Music Production – Produce songs faster and more efficiently with the Lean Method
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Music Production: Produce songs faster and more efficiently with the
We at elysia know how much work, time, and energy is needed until a new product is ready for the market and can be offered to the public with a clear conscience. The numerous steps that have to be taken between the actual idea and the product ready for sale have a significant influence on the success of the product. The leaner the production process, the more resources the manufacturer can conserve. “Lean production” is the appropriate keyword.
A closer look reveals amazing synergies and parallelisms between modern hardware design and songwriting. It’s not for nothing that people talk about “music production” and the profession of a producer is well known in both music and industry. Both create new products in a creative process, which hopefully find their grateful buyers. So the question is obvious: “As a musician and songwriter, is there anything you can learn from industrial product development, and if so, what?” I will try to find an answer to this question in this blog post.
Make the right decisions in your music production
There are many different reasons for composing music. The question is exciting: “For whom do I actually compose? Who should hear my music production?”.
The answers within the musician community are likely to be diversified. There is space for the most diverse views and intentions. Some musicians address only a small maximum audience, which they want to attract and that is to themselves.
All creative decisions are to meet exclusively one’s own benchmarks. This represents maximum artistic freedom. The absolute opposite is defined by music producers who, like to achieve the greatest possible commercial success, are prepared to undermine their own standards for their work, provided it increases the chances of success. In between, there is a wide range of music creators who manage the balancing act between their own artistic demands and a solid financial balance.
This blog post is dedicated to them. Those who succeed in meeting their own taste and that of the target audience with their songs can certainly profit from the technique of “lean production” and use it for their music production in an inspiring way. I will show you how it works.
What is Lean Production?
The term “lean production” has become an indispensable part of day-to-day production in both large and small companies. The term “lean production” addresses several essential aspects. The core focus, however, is the conscious use of resources.
The elimination of all the unnecessary work processes in development and administration is intended to make production more efficient. Ideally, the right structures will result in a continuous improvement process that should produce better products in a short period. That’s about it in theory. In practice, one of the first actual implementations of these principles took place at the Japanese carmaker Toyota.
With its TPS system (Toyota Production System), the company defined many of the basic principles that can be found today under the term “Lean Production”.
But what relevance does this have for musicians and music producers?
Basically, all manufacturers of products have the same problem. Regardless of whether they produce cars, bag soups, or software – every producer wants to place his product successfully in the market or in the music charts and profit from it. Therefore, it can also be profitable for musicians and producers to think about an efficient workflow and their audience.
How do industrial manufacturers do it?
The main focus is on avoiding unnecessary waste.
This includes the overproduction of components or entire products that can no longer be used or sold at a later date. Or the use of employees and entire departments working on projects that turn out not to be target-oriented. The wasted working time could have been avoided with more precise, forward-looking planning. The resource “time” is also very limited in music production. If, in addition to the necessary improvisation and the search for new sounds and melodies, you adopt a stringent workflow, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish in a comparably short time.
From the factory floor to the rehearsal room
The first step: The manufacturer first performs market research to determine which products the customers are looking for. But it also works the other way around. Once you have an idea for a new product, the next step is to identify whether there is a large customer base for it. The next step is to draw up a requirements specification. This is a list that includes the following points amongst others: What features should the product have, what should the design look like, and what price can be calculated for it? Once the specifications have been drawn up, you have a fairly accurate picture of the new product. The next step is the development of a working prototype, which can be presented to selected test customers at an early stage to obtain initial feedback.
In an early product stage, things can still be changed in the product without much effort. However, the further development progresses, the more complex the necessary product improvements become. If the product is already in mass production, major changes can only be made with significant time and effort and should be avoided as far as possible in advance. Therefore, feedback from a representative customer community is very important for modern product development.
There are various possibilities for targeted feedback
For example, there are online communities such as Microsoft Teams, etc. Developers can exchange ideas about the product with their selected customers and beta testers in chats, online meetings, and dashboards. Even for app developers, there are different ways to make a beta version of a new app available to a select group of users. A composer also shouldn’t invest hours or even days in a string score if the song doesn’t require strings. With that said, I’ve now turned this corner to the field of music.
Or shouldn’t I rather talk about music production? Before we connect the production steps of both worlds, however, we should talk about how music is actually “developed”.
The development of music
Every song has different basic structures and these structures have a different emphasis, depending on which musical genre you serve. We can differentiate between primary and secondary elements within the song. Primary elements represent the framework of our song. This is based on the melody, lyrics, chord progressions, rhythm, groove, and tempo. The more defined these elements are, the more transparent the song identity appears. Even if one or two primary elements are missing, a listener will recognize the song in a few seconds. This fact can be found in a well-known statement: “A song works if it can be played with just an acoustic guitar and every listener can sing along immediately.”
The secondary elements of a song concern the nuances and subtleties that accentuate and, ideally, enhance the effect. These include tracks with background sounds, sound layers that should enhance the song’s impression and also generate an interesting atmosphere. This also includes the input that the well-known “Mix & Mastering” duo has on the song. The suitable selection of reverb, delay, and modulation effects. The balance of the individual tracks among themselves, the use of equalizers, the dynamics section, and automation. All of these secondary elements will help give the song its character.
Depending on the style of music and genre, the importance of the primary and secondary elements can vary significantly. A folk song is mainly defined by the primary elements, while a techno track clearly focuses on the secondary elements. Therefore, it is necessary to understand which genre you are in and which market you are serving. Whether it’s Rock, Pop, Hip Hop, Classic, or EDM, each music style has its own importance of primary and secondary elements.
How music will be created in a band context
In search for the answer to the question of how music is developed, we have to differentiate between a band environment and the work of a single producer (one-man show). The approaches are sometimes very different. For example, many bands rely on one proven method for their product development: interactivity! A band in the rehearsal room combines many steps of lean production simultaneously and often non-consciously.
A musical idea can consist of a guitar riff or an interesting groove. The advantage of a band is that changes to a song idea can be tried out and implemented very quickly (in real-time, so to speak). Key or tempo changes, adjusting the length of the chorus, or experimenting with different lead instruments? No problem in a band approach. Through the classic jam session, the primary elements of the song gradually evolve, and usually not too much time passes before a complete structure is formed. Hooray – the “prototype” is ready.
Ideally, you will preserve this idea already in the rehearsal room with multi-track recording. During the next few days, an online platform and messengers such as MS Teams or WhatsApp can be used to fine-tune a suitable lyric, and the arrangement can be further refined based on the multi-track recording until the band feels that the fresh work should be made available to their “selected test audience”. More about that later.
How a music producer creates music
The opposite of a classical band is the producer. A single person who composes and records by himself. For this, you basically need nothing more than a powerful computer, the appropriate software, and, above all, an idea. With that, the producer starts composing, recording, arranging, and finally mixing and mastering. Thanks to modern technology, there are hardly any restrictions on the genre. The unbelievable number of sound generators and sample libraries define the modern bedroom producer, who can work on his creations like a digital nomad not necessarily in his bedroom, but anywhere in the world. This corresponds to the democratization of music production.
Anyone who wants to produce music for themselves can now do it without much effort and with a manageable budget. Also working on ideas is meanwhile similarly flexible as in a band structure. And the producer does well to keep this flexibility as long as possible in his production process. The fact is, a band has direct access to a creative collective.
The producer, on the other hand, first stares at an empty arrangement window when opening the DAW, which he has to partially fill with midi notes and WAV files to create a musical image of his idea. In this process, the producer repeatedly encounters two problem areas. The further he develops his prototype, the more difficult and time-consuming it is to change or even replace already existing structures. For this reason, he should first take care of the primary song elements and keep them in a flexible state for as long as possible.
How is that meant?
The modern music producer is basically missing a producer in a classical sense. Like Rick Rubin, who intervenes less in the technical process, but can contribute meaningful feedback to all artistic decisions. Is the tempo right? Is the intro perhaps too long, or is the melody of the chorus just not catchy enough? These are issues that a bedroom producer usually doesn’t get input on. Unless he manages to attract from his environment a feedback community that makes sense for him. The music producer usually does not have a network that evaluates the product characteristics of his music production already in the creation phase and could correct mistakes. Being a music producer, you always run the risk of getting bogged down in details and thus devoting too much time and energy to the secondary elements, even though the primary elements have not yet been sufficiently worked out.
Keep all production steps within the DAW in the digital domain for as long as possible! If you get valuable feedback from your community, you can always quickly change the key, tempo, or arrangement. However, if you have already recorded many tracks analog, for example, drums and guitars with microphones on the hard disk, then changes can only be made with great difficulties. It is better to produce the song completely with VST instruments and plugins in the DAW as a sketch and make the result available to your community for a review. If the feedback is positive, you continue working on the secondary elements. You look for the right effects, record melodies with real instruments, and use analog hardware to give the song an extra character boost. This conserves resources, saves time, and prevents unnecessary WAV files from being captured to hard drives.
Lean Production! We keep in mind, also for the Bedroom Producer the target audience relevance of his product is important. But for this, you need customer feedback on your music production as accurately as possible. How should you collect this as a producer?
Evaluate your product
At this point, we come full circle back to the beginning of this blog post. If you have no commercial intentions, you have a completely different idea of when your music production is successful or not, than someone who measures success primarily according to business aspects. In the first case, the evaluation of success is very simple: If your song corresponds exactly to your own ideas, you will stamp your personal requirements as fully implemented and dedicate yourself to the next project or music production with a positive feeling.
Do you also want to be commercially successful and hope for the support of your community?
The “evaluation of success” is not that simple. The variables of “success” are complicated and often varied. It could be a well-padded bank account or a sold-out tour. Or maybe a good chart position? Only you can make the balance. As different as the criteria for success may be, one factor is always relevant. And that is the feedback of your fan base, i.e. your customers.
Every success-oriented company wants to know a major thing: “Who are my customers?” Only those who know their customers can develop products with a high level of acceptance. The classical band or a live artist has a big advantage on this point. If you stand on stage in front of an audience and perform your songs, you will always get feedback on your “product”. The feedback from the audience at a concert is immediate and unfiltered. And there is definitely a difference between reading the feedback in a face or in a Facebook comment. For that reason, it is not uncommon in a band context to first try out new tracks in front of an audience, and only after this baptism of fire visit the recording studio to finally record these tracks.
On one point there is also common ground.
You have to know how to interpret each feedback. This is a question of experience and communication with your fans. A bad sound (undersized PA or unfavorable room acoustics) or a miserable daily form of the actors can distort the results. The song can be as good as it is, if you don’t perform it in the usual quality on one day due to the reasons mentioned above, the audience feedback can be less positive. Although the song itself is not the problem. What is needed here is the ability to abstract.
The lone music producer often is missing this possibility of evaluation through performance in front of an audience. How can you still get feedback on new ideas and songs as a music producer? One possibility is the use of an online community or the way via social media. Even in the early stages of new music production, it is a good idea to face the criticism of a meaningful crowd. Much like a band exchanges ideas with each other, you could build a similar network of true fans, other producers, and musicians.
You produce techno or EDM tracks?
Then you should also seek contact with club DJs and other scene experts. They can offer you valuable feedback or play a rough mix of your track in their club. This is also important because especially in Techno and EDM the sound selection is a style-defining element. If the kick and bass of your track don’t come across well in the club – Your Track needs to be tested again. In this genre, you have to pay attention to maximum sound quality from the beginning, because this is one of the primary song elements in Techno, House, and EDM. You can also add secondary elements later.
You can replace or add important sounds with analog synth sounds with manual filter changes. Through analog hardware, a personal signature becomes audible and can even develop into your sound trademark. The fact is, quite a few producers are mixing and mastering their tracks by themselves. There is nothing wrong with that in principle. If you give your tracks to a third party for the final refinement, you automatically get a second and third opinion. If the track turns out to be problematic, the effort for necessary changes is usually disproportionately high.
Tip: It’s not a bad idea to send rough mixes to Mix- and Mastering engineers in the early stages of the project, asking them to evaluate them in terms of arrangement and sound selection. If you’re a lone wolf and have been struggling through your song arrangement for days, you often lack the necessary distance to be able to properly evaluate the status quo. Experienced sound engineers, as well as friends and fans, can give the necessary impulses through tips and suggestions to put your song (your music production) on the right course.
In other words: improve the product.
But that’s still not the end of the evaluation process of your music production. The day has come and the freshly mixed and mastered song is finally available for purchase. Where and how can you get the hard facts about its sales performance? Your account balance reflects only a part of the truth. Especially in times of streaming and decreasing sales of physical records and CDs.
How is the reach of the songs? Who are my fans and how do they accept the new song? Does a high chart position automatically mean commercial success? And what charts are even relevant for my product? As you can see, the subject is extremely complex. Besides the immediate feedback at live concerts and from the online community, the picture quickly becomes blurred. Who is listening to my songs and what does a chart position even say? This is a topic worth covering in a separate blog post.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Were you aware of it or did you experience an “aha” effect now and start your next music production more motivated? Leave a comment and share this post with your friends and colleagues who didn’t know about Lean Production methods yet.
Thanks for reading!
Your Ruben Tilgner
This article accurately describes the process and decisions that the self-producer faces on a daily basis. It’s often a struggle for me to produce music quickly while attempting to balance artistic vision with what may or may not be commercially successful. Lean production methods utilizing audience feedback are an idea I had not thought of before.
It’s awesome that you talked about music production and its process’s stages. Recently, one of my friends mentioned he’d like to learn how to produce music. My friend’s always loved music and plays some instruments, so I think this article could interest him. Thanks for the information on music creation and how it’s evolving daily.
Yes, maybe. But artistic production is not identical to industrial production. An artist is not the Toyota Corporation.
Some of us view making music as the opposite of work. We “play” music, we don’t “work” it…!
Ruben has done an amazing job with creating such an in-depth piece.
It’s really difficult to convince some artists to not get emotionally attached to a particular melody or a verse. Making them understand that the business side of it needs a change in perspective is not an easy job. The ones we see at the top have gone through that change, they know what they need to do to make money in this industry. It’s difficult to swallow that hard pill but it is what it is, right?
Whoever comes across this piece will leave with a ton of wisdom and know the practicality of the Music Industry as well.
I like the way you talked about how the perfect kind of music production is one that is both artistically and commercially successful. My brother likes to write his own songs during the weekend and one of them has the potential to become viral. I guess he should check out this article so he’d be inspired to work with the right professional soon after.