Mobile Music Production: How to Optimize Your Setup

making music anywhere
A setup for mobile production

Today’s music technology is connecting creators everywhere. With multitrack wireless recording solutions like Spire Studio, you can collaborate on a song with friends anywhere in the world as if you were all in the same room.

And thankfully, laptop computers are powerful enough today for you to have a full mobile music production studio that can go wherever you go.

In this article, we’ll go over all the necessities to make sure you can create music on your laptop wherever you are.

1. Invest in your laptop

For starters, you need a computer that’s portable: a laptop. As portable and powerful as tablets are nowadays, they are still very limited when it comes to device connectivity. Plus, to keep things sounding professional, you need access to all your sample libraries and plug-ins, which is something you can't achieve on a tablet.

Two essential considerations are memory and hard drive space. In both cases, more is better. The more samples you want to use, the more RAM you will need, so definitely upgrade your Mac to the most memory it can handle. The more sampled instruments you want to have loaded in your sessions, the more memory you will have to have available on your computer to load them into.

More robust sampled instrument libraries also require more hard drive space to store them, so you’ll want to make sure that your computer has plenty of capacity to store your sample libraries as well as your projects. If you can splurge on an SSD drive, get it. Your sessions will load much faster and it will be able to handle much more than a single physical drive ever could. However, if you need to be more financially conservative, just get an additional external hard drive for your travels. Make sure it’s a portable one (the Lacie Rugged series is fantastic for that) as well as one with a fast data connection. Opt for USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt when possible.

2. Keep your OS clean

Since laptops are designed to prioritize portability over performance, they don’t always have specs to match their desktop equivalents. As such, you want to make sure you’re helping the computer as much as possible. Meaning, keep the operating system lean and clean.

Uninstall any programs you don’t need, free up space from unnecessary junk, and disable any login items or system extensions that aren’t necessary. Programs like CleanMyMac X can definitely help you in all of the above—the latest version has a neat feature called "Space Lens," which allows you to map exactly what's taking up the most space on your drive.

3. Watch your memory usage

When working on a laptop, you have to be more careful which plug-ins and programs you load. Oftentimes laptops may have less RAM than your desktop, so you’ll want to keep tabs on how much memory you have available. You can check this out in your Mac’s Activity Monitor app, but I prefer to use a nifty little tool called Memory Clean 3. It sits snugly in your menu bar and provides you with a quick overview on how much free ram you have left—that way you know when you’re about to overpower your computer and can work proactively to mitigate a freeze or potential crash.

One of my favorite things about this program is the fact that aside from allowing you to manually free up unused memory, it includes an auto-clean feature, meaning that once your available memory drops below a certain threshold (which you get to set) it will automatically purge any unused items from your RAM, effectively making space for you to load more into memory.

Also, be smart about the software you’re running. If it’s not necessary, quit it. Apple’s Mail application may seem like it’s not doing that much if it’s just sitting in the background, but it may be hogging up entire gigs of RAM just by staying open and running background checks for new mail. So if it’s not a must, you’re better off quitting all other applications, thus leaving more memory for your DAW and samples/plug-ins.

4. Be efficient with your plug-ins

Since resources on your laptop are limited, you have to be a little more choosy when it comes to deciding which plug-ins you’re going to use in your sessions. As such, you want to prioritize using plug-ins that are either lightweight (don’t require much processing power or memory) or those which are optimized to make the best usage of what you've got.

Neutron 3 is a fantastic example of that as the new version has been streamlined to allow for much better usage of the available resources on your computer. With the fresh overhaul in performance, you’ll experience faster processing times, load times, and smooth metering.

5. Freeze and bounce

Where possible, you should try to offload as much of the hard processing work as possible. This means freezing and/or bouncing your tracks. You’ll have to consult your DAW’s manual for which of the two options may be available to you, but both of them achieve the same end result.

When you freeze a track your DAW creates a temporary bounce of that track with all the effects on it. It then proceeds to disable the plug-ins, which frees up memory and processing power. So rather than playing back the channel's audio while using memory-/processor-intensive plug-ins, the DAW instead just plays back the bounced (frozen) audio track instead. You can achieve the same by just bouncing the track soloed yourself and reimporting it into your session to replace the original.

6. Back it all up

Since you’re traveling, you don’t want to risk suddenly losing all your data because you spilled a tropical cocktail on your laptop. So make sure to have a backup drive with you as well. All your projects should be backed up on there as you work on them. The more backups you can have, the better.

At the end of the day, better be safe than sorry, so if you can travel with two extra drives, bring them along and have them packed in different places (one in your carry-on, the other in your checked luggage for instance). Also, you want to make sure that your work is protected in case of natural disaster or theft. If possible, get your computer and projects on cloud storage (could be Dropbox, Google Drive, or a cloud backup solution like CrashPlan).

7. To interface, or not to interface?

Whether you're packing your audio interface or not will really depend on whether you plan to record any instruments or vocals. Let's be honest, no one wants to worry about connecting multiple devices to a laptop. It's not pretty, it isn't convenient, and at the end of the day makes for a heavier suitcase. So in general, you should skip the audio interface. However, if you know that you will need to create professional audio recordings at your destination or during your travels, bring a good portable audio interface with you. Bryan Adams' Room Service album was entirely recorded in various hotel rooms and backstage areas during his European tour.

The great news is that there are plenty of amazing models to choose from, with one of the most convenient ones being Spire Studio, which gives you a built-in studio-quality microphone, two mic/instrument inputs, two headphone outputs, a bunch of built-in recording effects, and can run on its own battery. Plus, what seals the deal is that it doesn’t require any cables. So wherever you go, you’ve got a no-setup portable studio with you ready to record.

8. Get a portable MIDI controller

The same rule will apply to MIDI controllers. Hauling around an 88-key weighted keyboard is unrealistic (unless you travel with a roadie, in which case, good on you!), so you need to consider alternative options.

You can get a small 2-octave MIDI controller keyboard. It may not have the fancy knobs/buttons that your original one may have, but it'll still get the job done. If you really need to go super lightweight, consider ditching the MIDI controller and instead learn how to use the Piano Roll (Logic) / Key Editor (Cubase) / MIDI Editor (Ableton Live) / Editor (Studio One). It will take longer but sometimes entering all notes manually and drawing in the MIDI may be what's necessary.

Finally, many DAWs have the option to use Musical Typing (it may be called differently in your DAW, so consult the manual). This awesome feature allows you to use your regular Mac typing keyboard as a temporary MIDI keyboard. It will give you a little over an octave's span of notes, with transpose options, velocity, and modulation. So definitely a great start if you need to get some ideas down fast.

Musical-Typing
Musical typing in Kontakt

9. Make your packing list

Last, but not least, this one’s more important than you’d think. You don’t want to end up on a small island on the other side of the world only to realize you forgot to pack a necessary dongle.

Create a packing list to avoid these unlucky mistakes. Since each person’s setup is going to be a little different, you want to build your own music production packing checklist. Make sure to include any iLoks, Vienna Keys, sample drives, backup drives, headphones, microphones, audio interfaces, cables, portable MIDI keyboards, and any other gear you may need with you on the road. That way, even if last-minute travel comes up, you are certain that you're bringing all the necessary things with you.

Conclusion

With today's tools, it's exceptionally easy to create music on the go. You just have to know how to leverage the different tools at your disposal and make the best use of the resources you have available to you. Try the above steps and let me know what your own travel-friendly tips may be!

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