Why a DAW Might Not Be the Best Song Writing Tool

Recording and composing are actually two quite different things.  It’s amazing how many people buy themselves a digital audio workstation and sit down in front of it to write music.  Most DAWs don’t actually have a good workflow for song writing.  Some of them permit composition, because they have a score entry system, but even then, they lack the sort of “rules checking” that can assist in writing good chord sequences, harmonies, melodies and counterpoint (key and scale sensitive voice leading checkers, for example).

I’ve found that writing songs is sometimes best done with the DAW turned off.  You can get some pretty good song writing done, jamming with a band, or even just with another musician.  The DAW can help you record the jam session, so that you can go back and review and refine musical ideas that emerged.  However, building a track from the jam session is rarely a good plan.  There’s too much incidental stuff to edit out.

Very few DAWs (if any) help you write lyrics to chord sequences, or make lyrics fit into the rhythm of your track.  At best, you might use a DAW to loop a section of music, while you try to write the lyrics, but it’s not too good at supporting this lyric to music fitting process.  Whether you start with chords first, or melody first, or lyrics first, fitting them together is usually not best done inside a DAW.

If it comes to planning the sections of your song (verse, chorus, bridge) and sketching out a framework of your arrangement (selecting your instruments and timbres), it doesn’t really allow you to reserve sections of track for future parts very well.  You have to record the part.  I don’t like to work that way.  I like to plan how the track will come together, before I go about making it so.  I like to map out the song sections and the parts and instruments I will use at different times.  That way, I can see the “plan” or totality of the track and work on contouring the song to maximise the emotional impact points.  Excel or a piece of paper is better for that, than a DAW is.  The DAW wants me to know what the part actually is, rather than reserving space for a part that I will insert later.

Track Sheet

I like to lay out a target number of bars in the track, along with its tempo, long before I record anything.  I might have a general beat or feel in mind and I might have some loose lyrical structure in place, so I want to know how long the song will be and what opportunities there will be for interludes, intro sections, outros, dénouements, solos, etc.  I like to know the boundaries before I record the notes.  The alternative, of basically meandering around on this instrument, or that, as a guide track, means that I erode structure, potentially, and produce a work that sounds meandering and pointless.  I don’t like that.

You see, a DAW is designed from the point of view of you already knowing what you want to record and recording it as quickly as possible, whereas I find the process of composition and song writing to be an imaginative exercise in discovery.  I won’t know what the French horns will play, until I decide there will be French horns in the first place and certainly not until I know how that part will fit into the structure of the song.  It’s only when I have the bed in place, and perhaps even a guide vocal, that I will know where the spaces will be for the embellishments.  That means I have to have a lyric written.  If I went straight into recording the horn part, the moment I thought I needed one, I don’t know whether or not it would step all over the vocal line, rather than answering it.

When it comes to planning the contour of the album, so that the songs flow into each other and the work, as a whole, supports the emotional peaks and impacts you want to deliver, because your songs are placed in a good order, DAWs, being mostly song-based, aren’t great for that purpose either.  Far better to have a go on paper.

I also find that the DAW offers too many production temptations.  You can be in the middle of writing a song and get totally distracted trying to find the perfect snare drum hit or EQing the parts just right.  During the song writing phase, all of that is wasted time.  Far better to get the structure and parts down first and then, when going into the production phase, consider replacing some of the sounds, sweetening others and adding the embellishments that are not part of the song, but part of the overall produced sound of the finished song.

You also won’t be able to balance the frequency spectrum, the prominence of the individual parts and make the right stereo placements until you have all the elements recorded, anyway, so time you spend perfecting the sound of a track in isolation is more or less wasted.  You are going to have to make compromises to individual tracks so that they all co-exist nicely in the mix, no matter how good each track sounds on its own.

I do like the idea of playing as a band to record scratch tracks or getting the form of the song written, and then recorded, with some freshness and energy, by not being too meticulous about mistakes and the sound of each part.  After you have a framework and guide tracks recorded, in your DAW, then you can go back and play along with those rough parts, recording more perfected and rehearsed performances.  You can always mark the scratch tracks and guide parts as “Do Not Use” (DNU), or you can mix elements of the pristine performances with those of the rough guides.  It’s up to you.  Sometimes, the first take rough guides have elements of better feel and energy.

So, I prefer writing with other tools.  I like to have a plan and complete song ready, which I then go to the DAW and record.  Recording first.  Then mixing.  Then mastering.  I don’t like to mix the phases of the project too much, even though a DAW lets you.  It also tempts you to waste enormous amounts of time.  The same with the pre-production phase of finding sounds.  I’d rather do that in the relaxed phase of pre-production, than look for sounds and tweak them for purpose, under the pressure of a recording session, where everybody wants to get their performance down, irrespective of the sound chosen.  The beauty of DAWs is that you can record the wrong sounds and quite easily replace them with right sounds, but that’s also a curse.  If, like me, you find and locate your materials first, then you have effectively simplified your palette and for better or worse, you know the colours you are going to be using in your track.  That restriction actually combats hours of indecision.

DAWs will, of course, let you lift entire sections of your structure up and move them somewhere else in the track, but it’s better if you have clearly defined sections before you attempt that.  Going into a recording session without a decision about the song structure and order of verses / choruses only makes for more confusion.  When it comes to rearranging their order, after the parts are recorded, you need to know where the verses and choruses are or are supposed to be.  This, I feel, is a decision best made earlier, rather than later.  I think the arrangement manipulation features of DAWs are more useful for making extended or abridged versions of your song.  They can be a good way to release excerpts for free, while asking money for the full song, for example.

So that’s my view on song writing and DAWs.  I think there is a lot to be said for making decisions and finishing the song, as well as selecting your arrangement, production elements, timbres and the sounds you will use, long before you open the DAW at all.  You can change your mind later, of course.  DAWs are good at that.  What they are terrible at is presenting you with so much choice, at inappropriate times in the process of bringing a song to life that you get lost in endless distractions.  If you want to finish your tracks, make your decisions firmly before you get anywhere near a tool that lets you continually change your mind, ad infinitum.  You don’t have that much time.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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22 Responses to Why a DAW Might Not Be the Best Song Writing Tool

  1. yanothebear says:

    I really like this post. I am constantly opening up my DAW and willing stuff to come out, but it never really does, after reading this post I suspect that maybe this is why..lol. I shall be giving this a try, I have found recently that a little pre-jam, alone or with other musicians does get things flowing. I like the Excel idea too.

    • Take it from somebody that naively believed the marketing. I spent years wondering why everything I started in my DAW was maybe an interesting sketch, but I could never finish the track. Took me awhile to figure out what I was doing wrong. Hopefully, the productivity will now increase.

  2. Bo Reidler says:

    Very interesting and thoughtful approach.

  3. Candice says:

    Thank you so much. I think this approach is definitely going to work for me. I spend so much time fidling and strugling with DAW’s that I usually abandon songs midway.

  4. Michael says:

    Great article and something I’ve struggled with myself. I’ve also found that many DAWs seem to be optimized for making a certain *type* of music–very modern, loop/FX oriented. I do prog rock though, so I always find that things like odd time signatures and moving entire sections of a song around are not as easy as they could be. I’ll stick with my “legal pad and singing-into-my-mobile-phone” composition method for now 😉 Thanks again for posting this!

    • Glad you found it useful. You can move sections around and change time signatures in DAWs like Cubase, but honestly, it’s best to have a plan before you start, on paper, to avoid a lot of wasted time. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I think you’re confusing what a DAW is with how YOU use a DAW. Pretty much every single thing you list as a pitfall of using a DAW is actually just a pitfall of how YOU use a DAW.

    You can absolutely arrange parts in a DAW before it is recorded. Just make a blank pattern, position it in your songboard wherever you want (as you would place it in a cell in Excel), then add the actual track once it’s recorded. Easy, problem solved.

    As for a DAW offering too many production temptations – sounds like an ADD problem to me. Just because something is there doesn’t mean you have to fiddle with it. I usually start out spending about 2-5 minutes selecting the first kick, snare and hi hat etc I find to be “good enough” and then go from there. The fact that I could listen to literally thousands of kick drum samples for hours does not impede me from working when I want to work. You have tons of different knobs on your amp and effects pedals, right? If you are in a mindset where you just want to get an idea down, do you get lost in the 18,000 permutations of gain + echo + reverb + compression + delay + phaser etc? If so, again, your equipment is not the problem. Those options exist for good reasons. It’s up to you to use them, and your time, wisely. Same with a DAW.

    And frankly, spending a bunch of time finding sounds in pre-production seems rather pointless when, as you point out, switching them later in a DAW is super simple. Why spend an hour in pre-production finding the perfect snare sample? That seems like a post – production thing to me. Just use something to get the job done and then find the perfect one later, after you know the song is a keeper.

    I think it’s good that you’ve identified these workflow/time management issues. I just think that you’re turning the DAW into a bogey man for no good reason. It’s a tool. You don’t use a hammer as a screwdriver and then get mad at the hammer when there is a big hole in your wall where you wanted a screw to be.

    • The purpose of the article was to address some of the commonly encountered obstacles to progress that people have told me. I used to make DAWs, so I’ve got a pretty good handle on this issue, with respect. I made some of the very first ones, in fact. The idea I was trying to put across was that there are other ways to make a song and some of them are time-tested and mighty effective. I encourage people to explore their personal process and to find what works best for them. For some people, a DAW is a fine place to write songs, especially if they always start with any old kick and snare, but for others, it intimidates them into paralysis. I wanted to suggest ways out from that dilemma. Just like some writers sometimes write their best works longhand, on a legal pad, initially. That’s all.

    • Thank you, once again, for taking the time to pen a thoughtful comment. Your feedback is appreciated.

      • I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t know how to use DAWs. I’m sure you do. I just meant that maybe you got into the habit of using them in a certain way, and it’s that certain way that became problematic to your workflow. They can definitely be problematic if used wrong, or lazily.

        And I agree – it’s often good to just unplug, and focus on the nuts and bolts of a song – lyrics, melody, beats, chords – and just leave all production-oriented things to a later time.

        Above all, I think one needs to be able to identify how their tools influence their workflow, and how their tools and workflows influence their final product (or lack thereof, in some cases!). If you’re mindful of it, it won’t become an impediment. OR it can actually become a form of self-imposed limitation that helps shape your sound/song. Sometimes system/instrument limitations can be a good thing. I’m sure you’ve know guitarists over the years that spend more time buying and playing with effects pedals than actually playing, practicing, and composing. They’re trying to overcome a limitation of the instrument (too narrow of a sonic palette, at least in their minds) when that is really probably not the thing that is preventing them from writing/recording compelling guitar-based music.

        I get that that is your overall point, and I appreciate it, so kudos. I just tend not to see DAWs as being a problem, just how they’re used.

      • And I agree with you so much, that in my own musical work, I sometimes DO write a song in the DAW. I guess the headline point is that there are other ways and if in a rut, try them. You raise excellent points, though. I know so many guitar players especially who you could describe as, “all the gear and no idea”. It’s definitely a thing 🙂

  6. nersonangelo says:

    Thank you very much!! this is just the kind of insight and advice I particularly need at the moment.. Very helpful.. I admire your passion for bringing those various endeavours together as learning avenues.. Thank again.. will check out you wp sight..

  7. okgareth says:

    So using something like ACID might be a helpful choice perhaps

  8. Enjoyed this article very much. I too am more and more convinced in living a life of fewer options in order to actually achieve conclusion in the endeavors I initiate.

    That said, finding the final round shape of a song is still a difficult task for me. I would love someday to be able to works with another musician/producer that can help provide that overall form for each song.

    • Painters often work with a restricted palette to improve their creativity. I think that sort of self imposed restriction can often be helpful. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and hope you get to work in the collaborations you seek. Thank you for commenting.

  9. Tim says:

    Thank you very much for writing and sharing this very useful article. I started using DAWs 30 years ago, initially with Notator on an Atari 1040. Over the years I recorded hundreds of sketches but completed only a handful of them. I was always wondering why, but only tonight I did some research and found this website. Your article hits the point and I will follow your advices.
    Maybe you want to go a step further and write a hands-on workbook someday: “From the idea to the song”? Or a comprehensive video tutorial demonstrating every single step of your personal work flow on a concrete example: sketch – composition – arrangement – recording – mixing – mastering. Or how about online workshops?
    Thank you again!

    • Thank you for your comments. I must admit I hadn’t thought about going deeper into the process, or making some workshops or videos about it. Maybe I should. I’m glad you found the article useful.

  10. okgareth says:

    Fruity Loops as a rewire is KILLER. just keep it simple.

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