Saturday, November 11, 2017

A New Way To Compose Songs

Traditional multi-track recording.  It can be easier!
Traditional recording is one track at a time.   You record your drums on a track, then your bass on a track, then another track and you layer.  Once the song is laid down, its rather difficult to rearrange.  If your song was a book and you were an author, it'd be like writing 12 chapters and filling in the details of every character for every chapter....then moving on to the next character and filling in the details for every chapter.

This is how you'd write books if you wrote it like a traditional multi-track song.
But when I compose, I like to develop themes and let the song ideas ferment and compile over time.  If the ideas aren't set in stone and laid out in tracks, its very easy to rearrange them later.  When I compose on the piano, I am creating patterns.  I develop these patterns over time and mix and match them with other patterns.  They are glued together with transitions and tempo changes.  This is how I build music. Using Mixcraft, you can use the Performance Panel to build patterns and combine them with other patterns.  Once you start, it is highly addictive and guaranteed to be satisfying.  I like to think of it as musical building blocks.

Pros to composing with patterns.
  • Highly creative
  • Easy
  • Organized
Cons to composing with patterns.
  • Perfectly in time.  Everything is in perfect bar lengths.
  • Hard to see the value unless you try it. (You have to be open to it)
Why go to a 4 track tape metaphor just because that was the first way to record modern multi-track music?  Watch me play around with the performance panel in the video below.  (This video just shows playback - not recording, which is shown later down in the tutorial.)

A brief intro to what the Performance Panel does.
The main video that shows how to record is below.

How Do I Start Recording With Patterns?

Step 1.  Download Mixcraft 8 or greater

This tutorial requires Mixcraft, which you can download for free at  It requires Windows and speakers or headphones.  For this tutorial, I will be using an external MIDI keyboard, as well.  After the download, run the installer and then double click the Mixcraft icon on the desktop to start it.
Download Mixcraft 8

Step 2.  Show the Performance Panel

Click the Performance Panel button at the top of the tracks area.  This will open the Performance Panel and you will see a grid of squares.  Each square is called a Slot.  This is where audio or MIDI clips go.  The rows from left to right are tracks and the columns from top to bottom are called "Sets".  There are seven sets showing in this image.  There are a total of 7 x 4 or 28 slots.  At the top, we have a cue and record control.  The cue time period tells Mixcraft when to start a new slot and the record control tells Mixcraft how long to record new slots.

Step 3. Put Some Sound In The Slot

As you are just learning how to do this and what is possible, let's drag a sound from the library into a slot.  Go to the Library at the bottom of Mixcraft and drag in a clip called 'Drums Ride 1' from the Song Kit '12-8 Blues'.  Drop it on track 2, set 1.
After dropping the clip onto the slot, Mixcraft will ask if you want to change the tempo to 86 BPM.  This is normal as it is reading the tempo from the clip and deciding that you may want to play the clip at the tempo it was designed for.

Look at the top of the performance panel and make sure the 'cue' is set to 1 bar.  You can change it later.  Now drag 'Drums Trouble' to track 2, set 2.

Push the play button on 'Drums Ride 1'.  Then push the play button on 'Drums Trouble'.  Feel free to go back and forth.  Now change the cue to 1/4 beat by selecting '1/4' from the Cue drop-down.  Now play between the two clips.

Let's add some bass.  From the Library, drag in 'Bass 12 Bars' to track 3, set 1.  And drag 'Bass Trouble' to track 3, set 2.

Hit the play button on the set header 'Set 1'.  Both the drums and bass now play.  Now hit the play button on the set header 'Set 2'.

Pretty Cool!  Change it to cue to every 4 bars and it'll always be in time.  This is fun to noodle around with your guitar or keyboard.  But this is just for playing loops...the real fun starts when recording your own clips and composing songs.

Step 4. Record A Clip

Now the fun begins.  You can record either audio or MIDI.  For the purposes of this video, I will be recording MIDI with my USB MIDI Keyboard.

A. First let's add a beat.  You don't have to start that way, but I am for this tutorial.  I'll just grab a drum loop from the thousands available in the library.  In my case, I chose 'Drum Beat 1' from the Song Kit "70's Funk".  Place it on track 2, set 2.

B. Prepare a track to record a bass pattern to the beat.  We'll need to choose a good bass instrument.  (It defaults to a piano.) Click the 'Change Instrument..." button on track 1.  This brings up a window that allows you to search for and pick a new bass instrument.  (We won't go into that now..but pick a sound and close the window.)  It can be helpful to have the drum loop playing while you pick your sound.

If you don't have a MIDI keyboard you can use the built in Musical Typing keyboard.
Bring it by clicking the View menu and choosing Musical Typing

C. Arm the track by clicking the arm button.

D. Arm the performance panel track by clicking the red square on the track as seen below.

E. When you are ready to record you will press the red circle on a slot.

F. Make sure that the record and cue controls are to your liking.  I am going to record with 4 bars and cue with 4 bars.

Also, I am going to turn on the metronome by clicking the metronome on the transport.  

G. Play back the drum loop first and then press the red circle to record to a slot.

Once you press the slot's  recording button, you will see a red clip being recorded into the slot.  When its done recording the 4 bars, it will immediately start playing back.  You can go to Set 2 and record the next slot if you messed up or want to try again.  If you don't like a take or recording, simply delete it and try again.  Before a clip will start to record, a red progress bar will draw to show you how long until recording will start.

H. Once you've recorded your bass part, feel free to edit it in the sound editor. (All edits will be heard once the sound has looped around and started playing back again.)  At this point, you'll be wanting to add some keys or string pads, etc.  Feel free to do what you want.  Add new tracks, choose new instruments and record various parts.  

Watch the video to get a feel of the flow of this composition technique.

Step 5. Making The Final Song.

Making the song is the final step.  Once you are happy with your patterns and clips, it's time to put it down to tracks in the traditional sense.  From there you can mix it down to MP3 and all the other stuff I'm not covering in this tutorial. Click the red arm button on the Performance Panel's header.  This tells Mixcraft that you want to record your performance .  Now simply press the RECORD button on the transport and play the slots.  Your performance is recorded and ready for editing and mixing.

(This is the project from the video)

I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial.  And I hope you find this method of composing interesting!


  1. Yup I am learning to love the performance panel to capture my ideas quickly and then stitch them together into longer pieces later.

  2. I have a launchpad pro on the way. While I've used A - Live I prefer mixcrafts performance panel especially with the enhancements in version 8. Great article