7 Music Production Workflow Tips – Slice Through Sessions Like Butter

Here are 7 tips that will speed up your music production workflow:

  1. Organisation of sample packs, plugins, custom effect racks.
  2. Separate your music making, mixing & sound design into different sessions.
  3. Create DAW templates for the genre, or purpose of your music production session.
  4. Build a pool of reference tracks you can get inspired from.
  5. Set structural markers inside your DAW. 16bars for intro, 32 for drop etc.
  6. Set timed goals for each task. 10 mins for drums, 30 mins for melody etc.
  7. Learn your keyboard shortcuts

Usually fixed on improving their mixing and production skills, a lot of producers tend to forget the importance of workflow.

A bad workflow is sure to stifle your creativity. You never want to forget an idea that just popped in your head, while you’re trying to set up the sound or effect. A good workflow however, can be something that takes your production to the next level of productivity, quality and output.

While your workflow must evolve with time and practice, some basic tips and tricks are helpful to get you started down the proper road. So how do you get your workflow to be as smooth as a Japanese train ride?

Organization

music studio organised
Credit: @musicstudioz

Organization is probably the first thing you’ll think of when speaking about workflow. And you’d be correct, good organization of both your physical creative space, and your digital, DAW environment.

The basis of a good organization within your digital space (DAW) is the rule of 3 clicks. If anything that you use on a regular basis is further than 3 clicks away, it’s sub-optimal.

If you produce using a guitar for example, you should never have to spend 15 minutes doing routing and setting up amp-sims. Those are 15 minutes you could have already used to lay down some ideas.

So let’s look into how to organize your Digital Space.

Sample Organization

We use a lot of samples when making music. From kicks, to snares, to melodies and vocals, we’d say our sample library is in the tens of thousands of samples. While having a large sample selection is great, there are certainly sounds you use more often than others.

Having to look for these sounds every time you want to use them, means lost time and needless clicking.

A great thing to try, is assembling a favourites folder. A separate folder, where you’ll be dropping all your favourite sounds. If you find a great kick that you like a lot, categorize it as such. Creating separate favourite folders for different elements, will improve it even more. Create 4 folders to categorize these further, for example:

  • Drums
  • Melody
  • Bass
  • And miscellaneous folder

Combining your favourite sounds in an easy to reach folder, helps when you want to lay down a quick idea, or use something familiar.

This can also be applied to your other sample libraries (minus the favourite sounds). And, spending a day or two organizing your entire sample library can be extremely valuable.

Instead of having folders for each separate sample pack, you can try categorizing sounds from these packs. Create folders for your Kicks, Snares, Hi-Hats, Chords, Melodies, Bass, FX etc. You can also try separating these further into loops and one-shots.

Overall organization, combined with an easy to access favourite folder, saves your time and keeps you from the mind-numbing clicking of subfolders.

Plugin Organization

music production workflow - organisation

Plugin organization in your DAW is quite similar to organizing samples. The key is categorizing, but unlike samples, this is way more vital when talking about Plugins.

Consider the file name of an audio sample, which is usually explains exactly what it is. Names of plugins on the other hand, tend to be less descriptive. On first look, something like the Infected Mushroom Manipulator, or the Krotos Dehumanizer, don’t give away their function.

For this exact reason, categorizing your plugin library is key to improving your workflow. Create separate folders for your Compression plugins, EQ’s, Reverbs, Mastering plugins, Vocal Effects etc. Don’t leave a single VST uncategorized. If you have plugins with more ambiguous functionality, create a miscellaneous folder.

It can also be helpful to create a separate favourites folder for your plugins, however this is less vital than it is for samples.

Custom Effect Racks

ableton custom effects for workflow
Credit: mmmmaven.com

You probably have your go-to reverb effect you like to put on vocals, alongside your favourite vocal compressor, and chorus effect too. Instead of having to locate 3 different plugins from their respective folders, create custom effect racks.

Whenever you notice yourself using a similar assembly of plugins more often, save it as a custom effect rack.

Let’s say for example, you’ve just saved a vocal effects rack with reverb, a compressor and chorus. When it comes to using it, you’re still going to have to go into your plugins and tweak them to your liking. Whether it’s the Dry/Wet or Pre-Delay of your reverb, Threshold of your compressor or the mix level in your chorus, creating a macro section for these settings is key.

A good macro will cut out the entire process of opening and closing your devices, and will speed up your workflow.

Separate creative sessions

Many producers, that control every stage of the production process, have trouble separating the different stages of music production. If you produce and mix your own music, it’s hard to not make mixing decisions when producing.

To a certain degree, if you build the mix at the same time as your track, it’s bound to sound worse than a separate mix. This is mostly due to the fact that when mixing along with producing, it’s easy to focus on the wrong elements.

So how do you separate the stages of music production, and where do you call the line?

Sound Design Session

analog synth

Starting from the ground up, a standalone sound design session, completely free of the expectation of making a song, is a very useful process.

If you produce every day of the week, leave one day of the week solely for sound design. Use the time you would have used previously to continue your music, to create the coolest sounds you can. Don’t make any beats during that time, focus solely on making some cool loops, effects or drum hits to use later on.

Creating these kinds of bespoke sample packs for yourself, becomes extremely valuable when you go to actually producing new music. After all, what sounds are gonna fit your music better than the ones you made yourself?

And who knows, you might amass enough sounds to release some sample packs.

After you finish reading this article, you should really be planning your next sound design session.

Production Sessions

Probably the most involved and time consuming production process, will be your actual music making session.

You’ve made your sounds, you’ve organized your samples and plugins, and now you just want to create your music. While everybody’s style of production differs massively, there’s a few things to be conscious of when producing.

Firstly, make sure to not do any mixing. You shouldn’t be mixing your music at the same time as you’re creating it. For example, if you’ve started your track with a melody layer, it’s most likely that you’ll be building the song around it. If you’re mixing it at the same time, you’re also going to be building your mix around the melody.

If you’re making a dance track with an emphasis on drums, this is quite obviously not the best way to go.

While you may shift your focus to the drums, if you’ve already mixed your melody, it’s hard to sway your mix the other way, without starting over.

Don’t confuse this with creative mixing however. Creative mixing is a key element of your production workflow, either when shaping sounds, or squashing dynamics. Your tracks usually come alive with creative mixing, but separating the border between creative mixing and track mixing, can be difficult.

A good rule of thumb is to not do much or any corrective EQ, or compression work during this stage, unless you’re shaping your sound. Don’t make any panning or volume automation permanent, or else you might have issues with it when mixing.

Keep a narrow focus on just creating the best instrumentation and arrangement you can. Only once you’re completely 100% done with creating the song, do not continue to mixing.

You do not want to start a mix and later on have to redo the entire thing, because you wanted to change a drum pattern.

When you’re finished, export the stems of your song to continue on to mixing and mastering.

TIP: Make sure that your stems are all the exact same length. This makes inserting the files into a new DAW session quick and easy. You do not want to have to rearrange your music before mixing.

Mixing and Mastering Session

mixing and mastering workflow

You’ve finished your track, all that’s left is to make it sound great. Now comes the mixing session.

Once your track is finished, you should be able to import all of your stems into a fresh project file. Once you have all your audio open in your DAW, we suggest creating a few initial groups, to keep track of your percussive, melodic and bass elements.

This is a very useful technique to keep in mind is creating busses. While you obviously will be mixing every single sonic element separately, for the final balancing, it’s incredibly useful to have less than 5 busses that make up your mix. This way, after you’ve finished mixing your individual sounds, if you decide that all of the percussive elements could come down a little, it’s quick and easy to do that.

Once you have your stems mixed and your busses levelled, you can move on to mastering.

TIP: When Mastering, creating plugin racks is vital to your workflow. Not only do they speed up your mastering process, it also helps keep a consistent mastering characteristic across all of your music.

DAW Templates

DAW Templates are an extremely useful tool that are sadly underutilized by most music producers.

Creating well-made project templates, for sound design, mixing and producing, will improve your music production workflow a lot. For every single reason we might want to open our DAW, we have a corresponding template, that we’ve made to get our projects pre-routed and organized.

When making your templates, focus on assembling all of the basic utility and routing, so that you don’t have to do it every time you start a new project. When making a production template, for example, we’ll make a default kick track that is already routed to side-chain. You can also insert your most utilized synth, in a midi track so that it’s ready to use as soon as you open up your DAW.

It’s easy to go overboard with making a template, so try to keep it as minimal as possible. Too much work before can mean that you don’t have as much creative room to breathe.

Figure out the things you have in every single project you start, and put them in your templates, it’s that easy.

TIP: Get to know your DAW inside and out, learn all of the keyboard shortcuts to make your production process faster.

Inspiration and Reference

bedroom producer studio

Have you ever been stuck when producing? If you answered no, I’m guessing you’ve just begun. All producers have points where they just get stuck and need to think their way out of a hole.

These moments tend to be the biggest time wasters that you’ll encounter as a music producer. The countless hours we’ve spent putting in work and getting nowhere, are damn near depressing.

That is until we started using reference tracks. We don’t want you to think that using reference tracks will mean you’ll no longer get stuck when making your music. While it’s not a magical solution, it can be a great assistance.

Every producer should have a folder of songs to reference. If you don’t, start assembling one. Choose songs that are similar to what you’re trying to achieve. Maybe you like the transitions of one song, save it on your computer to reference when you want some new ideas on transitions. With time, your reference folder will grow and expand, and you’ll never run out of helpful guides.

That being said, using reference tracks is only meant as a tool of inspiration. Please do not take this as an invitation to copy other producers’ style.

While being inspired by great work is a necessity, there’s a fine line between inspiration and copying.

If you want more tips on how to finish your music, check out our how to finish a song guide.

Arrangement Markings

When working in a linear way, inside the arrangement view of your DAW, referencing earlier points in the track, or fixing arrangement, can be a pain, without proper markings.

Set structural markers inside your DAW. Set where your intro, drops, b sections and transitions are, to have a solid structure, holding your arrangement together. This way you have instant visual pointers to any part of your track. If you’re working on the outro, and realise that your b section needs a different transition, finding that spot in the arrangement will be easier with markings.

Don’t let these arrangement markings restrain you however, they should be just as fluid as your track, while producing. Markings can be moved, and as the track grows, will move with it. Use Markings as a tool, rather than a restraint.

The Importance Of Timed Goals

While you can work for hours on end to perfect your music, sometimes all you need is a gentle push.

Setting Timed Goals is one of the best things to do when you just want a little nudge to speed up your production workflow.

If you have 2 hours free per day to work on music split those 2 hours into smaller intervals where you’ll focus on one thing at a time. Let’s say you’d spent 30 minutes on drums, 20 on figuring out a melody and so on.

Setting timed goals for yourself will stop you from spending unnecessary amounts of time, when you could instead be doing something more useful.

If you’re struggling to separate your production and mixing stages, this is also incredibly helpful. If you don’t have time to overmix something, you won’t.

You can also set yourself the goal of making music every day. While too much restriction isn’t what we want, organizing your time is important. If you have the goal of making music every day for 2 hours starting from 7PM, after a week, your schedule will grow to include this music making time.

If there’s one important thing you could take away from this article, it’s exactly that. Make music regularly. It’s important to take breaks, do it too much and you’ll burn out. As with all things in life, balance is key.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Probably one of the first things you’ll do with a DAW is learn the keyboard shortcuts. While this may be obvious to experienced producers, beginners tend to forget the advantage of knowing your shortcuts.

This applies even outside of Digital Audio Workstations, and is the same for any professional software. If you want to duplicate an audio clip, you should be able to do it with a simple shortcut. When producing, you’ll be using more keyboard shortcuts, than mouse clicks, which is why knowing them all, is key.

Apple Magic Keyboards have those standard silicone overlays, that show all your keyboard shortcuts. While this may be helpful when starting out, if you have to look down at your keyboard every time you want to do a shortcut, it beats the purpose.

Additionally to this, it’s necessary to mention that your DAW’s manual is one of the most valuable resources you can use. They’re usually available for free digitally, but can be bought in print. Read you manuals!

TIP: If you’re using Ableton Live, try out the free add-on, Live Enhancement Suite. It adds a few nifty features, and extra shortcuts, that optimize Live’s functionality even further. Try it out.

Finishing Up

Your music production workflow evolves along with you. Every new technique or device, can change your entire workflow. It’s important to stay adaptable and keep streamlining your workflow.

A good workflow will help you finish tracks you’ve started, as well as help create new music, faster and better.

Hopefully you’ve been able to take some production tips from this article, and include them in your own music production workflow.