The Keys to Enhancing Creative Flow In Your Studio

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The author, Jeremy Steckel (left) coaching a client in his own studio, Revelator Sound.

The audio production world is an endlessly diverse and fascinating place, filled with all sorts of tastes and personalities. Because of this, it’s an impossibility to expect all techniques and approaches to resonate equally with everyone who works in this field.

Still, there are a few “macro” principles that should guide us if we want to operate successfully in the studio, no matter what genre, style or role we’re working in.

One of those key principles is that as studio worker— whether we’re producers, engineers or assistants—our primary job is to facilitate the creation of art with, and for, other people.

A good facilitator needs to be empathetic to the experiences of others. In this case, that means the artist and the end listener. We have been asked to take part in someone else’s creative process, so it’s vital that we take that job seriously by attaching a greater weight to the artists’ and end listeners’ interests than to our own.

But just because we are facilitators doesn’t mean we’re servile order-followers. Our clients need us to be leaders in our area of competence, to use our experience to set the right tone, to help establish a creative flow, and to always think three steps ahead when it comes to the technical, so that they don’t have to.

With that in mind, here are a few techniques that have helped me to become a better facilitator, and establish a far better creative flow on my sessions.

Be a Conduit for Their Creativity

We’ve all worked with or been around people who just don’t have the same passion for a project that we do, and it can be an absolute poison to the creative process. Don’t be that person for your clients.

Without exception, I take time at the beginning of every project to sit down with the artist or band and create an “idea board” filled with songs, books, ideas, movies, and the like. To do my best work, I have to be as invested in the vision as they are.

These touchstones and aesthetic references become absolutely essential later on in the process, as we face countless forks in the road. This creative guide is a trail of breadcrumbs that leads us back to a where we want to be when we inevitably get lost along the way.

When we’ve established a sense for our creative “target”, and everyone is on the same page (or at least in the same book) before the first note has been put to tape, we’re free to start capturing ideas and making creative decisions with far less friction.

Being a producer or an engineer is a lot like joining the band for a while. You need to be speaking the same language and breathing the same air that they do. It’s our job to get in sync and help make things happen—not to be constantly hitting the breaks, or worse, steering the project in the wrong direction.

Work Fast and Make the Technology Invisible

Whether it’s due to budget, time, or the laws of physics, we all face limitations in the studio. It’s our job to make them seem to disappear to the best of our ability.

For instance, my personal studio has a control room, a live room and a small gear closet. The control room and live room, while separated, don’t have tremendous isolation. But I couldn’t let that limitation become an excuse. I still needed to figure out a way to record great-sounding real guitars at a moment’s notice that would give me isolation I need, allow me to listen critically, and give us options come mix time.

To deal with this, I decided to build a guitar cab isolation box to put in the gear closet, which I keep mic’d up with an sE Electronics Voodoo VR1 ribbon microphone and a trusty Shure SM57. These are both hard-patched into a pair of Audient preamps and then through some AML EZ1073 Neve clones for EQ. I recently expanded my options by running two balanced guitar lines from the control room into the live room, so I can set up two guitar amps and record stereo guitars.

Unless they’re studio nerds like me, the artist doesn’t need to know all this. But all this advance setup trouble becomes worth it when tracking: We’re not limited by a small space, or the hassle of setting up to try an idea. It’s all there, ready to go at the patch of a ¼” cable.

This is an important principle to keep in mind: Be ready at all times.

Similarly, I like to keep a PEDALpUNK hooked up at all times. It’s basically a balanced reamp box made for incorporating guitar pedals into your digital workflow. I have one set up permanently as a hardware insert, and it allows me to “audition” all of my guitar pedals on any track I want in Pro Tools in an instant. This allows us to explore unusual new sounds and implement new ideas as soon as they come to us. The fewer breaks in the flow for setup, the better.

Your Ego is an Obstacle

It’s impossible to name even a fraction of all the potential time-saving (and creatively-inspiring) ways to maximize the flow of working in your studio. But that’s besides the point. What matters is the principle: As engineers, we need to be an extension of the artist’s creativity, not an obstacle to it. After all, it is ultimately their successes that become our successes.

One producer that has continued to inspire me in this department is John Congleton, who has worked with Explosions In The Sky, Wye Oak, and St. Vincent. In numerous interviews, he talks at length about working quickly in the studio to realize the artist’s vision, whatever it may be. In an interview with Sound On Sound magazine, Congleton recounts:

“Working with Explosions In The Sky on The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place changed my life in some ways, because that was one of the first records I was really known for, where people flipped the record around and saw who recorded it. A lot of people started to call me after that saying, ‘Come make a record with me,’ so I really owe those guys a lot for letting me be a part of what really is a timeless record in my opinion.

“But it has very little to do with me, frankly. Those guys had been touring their songs for a year already and they came in, set up their gear all in the same room and we recorded it in two days and we mixed it on the third day. So, essentially, when you put that record on, you’re hearing it exactly the way it sounded to me in the control room as they played it. I was just the guy who was lucky enough to be there and record it.

“Maybe you can credit me for making an environment where they felt really free to make the music as emotional as possible but… I don’t know. I think they’re just a great band and I was really lucky to be there.”

Producer Dave Fridmann has made the same point time and time again about his critically acclaimed work with The Flaming Lips: The reason some of their sounds are so radical is not all because of him. It’s because he is the kind of engineer who works fast and doesn’t say “no” when the artist wants to try something new.

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