the browser
until something sounds like it would work well as the next chord—then
drag that into the timeline.
The beauty of this approach, aside from the convenience,
is that it encourages you to move out of ruts. “Hmm, wonder what a 13add9 chord would sound like here...”
The real-time chord library. As an alternative to
dragging, I also mapped the chords across a five-octave keyboard for
real-time playing: Major chords start at middle C, the octave
lower is minor, the octave below that is fifths. The octave above is
sevenths and above that, fourths. This was created for an SFZ player
(see “Beyond the Manual” in the June 2014 issue), so it was easy to map
other chord types by doing a find-and-replace in the SFZ text file
defining the instrument. I have three presets: sustained electronic pad,
guitar, and somewhat percussive piano. Dragging from the browser works
best when I have a basic progression in mind but need to fill in some
holes, while the mapped keyboard is best for improvising when I have no
clue where the song is going. CLICK HERE to download a ZIP file of chords to get you started.
Replacement time. The most important aspect of non-linear thinking is to let the music tell you what it wants to do, not the other way around. Your
goal is to “channel” the inspiration and translate it to physical form.
Don’t think too much, and live dangerously: Try chords you’ve never
used before, and be just as quick to discard as to keep. Consider this
songwriting process as temporary, fluid, and experimental. Adopt a
“right-brain” state of mind where you just do. Group clips
together and move them around on the timeline, modulate the key up a
half-step on one of the groups, whatever. Remember: You’re not recording
parts, you’re creating a song’s structure into which you will later record parts.
Don’t start perfecting; replace the placeholders later.
Use MIDI plug-ins to quantize, and then move on. If the EQ on your chord
library chords isn’t optimum, who cares? Write your song, get your
lyric ideas down, and then pretend you’re a songwriter handing over a
song to the “real” musicians who are going to do the final version. Only
then do you have to pay serious attention to your playing.
Successful non-linear thinking requires a streamlined workflow. Consider the following tips.
a default template for your DAW with the browser already open to the
chord library, along with a ready to go multi-timbral instrument (or
several instruments) loaded with workhorse sounds like bass, a pad, some
percussion, etc. Above, Native Instruments’ Kontakt has been loaded
with such instruments for creating instant “placeholder” parts.
- If you sing, include a dedicated vocal track in your template—and a mic should always
be plugged into your audio interface. If you put your mics away to
protect them from dust (you should), buy an inexpensive mic like a Shure
SM58 and leave it hooked up at all times. You’re writing, not
singing—but if the vocal ends up being a keeper, an SM58 does the job.
- Set your default keyboard preset to the chord library instrument described above.
- A solid-state system drive will boot your computer faster.
- Keep a text file or notepad app open for jotting down lyric ideas.
rhyming dictionaries are fine, but the true professional tool for
anyone putting words to music is a program called MasterWriter (masterwriter.com). It goes way beyond rhyming to suggest synonyms, alliterations, phrases, and other word families.