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.
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.