Home Studio Essentials

I've often been asked to talk about what equipment I use, or make a video tour of my studio. I've been hesitant to do so because things have frequently changed over the years - I used to acquire and jettison used gear on Craigslist on a near monthly basis. More importantly though, when it comes to creative tools, I've always believed that it's not what you have but what you do with it.

That said, having spent all of 2014 on the road with absolutely minimal kit, I've pushed far past my fever for trying new toys and instead have been whittling down to just the items that provide what I most need. Today I want to share my top 7 home studio essentials:

 

1. Shure SM7B.

I bought this mic before going abroad because a friend of mine was raving about it - in particular, how it was better than anything else at picking up what was in front of it without a lot of ambience from the room. It has since become my favorite mic for vocals and acoustic guitar. The sound is clean and sweet, as long as you have a good preamp, which brings me to...

2. Universal Audio Apollo Twin + UAD plug-ins.

The Twin is everything I need in an interface right now - great sounding preamps with lots of clean gain, and it powers the UAD plug-ins that I use on literally every project. They've got my favorite vocal compressor (the Teletronix LA-2A), an awesome selection of reverbs, and I've used the Precision Mastering Series to put the final touches on everything I've produced for the last decade.

3. Tannoy Reveal 802 Monitors.

I think the 802s are the best monitors in their price range. In fact, they've replaced a pair I had which were significantly more expensive. The sound clarity is impressive, and the bass response is super solid. As an added bonus, I really like the Monitor Link feature which saves me from some cable-related annoyances.

4. Ableton Live.

If you're doing anything more than just basic multi-tracking, Ableton should be your DAW. It's touted mainly as a tool for electronic musicians and DJs, and there are certainly features which make it particularly useful for musicians in those camps, but having worked with about ten different recording programs I can vouch for its absolute dominance in just about every area. It has the most flexibility for playing with sound, and tasks can generally be performed faster than any other software doing the same thing.

5. Padding.

Every studio needs it. I've got sound blankets hung up like curtains which I can pull across every wall of my room, and a thick rug on the floor.

I also use a RealTraps Portable Vocal Booth for extra absorption when I'm tracking vocals. You don't necessarily need the fancy stuff though - everything I recorded while traveling last year was done with makeshift padding that did the job just fine, from couch cushions to old duvets to an adult-size mouse costume. (Search #huangmobilestudio on Instagram for a look at some of my more interesting setups. And if you want to hear the results, I'm talking about all of my vocals on CometAlloysLast LightsInterplanetary, and Food & Drink.)

6. Ikea Bekant sitting/standing desk.

Maybe I'm just getting older and my back can't handle it anymore, but I feel like this desk is changing my life. I can push a button to adjust it to the perfect height for typing, which is actually different from the perfect height for hitting drum pads. And while standing to do vocals, I'm not hunching over between every take to do all those fiddly computer things you need to do between takes.

As you can see, I've also started to keep a minimal color scheme, which I find helps with mental focus. It's pretty much monochrome, but the gold accents remind me of sunlight and keep things from feeling too bleak when I'm shut away in here for days on end. 

7. Teenage Engineering OP-1.

This is the latest addition to my setup - I've actually only had it for a month - but I already know it will be with me for life. This beautifully designed all-in-one synthesizing + sampling + performing + recording device is the most inspiring little tool I've ever worked with. It provides endless sonic possibilities, but also limits you to the kind of workflow that forces you to focus on making musical choices rather than technical ones. Even when you have to do something boring like cut and paste a loop for 16 bars, the shiny graphics and satisfying push-buttons keep you excited to work.

 

What are your essential gear picks? Leave a comment and let me know!

Letting Go

I wrote last time about the incredible precision of the control we have in modern music-making. While that's a good thing, this week I thought I would touch on the opposite approach - of having little or no control at all. The push and pull between seemingly opposing practices is a theme I've found throughout a lot of the creative process; art is an enormous beast and there are few principles we can simply slap across everything.

So when is it a good idea to relinquish some of the control we have? I think it's most helpful, and almost a necessity even, in the actual act of creation. Whether you're coming up with a melody, laying down some drums, figuring out a new part to add to an arrangement... This is play time! Grab an instrument or MIDI controller and do something physical rather than trying to click notes into your software. Get away from the grid lines in all these computer programs and let a bit of human groove come in. For those with a theory background, forget about the chord progression for a bit - let it just be sound and feel out your melody within that.

I think the common thread in all this is that you're giving yourself time, space, and permission to explore. You're opening up more possibilities than the ones that are on offer through the tools and the rules. You're connecting with something more primal and emotional, where the best music comes from. And you're putting yourself in a position where you can make mistakes. But they aren't really mistakes, unless you leave them there. They're part of your path to better answers as you figure out what you're making, what you're saying, and how best to share it with the rest of us.

I envy the amazing performers who can create fully-formed ideas on the fly - the jazz soloists, the freestyle rappers, some of the live looping camp. And from my little experience with these things, I know they are skills that can be learned and practiced. As I'm primarily a studio musician though, what gives me the most comfort is knowing that when I improvise, I'm the only one there to hear it. There's no risk too great to take, because I can always try something else after. It still takes a bit of bravery because you will very quickly be confronted by your current limits. But that's letting go - of the control you normally exert, and also of what you believe you can't do.

Total Control

As I put the finishing touches on my upcoming album Cosmos, I’m dealing with a lot of very fine details. I’m listening to the songs as I’m out and about and then opening up the projects back up to change a hi-hat pattern, or the length of a fadeout, or the tone of a synthesizer.

And it got me thinking about how much control we have over our music production now, and how that forces us to be pickier. Technological advances have given us exponentially more creative choices to make now compared to any other time in the history of recording. Are MIDI strings fine or should we hire session players? Where should each of these 28 harmony vocals be panned? This sample pack has 500 kick drums in it...which one is right for the song we're working on?

I think it makes for better music, ultimately - no more using that last take because it was the best one before you ran out of tape - but it means a lot more things have to be done deliberately. In music you’re dealing with harmony, not only in the technical sense, but in striving toward a complementary balance between all these different layers in time, working toward a unified whole. We all know singing a single note off key can ruin a whole melody, and I think to a certain extent the same principle applies when you’ve chosen a synth patch that isn’t quite right or put too much reverb on your vocals. For me, Justin Timberlake's “Sexyback” was just a little less sexy because they used such a chintzy snare. Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater” is a great production, other than the open hi-hat being way too loud for my tastes. I wince every two bars. Maybe I’m pickier than most, or maybe my musical background allows me to more easily pinpoint the reasons why some songs or parts of songs just don’t do it for me. Probably both.

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that there’s only one right answer, and it doesn’t even really mean that there are wrong ones, because we’re dealing with such a subjective experience. My gripes with the above two examples didn’t stop them from becoming hits. But, keeping in mind that you can’t please everybody, you do have to be purposeful about what you want to achieve. You have control over nearly every parameter you can think of these days, so don’t settle for the defaults.

With that said though, I’m thinking next week I’ll talk about the times where I’ve found it great to let go of control… Until then!

Broccoli Banana Salad

I've been writing about different ways to find lyrical and musical inspiration - so far we've talked about Looking Farther and Looking Closer - and today I want to talk about Looking Two Places At Once.

Sometimes, ideas that don't look like much on their own suddenly seem to work together in novel ways. This doesn't happen as often as it should, because humans are creatures of habit - it's so easy for us to keep doing things the way they've always been done, or seeing things the way they've always been seen.

But I'm happy to report that this is an easy type of inspiration to force: you just need to actively try to combine things.

Have you ever eaten a broccoli banana salad? Me neither, I just thought of it now. I've been regularly eating both broccoli and bananas since I was a toddler, but somehow I've never had them in the same bite, or even in the same meal? This may not be an amazing idea, but I think it shows how many simple possibilities just go completely unthought of, and if I were a chef trying to come up with a new dish this would at least give me a jumping off point.

But in terms of making music - here are a few ways I've experimented with this approach:

Dump sounds from one project into another and see what fits. It doesn't always happen but sometimes two musical skeletons I'm stuck on end up fitting together, and suddenly I've discovered a new direction I can explore. I think the starkest example of this in my discography would be "Losing Sight Of Love", where I actually pulled three different projects together into a song about isolation that slowly shifts into more and more eerie territory.

Run searches on your lyrics. (This is easier if you write digitally of course, which I recommend doing with Evernote as it syncs everything you write between all your devices.) You may discover that you've tackled the same ideas in different places. I can't tell you how many times I found the perfect line for a song in a draft of something else from months earlier, because - surprise! - it wasn't the only time I ever felt whatever emotion I was writing about.

Draw things out of a hat and try them together. It could be moods or instruments or influences or some combination of those. My Double On Genre series is entirely built around simply choosing two different styles of music and making them play, and more often than not I find the results compelling and unique. 

Pair an old idea with a new approach. There are many times when I've had an idea sitting around for some time that suddenly comes to life when I have a new lens through which to see it. The most recent example of this is probably "I Married The Sea And The Sky" from my Comet album. You can hear a demo I recorded of it right after the melody came to me. The idea stayed stuck there for two years before I came up with a different, Thom Yorke-inspired arrangement for it which is on my new Abandon compilation (which you can download instantly if you pledge any amount on my Patreon). But I got stuck with it there yet again, until the ESA landed a probe on a comet and recorded these weird magnetic oscillations that I decided to sample. I quickly made eight tracks based off of that, spanning everything from rap to reggae to acid house to a Beatles cover, and at that point I thought it could use one more song with a good strong melody. That's when I remembered IMTSATS and decided to try the arrangement over again with this comet sample. Not only am I so happy with how it ended up working, it inspired me to write an entirely new section to the song ("Now I feel I'm falling...") which is now my favorite part. Over three years from where the idea for this song began, it finally found fulfillment, and in a way I never could've guessed. But it came from commitment to the combinatory approach - when something you believe in isn't quite working, keep trying it with some other things and eventually it probably will.

If you've had similar experiences, or other ways you like to find inspiration, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

 

Write About Carpet

In my last entry in this series on finding inspiration, we talked about "looking farther" - getting distance from the usual places you occupy, and the usual thoughts that occupy you, to jolt creativity with new experiences. This week we'll go the opposite direction and dive into looking closer - at both what is around you and what is within you.

Have you ever seen a photographer make a rectangle with their thumbs and index fingers as they’re looking for a shot? I love that. They are physically re-framing the information that they are receiving from the world, and that lets them find what they want to focus on, what they want to say. Inspiration can be like that - it’s not that there isn’t any there to find, it’s that there’s so much that it’s become noise all around you. You’re used to it being there and it’s difficult to filter.

Quite the opposite of the eureka brand of inspiration - to look closer demands that we work to zero in on one of the multitude of ideas that is already there and waiting for us to spot it. Can you re-contextualize what you’re seeing and hearing, or what you’re currently working on, so that you can find the beauty and the excitement in it? What are the patterns in your life, and why are they there? Is there something you see every day which you've never considered as a foundation for a creative project? Here are a few ways to try and get a closer or newer perspective from anywhere you might happen to be...

Journal. I'm a big fan of the Morning Pages practice advocated by The Artist's Way. Essentially, you do a completely unpolished dump of all your thoughts first thing in the morning, every morning, and then get on with your day. You're also not meant to do any editing, you're not even meant to think ahead about what you want to say. I've found this kind of looseness and letting go is good training for when you're doing your "real" writing - you can more easily subdue your self-consciousness and just let the ideas flow. Every few weeks or months I go back and read my entries and I always make great discoveries - I see past events in a new light, I notice the patterns in my thoughts and choices, I can measure some change in how far I've come.

Meditate. It requires practice - and I definitely wouldn't say that I'm great at it - but when you take the time try to quiet your mind and be fully present in a calm moment, you may find you can identify feelings you didn't even know were there. A more focused meditation - on a particular experience, concept, creative endeavor - is even harder to follow through with but can definitely yield interesting new approaches when you're stuck. (I find I use this most often when a client doesn't like my first ideas and I need to keep finding novel ways to tackle the breif.)

Pretend you’re someone else. How would someone else write about what you want to write about? Sometimes I imagine being in the shoes of people in my life, or people I've read about in the news - a destitute mother, an innovator trapped at a desk job, a kid who's in love for the first time (to be fair, in this example I also lifted two lines from Ace of Base). If you don’t know what to write about, what are other people writing about - in songs, in books, in today's news? What has been your experience with the things they're touching upon?

Pretend you're someTHING else. Getting outside a normal human perspective usually helps you see things in a new light quite quickly. On "Trees" I was very deliberately writing from the viewpoint of a sort of amalgam of all human consciosness throughout time, greiving its relationship with nature. On "Defy" I imagined there were benevolent celestial beings who would channel energy and encouragement to people in times of need. (It was for a magical 80's-themed album, ok?) What about personifying inanimate objects? I'm reminded of one of my favorite scenes from Frank where Michael Fassbender’s papier-mâché-masked title character makes up “Lone Standing Tuft” - a quirky, beautiful song - about carpet.

Lastly, zoom in on your music. It's been all writing tips so far in this post, but when it comes to being stuck in music composition or production, sometimes Look Closer is the solution you need. If you're stuck, it means something's not working, and maybe you have to comb through to find out what it is. Get into the part that's troubling you: What is it made up of? What purpose is each of the notes serving there? Meditate on it - sometimes until our eyes are closed and our minds are focused we don't realize that what's bothering us is the tone of a recording or the delivery of a vocal or the fact that we have lots of long soft sounds and hardly any short choppy ones. I have legitimately reached this latter conclusion more than once.

I hope some of this has been helpful in your quest to be more creatively fulfilled, and as usual I'd love to hear from you in the comments. Next week I will be posting about finding inspiration by combining things, getting random, and making weird connections.