Composing with a DAW vs Traditional Notation Software

By Jordan Berg

As a composition major, I find that in order to best realize my ideas, I must use several different methods of composition as I develop my project. I compose with an instrument, I compose using traditional notation methods, and I also compose directly into a digital audio workstation (DAW). For most of my projects I will use all three methods.

I began my composition studies very traditionally and trained my ears so that I could write my ideas directly to a piece of manuscript paper and also notate my improvisations with instruments. I eventually began using Finale (and later moved to Sibelius) because of the ease of editing parts and the rudimentary MIDI playback. I found after a while that the horrible MIDI playback of Sibelius and Finale was not getting my ideas across to anyone and my portfolio was stagnating because I had no ready access to performing musicians and recording equipment. This was the case even when I invested in better sample libraries. I began studying production because I felt that I was hearing many pieces of music coming from the world of popular media that were not very deep compositionally speaking, but sounded fantastic due to the production value. University is an excellent place to collaborate with other musicians and have your pieces played and performed, but I think that once I graduate, I will need to rely at least a little more on computer-assisted composition to produce music quickly and have good sounding results.

Both notation software and most of the major DAWs are aiming to be a ‘one stop shop’ where you can compose using whatever method you prefer and also get a great sounding audio file at the end. This has not been convincingly achieved yet. We are (in 2016) quite far from having the ability to compose traditionally using the score edit function in Logic and Protools (frustrating!) as we would in Finale and Sibelius. Likewise it is difficult to trigger your samples properly and mix/edit the audio in notation software the way you can in a DAW. I am rarely happy with the sound of my audio file using notation software, even when using a professional sample library. It is useful to be able to export a MIDI file from your work and then import it into a DAW.

I find that my approach to composition is very different when using notation software than when using a DAW. I find composing music into Logic is sometimes limited to the level of my keyboard playing abilities. It is possible to enter one note at a time using a mouse and it is also possible to edit, quantize, rearrange and perfect your performances (which I need to do every time) but I find my creativity is heightened when using traditional notation because I can work out harmonies, manipulate rhythms in ways I might not be able to intuitively or at a MIDI keyboard, and create counterpoint that is more developed and thought out. I also have a better perspective on the trajectory of my piece and the progression of the harmony when using traditional notation.

I find composing into a DAW more like jamming and improvising. This is extremely powerful when, for example you want to improvise or work out a part using, say an oboe over a string section. I also feel that effects and spacialization can be expressive tools and instruments in and of themselves. Likewise the ability to produce music that is a blend between a traditional orchestra and electronics is much easier in a DAW than it is on paper or in notation software.

In conclusion, it is true that samples and computer-assisted production have themselves become instruments in the modern composer’s arsenal. Most of us don’t have consistent access to a live symphony orchestra but unfortunately samples are still not able to capture what a live performance does. When composing at a computer, one is in danger of writing the piece ‘for the samples’ rather than for instrumentalists. I feel that both traditional notation and the ability to produce music with a DAW are of equal importance to the modern composer.


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