‘Wake up with determination, go to bed with satisfaction’
It’s been 7 years since I started my humble home recording studio (as of late 2019). I’ve gone through multiple upgrades and developments since then, coming from a: 13” Macbook Pro, a 2-input scarlet 2i2, and the cheapest headphone and midi keyboard you can find! And the concept of why I invested in building my own home recording studio is this, ‘to create a safe sanctuary, where I can completely be myself and get creative with expressing my true self’. How about that for a quote.
As much as I’d love to geek out on gear, that is not the point of this article. In fact, the gear you use has nothing to do with your productivity and creativity in studio. FACT. At the end of the day, ‘It’s the ear, not the gear’. So let’s talk about how to actually be productive in the studio, gear up, there are some golden nuggets here:
- ROOM SETUP – If there was one thing I learned about creativity, it’s that it loves SPEED. So you want to set up your studio where everything is within arm’s reach. If an idea or melody needs to be exercised or created, for e.g. I could have a melodic idea for a guitar riff, I don’t want to have to: find my guitar > unpack it > find a lead > tune the guitar > plug it in my amp/audio interface > see if a signal is coming through > setup the input gain > find the tone I need > create a track on my DAW. By the time this process is done, my idea has either disappeared, or I’m just unmotivated to bring it to life. And that’s where most of us get caught off guard. The way my studio is set up; all I have to do is: grab the guitar > plug it in and away we go (well, maybe tune it along the way). Do you see what I mean when I say creativity loves speed? You want to eliminate all the things that will delay or slow down the creative process. So set every instrument and tool you have is basically an extension of an idea waiting to be exercised. Set your room up so everything is plugged in ready to go!
- CHECKLISTS – You might not like the term ‘checklists’ as of yet, but look here, let me explain why it’s VITAL. I once had a recording session that was given to me last minute, and this was an amazing opportunity for me to work with an amazing singer, so I definitely didn’t want to disappoint. Unfortunately, it was a complete disaster from the get-go, of my own doing, of course. First, I forgot to bring 2 necessary cables for the session (extension cable, interface cable), I didn’t set up the room up so the singer would be comfortable (mic stand height and organizing cables), forgot to bring the stems for session (they we’re in my dropbox, instead of a USB or hard drive!). Once all the panic has settled down, I managed to get everything sorted out, though it took 45-minutes of the 2-hour session we had together. To say the singer was dismayed is an understatement. The session felt like it was pretty much over. But it gets worse. Way worse.
Since the vocalist preferred removing one side of the headphone cup to his ear when recording (to better hear himself), the click track (which I put loud in the mix so the singer can have a tight feel to the song) bled into the damn mic! And I was using an unbelievably sensitive condenser mic at that, one of those old-school vintage ones. But through my own ignorance, since I was playing it back at the session, the bleed didn’t seem as pronounced (my creative brain and analytical brain was not to be found LOL. Only when I got back to my own home studio where I noticed how loud it really was! To make it even worse, the track was acoustically driven! Long-story-short, I had to re-arrange another session with the singer and tell him about the issue. Thankfully he complied, but it was one of my biggest failures.
The reason why I’m telling this story is that this could have been all avoided if only I had a checklist! A checklist of what I need to bring, test, make sure of if things go wrong or sideways, etc. Your brain can’t perfectly remember all the minute details of a complex process such as recording at one go! And the power of checklists is setting you up so you don’t have any issues from the beginning to the end. Why do you think pilots and doctors use them?! To save lives! Use checklists, always.
- Templates – This relates highly back to point one (Room setup), but more to do with your laptop/software. The scariest thing a musician or producer can stare at is a blank screen on your digital-audio-software (DAW). It’s basically all your fears put into one, staring directly at you! That’s the reason you want to have templates setup. And once you have the template you desire, the initial process of getting creative isn’t as scary or overwhelming. What does a template mean?
The best way to describe it is to explain my template with Ableton 10. I basically have my template (initial session when I open the software) setup where:
- I have a drum rack setup since 99% of the tracks I make have some sort of rhythm/groove in it. It has a default banks of sounds (kick/snares) which I can easily replace if need be.
- I have a MIDI piano vst track already set up, so when I lay down chords, I can have a sense of harmony with where the track is going. And half the time, the chords drive the song, if not the melody and I use those same piano parts in the final arrangement.
- Talking about melody; I have 2 audio tracks ready to record when I start my DAW: one for vocals and one for guitar/bass.
Having these tracks set up as a template makes the creative process easier, as I don’t have to set the foundational aspects of a track from the get-go (rhythm, harmony, melody). It also doesn’t feel as overwhelming to create when you see that 50% of what you’ll need for a track is already waiting for you to play with.
BONUS: My DAW template is also set up so a typical pop structure is already marked as markers on the grid (verse-pre-chorus-bridge). This is a game-changer for me, it makes it so that you can easily have an overview of the song you’re creating. And to be fair, most sections that repeat use the same instrumentation; you can just copy/paste midi/audio files to 2nd verse or chorus if need be!
- ORGANIZE YOUR FILES AND FOLDERS – There’s nothing worse than looking for an MP3 file of a track you need to hand-in ASAP and you can’t find it! Either you didn’t save it onto the right folder, you didn’t name it correctly or forgot to name it, or you just plain forgot where the hell it is! Like somehow it got lost in the matrix. Well if we want to understand the matrix, we have to know the code to it AKA organize your damn files and folders people.
There comes a point in your creative threshold where you start to have more than 3-5 songs that you’re working on simultaneously, and if you’re not careful, things can get messy very easily. I personally have produced over 150 tracks in the past year or so, and I know where every stem and zip folder that comes with each track. So when I need to find a specific file, I instantly know where to find it. Make sure you create folders for different purposes (demos/mix sessions/ vocal production sessions etc.) and name the files you bounce accordingly. EVERY.SINGLE.ONE.OF.THEM.
BONUS: If you’ve never had your laptop/pc/hard drive crash on you, count yourself lucky. So please while you’re not there yet, always back up your files and sessions! I had my laptop crash on me and it stopped working out of the blue, yep, all my files were gone. But, thankfully, I backed up all my files to two external hard drives (yay, me!). I probably would have been very depressed and angry if I didn’t get to see files of my musical works and other important files ever again. So let’s work with Mr. Murphy here, and back up your files. Do it now!
- KNOW YOUR END-GOAL AND PLAN HOW TO ACHIEVE IT – I want to end this article with more of a mental shift in you for your home studio. If you really want to be productive and creative, you have to know your end goal. To be able to envision it and almost realize it before it is even on paper, in our case, on the DAW. This helps us execute a far more focused and practical method in getting to where we want, whether we’re producing an acoustic demo or a full-on synth-pop track. Using a reference track can help with this, say you like a song’s production elements, and you’ve decided you want your track to sound or be inspired by it. Now you’re not just aimlessly creating a track, you’re saving yourself time by being focused on the end goal (produce a track like so and so). Finally, once you have an idea of your end goal, make sure to have a written plan for its attainment and breakdown step-by-step how you’ll get there e.g. listen to reference track > list elements I like > setup tempo and decide on a key > record drums > record synths > add a vocoder to my harmony vocals etc.
Hopefully, I have given you some insight into my own mindset and shared practical tips on how to be more productive in the studio. Now go get recording, you might be producing the greatest song of all time!
Here’s to more music and success,
If you would like to know more about me, or just connect and chat, come say hi (@jonathanmilanes):
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