Chances are that if you’re reading AskAudio, you have access to music production technology on your computer that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just a couple short decades ago—technology that would have been nearly inconceivable to your grandparents in their day.
As a result of these exciting times, access to tools is less of an issue than ever for musicians and creatives; what’s become increasingly difficult is our ability to harness these incredible tools. The same technological advances that paved the way for our DAWs and virtual instruments have also increased expectations for productivity at work, while simultaneously generating ever more distractions—putting unprecedented strain on our valuable time and attention.
Timothy Leary, leading psychedelic researcher of the 1960s, is famous for coining the phrase “tune in, turn on, drop out”—but more importantly, he discussed the importance of “set and setting” as the primary variables for establishing a positive experience on LSD. What on Earth does this have to do with making music? Your set—essentially, frame of mind—and the setting you work in can have a huge impact on the efficacy of your studio time, and can serve as a foundation for exploring ways to up your game.
There’s a reason non-denominational mindfulness meditation has exploded in popularity in recent years. Anyone looking for a competitive edge, from finance to athletics, has recognized the value of getting tuned into one’s inner workings, seeing things objectively, and acting decisively in the moment.
One of the most important elements of creative work is learning to get out of your own way. What does that mean exactly? Habitual motifs such as resorting to the same virtual instruments, chords, or drum patterns can lead to boredom, while letting your ego make all the calls can lead to a deceitful subjectivity that may not deliver the best results.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice that can take as little as ten minutes per day. Designed to help you recognize your dominant internal narrative for what it is, it can help prevent habitual or negative thought patterns from pulling you astray.
The Platonic tripartite self, adapted by Freud and famously divided into the Id or animal instinct, Ego or narrative mind, and Superego or higher self, is a useful model for mindfulness, which encourages you to recognize the Id and Ego for what they are, and tune more easily into the Superego—arguably the source of higher creative impulses; that said, plenty of dance music incorporates a healthy dose of the Id.
Headspace is a great mobile app for new meditators to learn the basics of mindfulness; a paid subscription even includes segments specifically geared to enhance creativity and focus. I’ve also heard good things about an app called Calm, and there are numerous other similar apps worth experimenting with until you find the right one for you. There’s also the option of finding a meditation group in your neighborhood, but with the increased time typically required, that option could work against those of us struggling to find time in the studio as it is.
The point of mindfulness isn’t necessarily to generate an artificial sense of calm and focus, but to get in touch with how we’re really feeling, seeing those feelings for what they are, and approaching them in the moment rather than fighting or burying them. Some of your best work in the studio might come from a strong emotional state, or perhaps you prefer serene concentration; either way, mindfulness meditation can help optimize your frame of mind.
Know thyself: what kind of environment is it easiest for you to work in?
Do you prefer to work in a tidy environment, free of unnecessary visual distractions? Frank Zappa famously liked to write his albums in an unadorned white room, free of all clutter, providing a blank canvas that forced his mind to be creative in order to transcend the monotony of his surroundings.
On the other end of the spectrum, many artists work best in a chaotic environment surrounded by myriad points of inspiration, ready to absorb and juxtapose new influences from their visual field at a moment’s notice.
Whichever is true for you, take time to get your space as tidy or disordered as you need to feel optimally creative—and do your best to keep it that way outside of your designated creative time itself.
To really get in the zone, you’ll need to eliminate distractions. For those with discipline, turning off your computer’s Wi-Fi might be sufficient, but for those with somewhat less willpower when it comes to the automatic e-mail or social media check-ins, Focus is an excellent paid app for specifying only certain applications or websites be accessible during desired periods of time—allowing access to say, https://maxforlive.com, but not Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or e-mail. Those seeking a free option may want to try SelfControl (link: https://selfcontrolapp.com) or ColdTurkey (link: https://getcoldturkey.com).
Your phone is another huge source of distraction, and while it’s tempting to leave it alone, I would recommend switching it into Do Not Disturb or even Airplane mode for the duration of your studio session. At the very least, you should disable all app notifications—those new Instagram comments will still be waiting for you once that remix is done.
In addition, you’ll want to take advantage of shorter periods of studio time to do things like create your DAW’s default set and templates, organize your sample libraries and cables, and learn new techniques and devices to apply in your creative sessions. Essentially, doing your homework with this kind of stuff sets the stage for you to dive as deep as possible during your longer blocks of studio time.
Now that you’re in the right setting and the right set of mind, it can be useful to develop a ritual of sorts: a practice as simple or elaborate as you need to help train your body and mind to recognize when it’s time to make music. This could include doing some quick stretching, taking some deep breaths, reading a passage from your favorite author, lighting a candle, or any combination of these sort of things. The goal is to create a sort of cue that, once you’ve done it enough times in this context, will help shift your attention to the task at hand.
It’s also useful to have an end in sight: most of us will experience some audio and mental fatigue by the four or five-hour mark, and most of our best work will be done by then anyway—so it’s often best not to force an overly long session if the quality of work is going to trend downward over time anyway. The “Pomodoro” technique of giving yourself small rewards or breaks after shorter blocks of work—usually between 20–30 minutes—can be worth experimenting with for those finding it difficult to devote their undivided focus for longer periods of time.
Inspiration can strike anywhere. With a wealth of mobile music apps available for iOS and Android, you can easily record ideas and bring them back to the studio.
You might also find it useful to have an iOS Notes file (synchronized via iCloud to your studio machine) or an Evernote (link: https://evernote.com) file for jotting down track ideas that come to you wherever you find yourself—even in the club. You might even want to consider keeping a record of any ideas that come to you in your dreams, as latent elements of your creative subconscious may be prone to bubble up in your sleep.
By honing the powers of your own mind and creating an optimal working environment, anyone can squeeze more creativity from their tools in what little time they have to work with them.