Should my studio be clean or messy?

Monday, August 3, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Messy Studio

Messy Studio

“How do you get anything done with all these wires?”
–Me, upon seeing a friend’s messy studio

Composing electronic music with hardware is a messy business. You’re constantly swapping synths and FX around, looking for novel sounds and techniques. I think it was Autechre that claimed they essentially rebuild their studio for every track. Hyperbole, yes, but not far removed from reality.

For a while, I was fighting against my own nature. When I was done using cables, I’d compulsively coil them and file them neatly in drawer. I’d use a dust brush on my gear. I kept everything very, very clean. “The gear deserves respect,” I thought, “as some of it is older than I am.” “I’m lucky to have stuff to clean,” I lectured myself when I was feeling lazy about dusting. “I’ll always know where stuff is…”

I believed keeping my studio clean was One Of Those Things, like going to the dentist — painful in the short term, but beneficial over time.

One day, I was cleaning, all the while grumbling to myself that I’d really rather be writing music. A voice in my head whispered, “Well, why aren’t you?” I started to rattle off the usual reasons, but my heart wasn’t in it. I dropped the cable I was coiling and dove into writing a track. It turned out fantasticly, even though the studio was a mess. I took that as a sign that cleaning wasn’t as big of a deal as I making it out to be.

So, for a couple months after that, I worked exactly opposite to how I’d been working before — I just never cleaned up anything. I tossed cables on the floor. Things were good for a while, but it didn’t last. I eventually found myself just as fed up with the mess as I had been with the cleaning. Cables were tangled and knotted; switching out a keyboard was a major pain. I couldn’t find anything. A 15-foot USB cable was reduced to 3 feet of mobility. A taut cable snapped off a fader on one of my keyboards when I tripped on it. If that fader hadn’t snapped, I would have brained myself on the sharp end of a 25 year old keyboard. Clearly, the “never clean anything” lifestyle wasn’t going to work either.

I decided I’d try a hybrid approach: clean my studio when the mess began to piss me off. I cleaned the whole place that day, all at once, and let it be for a few weeks before cleaning again. It turned out to be the perfect happy medium. Day-to-day, I’m not guilt tripping myself because I didn’t fart around polishing the brass. In the long run, even though I don’t spend that much time cleaning, the disorganization never reaches a point where it slows me down.

Look around your studio. Why does it look the way it does? Is it because that’s what lets you work the most effectively, or because you think that’s what lets you work the most effectively? Cast a critical eye on your cleaning habits — are they really in line with maximizing your productivity?

You’re in the studio to write music, and you shouldn’t let anything distract you from that. Cleaning is a job that is never done; there will always be more. You can wind up spending way too much time on it. However, mess can reach a point where slows you down just as much as compulsive cleaning. Strike a balance. Clean as much as necessary, and stop.

This same logic can be extended to organizing folders on your hard drive, your minidisc library, and even the process of writing tracks itself: you can spend forever perfecting drum sounds, but it’s wasted effort unless you have good drum patterns to match. Just keep asking — Is this necessary? Is this a key point, or just a forgettable detail? If I sink my valuable time into this, what is my return on investment? Is this essential, or am I just distracting myself from what really matters?

Categories: productivity, studio