A workflow is how you go about getting work done. When it comes to making electronic music, I believe there are two main workflows: music-first, and sound-first.
As a very brief history, I think you can split electronic music workflows up into three eras, based on the technology that enabled them:
Multitrack recorders encourage you to make music first. Traditionally, you'd first make a rough demo version of a song at home. Then, once you'd finished composing the music, you'd rent a studio, to record the proper version on their multitrack recorder. Finally, someone would mix down the result on the studio's mixing desk.
Once MIDI sequencers and multitimbral samplers became somewhat affordable, you could make fully fledged music in your own home studio, no renting required. First, you'd make a sample library, then you'd make music using those sounds, then you'd mix it down live to stereo as the sequencer played it. This encouraged quantised, sample-heavy genres like breakbeat hardcore, jungle, drum'n'bass, and big beat.
There's a reason why full vocals gave way to short a cappella samples in the 1990s, as MIDI sequencers and samplers became popular. In a way, this devolved music into whatever could fit in the sampler's memory, as this state of the art allowed people in small home studios to create whole tracks by themselves, albeit mostly out of samples of other people's existing music.
Finally, DAWs combined all four devices (multitrack recorders, MIDI sequencers, samplers, and mixers), along with virtual instruments and effects with total recall. They let you switch seamlessly back and forth between recording performances, composing music, designing sounds, and mixing it all together.
While this flexibility can be useful, if you're not mindful of your workflow, it can also encourage blank page paralysis because there are so many tasks you could do next. Even if you can spend your energy, without focus it can lead to the syndrome of "I was trying to write some music, but I started flicking through kick drum samples and now it's three hours later and I'm tired".
I think it's useful to be mindful at any given time about whether you want to work on composing music or designing sounds (or writing lyrics), and ideally to more or less finish one before starting the other, then finish both before mixing down the result. By limiting your immediate tasks, you can more easily focus.
In short, DAWs don't impose a workflow structure on you, so it's up to you to pick whichever one works best for you: music-first or sound-first.
I personally take this as far as having music composing days, sound designing days, and mixing days. Not only does this allow me to focus on one thing at a time, but it also helps my sense of accomplishment. You're giving yourself smaller, more easily achievable milestones to complete at roughly even intervals: either make a demo first, then turn it into a full song, then mix it down; or make a sample library first, then use it to make a song, then mix it down. Once I'm mixing, I may briefly go back to add a flourish, but that's a conscious decision that serves a specific purpose, to improve the song. It's not aimless meandering because I don't know where to start.
There's no one workflow that works better than others for all people. I just want to encourage you to be consciously aware of your workflow, so you can choose one (or more) that works well for you. Try having sound design days and music composing days (and lyric writing days). DAWs don't segregate these aspects of music making for you, so it's up to you to do it yourself.
And if it turns out you thrive in chaos, that's fine too. But it's best to know for sure.
Flood is an awesome guy, the best programmer I've ever been around in my life. You tend to work a certain way, which is very methodical, chisel away. "The completion of your record is so far away, don't even think about it. Just think about the completion of this hi-hat program." Then I read where Nirvana recorded and mixed an album in two weeks, and I'm going, "Fuck, that's gonna sell a lot more than mine is." There's got to be some balancing. So the next record I'm gonna do is going to be one that's a lot more spontaneous. (It wasn't — Zoë) One that better hides the horrors of technology, which can bog you down to a crawl. Many a time I've been sitting in front of an Akai with its ridiculous, archaic operating system, trying to put these four hundred samples in a keygroup and... "Why am I doing this? This is stupid. Why haven't I hired someone to do this for me yet?" That's another thing that led to the delay in putting out this record: getting bogged down in the studio. "There are forty things I could do right now. I could write a song, which is the most important, or I could sample drums, or I could try EQing this, or programming that," and so on. It's lacking the discipline and focus to say, "Forget all the fun stuff. I'm going to sit down and write a song."
— Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, 1994
Maybe technology got in the way, so to speak. It gives you a big advantage, but learning all about it takes away a lot of energy. I remember a time in Kraftwerk where I just sat around for two-and-a-half years reading manuals, programming a Yamaha DX7 with two Atari computers and two different types of librarians, changing envelopes or whatever, and not making one new composition!
— Karl Bartos, Kraftwerk, 1998
We have no patterns of working. When a pattern begins to develop, it means something is going wrong, and the best thing to do is to interfere.
— Rick Smith, Underworld, 2000
- "Trent Reznor" Greg Rule, Keyboard, Mar 1994
- "Karl Bartos: Elektric Music & Kraftwerk" Jonathan Miller, Sound On Sound, Mar 1998
- "Underworld: The Making of Everything, Everything" Paul Tingen, Sound On Sound, Dec 2000
Electronic music making essays: Fidelity | Workflow