Mastering Workflow

Just so we’re clear: By “workflow,” we mean the flow of work. As in, whether a project flows effortlessly from start to finish, or gets snagged on riptides and eddy currents.

Workflow isn’t just about a more efficient experience. It’s also about a more artistic experience, because ideas flow when projects flow. And it’s also about a more profitable experience, because projects that flow well get done faster.

One of the main issues with defining good workflow is the left brain/right brain dichotomy, which was covered at length in the December 2004 issue. Rather than go over that ground again, here’s the somewhat oversimplified short form: You don’t want to have to think analytically when you’re trying to be creative, because your brain processes those activities differently. A smoother workflow means you can stay in a creative space.


First, we need to identify what disrupts workflow, because only then can we figure out how to avoid those disruptions. Here are the prime offenders.

--Not being able to locate what you need, when you need it. Whether it’s a piece of gear, a particular sound, files, session notes, whatever — if you have to spend time looking for something, it breaks the flow.

--Doing unnecessary work. A good example is creating the same thing over and over again when you could be using a template; or not reading a manual to discover helpful shortcuts.

--Equipment failures. Also known as “instant workflow death.”

--Using the wrong tool for the job. Forcing something to be something it isn’t means you’ll waste time trying to cajole the tool into doing your bidding.

Now let’s zoom out. What all of these have in common is that they create interruptions. So basically, the pursuit of workflow is about minimizing interruptions — whether in the equipment you use, the procedures you adopt, or the mechanics of running a session.


There are two main things you’ll look for during a session:

-Hardware (mics, accessories, spare parts, etc.)

--Media (files, tapes, older sessions, sample CDs, manuals, and the like)

Each requires a different approach if you are to find what you want, when you want it.


The key to finding anything is a “tree” structure, not unlike how you browse for files on a computer.

For example, I have several large, three-drawer cabinets, each dedicated to a particular function. One is for “computers.” The bottom drawer (because it’s accessed the least) is for crucial computer items needed to recover a drive or make system changes: operating system disks, printouts of authorization codes, driver disks, motherboard manuals, and the like.

The middle drawer has parts, such as ribbon cables, hard drive jumpers, screws, spare power supply, etc. Anything mechanical needed to fix a computer goes here.

The top drawer is for oft-accessed accessories, such as USB memory sticks, USB and FireWire cables, adapters, and so on.

Another cabinet is for “studio accessories.” The top drawer is for recording and mixing gear, like mics, pop screens, a stopwatch, and stand adapters. The middle drawer is instrument-specific: strings, picks, tuners, cleaning cloths, string winder, straps, etc. The bottom drawer is for miscellanea such as analog recorder essentials (tape de-magnetizer, head cleaner), batteries, tape splicer, recorder lubricant, and audio cable adapters.

There are also smaller “project” drawers that provide temporary storage for particular projects. For example, with an audio-for-video project, a drawer will hold the videotapes, audio media, and take sheets.

Audio/MIDI cables go in large, pull-out drawers. Drawer categories are cables with similar ends (phone-to-phone, XLR-to-XLR, MIDI-to-MIDI, and phono-to-phono), with another drawer for cables with dissimilar ends. These don’t get used a lot, but if I need a phone-to-XLR or whatever, this is the place to go.

That’s enough examples. The point is when you want to find something, you should know where it lives. And here’s one more tip: If you can’t find something and start looking for it, remember the first place you looked. That’s where your instincts told you it was, so when you find whatever you’re looking for, put it in that place.


The problem of categorizing media increases exponentially as you acquire more media to categorize. Here are some suggestions for media organization methods.

--Sample CDs/DVDs: The “Oskar” shelving system from Mid-Atlantic industries ( holds 1,080 CDs (you can mix and match CDs/DVDs), and costs about $130 — well worth the bucks (Figure 1).

--Archival CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs: Use quality CD binders, available at office supply stores. However, label each disc (e.g., 950418 for something created on April 18, 1995) and maintain a spreadsheet with keywords for what’s on each disc. This simplifies finding the “needle in the haystack” at a later date.

--Distribution discs for programs: These also work well with binders (Figure 2). The disks don’t require frequent access, so this stores them safely in a minimal amount of space.

--Mass storage backup: If I need to back up or archive dozens of gigabytes, one option is double-layer DVD-ROMs. But for interim storage, I use USB or FireWire external drives (see last month’s Tech Bench on how to build your own). Removable drive bays also provide for quickly interchangeable storage, but the advantage of external drives is that you can easily spin them up periodically to make sure the bearings stay in shape.

--Funny format storage: Ah, yes, old ADAT tapes, DATs, Hi8 videos . . . while they wait to get transferred to more modern formats, they sit in individual boxes on shelves.

--Manuals: In today’s world, it’s easy to forget how to do some crucial function. Dedicate some bookshelves to manuals, arranged alphabetically by manufacturer. But also maintain a CD with PDF versions (sometimes it’s easier to do a “find” with an electronic manual than to search through a paper manual), and scans of those little, weird, quarter-size sheets of paper that some companies call a “manual” (they have an amazing talent for getting lost).

Remember, the point of all this is to make it easy to find whatever you want. If you can’t lay your hands on the media you want within minutes, expect a workflow interruption.


Now let’s shift our focus over to the gear we use. I hate having to do the same thing twice if I don’t have to, so. . . .


Almost all modern programs let you determine your program’s initial workspace. But there are ways to customize this to your own needs. For example, my “songwriting” template (Figure 3) starts off with a workstation soft synth loaded into the DAW, with eight minimized MIDI tracks and three already pre-assigned to sounds. Typical workstation choices are IK Multimedia’s SampleTank, NI’s Bandstand, the Emulator X General MIDI set (and GM banks designed for other samplers), East West’s Colossus, Steinberg’s Hypersonic, and for Pro Tools, the free Xpand! Plug-in (see this month’s Power App Alley). The template also has eight audio tracks for loading in loops and recording scratch parts.

The aux buses have a “minimal CPU” reverb (it can always be replaced later), tempo-synced delay, and distortion.

For my “live-in-the-studio” recording setup I have an Ableton Live template with 16 tracks pre-assigned for MIDI fader control from my Peavey PC1600x controller, and solo buttons assigned to the controller’s 16 buttons. As soon as the loops start rolling, I’m ready to mix/automate.

Your audio interface may have an applet that sets up your system for a specific application. It’s worth taking the time to create an optimized one (Figure 4).

Furthermore, some host programs let you create “track templates” with particular setups of processors, sends, and so on. For example, if you’re mixing a singer who always sounds better with certain EQ settings, you can set up a track template with the EQ already in place, using the settings you want.


Most hosts also have provisions for other customizations that can help your personal workflow. For example, Sonar has a dialog box that shows up when you do a drag-and-drop that presents a zillion drag and drop options. But 95% of the time, I use the same option — so I unchecked the “Ask this every time” box, and didn’t have to deal with it (it’s accessible via a menu, anyway).

Layouts of windows can be saved, so that hitting a key on your QWERTY keyboard calls up an optimized environment for a particular task. Just don’t go too nuts; use three or four so they’re easy to remember. (If you have to spend time trying to remember a keyboard shortcut, you’ve just interrupted your workflow.) It’s a good idea to print a list of custom keyboard shortcuts so you can refer to it, and memorize the shortcuts over time.

Color can also save time, as parsing an image can take less time than parsing words. Loading a picture of a track icon into a track may take a few seconds, but you’ll save time overall by being able to differentiate that track without having to read a text label.

Signal processor presets are another time-saver. If you come up with a good preset, save it — you’ll likely want to use it again someday.

However, there is a downside to reliance on templates and presets: You can get stuck in a rut. If you always load something with the same drum sounds, the same bass, the same piano, and so on, you’re doing yourself a disservice. When you create a working environment, create one that encourages spontaneity.


Native Instruments’ Kore (reviewed in the August 2006 issue) underlines several aspects of workflow enhancement. However, note that it takes time to learn, so its benefits are not immediate. However, once you learn how to zip through parameters using the controller, and think in terms of calling up “sounds” rather than specific presets from specific instruments, you’ll find you really can improve efficiency. Just be aware that the greatest benefits occur with complex setups involving lots of instruments and presets; if all you have are a couple favorite soft synths, Kore would be overkill.

The Frontier Design TranzPort is another great piece of workflow gear. This wireless controller lets you arm tracks, record, playback, and the like from wherever you are in the studio. Playing keyboards? Place the TranzPort on the top panel, and you don’t have to go back and forth between your computer and your keyboard as you do different takes. And it’s revolutionary to be able to work in a vocal booth while controlling your rig from inside it.

Re-patching is a workflow stopper, but there are a few ways to simplify patching. One is to use an audio interface with multiple inputs, such as those from MOTU and many others, even if you’re just working solo in the studio by yourself. Although you might think that as a solo performer you need to do only a couple tracks at a time, the advantage of a multi-input interface is that you can have everything patched in and read to go — for example, if there are four mic inputs, you can have a couple condensers, a dynamic, and a ribbon all ready to go. (Just remember to turn down the gain on whatever you’re not using.)

For more flexibility, you can use an interface with multiple ADAT light pipe interfaces (Figure 5). Then you can choose outboard gear optimized for your situation, such as converters that change analog signals into eight channels of light pipe outs, or an octal mic pre-to-ADAT converter.

In a similar vein, check out the latest generation of FireWire mixers, such as the Mackie Onyx series, or similar offerings from Alesis and Phonic. These have two talents: They’re mixers, but they also interface with your computer. You can patch all your signal sources right into the mixer, whereupon they show up in your host program.


It’s a pain in the butt to document sessions, but if you ever need to come back to something, you’ll save a boatload of time. Even just making sure that your host’s tracks say “background vocals” instead of “audio-1” really helps.

As you document, the most important goal is to note things that might not be obvious later. For example, if there’s a track that you left in for some reason but it’s not supposed to be in the mix, note that.


The issue really isn’t about equipment failing as much as it is about getting back to work as fast as possible.

Attempting to determine the root cause of a problem is a major interruption. A lesser interruption is replacement or substitution. Having redundant backup systems is great (although the downside is maintaining two or more systems). For example, consider computers. Having a second one primed and ready to go can be extremely useful. With today’s laptops being so capable, pressing a good laptop into service while your desktop ails can often save a tracking session — particularly if you use external drives, and can just unplug the data from the desktop and replug into the laptop.

But having dual computers is tremendously useful even beyond providing a redundant system. For example, I have two Windows machines and when doing video work, I use one for rendering (which pretty much ties up the computer) so I can continue to edit on the other one — a major workflow improvement. I also have a Mac, which handles my office tasks, online activities, and of course, doubles as another “music” computer. Note that protocols like Steinberg’s System Link also allow getting more juice out of multiple computer systems.

It’s also worth investing a few hundred dollars in spare parts. If a power supply goes, everything grinds to a halt — so a spare power supply is essential. CPU fans are also deal-breakers if they go south, so have a couple of those as well (might as well get lower-noise ones too, so that when the fan does go, you’ll have a quieter setup). CD and DVD-ROM drives can fail; an external one cannot only step in for a dead unit in a desktop, but can be used with other computers as well. AC “wall warts” don’t fail too often, but it’s easy enough to keep a spare “universal” adapter on hand just in case.

It’s also important to have a good tool set handy with Philips-head and flat-head screwdrivers in multiple sizes, a soldering iron with both fine-point and heavy duty tips, hex wrenches, and Torx wrenches. Nothing is more frustrating than needing to open up a unit, and not being able to.

A final caution involves proprietary cables. If I buy something with a proprietary cable (i.e., a cable you can’t find at Radio Shack or a computer store), I get on the phone with the parts department and order a spare.


Sequencer manufacturers talk a lot about “workflow.” And well, they should, because they try to make their programs as seamless to use as possible. However, it’s important to remember that some hosts are better for some tasks than others, and that’s why I’ve made the effort to learn several programs. The time saved by using the right program for the right job has saved lots of time in the long run.

For example, for songwriting, just about any host works fine for me. But for doing quick film scores, I always found Acid to be the fastest way to build up a lot of tracks, using Acidized sample CDs (that is, until Cinescore appeared, which now handles a lot of my “standard” soundtrack work). For creating original samples and patterns, Reason gets the nod. For live performance, given the kind of music I do, I’ve yet to find anything better than Ableton Live — but as a DAW, I think there are more efficient solutions, like Sonar, Cubase, or Samplitude. And when I receive a Pro Tools session, it’s far easier just to fire up Pro Tools (and hope we have a compatible set of plug-ins) than it is to worry about file conversions.

Even for two-track editing, different tools do different jobs. Peak on the Mac is superb for sample rate conversion, and I like the way it handles playlists. If a file needs lots of noise reduction, Adobe Audition gets the call. For general-purpose editing and mastering of multiple files, I can really fly around Wavelab.

Sure, the more programs you have, the more of an investment they require in both time and money. But I’ve found that some programs are so good at a particular task, that using the right program saves enough time to more than justify the effort to learn it.


Before closing, here are a few more general principles that help improve workflow.

n Multitask as much as possible, providing the tasks don’t require concentration. If you have to think about tasks in parallel, that’s tough. But it’s easy to set up something to download a large file, back up a hard disk, or render a video while you’re doing something else.

n Pay attention to when you’re most efficient. If you’re at peak performance, you can accomplish twice as much as when you’re out of sorts. Schedule your tasks so you do the mindless ones — billing clients, backing up data, cleaning your studio, changing guitar strings — when you’re not at your peak. Then, when you’re in top form, all the mundane stuff will be taken care of and you’ll have fewer interruptions to your workflow.

n Find out your “duty cycle.” If you go too long without a break, you’ll become less efficient. I find that the musician’s union concept of a three-hour session works pretty well for me. Three hours gives me the chance to build up some momentum and get quite a bit done before I start to fade. After a little break, I’m back up to speed for another three hours. Your mileage may vary, but you will likely find that certain schedules work better for you than others.

n “Batch” emails and phone calls. This probably upsets some of the people trying to get in touch with me, but answering the phone or an email is an interruption, and by definition, it messes with your workflow. Get someone else to take your phone calls, or turn off the phone and check messages during breaks.

And that’s all for now. Hopefully, the individual tips and comments have been helpful, but if not, just thinking about the concept of workflow can be beneficial. Many people don’t “step outside” and analyze themselves, as if doing a time and motion study. But it’s well worth doing if you want to be more productive, more inspired, and improve the quality of your work.