When you play on a recording session, a lot of factors are under the control of other people - the producer, the songwriter, whoever is in charge of the project. When working for yourself, there are no such restrictions, and anything goes. With this freedom, however, comes responsibility.
Apart from co-writing lyrics and melodies with my wife Donna, most of my composing is done alone. I find an idea that could be turned into a full-blown piece of music, and work on it until I have something I'm happy with. Sometimes it will be a melody or riff that I add to, sometimes a chord progression or even something on another instrument. On other occasions, however, an idea for a song will come bursting into my mind with all parts complete, ready to go. When this happens, the race is on to get all the bits recorded as a demo before I forget the song. As I have a system that I am pretty fast and efficient at when putting stuff down, this is when the computer usually crashes the most. You get that.
When doing everything yourself, you have complete artistic freedom, and are responsible for every beat, every note. It's a lot of fun and (when things go right) very gratifying, but it is also very important to self-regulate and be honest with yourself when it comes to what is working and what is not working when it comes to the individual parts. For a song or piece of music to reach its maximum potential, function must balance with form, virtuosity must balance with accessibility. Quite often, my original idea, imagined as the mainstay of the piece, will wind up as a contributing part in the bigger picture that emerges as the track takes shape. Every tune is different, and each has its unique creative process as it comes into being. There are no set rules for this, so keeping an open mind to change and improvement is of the essence. The song comes first. I have written songs that have no featured guitar solo because the song didn't need it, and wound up with a great song as a result. I didn't lose a solo - I gained a great song.
Of course, when you are writing and recording rock music for a rock band to perform, you had better have a fair idea of how all the instruments work. You can program most instruments that you can't play, but there are a few that just don't quite cut it as samples. I play most of the parts on most of my demos and releases, with the exception of drums. Firstly, I suck at drums. Can't play 'em. Secondly, drums are loud and require more space than I have. Therefore, I have studied a great many drummers, and even got drummers to write out feels and fills so that I knew exactly how they were played. Getting programmed drums to sound good is a separate blog unto itself, but suffice it to say that it is worth the attention to detail if you are serious about programming drums (or any instrument, really) for a commercial release. I have become a fairly passable bass player, and have enough keyboard chops to get the job done, although more complex parts are usually programmed with the same attention to detail as the drum parts. Please note - Getting friends in to play parts is usually the best option when possible, but this blog is about flying solo, so I'm concentrating on flying solo here.
The best way to master the DIY approach to writing and recording is to dive in, make mistakes, learn about the process and about yourself. Don't get too set in your ideas until you find things that really work for you, and even then, be ready to accept change if a better method or idea presents itself. When I was mixing and mastering our last two EPs, I spent a lot of time online reading about various engineers' approaches to the all-important art of finalising a recording project. I learned a lot, and it improved me as a musician, recording engineer, mixing engineer and mastering engineer. There are still many things I have to master (see what I did there?) about this, but my results have been pleasing, and I'm happy with what I've done. There is a lot to consider when going it alone through the writing/recording process, and it may or may not be for you, but there's one way to find out. If you find that it's your thing, it can be very rewarding.