Producing tunes in distinct phases; Workflow hack
After years of blogs, email list, forums and endless YouTube videos, I’d like to think I’ve gotten a good education in the school of electronic music production.
One thing we never have enough of is: time. This post is my number one tip for how to make the most of that. Everyone works differently, so take it as an experiment and find your own sweet spot.
Bottom line, what should you do? Separate the process of writing a song into distinct phases.
By limiting the range of options for any session, you can achieve more results for the length of time you’re spending writing/mixing/creating. You’ll avoid the trap of getting stuck in a loop by having a road-map, and it’s easier to keep track of what you need to do next and move forward.
5 phases to faster song-writing
Try this workflow on for size
- Sound Design
- Loop and Section Jamming
These phases are not completely exclusive, and there’s usually a lot of overlap. But segmenting gives you goals and structure to eliminate decision fatigue. As electronic musicians, we have an enormous array of tools and options at any given time, and it can be overwhelming. Creating habits is one of the best things you can do for your workflow, because it takes the routine and repeated tasks and has them laid out in templates or presets.
1. Sound Design
This phase is all about the creation of new sounds and harnessing your inspiration:
Free play; Goofing around; Testing a new plugin; Trying an idea you had in the shower; Playing with a new app while travelling from work/school; A short break to make noises with no need for expectations.
Starting a song can be the most fun part – exploring the sonic landscape with abandon. There’s no responsibilities, no pressure, no need to hit a deadline, or whatever could make you stall in the process of finishing tunes.
Don’t forget to save your preset, sample, or loop for organization and re-use.
2. Loop & Section Jamming
Once you start putting sounds together with one another you’ve started moving towards song territory. Sometimes these loops never make it out of that stage, and that’s okay. If you get stuck with making loops over and over that never turn into songs, then you’ve got “Loopitis” which is thankfully curable by the next phase.
Loops are the backbone of any song and it’s good to test out variations and complementary loops. If you didn’t do it at the sound design stage, look for parameters that are good to tweak that modify the energy and emotion of a layer.
If you like your loops enough to have made them, but don’t think they’re worthy of a song in and of themselves, render them! Together or separated, you can make use of your own soundbank for DJing or resampling in future projects. If you brought them to this stage, then there was a good idea in there somewhere.
At this point you need to decide where you want your song to go. Will it have a traditional Verse/Bridge/Chorus structure? Two sections, A&B that alternate? A gradual building of layered sounds? An EDM-style main Hook loop, Build and Drop? Or some sort of story-telling path that meanders through different emotional parts. You can also jam this out – the matrix style clip launching in modern DAWs is great for trying different combos. Hit record & play, launch clips and mess with all the knobs, then cut it down to the best parts.
The typical use of the term prosody is how the music complements the lyrics, but I’m assuming that through electronic music we’re coming at it from the opposite direction from typical songwriting and use prosody to refer to how the tonality and timbre of sounds complements the implied emotional message from the arrangement. Put another way, are the effects and changes in the sounds, patterns and space helping the listener to anticipate and feel the direction of the song. As a general rule, you don’t want to take them by surprise and instead carry them with your ideas.
In this stage, you look over your arrangement and song structure and ask yourself if the flow is working. Is the energy level going in the right direction? Is there a sense of urgency or sparseness in appropriate places? Does the change over time drag on too long, or feel too rushed? Grouping tracks to add DJ-style or master channel effects that will be performed is an example of what to do at this point.
Feel free to draw out your song visually, or create a dummy track with colours and notes. Changing EQ settings, tweaking patterns and fills, adjusting sends – these are other options for this stage. Essentially, what you want to do is make your tune a coherent whole. This extra phase of reflection is not absolutely necessary to finish a tune, but it’s what takes a static collection of loops in a row into a song.
Chances are you’ve done a fair amount of EQing and other mixing changes along the way, and that’s to be expected. But if you find yourself playing with the finer points of compressing hi-hats for 20 minutes before you’ve made it to this stage, you should try reminding yourself that it’s not a priority until the whole song has come together to this stage.
At this point I like to commit to what I’ve created, and render everything out to stems. This will affect how you set up your busses and groups in previous stages. Some of you might not want to flatten all your drums together. You can render those channels before grouping or bussing effects if you’d like. But the main aspect of what I try to achieve here is to accept what you’ve already done as good, and look for ways to polish further from a fresh perspective.
I like to do the mixing stage with another set of plugins that I don’t typically use to produce (lots of the CPU-intensive analog emulations), but you could also do it another DAW that isn’t your main workhorse.
Mixing at this stage will make use of a lot more visualizations of spectra, dynamic range meters, looking for conflicting EQ regions between parts, extra saturation for colour to bring things out, additive EQ. The bulk of compression that isn’t used for creative effect (pumping, flattening or extreme transient modification) will be applied here. A/B/X often.
Click here to be notified for the follow up article, my #2 tip for making music faster. “Exploiting the 80/20 rule to be hyper-efficient during creative time”