Productivity isn’t always a factor in creating art. Sure, if an international label wants to pay your band to spend two months in the studio, go for it! No rush; have a ball.
But for the rest of us musicians, studio time is expensive, and life can get busy quickly. We simply can’t afford to waste time or squander opportunities because we’re not quick enough. On top of that, the music industry, with its lack of traditional workplace structures, doesn’t always come with a clear time management road map.
Where does that leave us?
Creatives need to own their talent and their drive just as much as their ability to be productive, and turn it on with focus and vision when necessary. So let’s look at some of the easiest and best ways you can maximize your workflow and make use of productivity tools that are mostly already at your disposal.
Taking advantage of templates is the easiest method for maximizing your workflow and provides a pretty significant return on your time investment. Templates are easy to create, edit, and implement.
I suggest that you build a template for each type of project you typically work on, and to be as specific as possible. You may need to construct three or four different templates. Some examples might be: top-to-bottom demo production, recording ideas with just guitar/piano and voice, a template for scoring or producing trailer music, and one for mastering.
Build out and populate your sends, vocal chain etc. Assign inputs based on where you typically connect hardware or instruments, set your grid to your preferred note lengths, create a click track—all of these details will save as part of the template and expedite the creative process when you sit down to start working on something new.
My “Writing Session” template in ProTools consists of:
4x Audio Sample Tracks
2x Synths (MIDI)
And it looks like this…
Pre-program your patches
Composition can take on a life of its own in a flash. When we find ourselves in a moment of spontaneity, ideas can come faster than we’re able to process. We can all relate to the feeling of hanging onto the threads of an idea in your head, and then working ourselves into a frenzy, terrified to lose control of our flow.
Slowing down your process to search for sounds or build a preset can be a serious drag and hinder your ability to fully realize your ideas. But if done in advance, this could save your lightning in a bottle moments forever. Try designing presets within your DAW, like mapping heavily used sounds to a sampler or customizing your Ableton Live Drum Rack utilizing your go-to one-shots from Splice, etc.
Bookmark or favorite patches you use frequently, or build a track into your template with those patches already cued up.
Modeling technology hit the mainstream in the late ‘90s with advents like the Line 6 POD. In the last decade, technology has taken enormous leaps, to the degree that most laypeople (and musicians alike) can’t tell the difference between a model recreation of a sound, and the analog pedal combinations that originally created that sound. Hold the comments, tube-ampers (I still have those too), this is about ease of use.
The reason it’s still worth it for songwriters, producers, and session musicians to have at-the-ready tone modeling is that otherwise they’ll waste precious creative time and energy lugging around bulky hardware and fidgeting with mic configurations, when all they need is to bounce out a simple demo.
Modeling units like the Fractal Audio Axe FX, Line 6 Helix, and the illustrious Kemper Profiler have opened the door for instrumentalists and producers to command a sweeping array of sounds with a compact, uncomplicated interface. These units can model heads, cabs, combos, pedals, microphones, placement and other artifacts found in tube amplifiers. Above all, they are extremely consistent—not subject to change due to real-world factors like the room, weather, or the efficiency of your wall outlets (literally).
And this also includes plug-ins. Companies like Neural DSP, Native Instruments, and Bias have developed high-quality studio software capable of dialing up a nearly infinite assortment of tones at the push of a button.
You can still choose to record your final guitar tracks with a tube amp or in a larger recording studio, but having the ability to record big, versatile guitar or bass tracks quickly is one of the biggest time-savers in the modern studio.
Master key commands
This may sound like a no-brainer for most, but getting well-acquainted with the key command shortcuts in your DAW of choice is an enormous asset in increasing productivity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with otherwise competent writers or producers who mouse-click throughout an entire session, wasting everybody’s time and hindering the creative process.
Commands like snapping your entire session to the edit window, alternating between the mix window and the edit window, creating new tracks, muting, soloing, punching, nudging and cycling through editing tools, end up saving cumulative hours in long sessions.
Parcel out your time
When you find yourself taking on a lot of work, try parceling out your time down to the minute. Draw up a quick schedule for the day that touches on each project or commission you have due. Set aside an hour for one project, 30 minutes for another, and 15 minutes to draw up the lyric sheet.
Another great way to do this effectively is to make use of the Pomodoro Technique. Essentially all this requires is to use a timer to demarcate 25-minute work spans, followed by a five-minute break. This model helps your brain to focus on single tasks in standardized blocks of time and not wander until either the task or block is over.
Pushing the limits of your attention to finish a project all at once can lead to diminishing returns and a lack of focus. Not to mention ear fatigue and other impediments associated with overwork.
It’s not uncommon for musicians these days to split attention between multiple projects, or even multiple jobs, inside and outside the industry. It’s important to learn to prioritize creative tasks over menial tasks if you want to take advantage of a productive period and see dramatic growth within your career.
I’m referring to the “I’ve been really busy doing my grocery shopping lately!” syndrome we see with creative types that have a lot of kinetic energy without any structured channels to direct that force.
Prioritize the tasks that you feel are most important to your work. These tasks can be creative or logistic, as long as they relate back to your project or livelihood. That means saving doing the dishes or getting your car washed for a little bit later. Use that coffee buzz or surge of inspiration to attack the work that is most important to you, and also the most demanding.
Chores, shopping, and paying bills can usually be executed on autopilot, but good art cannot.
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Dre DiMura is a professional guitarist, songwriter, and author. While his friends were studying for the SATs, Dre was already touring the world with Gloria Gaynor, Dee Snider & Palaye Royale. He's a musician and he's played one on TV too. You may see him at your local enormo-dome on tour with Diamante.
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