Think back to the very first song you ever wrote. Do you remember the process and any particular tools you used? Now think about the most recent song you've been working on and consider the differences in what’s available to you now compared to when you first got started. If you've been making music for a while, the differences can be mind-blowing. If you’re relatively new at this, you may not realize the options you have in front of you.
Technology has forever changed the craft of music-making and the disruption has brought a mixture of incredible leaps forward while also introducing unintended consequences in three key areas of songwriting:
How can you benefit from the advances in tech and minimize its potential pitfalls?
Develop a creative workflow and then find technology that will compliment your process, not complicate it.
For many songwriters the biggest challenge isn’t in learning or adapting to new technology—the biggest challenge is still finishing the song itself.
This is worth mentioning up front because with today’s technology, it’s more important than ever to focus on your process for finishing songs before getting too distracted by anything else.
While there is no one way to write a song, there a million ways not to finish one. If your technology isn’t helping you to actually finish the song, you’re likely being distracted by it. Yes, we have some really cool toys in front of us but we have to be very intentional when using them; otherwise, the technology simply blurs the lines between writing the song and the later stages of developing the song. This can easily start us on a path that takes us in circles rather than getting us closer to the finish line.
Does your gear and software help you to keep a stronger focus when writing the words and music, or do you find yourself spending more time searching for the right snare sample or guitar tone instead? For years, most songwriters would write with a single instrument producing just a basic sound or tone to write to. Sure, we could always imagine a string section or power chords in our heads but all of that would come later after the song itself was written.
Today’s technology gives us dozens (if not hundreds) of different sounds to work with in a single sound library. While it’s true that each new preset sound we hear can inspire us and influence how and what we play, we can easily get lost scrolling through endless variations of what an E minor chord can sound like instead of finding the right chords to play in the first place.
When all else fails, strip away any distractions to get the core structure of your song down first. Tom Petty reportedly wouldn’t move forward with any new song until it worked with just vocals and an acoustic guitar. Even if that’s not your style, there’s a lesson to be learned from getting the actual song right at the earliest stages of your workflow.
Do you write your songs on staff paper, transcribing the notes and chords you play while writing? Plenty of artists today never write down their music but prefer instead to simply perform it and record it as they compose it. Some DAWs provide the ability to view and print your MIDI data in a musical score, like sheet music. As long as you can play it you don’t have to worry about transcribing it, focusing instead on capturing the music rather than its notation. Either way, you want to work at getting the best ideas down quickly to get the song finished—don't repeatedly hit the delete button as you go for the perfect take at this stage.
When you’re writing and creating new ideas, your technology ought to be as transparent as possible. Use it to capture your rough ideas without judgment. Learn ways to do this quickly and with purpose to be efficient with the tools you have. Find a workflow that lets you stay in a creative space without having to tweak the gear or troubleshoot the software you use to capture your song. Focus instead on your creativity, your energy, and the resulting music that comes out of it.
Creating art doesn’t have to take weeks or months. There are songwriting camps that challenge you to write a complete song from scratch within a few hours. It can be done.
Have you ever watched those speed painters create something incredibly fast while not sacrificing a lot of quality? When you stay focused on using broad strokes to capture only what is essential, you might be surprised at how well your creativity can flow.
Do you remember ever having to write a paper or a report for school? Many of us were taught to start with an outline first. Drafting an outline lets us quickly generate our ideas and then organize them into a flow that makes sense before we start further development.
Take the same approach with your songwriting by creating a minimalist songwriting template in your DAW with only the barebone essentials you need to capture your musical ideas. Even just a click track and basic MIDI piano sound can do. Melody, chords, and lyrics (even temporary ones) are all that’s really needed to get that basic song structure in place—you can always change the key, tempo, and instrumentation later.
Many DAWs are becoming better adept at fostering a creative workflow without getting in the way. Some, like Ableton Live’s “Capture” and Pro Tools’ “Retrospective MIDI” features will even anticipate what’s coming and help you save a great idea, even when you’re not actually recording. These types of features will auto-record your MIDI data to prevent loss of spontaneous (and of course, genius) ideas when doing practice runs in between takes.
If you sing or play guitar, have a setup that allows you to easily set your levels and start jamming without getting overly obsessed with unnecessary effects or processing. We’re sketching ideas here, not performing on live TV.
Consider the masters (and ninja turtles) like Michelangelo and Leonardo, who started with simple sketches before painting their greatest works of art. A rough pencil sketch may only produce a monotone vision but it’s a clear and efficient process for generating and finishing your ideas. The sketch provides a structure or framework for producing all of the vivid imagery and minute details that will wow us in the finished piece of art.
Once the song itself is in a good place, we can implement technology to further enhance it.
Advances in technology have continuously lowered the cost on audio interfaces, DAWs, and computers in general, making previously unobtainable tools and quality features accessible to more and more musicians than ever before.
There are free versions of popular DAWs that have the essential features to perform, record, edit, and loop audio to create new music on just about any decent laptop or desktop computer:
Because the software is free, musicians can spend their money on getting more “juice”—upgraded processors and computer memory—instead of spending more money on the DAW itself. Greater computing power typically provides a better creative experience with less headaches when making music on a computer. Research the recommended or minimum specs for your DAW and invest in upgrading your computer’s firepower before throwing money into plug-ins and other toys that your computer might not otherwise handle.
Mobile devices and mobile apps have improved steadily since the original iPhone set the bar for what a smartphone can do. Better mics and improved latency have made remote multi-track recording and idea sharing a reality for many artists without access to a home studio. Entire songs can now be written and crafted, all while being mobile:
Our ability to waste time has also improved with the technology. Always beware of the many distractions your mobile device brings to the creative table. While your phone is also used for social media, text messages, work emails, and watching cat videos, your guitar or piano is still dedicated to making music—it only has one job to do.
Better internet connections, innovation, and sheer computing power alone have transformed what is possible but the level of quality in our music has to be preserved by the songwriters and the musicians, not the tools.
As artists, it's really important to discover effective technologies but still use them in very musical ways. While these tools can offer convenient features, there's a real danger in relying too much on preconfigured loops, drag-and-drop functions and a copy & paste / cookie-cutter mentality that can lead to your music sounding like it was mass-produced and assembled in a factory by robots for other robots. If that's your genre and target audience, congrats. For the rest of us trying to connect with a human audience, it's worth remembering the personal qualities that give our music its human vibe. This often spills over into the arranging and recording stages, but often has its roots in the songwriting phase.
How your music feels, and the emotion it brings to the listener, can make your music stand out in a world of sound-alike songs streaming endlessly across our ever-growing Internet of Things.
Are You In or Out of the Loop these days?
Don’t hate on loops. Music is inherently repetitive, with both big and small sections that repeat. It’s what we expect and it’s a big part of what gets your song stuck in the listener’s head. From a songwriting perspective, loops can be a great way to build your song quickly and let the bigger ideas flow without stopping to arrange each of the parts or get fixated on specific instrumentation or soundscapes that you can mess with later in the process. The point here is in how we use loops in creating our songs.
There are tools that are great for loop-based writing and recording. This is how many artists like to create, by looping one part and then performing another over top, layering as they go until their ideas are realized, building a complete song from the individual parts they’ve created. Early tape delays gave way to digital delays, both of which are now emulated and easily accessible via simple loop pedals and built-in software features.
There are also professional loops you can purchase from online libraries, such as The Loop Loft, Big Fish Audio, and Pro Samples to name a few, or loops that have been bundled within a plug-in for your DAW. Many of the loops you’ll find are often categorized by verse, chorus, bridge, etc. to quickly build out the structure of your song by dragging-and-dropping them into your session.
To be clear, these aren’t just drum loops but also bass, guitars, keys and more. Don’t dismiss them as a whole until you’ve worked with a few. Some really tasty loops are high-quality productions from talented producers and seasoned session musicians we’d all love to have playing on our next record.
What it comes down to is being able to further edit or modify the existing loops you use to make them fit better into your music and more unique to your own songs. Customization is key to making your tracks sound original, fresh, and (based on your genre) as realistic as you can.
While audio loops are common, MIDI loops are especially flexible and can become an integral part of your song if you take the time to tweak certain note velocities, articulation, and the overall feel of the performance when using them. Being able to change keys or to adapt an existing performance to different chord progressions is incredibly powerful as well.
Maintaining the Groove
MIDI notes can be snapped to the grid, or quantized, meaning the notes line up perfectly with the down beats and subdivisions within each bar. Most DAWs offer similar functions for audio as well, although this can get tricky with polyphonic sounds. The challenge is to find a balance between correcting timing issues and retaining some feel to your tracks. Straight 8th notes can work for some parts but a human performance with some soul will have subtle variations and even some imperfections that your song ought to include. Quantizing everything at 100% all the time is a sure way to mess with your song’s groove. Most DAWs make it easy enough to slow down the tempo when you need to capture a particularly intricate riff or idea you might otherwise struggle with when performing in real time.
Writing Parts You Can’t Perform
Now this is something that can be a real problem. Plenty of writing and recording sessions will grind to a halt when the artist can’t quite play what they wrote but they insist on “working it out” while you’re on the clock. Technology however, provides some advantages that make this less of a hurdle to overcome when writing but still a challenge (because it should be).
When writing, you may need to hear something specific before you know if a certain part of the song is going to work the way you’re hearing it in your head. Without completely stopping the workflow, technology allows us to use virtual instruments and samples as quick reference points to hear what might otherwise elude us in the moment.
While I’m fortunate to have a real baby grand piano, it’s not always feasible to use it when writing. A simple MIDI controller and a decent piano sample can get the job done when you don’t have a real piano. In fact, I can use the same setup to dial up a string section, horns, bagpipes, or whatever I’m hearing in my head—even though I don’t actually have those physical instruments nor the skills to play them well enough if I did.
Today’s samples and emulations are quite impressive. With just a basic understanding of how a drummer plays the kit (hint: they’re not an octopus) or the way a guitarist will voice certain chords, you can get great results to inspire your songwriting and even lay the groundwork for how those parts may eventually be tracked. Some tools will go even further, generating patterns and voicings for you, even altering how the samples are played back to better conform to a particular instrument’s traditional range or to add some random elements to simulate a more human performance.
While the goal may not be to "trick" the listener into thinking it's a real horn section, guitar, or a real drummer—the real trick, ultimately, is to convince them that the music itself is real. That all starts with writing the song before writing any specific parts. If nothing else, leave some room for your producer and the musicians themselves to add their own contributions when the time comes.
Samples, virtual instruments and other emulators are great tools to draw some inspiration from when writing your songs but, depending on your style of music, I’d almost always advocate for having real musicians perform on the eventual recordings of your songs.
It’s easier than ever to write parts you can’t play now and find someone else who can play them later. With faster and more reliable internet connections, we can more easily collaborate with other musicians to overcome the fact that you may not be able to do everything on your own, nor should you always strive to.
There have always been plenty of talented musicians, producers, and engineers who are willing and able to collaborate, either for a fee or in exchange for services. Technology brings cloud collaboration into the songwriting arena, steadily improving our ability to share audio ideas and work with other like-minded artists in different locations and different time zones, just about anywhere in the world.
Need a female vocalist or slap bass on your next song? Can’t fit a real drum kit in your home studio? Through platforms such as Tunedly, AirGigs, and SoundBetter, you can find someone online who can record those parts remotely in their home studio and send the files back to you to work with in yours.
Companies like Avid have already begun introducing cloud-based storage and online collaboration features between Pro Tools users to share audio without ever having to leave your session. More appealing is the growing realization that audio is audio: cross-platform integration can let everyone work with the same audio regardless of how it was captured or processed and regardless of who is using which device or DAW.
Splice integrates several popular DAWs through online backups on its cloud platform.
With services like Listento, it’s even possible to stream live audio directly from your DAW to other collaborators’ web browsers, allowing them to hear changes in real time without being in the same room.
Replace “No” with “Yes, and…”
Finally, technology allows us to shift our mindset simply by having an “Undo” command in our DAW to instantly recover from a mistake or bad idea. In short, “Oops!” no longer has to be a stopping point when writing and capturing our ideas for a new song. Recording each take to a new track or playlist is easier than ever. Editing a take is non-destructive. We can save dozens of takes without fear of losing the original idea and whatever it leads to. Digital files can be easily saved and recalled at any time within seconds from your hard drive.
As a songwriter, you can embrace the technology to explore, experiment, write and record without penalty—so be fearless!
Rather than shoot down a new idea, take a shot at enhancing it or taking it to a new level to see what happens. Technology should only expand what you can dream up, not limit your imagination.
How has technology changed your approach to songwriting? I’d love to hear about how you integrate tech into your workflows and answer any questions you might have about how I can help your projects. Tell me about your music!
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