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Sounding Off: The ‘Perfect Workflow’?

Tristan O'Dwyer
By Tristan O'Dwyer

Has the ‘perfect workflow’ resulted in better recordings?

As a broadcast engineer I spend a lot of time examining workflow documents and asking producers and operators to “talk me through the workflow”. Defined workflows are vital in a large media organisation handling vast amounts of audio and video content. They ensure efficiency, consistency and quality and it is hard to imagine a complex organisation functioning correctly if everyone did things differently.

Sounding Off

Any sequence of tasks can be viewed as a workflow and we even apply it to our everyday life. We all have our own way of doing things which we believe to be the most efficient and effective, and which we believe will allow us to complete certain tasks quicker. Doing things the same way every time gives us a sense of certainty about the outcome and ensures we don’t have to think too much about mundane, everyday tasks.

The concept of the workflow has its roots in the Efficiency Movement of the early 20th century and was initially applied to industrial production. An early proponent was Frederick Taylor, the father of ‘scientific management’ and one of the world’s first management consultants. The aims of the Efficiency Movement were laudable enough. Few would argue with the elimination of waste and improvement of quality. But how applicable are these concepts to the creative process, and when did we start applying the language of management consultants to music making?

A brief look through the SOS archives uncovers articles with titles like ‘Streamlining Your Workflow in Ableton Live’. We are told that “hands–on control of your DAW can speed up your workflow”. These hints and tips are no doubt very useful, especially to the busy composer with multiple projects and clients, or to a producer running a commercial operation. Nobody wants a client looking over their shoulder while they search in vain for a file or struggle with a simple operation. It’s unprofessional and does little to inspire confidence.

When I reinstalled my home setup a couple of years ago I fell into the ‘workflow trap’. I applied all my project management and engineering tricks to the design and installation. I planned it all in CAD, drew up a cable schedule, had a good long think about the ergonomics. This even extended to having certain mics always set up through particular preamps, earmarked for particular instruments. Want to record my mandolin? That’s mic two. Acoustic guitar? Mic one, already wired into the Focusrite; no need even to move the mic. I managed to remove all the mundane steps from the recording process. No setting up mic stands, no running cables. I barely even have to set the gain. The perfect workflow; Frederick Taylor would be proud.

So, has the ‘perfect workflow’ resulted in better recordings? In a technical sense, possibly, but it has come at the expense of creativity. The creative process is about serendipity, spontaneity, accident and chance. It’s about using the ‘wrong’ microphones in the ‘wrong’ place and plugging things into amps that have no business being plugged into amps. It’s about casting aside the manufacturers instructions and defying convention, standards and the dreaded ‘best practice’. A standard approach will result in a standard outcome. That’s great if you are Toyota, but not so great if you’re a musician.

Thomas Edison, a contemporary of Taylor, famously proclaimed genius to be “one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration”. Perhaps in our pursuit of the perfect workflow we have removed too much of the perspiration from the creative process, thereby rendering genius unobtainable.

With this in mind I have resolved to abandon the standard approach and reject homogeneity. I’m going to rip everything out and never again do things the same way twice. As a trade off I’ll accept the fluster of missing microphones and the hours badly spent, and one day paint my masterpiece. Come and join me in the liberation. Ditch the workflow and busk it.

About The Author

Tristan O’Dwyer is a broadcast engineer at the BBC. He is currently writing his MBA dissertation and is a great admirer of Frederick Taylor, Thomas Edison and Elizabeth Bishop.

Published March 2014