Top 10 Tips for a Music Production Workflow
How producers, writers, and arrangers can work faster, easier and with less stress. Try these tips out and see which ones perform the best!
Most of the tips below are completely free to act upon–meaning minimal obligation for you to get extra gear! There are a few optional choices, but none of them are absolutely necessary to create a great music production workflow.
1. Use a Template
Templates may have the most immediate payoff of any tip in this article–because the fewer things you have to do before you start writing, the easier it is to capture inspiration when it strikes. Templating your DAW sessions removes barriers to a highly efficient workflow by using a predetermined starting point, with specific instruments already loaded and a layout that makes it easy to find your synths, acoustics instruments, percussion, bass, etc.
If you write in multiple genres, you’ll probably have multiple different templates–but don’t try to create them all at once. Gradually make templates out of your existing DAW sessions, and remember: it’s perfectly normal for you to make adjustments to them over time.
2. Organize Your Samples and Instruments
We’ll preface this by acknowledging that, yes, some DAWs (like Ableton and Reaper) do offer the ability to run a detailed filename search–which may seem like a valid reason to not give much regard to how your sample packs, plugins and the like are organized. This system doesn’t need to be any more complicated than something like this (each bullet represents a folder, while each sub-bullet is for a sub-folder):
- Trap Snares
- Dubstep Snares
- Cross Sticks
- House Kicks
- Lofi Kicks
And so on.
3. You Don’t Have to Start From Scratch
A common trap producers fall into is never revisiting their backlog of unfinished material. It’s ironic how often we anguish over inspiration while neglecting our potential treasure troves of song starters! Take some time to find your best unfinished DAW sessions and song ideas; later, if you don’t feel inspired to create something new but still want to get some tracks finished, use this collection of material to get started.
Make sure you organize your drafts. They won’t do you much good if they’re scattered or poorly named! Make sure you can find your unfinished work later–because it might be exactly what you need to break through a mental barrier on a rainy day. Your backlog can become a gold mine if you structure it well!
4. Prepare Song References
As mentioned in previous ujam articles, the greatest hack to consistent musical inspiration is to listen to as many different genres as possible, as often as possible. Whether through Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, or any other platform you choose, organize your playlists by genre, then by sub-genre or artist (at the time of writing this, YouTube doesn’t offer sub-playlists, so you may want to use playlists for sub-genres if this doesn’t feel too cluttered).
Whatever your organizational system is, make sure it’s easy to search. If you like to work with reference tracks, it’s important to expend as little time as possible looking through them. Even if you don’t choose to compose against reference tracks, they are essential during the mixing phase.
5. Set Up Inspiration Triggers
The goal here is to set up your environment with jump starting points so you’re less likely to find yourself at a loss for musical ideas when you sit down at your computer. Here’s a list of some easy triggers you can create for yourself:
- Position your instrument collection within (reasonable) reach–sometimes playing the guitar will get your creative juices flowing; other times that will completely flop, and you’ll do better with simply loading up your favorite string library in your DAW.
- If you’re feeling ambitious, tastefully place colored lighting around your workspace. Since many producers, songwriters and beat makers are night owls, you’ll likely get to enjoy a dark room with ambient lighting.
- Actively seek out opportunities to be weird or different. Take a bunch of sub-genre names from a variety of umbrella genres, write them on individual pieces of paper, and draw two while your eyes are closed and combine them into a single song.
6. Have a Foldering System in Place
No one gets a pass here! File organization is critically important. You may not be thrilled at the prospect of building out a better foldering system, but this can make or break your entire production process.
Yes, you should group all songs for one album into the same folder. And you should create a file structure you can click through in your sleep, in which you know exactly where everything is. But there’s a far more sinister reason…
Refer to your DAW’s manual for specifics, but most will give you options when saving sessions. If you don’t understand exactly where your DAW looks for files, you can end up breaking references, resulting in it losing audio and MIDI files–even entire VSTs. Every DAW has a different preferred file structure, and you should know yours inside out. Otherwise, when you’re sharing files for a collaboration or even moving them to a different location in the same computer, you could wind up with an unusable session.
7. Protect Your Workspace
Keep trash and recycling bins nearby, and use them frequently. A clean workspace is essential if you want a clear head.
While it’s certainly possible to work in cramped conditions, having freedom to maneuver invariably translates to a faster flow of quality musical inspiration. (It’s also nice to be able to find things without having to search through huge piles)
While entirely optional, a sliding panel underneath your desk is an excellent location for a MIDI keyboard–it tucks away easily and is accessible at a moment’s notice.
Close all the browser tabs you don’t absolutely need. Close all extraneous apps. Make your desktop background something pleasant and simple. Cut all digital clutter you possibly can, and disable notifications on every device in your workspace (unless you’re expecting an important message or call). The more distracted you are, the longer it takes to accomplish the same amount of work!
This is incredibly important. When properly hydrated, biologically you’ll be able to work more efficiently. Also, those mini water breaks give you brief moments to take your eyes off of your screen–which in turn allows you, if only slightly, to look at your music with a fresh set of eyes.
Equally important is how you store your water–a refillable bottle is best, not only because they can typically hold more water, but also to prevent spills. The last thing you want is to get water on your precious gear.
Side note: if you ever spill water on electronics while they’re turned off, it’s highly likely they’ll be fine. Disconnect them from their power sources, open them up if you can, and use a hair dryer to make the water evaporate. Leave the gear alone for as long as you can. Electronics only suffer water damage if it touches a live electrical current.
If you ever wonder “How do I publish my songs?”, there are a few obvious sources: SoundCloud, Beatport, Spotify, YouTube, etc. But each has a slightly different set of requirements (different file types, bit depth, sample rate, and others). Start with only one, and add other platforms as you begin to get the hang of how each one works.
Every DAW has a way to spit out a single, finished audio file; this process can take many different names, depending on which DAW you’re working in. They include print, bounce, render, and others–each has a slightly different nuance, but many DAW manufacturers treat them as one and the same. If you see any one of these words, it most likely means “convert my session into a single audio file.” As you finish tracks, you’ll become more familiar with the different file types and what you need to upload to each platform.
10. Ergonomics (“Why does my back hurt?”)
A nice office chair is one of the best investments you can make in your production rig. When you sit with weak support or poor posture, you increase the strain on your body. Aside from hurting you more in the long term, the added discomfort will distract you from your music and make the overall experience less pleasant.
Keep your screen(s) at eye level, and your mouse/keyboard as close to elbow level as possible (make sure your chair has armrests to further decrease strain). At least once an hour, walk around for a few minutes and stretch. These mini-breaks keep you healthier and reduce mental strain. If it’s feasible for your work environment, consider getting a sit-to-stand desk–the ability to alternate between a sitting position and standing gives your body valuable variety and makes it easier to work for longer periods of time without fatigue or physical discomfort.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these tips should help you to speed up your workflow and make the entire production process enjoyable for nearly anyone. Ideally, you want to generate new ideas for improving your workflow all the time–then refine them and commit! When you can rely on the workflow you’ve put in place, you’ve taken a major step toward having a professional career as a music producer, songwriter or beat maker.
Try these tips out and see which ones perform the best!