Approaches to songwriting vary considerably, from those who strum some chords on a guitar for ideas, to those who start with beats, to those who seem to draw inspiration out of nowhere and want to record what they hear quickly, before the inspiration fades. Accordingly, this article isn't about how you should write songs but describes a few particular Sonar tools in depth — some (or all) of which could be very helpful in your songwriting.
Although songwriting styles are very personal, I think we can nonetheless agree on a few general points: while songwriting, you want your tools to stay out of the way and be transparent. You want a smooth-flowing, efficient, simple process; songwriting isn't about endlessly tweaking a synth bass patch, but about coming up with a great bass part — thanks to the fluid nature of digital recording, just about any sound can be replaced or refined at a later date. You want an environment that can simplify turning your abstract ideas into something tangible, losing as little as possible in the translation.
Normally you need to arm a MIDI track before you can record on it, but it's possible to defeat this so that recording starts on any selected MIDI track as soon as you click on the transport's Record button. I realise that the default setting is there to prevent accidental overwriting of MIDI tracks, but personally I find not having to arm a track liberating — it saves time and makes the recording process flow better for me. To do this:
1. Go Options / Global.
2. Tick the 'Allow MIDI Recording without an Armed Track' box.
3. Click on 'OK' to close the Global Options menu.
It's much easier to write when you have a friendly environment ready to go as soon as you boot up. Sonar allows the saving of files with a special extension, CWT, which indicates that the file is a template. When you open the program and click on the Create a New Project button, you'll see a list of available templates, including 'Normal'. This is a special template, because it's the default one that will load when you create a new project (assuming you don't select a different template).
Odds are you won't need most of the templates included in Sonar (for example, one is based on using the program with the Yamaha 03D, and opens up with a Studio Panel for controlling the 03D). You can create a slimmed-down, more efficient Templates folder by deleting the ones you won't need.
To find out where the template files reside, go Options / Global and click on the Folders tab. The Templates entry will then show the file path. Create a new Templates folder (preferably in the same folder that contains the old Templates folder), and copy over any templates from the existing Templates folder that you think you may want to use. Again, go Options / Global / Folders tab. Then click on the Browse button for the Templates field and specify the file path to the new Template folder you have just created.
Now you can create some custom template files to populate your new Templates folder. Analyse the type of tasks you do and what would be your ideal starting point for composition. Template files aren't just about storing and recalling a particular number of tracks; you can set up particular configurations of virtual instruments, clock and sync data if you're using Sonar with various pieces of hardware, metronome settings, MIDI and audio data, and more.
After creating a template, you need to save it a little differently compared to the way you'd save a standard file. Go 'Save As,' navigate to your Templates folder, enter the file name, and under Save as Type, choose Template, or simply type in the suffix .CWT (Cakewalk Template).
What should a songwriting template include? Following are some recommendations.
MIDI Files Or Not?
If you have a workstation synth in your template, it might make sense to have some tracks containing MIDI files for drums, bass lines, or whatever. But be careful — you don't want to box yourself in. I suggest having only a few MIDI drum tracks, such as a four-on-the-floor kick with snare for dance music and a typical rock pattern for rock music. Treat these more as a glorified metronome than a real drum part, or you might encourage yourself to do what you've done before. You don't want to fall into a rut.
If you use MIDI, having a virtual synth with a large number of sounds available is a good place to start. That way, whether you want to lay down a bass line, play some drums or work on chords with a piano, you're covered. If you don't use MIDI, you could consider changing your habits: if you start writing a song with MIDI tracks and later decide you need to change tempo or key, you can do so far more easily than changing tempo or key with digital audio. And, of course, another advantage of MIDI is that if you end up with a 'keeper' part but want to change instruments, or alter a few notes you didn't like, you can edit MIDI data easily, or replace a MIDI track with a 'live' instrument.
As to which workstation to use, there are plenty on the market, such as Native Instruments' Kontakt, IK Multimedia's Sample Tank and Steinberg's Hypersonic, to name just three, but my workstation of choice for a songwriting template is Sonar's TTS1, a GM2-compatible sound module designed in conjunction with Roland. While it doesn't have the breadth or sound quality of the other products mentioned above, it takes virtually no CPU power. This makes it easy to maintain low system latency, which can be important if you plan to play acoustic or electric instruments in real time through Sonar. However, TTS1 also has several other useful features.
The GM2 set has more presets than a standard GM set. For example, there are seven acoustic pianos instead of the standard GM Grand Piano, Bright Piano and Electric Grand. TTS1 also has four outputs, just in case processing, such as a tempo-sync'd rhythmic delay, is vital to a particular sound (although generally I'd advise not concerning yourself with effects too much while songwriting — you can always deal with the effects later).
You can also set up control changes for the various volume faders — so if you have a control surface, it's easy to throw together a quick mix without too much effort. There are other goodies: it's possible to specify a polyphony limit to guarantee minimal CPU consumption, and Master Key Shift allows the entire instrument to be transposed (except for the drum channel, of course) if you decide to change key.
Also note that TTS1 is quite editable; just click on the Edit button above each mixer channel. I realise that mentioning editability may go against the idea that you want things to move rapidly while writing songs, but in this case the editing options are quite simple: filter, tone, envelope, vibrato and similar rapid tweaks. So if you like an instrument sound but need, for example, a more percussive sound, it's easy to do. And since you're staying within one instrument, everything you might want to adjust is only a few clicks away.
There's one more little favourite feature I want to mention: if you click on the System button, select Option, then click on the Options tab, you can tick 'Enable Phrase Preview'. Clicking on the note symbol at the bottom of each mixer channel then plays a little riff so that you can hear the sound's intended usage. For more details about these features and others, you can click on the Help button in the TTS1 screen's lower right-hand corner.
TTS1 may not get the same amount of respect as its more expensive and capable competitors, but don't overlook its talents as a hard-working songwriting companion.
Track templates save huge amounts of time. For example, you may like particular EQ and compression settings on your vocals, but you may also like variations on these for different mics you use. Although you can include tracks with these settings in your songwriting template, if you add too many tracks that you don't use to the template, it will end up being cluttered and confusing — the opposite of what you want.
A better strategy is to save track templates for your favourite sounds and load one at a time, as needed, into your songwriting template. For example, you might want to start off with a lead vocal track template as you start getting lyric ideas together, then call up a different track template for harmony vocals. Or if you use an amp simulator, create a track template with it sitting in the effects bin, along with Sonar's guitar-tuner plug-in (see screen above). A track template memorises not just levels, but bus settings, hardware settings (input and output), track parameters and icons, name, and so on.
The best way to build up a collection of track templates is to simply create one when you come up with a track setup you like. To do this, in the Track View right-click on a blank spot within a track and select Save As Track Template. Best of all, you're not limited to saving a single track as a template; you can save a collection of tracks, which can optionally be contained in a track folder. To save multiple tracks as a template, just Ctrl-click on the track numbers to select the tracks you want to save in the template, then right-click on any of the selected track numbers and choose Save As Track Template. All the selected tracks will be saved as a single template and recalled as a group when you call up that template.
To save a track folder of tracks as a template, just Ctrl-click on the track numbers within the folder that you want to save as a template track folder. You don't have to select all the tracks, but only the selected tracks will become part of the template. Then right-click on any of the selected track numbers and choose Save As Track Template. Note that you can't right-click on the track folder itself; instead you have to click on one of the tracks within the folder.
You can load a track template from either the Track View or the Console View. Right-click on a blank space in either view where a track would normally sit, and select Insert From Track Template. Here you can choose from one of the presets included with Sonar, or a track template you've created yourself (see screen, bottom left).
Also note that you can apply a Track Template import 'filter', which allows you to recall only specific aspects of the template. For example, if you tick 'Track Folders' and select a template with a collection of tracks that were contained in a folder, the entire collection — including the folder — will be recalled. But if you don't tick 'Track Folders' and you recall the same Track Template, the collection of tracks within the folder will be recalled as standard tracks, without a parent folder. Other filter options let you decide whether you want to import bus assignments, mute/solo/arm status, effects, sends, and so on.
Be careful to strike a balance between having enough templates to make your life easier and so many that you confuse the issue. I tend to use them as points of departure that can be modified. For example, rather than save track templates with different Guitar Rig settings, I'll create one Guitar Rig template and recall a preset from within Guitar Rig's 'favourites' section.
It's also important to create fairly general templates that don't force you into a particular sound. One of the joys of making music is the occurrence of happy accidents where you might, for example, pull up the wrong synth preset and find it works perfectly in a song. Create templates, not formats; there's a big difference. To leave plenty of space for creativity to flourish, let templates take some of the work out of getting a song off the ground — but not all of it.