Most Musicians have Worked in a less-than-ideal studio environment at one time or another — even now, your current studio may not make the grade in certain areas. Whether you're a seasoned pro or a beginner, it's likely that you can improve the ergonomics of your work space to enhance the creative flow of your projects. Workstation ergonomics and studio organization may not inspire your glamorous rockstar daydreams in the way that the most recent hardware releases or production techniques do, but this feature will arm you with relevant knowledge for making efficient changes to your studio.
Understand that this isn't about dropping a huge amount of cash on the latest bit of kit or completely redesigning your room; it's more a case of making the best of your current environment with some common sense and a few tricks to make your setup run at its maximum potential. Even something as mundane as the right chair or the position of your monitors can make a huge difference to your general comfort and creativity. Of course, certain hardware products will improve your environment, but many of them are pretty inexpensive when compared to dedicated production equipment.
Keeping an organized studio is also hugely important when it comes to uninterrupted work flow. For example, when you know where to find certain files and those files are named correctly, loading new sounds into a project will be a transparent process. The last thing you want is to be trawling through hundreds of files across multiple hard drives instead of making music.
Specially made music-studio furniture such as the Quiklok Z-600 ($699) desk and Z-612 rack stand ($259) pays off in work-flow improvements and comfort if you're currently using a janky studio arrangement.
Comfort must sit at the top of the list when designing any studio. After all, you are, without question, the most important component in your studio. As with any other work space, it's important to have the right posture when seated. Studio sessions can be long — often going over the eight-hour mark, so it's important to have the right chair. When choosing the seating for your studio, go for something that provides lumbar (lower back and abdominal) support, armrests and straightforward adjustability. Avoid anything slouchy with masses of padding. Also avoid chairs that are very low, which may seem more comfortable in the short term but could do some serious damage to your back over a long session.
Once seated in an ergonomically correct position, start to think about what you can see. First, inspect the lighting in your room; you don't want to have a bright lamp to the left or right of your computer screen, as that will cause constant distraction and eye fatigue. Bright overheads can have a similar effect; it's best to opt for softer ambient light, which will create the least stress on your eyes. If you're in a studio with no windows, it's worth considering full-spectrum lighting to simulate daylight.
The position and brightness of your screens is another critical factor to a healthy studio. Don't position the display too high or too low, because your neck will be at a constant angle. If your workstation furniture doesn't allow your screens to be positioned at the perfect angle, consider a monitor clamp or mount. The market is rife with mounts that often use the VESA mounting system to place multiple monitors at perfect ergonomic angles.
With your body, head and eyes at the right angle, you should be set up to tackle long sessions without any discomfort or adverse health effects. Remember: If you work for yourself, no one else is going to look out for you in this area.
At this point, it's also worth thinking about the position of your equipment and computer. If you use or view a piece of hardware regularly, you should place it within the line of sight in your work space; you don't want to have to change position every time you use it. If your current desk or workstation doesn't let you position things satisfactorily, companies such as Quicklok, Raxxess and Omnirax make a good range of products that shouldn't break the bank. Alternatively, you could take the DIY route of customizing or building your own furniture.
Huge hits from 2008, the Euphonix MC Control (left, $1,999) perform unprecedented mapping to all available parameters of supported applications, helping to keep your hand off the mouse.
In a world of virtual studios, software synths and DSP-driven effects, tactile control of a device's parameters is indeed threatened, but many products focus solely on the hands-on control of music and instruments.
The Kensington SlimBlade Trackball ($129) gives you an ergonomic mouse, extra assignable buttons and three operation modes for the scrolling trackball.
Although companies such as Euphonix, Mackie and M-Audio have excellent traditional control surfaces, don't be fooled into thinking that you have to spend a lot to get some physical control. Even a trackball mouse with programmable buttons can get you started; these products will often include scroll wheels that can control functions such as jog and zoom. That sort of functionality will not only reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries but also improve your work flow drastically.
Of course, nothing beats a full-featured, touch-sensitive, automated control surface to not just improve your work flow but transform it completely. The Euphonix Artist series sports features such as touch-sensitive color screens, motorized touch-sensitive faders, customizable channel-strip displays and a full transport section with jog wheel. However, these luxuries do come at a cost ($1,999 or $1,399 for the MC Control or MC Mix), so relative production beginners might consider going for cheaper options before graduating to such technology.
When looking at control surfaces, remember this small but often overlooked tip: Find one that includes a humble footswitch input. Third-party footswitches can be perfect tools for engaging record mode, turning loop mode on and off or simply starting and stopping your DAW. If you are already playing a part on a MIDI keyboard or guitar, a footswitch can control your software in an easy way without interrupting your creative flow.
The subjects of room acoustics and monitor placement may not seem connected to work flow, but they are more closely related than you may think. If your room has problematic acoustic characteristics and you leave it untreated, your mixes will translate badly to other playback systems, and your listening experience will be incredibly fatiguing — which will take its toll during long sessions. In an untreated room, too many early reflections create multiple signals for the listener to process, which results in ear fatigue. Treating the room with simple broadband absorption tiles will combat this problem and start to create a more comfortable listening environment. However, if you add too much absorption, you can create an unnaturally dead space, which can also be fatiguing. The trick is to use some diffusion or reflection panels or at least a good balance of those and the absorption tiles.
Controlling low-frequency energy is also very important because if left unchecked, it will also create a confused listening environment. Bass traps in the corners of your space and thick, high-density tiles should help to remedy this, not to mention help remove issues such as standing waves and unwanted nodes.
With its unique SonicPrint products, Auralex lets you custom-design acoustic panels with either our own artwork and photos or Auralex's library of images.
Companies such as Auralex make excellent room kits that can help solve most acoustic problems — they aren't exactly cheap, but they are worth every penny. And with Auralex's new SonicPrint products, acoustic materials don't have to be eyesores anymore; you can order acoustic panels printed with famous artwork, movie posters or any digital image you supply to the company. Auralex has also been diligent in making its products easier on the environment. Its recent Studiofoam Eco products use fewer fossil fuels and chemicals to make. Another product to think about is a pair of Auralex Mopads. These foam pads go under your studio monitors to ensure that they are decoupled from the surface they are placed on. This will ensure you are listening to your monitors, not the vibrations from your work surface or desk. The Mopads cost about $40 per monitor.
STORAGE AND MAINTENANCE
One of the most important parts of maintaining work flow is a tightly organized and well-oiled system. As a lot of studios do most or all of their work “in the box,” it's now more important than ever to keep your machine running at its best; part of that is keeping your audio material organized and stored in the correct manner.
If you have a Mac-based studio, you are pretty lucky: The maintenance work needed to keep things running smoothly is pretty minimal. As long as you regularly repair permissions on your drives (from the Disk Utility), run Software Update and keep your DAW and other software updated, you should be in top form.
Windows XP or Vista systems require a little more work. Reasonably regular defragmentation runs keep large files stored in consecutive blocks of the hard drive, which in turn decreases hard-drive seek times and reduces stress to the mechanism as a whole. Defragging every few weeks or so should increase the life of your drive and show you a jump in system performance. Also ensure that you are running your audio from one drive and your system and applications from another; that will help your system perform at its best.
Other essential maintenance procedures Windows users need to perform include virus and spyware scans, driver updates, hardware-conflict checks and system updates. You can also execute a few OS-based tweaks to keep everything running quickly, such as using the “set for best performance option” in the Appearance control panel. Further tricks such as using no desktop picture and limited startup programs will all contribute to a highly tuned audio PC.
Whether Mac or PC, if your system is running as it should, you will spend more time making music and less time troubleshooting or performing clean system installs. Nothing kills the creative spirit more than having to install drivers, defrag a drive or download updates halfway through a session. To avoid that, try to keep up with this mundane stuff in your spare time.
When it comes to organizing your files, one thing is on your side: the current low cost of storage devices. Whether you opt for internal or external drives, most budgets can stretch to multiple drives, which means you can dedicate specific drives to specific tasks. For instance, you could have all of your sample collections on one drive, your system and applications on another and all your working projects on a third drive. That kind of setup takes the strain off your computer and prevents “bottlenecking” of data.
A final tip is to not only organize your files in a sensible folder system but also name them clearly and logically. That may seem obvious, but when you record a take or perform some sampling, you may apply a quick name to the file in the heat of the moment. File names such as “fastdrumtake_1f” may be fine one day, but a month or so later, when you are looking for that perfect phrase, you may not be able to remember it. Try to develop your own generic naming conventions, including attributes such as bpm, style or date. That way, saving and searching for appropriate files will become much less painful.