Workflow: Finding Inspiring Instruments

  • by Kim Bjørn

Looking at the varied world of music gear, we look at differing workflow techniques across a wide range of styles and tools.

Colin BenderThe workflow of an electronic instrument – be it hardware or software – can inspire the musician to incorporate it into their setup for the long term… or make them want to ditch it forever. Any instrument requires us to either accept and work within its designed method of operation, or find creative and efficient ways to get what we want from it.

For a musical interface to provide “good workflow”, certain things must be in place: the clarity of different functionalities and interface elements; the fluency and speed with which frequently-used operations can be carried out; and the integration of broadly accepted concepts and flexible options for performing a given task.

Types of workflow

At the heart of many workflow design decisions is the balancing act between functionality and ease of use. The interface of an instrument always influences its workflow, but users, nonetheless, are forever discovering tricks and techniques never imagined by the designers. Let’s look at the two very different – but often interchangeable – types of workflows. 

Fixed/Targeted workflow
It’s perfectly valid to approach an electronic instrument in a goal-oriented manner – ie, with something specific already in mind, such as a particular sound or effect. In such cases, the interface needs to present the relevant options clearly; otherwise, the user might need to call upon experience or intuition to deduce the path to the necessary parameters.

Random/Exploratory workflow
More often than not, random discoveries are made when attempting to fulfill an original intention, and an instrument’s interface may support random exploration, whether or not it was intended to do so. Some interfaces even have buttons or functions that encourage the application of randomization. If an interface is to be considered truly powerful and flexible, it should help the user not only to reach expected goals but also to chance upon the unexpected.

Removing the work from the workflow

When an instrument takes the work out of the workflow, it enables us to do our thing more fluidly. Flow is a term we as artists, producers, DJs or musicians instinctively understand; it refers to the state where we’re working at or near to our skill level. In other words, the interface we’re using isn’t interrupting the process – rather, it’s supporting and/or challenging us in a positive way.

Flow rewards you after a certain amount of challenge. If an instrument isn’t challenging at all – push a button, get a sound – boredom inhibits the flow. If it’s too challenging in uncreative ways – set up fifteen submenus before anything happens – worry and frustration can kill the flow entirely.

Interface difficulty/User skills graphic

Studies show that the level of “difficulty” of an interface should match or, ideally, slightly exceed the skill level of the user. If the difficulty level is too far beyond our abilities, the learning curve gets too steep. Manuals and tutorials help to improve our skills, but the interface should play its part by being as self-explanatory as possible.

Flow is particularly evident in functions that literally don’t interrupt it, like being able to copy and paste patterns in a drum machine while it’s still playing. The experience of good flow turns a usable interface into a positively enjoyable one. The Elektron Octatrack MKII ably demonstrates this, improving on its predecessor with lights in (as opposed to outside) the buttons making space for the explanations of functions, and added buttons for easier live sampling and less menu diving.

Ideally, a beginner-friendly interface should make it easy to understand what everything in an instrument does and how it all connects together. The novice who gets good results from clearly-indicated actions is encouraged to explore more deeply, while the more advanced user also benefits from getting where they want to be quickly and easily. In general, beginners perform best with less control, while experts perform best with more control.

Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator range is a prime example of the implementation of consistent workflow from one device to another. Learn your way around any one of them and you’ve effectively learned your way around all of them.

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator

The beginner
For the beginner, getting immediate results is desirable but not essential. If possible, the interface should aid comprehension and make connections, states, feedback, etc, easy to grasp. If, when starting to learn a new interface, the connections between action and result are clear, it fosters deeper feelings of satisfaction and involvement. The beginner often benefits from structured interactions, minimal choices, constraints and access to help.

Good advice for the newcomer to modular synthesis is to start small, with only a few modules. That way, you’ll learn the ins and outs of said modules without being overwhelmed. In this video, the self-imposed limitation of only using three modules forces creativity. This can lead to the discovery of new functions applicable in other situations for a more efficient workflow.

The experienced user
The experienced user typically wants to dive deeper, and customize and optimize their interaction with the instrument. They benefit from less structure and having direct access to functions with minimal constraints. This could be anything from the ability to delete all the preset sounds in order to create new ones from scratch, to programming in an environment such as Max for Live, creating specific MIDI mappings, or exploring parameters not immediately made visible in the interface.

Different instruments, different workflows

Different instruments and concepts impose different optimizations and limitations on workflow. For example, subtractive synthesis has a particular flow. First, establish a raw waveform, then filter the harmonics of that waveform, then apply modulation in the form of envelopes, LFOs, etc, to make changes to the timbre over time. This demo of the u-he Repro-1 synth clearly demonstrates that flow, and shows off the plugin’s “Tweak” mode for adventurous users.

Having more dedicated buttons in any interface gives the user more direct control of functions and speeds up workflow – as long as it’s not so many as to lead to disorientation and confusion.

The first DAW to allow musicians to flip seamlessly between studio production and live performance was Ableton Live. Here is one of the many examples through the years from Tom Cosm putting it to good use.

Being able to preview sounds while browsing with Komplete Kontrol can be a serious time-saver; and the dual screens and encoders enable various functions that would otherwise have you reaching for the mouse.

The Schmidt synthesizer provides a comprehensive array of controls, leaving no option hidden and thus making the workflow very straightforward. However, it does, of course, require the user to get familiar with the layout of its numerous sections.

Finding the workflow that works best for you can minimize the time it takes to start a project substantially. Similarly, knowing what workflow you tend to gravitate towards can save a lot of time and money when fleshing out your studio. Whether it’s gear setup, DAW templates, or quiet time with a cup of coffee, the trick is to make sure your arsenal is always ready for battle. For more tips on creating an efficient workflow, check out PUSH TURN MOVE.

Join us next time as we explore the many different ways to challenge your workflow.

This article was part of a blog-series originally appearing at who kindly allowed us to repurpose Kim's articles again – here in a version edited by Collin Russel.


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