4 Workflow Tips to Capture Inspiration When It Strikes

Some of the world's most creative minds thrive in a state of "organized chaos," their workspaces horrendously cluttered but perfectly functional for these unconventional souls. Other prolific creators have been hyper-disciplined about their process: Prince, for example, famously organized his life around his studio. His trusty drum machine and guitar were always plugged in and ready to go, and he had an engineer on call for whenever inspiration struck.

Unfortunately, most of us are not mad geniuses and do not have access to a personal engineer. Chances are, you're a regular person with a modest home studio who could benefit from a little organization and better workflow habits. Whether your setup consists of a laptop and a few instruments or a console and racks of gear, consider taking an hour (or a day) to rethink your workspace and habits to optimize them for maximum efficiency. Follow these steps and you'll be ready to capture your next great idea while it's fresh.

Optimize Your Workspace

Fender Multi Stand

The easiest place to start, and possibly the biggest tangible difference you can make, is simply to tidy up and organize your space. Got a bunch of guitars? Invest in a multi-guitar stand or some wall hangers to free up some extra floor space. Can't stop collecting vintage synths? Channel your inner Rick Wakeman and get a couple of multi-tier keyboard stands to hold them all. Obsessed with outboard gear? Acquire a sturdy rack to house all your preamps, compressors, and EQs in one place, wired up and ready to go.

Speaking of wires, messing around with audio cables is one of the least fun parts of making music. Nothing kills inspiration faster than having to navigate a tangled web of instrument, mic, and, power cables before you can actually record the part you just came up with. Do yourself a favor and invest in cables or snakes with the exact length and connectors you need (if you're handy with a soldering iron, making your own is a snap). Then grab some Velcro, ties, or cable organizers and wrangle those cables once and for all. Out of sight, out of mind.

For those times when you do need to re-route or swap out equipment, a patchbay can be your best friend. These handy rackmount devices let you connect all your gear neatly to the back and do all your patching on the front panel. It's not the most glamorous purchase, but simple ¼" TRS patchbays are affordable, easy to set up, and will make your life much, much easier. Some, like the Samson S-Patch Plus, even have switches for changing the type of connection (normal, half-normal, or through) between each pair of jacks.

Samson S-Patch Plus S Class 48-Point Balanced Patchbay

Find Your Go-to Sounds

When an idea is fresh, it's best to get it on tape (or hard drive) quickly, with as little fuss as possible. While it can be tempting to dial-in the perfect tone or play around with creative mic placement first, it's easy to get sidetracked this way. There's no need to reinvent the wheel every time you record a new guitar track. Instead of letting ideas slip away while you're chasing sonic perfection, find a go-to setup that works for what you do and stick with it. After all, you can always tweak your sounds or re-record the part.

"Instead of letting ideas slip away while you're chasing sonic perfection, find a go-to setup that works for what you do and stick with it."

If you're a singer, spend some time creating your perfect vocal chain: your favorite mic into your best preamp followed by a compressor set slow and gentle, and maybe an EQ. If you record your own drums, consider a set of quality clip-on mics supplemented by all-purpose kick and overhead mics so everything will always be locked in for a consistent sound. (For more information, check out our articles "Best Microphones for Recording Drums" and "Recording Drums by the Genre: 6 Mic Setups to Match Any Budget.") This tip applies to engineers and producers as well—route your favorite effects units to the sends and returns on your mixer or interface and you'll always have them ready to use on anything.

Dedicating the inputs on your audio interface can further streamline your setup. This way, you'll always know what's what when routing in your DAW (ex: 1–4=drums, 5=bass, 6=guitar, 7–8=keyboard, etc.). Plus, you'll be able to "set and forget" the gain, phantom power, and pad settings for each preamp. If you're working with limited inputs, a small mixer can help you manage multiple mics or instruments. For example, you can sub-mix all your drum mics down to two tracks or hook up all your synths at once and simply solo the one you want to record.

Save Time With Templates

Organization extends into the digital realm as well, where using templates in your DAW can save you tons of tedious setup time. Some of the world's busiest producers like Andrew Scheps and Tchad Blake swear by using templates to speed up their workflow, a strategy you can easily apply to your creative process at home. With thoughtfully-constructed templates, all that time you spend creating tracks, routing inputs, and loading plugins could be spent making music instead.

Do you usually start a song by programming a beat and some synths? Load up your favorite virtual instruments on MIDI tracks and save them as a starting point. Maybe you're a singer-songwriter who just needs to start humming and strumming right away? Start with guitar and vocal tracks and maybe an EZdrummer plugin for a quick rhythm. Even if you're a multi-instrumental composer, an all-purpose template accommodating all of your instruments will ensure an idea never slips away because you had to route an orchestra's worth of tracks first.

In addition to having tracks for your favorite instruments at the ready, templates can save you time by automating all the minor tasks we take for granted (such as loading plugins or routing busses). Setting up a go-to reverb plugin on an auxiliary send, a limiter on the master bus, or all-purpose EQs and compressors on every track can be huge workflow improvements. Even just having your tracks pre-named and color-coded can free up your brain for more creative pursuits.

Develop Good Creative Habits

Sorting pedals and tidying up cables can be satisfying, but all that gear feng shui means nothing if you aren't making music. One of the simplest and most common productivity tips touted by musicians, writers, artists, and even athletes is simply to "do it every day." But even if you can't fit a daily ritual into your schedule, committing to some type of schedule is sure to get your creative brain into a rhythm and make ideas flow naturally.

Whether it's a commitment to sit down and play your instrument once a day, a rigid song-a-week cycle, or the one weekend a month you can afford to sequester yourself in your home studio, pick a plan that's realistic for you and hold yourself to it. Of course, when you're playing, writing, and recording this often, not every idea is going to be gold. But don't scrap your ideas, even if it's just a sketch or the skeleton of a song—you can always revisit these nuggets and pick up where you left off when you need some extra inspiration.

Lastly, step outside your comfort zone. Push yourself to try writing a string quartet, a heavy dance track, an ambient noise composition, or whatever else you don't usually do. Even if your experiments never see the light of day, you'll have grown as a musician and your future projects will be informed by them. And when you hit a creative block, try Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies for some out-of-the-box inspiration.


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