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Use Your DAW Software To “Assemble” A Song

6:00 am Home Recording, Songwriting

In the Ancient Days, the only way to record a song was to get your guitar (or whatever) ready, hit the “Record” button and simply play the entire song straight through. If you wanted additional instruments or vocals, you listened to the existing tracks as you recorded those new parts, playing straight through the whole song each time.

The capability of “punching in” new material to fix weak passages in an otherwise great part began to break this pattern, but you were still basically playing (or singing) the song all the way through every time you put on a new instrument or vocal.

With the current-day DAW software that so many of us use (GarageBand, Logic, Cubase, etc.), you can still record a song this way if you want to. But, the amazing editing capabilities of even the simplest of these software packages allow you to take your creativity down paths that simply never existed before.

As an example, let me lead you through the process I followed to create a song that was never played all the way through by anybody, but rather was “assembled” from selected bits of previously recorded musical parts.

Making Tracks

Let me begin by pointing out that this “assembly” process works best for creating songs that have only one chord all the way through. (This is not as harsh of a limitation as you might think. See my article How Many Chords Does A Song Need, Anyway? for some thoughts on writing interesting songs with a single chord.) In this case, my music buddy John and I decided to work entirely in the key of E minor. Just for kicks, we decided to use Phrygian Mode for all of the parts (see my article Use Different Scales To Create Unique Melodies for more info on musical modes.)

The first step was to set the tempo (we used 120 bpm) and to get a nice drum loop going to provide a background rhythm part for John and me to jam against. (Of course, this particular “jam” drum loop need not be used in the final version of the song.) Then, with the drum loop playing, I recorded about two minutes of me playing keyboard bass (in E minor) and, on a separate track, John playing guitar.

Both parts were improvised on the spot, with no particular attempt to coordinate what we were playing (though the parts did sometimes go together). When one of us came up with something cool, he made sure to do it exactly right at least once before moving on to something else.

Next, we recorded two additional two-minute tracks (me on various non-bass keyboard voices, John on guitar again) while listening to the tracks we recorded earlier, though again there was no real need for the new parts to “go” with the earlier ones. As the final step, we came up with some suitably vague lyrics and I recorded John performing a vocal part on one additional track (improvising a Phrygian-Mode melody, no less).

With that, the “tracking” portion of the project was complete. The rest was up to me as the assembler and mixer!

Mining For Gold

I began the assembly process by extracting promising fragments from the two-minute jams we had recorded on the various instruments. The chosen excerpts tended to be one to four bars in length, with a few that had just one or two quick notes in them. At this point, let’s get specific! Here are the instrumental bits I extracted that were used in the final version of the song.

Bass keyboard:

Electric guitar:


(Due to a gremlin that apparently got loose in my studio, there is some extraneous crackling in some of the fragments, so do not try to adjust your set. These flaws are inaudible in the final song.)

Of course, these fragments represent just a tiny fraction of the many minutes of jamming that John and I had done. That’s just how it works with this method.

Building “Moon Beam”

This was the fun part! Drawing on my collection of worthy extracted fragments, as well as Logic’s extensive set of drum and percussion loops, I experimented with various arrangements of the loops and fragments. Sometimes a particular fragment was repeated numerous times, whereas other fragments appeared only occasionally, or only right after some other fragment whenever it occurred.

I can’t really be very concrete about my method for assembling this song, as it was very much of an intuitive, moment-to-moment “flow” process. My familiarity with editing and arranging in Logic allowed me to experiment quickly, building and/or suddenly scrapping whole sections of the song as the mood struck me. The structure of the song was dictated to some extent by the two vocal verses, ultimately coming down to Intro, Verse, Link, Verse, Breakdown, Vamp & Fade.

Here, then, is the final product of all this fussing. I think you can pretty much hear everything I did and all of the patterns and sub-patterns I slipped in there, if you listen closely. This project was so much fun that I am already working on two more examples of this approach to song creation!

Moon Beam (M. Bendig - J. Boyd)
Mark: Keyboards
John: Guitars

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One Response
  1. Jay :

    Date: January 21, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

    Hey- nice! I am exploring recording, and your site is just great! Thanks!

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