How often have you come up with a great musical idea only to have it stymied by technology? Your computer crashes, your synthesizer isn't receiving on the correct MIDI channel, there's ground loop running rampant through your mixer, you can't find the right adapter or cable, your hard disk needs defragmenting, or your digital audio simply isn't syncing from one device to another. You start chasing down one of these technical glitches, and before you know it your creative energy is drained, and the idea has disappeared.
The problem is that your creative focus gets blurred when you shift your attention to the technical aspects of making music. It is commonly believed that technical and creative tasks are processed by different parts of the brain, so switching focus between creative and technical tasks can be difficult. See the sidebar “Ten Tips to Streamline Your Work Flow” for ways to avoid distractions in the studio.
Scheduling separate tech time in your studio allows you to minimize the impact that technical problem solving has on your creativity. Use your tech sessions to focus on getting the kinks out — test cabling, configure software preferences, label all devices and files, create signal-flow diagrams, and even create how-to documents that list all the steps to complete complex or unintuitive tasks. Put up a white board with a “problems to solve” area. If something breaks, buzzes, or crashes during a music session, write the problem on the board and move on with making music. Come back to the problem during your next tech session.
Software updates come with a special set of technical problems. Updates usually improve the stability and expand the feature set of your software. However, it's important to remember that updating can often lead to compatibility problems whose solutions require more updating. That can be a costly and time-consuming process.
Operating system updates can cause a particularly pernicious chain reaction. Once you update to the latest OS, your digital audio workstation (DAW) no longer works. So you update your DAW only to discover that your plug-ins also need to be updated. Additionally, all your nonmusic software may need updating. And finally, the shareware applications that save you hours every day have not been ported to the new OS, and they never will be because their authors have often moved on to other things. So do your homework before updating your software, and schedule the time necessary to do the job.
Needless to say, distractions and responsibilities are a part of daily life. You need to take care of life's details as well as relax and have fun. But try to eliminate distractions from your music work space. Turn off e-mail and Internet browsing — or better yet, relegate those functions to a different computer. Turn off the phone. Set boundaries with people around you, or make your work space off limits. You need clarity of mind and freedom from distraction to work at your creative best, so communicate to others that your music time is precious, and should not be frivolously disturbed.
Everyone has their own way of tapping their creative energy. Sitting alone playing your instrument without having any specific musical goal can produce a flood of ideas. Similarly, auditioning files from your loop- and sample library without any specific use in mind can lead to unexpected associations. I like to begin my compositional process away from any instruments or forms of technology. That helps me free my imagination from the playing habits I've developed as well as the synth patches, audio clips, and software features that influence my daily work. Whatever your method is, set aside time for it.
Simply getting a clear sense of a musical problem is often all that your subconscious needs to surprise you with an answer. The subconscious is your most powerful, flexible, and unfettered creative tool. When allowed to wander freely, it will come up with new ideas and novel associations. But it can't be forced. Once you have identified a problem, put it aside, and your subconscious will often come up with a solution for you.
TOOLS AND RULES
It's a good idea to carefully plan a session or composition before you start. Sift through your sample libraries to put together the drum kit for the song, go over the session goals with the other players, and make sure that your instruments are set up and tuned. In other words, make sure to get the technical details out of the way ahead of time. Set up all your equipment, test everything, get sounds and levels set, organize your DAW or recorder track layout, and then take a break. Relax and unwind so that you can walk back into the studio refreshed and get down to creating. Establishing a plan before you begin eliminates wasted time.
As part of your plan, set up a separate folder on your hard drive for all data related to a project (see Fig. 1). As you add sound files, create custom plug-in presets, and archive early versions of the project, make sure that they all wind up in the project directory. Include any text, database, spreadsheet, and graphics files that are related to the project. Many software DAWs give you the option of saving a project as “self-contained” after the fact. This option, however, often overlooks material used in earlier versions of the project that you may want to go back to. Creating your own self-contained file takes less time and can save you the effort of having to search for missing files.
There are thousands of terrific products out there, but you can't possibly learn to be proficient at all of them. If you try to use every new instrument, effect, and sample library that hits the market, you will get only superficial results. Flexibility and options are great, but too many choices can blur your focus and sap your creative energy. It's much better to limit yourself to essential tools that you fully understand than to have a studio full of stuff that you only vaguely know how to use.
It's also a good idea to limit your track count at the outset. It's terrific to have virtually unlimited track counts, but limiting yourself to 24, 32, or even 48 tracks forces you to think in an organized way about your arrangement. It also forces you to abandon takes that don't work as you go along. Remember the adage When in Doubt, Throw It Out. If you just can't bear to part with it, back up the project under a different file name, then continue on with the pared-down version. The 200-track pop mixdowns that you hear about most likely could have been created with 48 or even 24 tracks and a little more organization.
One way to keep the track count and CPU usage down is to bounce submixes whenever possible (see Fig. 2). For example, if you've tracked each drum in the kit separately to allow for separate processing, mixing, and automation, and you're now done with the drum tracks, bounce them to a stereo or surround mix, releasing whatever effects were used and freeing up tracks. The same applies with background vocals or any other musical element that you've recorded on multiple tracks. In those cases, it pays to archive the individually tracked version so that you can do a remix if necessary.
Open-ended effects processing is another area in which it's easy to lose sight of the big picture (see Fig. 3). It's tempting to keep all your plug-ins active until CPU limitations force you to print them. But CPU considerations aside, any decision you make now is one you don't have to deal with later. Furthermore, there's always some risk that you'll lose the custom settings you've labored over before you print the effect. That's especially likely after you've updated the plug-ins, the host software, or the OS. In the case of hardware effects, you typically have only one instance to work with. Printing the effect allows you to reuse it on another track.
BACK TO SCHOOL
The flip side of limiting your resources is learning to fully use the resources that you have. You will continue to collect new hardware, software, and sound libraries as long as you make music. With each acquisition, however, comes the job of learning how to use it. You can't become a virtuoso or power user of everything — but without at least some significant effort, any acquisition is just a waste of money.
Auditioning the presets and reading enough of the manual to learn how to access the critical controls are the most basic requirements for learning how to use a synth or an effects box (hardware or software). You may not want to take the time to understand the finer points of programming a complex new synth, but you should know enough to tweak the presets. For synths and effects that you expect will become a part of your long-term arsenal, spending the time to really learn how to program them is well worth the effort. There's nothing like creating your own sound or effect from scratch, or knowing exactly which control to reach for to instantly modify the sound to match your imagination.
For a new sound library, learning the basics means auditioning all loops and clips and knowing how they are organized and meant to be used. The next step is using them in various contexts to see how they work in your style and with your other resources. One effective approach is to create some short pieces exploring the library. Thirty to 60 seconds in length and with four or fewer tracks is a good format to use because it forces you to stay focused. If you want to get deep into the guts of a sound library, try re-creating one of the demo songs. You may not ever get it exactly right (and it's not uncommon for some key elements to be missing from the library), but you'll definitely know the library inside and out when you're finished.
BECAUSE IT'S THERE
You don't have to use a feature just because it's there. For example, theory tells us that the fewer conversions between analog and digital signals, the better the signal quality. On paper that makes sense, but my experience with digital I/O provides a good example of how those advantages can come at a price.
A number of years ago, I designed my new studio around a digital mixer. I connected two Pro Tools systems, a DAT machine, a DA-88 8-track digital recorder, and several digital reverb units to the mixer's digital inputs. The primary clock source was a Digidesign USD (Universal Slave Driver), with a MOTU Digital Timepiece thrown in for good measure. Designing and implementing the digital signal flow took a week. Finally, I was able to digitally pass a signal from any unit to any other, and each device could function as the clock source when it was transmitting data. Although I was able to get that to work, certain signal paths were used quite infrequently. When I did need to use them, it would invariably take a half hour of head scratching and manual consulting to properly configure all my devices. Even simply switching sampling rates from 44.1 to 48 kHz would take multiple keystrokes on several devices.
Managing the signal flow was time-consuming, and when 96 and 192 kHz sampling rates came along, the digital I/O of the mixer, signal processors, and recording devices were all rendered obsolete. The solution I chose was to sell the digital mixer, both Pro Tools systems, and the USD, and use the proceeds to purchase a newer, more powerful Pro Tools rig. Nearly all connections to the new system are analog. My digital reverbs that max out at 48 kHz function perfectly within a 96 or 192 kHz session because the analog signal path functions as a translator between different devices. In practice, the A/D and D/A converters have become so good now that I don't notice the minuscule amount of additional distortion resulting from several conversions. For the most part, my digital-I/O and synchronization headaches are a thing of the past.
THE ONE-YEAR RULE
A terrific way to keep your clothes closet in order is to follow the one-year rule: if you haven't worn a particular item of clothing in a year, it is time to send it to Goodwill. Someone else will make good use of it, and you will have space to get something that is more in line with your current tastes.
The same principle applies to gear. If you haven't used something in a year, there is probably a good reason — either it has been supplanted by something else that performs the same function, or your musical interests have gone in a direction that no longer favors that type of equipment. Either way, you can think of that piece of gear as a potential source of money. Sell it and use the money on something that meets your current needs, such as other gear, production costs for your next CD, or relief from the need to earn that amount of money by doing something that takes away from your music time. See the sidebar “Selling Your Gear on eBay” for helpful tips on how to get rid of surplus gear.
But money isn't the only reason to weed out your studio. Carrying the mental and physical baggage of hardware, software, and sound libraries that you will never use again takes your attention from the tools that you do use. Regarding hardware, the lesson hits home if you have to relocate or redesign your studio. That's a great time to get rid of stuff, but if you're not relocating, just imagine what you'd get rid of if you were.
With hard-drive space no longer at a premium and CD and DVD burners on every desktop, you can probably afford to keep every piece of software and every sound library you've ever had. In the case of sound libraries, the problem is finding what you need; in the case of software, you must make sure you avoid software conflicts. Getting the irrelevant stuff off your hard drives (remember it's only a CD or DVD away) will streamline your work flow and reduce your headaches.
All the terrific gear available now at reasonable prices gives everyone the opportunity to produce their own music. That's a great thing. I strongly believe in having the right tools for the job, but the easiest way to simplify your creative life is to remember that consuming is not creating. Time spent earning money to pay for gear, talking about equipment, browsing the classifieds, buying the gear, and installing and learning how to use it is time that you are unable to spend making music. You'll get more done and have more fun if you have just the tools you need.
TEN TIPS TO STREAMLINE YOUR WORK FLOW
- Schedule regular tech sessions in your studio, and whenever it's possible, avoid having to interrupt your music sessions to fix technical problems.
- Schedule ample time for the job before updating any piece of software. Be sure to do your homework by researching what the update will entail.
- Eliminate distractions such as telephones, e-mail, and other personal interruptions from the studio.
- Plan your session in advance so that the session can be devoted solely to music.
- Keep your projects self-contained. Maintain a separate directory or folder for all files related to a given project.
- Limit yourself to essential tools that you fully understand.
- Bounce whenever possible to keep your track count and active effects to a minimum.
- Create short pieces devoted to exploring a new sound library. For new gear, audition the presets and learn the basic controls.
- Don't use unnecessary equipment and software features simply because they are available.
- Consider selling gear that you haven't used within the past year. In the case of software or sound libraries, consider archiving them on CD or DVD.