What is Workflow in Music Production?

Two music producers in front of a DAW talking about workflow

Are you an aspiring music producer? Heard the term “workflow” and not exactly sure what it means? In audio production, workflow means exactly the same thing as it does when used in other industries, but the implications involve a wide array of music-specific phases and techniques. Workflow is the pattern of activity that leads you to your finished process, taking you through a series of organized and highly orchestrated steps that everyone in the industry is familiar with. One of the key aspects of workflow is that it’s repeatable, meaning any other music producer can pick up this same process and apply it to their own audio projects.

Music Production Workflow: The Three Phases

Although not all music producers agree, you can generally break workflow into three distinct stages: pre-production, production, and post-production. This is a straightforward way of distinguishing between the steps in the process, each phase containing numerous individual processes and techniques that are essential to creating a final product. Many music producers find it much easier and less overwhelming to deal with the countless critical elements that go into production when they’re divided in this way, grouping similar techniques together.

Phase #1: Pre-Production

Before you can record a hit song, you have to make a hit song. Pre-production is the stage in which music producers work through a process of songwriting and composition to craft a song that means something to them. Some music producers start off with a vague musical idea that they build on, while others seem to come up with a fully formed idea out of thin air. The creative process is one of the most unpredictable phases of the music production process, so much of it happens long before you ever walk into a studio.

In some cases, music producers will work with artists, assisting them in refining their work. It’s not uncommon for small tweaks to be suggested by the music producer along the way. Whether it be to make the track more commercially viable or just to make it more musically interesting. When a music producer has been in the business for a long time, they often have a better understanding of up-and-coming artists’ work than the artists themselves, simply from experience and a deep understanding of music theory.

Once the song itself has been finalized and all the kinks worked out, it’s time to create a rough draft. In music production terms, this is called a demo; it’s an opportunity for the music producer to lay down their musical ideas without having to worry about it being studio quality. This will allow you to unleash your creativity and personal expression on these demo tracks, and most importantly – get your song recorded.

Pre-production is also the time to make sure you have all of your logistical pieces in place. Whether it’s cleaning or maintaining instruments, ensuring that you have sufficient studio time booked, or in the case of using a home studio, making sure that you’re equipped with all the tools you’ll need. It saves you a considerable amount of money if you have all of these things taken care of before the actual production phase begins.

Phase #2: Production

Once everything is in place and everyone has a clear idea of the song that you’re recording, it’s time to move into the production phase. This is often seen as the most exciting part of the process and is certainly the most romanticized, often depicted in movies and TV shows. The reality when working in a professional studio might not be that far off, depending on the movie.

Artists spend countless hours performing the same song again and again, recording it as many times as possible and sometimes in different ways in order to get the best take. This brings a unique challenge that many artists struggle with, having to emulate the passion and energy that a performer gets on stage in a sometimes sterile and dead-feeling studio. There are those who thrive in this type of controlled setting while it makes others struggle through every note. This is when the music producer has to step up and help the artist get to a place where they’re comfortable enough to perform to their highest potential. Sometimes this means providing an inspiring pep talk, while other times it just means encouraging them to keep playing until they feel a natural groove.

It’s important to make sure you get everything you need from an artist while they’re in the studio. For studio musicians who are getting paid by the session or the hour, time is quite literally money. Music producers have to manage their workflow in such a way that they can plan not only who will be needed but which spaces and equipment will be used as well.

Phase #3: Post-Production

Once you’re absolutely sure you’ve recorded all the material you could possibly need for the album or audio project, you can finally move into post-production, the final phase of producing an album. After all the studio musicians and recording artists have gone home, that’s when the real work can begin for you, as a music producer. This is when things are edited, mixed, remixed, endlessly tinkered with using effects or layering on new generated parts, and finally, mastered. Post-production is the point at which you have all the working pieces of your song laid down, and now they just need to be polished up to perfection.

This phase underscores how crucial it is for a music producer to have a quality DAW, MIDI instruments, and any other software and hardware they need to get their musical workflow started. Using these tools, you can add effects like reverb, delay, or distortion, as well as raise the volume on certain parts that need to stand out more.

Mastering is the final part of post-production and is extremely important if you want to get your music on the radio or streaming playlists. This is where the perfected mix is made as clean as possible, eliminating any spikes in the volume that would be off-putting to a listener. It’s also the way that songs are made to sound their best on every device, as opposed to sounding great with headphones but garbled through speakers.

Who Does a Music Producer Work with During This Workflow?

For most music producers, working alone is simply not an option. Even for those who can do everything all by themselves, creative minds tend to thrive better when they’re working together. These are some of the main professionals that a music producer will come into contact with on a regular basis.

A&R – Artists and repertoire is an important sector of any music publishing company or record label. Those working in this division go out and find talented unknown artists, often scouting small venues. They also play a huge role in forming the overall artistic development of a performer as their music style grows and changes. Music producers work closely with A&R in pre-production, using their skills to fill out the studio with enough recording artists to stay busy.

Audio Technician – These professionals help make all the adjustments necessary to get the best recording, be that by adjusting knobs and faders on a mixing board or by setting up instruments and monitors in the best possible way. Audio technicians are also well-versed in audio effects, able to quickly determine the best choice for almost any scenario.

Studio Assistant – This is someone who’s there to do all the in-between work that makes the lives of the music producers, engineers, and musicians much easier. No one is saying that the job won’t involve getting the coffee, but it’s still a highly valuable position both for the person doing it and for everyone else. When you are able to delegate to your studio assistant, you can get more of the essential work done.

Dedicated Mixing or Mastering Specialist – For particularly complex and busy musical projects, these dedicated specialists might be called in. Having been trained specifically in either mixing or mastering, they’ll have the skills and knowledge to seamlessly polish up even the most challenging of albums.

Distribution and Marketing – Once the song is completely produced, you’ll want to do everything you can to get people listening. Music producers have a deep understanding of how the market works and how to distribute the work that they’ve put so much time and energy into. It’s the music producer who goes out and pushes the work the hardest because they may have the most to gain from it.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know about workflow as a music producer, it is time to start the process. Working with all the professionals in the music studio, you can start creating the next big hit. Follow the process of workflow and you will be well on your way to a rewarding and fulfilling career in the music industry.

Audio Production Program

Ready to get into audio production and start creating music? The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.