Those of you who are old enough to remember the release of Windows 95 will also remember that many machines came bundled with applications like Microsoft Publisher. This product was Microsoft's Desktop Publishing software, which promised to make everyone a graphic designer.
What I remember most about this kind of software is we were given access to an almost limitless supply (in those days perhaps 1000) of clipart. It wasn't long that everyone from the local church, small business and families were sending out their annual Christmas bragfest newsletter and taking advantage of this new found supply of art. The only problem was that most people used any image rather than not use one at all, I think whole articles and adverts got written around the fact that a piece of clipart looked beautiful and had to be used for the material. You would get a business mailer saying "Don't Duck The Issue" so that they could use the image of a duck. Churches loved the supply of crosses, sunrises, flowers and first aid pictures - you can imagine how they got used.
I recall a very talented designer saying to me one day, perhaps after seeing my inappropriate use of said clipart, that when it came to design, if you didn't know why you were using an element then don't use it at all. That advice has stuck with me through the years.
A few years ago I was sent a Pro Tools mix from a friend who was struggling; he told me that he had spent hours on it and it just didn't sound right. When the mix arrived, I opened it up and found he had used quite a lot of plug-ins. The first thing I did was remove every plug-in from the mix, I then rebalanced the tracks and bounced it out. I sent the track to him, and he came back to me saying how great it now sounded and asked what I had done. I replied truthfully "I removed all the plug-ins."
It seems music production needs to learn the lessons of the early days of DTP software. To get us to buy a particular DAW manufacturers try and bundle it with loops and plug-ins, these days gigabytes of content. If one DAW ships with 10gb of loops then theirs will ship with 20gb and before you know it there's an arms race to see who can offer the biggest bundle of stuff to get you to buy their product.
Let me clear, a lot of this stuff isn't crap, it's high-quality loops and plug-ins, some as good as anything you can buy, but that's not my point - I'm not arguing about the value proposition.
But I want to return to the advice of my graphic designer friend because I think the same advice applies - if you don't know why you are using a particular piece of content or plug-in then don't use it.
But I want to extend this discussion beyond the digital realm and to the wider world of music production, and I want to set you a challenge.
Kill The Spider
I am a bit of a broken record when it comes to the subject of workflow, ask any of the people I advise who create products for this industry and they will tell you I am like a dog with a bone. I have spent three years advising one brand to improve the workflow of their products, they come to me with new ideas for features and I keep banging the workflow drum.
Let me tell you why.
I am convinced that creativity needs as few distractions as possible, so anything you can do to improve the process should be done and anything that makes the process harder should stop.
Let's be honest creative types tend to have butterfly brains anyway, meaning we are easily distracted and find it hard to finish things. If your business relies on your creating great ideas and delivering them on time then you need to do everything you can to resist reverting to type.
Perhaps I'm a little OCD about it, but I've just ejected my external drive while writing this article because the hum was distracting me.
Which leads me to the wider point, when I came to building my new writing studio and mix room I decided to take as much stuff out of the production chain as I could. This thinking meant taking a look at the computer hardware, the audio gear and the applications and plug-ins used in my production process. By the time I had finished my studio using this new philosophy I had boxes and boxes of cables, routers and other recording paraphernalia. I also had recovered gigabytes of drive space back by removing applications and content I did not use.
If you keep getting cobwebs in your house and they bother you then you have two options. You can either keep cleaning the cobwebs or you can kill the spider. Can I just add that no arachnids were harmed in the building of my new studio!
So here's the challenge, if you take it then I think you'll find your production process will improve.
- Look at all hardware you use in your studio if you haven't used it in the last 12 months then either put it into storage or sell it.
- Check your cabling and if there are cables in the system that do nothing then remove them and put them into storage.
- Look at your software application folder and sort it by date last opened - I think you will be shocked at the dates shown. In my case, I had stuff on my hard drive and in my dock that had remained unused for 3 or 4 years. Back up the Applications, make sure you have an installer if you need to install them again, then delete them.
- Do the same with your plug-in folders. I got my plug-ins down from several hundred to around 50.
- Look at all the free content of loops, sound FX and files and consider also putting those onto an external drive, don't clog up system drives with content you might use one day.
I think many of us have a just-in-case philosophy for much of the hardware and software in our studio, we keep it for a rainy day, after all, you never know when you might need those 3000 dog farting loops? Some people have the mantra of "you can't have too many plug-ins." Well yes, you can. If you need to have 30 guitar sim plug-ins on your computer to get a good sound, then you might be better off buying a better guitar or finding a decent guitarist to track them for you. That is, in fact, a serious point, I know several talented guitar players who put stuff down for me and it sounds amazing, I'm left thinking "that plug-in never sounds like that when I use it!" Of course, it doesn't because it's not the gear stupid! I remind myself.
Produce or Consume?
Have you ever stopped to think that the anthesis of a producer is a consumer?
Let's not confuse the need to have tools to produce effectively with the pull to consume stuff. If indeed they are opposites then we perhaps we need to have a good clear out and remove the distractions that stop us being the producers we can be.
Simplify your production studio, I did, and I've never looked back.