MIDI Lifestyle’s Scott Shpak offers ten workflow tips to increase your productivity as a music producer.
When productivity becomes a concern, it means that your work is reaching new levels. Whether you’re making music for money or self-satisfaction, optimizing efficiency is key to either profitability or spending time on the work that satisfies most.
There’s never been a better time to be a music creator. The tools for creation are readily available and, perhaps most important, remarkably affordable. Here are some thoughts to keep your production game on the money.
Add a Second Monitor
Screen real estate is perhaps the best gift you can give yourself. Contemporary digital audio workstations are marvels of customization. You can adapt the visual modules to match your workflow in many ways, and the more you can see at once, the more quickly you can work. Large flat screens are affordable and even available as refurbished units. Stop interrupting yourself to find a hidden layer.
Know Your Priorities
We’ve all been there, spending hours perfecting a filter sweep across a synth bass sound. When the mix is done, that little sizzle is lost, buried under the remainder of your production. What’s worse is that, because of deadlines, you didn’t have enough time to work the vocal.
Keep what is important about your production in the front of your mind. It’s easy to go off track in this age of endlessly amazing plugins, tools, loops and sonic ear candy. Playing with that stuff is what draws many of us to the game.
However, when productivity becomes a concern, compartmentalize the aural laboratory and focus on what supports the song.
Upgrade Your Software
While it’s easy to suspect that DAW makers continuously update software to ensure a steady flow of cash from your wallet into their retirement funds, the fact is improvements happen. Not all are created equally, but many changes aim at making your life easier.
Watch the upgrade parade, and don’t feel you must jump on every version. Wait for improvements that matter to you. New vocal tuning capabilities mean nothing to an instrumental artist, for instance. Purchase upgrades you can use, not simply to add potential capability, unless you’re moving in that direction already.
Gain Control (Surfaces)
Ableton Live almost single-handedly created the market for affordable – and not so affordable – alternative control surfaces. Ever since the first click-and-drag fader appeared, there’s been a market for a return to physical controls. You can only do so much with a QWERTY keyboard and mouse.
Now the market is full of inexpensive controllers that take advantage of MIDI control codes. Many work out of the box with a wide range of DAW software. Others require more setup. In both cases, there’s a range of control available that outperforms the conventional keyboard and mouse interface.
Yes, you may already have a grid controller but have you thought of adding another? Throw a USB port into the works and the sky is almost the limit. Say you trigger loops, perform beats, and adjust filters all from one controller. Imagine separate controllers for each function. Mmm… sweet, easy, and efficient.
Learn Your Equipment
Even when you’re an old hand with your DAW and controllers, there are likely features and work modes you’ve never delved into. Perhaps you’ve never needed them, or your initial learning curve kept these off to the side.
Producing great music involves a lot of subtleties. One small tweak might not sound like a big difference, but 100 small tweaks across all of your audio/MIDI tracks can make a world of a difference. Whether you’re using an FM synthesizer, a complex reverb plugin, or even an auto-tune plugin, small tweaks you make can make a big difference.
Dig into the manual occasionally. There may be a way to slice beats or manipulate loops you haven’t learned yet. The only way to find these obscure features and methods are through some creative archeology. Put on your pith helmet and dig in.
Add Equipment Wisely
I once had a conversation with a fellow who told me he had a recording studio. I asked what he produced, and he told me nothing, not yet anyway. He hadn’t learned how to use it.
Turns out what he had was a standalone multitrack hardware DAW, not a studio. This was at a time when such devices sold for thousands, rather than the hundreds that they sell for now.
This example illustrates a danger that increases with every price cut at the local music store. I call it buying beyond the curve. There are lots to learn about making and recording music. When you’re at the point of considering productivity, you need to know what your equipment does and how to do it. Adding this season’s hottest gear is a treat, to be sure, and it may well speed your workflow. However, it may be erroneous to expect results upon acquisition as well as takes time away from deadlines to add and explore new hardware and software.
Embrace the Loop
This thought may seem like a funny sentiment to offer in 2017, considering loops have nearly two decades in the mainstream. Yet, I still encounter resistance to royalty-free loop use. The concern is understandable. Two people brought me exactly the same song that each insisted they “wrote.” Each of them assembled their piece in GarageBand. Except for a few minor level differences, both works had the same ABAB structure.
See item #9 on this list. You no longer have to be a musician to create music, but you still need creativity and vision. Anyone can build a Lego kit and end with the same results. It takes imagination and curiosity to build something spontaneous and original.
Don’t think for a second that loops preclude originality. After all, guitars have the same six strings. It’s what you do with them that matters. Loops provide a basis to build on, quickly. And that foundation moves you quite quickly toward your production’s destination.
There are a lot of things you can do with loops. I really liked Pro Audio’s article on creative ways to process drum loops.
Treat Your Room
When you work hard to perfect your mix, it’s disappointing when it doesn’t sound the way you intend on another sound system. This is a quality called “translation.” Good mixes sound great on any playback system; they translate well. Poor mixes, on the other hand, sound good at the mix location but nowhere else.
Most of us can’t afford full-scale acoustic treatment in our home recording spaces. We’re stuck with parallel surfaces and room sizes that offer up weak environments for recording and playing back sound. Mixing through headphones has its own challenges and, again, these usually result in poor translation.
There are, however, a number of products that improve the acoustics of your space without breaking the bank. Approach it like this:
- Locate and isolate audio monitors: Use near-field monitor placement and isolation pads
- Address rear reflections: Particularly important if your monitors are near a reflecting wall
- Address side and rear reflections: Ditto
- Install corner bass traps: Most rooms see a marked improvement after installing wedge-shaped traps
Don’t Get Lazy
When frustration sets in, the track isn’t doing what you expect or want, and you start telling yourself, “Hey, this is good enough,” you’re probably wrong.
Laziness hits in millions of ways. Using a plugin preset as-is is lazy. Using loops exclusively from a single kit is lazy. Setting up a gate to remove breath noise and failing to listen to the entire track on its own is lazy. “I’ll fix in the mix” is another way of saying, “I’m lazy.”
Yes, I know. We’re all guilty, and we often get away with it because we’re also good at what we do.
Encouraging more work in an article on productivity may seem odd. However, if your music loses an opportunity because of a flaw you thought was good enough, all your time becomes wasted. Don’t let false economies trip you up.
Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is shut it off for the night. No matter how much you want to keep working, there comes a point of diminishing return, where your efforts don’t produce results. Your ears and your brain get tired. Energy drinks won’t do it. You need sleep.
Maybe you’re having trouble finding the perfect lyrics, maybe all of your melody ideas don’t fit with your chord progression, or maybe even you’re trying to put the finishing touches on your mix but can’t get it to sound quite right. Walk away and come back later.
Another key element is perspective. If you’ve been at the production game for any time, you’ve surely had a morning where, upon hearing last night’s mix, you wonder who slipped drugs into your hot chocolate, since you were obviously out of your skull to make it sound like that.
Recognize the compromises in your decision making as a mix session draws on. Learning when to leave a tune alone for a bit is not a sign of laziness or surrender. It’s one of maturity.
The list goes on. These 10 points will get you thinking. We didn’t discuss ergonomics and the importance of a good chair and desk. Heck, even a bar fridge in easy reach keeps the lemonade flowing while you craft your masterpiece.
The productivity equation differs for everyone, but one thing remains constant – Being productive isn’t just about how fast you’re working. Fast work is lost if it’s not effective. The trick is to aim and hit both bullseyes.
About Scott Shpak
Scott Shpak is a performer, composer, music producer, and writer for MIDI Lifestyle. His work is heard in the soundtracks of shows such as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Entertainment Tonight,” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” A prolific writer with over 2 million views online, Shpak frequently writes about music, tech, and home recording topics.
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