In this new, socially-distanced, self-isolating reality of ours, many producers and engineers no longer have access to their familiar, well-appointed studios, and are now having to find ways to work from home. While this is nothing out of the ordinary for some, the move can bring unique technical and social challenges for others.
In this piece you’ll learn:
How to manage your work/life balance when they both happen in the same physical space.
How to tackle some of the technical challenges of working in a new and non-ideal acoustic space.
How to modify your workflow so you can still achieve your usual goals while working from your home studio.
Managing the work/life balance is rarely easy for audio professionals, but at least there’s a clear delineation between the two when they’re in physically different locations. When work and life happen from your home, that distinction disappears, or at least diminishes. At first blush, it might seem like you should end up with more time on your hands by eliminating your regular commute. In reality, it rarely works out that way.
Luckily for you, I’ve been working from home—and maintaining a happy marriage—for nearly four and a half years. While you’re on your own for the latter, allow me to offer some advice that’s helped me on the former:
Having a space where you do your work can be critical in creating the necessary mental shift between work and leisure. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole room—it can be a certain seat at a table or shared desk. Not only does having a defined workspace help with your own mental state, it also lets others who live with you know, “right now, I’m working.”
Try to create and stick to a general schedule, but definitely include some regular breaks. When you live and work in the same place, it’s very easy to get up to grab a drink of water, and 30–60 minutes later find yourself doing some chores around the house, or maybe just being distracted by how cute one of your pets is. Set reminders on your phone if you need to, and try to limit yourself to a few 15-minute breaks throughout the day—plus lunch, of course.
Try to examine your work for repetitive tasks that you could complete faster with automation or project templates (or some intelligent tools). This could be a session template directory, mix templates, plug-in chain presets, and more. In short, if you find yourself doing the same thing over and over, ask yourself if there’s a way to do it faster, or in fewer steps.
When you work where you live, it’s so tempting to go get just a little more done after dinner… and the next thing you know it’s 1AM and your partner’s gone to bed without you. Of course there are sometimes exceptions, and this can be a benefit of working at home, but don’t let it become the norm. Maintain respect for both your own time and the time of those you live with, and when you finish work, leave it at that dedicated space.
One of the trickiest parts of any studio transition is coming to grips with a new monitoring environment. This challenge can get compounded when you layer that with the fact you’re switching to a potentially less-than-ideal acoustic space. Let’s take a look at a couple potential hurdles, and how to get over them:
Whether you’re stuck working from your couch, the dining table, or a home office shared with a partner or roommate, sometimes there’s just no space to set up some semblance of a traditional mixing or mastering room. In these cases, headphones become the obvious monitoring choice. The video below details some considerations when trying to pin down the particularities of your own listening environment.
While there are definitely some challenges associated with working exclusively in headphones, there’s a lot of good to be said as well, and many of the challenges can be overcome with plug-ins.
The pros: Headphones remove the room from the equation. That means no frustrating room-modes mucking with the low end, and no early reflections smearing the stereo image. This allows you to listen in a very detailed way.
The cons: Because sound from the left channel doesn’t make it to the right ear—and vice versa, as happens with speakers—the sense of stereo width can be exaggerated, and front to back depth can be impossible to perceive. Additionally, different headphones can have drastically different frequency responses which may be nothing like the monitoring you’re used to. And lastly, you may be used to working with a subwoofer; you’ll have to make do without the physicality provided by a sub, although a good pair of headphones can provide surprising low-end accuracy.
The fixes: Luckily, there are some great plug-ins available to help with these issues. First, Toneboosters Morphit can not only correct your headphones’ response to an idealized reference, but it can also simulate other familiar headphone models, along with a customizable target response.
Next, CanOpener Studio, by Goodhertz, can simulate the crossfeed you get from a well-placed pair of speakers helping give a more cohesive stereo image. Try inserting these two plug-ins last on your master bus to get closer to the studio environment you’re used to—just don’t forget to turn them off before you render!
One additional thought on headphones: if you live alone, and in a relatively quiet environment, open-back headphones—like the Audeze LCD-1—can be a great choice, and are likely what you’re accustomed to from a studio environment. If you live in a noisier space, it may make sense to consider a closed-back design, like the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro.
If you have a room you can use, it may be tempting to skip the headphones and start setting up speakers and a workstation right away. Often, though, it pays to run a few quick checks at the outset.
First, it’s worthing taking a look at the room’s dimensions. Head on over to the amroc Room Mode Calculator and punch in your room’s dimensions in feet or centimeters. The main things to check are the Bonello and Bolt criteria. Ideally, you’d like to see the Bonello—modes per third—smoothly increasing, and the red “x” somewhere inside the bolt area. If you’re a little off on one or the other of these, that’s probably ok, but if you’re way outside the Bolt area, or your Bonello modes look like a rollercoaster, you may be in for an uphill battle.
Second, figure out your speaker positions. This is truly an art and science unto itself, but this Speaker Placement Calculator can give you a few great starting options. We also have a guide on choosing monitors for your space.
Third, think about adding some absorption. While nicely constructed and finished panels may have an aesthetic edge, some down-and-dirty absorbers can be just as effective. Try loosely stuffing some R-13 insulation into burlap sacks and stacking them in your corners for some effective, if rustic-looking, low-frequency control. Check out our guide on more budget-friendly room treatment options.
Finally, whether you’re working in headphones or on speakers, change takes time to get used to. In the interim, tools like Tonal Balance Control and the assistive technologies in Neutron and Ozone can help provide an extra layer of metering and assurance that you’re not straying too far from your normal standards.
While it can be difficult to replicate the ergonomics and workflow of a brick-and-mortar studio at home, there are ways to retain some of the feel of things like faders or a monitor control section, and even the feedback you may be used to from attended sessions. Let’s take a look at some solutions for all three.
If you’re used to riding faders as part of your mixdown process but don’t have a console at home, there are a few substitutions you can try. First off, it’s worth mentioning that many of today’s audio workstations have mobile- and tablet-compatible control apps. If you’ve never looked into this, check in your device’s app store to see if there’s a native app for your DAW. If you don’t have any luck in that department, you can also try an app like TouchOSC.
If touch screens aren’t your thing, you can always map faders on a MIDI controller to faders in your DAW for more hands-on control. If you can live without motorized faders, something like the Akai Professional MIDImix might be up your alley. If, on the other hand, you’re accustomed to flying fader action, something from the Presonus FaderPort series may be more your speed.
When it comes to monitor control, there are again many plug-ins that can replicate the functionality you may be accustomed to. If you’re mainly after the ability to sum to mono and flip left and right, Ozone has you covered. If you’re also after the ability to solo left, right, sum, and difference, 2BusControl from Maat is a small, free plug-in that does just that.
When it comes to attended sessions, nothing’s quite like having someone in the room with you. However, with a decent internet connection, there are some very workable possibilities these days. Check out this video from Ian Shepherd for a step-by-step look at setting up a process we worked out together.
Making the move to working from home is almost always tricky, particularly for audio engineers. That said, it’s absolutely doable. As I mentioned in the intro, I’ve been mastering out of a converted room in my house, writing articles like these, and doing other freelance work for nearly five years now, and my wife still doesn’t hate me. I attribute a lot of that to the principles I laid out in the first “work/life” section, so I hope they serve you well in these uncertain times.
There are, of course, technical challenges as well, but the solutions are often more readily apparent, or easier to implement. I hope my thoughts here have been helpful on that front too. At the end of the day, be patient—both with yourself and with those you live with—be safe, and have fun making great music.