Posts Tagged ‘ Workflow ’

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.


What’s the difference between workflow and project management?

As concepts, project management and workflow are similar and related concepts, but they’re not interchangeable. They’re not the same thing.

When I discuss workflow, I’m discussing the order or tasks required to reach a goal such as recording a song. Usually a workflow is short and general enough that it can be applied over and over again. For example, a workflow for a recording song might be used ten or twelve times for an album. It’s often a repeatable series of steps that has worked in the past and is likely to work in the future.

Workflow is extremely useful because it provides a degree of measurability and predictability to the production process. It allows you to determine how long it’ll take to complete a piece of work. It will help you schedule the work so that you have a high degree of confidence that it’ll be complete within the expected timeframe.

Project management, on the other hand, is about taking care of the bigger picture. I see it as two sets of activities:

  1. Planning and coordinating. This includes balancing cost and time requirements for different components of the project, recruiting and coordinating people, negotiating arrangements with partner businesses and tracking progress against the plan. Planning and coordinating needs to be done in full knowledge of the time and resource constraints of the project. This is the easy part.
  2. Responding to changes. All projects have hiccups. Humans are beautiful and messy and often unpredictable. Responding to changes can include activities that are primarily ‘mechanical’ – such as rebalancing resources, readjusting schedules and even changing the scope and outcomes of the project. It’s important to understand, however, that responding to changes often requires a human component too. Your artists and collaborators and partners are human beings and have feelings and desires and fears and you need to be mindful of this at all times. When plans change, people can feel hurt or disappointed. They might feel responsible (whether real or imagined). They probably have a different impression of you than you do of yourself – and the less you communicate the greater that difference will be.



Don’t build a structure by just muting/unmuting parts

It’s pretty tempting.

You’ve spent days developing your utterly brilliant eight-bar loop.It sounds full and thick. All your EQs and compressors are perfectly set. It almost makes you want to get up and dance.

But it’s only sixteen seconds long.

And you didn’t want to make a sixteen second song. You want to stretch it out over five minutes. So first you duplicate your eight bars until it fills five minutes. That’s almost twenty repetitions. And your eight bars already has a lot of repetition in it. So you start muting parts. Let the intro be pretty sparse. Then bring in some more synths. Then the kick drum. Then drop it all away for a bit. Then build up and suddenly drop everything in. Sit on that groove for a minute or so, then tear back the layers until the track ends.

That’s how it goes, doesn’t it?

Except the end result is a bit lacklustre. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s not *special*. Maybe add a few whooshes, a few risers, tweak things a bit here and there… And then what?

The problem is that you’re still thinking in layers. You’re hearing the music as a stack of simultaneous components. You’re arranging your musical ideas by layering them on top of each other. Most listeners, however, hear music as a sequence of sections or landmarks. They prefer to hear musical ideas one ofter the other. In other words, you’re thinking vertically and your listeners are thinking horizontally. You think you’ve got five minutes of music, but your listeners are hearing the same sixteen seconds twenty times.

The solution is not in how you mute or unmute your parts. It’s not in where you added your whooshes and risers. It’s not even in the way you set your EQs and compressors. The solution is in changing your workflow of building a track by stacking musical ideas on top of each other.

Try to build your initial musical ideas side by side. Think about developing sections (you don’t have to worry about the order at first). Give yourself more than sixteen seconds to express your musical ideas. Develop several different ideas, and then put them in the blender. See what happens when you mix and match them. Build some transitions from one section to the next.

And then – once you’ve got some reasonably well-developed musical material – you can start to assemble the structure of the track. Pay particular attention to the contour of the track. This is the time to think about rates of change, primary and secondary themes, listener expectations, momentum, etc. The key difference is that if your starting with a lot more musical material, you have a *lot* more scope for doing interesting things with your track. Your ideas are the building blocks. You don’t have to use all of them, but you’ll be glad you gave yourself the options.


Workflow for collaborative projects

Workflow for collaborative projects is different to workflow for solo projects. When you’ve got two or more people involved, you need to be more careful about how you balance the workload and manage the sequence of tasks. For example, a typical workflow for a collaborative project might look like this:

  1. Preproduction / demo
  2. Initial vocal recording
  3. Instrumentation
  4. Instrumentation
  5. Final vocal recording
  6. Edit+mix

You will need to know ahead of time whether you need your collaborator for the preproduction/demo session, and whether this can be combined with the initial vocal recording. You’ll also need to know whether the final vocal recording will take a whole session for the song. If it will only take half a session (or less), there might be an opportunity to save time by recording final vocals for two songs in a single session – if you can sequence your sessions correctly.

The same considerations apply if you’re using other musicians to assist you in the instrumentation sessions. It might make sense to record guitars or percussion for several songs in a single session. To make this work, however, you need a good estimate of how much work is required for each song. You’ll also need to sequence your sessions so that you have the songs available at the appropriate stage when your musician comes to the studio.

Working on each song in parallel

For particularly complex projects, it can make sense to work on every song in parallel, and progress them in lock-step. This mean, for example, that you’d do the preproduction and demo recording for all the songs before starting to recording initial vocals. Then you’d record initial vocals for all the songs before moving forward to record additional instruments.

This can be particularly effective if you are coordinating several people and they are only available to you for a limited period of time. There are, however, some drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, the rate of progress at each stage is limited by the least-productive team member. That means you (and any other faster workers) will be sitting on your hands while you wait for the slower member(s) to finish their bit. This can be particularly significant when musicians or artists need several weeks (or more!) to rehearse a song before recording it.

The other drawback is increased existential risk to the project. Quite simply, working in this way means there might be much less to salvage if a key team member leaves the project partway through. If production of an album stalls halfway through, would you rather have twelve half-finished songs or six finished songs?

Working on each song in series

The opposite approach is to work on each song one by one. This means that you’re not waiting on one song before you can progress another one. It also means your musicians and artists can have a comfortable period of time between recording sessions for rehearsing and preparing.

This approach works particularly well when you are working with people who need considerable preparation between sessions – either because the demands of the contribution are high (eg writing evocative lyrics or performing expressive lead vocals), or because your collaborators have other projects and life commitments that prevent them from devoting large blocks of intensely focussed time.

Where this approach falls short, however, is that your collaborators need to be committed to the project for the long haul. Your whole project relies on your artist or musicians showing up every week, having done their homework. Someone taking a surprise overseas trip for several months (yes, it happens!) can disrupt everything.

The other drawback is consistency. If you’re in constant practice, your skills and abilities are constantly improving. For a project that spans twelve months or more, you might have an album that sounds disjointed or fractured. Your vocalist’s abilities are improving. Your recording and mixing skills are improving. Your musical taste and creative direction are evolving.

So which one’s best?

In most cases, it makes sense to choose one approach in line with the broad project constraints and desired outcomes. Don’t forget, however, that either approach can often be strengthened by incorporating elements of the other.



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?



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.


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.

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.