Efficiency Experts

In the recording studio, time has always been the enemy. In commercial studios, the ever-present ticking clock motivates musicians, producers, and engineers
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Even if you're unwilling or unable to completely reconfigure your current studio, you might be able to reposition some key items to make your setup more conducive to your working style. All interviewees agreed that it's important to position the gear that you use most frequently closest to your fingertips.For instance, Lorello's home studio is centered around a Mac G5 running MOTU Digital Performer and a Yamaha O2R digital mixer. “I have the computer station in between my master keyboard and my 02R so I can access either one,” he says. “I'm not facing either one of them, I'm always facing the computer.”In Larry the O's studio, his Panasonic DA-7 digital mixer is positioned in front of him. “Keyboard is not my primary musical controller, and I don't need to have one directly in front of me,” he says. “I have a couple of different racks of processing gear — one of them I have very close at hand — and I try to put the stuff that I need to set and tweak most intimately in that rack.”Gerrard often records vocalists in his studio, so for him, easy access to his main mic preamp is critical. “I have a [GT Electronics] Vipre preamp in the rack to my left so my left hand can reach it,” he explains. “While I'm recording a vocal, I can turn the input gain up and down, which sounds kind of minor, but it's hugely important. I do it on every vocal session, all the time, because singers always sing quiet in the verses and belt in the chorus.”Gerrard mounts his flat-panel display on a movable arm, which adds to the flexibility of his setup. “I can move the screen around fairly close to me or far away. When I'm mixing I can push it back so it doesn't get in the way of my speakers.”Clearly, there are many factors that come into play when configuring your studio (such as studio size, acoustics, type of gear, type of music, proximity of neighbors, and so on). But whatever the circumstances, the main idea is to set up your studio so that it helps, not hinders your workflow. For a more in-depth look at studio-setup issues, see “Planning Your Ideal Recording Space,” in the February 2004 issue of EM.Always in ReachAnother important concept is to keep often-used accessories such as cables, connectors, and sample CDs close at hand and well organized. “I have an entire wall in my control room that has various types of cables sorted by wiring and connector types,” Cooper says, “and they're hanging on hooks, with labels on the wall next to each hook. “Bradford likes to keep his sample CDs within easy reach, and has familiarized himself with their contents so that he can quickly find what he needs. “My CDs are all on a shelf right next to my computer,” he explains. “If I want a certain sound, I know which library it would come from.”Lorello says that he makes sure to go through his sample CDs in advance so that he doesn't have to hunt through them during a session. “As soon as I get a new library or a bunch of samples, I go through them pretty quickly,” he says. “I'll write some sort of characterization on the disk, such as ‘clean,’ ‘murky,’ ‘good for hip-hop,’ ‘good for dance,’ ‘good for rock,’ ‘reverby drums,’ ‘good for mixes with other samples,’ that sort of thing. When a producer plays me a record and says, ‘I need something like that,’ I pretty much know where to go to get that sound.”Cooper also likes to systematically preview his sounds. “I have lists of favorites,” he says. “When I get a new sample library or a virtual instrument, I will go through all the patches and make up a list on computer sheets — according to their category or application — of my favorite stuff.”Larry the O often starts his projects with MIDI tracks, which he later replaces with real instruments. As a result, he's developed a small set of decent-sounding MIDI sounds that he'll use when his projects are still in the early stages. Keeping that limited sound set allows him to work more quickly and avoid the time-consuming exercise of searching through large sound libraries. “I've evolved a relatively small set of synth sounds that I use for rhythm tracks, and a slightly larger set that I use for effects and all,” he explains. “I just find one decent-sounding [MIDI] drum kit, and I use it for all my demos.”Let's Get NormaledThere was general agreement among the interviewees that one way to save time is to prepatch your input devices so that you don't have to mess with patching each time you record a track.“I have everything wired and normaled through the console and through the patch bay,” says Bradford. “If I want to pick up a certain instrument or a certain keyboard, it's readily available.”Wisch also has his gear set up so that he doesn't have to change patching for many of his everyday recording tasks. “My studio is patched up in a way that's just set to go. From overdubbing to mixing, it's all happening all the time. The signal path is consistent,” he says.“All of my outboard preamps are hardwired to specific rooms, where I consistently set up drums, guitars, etcetera,” says Cooper, whose studio includes a control room and several live rooms. “I've got tie lines in each room, and they go up the walls, across the ceiling, and then down the walls for the control room. Those tie lines come out to XLR fans that go directly to the mic preamps. That way, when I've got ensemble recordings happening, I can just bring up gain pots on the preamps, and then bring up faders on my board that I use for playback in the control room and also to feed cues to the musicians. I plug in to the tie lines, set the levels, and go. I don't have to patch.”Templates Are UsThere was also near-universal agreement among the studio pros that setting up a basic session template (or templates, if you do several types of sessions on a regular basis) in your DAW, PDS (if it has the capability), or digital mixer can save you time during the session. A template, in combination with prepatched input devices, allows you to open a new session and get up and running very quickly. Having such a standardized setup also minimizes those frustrating moments when you can't figure out why no signal is getting through.Bradford, who works in Digidesign Pro Tools, extols the virtues of templates. “I have a basic session template that I bring up whenever I'm about to start up a new song,” he says. “Things are laid out the same way. The drums and the basic inserts are all part of a template so that when I get started on a song, I don't have to manually create that setup each time.”Cooper has templates setup in Digital Performer for the various types of sessions that take place in his studio. “I've got these templates for different types of projects: small demo, large band, etcetera, with tracks already assigned generic names such as kick, snare, bass, and generic I/O.”He also has developed templates for his O2R mixer. “I have default scene memories in my 02R for different applications. For example, I've got one for tracking, one for mixing, one for mastering, and one for outputting tones to calibrate my converters, depending on whether I'm tracking or mixing.”Gerrard, who records into Apple's Logic Pro with Digidesign hardware, has refined his Logic Autoload (Logic's version of a new template). “It has everything I need. There are Environments in Logic. I make sure that I have 96 tracks of TDM in the Environments, because I know that sooner or later I'm going to end up at 96 tracks. And there's nothing worse than being in the middle of a session and then having to create an Environment and add more tracks.”In a DAW setup, the template offers you the chance to customize your workspace in a way that matches your hardware setup and your working style. You could set it up so that edit windows are where you want them, the number of measures you want in the count off is set (with the metronome sound you prefer), the virtual instruments you use constantly are set to open at the beginning of every project, and your software's mix window opens with a basic reverb on one of the auxes. The possibilities are almost endless. Go beyond the default settings, make the workspace your own. Whatever time you spend in setting up your template will be saved during future sessions.The University of GearThe better you know your tools, the faster you'll be at using them, and that will translate into greater productivity. By devoting yourself to thoroughly learning your gear and software, you'll undoubtedly save time in the long run.If you want to be a power user, learn to operate your DAW with key commands. “The more things that you can put on the keyboard,” says Larry the O, “the more you can just fly. If you watch real Pro Tools wizards, most of their time is spent on the keyboard for exactly that reason.”Larry the O takes it beyond key commands and programs his own macros using Startly Technologies' QuicKeys, which is a cross-platform application. Macros allow him to automate frequently accessed tasks that would normally take a number of separate keystrokes. “I'll put three or four different things in one QuicKey stroke. And a lot of times, the QuicKey strokes are calling up multiple shortcuts in Digital Performer. I'm just stringing together shortcuts,” he says (see Fig. 1).There are so many key commands in a typical sequencer that it's virtually impossible to memorize them all. The best approach is to try to learn them gradually through use. When you're working on a noncritical project with no particular time pressure and you find yourself accessing a menu or a command with the mouse, stop what you're doing and look up the key equivalent in the manual. Then try to use the key command for that action from that point forward.Beyond the key commands, you should learn the ins and outs of your software or gear. There are so many features available to you that it's wise to carefully read your manuals; you're sure to discover many useful items that you didn't even know existed.“I make it a point to spend one or two days a month sitting down and reading my owner's manuals,” says Cooper. “If you want to be a speed demon in the studio, you have to study, study, study. Be the perpetual student because it will pay off in spades. Part of being an engineer these days is having a firm grasp on the technical aspects of your gear.”Save Me, PleaseWhen you're in the heat of recording, arranging, or producing in a DAW- or PDS-based studio, it's easy to forget to save for long stretches of time. Unfortunately, neglecting the save button can have disastrous consequences. Getting into the habit of frequent saving is highly recommend. “I save after everything. If I change one note, I hit save,” says Lorello. “And I usually do it without even thinking. Sometimes I'll check and I will have done it without even realizing.”Incremental saving — saving new versions of your song files as you go along — is a very prudent tactic, as well. It gives you greater safety, because if a particular file later becomes corrupted, you can go back to one from the day before or — depending on how frequently you increment — the hour before.“I keep saving in increments,” says Lorello. “Everything is ‘Another Smash 1,’ ‘Another Smash 2,’ ‘Another Smash 3.’ Every time there's a major change, I save a new version.”Gerrard agrees. “Every time I do something significantly different, I change the name of the Logic song itself,” he says. “I've noticed that some people don't do that, and they end up with one or two files that read ‘the name of the song and Pro Tool's. And I think, ‘What happens if you want to go back five days to the point in which you did the guitars?’ You may have already consolidated, cross-faded, or glued it. I can go back and say, ‘that's approximately the point in which I worked on that guitar part,’ open up the file, and get that little snippet of audio that I want. The more files you have the merrier, as long as you have organized folders.”Better Safe than SorryFrequent saving is not enough to protect your data. You should also have a backup strategy in place before you record a single note. Despite its many advantages as a recording medium, a hard disk is much more volatile than tape ever was. It's absolutely essential that you backup regularly. If there's anything that will put a major crimp in your productivity, it's losing a song or even an entire drive's worth of data and not having a backup.I asked the pros what their strategies are, and found a pretty wide variation in media and methods. All have a clearly defined system, however, that they follow religiously. Some use tape-based backup systems, while others back up to hard drives. Most also use multiple backup sets, such as Larry the O, who backs up to a VXA tape drive.“I always maintain duplicate backup sets, and I pretty much checkerboard back and forth between them — meaning, I backup to one, and then the next time I backup to another,” he says.“A lot of people recycle tapes, but I do not. I just keep them. And I have backups going back years and years and years, which would be difficult with a hard drive. You eventually have to wipe it. What it comes down to is this: my backup medium also serves as an archive medium.”What you use for a backup medium has a lot to do with factors such as budget (tape drives require a much larger initial investment than hard drives), the need for speed, and your personal preference. As long as you have a consistent backup strategy, you should be in good shape. And consider supplementing your regular backups with DVD backups of individual projects as an extra precaution.Get ReadyIt pays to be as prepared as possible before a session. Even if you're working by yourself, things will go more smoothly if you write a chart or at least a sketch of the arrangement.If the session involves other musicians, it's imperative to be prepared. Wisch works out pre-production details with his out-of-town clients over the phone. “They send me copies of the songs that they're considering, and then we narrow it down. We talk about arrangements, we talk about ideas — anything that we can do ahead of time. So when we do get to the studio, we've already covered it.”Thorough preparation helps ensure that a session won't turn into a glorified (and expensive) rehearsal. The participants should be encouraged to bring charts. If there are going to be vocals recorded, lyric sheets should be provided. Both Cooper and Gerrard, who record a lot of vocals in their studios, stressed that multiple lyric sheets are a must.“You need to put one lyric sheet on a music stand by the singer and one on the table, so when they come in and I play them the track, they can have the lyrics in front of them,” says Gerrard.Lyric sheets are also essential for facilitating quick and accurate vocal comps. “I make sure that I have a vocal comp sheet myself,” Gerrard says, “which usually is the whole song gridded out, so with my right hand I can tick off the lines as she's singing. I comp as she sings. I write down every take that I like, every line.”The vocal comp sheets to which Gerrard is referring feature line-by-line lyrics in a vertical column on the left and a grid corresponding to the lines on the right. Each column of the grid represents a particular take. Producers often will put check marks or even more involved shorthand (showing several degrees of quality) so that they can remember the best lines, or even words, in the various takes (see Fig. 2), thus making it much faster when they actually comp the track together.Prep the GearIf musicians are coming to record in your studio, it pays to find out in advance what the instrumentation will be and to make sure the gear you'll need is set up and working before the session starts.“Try to have everything set up before the musicians get there,” says Wisch. “When you open that template up and put everything into input and everything into record, you should be able to get a signal from the bass-drum mic, the snare-drum mic, the room mic — all the way around.“And also make sure everybody's headphones are working,” continues Wisch. “Inevitably, things will happen anyway during the session, things can be up and down. But the more preparation you do ahead of time, the easier it is. Especially when you're producing and engineering yourself.”Cooper concurs. “I always try to be as prepared as possible,” he says, “so I'm not messing around and trying to figure stuff out when the musicians come in. So I'll always plan out ahead of a session where I'll place each musician. If it's an atypically large ensemble coming into the studio, I may actually draw out little figures. I'll set up the headphone mix ahead of time to make sure that the vocal is out front and that everything else about the mix sounds really good, so that it's inspiring to the talent. Things should sound real discrete so that you can hear everything.“Of course, as soon as you do that, they come in the next day and say, ‘We changed our mind, we're doing harmonica.’ But at least 50 percent of the time they keep to their plan, and that preparation pays off,” says Cooper.Wisch points out that if you're going to be the engineer and the producer for a session, a thorough advance setup helps you keep your focus on producing. “All that engineering and technical stuff — the wire, the cables, and so on — if you don't have to put any energy into that, you've got that much more left to focus on the music,” he says.Getting on TrackAs the previous sections of this story demonstrate, there's plenty you can do to improve your efficiency before you've recorded a single note. But what about once the session starts?The first important rule is to keep organized, and one way to achieve that is by naming your tracks and keeping good session notes.Naming tracks is not only important for organization, but in many sequencers — such as Pro Tools and Digital Performer — it also impacts the naming of the audio files that are created when you record on those tracks. If your tracks are left with their generic names, such as “Audio 1” and “Audio 2,” the resultant audio files will carry those names as well, and it will be a lot more confusing to deal with later on. Make it a rule of thumb: always name a track as soon as you create it, and give it a descriptive name.Another helpful habit is to regularly use your sequencer's track comments feature to enter pertinent details about your session. “One of the advantages of Pro Tools is that it's a self-documenting system,” says Bradford. “For every track in Pro Tools, there's a little scribble strip under the track where you can type in ‘I used a Pod’ or ‘I used a Big Muff π fuzz or a wah-wah pedal,’” he says. “You can type all of that in, and when you've saved that, you've saved it as part of the session.” Having those details handy is a lifesaver if you have to revise a track and get the same sound that you had previously (see Fig. 3).After Lorello names a track in Digital Performer, he puts in comments. “If it's a synth, I tell it which synth I'm using, and I also tell it which patch I'm using. What is great is that most producers are happy that I do that because many times you have to recall things, and they [the producers] are demanding — they want it exactly the way you had it the last time. So I always use the comments function.”Take ThatA sequencer's track comments section is also a good place for writing down take information. Cooper makes the most of that feature. “I'll makes notes that read ‘take two best,’ ‘nice ideas on take three,’ things like that. Because sometimes you'll change the take, and then you can't remember which one was the keeper.”Some programs, such as Digital Performer and Pro Tools, make it easy to enter comments. Surprisingly, Apple's Logic Pro doesn't have a dedicated comments section for each track, although you can put a minimal amount of information in the track name itself. Gerrard describes a work-around for putting more detailed notes into a Logic sequence. “You set a locator [marker] at zero that is called Notes, and then you click on that [command +shift+double-click on or use the key command Open Marker Text], and a whole page comes up so that you can write lines and lines of notes,” he says.If you're recording to a PDS or other standalone multitrack for which you don't have note-taking capacity, you should still find a systematic way to document your session. “I think it's a good idea to take some sort of notes,” Bradford says. “If you're working with 2-inch tape or some other medium, you should use a laptop [for note taking].” He doesn't, however, recommend writing down notes on paper. “Paper gets lost, thrown away, or written on the back of if you're ordering pizza. Too many things can happen to it.”Mark My WordsAnother important tool is the marker feature in your DAW or PDS. Once you have the first track or tracks recorded, use enter markers for all the significant sections of the song (see Fig. 4). “When I'm tracking basics,” says Cooper, “the first time a take is played back, I'll place markers in Digital Performer for verses, choruses, bridges, intros, and coda.”Having those markers makes it easy to see, at a glance, where you are in a given section, and most sequencers have a feature that lets you jump quickly to a particular marker. That makes it possible to, say, quickly move to the guitar solo when you want to hear or edit it.The Color of SoundAnother helpful organizing tool in a DAW's arsenal is the ability to assign colors to tracks (see Fig. 5). Color coding can make it easier to pick out a particular track or track type from a crowded mixer window or tracks window.“All my tracks are assigned colors according to their category,” says Cooper. “At a glance, I can identify drums, to which I always assign a red color; hand percussion, which is orange; bass, which is blue; guitars, which are green; vocals, which are violet; keys, which are yellow, and so on. It makes it quicker to find a track that someone wants to punch in on or edit. I can find it much more quickly by virtue of having them all assigned colors consistently.”All Mixed UpOne of the most gratifying and difficult parts of the recording process is mixing. If you aren't careful and methodical, you can waste many hours on sonic wild-goose chases. Mixing can be the most obsessive part of the recording process.There was general agreement among the interviewees that a good way to streamline the mixing process is to get a lot of it done during tracking. “I'm kind of mixing while I'm recording,” says Bradford. “I'm already setting up pans, effects with plug-ins, reverbs, and inserts. All that kind of stuff is going on while I'm recording. So by the time I get to the mix, I'm pretty much 70 percent of the way there.”Bradford's philosophy is clear. “You should be setting up the sound of the record as you're recording it. You shouldn't treat it like two separate processes.”Larry the O finds it helpful to get his mix started along the way. “More often than not, yes, I do mix as I go along. And when I get all the tracks in final condition, I do a big mixing pass during which I might make pretty significant revisions. But I at least keep the baseline.”According to Lorello, mixing while tracking also helps with other aspects of the process. “It helps you to arrange properly, if you're thinking from a mix perspective. I think it also helps that I've been a mix engineer, because I approach making sounds that way. And even when you're playing parts, you think about the clarity in the arrangement.”Despite the advantages of mixing on the fly, there are times when you might want to take a different approach. “If I'm producing, by the time I'm ready to mix,” says Wisch, “it may already be mixed. Or, it could be a situation where I think, ‘you know what, let me start from scratch and re-create this thing.’”Scratch MixingIf you are starting your mix afresh, what is the most efficient method to build it? Without going too far into the complex topic of mixing, here are some observations from the interviewees.“It makes sense to me to start with those instruments that have the greatest dynamic range and also take up the most headroom,” Cooper says. “Those are instruments that have a lot of deep bass. With lower frequencies, more headroom gets taken up. So it makes sense to me to define where the top of the mix [in terms of amplitude] is going to be with bass and drums, and get within 2 to 4 dB of cresting, giving myself a little room in case there's a C section that's particularly loud. Then start filling in stuff from there.”“I have two different methods of mixing,” says Gerrard. “One method I use is I think about the mix carefully — that means pulling all the faders down, starting with the drums and the important instruments and then maybe the bass and the important instruments. The other method I use is to fiddle with the mix all along. I'll say ‘this mix is fairly close,’ and I go with my gut instinct and just turn things up and down.“The trouble with that method is that sometimes there might be a problem deep in a track somewhere that you're not fixing and you're feeling your way around. Whereas if you pulled it down and said, ‘hey, that kick drum's ringing, and that's the boomy in the bottom end that's screwing me up.’ If you start the meticulous way from scratch, you'll catch those things. But then again, sometimes if you do it the meticulous way, you'll end up with a clinical mix where things aren't popping out.”Compare and ContrastAnother tactic commonly used in personal studio mixing is to A/B the song against a comparable major-label release. Doing so can give you perspective and guidance and can help you more quickly determine when the mix is close to being finished. Even with all of their experience in the studio, most of the pros I talked to said that they use A/Bing for their own mixes.“I'll get started, and I'll get to a point where I'll say ‘okay, now it's time to start A/Bing to make sure I'm still on the right track,’” says Lorello. I'll make sure that the top and bottom are alright, check how loud people are putting guitars in the music, that kind of thing.”Larry the O likes to find several reference tracks with which to compare his mix. “I'll have a track that stays muted most of the time that's just called ‘reference,’” he says. “It will have different takes that will have three songs that I want to reference. In Digital Performer, there's a keystroke you can use that will mute all tracks but one. I can do that and listen to the references, and then mute that one and go back to the mix.”Cooper uses A/Bing to make sure his mixes are appropriate to the genre of the music. “I'll get the mix real close to where I want it to be, and then I'll compare it to a major-label release,” he says. “Most often these days, I'll refer to [a major-label release] for stylistic purposes rather than for spectral balance and dynamics — for example, if it's a style of music I'm not too familiar with.”Boom Boxes and Clock RadiosChecking your mix on a variety of sound systems to see how it translates is a time-tested technique. It's especially helpful for those personal-studio operators who work in spaces that are not acoustically treated. Many engineers who work in acoustically treated studios (such as Cooper) even find it helpful.Cooper says he listens to his mixes “in as many places as possible, and I always follow up with my clients to ask them how it sounds on the systems that they hear it on. I'll listen to it on a crappy stereo system that I've got, my wife's CD player boom box, and truck CD player system. I listen to it anywhere and everywhere that I can.”Larry the O has a couple of different sets of studio monitors on which he'll listen to mixes. Then he'll listen to them in some other areas around his house. “I just go upstairs to my living room. I sometimes burn a CD and listen to it on a cheap portable Sony CD player that feeds my clock radio, sort of the equivalent of listening to it in your car.”Bradford likes to switch over to small speakers in his studio. “When I'm done working on the record and concentrating on the final adjustments, I will listen on my Auratones for a long time,” says Bradford. “Then I'll go back to using bigger speakers later.“I spend a lot of time recording the record on big speakers and on near fields to get the tone that I want, and mixing is really more about the balance of the sound. I like to let my mixes sit overnight, because the next day, after your ears have taken a beating, you're always going to hear it a little different. If it sounds good the next day, then you did a good job,” says Bradford.Take FiveBradford's observation about ear fatigue begs the question: how often should you take breaks? It's important to be in tune with yourself and be aware of when you're starting to lose perspective. Sometimes a short break can get you back in the ballgame, but other times it's more efficient to shut down until the next day.Lorello's experience as a mix engineer has helped shape his opinion regarding when to stop mixing and let it sit. “Back in the old days, you used to start and go until it was done,” he says. “Now, it's so easy to recall things that I think it is good to come back to it later, when you're fresh. But I do like to get it done. I don't like to leave a day or two days in between. I'll go to bed, I'll get some sleep, and then I'll pick up where I left off.”“If I'm working on something where I'm really concentrating,” says Larry the O, “I might take a break every 15 minutes, but it might only be a 2 or 3 minute break. If I'm working a very long session, I will typically take one really long meal break. And I will take multiple 5- to 15-minute breaks. It depends on the flow of the work.”Cooper likes to take breaks more frequently as the day wears on. “I may start out mixing for four, five, six hours or more if I'm really into it. I'll take a break, come back and mix for another couple of hours, take another break, come back and mix for maybe another half hour, and then I'm done. After a while it becomes the law of diminishing returns.”“Mixing is like playing chess,” says Wisch. “It's an intense mental state of listening to many things, looking at many things, and then coming up with something that will get you to reach your ultimate goal.”Stop, in the Name of SanityKnowing when to stop and recognizing the point of diminishing returns is an important issue that all the interviewees spoke about, both in reference to tracking and mixing. Because DAW systems (and PDS systems to a lesser extent) offer such a dizzying range of sonic options, the ability to self-limit is essential if you want to get your projects done in a timely fashion — or done at all.“One of the things that people know me for,” says Bradford, “is that I don't invite a lot of options, because it's just another way to get lost in a sea of choices that you don't have the time for in a project-studio environment. If you're trying to get something done, it's supposed to be short and sweet.”Gerrard echoes those sentiments. “There are too many options. You've got to get inspired and focus in on the sound in front of you, and if you like it, use it. If you said, ‘I want to go through every kick drum so that I find the best one,’ you'll be there for two hours, and you'll lose your objectivity. Sometimes limitations are good. If you had just one keyboard in your studio and you had to make it work, you would.”Larry the O frames it this way: “There is a large part of the creative process that comes from working against limitations. In the past, that was simply imposed by the available technology. Now, the technology doesn't impose those limitations, so the artists have to impose limitations themselves. It's so easy to get lost in all the options and to lose perspective.”So what to do? “Keep the big picture in mind,” suggests Wisch. “Think about what you're trying to achieve. A lot of time can get spent on things that are ultimately insignificant. You have to know when the moment is the beginning of some seed that's going to make a difference, as opposed to something that's obsessive and anal. When you learn to differentiate, which sometimes is very hard, you can be more efficient in your work.”“There is a point where you're done, and you have to step away from it and leave it alone,” says Bradford. “It's like a sculptor: you can only chip off so much from that rock to make it perfect. And if you hit that rock one more time, it'll turn into a pile of rubble.”Lorello says that knowing when that point is comes from experience. “I think that's something you learn over the years when you get feedback from people. When you doing that one last tweak on the hi-hat and nobody can hear it, you think, ‘okay, I've gone far enough on that.’ So I think it's just a learned thing.”But if you do cross that line and turn that masterpiece into rubble, it's not necessarily the end of the world. Between a sequencer's undo history feature and your incremental file versions, you can probably go back to an earlier incarnation of the piece.Letting the Light InAlthough space doesn't permit a discussion of all the possible ways to increase studio efficiency, I've tried to hit the major ones. I hope these discussions will give you plenty of food for thought and fodder for action. By implementing some or all of the advice put forth by the experts in this story, you're certain to improve your recording habits and efficiency.Finally, I'd like to offer some sage advice from Michael Cooper that all of us who spend countless hours in our studios should take to heart.“Don't overwork. If you want to reduce your efficiency and productivity in the studio, make it your entire life. And if you want to be fresh and on the ball, get outdoors, get some exercise, and clear your head. Do something healthy for yourself, because control rooms can be unhealthy places. You're working sitting in a chair in an unnatural position all day, doing repetitive motions in a room that is closed off from the outside. It's good to get out every once and a while to get some sunshine and take breaks.”Mike Levine is a senior editor at EM.Tip Sheet: Studio and Session PrepTip Sheet: Productive TrackingTip Sheet: Efficient Mixing

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In the recording studio, time has always been the enemy. In commercial studios, the ever-present ticking clock motivates musicians, producers, and engineers to keep moving, lest the project go over budget. In the personal studio, where there is no hourly charge, the dilemma is a different one: how do you use the time available in the most productive manner?

Whether you spend 8 or 80 hours in your studio each week, there's no question that there's a direct relationship between the efficiency of your setup, systems, and work style and the level of productivity that you experience. To find out more about studio efficiency, I spoke with a cross-section of pros who have their own studios, and for whom efficiency is an imperative. I picked their brains about the systems and methods they've developed that have helped them flourish in the ever-competitive music business.

Mike Bradford (www.chunkystyle.com) works from a Los Angeles-based project studio and has produced, recorded, mixed, and remixed a variety of artists including Uncle Kracker, Kid Rock, and Deep Purple.

Michael Cooper is the engineer, producer, and owner of Michael Cooper Recording and Attention Span Music in Sisters, Oregon. He is also a contributing editor for EM and Mix.

Matthew Gerrard is a producer, engineer, musician, and songwriter whose clients include Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Eden's Crush.

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Matthew Gerrard''s main mic preamp is within reach of where he sits at the computer so that he can make on-the-fly adjustments to compensate for the wide-ranging dynamics of the singers he records.

Larry the O is a Bay Area-based engineer and musician whose TV and film credits include Gumby, Bump in the Night, and Vampire Hunter D, and whose music projects include Keepers of the Flame by the Phoenyx. He's also an EM contributing editor.

Mike Lorello (www.mikelorello.com) is a keyboard programmer, arranger, composer, and remixer from New York who has worked with Michael Jackson, Cher, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, and Gloria Estefan, among many others.

Producer, engineer, and mixer Ben Wisch's (www.benwisch.com) clientele includes many prominent artists in the New York folk scene such as Marc Cohn, Patty Larkin, David Wilcox, and Lucy Kaplansky.

All six interviewees work mainly in their own studios, which range from home-based personal setups to larger project facilities. All six record on DAW systems, so their observations are heavily weighted to that style of recording. Much of the advice that they give, however, is also applicable to those using portable digital studios (PDSs) and standalone multitrack recorders.

Everyone offered a wide range of suggestions on ways to be more efficient in the tracking and the mixing phases of the recording process. They also had much to say on the subjects of studio setup and session preparation, which is the opening topic for this article.

Setup for Success

Before you record note one, you should take a look at the physical layout of your studio and ask yourself if it is setup as logically as possible. “Available space determines a lot of your logistics,” says Larry the O. “Look at the space that you have, and figure out how your equipment can be put in there and laid out in the most efficient fashion.”


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Ben Wisch likes to make sure his gear is set up and working before the session starts so he can concentrate more on the aesthetic aspects of producing.


Michael Cooper stresses the importance of studying your software and equipment manuals on a regular basis to make sure that you get the most from your gear.

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FIG. 1: This relatively simple QuicKeys macro copies the selection to memory and enables looped-memory playback. The screen to the right shows the three steps that happen when the macro is triggered.

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FIG. 2: This graphic shows a portion of a vocal comp sheet. In the grid area, you can check off the takes that you like for each line (or circle individual words) as the singer is singing them, using symbols of your choice to represent different levels of quality. In this example, a plus means “excellent,” a check means “okay,” and a slash means “don''t use.”

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FIG. 3: In Pro Tools, as in many other sequencers, the track comments window lets you make notes about instruments and gear used as well as take status.

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FIG. 4: Entering markers for the various sections of your song makes it easy to see where you are in the song. It also allows you to quickly jump to the various sections using locate features.

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FIG. 5: If you get in the habit of consistently color coding your tracks, you''ll find it easier to comprehend the content of your editor screens at a glance.

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Mike Bradford believes that a key to success in a personal or project studio environment is to limit your options.

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Larry the O likes to compare his mixes to several reference tracks to get as much perspective as he can.

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  • Maximize your studio layout so that the gear and accessories you use most often are close at hand and well organized.
  • Prepatch your input devices so that you can get a signal in quickly and easily.
  • Set up a template for your sequencer or PDS (and digital mixer if you have one) that customizes tracks and I/O to match your typical projects.
  • Study your owner's manuals so that you know your gear as thoroughly as possible. Learn and use key commands for your software.
  • Implement a consistent backup strategy to guard against data loss.
  • Prepare in advance for a session. If other musicians are involved, ascertain how many and what instruments and make sure to set up the appropriate gear and check it (and the headphone mixes) before anybody arrives.
  • Put markers in your song files to delineate the various sections.
  • Enter track comments into your sequencer as soon as you record a track (or onto paper or a word-processing program if you're using a multitrack that doesn't allow for comments).
  • Color code tracks using a consistent scheme for easy recognition of instrument types.
  • Save often. Become consistent with your saving habits to avoid data loss.
  • Save incremental versions of your project (“My Project 1.1,” “My Project 1.2,” and so on) whenever you make a significant change. That will guard against corrupt session files and allow you to return to your work at an earlier point.
  • Limit your options, and don't overthink your projects. The idea is to finish. Commit MIDI tracks to disk once you have a sound that you like. Don't save too much decision making for the mix.
  • Mix as you go along. Add reverbs, equalize tracks, and set pans and volumes along the way. When you get to the mix, you might have much less to do.
  • A/B your mixes against appropriate reference music.
  • Listen to your mix on a variety of speakers in a variety of spaces.
  • Take breaks during your mixing session to let your ears rest.
  • Let your mixes sit overnight, if not longer, and then revisit them.
  • When it sounds good, stop. Don't obsess.