How to Write, Record and Mix Music (The Ultimate Production Workflow)

Rob Mayzes, founder of Home Studio Center   by Rob Mayzes

 

800px-Roland_Casiquin_playing_guitar“My single biggest challenge is feeling overwhelmed when I sit down to start a new project. Where do I start?”

This question from a reader is one that I see often.

You might be great at writing, recording and mixing…

But if you don’t have a proven workflow that works for you, it’s hard to start and finish a track.

In this article, I’m going to share my best advice for finding your perfect production workflow. I’m also going to share mine.

Once you have a workflow for writing, recording, editing and mixing music, you will be able to produce better music and mixes in less time.

Featured Bonus: Join my brand new vocal mixing workshop for FREE. Learn how to produce better vocals at home and get your music the attention it deserves. (Click to watch the first video)

 

Composition Workflow: How to Write Music

Of all the stages of the production process, this is the one where people vary the most.

Everyone has a different way of writing music.

It depends what your strongest instrument is. It depends if you have an inclination towards harmony, melody or rhythm.

As a bassist, I tend to start with the bass and drums and build from there. Also, as I can’t sing, the vocals tend to be recorded last. But it varies.

There are a few common ways of writing that might work for you. Try each approach below. Once you find a workflow that works, stick with it.

 

Start with the Lyrics and Vocal Melody

This is a great way to work if you want the vocals to be the main focus.

It’s also an easy way to write great melodies that are memorable.

Start with the lyrics, and compose a vocal melody to those words. You could also hum, whistle or scat a melody without any lyrics.

Once you have your main melody finished, find some chords that work well underneath. This usually becomes the chorus, and you can work from there.

 

Start With Your Strongest Instrument

This seems like the obvious thing to do.

Start with the instrument that you are most comfortable with (even if it’s just vocals).

For me, this is bass guitar. If I am following this approach, I will write the chord progression and main rhythmic theme.

If you are a vocalist, you could start with the melody and lyrics and build from there.

 

Start With the Title

To write in a more emotional manner, you could start with the title.

But before you come up with the title, you need to decide what you are going to write about. Decide on a topic or past event that means something to you.

Once you have a title and overall feel for the song, you can start writing lyrics, chords and melodies.

Start with the chorus and then compose the verses, bridge etc.

 

Start With an Influence

This is a great technique for beginners and people with less time.

Start with a song that you would like to use as your main influence. Now pick it apart and observe how the different parts work with each other.

Observe the following things:

  • Chordal Structure
  • Melody Structure
  • Instrumentation
  • Tempo
  • Rhythm
  • Harmony

Once you have an idea of what makes the song sound the way it does, write your own song using the key features.

For example, let’s say I want to use Towers by Bon Iver as my main influence.

I can observe the following things about this song:

  • Atmospheric introduction using an EBow on an electric guitar
  • Chords with ringing open strings played on a clean electric guitar
  • Falsetto vocal with a lot of overdubbed harmonies
  • Drums and brass section come in towards the end

I could start by writing a chord pattern on electric guitar with ringing open strings. Then I could write a falsetto vocal part. At this point, inspiration will likely strike and the overall song structure and lyrics will start to come together.

Then, during the recording process I could add vocal overdubs for the harmonies and create an atmospheric introduction.

The end product should be quite different from the original influence, but it gives you a great starting point.

 

Writing Music in a Band

Writing music as a band is often more complicated. It’s more difficult to recommend a workflow that will work for everyone.

Try applying one of the approaches above. You also have a few more options when it comes to composing music as a band:

  • One person writes the entire piece, and the other musicians play the parts
  • One person writes the core song (chords and/or lead vocals), everyone else writes their own parts (bass, drums, lead guitar etc)
  • Improvise until you come across something that you like

 

Recording Workflow: Lay the Song Down

Some people record music as part of the writing process, which is perfectly acceptable.

If you write electronic music, this will almost certainly be the case.

Or if you are a solo musician composing a full band piece, you will also have to record the piece as you write it.

Sometimes you might want to start from scratch and record the whole track again once you have finished the first demo. This is up to you.

If you DON’T record as you write, then the recording workflow will be entirely different.

 

Recording as a Solo Musician

If you have a finished song and are recording from scratch, it’s best to start with the foundations.

It’s also vital to use a click track (metronome) in your DAW when recording.

Start with the drums (electronic or not), then record the bass and build up from there. Record the vocals last.

 

Recording as a Band

When recording as a band, you first need to decide if you want to record live or separately.

If recording separately, it’s best to start with the drums (and bass at the same time if possible).

Then build from there, starting with chords and ending with melodies and vocals.

Featured Bonus: Join my brand new vocal mixing workshop for FREE. Learn how to produce better vocals at home and get your music the attention it deserves. (Click to watch the first video)

 

Editing Workflow: Fixing Rhythm and Tuning

This is an important section of the production process that many people skip.

Spending sufficient time on editing can be the difference between an amateur and professional sound.

Not all genres are appropriate for editing (jazz, for example). But if you are working with any mainstream style, it’s essential.

Start with the drums. It will be a lot easier if you recorded to a click track. Fix any early/late hits, but don’t forget to align the overheads too.

Now line up the other parts to the drums.

Edit the vocals last. Comp them, tune them if necessary, fix any timing issues and apply clip gain automation.

 

Mixing Workflow: Don’t Mix Without a System

This is the phase where it is most important to have a workflow.

Too many people waste time and energy aimlessly moving around the mix…

…with no intentions, goals or direction. Don’t let this be you.

Some people like to start with the most important part (for example, the vocal) or the foundation (for example, the kick drum) and work up from there.

Once you have finished mixing one channel, you bring in the next.

I think this is an awful approach to mixing. Instead, I recommend starting with the bigger picture and leaving the finer details (like the tone of a kick drum) to the end of the mix.

I call this process Slow Focus Mixing, and you can learn all about it in the video below.

 

Conclusion

Having a workflow for every stage of the music production process is vital.

Without a workflow, you will feel overwhelmed. You will waste time deciding what to do next.

Try the approaches that I have outlined in this article – but in the end it’s all down to you and how you like to work.

Over time you will develop your own preferred workflow. But for now, it’s better to have something than nothing.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Do you have a workflow that isn’t mentioned in this article? Or perhaps you don’t have a workflow at all, and like it that way?

Leave a comment below.

14 Responses to “How to Write, Record and Mix Music (The Ultimate Production Workflow)”

  • I was always very disorganized, which led to nothing getting done. For me, it was a book called Eat That Frog that helped me become more efficient and productive. It basically teaches to group all your tasks by priority and work on the most important (also usually the least pleasant, like eating a live frog) first thing in the morning. It works well and got me to a point where I completed, at the very least, my most important task every day. Then I had children and that all went out the window….

  • Fantastically written Rob this is a great article and addresses so many misconceptions about the writing and mixing process! Especially your video on ‘Slow Focus Mixing’, I love this approach and it’s something I need to explore more of in my mixing workflow. Look forward to reading more of your posts, great work.

  • I noticed that when I have a workflow everything becomes so much easier. Instead of jumping from one thing to another, i know exactly what comes next and follow it accordingly.

  • I have been working with a partner for about the last year who is generally the lyricist. He plays no instruments. I play guitars, bass, and some keys. Rhythm tracks come from one of three drum machines which I’ve gotten pretty good at programming. We both have written songs but he has a backlog of ideas/lyrics that lately have become the basis for most of our new material.

    When we get together to write (usually at his home), one of us will bring up an idea for a new tune. There may be nothing more than a generalized melody which may or may not be used but usually gets things going. If it’s one of my buddy’s ideas, he usually has a couple of verses and a chorus written out. Often, a bridge comes much later, but sometimes it’s part of the original idea. Since I perform the instrumentation, I usually bring in my songs as more finished with basic chords, melodies and lyrics. On a few very rare occasions, we have tried to model a particular song on another one we like, after all, there’s not much new in this world. Our process is all very interactive and we both critique one another’s material until we feel we’ve got our best combination of parts. Rewrites and tweaks to lyrics and melodies are not uncommon. After bouncing stuff back and forth and arriving at a good point, we record a guitar/vocal scratch track on my phone.

    The scratch track is the first thing I load into my DAW. Next is usually programming whatever drum patterns feel right and sequencing the patterns, fills and tempo to roughly fit with the scratch track idea and other permutations. After that, I can go with any of the instruments but usually I go for the main guitar part to set the mood. If the tune is more driven by a keyboard part, I’ll do that instead. Layering instruments over the original basic tracks flows pretty smoothly. Once my ideas for the instrument recording are completed. We listen together to determine if we need anything else and that we’ve hit the mark we wanted. So far, we have done all of the vocals and they are usually recorded near the end to a reasonably complete arrangement so the singers can really get Into the material.

    Workflow after the tracking sessions is pretty typical. Since the drum tracks are pretty much perfect, I only need to work on pocketing the bass and any other instruments that are significantly off. I don’t like to adjust out all the minute timing imperfections in the instrument tracks. I prefer a little bit of “slop” to retain the feel of real humans playing the music. However, if necessary, I will tune selected notes played on my fretless bass and some solo guitar parts where bends might not be right on pitch (nobody’s perfect). I try to get the gain levels close during recording so I don’t have to do a lot of gain staging after the fact but I do what’s needed.

    Lead vocal takes are comped and, if they are good enough, I usually create a “true” double track with different segments comped for the second track. If there are major timing issues or some notes are held out longer on one track over the other, I’ll adjust those to be close but not necessarily perfect (have you ever listened to some of the old Beatle recordings?). Backing vocals go through the same process and others may be added if desired. All vocals are tuned for pitch to about 95% unless finer adjustment is needed for harmonies to work. Irregularities in volume are smoothed to reduce compression requirements during mixdown.

    During mixdown, I generally use a big picture approach, as recommended by Rob and others. After basic balance adjustments, I’ll begin with EQ and Compression at the buss level, working my way down to finer adjustments on any individual tracks that need work.

    I do like to do a sort of parallel compression on my sequenced drum tracks to give the bass drum and snare a bit more pop. Since I’m working with pre-recorded full drum tracks, I get a bit creative. After duplicating a full drum track for both, I’ll find the “sweet spot” for each individual drum and EQ out everything else, basically leaving a bass drum and snare track that I can further process with Compression and add to the mix for emphasis. It’s a little different, but I’ve gotten pretty good results.

    Together, my friend and I have written about 40 tunes in the last year and that number is still growing. Of those, we’ve got about 25 in some level of recording/production. Once we’re satisfied with a dozen or so, we plan to offer a few out for critique by some of our online mentors. Once their suggestions have been incorporated, we expect to have the tunes professionally mastered in anticipation of release.

    We really are just getting started on this effort and that which one might call a workflow is still evolving. Hope this is helpful to others out there. – MarkInTheGardens

  • Was good Fam
    Thanks for the hint Rob.. you can listen one of the tracks l tried using your tips..give me a responds on it thanks once again

  • I don’t have a workflow yet. However, after watching one of your videos and reading this article, I will implement (basically) your workflow. It makes a lot of sense to me as a beginner in writing, recording and mixing. I feel more comfortable with this type of approach than just clicking here and there. Thanks! -Norm

  • My work flow follows the one and only aspect that every musician ( regardless of age, skill, experience, etc) is more than capable of and it is the following:

    At every moment in the day, a musician is presented with inspiration around every corner; The only way to make a song the best that you can is to keep a dedicated voice recording device within reach at each location you are typically In the course of a day. You should have one in your car, one at your desk, one at your job, and one by your pillow. I’m not talking about 1 recorder (like a phone or just 1 device). You need one for each location and put it back when you leave the site.

    When you wake up, hit record every morning on the one by the pillow and just record your morning routine and just talk to yourself when you feel the need. Then put it back.
    Next, you’ll be heading to work so sit down in the car and before you even start the engine, grab that recording device and hit record. Don’t force anything, don’t think, just continue how you normally would on your routine. If you see something that is not typical for your commute, tell yourself about it as your driving. If you see something that you’ve never noticed, tell yourself about it.

    If you continue this process and make it a normal routine, you’ll find the answer to your struggles with lyrics and song topics. Who cares if you never even say a word on the majority of the recordings? Who cares if you end up with 3 hours straight of outside noise and random conversations on a morning talk show you’re listening to? KEEP THE PROCESS GOING AND DON’T EVEN LISTEN TO THE PLAYBACK.
    I promise you, that once it’s become a normal thing you do everyday, the barrier to creativity will be broken down without you knowing it. You will find that after a few days, you’ll start having vocalizedinner reactions and descriptions of the things you’re doing or seeing or feeling. Soon enough, you’ll say the most important things you’d never have said because you’ve learned that there’s no pressure, there’s nothing to lose, and there’s no one listening. LET YOUR GUARD DOWN AND START TALKING TO YOURSELF.

    If you need the proof, I’ve got 9 years of doing this, and thousands of things I’ve said that make me laugh, cry, get angry, make me sad, make me feel happy, make me say “damn I’m so glad I got that on tape”. Break the silence and you’ll Crack the code.

    -Matthew Taheny
    [email protected]
    Nightshade Records

  • Seems I’ve been blessed. I’ve never been a good lyricist ergo, up until a few years ago, just didn’t do a lot of songwriting.
    However, as it turned out (wonderfully for us) my fiancee is an amazing Lyrical writer. Discovered quite by accident.
    Her sense of cadence, and word play is astounding to me. By that I mean that when she writes lyrics, after one or two read through’s I can actually “See/Hear” the melody and rhythm musically for the song. This is of course at times a two edged song as my strongest instruments are vocals and harmonica. Followed by rhythm guitar.
    So if the music in my head for a set of lyrics sounds to me more of a piano based song, then I’ve got my work cut out for me as I have to make multiple piano tracks and blend them to create the feel of a real piano player playing with both left and right hands.
    But for the most part it’s a wonderful and very comfortable relationship as far as songwriting is concerned and keeps me busy nearly every day.

    Now as to work flow after that…for me it’s essentially:
    1. Read through’s together and editing specific parts so there’s a clear “Hook” and Chorus etc. Touch up work on specific lines that might need a bit of tweaking.
    2. REHEARSAL, REHEARSAL, REHEARSAL. Yes this is old school but too bad. From working in traditional studio settings (as in tape) many years ago, I have this learned habit to never go into a recording session without absolutely knowing exactly what part or parts I play. Since I do all the music, that means a lot of time with guitar in lap, words in front of me, and going over and over till I’m sure of all the breaks, fills, and timings. I do this without exception and at times Linda will get a little impatient as she likes the music I’m doing but I don’t feel ready to record till I’m at the point where I don’t need to look at the lyrics at all. Then I know I’m ready to start recording.
    3. Depending on how the original idea/song came to my head will determine if I start with drums or something else. Since I use a drum sequencer though, nine times out of ten, I will sit down with the sequencer and the words and liner notes in front of me and build the drum tracks, fills etc, around the arrangement that’s already been rehearsed.
    4. Enter in the drum sequence, when possible I will separate all the drum tones to different channels/tracks for editing later on and set up my buses as needed.
    5. Then guitar parts (not bass) If piano is involved, I will do that track. If both guitar first and then piano as I know that will take a lot of time to construct. (I’m not a pianist.)
    6. Once rhythm guitar and/or piano is to my liking, THEN I will add in the bass. I have a friend in Miami who likes to do bass tracks for me. If he’s available then I send him a rough mix of the song and wait for him to “DropBox” me his bass track stems. If he’s unavailable then I will use my midi controller and the synths in my Studio One Artist software to create bass tracks.
    7. Mixing, Balancing, and editing. EQ first, Panning where necessary (two guitars left right, or guitar somewhat left and piano somewhat right etc.) Kick drum just slightly off dead center, snare just slightly off dead center (left right respectively) crashes hard left & right. etc.
    8. Vocals (lead)
    9. Background harmonies or backing vocals after that, usually panned and of course those vocals are bused, as is bass, and as is drums.
    10. Fancy stuff: i.e. parallel compression sometimes for lead vocals depending on the nature of the song.
    11. Set up effects channels, usually delay, reverb and then others if needed for instrumentation. If special effects are needed for specific parts, they are usually a separate track with their own buses and effects channels.
    12. More tweaking i.e. adjustments of EQ, compression etc.
    13. throughout this whole process I will switch between stereo on the master bus, and mono. Listening in Mono helps me find masking and phasing issues more often then not as stereo width can actually hide mistakes that don’t show up till later. If the EQ and balance sound even throughout the song in mono, usually the stereo mix is fine.
    14. Set up my Master Bus effects. I keep it simple. EQ and compression in the pre, and limiter in post. Followed by a level meter to make certain I’m not clipping, or have any inter whatever it’s called peaking.
    15. More a/b stuff with all plugins and effects… does it sound better or worse with the plugins…do I need to change the order of plugins, do I need to calm down on compression, are their too many tracks sharing the same relative EQ frequency ranges etc.

    After that it’s just a matter of lots of listening and minute adjustments of stuff.

    This is of course a very general outline as no two songs Linda & I have written for the last two and a half years have been the same.

    A couple of basic rules of thumb I’ve always applied (and I learned this one in high school from a cute girl who could play rock and roll on an acoustic guitar and still rock it.) If it sounds good with just a guitar for backing…if it remains strong in other words stands on it’s own without a lot of noisy electric stuff or fancy synths, then it’s most likely going to be a good song when completed.
    The other thing which I mentioned earlier, is rehearsals. The more it becomes a second nature to me for playing, the easier it is to record, and less mixing and fooling around with once I begin to record.
    In laymen’s terms, I want it to sound good before I ever set up a single mic. By doing that everything else goes faster, and less corrective mixing and adjustments. When I don’t do this it becomes a painful process and can take weeks to complete as I still have to punch a time clock five days a week. So I usually follow my own good advice. Weekends are just too short a time to waste fooling around.

    Okay that’s my two cents worth…what do you all think?

    Marty & Linda

    • Thanks so much for sharing this Marty, extremely valuable! Great to hear that you have found the perfect lyricist too :)

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