Different types of workflows (with examples)

When planning a workflow for a song or other recording project, it helps to approach the production process as three distinct stages:

  1. Preproduction. This includes writing, rehearsing and refining the song. It also includes setting the creative direction and making decisions around sound and feel. It can also include deciding on matters like who is playing each part, and choosing a studio and engineer. Essentially, preproduction includes everything up to the point where the recording engineer hits the Big Red Button.
  2. Recording. This is the process of capturing the sounds that make up the song. Creatively, it includes the performances themselves as well as the decisions made by the producer and engineer to capture the sounds in a certain way. Choices around instruments, room treatment, miss, mic positioning, processing and recording media all play a part.
  3. Postproduction. This is the process of taking the recordings and presenting them as a stereo (or surround) sound that people can listen to. It includes editing, mixing and mastering.
Obviously, these lines are often blurred by the proliferation of accessible equipment and knowledge. While in the past each stage required different people with different skills and equipment, It’s now common for a single person to undertake all three stages with the same set of equipment. What’s more, the stages may not follow sequentially any more – for example, new parts can be written after others have been recorded, mixing can begin even while the song or track is being written and parts can be recorded as part of the writing process or even after mixdown.

Today’s tools are much more flexible, allowing our workflows to be much more flexible. Clearly this brings increases the freedom with which we express ourselves.

On the other hand, it becomes much more important to clearly define our workflow. Without having a clear workflow, it’s too easy to get lost in the processes. Most commonly, one of two things happen:

  • The process descends into endless revisionism. Even after a song is finished, it’s easy to make further edits, record more parts or even substantially change the structure of the song. By getting trapped in endless revisionism, a song is never ‘done’, and you’ll always feel insecure that it may not represent your ‘best’ work.
  • Decisions have little weight. When anything can be fixed later, it’s easy to postpone decisions. This can take the form of keeping dozens of takes or recording dry and never committing to a sound. This actually erodes your problem-solving capabilities. Each time you defer a small decision early on, you actually make your future self’s job more difficult. It’s like housework – the longer you put it off, the bigger and more difficult it gets.

So what kind of workflows are there?

Each artist is different and each project is different. To design an effective and appropriate workflow for a project, you need to consider the steps you want to take in producing a song.

Example 1

You might want to create a recording that has a live, organic feel. To achieve this, you’ll need to focus on writing and rehearsing, but you won’t need to spend much time on postproduction. Such a workflow might look like this:

  1. Initial writing (on paper!)
  2. Preproduction with producer or band
  3. Rehearsal with band or instrumentalists
  4. Recording
  5. Mixing

Notice that 60% of the production process happens before anyone start recording. By keeping the song in your head or scrawled on paper, you retain a fluid flexibility and openness to development that’s different to what happens when a song is recorded.

Example 2

You might want to take more of a remix-style approach to writing your tracks. To achieve this, you’ll want to start recording early so that you can chop up and rearrange performances as part of the composition process. Such a workflow might look like this:

  1. Initial idea sketch in sequencer
  2. Vocal recording
  3. Composition and instrumentation
  4. Instrumentation (perhaps with further recording)
  5. Mixing

Notice that this process makes use of the sequencer right from the beginning. If it’s being mixed in the same environment, some plugins or settings may be retained from the initial sketch all the way to the final mix. Also consider that with this workflow, the vocalist is not performing to the final track – s/he is singing without knowing what the end result will sound like. Normally this might result in a weaker performance, but that doesn’t matter here because the vocal recording will be chopped up and rearranged. This rearrangement will be a significant characteristic of the final product.

Example 3

You might have some external constraints on how you organise your time. For example, you might have access to your vocalist for only a short period of time to record several songs. In this situation, a workflow like this might make sense:

  1. Initial songwriting
  2. Rehearsal with instrumentalists/band
  3. Recording instrumentalists/band
  4. Recording vocals
  5. Mixing
In this scenario, sessions 1-4 would be completed for all songs before the vocalist would be required. Then the vocals could be recorded for all the songs in a focussed series of sessions.

Example 4

You might be working with an artist that is quite capable of writing and recording their own songs, but they need your help with composition advice. S/he might also wish to have the final mix done by a professional in a properly-treated room. In this situation, this kind of workflow would make sense:

  1. Preproduction
  2. Mixing

For this situation, the workflow (for you, as a producer!) is much shorter because the artist will be writing and recording in their own time. This approach often makes sense when you’re working with a particularly capable artist (or a low-budget artist).

Example 5

You might be working with an artist that has some very elaborate ideas but needs your help to realise them. S/he might already have the song written, but wants to explore different ideas and approaches with your guiding hand. In this situation, a workflow like this might makes sense;

  1. Initial demo vocal recording
  2. Instrumentation
  3. Instrumentation
  4. Instrumentation
  5. Final vocal recording
  6. Editing / mixing

In this situation, the initial vocal recording is used as a guide and template. The following three sessions would consist of writing and recording different instrumental parts. The vocals are recorded again in session 5 so that the vocalist can deliver an emotional and well-prepared performances that responds to the almost-final version of the song.

Hopefully that provides some more detail about how workflow planning can work in practice. Obviously, these five examples are just starting points – it’s up to you to figure out how you will go about producing a song. And as always, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You’ll get it wrong before you get it right. But you’ll only get it right if you’re not afraid to get it wrong.

-Kim.

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    • carlos darkstar
    • October 13th, 2011

    wanted to thank you for all the really helpful info, it is been really helpful on my projects…

  1. @carlos darkstar
    Cheers! Glad you find it useful!

    -Kim.

  2. After completing a record around 2000 using Adats, etc. I’ve decided that I want to do another. The home studio revolution touched me. But even so, having only so much time, (and money) I’ve decided that I still need somebody else to mix and engineer the tracks. But how to accomplish that? Some of the stuff in my own rough mixes is of use… and obviously some of the stuff isn’t. For exaple, how does one ensure that keeping the freeware compressor on the kick does not also mean that freeware compressor has to be –frozen- on the rest of the drums when sent to be mixed? Obviously the mix engineer won’t have all of the same plugins at his disposal as I do, and I certainly won’t have all of his/hers, and freezing tracks won’t work either because if my reverb sounds great on the guitar permanently it may not be right on the backup vocals. I guess I don’t understand the workflow when there are two mixing environments — my initial rough mix, and then the engineers polished one. Could you elaborate on how this works? In other words, when I released that last record, I was taught to always leave options open, but now, to use the plugins I have in my mixing environment, one would need to freeze the tracks and make those plugins permanent. What am I missing?

  3. @soulsearchersbeats
    You’d definitely have to discuss the details with your mix engineer. When I mix for clients who have done their own recording and production, I often ask that all the plugins be kept as-is, but with delay and reverb effects removed (unless they’re a part of the creative sound design for a particular track). I’ll then sometimes ask for some raw tracks if there have been some instances where too much compression or distortion was used.

    -Kim.

  4. Hi I like your blog.

    One thing I learned from my work in a telecomms/IT area is that

    “You can get 80% of work completed in 20% of the time available, the last 20% will get completed in 80% of the remaining time”
    What is important to do is to decide how much of the last 20% really needs to be done perfectly, so you don’t spend all your time trying to reach absolute perfection.
    Regards

    Ian

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