November 29, 2012, by Joe Gilder
When you think about your studio, what comes to mind? I’ll admit, it’s easy to hone my attention on the things I don’t like about it.
Perhaps the fact that a few of my mic stands don’t work very well anymore. Or how I need to stain the wood on my homemade gobo/booth.
Or that I don’t have a dedicated monitor switcher box to switch between speakers and sources and quickly listen to things in mono. Or maybe I think about how I need to tidy up the cables back behind my desk, which makes me think that I really should buy all new cables, so I don’t have mismatch of different brands and lengths.
It’s endless, really. And don’t get me wrong. I harp on “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” all the time, but there’s no doubt about it — gear is fun. Buying gear is fun. Studying gear can be fun.
Unfortunately, however, too many of us become so obsessed with the gear over the music that we end up sinking lots of money into a “studio,” even when that “studio” hasn’t released a single piece of music in years. (Or perhaps you’ve never finished a project in your studio?)
It’s a real shame. (And I can be as guilty of this as the next guy.) But to have all this gear and not be constantly pursuing new creative musical projects is something we should all fight against. Life’s too short to have a hard drive full of unfinished projects.
There has never been a better time to be in this business of recording and making music. I don’t care if you’re making money at this or not, if you’ve got a computer, and audio interface, and a mic, you’ve got everything you need to make a hit record.
But what if that’s not how you feel? Maybe you’re feeling like your studio gear is outdated or that you really can’t produce anything good with the gear you have. Maybe you have some legitimate issues with your rig — like lack of acoustic treatment, a noisy room, only a dynamic mic and no condenser. (While your system may be far from perfect, I still believe that you can create something incredible out of it.)
Either way, I’m going to share with you some ideas to give your studio a much-needed “reboot.”
I’m not sure if PCs are like this, but on every Mac I’ve ever owned, when things start to run slowly, or something starts to act stupid, a nice reboot almost always fixes the problem. The system just got sluggish, bogged down by something. It needed to be restarted from a clean slate.
Maybe that’s what you and your studio need – a REBOOT.
Quick side-note here. If you’re reading this, and none of it seems to really relate to you, keep reading. Perhaps you’re in “the zone.” You’re really excited about recording and its endless possibilities. That’s awesome! Think of these tips as ways to challenge yourself creatively. And also file this article away for a rainy day. Trust me, days will come when you won’t think your studio is all that great. You’ll need something to shake you out of your funk. So keep on readin’.
Let me reiterate this. I’ve been in your shoes. No doubt about it. I know what it’s like to look up three months later and realize I haven’t worked on a single project. I know how it feels to see the studio as more work than play. It happens. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. But when it does, waltz on over to your computer and pull up this article.
Okay, here are some ways to reboot your studio (and yourself). I’ve done all of ‘em, and usually one of them will do the trick.
Here we go:
Reboot Technique #1:
Take Your Limitations to the Limit
Whether you feel like you have not enough gear or too much, you could benefit from setting some strict limitations. I’ll be honest, I bet 80 percent of the people who read this will skip on over to the next one, and that’s fine. But I put this one first on the list for a reason. I think it’s one of the best ways to get those creative juices flowing.
Here’s how it works. I want you to try to complete an entire project while severely limiting your options. Here are some ideas to get your brain going:
—Record an entire song using only an SM57
—Mix a song using only EQ
—Mix a song without allowing yourself to touch the pan knobs
—Mix a song using only the faders
—Mix a song on iPod earbuds
—Mix a song in your car (Okay, I’ve never done this, but it sounds fun)
—Record, edit, mix, and master a song in one day (or one hour)
You get the idea.
Find a way to over-limit yourself. Force yourself to work within those strict parameters. And see what happens. What I think you’ll discover is that you have to think HARDER to make things sound like you want them to sound.
You’ll have to try things, test things, and use your ears. Forcing yourself to solve a problem with a DIFFERENT set of tools is a fantastic way to shake that brain loose.
Reboot Technique #2:
Listen Back to Your Old Mixes
The second way to give your creative brain the ol’ shockeroo is to whip out some of your old mixes. The older the better.
Break out the really old stuff, the first songs you worked on. Give them a nice, hard listen.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
—What do I LIKE about this recording?
—What do I HATE about this recording?
—What did I think about this recording at the time I recorded it?
—What are my current projects missing — stuff that this old recording has?
I’m taking my own advice. As I type this, iTunes is playing my very first recording “effort.”
From way back in high school. I released an 8-song album, all recorded on my parents’ PC using one of those little diction computer mics and a piece of recording software a friend “gave” me.
Here’s how I answer the above questions:
What do I LIKE about this recording? I love that the the entire album is mostly in mono. I didn’t really “get” panning. I didn’t use a single EQ or compressor on the whole thing. I didn’t know what they were or how they worked.
I would record the parts over and over until they sounded right, then I’d move on. Hardly any “mixing” happened. Heck, I didn’t even know what mixing was.
I also love that I recorded using only the stuff I had — instruments, gear — I just used them all creatively to put together a record. Fun times.
What do I HATE about this recording? The songwriting is pretty awful. How much wisdom can a 17-year-old have? Obviously the recording quality isn’t great — but it’s surprisingly good when you consider the gear that I used.
What did I think about this recording at the time I recorded it? I thought I was hot stuff. I mean, one of the songs was voted to be the “class song” my senior year. I was new to recording, and I though it was incredible that I could multi-track myself…on top of myself…over and over and over.
And all the locals in small-town Yazoo City, Mississippi, thought it was awesome, too.
What are my current projects missing — stuff that this old recording has? I think I tend to put off projects, wanting them to be a cohesive, structured event. For example, rather than knocking out a guitar part here and there, I’d rather have an entire “guitar recording day,” where I set everything up, get great guitar tone, and record for hours.
When I recorded this album, I literally worked on it for a few minutes when I got home from school, or maybe an hour or two on the weekends. I worked on it because I LOVED it, not because I felt obligated to.
I could stand to remember that in my projects today.
Reboot Technique #3:
Listen to Good Stuff
If going the nostalgic route doesn’t do it for you, maybe you just need to immerse yourself in some really good music. Go back and find that album that you haven’t listened to in a while, the one you love. Or maybe buy a new album, maybe one that everyone raves about but you never got around to listening to.
Try to do this without doing anything else. I listen to music while I work out or check email or clean up the studio, but I don’t really listen to the music when I’m doing ten other things.
Put yourself in a place where you can listen critically to the music, where you can ask questions like “How did they get that guitar sound?” or “I wonder how they got the background vocals to sound like that?”
Asking these questions gets your brain thinking creatively. Before you know it, you’ve got a bunch of ideas for things you can try next time you’re in the studio. Sometimes it just takes a good recording to shake loose the cobwebs and get the creative juices flowing again.
Reboot Technique #4:
Early Mornin’ Studio Action
This one won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re working a day job, and you simply don’t have time to do a lot of recording.
Try getting up early once or twice a week and spending an hour or two in the studio.
I heard one guy say, “Be selfish with your time at 5 am.”
If you struggle with finding time to record, without neglecting your job and family, maybe you need to spend some time working on your music in the wee hours of the morning.
This does two things:
1) It forces you to take intentional action on a project your working on, and
2) It keeps you from wasting time. If you know you’ve got to hop in the shower and get ready for work at 7 am, then when you sit down in the studio at 6 am, you’re forced to be highly focused for one hour.
I launched a class called One-Hour Challenges a while back. The premise of the class was that you can accomplish a crap-load of stuff in your studio in just one hour. Over the course of several months, I gave myself regular One-hour challenges. I would set a timer for one hour when I walked in the studio, and one hour later I’d be done.
You know what happens when you do this? You get stuff done. You’d be shocked how much can happen with 60 minutes of good old-fashioned focus.
You don’t have to get up early to work against a timer, but it’s worth a try.
Reboot Technique #5:
Fill Your Brain
Do you like to read? Or maybe listen to podcasts? I’ve done a lot of both lately. I read the occasional recording book, lots of blogs online, and I listen to a fair number of podcasts, too.
These can be wonderful sources of information, and that information tends to feed into the creative cycle (at least for me). Listening to two dudes argue over mic technique is both informative and entertaining. Plus, the added bonus of simply peaking inside another guy’s studio, seeing how he goes about working on projects — that gets me excited to go back into my studio and work on stuff.
Here are a few recommended podcasts:
—Simply Recording Podcast (shameless plug, I know)
—Home Recording Show
—Inside Home Recording
Reboot Technique #6:
The Big Deadline
You know what motivates me more than anything else in the studio? Something big. Something epic. Something with a deadline.
Back in the spring of 2010, I had been “working on” a solo album for months — since the previous summer, actually. It was an acoustic guitar-driven album, and I had all the main acoustic guitar parts recorded, but I had done NOTHING on the album in months.
I could honestly say I had started the album. But things had stalled. I had stalled. I always assumed the album would sort of come together. That I would magically work on it on a spur-of-the-moment basis. A little bit here. A little bit there. Then suddenly — BAM! Album done.
It doesn’t work that way.
I don’t know if you knew this, but projects don’t finish themselves. :>)
Now, it may sound odd — and this might not work for everyone — but for me, the solution for my dilly-dallying was simply this: I set a deadline.
But not only that, I told people about it. I told my adoring fans (all four of them, including my mom) that I was releasing an album in the summer of 2010.
Then I did something crazy. I launched a mixing class for my Home Studio Corner subscribers. They could sign up and mix the album along with me — AS I was mixing the album myself.
What had I done? I’d essentially added a deadline on top of my deadline. I knew I wanted the album to be finished sometime in the summer, but then I launched a 10-week class, meaning I had to mix one song per week for 10 weeks. There were paying customers, each one expecting to get the multi-tracks to a song each week.
I could dilly-dally no longer.
I gave myself no choice but to get this thing done, and fast. Can you guess what happened? I got it done. The album released in September 2010.
Okay that’s not technically summer, but here’s the cool thing about deadlines. I set a deadline of summer. I missed the deadline, but I released the album in September.
Had I set NO deadline…heck, that album might STILL be unfinished. The deadline kicked my lazy butt into gear. And I was able to get it done.
One final point on deadlines. The goal here isn’t to make you dread your studio. I don’t want to turn recording into a chore or a burden. Do you think setting those deadlines and launching that mixing class added some pressure and stress to my life? Sure. But I had a BLAST the entire time.
Yes, there were stressful moments. There were days where I was frustrated. But all in all I LOVED the process, because I love music and recording.
The deadline forced me to do something I love. Doesn’t get much better than that.
What ways can you set deadlines for yourself? I’m guessing you have no intention of launching a mixing class or anything like that, but what are some other ways you can “put your feet to the fire”?
Setting a deadline, having a goal out there that people knew about, forced me out of any creative “funk” I might have been in. Deadlines wait for no one — and they can be the ultimate way to reboot YOUR system.
Joe Gilder is a Nashville-based engineer, musician, and producer who also provides training and advice at the Home Studio Corner.