For any producer looking to make the best music they possibly can, the importance of establishing an effective workflow can’t be understated. Yet all too often, we stick to the same intuitive script we’ve always followed, knowing that we could be working more efficiently if we just took the time to audit and address our ingrained practices and habits. Here, are seven surefire tips to help you get past your own administrative foibles and environmental compromises, and, ultimately, ramp up your productivity.
With any contemporary producer’s sample library potentially weighing in at terabytes of files, keeping those loops and one-shots organized and easy to navigate has never been more necessary – or challenging. The free KOMPLETE KONTROL software from Native does the job for you, tagging and sorting all your NKS-ready sample content (that’s everything from Sounds.com, Expansions, and the MASCHINE library), and making it easy to find and preview directly in your DAW. There are also dedicated applications – like Iced Audio’s AudioFinder on Mac – that can analyze and catalog all the sounds on your hard drive. If these are not an option, create your own folder hierarchy, starting with instrument type at the top (drums, basses, etc.), then genre, tempo or whatever other categories suit best, and filter samples into it as appropriate. It’s not rocket science, but the important thing is that you stick to the system, adding new samples to it as they arrive, rather than letting them pile up in a limbo-like ‘Samples to be sorted’ folder.
Even more important than that when it comes to accelerating workflow is creating and maintaining a template DAW project (or several), with a comprehensive but resource-light set of instruments and effects pre-loaded and ready to go. Having the ability to launch your DAW and immediately lay down, say, a beat, a bassline, a pad and/or a lead synth using a set of tried-and-tested ‘generic’ sounds, means you need never lose that bolt-from-the-blue sonic idea to the distraction and buzzkill of ‘new project’ admin again.
Okay, maybe not everything, but how often have you accidentally stumbled across a sublime chord progression while messing around at the keyboard only to lose it to the ether as you weren’t recording at the time? Some DAWs now feature retrospective recording functionality, rendering the last few minutes of MIDI input to a track at the click of a button, but if yours doesn’t, get into the habit of manually entering record mode first every time you reach for the ivories.
The same applies to audio: keep your microphone/guitar/synth connected to your audio interface and routed to a track in your DAW at all times, and don’t touch it without hitting Record first. Not only will this ensure that you never lose a moment of inspiration again, but it can also yield plenty of interesting sampler fodder and happy accidents.
Cut down on clutter
Your home studio is likely bristling with all manner of amazing gadgetry, from physically engaging hardware synths and MIDI controllers, to mind-blowing software instruments and effects – but if you find yourself constantly noodling around with these high-tech distractions rather than actually getting any meaningful musical work done, it’s time to take a step back and reassess your setup. We know it’s often easier said than done but make the effort to pare your rig back to just the components that you actually need and/or have a particular affinity and technical aptitude for, and your workflow can’t fail to benefit. Less is more.
With your studio leaner and meaner than ever, thanks to the previous tip, now’s also the time to tidy it up – and resolve to keep it that way. Take the Marie Kondo approach and throw out anything that’s just collecting dust and doesn’t need to be there (old software boxes, redundant PC components, and other such stuff). Make minimalism and visual tranquillity your goals. If the room itself is looking a bit shabby, clear everything out for a weekend and redecorate; and give some thought to lighting, ideally keeping it relaxed, low and tasteful. If you’ve got space, get some house plants in there, too – greenery calms the mind, which in turn leads to greater creativity.
The ‘mix as you go’ workflow seems to have found favor with new producers in recent years, in part because they’ve never known musical life without the convenience of infinite project recall made possible by the software DAW. We wouldn’t want to suggest for a second that this is in any way a bad thing, but if you’ve never tried the traditional ‘start from zero’ method of mixing, you really should.
With your mixed-as-you-went track completed, save out a new version, set all your level faders to zero and pan positions to the centre, reset all your dynamics, EQ and effects processors, and start working the mix up from scratch. Begin by getting the drums sounding great, then add in the bass, then the vocals, and so on. Approaching the mix as its own discrete stage in the production process, with its own timeframe and context, will deliver a very different end result – and quite possibly a better one.
If you only take one piece of advice away from this feature, make it this one: learn the key commands for your DAW. No matter which virtual studio application you’re using – be it MASCHINE, Cubase, Logic, Live, Bitwig Studio, Reason, FL Studio, Studio One or whatever – its developer will have implemented a wide range of keyboard shortcuts to save you an incalculable amount of needless mousing around, clicking and menu-diving. There may well even be functions in your DAW that can only be accessed via key commands, and you might be able to freely reassign the keys should the defaults not fit your specific bill.
You don’t have to learn every single command right from the off, of course. Start with the essentials (tool selection, quantize, cycle on/of, split at playhead, etc), then let your knowledge develop organically by looking up and memorizing the key command for a given feature when you find yourself using it with any frequency.
Bring the chaos
Keep things moving when inspiration runs dry using the randomization features built into an increasing number of virtual instruments and effects. Simply hit the Randomize button on your plug-in to automatically generate a new patch/preset, repeating as many times as required until you get something you like the sound of, ready for use as-is (unlikely!) or editing into shape. Certain plug-ins include the ability to ‘lock’ individual controls, too, rendering them immune to changes, so if you know you want your wet/dry mix set at 50/50 or filter cutoff at 1500Hz, you can make sure it stays there while everything around it is thrown up in the air.