Workflow is the backbone of any good producer.
You can’t come up with good music without it.
Plus, you already have one, whether you like it or not.
But what actually is it, and how do you optimize it?
Let’s tackle workflow.
Note: this blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. You can learn more about it here.
What is Workflow?
The word “workflow” gets thrown around a lot in production circles, but what does it actually mean?
Wikipedia’s definition states that workflow is “the sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.”
As electronic music producers, we can think of workflow in a similar way. I like to define it as…
The process we go through to find a viable musical idea and turn that idea into a finished song.
Every producer who finishes music on a regular basis has a workflow. They go through a process to move from a viable idea to finished product.
But anyone can have a workflow. Getting drunk and slouching over your laptop while recklessly stabbing your keyboard is a workflow if it leads to a finished song. Whether it’s ideal or not is another question.
If you’re not finishing music, however, then you don’t have a workflow. You might start with a viable idea, but you never make it to the end. You initiate but don’t complete.
Whether you’re in the first camp—you are finishing tracks on a regular basis but feel like your ideas aren’t great and you want to increase output—or you’re in the second camp, not finishing any music at all, one thing’s for certain…
You need an effective workflow.
What an Effective Workflow Looks Like
An effective workflow is a flexible workflow.
At its core, an effective workflow includes processes and techniques for:
- Idea generation
- Idea development
- Sound design (optional – not a necessary process, given presets)
- Arrangement and structure
- Mixing and tweaking
It also includes strategies for working quickly and overcoming common problems that arise during the production process.
Let me give you an example for each:
- Idea generation: composing from a visual source (a scenic photo for example)
- Idea development: adding subtle layers to the existing idea to embellish certain parts
- Sound design: performing sound design/synthesis in a separate session (outside of a song project)
- Arrangement and structure: taking a bird’s-eye view of the structure before looking at the details
- Mixing and tweaking: using the fader-first mix strategy
A strategy for working quickly and effectively: creating “ready-to-go” default templates to reduce the time between a conceptual idea (in your head) and actualized idea (in your DAW).
A strategy for overcoming common problems: quick reference file – if you’re struggling with buildups, reference a song with a great buildup.
You might ask: “Why would you come up with so many strategies and techniques to simply make a song?”
This all seems overwhelming at first, but all producers have a set of strategies and techniques that they employ consciously and subconsciously when working on a track. They might not lay it out as I have above, but they do have certain ways of dealing with problems or performing specific production processes.
One example comes from a track I have been working on recently. As I spent more time on the track, it started to sound a bit dull and I felt it wasn’t interesting enough. I was losing motivation to work on it and felt the urge to move on to a new project.
Rather than give up and move on, I used a technique I call Phrase Focus, which sounds more awesome than it actually is.
Starting from the intro, I looped eight bars then added, subtracted, and changed everything I needed to make it sound great. Then I moved on to the next eight bars.
I didn’t consciously decide to use this technique. It’s something I’ve been doing for years, and somehow my brain knew it was the right tool for the job.
Someone who has an effective workflow has a comprehensive set of these types of techniques and strategies. A toolbox, if you will. When they need to solve a problem in their track, they either know immediately what to use, or they spend time searching for the right tool or strategy.
The Difference between Workflow & Creative Habits
I like to think of workflow as a process or set of processes, and creative habits as… well… habits that support that process or set of processes.
For instance, your workflow might include these basic steps:
- Use a MIDI keyboard to write a melody
- Write other ideas around the melody using your DAW’s piano roll (chord progressions, motifs, etc.)
- Build a full chorus loop around the idea(s) (adding drums, bass, FX, etc.)
- Mix, tweak, and add automation.
The creative habits that help you adhere to this process (and do it well) might include:
- Consistent music production for ninety minutes per day
- Using a pen and paper for ideas that come to mind during production
- Setting an objective for each production session
At this stage, don’t worry too much about the difference between workflow and creative habits. It will make more sense as you read through the book.
Flexibility & Rigidity
“I’m a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it.”Ed Catmull
An effective workflow is more than just a structure. It’s something flexible – something that adapts to problems and what one is trying to achieve with each project. If your workflow is rigid—you follow the same exact steps and processes every time—you’re prone to getting stuck and being less creative. How do I know? Well, I used to have a rigid workflow. I’d approach each project the exact same way: loop eight bars, find a decent kick drum, build a drum loop, write a bassline and melody…
This worked for a few projects until I realized that my ideas simply weren’t that interesting and my basslines were too simple.
Because I focused on the drums first, I hurt my ability to be creative when it came to songwriting and composition. Not only did the drums dictate how the rest of the song would be written, but my drums ended up sounding similar across each project.
One day I decided to take a different approach and write the melody first. It was hard at the beginning (after all, I was changing a habit) but once I had some- thing decent, the track practically made itself, and it sounded much better than the music I made using a rigid workflow.
I’m not making a judgment on whether the melody first approach is better than the drums first approach—there is no objectively better approach. The point is that I allowed myself to be flexible—to change my workflow—and as a result, I was able to be more creative.
This point here is not to think of workflow as a comprehensive set of rules and conditional logic that one must pass through to create a good track. Think of it as a flexible framework (consisting of strategies and techniques) that grows and adapts to your skill set and style over time.
At the same time, realize that some things in your workflow should be semi-permanent. Workflow benefits from habit and repetition. If you change your workflow with each new project, you’ll never know what truly works. My advice is to commit to a certain strategy or technique until you get stuck, then try another one.
Every Creative Field Has a Workflow
In non-musical creative fields, workflow still exists.
Writer, speaker and lawyer Sam Glover has a workflow for writing.
Glover starts with a simple text file, making the point that rich-text editors like MS Word are distracting due to their many features. He keeps his text files in a folder called Writing in Dropbox, which also contains two other folders called Abandoned Writing and Writing Archive.
One of his favorite tools for drafting is Byword (I use the same tool for writing blog posts), and he edits his work in MS Word or Google Docs.
A more relevant example is the workflow I used to write the Producer’s Guide to Workflow and Creativity:
- 3-5 days brainstorming and outlining the project
- Research based on an outline
- Shitty first draft in Scrivener
- Second draft in Google Docs (better for editing)
- Final copy + design
Whether it’s video editing, photography, writing or music—every creative field has a workflow.
Don’t believe me? Google [insert creative field] + “workflow” and surprise yourself.
Workflow Helps Us Flow
In his popular book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about a phenomenon he calls the state of flow…
“Flow is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake. In reviewing some of the activities that consistently produce flow—such as sports, games, art, and hobbies—it becomes easier to understand what makes people happy.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When you’re in the state of flow, time goes out the window, and all you’re thinking about is the task at hand. You’re doing something challenging, but not too challenging, and as a result, your brain is fully engaged.
In one particular section of his book, Csikszentmihalyi talks about how to get into the flow state, or at least improve your chances of getting into it. He states that one of the requirements for flow states is having clear goals.
Why Workflow Leads to Flow States
It’s said that playing video games is one of the most powerful flow-inducing activities.
When you’re playing a video game, you have clear goals. There’s a macro-goal (finish or win the game) and a smaller goal (finish the specific mission or level).
To reach the smaller goal, there’s typically a set of challenges or steps you have to go through. You know what these steps are (most of the time), but actually doing them is the hard part.
But you know, more or less, what to do to achieve the goal. It’s challenging, but you know it’s possible.
We can replicate this system of goals while producing by using a workflow. Without a workflow, there’s no set of steps to go through to achieve the smaller goal (e.g., writing a melody), and if you don’t achieve the smaller goals, you don’t achieve the overarching goal (finish a song).
Think about it… who’s more likely to get distracted and lower their chances of getting in flow? The person who has a framework for writing a melody (jamming on keyboard, recording MIDI, removing unnecessary notes, adding variation), or the person who doesn’t have a framework at all?
Workflow Makes Music Enjoyable
“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
We enjoy making music most when we’re in the state of flow. Perhaps that’s the reason why we get into it in the first place.
If an effective workflow increases the frequency of flow states, it follows that an effective workflow makes music production more enjoyable.
Don’t take this the wrong way. The point of having an effective workflow is not to make music production easy. All creative work is difficult. The point is to make sure you’re putting your effort into the right things.
As we’ll see in the next chapter, flow and enjoyment are necessary for creative thinking. If you find production to be a stressful, confusing and frustrating process, then it’s unlikely you’ll be creative. If you’re not feeling creative, you’ll find production stressful, confusing and frustrating. It’s a vicious cycle, but you can get out of it with the right tools and mindsets.
In short: workflow -> flow states -> enjoyment -> creativity -> better result
Workflow Helps Us Improve
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule, which states that a person needs, on average, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class at something.
Not 10,000 hours to become good, or even great, but to become world-class. The key thing that people overlook when discussing the 10,000-hour rule is that it’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
“When we see people practice effectively, we usually describe it with words like willpower or concentration or focus. But those words don’t quite fit because they don’t capture the ice-climbing particularity of the event. The people inside the talent hotbeds are engaged in an activity that seems, on the face of it, strange and surprising. They are seeking out the slippery hills. They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will screw up. And somehow screwing up is making them better.”Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code)
While concentration and focus don’t sufficiently entail deliberate practice, they are definitely components. You cannot operate at the edges of your ability without focus and concentration.
How does workflow play into this? Well, it helps you practice more deliberately by aiding focus and concentration.
How Workflow Aids Practice
When you’re focused—concentrating on a single task—you’re not wasting time. All your attention and energy is being directed towards what you’re doing.
Workflow helps you concentrate because it sets clear objectives and parameters. If your workflow suggests that you should be focusing on writing a melody, and you know the steps you need to go through to write a melody, then you’re much more likely to focus because you have a clear path.
Without a workflow, the task of writing a melody becomes much more challenging, and when something is unnecessarily challenging and confusing, we default to doing something trivial like tweaking a drum hit.
As soon as you start working on the trivial, you stop practicing deliberately and start running on the treadmill of faux practice. You don’t add to your 10,000 hours.
In addition to this, workflow aids deliberate practice because it forces us to focus on our weak points as producers. As you build your workflow you’ll quickly identify what those weak points are.
For areas of music production you find hard, you’ll generally have a strong strategy or framework and will consciously employ it when you work on those areas. For instance, I find drum programming and arrangement extremely intuitive and easy, but melody writing and coming up with initial ideas is more difficult.
Because of this, my workflow is built around my weak point—coming up with ideas. It’s optimized for it. I don’t do anything else until I’ve come up with a good idea, and I use certain techniques and tricks to make sure that I only focus on idea generation until I’m satisfied.
That way, I’m not avoiding the difficult work that’s closely linked to deliberate practice. Rather, I’m struggling in the areas that most need improvement, thus forcing myself to operate closer and closer to the edge of my ability.
Because learning about workflow is useless without applying the strategies, here’s an assignment for you to complete next time you open up your DAW.
Your first assignment is to find your main weakness and build a framework that makes it easier.
Let’s say my weakness is arrangement, I might create the following framework/workflow:
- Drag a professionally made track in a similar style [to the song I’m making] into my DAW
- Roughly copy the structure of the track – write down any ideas that come to mind while doing so
- Listen to how different FX are used in the track and create placeholders for my track
Your framework can be as simple or complex as you’d like. Just think about how you can add steps to something you find difficult, how you can “hack” it.
Note: I don’t want to chuck you in the deep end. This assignment is difficult (well, they all are) and will force you to think. Take your time.
Where To Now?
Now that you understand workflow, the next step you can take to improve your music is to check out the rest of the Producer’s Guide to Workflow and Creativity. This post is an excerpt of the first chapter, but it’s only one part of the story. I cover other topics like creativity, finishing music and originality.