Non-linear approaches to jumpstart your songwriting process

January 30, 2015

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 down.


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.

Extra Tips

Successful non-linear thinking requires a streamlined workflow. Consider the following tips.

  • Create 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.
  • Online 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.
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