Developing a functional workflow is THE most underrated part of the music production process in my opinion.
A good workflow gives us the frame work to let our creativity run wild, while allowing us to move confidently forward by making decision that build on one another, and not questioning their validity unnecessarily later down the line.
As such, a good work flow also means knowing when to make which decisions. For example, because mixing builds on the process of arrangement, a piece of music should ideally be arranged, before it is mixed.
In business, “time is money” as they say, which I would rephrase as “time is creative capital”, in the creative process. The more time we spend questioning decisions, the more subjective we become, and the more subjective we become, the less we will be sure to have made the right decision. A good work flow allows us to work fast, maintaining a quasi objective state of mind as long as possible.
Furthermore, a well placed decision early on gives direction to the process, thus making all follow up decisions much easier to make. As a consequence we work faster, are more confident about our decisions, and we will make better music.
On the other hand it also means that, if we are indeed unhappy with a decision later down the line, figuring out when this decision was made, and why we are not happy with the result, will be very clear, making it much more straight forward to avoid the same unproductive decision in the future.
I would even go as far as saying that a good workflow is more important than using certain tools. If a tool makes the process more difficult, no matter how expensive it is and how good it sounds, we should get rid of it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every decision we make needs to be set in stone. If we get a burst of inspiration about the arrangement after the track is already mixed, the idea needs to be tried out. It is simply important to keep in mind that this might require the track to be mixed again, as the presentation of the material may need to be portrayed differently.
So let’s look at a few examples, why they are good to adopt, and when they could feature in the creative process.
Prep work: getting rid of distractions for a relaxed state of mind, allowing uninterrupted creative flow:
Song Writing, Recording, Production:
- Stable computer system. Getting rid of buggy plugins and software
- Working through Facebook, emails and phone calls outside of the creative hours
- Working with DAW templates, color coding, etc.
- A solid selection of reference tracks
- A reference of sonic textures helps us shape our taste and get our material right at the source
- Determine BPM of the track
- The song speed greatly influences the groove, and the ebb and flow of the music. The earlier you can nail this one down, the better. Experiment with different BPMs once you’ve got a basic arrangement going, then stick to it.
- Export track versions to listen to outside the production environment (car, MP3 player, etc.)
- Listen to and feel the emotional journey of the music. Ultimately this is what great music comes down to. Doing so outside the production environment makes it much easier.
- Writing down ideas while listening to the entire track, then work through the list
- Focus on your gut feelings, your instincts. Avoid forgetting good ideas.
- Testing tracks in the club/Playing it to a select audience
- Do listeners respond as intended? Does the arrangement work? Is listener attention directed to the important elements?
- Bouncing midi to wav/Exporting single tracks before mixing/Mixing in a different project
- Its all about locking down our earlier decisions. We made them for a good reason, remember? No point in giving us the possibility to question them again.
- Gain Staging
- Mitigate clipping or unwanted distortion
- Test mix in the club/Playing to a select audience
- Does the mix work? Do listeners respond as intended? Is listener attention directed to the important elements?
- Compare the master to the mix at equal loudness
- Has something been compromised, like transients and punch? How much has the balance changed, are quite elements, like reverb, too loud now?
- Test master in the club
- Does the master translate better than the mix? Has the intensity increased?
Their are hundreds of these workflow tricks out there. Depending on which part of the process you focus on and what your strengths and weaknesses are, some may be more useful than others. Sonicscoop has a great article
on some more work flow tricks, that my peers use.
Ultimately though, the more of these we discover for ourselves and the better they are integrated into a full process, the faster and more effectively we will work and the better our music will sound and feel. I guarantee it.