What is workflow?

Workflow is a term I use a lot, and I use it with a quite specific meaning.

When I use the term ‘workflow’, I’m usually referring to project workflow – a series of processes or stages that a piece of work goes through from initiation to completion.

For example, a typical workflow for a song might be something like this:

  1. Preproduction + Initial vocal demo recording
  2. Instrumentation (bass and drums)
  3. Instrumentation (guitars and keyboards)
  4. Final vocal recording
  5. Edit + mix

Each stage is clearly-defined, having a purpose and outcome. Some stages require particular equipment or people.

With experience, you can establish the needs of a project and determine what workflow is best. Not all projects will require all the above stages. Some projects will require other stages. Some projects are particularly complex and require long workflows for each song. Other projects might be simpler and require fewer stages.

Once a workflow has ben established for each song on a production project, the next steps are to determine how much time each stage requires and to schedule each session. If your plans are realistic, you should be able to spell out exactly what tasks are being done, when they’re being done, and when the whole lot will be finished.

If you do this well, you’ll bring a high level of predictability to your work (your project outcomes – not your music!). In turn, predictability gives you much better control over your projects. With a well-established project plan, you can suddenly provide reasonable answers to these kinds of questions:

  • How much later will I finish if I want to record more instrumentalists?
  • If I get sick for a week, how long will it take for me to catch up and get back on schedule?
  • If I want some extra help with post-production (editing, mixing, mastering, etc), when can I start asking for that help?
  • If I’m likely to find some extra time in a couple of months, how can I schedule my work to be able to take advantage of any extra sessions?
  • What compromises do I need to make if I want to add another song to the album without pushing out the release date?

Magic!

-Kim.

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Endless revisionism

What’s the difference between making one change and making twenty changes after a song is finished?

Here’s a hint: It’s a smaller difference than the difference between making no changes and making one change.

Endless revisionism is a killer for productivity. Most commonly, it’s a killer for completion. Every now and then I’ll see a project (thankfully not my own!) get dragged out way beyond the planned completion date because someone in charge doesn’t know when to stop. It’s a lack of discipline – there’s a discipline is making yourself do the work, and there’s also a discipline in making yourself stop. Without that discipline, it’s all too easy to make one more change. Tweak one more thing. Make one more adjustment.

Here’s the trap: There’s no such thing as ‘just one more adjustment’. Never ever. As a musician or producer or engineer, you’re always developing your skills. You’re always getting better. You’ll always be able to improve on past work.

If you allow yourself to break your workflow to make one more adjustment, you open the floodgates of endless revisionism. You’ll allow yourself to make the second change for the same reason you allowed yourself the first change.

Endless revisionism can have disastrous effects on projects:

  • Projects seemingly go on forever. They turn into the project management equivalent of an amorphous blob – with no clear size or shape. If you don’t know when this project will end, you can’t schedule any following work such as marketing or further production projects.
  • Projects lose creative direction and focus. The longer you direct a project, the more likely it is that your tastes in music will shift and evolve. You can quite easily find yourself working to a direction and creating music that you’re no longer excited about. This is insidious because the shift is usually gradual, so you’ll think you can shoehorn the project into a *slightly* different creative direction. This creates more work, which lengthens the project, which widens the creative direction gap, which triggers the cycle again…
  • Career goals shift. You might start a project as a solo album, but by the end of it you might really want to work on collaborations with other people. Or you might join a band, but later realise you want to go solo. If projects take too long, you can easily find yourself being held back by commitments you made twelve months ago (or longer!).

Maybe it’s not such a problem if you’re a hobbyist who just wants to have fun playing around with plugins, but it’s a different matter if you’re trying to get things done and build a career.

In order to avoid the trap of endless revisionism, you need to accept that any recording is a snapshot in time. It will never be the state of the art – it’s a record. It’s a record of a point in time. You also need to have a clear workflow so you know how much time to give yourself on each task.

-Kim.

PS. Also, be aware that some cases of endless revisionism are actually the result of deeper psychological issues – particularly low self-esteem and a compulsion to impress others. I can’t offer any generic psychological advice on this blog.

Kitchen Consultation: Matthieu Michaux – El Niño

This consultation has been published with the kind permission of Matthieu Michaux: http://nonnativespeakers.net/

Download or listen to the song ‘El Niño’ here:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8068578/Kitchen/Non-Native%20Speakers%20-%20First%20Words%20-%2001%20El%20Ni%C3%B1o.mp3

–==–

Composition

I like the spacey vibe in this track. It reminds me of some of my own sonic art explorations from a few years back.

I think, however, that it could do with a bit more compositional organisation. At the moment it comes across as a collection of good ideas that meander about somewhat aimlessly. Part of the problem is the melodic themes you use are not very prominent – they come across as background parts because they are cyclic and repetitive (also because the sound is quite diffuse, but I’ll discuss that later).

One thing I think you could do to improve the track is to make sure it has a recognisable main theme. You wouldn’t need to add anything new – you’ve already got enough material there. You’d just need to present it in a way that makes it clear.

You’ve got some good melodic patterns and motifs – try to develop them into something longer, with a sense of shape (contour!) and purpose (direction and momentum!). It doesn’t have to be a full-blown Andrew Lloyd-Webber melody, but something that is a bit more substantial than what you’ve currently got.

The melodies at 4:28 and 4:49 are prime material for developing into something bigger.

Mix

It might sound strange to hear, but I think your mix could do with more depth. At the moment, it’s got a lovely ambience, but there doesn’t seem to be much distinction between the foreground and background. There are a few bits and pieces in the background, but it seems most of the instruments are roughly the same distance from the listener.

Part of the confusion could be reduced by bringing the melodic elements further forward (consider both the level and treatment). Make room to hear the background parts through the gaps in the foreground. Adding some appropriately-treated delays would work well to add a sense of distance and space.

I also feel the need to point out the stereo width of the gnarly synth bass. I realise it’s a key part of the character of the track and it’s the kind of sound that is often restricted by genre choice. Still, I suggest reconsidering the stereo width – not for technical reasons of mono cancellation or phase coherence, but of listener focus.

If the synth bass is a foreground part, it will have more focus and punch if it is mono. If it is meant to be a background part, it should be much more diffuse. I think its current stereo width actually detracts from the sense of space and make the whole mix feel smaller. Think of it as there being no space around the synth bass – no matter how big the synth bass is, the whole mix is not (much) bigger than it.

It also makes the synth bass sound itself quite empty (more so on headphones than speakers). If you want the sound to be important, put it upfront and make it focussed and punchy. You wouldn’t make a kick drum or snare drum super-wide, so why do it to your bass?

–==–

This is an example of a single Kitchen consultation. If you would find this kind of feedback useful for your own music, get in touch with me.

– $20 will get you one consultation (basically the same as this example, but in private, with your music).

– $50 will get you three consultations or one studio demo (where I do an example edit or mix of your music to better demonstrate how some concepts would apply to your music)

– $100 will get you seven consultations or two studio demos.

The consultations can be for multiple songs or multiple revisions of one song. It’s up to you.

You can read more about the Kitchen here: http://kimlajoie.com/site/kitchen.html

When you’re ready, send me an email to kitchen at kimlajoie dot com.

-Kim.

Get the plan right at the start

Know what you’re doing, before you do it.

Actually, it’s a bit like seeing into the future. Except you get to choose what happens in the future.

Ok, seriously, it’s called project planning, and any undertaking of more than a few hours can benefit from having a plan. A project plan can range from a single to-do list in a text document to a sophisticated methodology with complex dependencies and dimensions.

“But I’m an artist! I work organically! I take a new approach for everything I do!” Well, first you have to separate (in your mind) the creative work from the workflow. It’s quite possible to be creative and innovative while working within a clearly-defined project structure. Having a project plan doesn’t have to stifle your creativity. In fact, it can allow you to be more creative because you’re not worrying as much about other things. For example:

  • A project plan allows you to use your time more effectively. It can help you make sure you get your work done on time and avoid wasting hours (or days or weeks) on tasks that won’t make a significant impact on the final song that your listeners hear.
  • A project plan also helps you make – and keep – reasonable promises. This is particularly important when you’re working with other people. Knowing what progress you’ll have made at any point in the future will enable you to easily coordinate your work with a collaborator’s work or availability.
Without a project plan, you run the risk of the following death traps:
  • Losing track of your goal. This is common for long projects – especially projects that are longer than anything you’ve previously worked on. Without clear direction and tracking, it’s very easy to find yourself halfway through making something different to what you set out to do.
  • Endless revisionism. This is a real sink-hole for time and creativity. Even the slightest perfectionism is amplified by digital technology – the ability to tweak and adjust and update, and the always-available instant recall of computer DAWs. When you get lost in endless revisionism, who’s going to tell you when enough is enough?
  • Constant crisis. Without taking the time to clearly establish the scope of a project at the beginning, it’s easy to keep adding more and more tasks without thinking about how it will impact the timeline or resources. This results in crunch time when you realise you’ve committed to more than you can comfortably achieve.
  • Lower quality work. This can easily happen if you set yourself a deadline but don’t plan out the in-between work with enough detail. In these situations, it’s common to get about 60-%70% through before realising that there’s too much work to do in the remaining time. In this case you can either extend the timeline, work harder, or reduce the scope of the work.
I’ll go into more detail about project plans and workflow in later posts.

-Kim.

Don’t just play with yourself

There’s a lot of value to be gained in working with others. Even if you’re a solo artist, you don’t have to limit your musical expression to just what’s in your head. Collaborating with other people can bring a number of benefits over working strictly on your own.

  • Covering each other’s weaknesses. I’ve written about this before. There are many tasks and activities involved in music production. Surely there are some you enjoy more (and are more skilled at) than others. What if you could spend more time doing the tasks you enjoy and less of the tasks you don’t? You’d probably enjoy the overall production process more. What if you could spend more time doing the tasks that you’re best at, and someone else did the tasks you’re not so good at? The end result would probably be of a higher quality overall.
  • New fresh influences. I’m not just talking about styles and instrumentation – there’s a lot you can do to expand your musical horizons by exposing yourself to a wide variety of music. Actually working with someone, however, takes it to another level. Not only do you explore each other’s taste in music from the perspective of the end result, but you are also exposed to each other’s work style and processes. With a good partnership, not only will you expand the way you think about music, but you’ll expand the way you think about making music.
  • Create something you wouldn’t have created on your own. This is related to the previous point. Not only will you learn new things about making music, but you’ll also create a new kind of end result. This will be new music that neither of you would have created on your own. Sometimes this can take the form of a combination of two clear styles. For example, if your main style is hard house and you collaborate with someone who’s main style is funky house, you’ll likely end up with something between both, containing elements of each. Sometimes, however, the end result can be something that neither of you could have predicted. This is especially true when one or both of you have a wide range of musical skills and stylistic appreciation.
  • Reach a new audience. A collaborative release will be of interest to fans of all the collaborators. If there’s not much crossover already, there’s a great potential to reach new listeners who’d appreciate your music. Of course, this depends on how different your style is to your collaborator’s style. You can expect a greater fan influx from a hard house / funky house collaboration than an acoustic folk / abstract electronica collaboration. It also depends on how open-minded the fans are. Most people aren’t just interested in one style of music. It’s a bit fuzzy, but you can get a sense of how open-minded an artist’s fans are by the degree of genre-pigeonholeing that happens to the artist. The less defined-by-genre or defining-of-genre an artist is, the more receptive their fans will be to new musical experiences.
Hopefully that’ll give you some ideas and inspiration for working with other people! Go on – pick up the phone, open up your email. Reach out and make contact!
-Kim.

Free guide for email subscribers – Texture, Dynamics and Structure

Just a quick heads up to my email subscribers – next Monday/Tuesday (depending on your time zone) you’ll be receiving another free guide and asking a favour from anyone in London or Berlin.

The guide is called ‘Texture, Dynamics and Structure’, and covers a *lot* of ground:

  • Texture
  • Harshness / Smoothness
  • Denseness / Sparseness
  • Heaviness / Lightness
  • Stability / Instability
  • Foreground / Background
  • Intensity
  • Dynamics
  • Structure
    • Exposition
    • Development
    • Recapitulation
  • In Use
    • Variation
    • Contrast
    • Buildups
    • Excitement
  • Taking It Further
    • Contour
    • Development
    • Momentum
    • Expectation

    As with my other guides, the content is not a simple rehash of my blog posts – it’s been written as a whole, designed to go into more detail than these blog posts and link the various concepts together.

    -Kim.

    Why mastering is so delicate

    Mastering is no playground. Of the entire production workflow, mastering is the most critical and fragile stage. It’s also the easiest to screw up. I don’t mean that to discourage you or put you off, but to warn you to be careful. Generally, there are three reasons to be careful about mastering.

    Intense listening

    Of all the production stages, mastering requires the most intense listening. It’s the most demanding of your cognitive capabilities and the most draining. You’ll probably find that you get tired faster when mastering, compared to most other production activities (such as recording or mixing).

    Keeping this in mind, I suggest scheduling mastering work in the morning. This is when your ears are fresh and clear. It’s also when you have the most energy to devote to the task. If you’re mastering when tired, you’re more likely to overlook details that normally wouldn’t escape your notice.

    Detailed work

    Mastering also requires the most detailed work. You might not worry about 0.5dB when adjusting the EQ on your guitar amp, but in mastering a 0.5dB change might require very careful consideration. This is because theres no such thing as an isolated adjustment in mastering – every change to a mixdown’s tone or dynamics affects multiple instruments (and psychoacoustic aspects) of the song.

    Because of this, I suggest approaching mastering in the same way a doctor approaches a patient – “First, do no harm”. Start by listening. Then listen some more. Think about what you might adjust, but keep listening. Make the adjustment, and then listen more. Also, try to keep the adjustments subtle. Mastering is not the place for dramatic processing.

    No safety net

    Mastering is the most critical stage of production – it’s the very last stage of processing that your song will undergo. It’s the last chance to make it sound good. Or conversely, it’s the last chance to screw it up. Once mastering is complete, that’s it. You can’t smooth over any mistakes without going back and doing it again. There’s no opportunity to fine-tune the sound any further. When you finish mastering, what you hear is what your listeners will hear.

    This is why it’s so important to be careful when mastering! You must do everything you can to make the finished product the best it can be. That means taking the time to get it right. Don’t take shortcuts, don’t settle for ‘good enough’. There’s no safety net – this is where the buck stops.

    -Kim.