The official website showcasing the music of Yellowgold, produced by Jason Howell.

Digital Audio Workstations as song writing tools

This exercise is all about viewing your Digital Audio Workstation as something other than simply a production platform.

DAWs like Pro Tools are amazing music production platforms. And most of the time, that's all that I think of them to be. Ways to produce an idea we already have into a completed recording. But DAWs are actually amazing song writing tools. There's a distinction here.

Think of it this way. You have a bunch of random ideas in Evernote, all disjointed, but all solid ideas in and of themselves, such as:

  • This might work great as the verse.
  • This is a riff that, well, I'm not sure what to do with it. Maybe a bridge?
  • This sounds like a good instrumental block. Maybe an intro? An outro?
  • This is the beginning of a chorus.
  • This is another random piece, not sure where it goes.

As an exercise to spur inspiration, you could record each of these ideas to the tempo of your new project in a Pro Tools session. Then make each of those blocks a region of it's own. Now each idea is represented by a region on your timeline. Now it's easy to reposition them across the timeline and build a basic barebones foundation for the potential flow of your song. Play around with it. Take what seems like a chorus and try it as a verse. Freestyle some nonsense lyrics over the top and maybe something will jump out at you that you can't ignore.

"Yes. THAT is something." If that happens, well, I'd say you just found your catchy chorus. Play with it and have fun.

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In this way, you are using Pro Tools less as merely a production platform and more as an organizational tool for your songwriting. A temporary digital notepad for your various ideas allowing you to unify them into one cohesive track.

Playing around with the blocks at this stage isn't intended to necessarily create a finished product in this sense. It's meant more for determing the order of the ideas you have for a particular track.

Once you have the order of things, create an audio track and record freestye guitar as you play along with that structure. Play through along with your scratch track regions enough times to understand the flow and solidify it as the progression of your new song. You might find that the more you play through it, the better and more cohesive it all sounds together. Sometimes the disparate regions in and of themselves can sound a bit disjointed at this early stage, but if the chord progressions work, and you can get through the song with your guitar in one mediocre take, you might find that there's a glimmer of hope there. A launch pad to jump off from.

I suppose it's all about getting to the point where you are inspired by what you are writing. So much so that it becomes less about trying to create something that moves you but rather, following that which is moving you without trying. And I suppose that is the core of inspiration right there.

And keep in mind that writing all of your songs this way might not be the best approach either. In my own practice, I'v never written a song start to finish with this method. But I utilize the overarching goal of this exercise in many of my projects to bring in parts to songs I'm already working on, when they need that special kick in the pants. 

I might expand a part of the track I'm working on and run through a quick idea I placed in an old Evernote, to see if it fits in somewhere. I might spend 10-15 minutes on just this experiment, and if it works, it's obvious. If it works, my brain turns off and I follow that inspiration. if it doesn't, I usually know cause I'm trying to shoehorn it into place and it becomes more work than fun. So then, I'll simply stop, revert to my saved version of the project and continue on with what was working before that little experiment. No harm done.