Spending Time Appropriately

I’ve blogged before several times about sample manipulation and clean up (i.e. EQ, compression, gating, etc…).  I use a lot of live-sampled sounds in my tracks, often as main/key elements in the overall composition.  So in these cases, properly cleaning up and compressing samples is really important, if I want these elements to stand out well and sound clean in the mix.

For the track I’m working on at the moment, I’m in the middle of doing all the incidentals, and part of that is incidental percussion.  I usually first sequence all of these sounds in the track’s Reaper project, and afterwards go through and automate EQ and compression to get them sitting in the mix properly (usually with a single EQ and compressor instance and using automation to adjust the parameters for each incidental).  That process can be pretty tedious, so I decided this time I’d do all the sample EQ and compression up front (i.e. before sequencing) in audio editing software.  This also was pretty daunting at first, because I had about 20 samples to treat, and I usually spend a good 5-10 minutes per sample finding the right EQ and compression settings, and auditioning on monitors and close listening through headphones.  But as I started working through them, I realised I didn’t need to spend so long on each one…

For samples which are used as key elements in the track, overly careful EQ and compression is really important… your key elements will either comprise the main ‘themes’ of a track, or at a minimum occur many times during the track’s progression… hence you need to spend time making fine and careful adjustments to get them sounding as good as possible.  On the other hand, the incidental samples I was working on might play in total a couple of times at most during the entire progression… plus they often occur at sonically ‘busy’ parts of the track (builds, peak points, etc…), where slight quality issues (like a tiny bit of distortion, or slightly wrong EQ) will likely be masked by all the other sounds occurring at the same time.

It made me realise I could afford to be (what I would usually consider) a bit ‘sloppy’ with my approach to this sample editing… only audition on monitors, and sometimes running mild effects like a slight limiting or compression with minimal or no auditioning (I use Waves L1 and C1 a lot for this purpose, and have used them so much I can usually apply mild adjustments without needing to audibly auditioning).  And more generally it made me think about using your time appropriately.  Time is a precious commodity for a producer… particularly if it’s not your profession and you have limited time to start with.  So you need to really think about the areas where it’s necessary to spend time, and the areas where you can afford to take a more ‘quick fix’ approach.

Getting Into a Mental Space To Be Creative

If you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired

In my usual (i.e pre-2016) work as a system engineer, I never used to have to think much about getting into the right mental space in order to work productively.  Ofcourse making software is fundamentally a very different discipline to producing music, but I always found with software I could start working pretty much immediately… there was a clear, tangible problem that needed to be solved, and to get to the solution you just had to start working on it.

With music production it’s often very different… to be effective (and sometimes just to get started well), it’s important to be in a creative headspace.  This is moreso the case with certain stages of the production process… e.g. being in a creative headspace is much more important if I’m trying to come up with new parts or tracks, than it is if I’m doing something more routine like mixing.

Also, the success of the start of a day producing can be heavily influenced by the success (of lack thereof) of the previous day.  Specifically… if I’ve ended the previous day frustrated that no good ideas were coming, or trying unsuccessfully to fix a problem in the mix, it could make it more difficult to motivate yourself, and to get off to a positive start.

So, it’s critical to try and get yourself into a mental space that’s conducive to being creative… and a really good routine I’ve found to do this is…

  1. Start the morning in a place separate to the studio – It can be difficult/intense to spend 8+ hours a day in a single room… I particularly found this in early 2016, having come from a busy and spacious office environment and constantly changing locations (for meetings etc…), to being stuck in one small room and in front of a PC all day.  I would always start the day in a completely separate physical space (usually a coffee shop close to home).
  2. Listen to some music you like – This is something I usually do while having said coffee.  It always helps to spur creativity by absorbing inspiring examples from the same creative discipline.
  3. Read some material which gets you thinking in depth about producing – For me, this is the most important technique… if I can read something inspiring about production (or in fact anything music related), it immerses your thoughts in that space, and has a hugely positive effect on getting you into a creative place.  It’s also a great antidote to the kind of frustrations or lack of inspiration mentioned above… often giving you fresh ideas, or approaches on how to attack a problem.  Specifically, the material I commonly use is…
  • Inspiring music news sites and blogs (CDM is a favourite for me)
  • Seeing how other producers approach their work (e.g video channels like Fact TV and Electronic Beats)
  • Magazines like Sound on Sound… esp practical columns like Session Notes, Inside Track, and Mix Rescue

Inspiration tends to come and go unpredictably… and if you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired.  Being able to put yourself into a more creative headspace moves you towards having more control over periods of inspiration, and allows you to best utilize your time.