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Composing at the Speed of Inspiration

Tame that technology, and make it work for you...

 

by Craig Anderton

 

 

Is "writing in the studio" an oxymoron? 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.

 

This article covers what I call "fast tracking"—using a sequencer/DAW in a way that's optimized for writing, not recording or editing. By employing 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'm probably typical enough that many of you will find the following tips helpful.

 

CAPTURE THAT INSPIRATION ASAP

Inspiration comes and goes fast. The one way to prolong the state of being inspired is to start exploiting the inspiration as soon as it hits. Do everything you can to speed your computer's start up time, such as eliminating unnecessary utilities or turning off defaults for programs that load at start-up.

 

Next, check out the companion article Customize Your DAW with Templates. 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 of your computer booting, there's a problem that needs to be addressed.

 

START WITH MIDI DATA, NOT AUDIO

Sure, a MIDI piano probably won't sound as good as your 9 ft. Bosendorfer. 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 compared to using digital audio.

 

USE A SOFTWARE "WORKSTATION"

Quite a few plug-ins (like IK Multimedia's SampleTank; see Fig. 1) are multitimbral workstations with a boatload of sounds, and are ideal for being driven by multiple MIDI tracks. But even a simple General MIDI synth (like the Mac's QuickTime instruments) may be all you need to sketch out a tune.

Fig. 1: IK Multimedia's SampleTank is a good example of a "workstation" plug-in that works with a host DAW. It comes with a large sound library, and can play back up to 16 different parts (instrument sounds) simultaneously.

 

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 bingo—press record. You can simulate the same process if you have a template with a variety of instruments assigned to a variety of tracks, but I find it more efficient to keep the setup as simple as possible.

 

SCRATCH TRACKS SAVE TIME

When songwriting, always remember that 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 good flow—not nailing the perfect bass timbre. You can always go 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 goal here is to build a song and arrangement, not a recording.

 

WHAT ABOUT VOCALS?

If you can lay 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. They may end up being the core of your song.

 

STICK 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-synched delay that is mandatory for the particular rhythm driving your tune.

 

DON'T EDIT AS YOU GO

The single biggest inspiration-killer when you're writing on a DAW is editing. Editing is a left brain, not a right brain, activity. Laying down a part, then trying to perfect it, is a sure way to have inspiration take a hike.

 

For example, consider quantization. When I want to quantize a part, I just insert a MIDI quantization plug-in in the MIDI track, dial up 16th notes with 85% quantization strength, and don't think about it any more (Fig. 2). Because the original data is unchanged, if the part actually is any good I can always remove the plug-in and do more detailed quantization later.

Fig. 2: By using a MIDI FX plug-in (this one is from Cakewalk by BandLab), parts can be quantized during playback while songwriting. However, as the original part is not change, quantization can be removed or edited at any time.

 

Remember, what makes a great song is not a superb instrument timbre; that just makes a great song sound better. Concentrate on what matters most when you're writing: The emotional impact on the listener. Remember that no listener ever said they liked a song because the vocals were recorded with a particular mic preamp.

 

THE BOTTOM LINE IS ATTITUDE

Although we've covered some specific tips, the main consideration 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. All I can say is that since figuring this out, my DAW is now as good a songwriting device as an instrument. In fact in many ways, it's better.

 

___________________________________________

 

Craig Anderton is a Senior Contributing Editor at Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages. Go to Craig Anderton's official website.

 

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