Composing On The Run

They say that the desktop is going to be obsolete in a couple of years. I'm personally not buying it since I know a lot of musicians (including myself) who love their powerful machines and dual monitors. But more and more musicians are using laptops for most of their musical activity. It has almost all of the advantages of a desktop plus of course the portability. For the purpose of this article we're going to look into composing on the laptop away from the studio; composing on the road

The Bare Necessities

There are a couple of things that we have to take into consideration right off the bat. When composing on the road we won't have all of the toys of a regular studio. That includes a full size MIDI keyboard, a mixer, outboard gear, or any other peripherals (aside from the ubiquitous mouse). We're going to look at it from a minimal point of view and see how much we can get done. 

The Most Important Device

Aside from the computer and software the most important piece of gear is going to be your audio interface. While laptops have some built in audio capability, you will want to spend extra money on a quality unit. Some of these units have pretty good preamps and instrument DI built right in. You never know when one of those 'demo tracks' will end up on the final track. It's important that if you choose to work on the road that you choose a piece of gear suited to traveling. Thankfully, there are tons of choices out there. It all comes down to price and features but you want to consider these carefully. For example, how many inputs do you really need? This is usually a big consideration because more inputs can hike up the price considerably. It also keeps the size of the unit at a minimum since more inputs take up more space. I only have four inputs and that's enough for my needs. If you're a guitar (or bass) player make sure there's a high impedance input so you can record guitar parts right into your DAW. Other considerations are MIDI input/output/thru, phantom power and (hopefully) more than one headphone jack. Some of the higher end models have tons of mixing functions built into their software which makes different headphone mixes possible (e.g. if you're recording vocals). Remember if you use propriety software like Pro Tools, you’ll need a supported device or the software won’t work.

No Input

As a multi-instrumentalist, one of the things I hate about working on a laptop is the lack of any musical input device. I've never been much of a manual input guy. For some composers (Ableton Live users and electronic musicians for example) this doesn't pose much of a problem but for most it does.  There are two solutions a) you can try and find a manageable and portable input device, and b) make due with the limitations of the software and make the most of it. I usually go with b) because most portable keyboards are only an octave or two (for the portability of course) and that usually isn't enough for me; though there are some great choices out there if you don’t mind carting around another device.

If you're like me and love using a traditional keyboard there are tons of choices out there. Now dubbed USB controllers, these go beyond the traditional keyboard. Some units put together the keyboard, audio inputs/outputs and tons of tactile buttons and knobs. If you're so inclined to take one of these on the road, they're great for use as a master controller. These also interact well with the loop and beat programs mentioned. Keep in mind that even though they are portable, they are another piece of gear that has to be carted around.

Built Right In

If you're used to writing on a musical instrument and find yourself lacking when on the road, you may find some usable workarounds in your DAW and some VST instruments. For example there are tons of drum machines that have built in beats and patterns that can be used as song starters. There are also some VST guitar instruments that include built in strumming patterns and chord progressions. I've actually never left these in the final track but found them great for starting songs and working through arrangements. The same goes for keyboard parts and bass lines. The great thing about these instruments is that it's incredibly easy to change the tempo or key at any given time. I use these in the studio all the time. They become invaluable when working with vocalists when we may need experiment with different keys and tempos.

Band Stuff

Then there are software programs that have tons of built in songs to start. Band in the Box has tons of built in songs, progressions and styles. While some of the styles are better than others, these work great as song starters and idea generators. It's incredibly easy to input your own chords into a given style and output it to your DAW. It's also possible to change the style of separate parts of the arrangement. The best thing is that can easily be done anywhere and there is no extra gear needed. You can even output it to .wav and email it off to your writing partners.  
Be careful when sending out unfinished tracks. Not everybody may understand the meaning of the word 'demo'!! Getting unfinished material into the wrong hands may not do your credibility much good.
Reason for Loops
If you're more of a dance, hip hop or electronica producer, Band in the Box may not be your thing. There are other programs that you may want to use that are 'better' at this type of music. There are a ton of loop, beat and virtual studio programs that are great for producing beats and dance music. Propellerheads Reason and Fruity Loops are great programs for this type of music. They have a virtual rack of drum machines, loop players and synths. You can start from nothing and create original beats and songs. These usually tend to be better for (but not limited to) electronic and dance producers because of their layout (pattern based) and the quality of their drum machines and synths. Keep in mind Reason is a virtual rack only as there is no wave recording facility. You need Propellerheads other product Record or your own DAW for that. Other programs like Ableton Live and Sony Acid are great for manipulating loops and putting together arrangements. These programs also have the ability to record and input your own tracks. These programs also used the Rewire feature so your arrangement can be used with your favorite DAW. Some artists have forgone the traditional DAW altogether in favor of these programs.

What's The Rush?

If I'm on the road and just trying to get ideas down, I just rush and try to get them down. I'm more worried about getting the idea than the performance. This means that I use any method available to get the basic idea there and worry about the intricacies and performance later. This is usually the best method for me. For example, I'll use a lot of presets and utilities built into the software. I'll also use 'fake' guitars and horns (and whatever) to get the idea down. That way when I come back to record the tracks in the studio, I have an idea of what to do and build from there.

Even though it's possible to create finished masters in these programs, I use them mostly for ideas and putting together arrangements. They're perfect for trying tons of different ideas, arrangements without ever going beyond your laptop and mouse. The greatest thing is that they may open up new ideas that you would have never thought of when writing in the traditional approach.
The Melody

This is usually the toughest part of writing on the road. I usually come up with my melodies by belting it out into a mic. This of course isn't the best solution when sitting in a hotel room. It’s usually a matter of a) doing your best to get the idea down without belting it out b) doing your recording in the middle of the day (when there usually isn’t much going on as far as people sleeping) or c) finding another location to record besides your hotel room. The other way I like to write is by playing the melody and chords on the piano. They usually come together so that’s why I like the full size keyboard over the smaller, portable versions. I do find the smaller keyboards suitable for writing synth and basslines though.

The Mic/Preamp

When I travel, I always bring a good mic with me. These don't take up too much space and are great if the opportunity to work with a great vocalist comes up. I also use them for acoustic guitar tracks and any other recording I have to do. I also bring along a good preamp. For some this might be overkill when working on demo tracks but I find that sometimes, the demo tracks are irreplaceable. Having them recorded as well as possible always leaves up the option to use them in the final mix without any hesitation.

Guitar Parts

Not only do I like to write most of my material on the guitar, I use it for inspiration for other parts as well. If you do have a guitar on the road, make sure your audio interface has an instrument input so you can record your electric guitar parts directly. This gives you the option to re-amp the tracks later if you really love your tracks. If you're more an acoustic player, make sure you always bring a good mic.

Putting It Together

One caveat of using all of these methods for putting together demos, trying ideas and getting work done on the road is transferring and backing it all up. There are a couple of ways that these audio companies are trying to make transfer of audio from one program to the other a bit easier but the process is still full of problems. The best method of backing up any material is to simply convert all of your tracks to audio. Even though this is by far not the easiest method, it is the most foolproof. When backing up songs on your own system, you may upgrade your DAW in the future and not all of your settings are going to migrate properly. The best way is to save audio files of your tracks. That way you can transfer the most important parts to any other system. I'm still old skool and actually like to keep written notes on songs as well as lyrics.

What’s the Big Idea?

I usually like to sit down and schedule writing and recording times. It usually takes a while to ‘warm up’ and get into it. With a laptop, your sessions can be done almost anywhere. Sometimes we get into thinking patterns that stop us from getting work done. For example, you may think that you need to be in the studio, working for a couple of hours at a time, to get work done. In fact, writing can be done almost anywhere these days. Even without a studio, there’s no reason why not to schedule some writing time. Use what you have in front of you. The ideas will come. As long as we’re talking about capturing ideas, there is no substitute (in terms of efficiency and portability) as the portable recorder. Any device will do as long as it’s portable and available e.g. cell phones, smart phones, mp3 players, or a dedicated device. If an idea comes to you at any time, try to have one of these available to capture your idea right then and there. Don’t wait; the idea probably won’t be back.