I wrote my first song in 1995 when I was barely 14, after I got my first guitar for my birthday. I don't remember much about the song, other than I wrote it for a girl, it was called "Mushroom Cloud Love" and she wasn't as impressed as I thought she would be. However, I was addicted to the process, and I've been writing music ever since. I've written punk rock songs, metal songs, folk songs, acoustic songs, piano covers and indie rock songs. I've been part of eight albums with four bands and I've recorded several albums on my own. While I no longer chase the rock star dream, I still regularly write and record music.
If there's one thing that I learned from 19 years of songwriting, it's that I never know when the muse is going to hit me. I've woken up in the middle of the night with an idea. I've been on tour with bandmates, flying down the highway, when a melody came to mind. Too often, the ideas come when I'm away from my home studio. And too often, I've forgotten the idea before I've been able to really work with it. Several years ago, while working on an album as part of a graduate school project at San Diego State, I bought a digital voice recorder because I was tired of losing those moments. I've found it to be one of the best songwriting tools in my repertoire.
The first advantage to using a digital voice recorder in writing music is portability. As I mentioned, you never know when you'll be inspired. I've lost far too many melodies and guitar riffs because they came to me when I wasn't near my guitar. I'd hum them over and over, trying to commit them to memory, but far more often than not, I'd forget them before I could get to my guitar, where I could record it to my laptop. With a portable recorder, you're able to take full advantage of those moments when the muse strikes.
Portability is also critical if you or your band goes on tours. Unless you're in a band signed to a major label, you're likely traveling in a cramped van and sleeping on strangers' floors or in the van. If you're lucky, you might be able to afford a hotel room. The only time you'll be able to play your music is when you're on stage. There won't be space or time to find a rehearsal space to work on new music. However, touring is a great experience full of inspiration. I often found that I was most inspired when on the road, but I rarely had the opportunity to exercise this inspiration. A digital recorder is an excellent tool for making sure you don't lose any of those inspired moments.
The next advantage is multitrack recording. When you walk into a recording studio, one of the first things to catch your attention is the large mixing console. These consoles can have a hundred or more tracks or channels that record and mix music. However, every song only has two tracks a left track and a right track. So all these tracks are mixed to a single stereo track. Most digital voice recorders only record to that one track, which limits your ability to experiment with layers and riffs. The best digital voice recorders have up to eight tracks per audio file. To put this into perspective, some the greatest music by bands like The Beatles was recorded on four-track machines.
The best portable recorders also include XLR/TRS inputs for recording with additional microphones and instruments. This allows you to plug your guitar directly into the portable recorder. You don't need to use an amplifier. With XLR/TRS inputs, it's easier to experiment with riffs and chord progressions, especially in environments where you don't have the luxury of playing loudly, like in the middle of the night in an apartment. And with the multitrack recording, you can record the guitar to one track and the vocals to another track, and then you can mix the tracks together for the optimal sound.
You should also consider features that help with the songwriting process. The best digital voice recorders include features like metronomes to help you keep time and tuners to help you stay in tune. With many handheld recorders, you can even add effects like reverb or slow and speed up the audio without affecting the pitch, which is an excellent way of experimenting with how a melody will sound at a different tempo.
Every songwriter should have a handheld recorder in his or her songwriting toolbox. Handheld recorders are like portable recording studios that allow you to work on your songs wherever you are and whenever the muse strikes you. You'll never have to worry about losing a melody again.