Creative energy can often run dry by the time you press “record.” Learn how to stay productive and creative by laying out the production process and running more efficient recording, mixing and mastering sessions.
By Charles Hoffman
Have you ever spent hours in a studio session, only to realize that the project you’ve been working on has gone nowhere? It’s not a great feeling, but this has happened to all of us at one point in time. I’m going to share with you five tips to increase studio session productivity.
Whether you’re a bedroom producer or working as a recording, mixing or mastering engineer professionally, there are always minor enhancements you can make to your workflow. This list will help you identify pain points that are slowing you down so that you can make adjustments as necessary.
Investing some time into cleaning up your workspace can provide significant workflow gains. Simple steps you can take include: decluttering your desk, organizing small electronic accessories, as well as wrapping and storing cables correctly. Nobody wants to spend 20 minutes scavenging through a messy studio, looking for the tools they need.
You can free up lots of space by getting a desk with a pullout MIDI keyboard tray or adding a tray to your current desk. I store a beat pad, MIDI keyboard, and two pairs of headphones on my keyboard tray, which leaves me with lots of room on my desk. Two producers can comfortably set up their laptops beside my keyboard and mouse.
If you own gear that’s meant to be rack-mounted, then rackmount it. You don’t need power conditioners, audio interfaces and patch bays taking up desk real estate. Get a cheap rack stand and get that gear off your desk.
Small accessories like phone chargers, power banks and USB hubs should remain out of the way but easily accessible. Consider dedicating a drawer to small electronics. You can even get rack-mounted drawers to kill two birds with one stone and save on space.
The more recording you do, the more cables you inevitably end up acquiring. I keep my cables wrapped up and tucked into a shoe organizer that hangs off the back of a door, but you can also tackle cable management by hanging your cables on wall hooks. The latter option will put less strain on your cables and increase their lifespan.
Many clients and performers you work with may be unfamiliar with how you run your ship, and they may have never set foot in a studio before. For this reason, it’s a good idea to provide them with an outline of how to make the most of a recording session with you.
Your outline may consist of things like how to prepare for an upcoming recording session and what mindset to enter your studio with. For example, a considerable time-killer is when musicians don’t think to practice their songs ahead of time with a backing track, click-track or however it will be recorded on the day. It’s important that artists are as prepared as possible for the studio recording to keep things as smooth, relaxed and timely as possible during the session.
The more comfortable your artist is, the less likely they are to make mistakes while recording. Performers can’t necessarily snap into a productive recording mindset at the drop of a hat. However, you can help put them at ease by being friendly when they walk through the door and by accommodating their needs.
You don’t necessarily have to cater to them on your hands and knees, but simple acts of kindness—like providing them with water, taking breaks and showing interest in their project—can go a long way.
In the same way that you should ensure that the artists you’re working with are prepared, you should also be ready yourself. Make sure that your recording rig is set up and ready well ahead of time; this includes turning all your hardware on and testing that it works, but it also refers to in-the-box prep.
If there are plugin presets that you frequently use, consider turning them into default plugin presets; the same goes for plugin chains. Using Waves’ free StudioRack plugin to create custom chains for vocals and instruments (or using the many included artist presets) is an extremely efficient way to dial in mix-processing on the fly, and give your clients a taste of the final result. Saving your most popular task-specific plugins as part of a StudioRack chain will let you load all of them onto a track at once and activate them on a case-by-case basis.
Many of my default vocal processing chains start off with DeBreath, Sibilance, and Waves Tune. These three plugins allow me to clean up vocal recordings by reducing the presence of breaths and harsh sibilant sounds, as well as apply all-important pitch correction. You generally want to clean up audio to the best of your ability before running it through creative effects, which is why it makes sense to apply these types of plugins at the beginning of a vocal chain.
I like to provide myself with a couple of different colorful processing options when mixing vocals, so my go-to vocal processing chain contains a PuigTec MEQ-5 EQ, CLA-2A Compressor / Limiter, CLA-76 Compressor / Limiter, and J37 Tape.
I don’t use every single one of these plugins when I process a vocal track, but by saving all of my most-used vocal processing plugins as part of a single StudioRack vocal chain preset, I can load and access all the tools I might need, all at once.
You can create a plugin chain preset for processing guitars, drum busses, strings, aggressive synths, etc. The more redundant corners you cut during the mixing process, the faster you’ll be able to pump out mixes.
Don’t forget about your aux tracks. Give yourself a multi-purpose reverb, delay, and compressor that you can send signal to while mixing. Waves’ H-Reverb, H-Delay, and C6 Multiband Compressor provide an assortment of features that make them versatile enough to fit almost any mix. If you regularly use session templates, make sure to update them with your multi-purpose aux tracks as well.
Working with certain artists sometimes feels like herding cats; it can often be tough getting them to focus. Many creative folks are bubbling with great ideas, but it’s your job as the professional to take that creative energy and focus it into producing a tangible, finished project.
Sit down with the artist you’re collaborating with and decide on the general direction you want to take the project. You can discuss the type of music you both listen to, the artists you like, and how each of you prefers to go about working on songs.
Once you and your collaborator are on the same page, it’s a lot easier to make recording, mixing and mastering decisions that pull the project in the right direction; this plays out in microphone selection, preamp selection and plugin selection. The whole process will effectively move quicker.
For example, something as simple as deciding between using a sustained sine wave bass (EDM), realistic bass like Waves’ Bass Fingers (rock), or an 808 (hip-hop) will mostly be pre-determined for you if you know what type of track you’re trying to write.
There’s no “correct” way to do things, but sound selection choices partially characterize genres. If you’re trying to cater to a particular audience, it makes sense to use the types of sounds they know and love.
The reason many new producers end up with insanely long plugin chains is that they either aren’t using the right tool for the job, or they don’t know how to properly use their plugins yet. Even once you learn how to use all your plugins, there are still shortcuts you can take to cut down on the number of plugins you use.
For example, instead of applying a compressor, distortion unit and EQ to a harsh, sibilant hi-hat, consider using a saturator like Abbey Road Saturator. It applies compression, distortion, and can help tame high-end harshness. As the saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.” This concept can be applied for most mix tasks. You can often use multiple parameters of a single plugin to get the sound close to where you need it to be.
At a mastering level, this may mean reaching for an all-in-one solution like the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain. This modular mastering chain plugin, modeled after the EMI TG12410 Transfer Console used in all of Abbey Road’s mastering suites, includes mastering modules such as input, EQ, filters and a compressor/limiter that are interchangeable. The workflow you can expect with this plugin is fast and efficient.
Whenever you can get away with buss processing a group of recordings, instead of treating them individually, go for it. Process stacks of guitars and synths like a single instrument; this will reduce CPU load and save time while mixing.
Studio session productivity is all about preparation. The actual process of recording, mixing, and mastering a song should be rather enjoyable and stress-free if you’ve set yourself up for success.
The last thing you want to do is rush the artist you’re working with; this can cause performance anxiety and leave a bad taste in their mouth. It’s up to you as the producer and engineer to ensure that your studio is set up so that creativity can take place without many time-consuming barriers getting in the way.
Clean up your workspace, layout the recording process for clients, prepare your studio ahead of time, decide on a destination, and use smarter processing. With these tips under your belt, you should have no problem running productive studio sessions.
Want more workflow tips? Learn 5 ways to make online music collabs more productive.
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