Most days, I just start making a new song in Reaper without any forethought whatsoever. I'm not saying this is a good thing but this is what I do.
I open Reaper and I load in a drum set and a bass synth.
The bass synth is a recent improvement to my system. I used to think bass was not that important and could easily sound annoying if overdone so I under-did the shit out of my bass. Sometimes that meant not doing it at all but usually it meant bass parts that were played too quiet or EQed so you couldn't feel the bass in them. This was some dumbass behavior and I finally decided to tackle it. I load in ReaSynth. I have a preset saved that's just a sine wave with a lower sine wave playing under it. I distort that just a little and make it pretty loud. Bass is important but it doesn't need to be a clever sound.
The drums are from various old grooveboxes saved onto SF2 format and mapped into General MIDI. I do most of my music composition on the piano roll and always have and so I feel like general MIDI is a pretty comfortable setup for easily writing and reading MIDI drum parts. I feed them into a heavy compressor just like I've been doing for the past two and a half years because it sounds awesome. I hear drum sounds like this on real albums by Franz Ferdinand and They Might Be Giants so I don't think I'm doing anything wrong with this method. It sounds pretty good.
But why did I get all defensive about my drum sounds just now? What is going on here? Nobody's been impressed with my drum sounds until I started adding bass parts. Years ago, I read a really convincing-sounding reddit post about how you can avoid ever having your bass and your kick get in the way of each other by not having your bass and kick ever play at the same time-- and this will avoid the muddy bass problem so many people have. Me am smart. Me barely have bass at all! Bass will not conflict with kick drum. Me have thumpiest kick drums around. teehee ho ho. I'm dumb as hell and I do a lot of terribly wrong shit that I'm sure if I put in writing, someone would be like "I think this is why you will not make good music the way you do it."
Anyway, with the kinds of drum samples I'm using, pairing most of the drum hits with bass notes sounds great. Suddenly the drums sound amazing. Suddenly the fake guitars I'd been using for years sounded lush and fantastic. The two sine waves at the bottom of everything I'd been doing made it sound good.
And so I have my fantastic fundamental sounds setup? What do I do? Something cliched immediately. I put a kick-snare-kick-snare with some swing on a kick and I lay down a I-IV-vi-IV or a I-IV-vi-V over it and I try to come up with stuff to make it sound cool.
I like to find the first drafts of my melodies using the notes in the chord progression, picking contours out of the rhythms I create when I lay down a piano part or try to do something clever with the bassline. Sometimes I throw out the bassline and write a new one based on the melody. I just sort of hammer away at it until I have something cool-sounding and simple but not too simple.
Then I record vocals. If I can't come up with good ideas for lyrics, I just record them anyway. Sometimes I rerecord better ones. Other times I just go "eh" and leave the bad lyrics in. Sometimes I change my mind about how "eh" the lyrics are and decide I was on to something. I like to sing the songs in my life and refine the melody and lyrics that way so sometimes I do that before re-recording them. It's not a perfect system.
After vocals, I zero the whole mix. That is, I bring the whole mix down to zero and I bring the vocals up to like -7 and I start bringing in the other tracks up around it. (Bass and drums come right after the vocal. They need to have a good balance first and everything else needs to fit with them.) Sometimes it takes multiple zeroes. Other times, the process is like "Gee whillikers."
I could probably have written this blog post better or proofread it but I want to do something else now and I'm worried that if I don't hit publish now, I'll just procrastinate on it forever. Maybe I'll edit it or update it later. Maybe I won't. It's not a perfect system. I'm working on it and your criticism is welcome.