Music production workflow

Jan 15, 2019 by itscontrabeat - 0 Comments

The process of making a beat from start to finish can be a complex task. There are so many different roles that we need to be in. Some of these roles don’t work well together. We have to be creative, critical and engineers at the same time. But is it really the best thing to be creative and critical at the same time? In this post, I will explain my music production workflow from start to finish. After reading this post, you will hopefully have a clearer vision of when to do what.

 

Idea Generation

In this step it is all about filling that intimidating blank DAW of yours. Most of us know the feeling we can sometimes get, when a blank project is staring at us. It can be scary, right? But fear not, there are lots of methods you can use to leap yourself into creative wonderland. No i am not referring to drugs.

 

Don’t be so critical

Often holding us back when we try to be creative, especially when we try to do it on demand, is our critical mind. Almost as if we shoot our own ideas down before we even get to present them to ourselves. Lots of articles on the internet cover different ways of starting an idea. I will only cover one method, since the topic of this article is more about the workflow as a whole.

 

The idea timer

I got the inspiration for this method from composer and music production workflow guru, Ill gates (info on ill gates). In one of Ill gates’ videos, he talks about productivity in the studio. Here he mentions a method he uses, where he sets an interval timer with intervals of different length. Each interval is dedicated to a specific step of his songwriting process.

He then starts the timer and works on each step for the set duration of time. He then continues to the next step when the timer switches to a new interval. I find this method very useful for making the time spent with an empty daw as short as possible.

 

The interval app

In ill gates’ video he recommends a phone app to set the timers on. You could really do this in any way that fits you best. I myself like to save my interval timers for later use. It is very convenient having the timer on the phone. I use a free version of a app called “Exercise bike workout” for android. This app lets me easily set a timer with preset intervals, which I can name what I want.

 

Go with the flow

The idea here is to go with the flow of your creativity and not get stuck on selecting drums samples. So to really speed up your workflow. It would be a good idea to make a custom template in your DAW. Most DAW’s have the ability to do this. I won’t go into details about templates, but in short. The template could be a session with preloaded synth’s, samplers, drum kits and so on.

The process for me, in the first step of my workflow, is in short.

 

  • Open up one of my premade logic templates
  • Start a interval timer (the total length of the timer, can be from 30-60 minutes).

 

For me, it will not make sense to set the timer for more than 60 minutes. Because after this amount of time. I will almost always know if I like my idea or not. Which brings us to the next step of the workflow.

Time to allow the critical you back in the studio.

 

The big question!

Ask yourself

“do I like this?”.

At this point, your DAW should hopefully not be empty, but instead filled with one or more ideas. In this step of the workflow. You will have to be a bit critical of your own work, but go easy on yourself. The important thing here is. That you have something you think sounds good and would like to work on. Not to have a full finished and arranged beat. In my version of the “idea generator timer”. I have set the last “time interval as time set aside for arrangement”. This is only a goal to move towards. I always try to work as fast as possible when I am in the initial creative fase.

 

2 good reasons to work fast

 

  1. For me, creativity is killed as soon as I start thinking “hmm the kick don’t fit with this bass” or “Maybe some eq would work here”. Therefore I try to give myself as little time as possible to think when I am in this stage of the production. Here the timer helps me to move on and not dwell for too long on one thing.

 

  1. Time! I simply don’t want to spend too much time on an idea. That will never become a full arrange beat or song. If I ask myself after 30 – 60 minutes of creative work with no critical thoughts. “Do you like the idea? Does it make me bump my head?  Does it trigger emotions?” . If the answer is no, why should I keep on working on it? The best thing here would probably be to throw it in the trash and keep on moving.

 

For me, creativity is killed as soon as I start thinking

 

Answering the question

Sometimes when you ask yourself this question, it can be difficult to answer. Maybe you don’t like the idea as a whole, but you like the drum pattern or the chord progression. Then you can cut of all the stuff you do not like, and save the parts that you like as an audio loop or a midi file and store it in a organized space dedicated to “idea starters”. Then you will always be able to pick up one of your own loops or midi files to jumpstart a new beat or song idea.

 

Yes!

If the answer to the question is yes, then you will have to decide if the idea needs more work. Sometimes when the stars align and the moon is full, you will have a full arranged beat after the first 30 – 60 minutes. If this is the case, then you should move forward from the creative process in the workflow, but in most cases the beat needs some more work, then you can just start another timer for 30 – 60 min and do another iteration of creative work.   

 

Mixing

 

A good starting point

Getting ready for the mixing stage. When you have a full beat, that you are happy with, it is time to move on to the next step, which is mixing. There are so many ways to do this and we all have different preferences to how a mix should sound and getting in to the different methods of mixing is a topic of its own.

You could mix the beat in the same session that you are already working on, but I prefer to export all my tracks to audio files and import them to a new session which is dedicated to mixing. There are two major reason to do this.

 

  1. When I export my tracks to audio files I dedicate myself to the beat as it is, which helps me stay in the mixing mindset, and not move away from mixing, to start changing some notes, that I suddenly find boring because I have been listening to the same part of the beat over and over for who knows how long (we have all been there).

 

  1. CPU! When you are mixing, you want to be able to have as much computer power to your disposal as possible. You don’t want your computer to use a lot of power to run that super complex synth sound in the chorus when you need it to use all your high end, but sometimes cpu heavy, mixing plugins.

 

Get organized

To make the mixing process easier, I recommend that you name you tracks in a logical way. You should not be in any doubt of what is on the tracks. Arranging the track in groups is also a good idea. Put bass tracks together, drums and percussion tracks together and so on. If your daw has the ability to color the tracks, do it. It helps to see the big picture. I recommend coloring the different instrument groups, drums could be red, guitars could be blue and so on.

 

Basic balance

Now it is time to balance the levels of the mix. This will is something that, you will probably be doing alongside the rest of the mixing process. As you start to eq, compress and add saturation, the level of your tracks will change, so you don’t need to do the balancing of the beat perfectly the first time. Right now we are aiming for at rough balance, so we can get a better idea of what the tracks need and if any eq masking occurs. Sometimes a lot of the issues that occur before balancing, will disappear when the mix is balanced properly.

 

Tip : If you don’t trust your ears or your room for balancing the mix, try to use the pink noise method. You play back a pink noise signal against each of your tracks one by one. You then turn up the tracks until you can hear it. Then you turn it down until it is just audible through the pink noise. I find that this method is good for doing a quick rough balance of the mix.

 

EQ

Now you have a rough balance of you tracks, and it is time to do some cleaning. Our tool here is the equalizer (eq). A tool that in its basics is very simple, but still able to do so many things, that I won’t be able to cover them all in this article. In this part of the mixing process you will primarily be using the eq to cut (remove) frequenze content. I recommend using a transparent eq with a frequenze analyser built in. This is not a must have, but it can help a lot to find possible problems.

 

The low end

The first thing you can do is to remove low end frequencies from tracks that don’t need them. This is conveniently done with a hi-pass/low cut filter. Change the frequenze where the filter cuts, until you start to hear the audio change, then move it back a bit again.

 

Tip : If you are working on small speakers, that don’t have a lot of bass, you would probably benefit from using headphones instead, so you don’t cut away to much low end. You don’t want your mix to sound weak on big speakers. If you don’t have any bass heavy headphones, try to use a frequency analyzer on the master channel and see if the track has unwanted low-end. I mostly find that tracks that are not supposed to be bass heavy, benefit from at low cut from 50-130 hz.

 

You will already hear a big difference in the mix by removing the low end rumble from the non bass tracks. The bass will sound a lot clearer and the kick will punch through. Some tracks may also benefit from a low pass/hi-cut filter, but don’t overdo it if you want a modern high end sound. Hi cutting often gives the sound an “old” sounding vibe. An “old” sound is not necessarily a bad thing, but many modern sounding records have a “shine” in the top frequencies that will be lost if too much high frequency content is removed from the recording.

 

The mid frequencies

After you have cleaned up the high and the low end. It is time to attend the core of most recordings. The mid frequencies. This is where the human ear hears best and where most instruments have its main frequency content. What you should look for here is resonances in the audio signal that are too loud. By lowering the loud resonances, you will at the same time make some room for other instruments and make the mix sound a bit clearer or more defined if you will.

 

Frequency analyser

Again, if you are working in a “bad” sounding room. You could benefit from using a frequency analyser on the master channel. This can show you which frequencies that have the highest peak in the signal. Then you can try to cut that frequency with a bell curve on the equalizer. Use your ears and hear if you like the change.

 

Listen in context

It is important to hear the change in context with the other tracks of your beat, so if you have your track on solo, press that un-solo button and try to pull the eq curve up and down to hear if the changes are doing any good.

 

Tip : With the eq plugin that is a part of izotope neutron 2, you can use the learn function of the eq and it will automatically find the highest resonating frequencies. Then you can turn the predefined frequencies down and hear if you like more or less of that frequency.

 

The secret tool

When I first started to mix music. I was convinced that the mix engineers who mixed my favorite records, had some kind of tool that I didn’t and therefore were able to make the larger that life mixes that made even the simplest ideas so much more interesting. But as I learned more, I realized that this was not the case. There is no secret plugin og analog gear that makes you recording sound magically better. It all comes down to a lot of small changes done to the audio signal.

But! There is something you can do to your audio signal that can sometimes feel like it is magic, and that is saturation or analog distortion if you will.

 

Emulation or analog?

Today, there are a lot of plugins that emulate the saturation of analog gear and we can argue for months if the emulations are as good as that analog gear, but the emulations will always win when you have a low budget. You can get so many analog emulation plugins for the same price as a true analog piece of gear. Yes, you can build your own analog gear for a fraction of the price of the original analog gear, but it is very time consuming and you have to be good at soldering and you are not guaranteed that the gear will be working correctly.

 

That warm sound

For me, the analog plugin emulations are the go to source for that analog color. When you add saturations to a track, you add harmonics to the audio signal, and every piece of analog gear or emulation plugin, has its own sound, this is due to the different electronic components the gear is made of. They all leave a little “spice” in the audio signal, when it passes through. When the saturation is added, it can give the perception of the audio signal having more depth and sounding fuller.

 

Tip : When using plugin emulations of analog gear. It is very important to feed the right amount of signal into the plugin. If the plugin does not have an input and output knob to control this. Then you can add a gain plugin before and after the emulation plugin. Feed the plugin with enough gain so the plugin is working correctly (you will not get the plugins intended sound if the signal is too low), but make sure you do not digitally clip on the plugin, this will in most cases not sound good.

 

A little clean up

After all the tracks that needed saturation, has been saturated, you could do some reductive eq again, just to make sure that no frequency masking is happening. Check if any tracks are canceling each other out.

 

Tip : Again Izotope neutron 2, can help here. It has a function in its eq, where you can check the audio signal against another audio signal to see if any frequency masking is occurring.

 

Compression

If needed, add compression at this stage. Many samples, be it drum or instrument samples, have already been treated with compression and it is therefore not needed. Compression is not a must..nothing is, but compression can help keep things in place and bring instruments together. The key, if you are not going for an extreme effect, is to use compression in a subtle way and not over do it.

 

Additive EQ

Giving the audio tracks a bit more color with additive eq. Now your mix should be clean as a whistle. You should be able to hear all of the elements in your track. The way you would like them to be heard. From here you can start to give the instruments some more color. If the saturation didn’t get you there completely. Here you could use plugins that emulate analog equalizers. Just as with the analog saturation plugins, you are now able to get a “sound” from the plugin. The eq will add its own subtle or extreme saturation to the signal. The benefit here is that you have control of which frequencies are affected by the plugin and you can color the sound to your taste.

 

Find your space

To give your tracks more depth and sense of space, you could add reverb and delay. The chances are that you probably have reverb on some of your tracks and that is ok. Since delay and reverb often is a part of sound designing. But in my opinion. You will benefit from have the tracks going through the same kind of reverb. This will make it feel like the instruments are in the same room. But be aware that reverb can make your mix cluttered again, therefore be careful not to make frequency rumble with your reverb, especially the lower frequencies.

 

Tip : If you use a bus to send your tracks to, and put a reverb on that bus, try to put a equalizer before the reverb plugin and low cut up to 80-200 hz or maybe even more, this will make sure that only the frequencies above the low cut, will be affected by the reverb.

 

Mastering

Now that you have a good balanced mix, it is time to take it to the next level. This is where mastering comes in. You could go two ways, either send the track to a mastering engineer or master the track yourself. The last option will of course be the most budget friendly way to go.

 

Check your master

After mastering it is important to check the track on different audio systems. Do this to hear if the master sounds the way you want it to. But most importantly, check it on an audio system that you use frequently. This way you will probably have a better idea of how it should sound. Also compare your track to other artists songs, that you like the sound of.

 

Tip: For a fast and budget friendly way to get a good master, I recommend iZotope Ozone 8. Ozone 8 has a lot of features that can help you get to where you want with the master.

 

The end of the music production workflow

Now you have reached the end of this article. I hope that you have a clearer vision of how to spend your time in the studio. This is not a bible and should not be followed like one. But, it can help you have a birds eye view of your music production workflow, from idea to finished track.

If you have any questions or feedback regarding this article, please comment or send me an email at itscontrabeat@gmail.com, and if you liked the article, feel free to share it with friends or colleges.

 

All the best.

itsContraBeat

 

Leave a Comment