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How to Work Smarter in the Recording Studio

Apr 25, 2024

Improve your workflow and stop wasting time with these seven key pieces of advice. Give yourself a productivity boost when writing, mixing or mastering music with our guide.

How to Work Smarter in the Recording Studio

We’re often told we should be “working smarter, not harder”. While it’s never really quite that simple, and we shouldn’t discount the effect of hard work, this particular article is all about giving you new ways to do the first half: working smarter.

A lot of what we’ll talk about falls into the category of preparation. By having things ready, thought-through, and prepped before you start your main working session, you can focus on what matters most, without stopping to fix problems and break your concentration.

So here are our ways to work smarter in the studio, each of which we’ll cover in more detail in each section…

Make a More Sensible DAW Template

Time to implement: Under an hour
Cost to implement: Free

Do you load up your DAW to the sight of a blank project? That may be how every DAW is set by default, but it doesn’t mean you can’t change it – and you won’t have to spend much work doing it either.

Work smarter: Use templates in your DAW

Work smarter: Use templates in your DAW

Your default project should contain a lot more than nothing! Set up return channels with your favorite plugins already there; load certain well-used instruments onto channels; get common channels like ‘Vocal’ and ‘Bass’ and anything else ready, fully loaded with the plugins you usually use on these channels. You can bypass these for your template, knowing you just need to switch them on if wanted.

Similarly, if you have your trusted color-coding system, creative processing chain for pianos, an analyzer and/or safety limiter on the master bus, and a referencing setup (see later) – load them into your template and make it your default project.

Using DAW templates

Using DAW templates

If your DAW doesn’t let you choose a project as the default, simply save a project to load then save over – instead of grabbing a ‘New’ blank one each time you start something new.

Work Better on Headphones

Time to implement: One to Two Hours
Cost to implement: Find out Here!

Headphones are an essential way to work. Rather than being everyone’s replacement for ‘proper’ monitors, they’re a great complement, helping you pick up on details you may have missed. But headphones also have a frequency response curve and a stereo image, which can result in an inaccurate representation of the outgoing audio. Because of this, some producers have them permanently unplugged.

Work smarter in the studio with Waves Nx

Work smarter in the studio with Waves Nx

Enter Waves Nx, our system for making your headphones behave with the accuracy of studio monitors. Nx also corrects for headphone width problems, frequency response curves, and can even simulate the control rooms of renowned studios.

Having access to more playback systems is always a huge advantage for mixing, and Nx contains a whole host of amazing options in one program, turning your studio headphones into your secret weapon.

Learn Your Keyboard Shortcuts

Time to implement: 30 Minutes
Cost to implement: Practically Free

We all probably know how useful keyboard shortcuts are. You most likely have copy and paste committed to muscle memory – now, imagine how slow it would be to head to the Edit menu every time you wanted to use it. You may be better or worse with shortcuts in various software, but if you're a DAW regular, it’s worth learning the shortcuts. We don’t need to go on telling you what a time-saver this will be, but how can you make the transition?

Learn keyboard shortcuts

Learn keyboard shortcuts

Armed with a list of keyboard shortcuts for your specific DAW, and preferably one where you’ve highlighted the ones you want to remember, one strategy is to use post-it notes by your screen. Each time you go for a menu item or a right-click menu, stop a second and remind yourself of the shortcut – either from your printed master list, from a sticky note, or from the shortcut written next to an item in the menu bar. With time, these shortcuts should sink into your auto-pilot processes, and you can move on to new ones.

Access the entire list of keyboard shortcuts for some common DAWs here: FL Studio, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Cubase, Pro Tools.

Separate Your Tasks and Working Sessions

Time to implement: None
Cost to implement: Free

The division of labor is a very powerful force in economics, but it turns out you can harness it in your studio life as well. Jumping between activities can be one of the biggest drains of our time and productivity. As we break our concentration and re-focus on something new, we spend time – swapping activities every five minutes is no way to get work done.

You may find yourself mixing a track and deciding a specific synth part or recording needs tweaking at the source, or that a melody would sound better in a different octave. Worse still, you may be tasked with learning how a particular plugin works, or attending to a system crash (not fun). None of these help get stuff done – so what’s our advice?

You can avoid these rabbit holes by separating what each working session is for. One day you may enter the studio focusing on sound design. Today you’ll come up with some great sounds, rendering them to audio. Tomorrow you’ll be arranging those sounds or mixing a project you’ve arranged on a previous day. By dedicating activities to specified sessions, you’ll avoid distractions and increase productivity.

Get your studio time-management under control

Get your studio time-management under control

This might sound like an inflexible way of working, but it has its advantages. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with how your day-to-day mind and mood shape your work ethic and workflow, you’ll be better equipped to manage your time. “Today feels like an inspiring, track-starting day”; or even, “Today feels like a cleaning the studio day”. It all has to happen sometime.

Reference Similar Music From the Start

Time to implement: Minutes Each Session
Cost to implement: Free

Referencing is the practice of comparing your work-in-progress with commercial, finished music. The idea isn’t to steal or to copy, but rather to compare. Today’s commercial music has such a high standard that you’ll likely need to bake a song’s feel, vibe, and even loudness in from the very start.

Your ears can lose perspective and get used to your project as it is. Referencing lets you compare against an ideal and work towards matching it. When aiming for a specific sound, it can be a good idea to use a reference at the start of the creative process but, referencing is especially important when mastering your tracks at the end of the creative process.

Whether you import finished masters into your project onto tracks that you’ll solo between, or you connect an audio input directly to your monitors for quick manual switching, referencing is an essential part of any workflow today.

Learn When and Why to Commit to Audio

Time to implement: Seconds
Cost to implement: Free

Bouncing and rendering parts of a DAW project to audio used to be almost inevitable. Now that our CPUs and RAM can handle huge projects full of processing, it’s not so necessary. But we can still get some advantages from the mindset of committing certain parts of a project to audio - also known as consolidating audio.

Consolidate and print as you go

Consolidate and print as you go

To consolidate a track to audio in FL Studio, right-click the desired track and use the Consolidate Track collapsable menu.

We’ve probably all been guilty of spending so much time making decisions to a sound that it wastes valuable time that’s needed for other things. Consolidating a track is a tough but necessary way to draw a line underneath it and move on to another task. Even if it doesn’t feel “perfect”, you’ll likely benefit from stopping.

For a sound we’re designing, if we decide to commit to it by rendering it to audio, it means no more tweaking in the software instrument/plugin panel. Changes can still be made to the audio using effects, but you lose some creative control. On the plus side, you free up some processing power on your CPU and RAM.

Bounce-in-place when you need to move on

Bounce-in-place when you need to move on

You can use the Bounce In Place (^B) command in Logic Pro to consolidate an instrument track into audio.

Anyone who mixes or masters music they’ve created and arranged will also benefit from this mindset later on. Before mixing or mastering, bounce the stems of your project to audio. This avoids the temptation of changing small factors of your project when you should be concentrating on making the existing material work together better.

Understand How Your Mind Works

Time to implement: Forever
Cost to implement: Practically Free

Creativity comes from the mind, which is one of the things we seem to understand the least – likely hence why you’re reading this article!

Here’s what we know about creativity and the mind. Creating something ‘new’ is rarely done. Carl Jung said that “People don’t have ideas; ideas have people”. As a musician, you may have felt like ideas are something you ‘channel’ or simply come to you at the strangest (and least convenient) times. The pop psychology version of it would go something like this…

Below the surface, your mind is constantly playing with new ideas and recombining old ones. While it’s doing this, you’re usually unaware as your alert, problem-solving mind is taking up most of your attention. Our subconscious mind brings new ideas together in the background, then, once ready, brings them to our conscious awareness.

Free up your mind to create and work smarter

Free up your mind to create and work smarter

For our alert mind to spot the idea, it has to be less occupied. We need to intentionally allow ourselves mental downtime to be creative. We may often think we “have ideas” in the shower or while idling on the train or waiting for water to boil… but that’s because that’s when we are usually relaxed and mentally at ease.

So how can we apply this to our lives as musicians and producers? Understand how your mind works, realize you can’t force it, know that a solution or idea may take time, and that you have to let it arrive when it’s ready.

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