Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Using Software Development/Project Managment Techniques In Your Music Recording Project

There can be great similarity in project management between creating and shipping a new software product, E.g., an app or a website, and creating and shipping a new music project, E.g., a digital album or a CD.

(This is a blog post aimed at musicians, but if you're a developer, engineer, or product/project manager, all of this should look very familiar to you).

"Well, how the hell would you know, JRub?", I hear one of you ask. I apply the tools, techniques, and skills learned from developing and shipping software products to producing music projects (and products). Look, I've been programming and shipping software since Napoleon came back from his winter holiday in Moscow, and producing & publishing music since the antediluvian times-of-old when the 33rpm-vinyl-dinosaurs covered in Roger Dean-colored feathers roamed the prairies. In 7/4 time. Uphill both ways in the snow with 300lb Hammond organs strapped to their necks under spangly purple capes. Or spangled leather ponchos. I don't remember. Whatever.

I know what works for me at least, and perhaps this post will help you. Or not, in which case you took a nice little break from learning how to djent on your ukulele.

The typical stages of a project, whether software or music, at a high level look something like this:

  • Burst of creativity and enthusiasm, hard work, weekends and late nights of programming or tracking,
  • Lots of work, some of it tedious, getting the design & code correct/the tracks ready for mixing and mastering (and, if applicable, manufacture), and the product ready for your fans, the consumers.

So lets talk music project. . .

The Fun Part
Creating the music, recording the tracks, dialing in some great tones. This is what a recording musician lives for, right? Creativity, unbounded. The music just pours out of you, unimpeded, like water through your ceiling that time the toilet upstairs blew a seal at 4am. This is awesome. The music, I mean, not the flood. Soon, you have a collection of a few dozen songs ready for review! Right? Wait, you're not writing music every day? Ah. I see. Yeah. Well, that's a blog post for another time. Fine, then, you have ten songs recorded.  Great!

Now what?

The (partially) Tedious Part
Now, you have to get the tracks ready for mixing, mastering, and digital distribution. And, if applicable, for manufacture. 

This is a lot of work you're facing. For now, let's focus on one part of the work: Either you're mixing it yourself, or you're taking to a professional audio engineer. Either way, there are steps you will need to follow to make sure that at the end of all of this work you have high-quality, ready-to-mix tracks.

And this is where basic project management comes in. 

I know, I know, we're musicians, man, project management crap is, like, a day job. Come on, this is like work. 

Yeah, yeah, cry me a D-minor river. Yes, it's work! If you're not willing to slog it out, put in the time, focus, and attention so that at the end you can enjoy the musical fruits of your inspiration and creative effort, then.. I got nothin' for you. 

Still here? Awesome.. cool. Now look, kid, who says work has to suck? Not me. There are techniques and tools to make this step of your project easier and to decrease the probability of mistakes.  I'll use my personal process for this as an example, in a moment. First, a caveat: This is a process that works, and not the only process that works. I'm certain there are many others that work just fine. This is a process that works for me very well, and it's not static: in other words, it's dynamic. In other other words, it changes over time as I see fit, or as the project demands, or as I find parts of the process that are no longer as useful and other parts of the process... you get the idea. I encourage you to find a process that works for you, whether it's this one or some other one.

Right. So how do I get from the "many tracks of recorded brilliance" to the "ready to be mixed by Monte Genius Audio Engineer and his pal Master Agnes the Mastering Master"? (I made those names up. They're not real people). 

First of all, I borrowed from my experiences building and shipping software products and managing teams of software programmers.  A tool I like is a "kanban" board. At the moment, I use Trello.  What the heck is a Trello? It's a cross between a Trombone and a Cello. Sounds like hell. Wait. Sorry. No. Lemme wikipedia this thing, one sec...
Trello uses a paradigm for managing projects known as kanban, a method that had originally been popularized by Toyota in the 1980s for supply chain management. Projects are represented by boards, which contain lists (corresponding to task lists). Lists contain cards (corresponding to tasks). Cards are supposed to progress from one list to the next (via drag-and-drop), for instance mirroring the flow of a feature from idea to implementation. Users can be assigned to cards. Users and boards can be grouped into organizations.

There ya go. 

How do I use this thing? Well, after creating about 30 tracks of music and editing the list down to about a dozen that were superb, I called the mix engineer and asked how he wanted the tracks prepared. (This is a very important step, and there are no stupid questions: ask exactly how he or she wants the tracks, what format, what resolution, and so on.).  I took notes. In this case, I needed to prepare WAV files at a depth of 24bits, and a bit-rate of at least 48k.  

From the notes, I created a bunch of steps I needed to turn the contents of my DAW into the standard described by Mr. Mixing Guy. 

Here's an example, based on but not exactly the steps I took, because a few of the actual steps I needed to take are very idiosyncratic to my project:
  1. Copy project to new file
  2. Zero the faders
  3. Zero the pan
  4. Insure bit-rate of 96k
  5. Set every track to between -6Db and -3Db -18db and -12db range [edit: oops. Too hot for digital]
  6. Remove plugins to be added at mix-time
  7. Bounce tracks to WAV
  8. Verify that all tracks are bounced, within range, and dry or wet as expected
  9. Copy tracks to new folder
  10. Backup folder to local backup and to offsite backup
  11. Write notes for engineer, if applicable
  12. Done!
Each of these steps now becomes a list in the Trello kanban board, in the order listed above.  And, I add a list which will live all the way to the left called "Track To Prepare". So now I have 13 lists: 

Tracks To Prepare
Copy project to new file
Zero the faders
... and so on. 

Now, I start adding cards to my "Tracks to Prepare" list. Each card is the name of the track I need to prepare for Mighty Ms. Mixer.  Working titles, whatever.. but your list and cards will look something like this:

Tracks to Prepare
Rock Ballad 1
Rock Ballad 2
Alt Rock Thingy 1
Alt Rock Thingy 3
Alt Rock Thingy 11
Stadium Rock 12
Hawaiian Post-Progressive Death Folk Metal 3
... and so on

Now you're ready to work. As you work on a track, drag the card ("Rock Ballad 1") from the "Tracks to Prepare" list to the "Copy project to new file" list. As soon as you have completed that step (and remember, these steps are represented by lists in Trello, you with me?), keep working, dragging that "card" to the next list (the "card" represents the song you're working on.. still with me?). 

I love this. It means that I can easily keep track of where I'm at in the process, I can work on more than one track at a time, and I can keep tabs on the state of each track in the workflow.   Your ass, glue it to your chair. Follow the steps you created for yourself and that are now represented by the kanban board. 

Hell, even create a new board for QA (Quality Assurance). Be your own QA engineer and create a series of steps for you to verify, seriously, that the track are ready for Mr. Mix Audiogenius. This is your workflow!

Another point is: whether or not you use a kanban board tool, create a process for your workflow: for your studio work, or the work necessary when getting ready for a tour, or the work of marketing your new release, and so on. 

Hey, by the way, what if you're not hiring an engineer to do the mix? Just create the steps you want to take, every time, for your own mix.  And remember, you can change these around if you want to - remove some, add others, whatever. Workflow process is a living thing, and it will probably change in increments over time. 
  1. Copy the project to a new file
  2. Zero out all faders and pans
  3. Disable all plugins
  4. Drums
  5. Bass
  6. Piano
  7. Guitar(s)
  8. Djent Ukelele
  9. Vocals (clean)
  10. Vocals (filthy)
  11. ... and so on
  12. Done!

So, in summary: break down the tasks and document them, and then use some tool(s) to keep track of your workflow; especially for the non-creative work in your projects. The goal is quality and consistent outcomes, delivered with speed and accuracy.