Very rarely will a song just come together. Typically I work on musical ideas, and lyrical themes separately, mixing and matching the results into a song. This phase of the exercise is carried out with acoustic guitar, paper, pencil, eraser, and takes weeks. It’s where most of the effort and time is spent. Every song that I have written started its life as a simple acoustic guitar and vocal arrangement. Once the song seems to unify, I practice it and work on it some more. At this stage I find embellishments for the guitar work and melody. Once I can play it and sing it comfortably, then I am ready to start recording.
I start in the DAW by choosing a drum pattern, and loop that all the way through. Then I record the guitar track, followed by the vocal track. I record guitar and vocals in one shot, very rarely do I edit, loop, nudge, or punch in/out with guitar and vocals. I believe this gives the composition more heart, making it a little more like a live performance, balancing out the clinical tightness of the MIDI bass and drums. At this point I decide how I would like to arrange it. I might decide the song needs more, or needs less. I might replace the acoustic guitar with electric, redoing the guitar tracks. Once the guitar and voice arrangements are satisfactory, I will work on the drums, deciding where the starts, ends, bridges and fills should go. After that, I will record the MIDI bass and any synthesizer portions. I establish the mix concurrent with the above activities.
Despite a high reliance on software, this is by no means cheating or easy. There absolutely is a difference when compared to playing with other musicians. You cannot see and interact with other musicians if those parts are multi-tracked, or programmed. There are no non-verbal cues. There are also technical problems to overcome, like processor latency, software plug-ins that won’t work, the learning curve of recording skill and the software itself. Of course it helps that I am technically trained, but all in all, there is a lot to learn, and a lot of time and effort spent on getting it done.