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Collaboration in music production: A design research & analysis case study

This case study was done as a part of the “Systems approach to design” module during the Master of Design course in Interaction Design at National Institute of Design, Bengaluru, India, and was guided by Dr. Mamata Rao and Mrs. Jagriti Galphade.

The goal of this assignment is to find design opportunities in a system by collecting data by appropriate research methodologies and analyzing them to gain insights to formulate better solutions.

There is a story to explain the theory and concepts with detailed descriptions for the tools and techniques used in this course. If you want to get familiar with those, please click here to go that story.

Photo by James Owen on Unsplash

Pretext: Why did I choose music production?

I do know some basic music production and have friends in that field. They have always talked to me about how difficult it is for a music producer to find new people and collaborate with new people, especially when they are in a remote location. We do have ways to collaborate in Google docs and Figma and the likes. But in music production where nearly all the things are done digitally nowadays doesn’t have a proper integrated way to collaborate struck me. So, I have chosen this particular area to explore and investigate more on it and do my research and hopefully come up with a solution(s) that will improve the experience of music production while collaborating.

What is “music production”?

For those of you who don’t know.

The music producer oversees all the aspects of the creation of a song or an album. These can include the choice of song, choice of musicians, instruments, and vocalist(s) and how those instruments are played and those notes are sung as well as where the song or album is recorded. They work with a software called DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Eg. Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, FL Studio, Cubase, etc. They also always have a basic home studio setup consisting of a microphone, studio monitor, a mixer, a microphone, a MIDI controller/synthesizer, a sound chord, a computer system with necessary DAW software, and plugins and any other musical instruments(optional — if they play).

“Like a director is to a film, the music producer is to a song.” — Phil Ek

Music production nowadays has evolved along with the rise of technology. Anybody with a computer can create and publish their music to the world. Though there is a lot of freedom on the creators or producers side on the process, the music production can be divided into 6 basic stages:

  1. Songwriting/Composing
  2. Arranging
  3. Tracking
  4. Editing
  5. Mixing
  6. Mastering

But not all producers are good at all of the above-mentioned stages. Some will be good at only a few of them and they usually collaborate with others for the other stages. Especially in the tracking stage where you have to record various instruments and master and mastering which is all about sound engineering and design rather than music, the need for external help becomes a necessity to make the music sound good.

The following table distinguishes the tasks associated with a music producer from that of a sound engineer:

Content source: https://study.com/articles/difference_between_music_producer_audio_engineer.html

The process of music production is very creative and ideas pop out of the air and materializing them in that instance is a must. The way the collaboration happens right now is very linear, the producer does a basic composition and arrangement and sends it to others to play over it and send their tracks one by one. This puts a constraint on combined creativity in a music production project between the producer and collaborator.

How does music get produced?

I’ll start with why first. Typical, sound engineering projects are ad jingles, promo videos, short films, or just a musical. The process usually starts with a potential client approaching a music producer. This happens through referrals from previous people with whom they have worked with or through checking out their work on any social media platform (Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud amongst others). So, the client typically initiates the communication within those platforms and the first thing would be telling some basic details about the project and asking for previous works or a portfolio to check whether that particular music producer is fit for the project of not. If the producer gets fixed for the project, they discuss the budget for the production, project details, the client giving some other music for reference and the deadline to complete.

Generalized process of music production

After this, point its more about creating a track (composing, arranging), finding people to collaborate, editing, finishing the track, sending it, and getting paid all while in constant communication with the client in each step of the process. And this is the area, I focused on.

THE RESEARCH

The focus of my research is to help amateur and intermediate music producers better collaborate with similar people when in different locations (remote collaboration). I did some basic online search to get myself familiarized with the process of production, tools used, and terminologies. I then started preparing a music producer questionnaire. The questionnaire was not very stringent, it was pretty vague so that I can explore and go where every the interview and interviewee takes me with the context of my research area. This helped me in finding new problems or already existing systems used in the industry, to get more clarity of what kind of people I’m designing for and priorities of the intended users in the right order.

I interviewed music producers, music directors, musicians from the band, sound engineers from self-learned ones to ones with a professional degree to ones with professional studio setup. Actually, after a first few interviews of people in different level of experience and work, I started to see all of them facing some similar problems in terms of collaboration, be it the one who learned using youtube tutorials doing independent albums or one who owns a professional studio scoring for films. Also, one thing I did was after each of my interviews was that I had a set of features(more like vague solutions) and asked interviewees to rate them to understand what they think is more important. Also, all the music producers I have told said that they are extremely comfortable with technology as most of the music production work nowadays in digital. I kept this in my mind in the following phases.

Because of the patterns I could feel evolving and similar responses I started to get, now, I felt I had enough data to start analyzing.

THE ANALYSIS

One of the first things that I did was to try to create a workflow diagram based on the data I have collected to look at the point where design intervention can change be helpful. I helped me find problems initially I was not aware of like sending tracks to the client after each change made at each stage. That was rather a very linear and reparative process (render/export from a DAW, attach it in a mail and sending it to the client), which is done several times during the lifetime of the project. And similarly, in my focus area of collaboration with musicians to a similar problem of having to export, send a track, and receive a recording, download and attaching it to the DAW, check if it’s okay or give feedback/changes via call, several activities a music producer has to do was linear and repetitive. The problem associated with these repetitive work is that they consume time which could have been better utilized, that too whilst in the middle of a creative process.

The accumulated workflow of music production — based on research data

I have done a user persona study by accumulating the user profiles and mapped it out in a scenario of getting a project until the project ends, a whole life cycle of the project with the persona that I created to find pain points and gaps and ultimately find the opportunities for design intervention.

Iceberg model

Iceberg is one of the systems thinking tool and model which helps to identify patterns associated, underlying structure and mental model which ultimately cause a surface level event to occur. More about this can be read at our course blog which has a detailed description of iceberg analysis and each of its levels.

Iceberg analysis of events associated with collaboration in music production

This gave certain insights as to why certain events are happening and what causes them. So whenever we are looking at a problem, this is useful in determining its root cause and solving it.

Mapping

Mapping the ecology, stakeholders, system and activities involved in music production is a critical part in understanding the touchpoints.

Ecology for music production
Stakeholder map for music production
System map for music production
Activity flow for the music production process

INSIGHTS & INFERENCES

I had some clarity to go through the data clearly. So, I wrote down my insights from the research as pain points and gaps in the existing scenario/system of collaboration in music production. These pain points and gaps are determined using user persona mapping and iceberg analysis and will be helpful in finding design opportunities.

Painpoints

I started analyzing the scenario keeping the interviews and workflow in mind. First, I tried to put together problems that are faced by music producers as pain points. I have listed them below:

  1. Searching for musicians to collaborate
  2. Doing repetitive work for each edit/iteration
  3. Making changes/iterating while collaboration
  4. Sharing the track with the client for feedback

Gaps

With those pain points, I tried to list down the gaps in the system which leads down to create these pain points with the help of iceberg analysis. They are as follows:

  1. Finding talents and trusting them
  2. More time go into repetitive work restricting and taking the mind away from creative work
  3. No real-time collaboration tools
  4. No easy way to keep the client in the loop with the project

Themes

Now, with these in mind kind of boiled them down to three key themes that need to be the major focus while working on the solutions. The things that should be kept in mind. Those are:

  1. Trust
  2. Networking
  3. Collaboration
  4. Feedback

Trust between the producer and the client and trust between the producer and collaborators should be maintained on whatever solution or feature proposed. An effective way to the network will be the key to reducing the time involved and ultimately even reduce the total cost of the project. Collaboration, as I have said, is my major focus, and it should be done easily and efficiently. Also, the ways to give feedback to the collaborators and receiving it from clients are as important as doing the project itself. These feedbacks are the ones that are going to shape the project and should be done properly, the message conveyed through feedback should be clear and understood by the receiver.

Finally, I tried to map my research insights into design opportunities, then at last as features to be included in the solution.

OPPORTUNITIES

The design opportunities I found through the above analyses are:

  1. Platform integrated with DAW to find talents
  2. Integrating real-time collaboration channels into DAWs and giving more control of the remote recording to the producer
  3. Ways to annotate and comment sections of track for better understanding with both collaborators and clients.
  4. Streamlining sharing progress with a client through an auto-updated cloud-based system

“Research is creating new knowledge.” — Neil Armstrong

Conclusion

This is how I did my research and analyzed the data to get some insights into various activities/processes involved in the collaboration in music production. The insights gained from this research should always be kept in mind all the upcoming stages of the design process to make sure the solution process is in line with what the users needs, in this music producers collaborating really need and in giving them an experience that enables them to do their work efficiently and elegantly.

The conceptualizing solutions part which looks at these pain points and opportunities, and coming up with solutions is in the following story which is a continuation of this story. https://medium.com/@allwinwilliams/collaboration-in-music-production-improving-the-experience-76d468ed7559

More works on our college work can be found at our medium page, https://medium.com/students-nidblr

References

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This is the publication that documents the work of disciplines at the National Institute of Design’s Research and Development campus in Bengaluru

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Allwin Williams

Allwin Williams

Tech / Design / Music

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