I’m writing this trying to bring “sense” and “order” into something that is by nature much more random and chaotic. Here are my usual steps when working on a composition. I’m trying to follow them as much as possible, but as I’ve said earlier, this is not always feasible nor as predictable in reality.
Procrastination and escapism
For quite some time, I do other things that make me happy. From reading, learning, photographing, writing, watching films, listening to music, exercising to spending time with my family and pets. :)
A moment of happiness and distraction
In such moments creative inspiration usually strikes. For me, certainly much more often than when I deliberately decide: “I’m going to work right now”.
Quick capturing of an idea, motif, theme or a whole piece
Which of this musical elements comes to mind in a certain moment is a completely random thing. But when it happens, I quickly capture it before I forget it. Not by using my DAW, but in a more humble fashion: recording an idea on one of my keyboards or using a sound recording application on a mobile phone.
Recording solo piano version in my DAW
The piano is my main instrument so I use it for composing most of the time. Also, the majority of my compositions are centered around the piano theme. So I usually start with recording the new piece as a solo piano performance.
Detailed MIDI editing of the recorded performance
Although I strive toward spontaneous and unhindered performance, in the studio I like to be as exact as possible. So I painstakingly edit every MIDI part of my compositions after the initial recording. In this often tiresome, but in the end rewarding phase, I occasionally come up with some new composition details, which manifests in adding or removing certain notes where is appropriate or necessary.
Coming up with the additional elements of an arrangement
Most of the musical pieces I’ve finished thus far can function as a solo piano piece, but I equally like to compose and produce music with additional elements, such as string arrangements, synth embellishments and virtual orchestration. Sometimes I even experiment with guitars and other electric and acoustic instruments. The most difficult part of this step is choosing the sound palette. This is especially true when working with modern electronic and virtual instruments. Brian Eno, the famous composer of ambient music, has supposedly said in an interview that this abundance of choice with the modern music technology is often more a hindrance than a benefit. Although I like to have a broad choice of sound colors at my disposal, I must agree with this notion.
Recording and detailed editing of the additional parts of an arrangement
Same as before; I record every element, then I edit it to the detail. While doing so, I occasionally add or remove things in the process.
Editing of the CC data
When working with the virtual instruments, especially the orchestral ones, a vital step is to use CC parameters that control musical elements such as dynamic, expression, vibrato, various articulations etc. All of these bring another dimension to the recorded performance as well as realism and musical fluidity. Since CC’s are most often recorded along with the actual musical performance, it is quite difficult to be precise at this time, so additional editing of such data at a later stage is often required. It is basically boring and mechanical drawing of ups and downs, valleys and hills, but again, very rewarding in a musical sense at the end.
Mixing and music production
If you’re working on instrumental music in your own creative environment, music production is in a way an integral part of the composition process. Depending on the type of music, it can be an expansion of the musical work beforehand or its correction to some degree. In my case, it is rather conservative process involving mixing, panning, sound correction, adding of various FX etc. But all this serves only to further enhance the musical elements: melodies, harmonies and rhythms.
For this finishing step, it is often said “It’s best to leave it to the professional”. While this may be true, not everyone, including myself, can afford to send all their finished work to a professional mastering engineer every time. Today’s technology allows composers and producers to do this daunting process by themselves, and while most of us don’t have the skills nor the experience of a mastering engineer, it is certainly worthwhile to know a thing or two about mastering and be able to do it “on your own for your own purposes”. But of course this is not a permanent substitute for a seasoned professional who can really bring your music to a whole new level in a sonic sense. I know this well from a personal experience. :)