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Improving Studio Ergonomics And Workflow

When it comes to having a positive experience in the studio, one of the most important contributing factors is maintaining a good workflow. Workflow can be improved using everything from a cutting edge piece of technology to something as simple as the right mouse mat. We shed some light on the subject...

It is likely that at one time or another most of us have worked in a less than ideal studio environment. Some of you may feel that your current studio still doesn’t make the grade in certain areas, whether your a seasoned pro or beginner it is pretty likely that improvements can be made to the ergonomics of your workspace to improve the creative flow of your projects.

This really isn’t about dropping a huge amount of cash on the latest bit of kit or completely redesigning your room, its really just a case of making the best of your current environment and using some common sense and a few tricks to make your set up perform to its maximum potential.

It may seem like simple stuff but even something as mundane as the right chair or the position of your monitors can make a huge difference to our general comfort and creativity. Of course there are certain hardware products that will improve your working environment but they are often pretty inexpensive when compared to dedicated production equipment.

Keeping things organised in the studio is also hugely important when it comes to an uninterrupted workflow. If you know where to find certain files and they are named correctly, loading a certain sound in to a new project will be a transparent process and wont effect the way you work, the last thing you want at this critical stage is to be trawling through hundreds of files across multiple hard drives.

As the subjects of workstation ergonomics and studio organisation are perhaps less glamorous than that of the most recent hardware releases or production technique, little data is available but hopefully this feature will arm you with the relevant knowledge when making any changes to your studio.

Studio Ergonomics And Workflow Topics

The Cockpit

Without question, the most important component in your studio is you and you are also the only part that is alive, so comfort should be right at the top of the list when designing any studio. As with any other working environment its important to have the right posture when in your seated position.  Studio sessions can be long and often go over the 8 hour mark, this is why its really important to have the right chair.

When choosing the seating for your studio try to go for something that provides lumber support, arm rests and straight forward adjustability. Try and avoid something slouchy, with masses of padding. Also avoid chairs that are very low, these may seem more comfortable in the short term but a long session and you can do some serious damage to your back.

Once sat in an ergonomically correct position, you can start to think about what you can see. Firstly inspect the lighting in your room, you really don’t want to have a bright lamp to the left or right of your computer screen, as this will cause constant distraction and will be really fatiguing. Bright overheads can have a similar effect, it’s best to opt for softer ambient light as this will create the least stress on your eyes. If you are in a studio with no windows it might be worth considering full spectrum lighting to simulate daylight.

The position and brightness of your screens is another critical factor to a healthy working position. You really don’t want the display to be to high or low as this will cause your neck to be at a constant angle. If your workstation doesn’t allow your screens to be positioned at the perfect angle it may be worth considering a monitor clamp or mount. There are loads of these on the market and often use the VESA mounting system to position multiple monitors at perfect ergonomic angles.

With your body, head and eyes at the right angle you should be set up to tackle long sessions without any discomfort or adverse health effects, remember If you work for yourself no one else is going to look out for you in this area.

At this point it’s really worth thinking about the position of your equipment and computer. If you access or view a piece of hardware regularly you should really think about placing it on your workstation in the line of sight, you don’t really want to have to change your position every time you use it. If your current desk or workstation doesn’t allow you to position things satisfactorily companies such as Quicklok make a good range of products that shouldn’t break the bank, alternatively you could tackle the job your self and take the DIY route.


Taking control

In a world of virtual studios, software instruments and DSP driven effects tactile control of a devices parameters is swiftly becoming something of the past but there are still products that focus solely on the hands on control of our music and instruments.

Although companies such as Euphonix, Mackie and Maudio all have excellent products available in the area of traditional control surfaces, don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to spend a lot to get some physical control. Even a trackball with programmable buttons can get you started here and these products will often include scroll wheels that can control functions such as jog and zoom. This sort of functionality will not only reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries but also improve your workflow drastically.

Of course nothing beats a fully featured ouch sensitive, automated control surface to not only improve your workflow but transform it completely. The Euphonix artist series sports features such as touch sensitive colour screens, motorised touch sensitive faders, customisable channel strip displays and a full transport section with jog wheel. These luxuries do come at a cost so if your a relative beginner it maybe worth thinking of a cheaper option before you graduate to this sort of technology.

One little tip that is worth mentioning here is an often overlooked feature that many control surfaces include, and that’s the ability to accommodate a humble foot switch. Latching foot switches can be perfect tools for engaging record mode, turning loop mode on and off or simply starting and stopping your DAW. If you are already playing a part on a midi keyboard or guitar this can be a great way of controlling your software without interrupting the creative flow.


Sound advice

The subjects of room acoustics and monitor placement may not seem connected to workflow, but in fact they are more closely related than you may think. If your room has problematic acoustic characteristics and you leave it untreated, not only will your mixes translate badly to other systems in playback, but your listening experience will be incredibly fatiguing and this will really take its toll during long sessions.

In an untreated room too many early reflections will create multiple signals for the listener to process and this will result in the fatiguing effect. Treating the room with simple broadband absorption tiles will combat this problem in the most part and can go some way to creating a much more comfortable listening environment. Saying this add too much absorption and you can create an unnaturally dead space and this in turn can also be fatiguing. The trick here is to use some diffusion or reflection panels, or at least a good balance of all these forms of treatment.

Controlling low frequency energy is also very important as left unchecked this will also create a confused listening environment. Some bass traps in the corners of your space and thick, high density tiles should help to remedy this and will also help to remove issues such as standing waves and unwanted nodes.

Companies such as Auralex do excellent room kits that can help solve most of these problems and although they aren’t exactly cheap they are worth every penny. Another product worth thinking about is a pair of Auralex Mopads. These are foam pads that are placed under your studio monitors and ensure that they are de-coupled from the surface they are placed on. This will ensure you are listening to your monitors and not the vibrations from your work surface or desk.


Storage and maintenance

One of the most important parts of maintaining workflow is a tightly organised and well oiled system. As a lot of studios do most or all of their work ‘in the box’ now its more important than ever to keep your machine running at its best and part of this is keeping your audio organised and stored in the correct manner.

If you are a Mac based studio then then you are pretty lucky as the maintenance work you need to perform to keep things running smoothly is pretty minimal to be honest. As long as you regularly repair permissions, run software update and keep your DAW and other software at the latest versions you should be on top form, if your on a Windows XP or Vista system however there is a little more work required.

Windows systems require reasonably regular de-fragmentation runs, this keeps large files stored in consecutive blocks of the hard drive, which in turn increases hard drive seek times and reduces stress to the mechanism as a whole. If you perform this every few weeks or so you should increase the life of your drive and notice a jump in system performance. Another tip here is to ensure you are running your audio from a one drive and your system and applications from another, this will also help your system perform at its best.

Other essential maintenance procedures Windows users need to perform include virus / spyware scans, driver updates, hardware conflict checks and system updates. There are also a few OS based tweaks users can execute to keep everything running quickly, such as using the ‘set for best performance option’ in the appearance control panel. Further tricks like using no desktop picture and limited start up programs will all contribute to a highly tuned audio PC.

Mac or PC if your system is running as it should this means more time making music and less time trouble shooting and clean system installs. Nothing kills the creative spirit more than having to install drivers, defrag a drive or download updates half way through a session. To avoid this try and keep up with this mundane stuff in your spare time.

When it comes to organisation of your files one thing is on our side and that’s the current low cost of storage devices. Whether you opt for internal or external drives most budgets can stretch to multiple drives and this means you can dedicate specific drives to specific tasks. For instance you could have all your samples CD’s on one drive, your system and applications on another and a third drive could contain your working projects. This type of set up really takes the strain off your systems and prevents ‘bottle necking’ of data.

A final tip here is to not only organise your files in a sensible folder system but also name them clearly and logically. This may seem obvious but when you record a take or perform some sampling you may apply a quick name to the file in the heat of the moment. File names such as ‘fastdrumtake_1f’ maybe fine on the day but a month or so later when you are looking for that perfect phrase you may not be able to remember this. Try to develop a generic naming technique, including attributes such as bpm, style or date, this way searching for the appropriate file and filing it will become much less pain staking.

Studio Ergonomics And Workflow