In my years as a producer and live electronic music performer, I've done my share of reading, learning and researching methods to get the job done more efficiently. I would like to share my top 5 most useful workflow enhancing techniques in an effort to help anyone who would like to squeeze more into the producing time you have and jam out more tracks in a hurry.
I have a very busy and demanding schedule, as I’m sure many people reading this do as well. Balancing a day job, family life, hobbies, and social life can be difficult. Especially if you are passionate about a creative or artistic pursuit. I've come to find some very useful workflow tactics. These have allowed me to fit my producing or rehearsing time within short daily sessions, yet still remain productive. I will try and keep my explanation succinct as let’s face it, reading this is literally time both of us could be working on a new track!
If you are already a seasoned producer and have a tried and tested workflow and successful method, this article may not be for you. For those who are like me and need a little push to get out of the rut in which you spin your wheels or can't finish tunes, then read on. The never-ending cycle of tweaking the details, or striving for perfection can feel like a vortex that sucks up ideas. Just remember that there is beauty in rawness. Inspiration can be found in imperfection. Don't doubt yourself or your skill because your own sound, your unique individuality is what will define you as a musician. Compete only with yourself.
You might be asking: "Why do I need to produce more tracks in less time?" or "My workflow is fine I'm happy with how long it takes me to finish a track". The answer to this is simple: The biggest secret I've consistently seen being suggested by many of the world's top producers in all genres is: Finishing more tracks gives you more opportunities for success. You have a much higher chance of nailing it if you make more, try more, and do more. I understand there is the theory of quality vs quantity. You need quality or your track will likely go unheard. However, I feel in creative pursuits, you have to explore, experiment, and try new things to achieve a vision or goal.
Consider coming up with one really amazing song idea and then spending ridiculous amount of time trying to perfect every aspect of it. Perhaps you end up with a great track, or maybe you missed out creating many other ideas in the process. Bang them out and move on. If you arrive at 10 great tracks, pick the best ones and put time into polishing those. Creation of music is evolution. You grow and learn with each new idea. The best advice I've ever been given is: "Never stop learning". It takes practice to learn, and this is where workflow efficiency will push you and bring more confidence. I'm still in the process of learning, and finding my sound and my direction. I feel that this growth keeps things fresh for me and opens up new possibilities.
Think of these keywords and how they relate to my statements above: Quantity, Practice, Speed, Consistency, Growth. These aren't the magic tips, but they set the tone for them.
1) Find your initial inspiration quickly and stick to it.
When starting anything new, don't begin with the details. Find one or two simple elements that set the tone and the inspiration for the track. These should come very quickly, and should drive the basis for the entire track. When you find it, leave it. Commit to not changing your initial inspiration for the duration of your writing/tracking/recording process. If it's a good idea it will fuel the workflow. If it's not good or you lose the initial vision ... see TIP #2 ASAP Personally, I start with something that sets the mood of the track. I don't usually write the whole beat first then lay down the hook or atmosphere or bass groove overtop. I start with the interesting part first then I build the track around it. This keeps me on point 100% of the time.
My go-to lately is start with a sound bed of ambiance, destroyed with bitcrush, distorted to the max then filtered back to pretty.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, complex synth patches, or fun new plugins.
2) Learn to be a ruthless executioner.
If your initial idea isn't inspiring, the entire process will eventually grind to a halt. You can create, but don't be afraid to destroy, DELETE, erase, and clear the patch. You must be willing to delete everything and start over if it’s not flowing within the first 1-2 hours. Anything that happens after that first brilliant spark of inspiration is going to decrease and diminish over time. Your initial energy levels will drop no matter how hard you try. I can't stress this enough - if it feels off, it will be off. Stop, clear, and start again. Apply this theory on every level. If any element doesn't sound right, it probably doesn't fit. The energy and time you'll spend trying to fix it will be better spent starting fresh and finding a new path to naturally and organically fit the vibe of the song. The quickest way to rapid restart and get those fresh ideas going is TIP #3.
3) Standardize, Reuse, And Recycle.
Staring blankly at an empty project file, or a cleared out sequencer can be daunting. If you're starting with nothing every time, you will generate new and original ideas, but you'll be repeating the same basic steps every time. Template! Making templates is annoying and uncreative, but if you can save yourself 5min, 10min, 20min every time you start a new track, you're instantly increasing productivity. My method to achieve this is extremely simple and will seem like a dirty cheat, but it works! I use an old track and save it as a new track.
Keep an arsenal of your own presets and conquer !
Saved effect and instrument racks speed up workflow enormously.
On hardware I take my last kit and pattern and copy it to a new slot. I clear out all the clips, midi, notes, everything that forms the song, but I keep the tracks, track names, groups, the kits, the racks, the FX chains, the send/return tracks, and the master track. The foundation to start writing is there but I have no sounds coming out when I hit play. The key is: I'm not starting with nothing. I might eventually swap out all the FX and all the content, but I can start producing right here right now. No wait time.
I built a simple empty template I can jump to whenever I need to record something from hardware.
I pick one track that will be the basis for my initial idea and erase whatever sound is there. I start with something new, but having the tools to make a basic beat allows me to form the basis for my song VERY rapidly. Once the beat is rolling and I've built up a basic loop, that's when I start in on the sounds. I begin re-designing sounds to suit the song and keep them very very simple. Overdesigning and overproducing is a trap so keep your sounds quick, raw and rough. All the precise and very careful tweaks can come later. This can all happen in real time and very quickly because I have almost a full sounding beat rolling with me and pushing the idea. Go into every drum, every synth track, every element and rework until it all meshes and fits together. Allow your decisions to be driven by the sound, not by your eyes. Some sounds will only require 3 or 5 or 10 clicks to completely revamp it so Don't overthink it. Now you have a loop so .....
4) Build the fourth arrangement section and reverse engineer it.
Arrangement can be the most difficult part of writing a track. I used to be fantastic at making great 1,4,8 bar loops that sounded great and I could jam out and tweak parameters, but this doesn't lead you to finishing anything. I learned a very simple trick that works for me: I write the most dense portion of the song and call that my "D" section.
I fill up my fourth section until it feels like the most full part of the song.
Then copy it out, strip it down, and modify until I arrive at my A, B, C sections.
I'll explain firstly that my songs (both in live set and production in DAW) I write using 4 sections of the song: A (Intro), B (Verse 1), C (verse 2), D (Climax/Apex) and I'll often finish on a modified A (outro). I generally have everything bumping at the D section. All the elements to the beat and melodic components are in and it flows well as the “high point” of the song. When it seems I’ve got this sounding great, I copy this section out to A, B, and C and strip things back. I change midi or remove some of the notes, add new elements, and change around drum patterns. For the A section (usually intro), I might take everything out except a few sparse percussions and a maybe a lighter kick drum and a bit of atmosphere. For the B section maybe I'm keeping a few more elements to develop interest. I'll remove some notes of the bassline so it's just a tease of what’s to come. Mostly the C section is similar to the B section but with modified percussion and a "response" to the melodic elements of B.
Now I have all of my song essentially built up so it’s just time to determine the order and length of the sections. Keep in mind DJ's, dancers, and listeners alike naturally like things in increments of 4, 8, 16, 32 bars. For my house and techno productions my sections are 4 sets of 8 bar patterns so 32 bars. I generally like to change things up every 8 or 16 bars to give variation and I have a fill or "section change" signal between the 32 bar sections. This might seem formulaic and simplistic, but it works for me and it might work for you. This leads into my final Mega Tip.....
5) SIMPLIFY !!
That’s basically it. Simplify. I used to layer massive amounts of synth tracks, drum tracks, percussive elements with hundreds of modulations and automations. To my synth nerdy ears it sounded glorious. Though technically proficient, the tracks lacked heart and were seriously way too busy. The more I stripped down the sound and broke things into simple ideas, the more successful I was at writing songs. Listeners both at home and in the club appreciate predictability. They like to hear something familiar, but with a unique life and heart to it. Too many sounds and too busy of a mix confuses the ears and the dancing feet. I noticed recently the best tracks on a club system are the ones with only 3-4 key elements.
A view of my arrangements in 2014. Complex, more tracks, multiple overlapping elements meant for an overly busy sound.
2018 - Arrangement from my recent song Bläckfisk. Simple. Less tracks, fewer individual elements at one time.
Simplifying your workflow is the key to speed and effective writing. It revolves around keeping myself on point and ensuring that I don't bounce around or overcomplicate.
I'd like to say thanks to everyone who read this and who's out there producing, jamming, performing, or just supporting the electronic music scene. I feel extremely grateful that there is such a vibrant, diverse and active music scene in Alberta and I'll strive to in my small part add what I can to the community.
Walter aka On Off On