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"Living the Dream" is a song I recorded last week on my eleven-year-old MacBook using Reaper (a digital audio workstation, or DAW), a Shure SM58 microphone (plugged into an interface), and a few instruments - both acoustic and electronic. This was my first time using Reaper, and after an hour of learning how the heck it worked, I found my sea-legs I had a pretty slick experience! My (very?) old computer had no problem running Reaper. In fact, Reaper ran way smoother than Logic Pro (my preferred DAW!). I wrote most of the song beforehand - just me, an acoustic guitar, and a lot of coffee.
Not everyone creates in this way, by the way. Lots of people like making beats on the computer before writing the song, or while they write the song, or whatever! There are as many songwriting processes as there are songwriters.
The Skeleton: drums
Anyway, after I had written most of the lyrics and had the general song form planned out, I put on my headphones and started arranging the drums. I like doing this so the drums can keep the tempo when I record all the other instruments (guitar, voice, bass, piano, etc.). Also, arranging the drums creates a clear map of the song for me. Once I have all the drums for each section of the song, I feel like a lot of the hard work is over! Now I can sing, play, and have fun. I usually edit the drums later to add little details, but it feels good to have the song skeleton. I played the drums using a MIDI keyboard and conformed them exactly to the beat (a thing called "quantizing" which sounds fancy but is indeed very simple). To create the drum sounds, I downloaded a program called Power Drum Kit. I recommend it, especially if you like "real" sounding drums (versus electronic drums). They offer a free trial period,. Download it here, from Power Drum Kit.
Adding tracks in order or importance
After that, I recorded the acoustic guitar using my microphone.. Whatever instrument I compose the song with is the first one I like to record (after drums, if the song has drums). It contains most of the important song information other than the melody. After that, I sing the lead vocal part. Trying to perform an awesome vocal take can be pretty time consuming, so most people (myself included) initially sing a "scratch" vocal AKA a temporary vocal take. That way, the whole song (main instrument, voice, drums) is laid out and you can work on all the other instruments without stressing out too much about delivering the best vocal performance of your life. Besides, it's easier and more fun to sing the real vocal take once the other instruments are recorded!
After that, I fill in the other instruments. This time, I recorded a bass guitar (plugged in to my interface by a 1/4 inch cable), some shaker (using the microphone), some piano (my keyboard plugged in to my interface with a 1/4 inch cable, and background vocals/harmonies(with my microphone). This is the really fun part! I like to experiment a lot with different sounds, but usually I'm reinforcing the ideas already presented by the voice and guitar/piano/main instrument. You don't need any particular combination of instruments (you could just have piano and your voice!), but a lot of times I like bass because it helps fill a song out. Using a MIDI keyboard is fun, too, since you can use it to create a piano, synthesizers, digital strings or flutes or anything you can think of.
Balancing, Bouncing & Sleeping on it
After all the instruments are recorded, I finally get to replace my scratch singing with the "real" lead vocal. Then I edit the levels (turning volumes up or down to make sure all the instruments are balanced) and "bounce" the song - AKA turn the whole song into an mp3 so it can be shared with the world! I always like to sleep on it before committing to a final version. Stepping away from a song/recording and resetting/refreshing your mind is so helpful to get a clear picture of how your song sounds. When I come back to a song a day or two later, it's like I'm hearing it for the first time and I can make clear, confident decisions. I also like to play the song out of different headphones/speakers while editing to get a less biased view of how the instruments are balancing. In the case of this song, I came back to it a few times over the course of a few days before committing to this final version.
Is this always my course of action? No! Sometimes I record a bassline and improvise over it and the song is done in 30 minutes. And sometimes it's the opposite - sometimes a song can take months! But this is the general flow I've found for myself: I write most of the song (away from a screen), then I record the main instruments (drums, voice, main rhythmic instrument), then I fill in the bass and whatever other textures I want, and then I edit. I'm always curious to see how other write songs - how do you like to create?