A Herculean Task: Producing 3 Albums DAWlessly — Part 5

Cost/Benefit Analysis

This is the final part in my series of producing DAWlessly. In this post, I talk about the advantages and drawbacks of this way of composing, as well as what I would do differently next time.

The Costs

Of course, the main drawback to DAWless production and performance is

  • The lack of access to all the possibilities that exist on the computer and in the DAW today.
current midi channel routing

But there are other drawbacks as well. For example,

  • I can’t really respond to any trends and write new tracks during this long production process because I have a rule where I don’t get too far ahead creating new tracks until I’ve finished the ones I’ve already started.

And with this one, there were quite a few tracks. So no fun time. And

  • The songs don’t necessarily sound like what I might produce in a singles format because they are being designed for a long-player type listening session.

And because all the tracks need to be a bit longer to fill out the time for a full album, they might not be as concise as they would be if I were writing 3 minute bangers.

  • The time required for a project of this size is vast.

Some of these bare drum tracks were written at the beginning of 2022, and now it’s 2024 and I’ve put in thousands of hours so far. How many thousands? There are 2000 working hours in a year, and I’ve been chugging now for two full years. Many days and weeks are up to 16 hours a day. This time commitment is so large that it also means that

  • I have a very limited live performance schedule because I can’t afford to split my time between the two pursuits.

Any time I’m spending preparing for live performances is time that is not being spent towards getting these albums over the finish line. And as every musician knows,

  • Your relationships suffer while you’re in the process.

You would love to go out and hang with friends, or spend time at home with your loved ones, but how can you enjoy it when you have so much work to finish?

  • All that hardware manipulation causes a lot of wear and tear on your devices, not to mention you.

The Virus and especially the MPC have endured an awful lot of button pressings during this time. I don’t think the MPC could take another project like this, and in fact I will have to replace some of the buttons if I continue to use the MPC as my hardware sequencing hub. The Virus and RYTM will also need a thorough cleaning to remove accumulated dust and dirt. You can see how the midi is configured in the image above.

The Benefits

It wasn’t all bad. Because the songs took so long to finish,

  • I was able to give them the time they needed to be fully finished, from a compositional and auditory perspective.

Sometimes I knew a section needed something, but it took a while to figure out exactly what it was. And multiple listenings helps give perspective on what parts are necessary or not.

current audio routing
  • Multiple rounds of mixes also allowed me to zoom in on problems that were obvious when viewing the waveform, like when frequency ranges were overlapping.

And to solve overlapping frequencies, I focused on the sound at the source more than fixing it after, which while a longer process,

  • Paid off in a lot of nice patches and an intimate familiarity with the synths and drum machines.

Perhaps paradoxically,

  • It took a project of this scale to get me to use a DAW more extensively.

I’m sure this will be welcome in future productions, especially those with high track counts, because managing this many tracks on the MPC or probably any hardware alone is not sustainable. Because this project was so broad and touches so many different genres and emotions,

  • It will set the groundwork for many smaller releases in the future that cover many styles.

As a hardware producer, you need lots of good original tracks to be able to play multiple different types of events. And you need to keep building your library so that you can have a track or sets that can fit with nearly any occasion. And this project adds to that repertoire immensely, as painful as it might have been to give birth to it.

The Analysis

I’ve learned a lot during this process, as could be imagined. Here are some of my takeaways.

  • The way I did this was an inefficient way to do it and I will never attempt something of this magnitude again, without some changes.

It’s probably a better idea to get the basic sketches out on the MPC but then transition to the DAW for midi sequence management. And the process of making a change is quite tedious on the MPC because it has to be changed manually everywhere it exists. Perhaps other sequencers don’t suffer from that issue.

  • In the future I will produce in more of a 3 song cycle, in a single genre, in a short burst of activity.

No more of this 8,-16, or in the latest case, 40 tracks to work on simultaneously. If I get an idea for a track, I write 3 similar ones and then choose the best of the bunch or combine elements from each in order to release one excellent track. The other two  could be cannibalized, used as b-sides, added as live-only tracks, or used to create an EP if they all turn out well. Although at certain points in the process it was nice to be able to change genres and listen to something different, I think my best work came when I focused on one genre at a time.

  • From a live standpoint I will continue to do 8-song monthly cycles in a particular genre.

This is the process I’ve done since the beginning where I write 8 tracks in a genre with the goal to have a live set at the end of the month. At the end of the month, I make a mix, regardless of where the songs are from a finished standpoint. As I continue to improve, perhaps some of those live tracks become “finished” with less refinement and mixing time.

As long as it has taken me to simply describe what I’m doing, you can imagine how much time it took to come up with and implement these processes. This project involves literally millions of bits of information that have to be tracked and organized, backed-up and recalled.

But the joy will be magnificent when completing something that has never been done before, all while using sustainable techniques and setting a new standard of what’s possible without a DAW. I started as a professional in 2019 and it took until now working full time++ (5 years) to get to the point where this was even possible, so it will be difficult for someone to be able to match the amount of work that went into it. But with new technologies, who knows, it might become easier and faster, and I will be happy to see that.

But Why Don’t You…

So let’s see if I can answer some of your potential questions.

  • Why don’t you use a hardware compressor?

I used to use hardware compressors in my setup. I had dual FMR RNC’s for the first year or two, but I ditched them. The main problem was in recalling settings. I’m not just a DAWless producer, I’m also a DAWless performer, and compressor settings would be different for every track, and I don’t know of any compressors that can recall settings via MIDI (other than software ones). And if you do want to get that sidechain sound, there are other ways to accomplish it, like placing a square LFO on the bass VCA that mirrors the kick pattern.

  • What about a software compressor?

Each output of the RME has a channel strip, so you can use that if you like to apply master FX or compression. I usually only record a stereo channel, but as long as you copied the settings to each master compressor on the RME output channels, you can copy it to any output channels you want. So it’s possible, I just don’t because not only does it add complexity, it also means that my sound will be totally different without it. I always try to imagine a worst-case scenario where my audio interface breaks and I have to plug into a regular mixer and perform. With required software in the middle, if it breaks or is absent, that most likely means the gig is ruined. As a professional, you can’t allow that to happen.

As prevalent as compression is, especially in DnB, I don’t think it’s absolutely required, especially if you’re just using it for gain or sidechain. There are other ways to accomplish those tasks that are better suited to that application. And in a DAWless environment like mine, you’re always looking to lesson complexity, even if the answer takes a little bit longer to accomplish. There needs to be a focus on sustainability and I think this process does that well.