What Can Two Dead Men Teach Audio Engineers About Efficiency?
The concept that increased my studio’s income by 60% this year.
Up until 2014, I did what I always thought was “hard work”. I would do my 50+ hour weeks without complaint, I took every job I could get, and I did whatever I could to build my reputation (and thus my business).
Unfortunately no matter what I did, my income peaked a few years into my studio career, and seemed to stagnate (going up and down each year).
If you have your own studio (or do any sort of freelance work), then I’m sure you can relate with me.
The Cons of Being a Sole Proprietor
From a financial standpoint, the biggest flaw of being an audio engineer is that your income is directly tied to how much time you spend on your business
Since there are only 24 hours in the day, this means a recording studio is not a scalable business.
What does this mean for you? It means that you will always be the bottleneck in your business. If you want more money, you’re going to have to work more hours. That’s just the cold hard truth of the sole-proprietors life…
This may come as no surprise to you, but anyone who owns a scalable business looks down on people like us with a bit of smug pity.
Those people get to scale their business up to potentially millions or billions of dollars in revenue per year, while spending little to no additional time working each week. Instead of working in their business (like audio engineers), they work on their business.
That means theoretically, they could be completely removed from their business, and everything should continue working with very few problems. This is how Apple has managed to thrive years after Steve Jobs’ death.
As a matter of fact, Apple stock prices have actually increased since his death.
What would happen if you were completely removed from your home studio business?
Nothing would get done.
From a financial standpoint, that absolutely sucks ass for people like us.
Fortunately for you, there are a few things you can do to maximize your revenue, and even help you make the most out of your limited time on this little blue dot in the universe.
There are tons of names for this concept (The Pareto principle, The Law of the Vital Few, The Principle of Factor Sparsity, just to name a few).
Whatever you want to call it, the concept remains the same:
“Roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”
You may be extraordinarily underwhelmed by what you just read, but if you don’t already understand what this rule means, bear with me and allow me to explain how you can apply this to your recording studio…and pretty much all other aspects of your life.
Without giving you too much of a boring history lesson, here is the very informal short story of how The 80/20 Rule came to be:
History Lessons By B-Tard
There was this rather brilliant Italian economist dude in the 1800’s that made a famous observation:
80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of its citizens.
That guy’s name was Vilfredo Pareto (hence the term “Pareto principle”).
(Vilfredo Pareto = Dead Man #1)
As it turned out, there was a similar distribution of land and wealth in other countries, which was quite an interesting observation in a time before globalization had really taken off.
(Joseph M. Juran = Dead Man #2)
In later years, Juran preferred to call it “the vital few and the useful many” to signal that the remaining 80% of the causes should not be totally ignored. Keep that in mind while reading this article.
Here are some popular, non-recording-studio examples of the 80/20 Rule:
-80 percent of results come from 20 percent of efforts
-80 percent of activity will require 20 percent of resources
-80 percent of usage is by 20 percent of users
-80 percent of revenue comes from 20 percent of customers
-80 percent of problems come from 20 percent of causes
-80 percent of profit comes from 20 percent of the products
-80 percent of complaints come from 20 percent of customers
-80 percent of sales will come from 20 percent of salesmen
-80 percent of work is done by 20 percent of staff
-80 percent of road traffic accidents are cause by 20 percent of drivers
and so on..
The examples used here are not statistical facts. For any particular situation, the precise ratio will most likely be different than 80:20. In many cases the actual ratio can be far away from 80:20 (like 95:5, or even 95:20), and the ratios do not necessarily have to equal 100.
Keep in mind that this is a general rule, not a scientific certainty. No matter the ratio, the principle remains the same: Focus on those tasks that contribute the majority of results.
Ok, the boring part is out of the way. Yay!
How To Apply The 80/20 Rule To Audio Engineers
“You’re trying to maximize profits in a creative industry? How dare you!”
I realize that people in any creative field of work are afraid to approach it from a business/financial/technical perspective. Everyone thinks their situation is special and that “no one could possibly understand my own unique problems or creative genius.”
I believe there is a way to keep a creative mind while improving all business aspects of your home studio.
The basic goal here is to reduce or eliminate the 20% in your business/life that cause 80% of the problems (wasted time, wasted effort, wasted money, etc.), and to focus on the key 20% of things that cause 80% of the good shit to happen (money, joy, extra time, friends, happiness, etc.).
There are countless ways to apply this, but I’ll just focus on a few things specific to home studios.
Which 20% of your job gives you 80% of your happiness?
This is one of the best questions you can ask yourself, and my answer came from a conversation I had with one of my best friends (by accident).
Through a series of questions, we figured out that I hated the tedious process of tracking bands, and I loved the process of mixing\mastering\shaping the sound of the band’s final product.
“Turning shit to gold” is what I sometimes call this, and it’s what I do best.
Not only is mixing/mastering the most emotionally rewarding part of what I do, it’s also the part of my job that is the most financially rewarding.
After a bit of simple math, I figured out that I “only” average about $40\hr when doing the most tedious parts of my job, but I average between $75-$200\hr doing the things that I enjoy most.
This simple discovery led me to a total change of how I ran my recording studio.
This conclusion may sound painfully obvious, but at the time I didn’t know what questions to ask myself in order to come to this conclusion. Hell, I didn’t even know that I should be asking myself these questions in the first place.
I actually found these questions through a business exercise my friend and I were doing for a completely unrelated business project.
In other words, I basically came to this conclusion on accident, while looking for the answer of a completely different problem in a completely different industry altogether.
My goal for this section of the article is to make sure every reader knows, at a minimum, that they should at least be figuring out the answers to these questions:
1. What is the most painful part of your job?|
2. What makes this so painful?
3. If it’s so painful to do, why do you still do it?
4. Does it make sense to outsource this work to someone else that is qualified to do it?
5. If not, is there anything you can do to reduce or eliminate this part of your job from your life?
6. What is your favorite part of your job?
7. Why do you enjoy this part so much?
8. What steps can you take to do this part of your job more?
10. What are your strengths and weaknesses as an audio engineer?
11. Do your strengths line up with what you enjoy doing most?
12. Do your weaknesses line up with what you hate doing the most? (This is a great sign that you should be hiring someone else to do this).
Your favorite 20% of audio production may be totally different from mine, so don’t expect to come to the same conclusion.
When you figure out the answers these questions, feel free to leave a comment explaining anything you’ve discovered about your job that you have not thought of before. Scroll to the bottom and leave a comment, then jump back up here to continue reading on. I’ll be actively reading every single comment, and I’d love to see what you’ve discovered about yourself and help out any way I can.
What I Did About This Discovery
Since I hate how tedious tracking and editing work is, I hired an engineer to track bands for me. Instead of having to do everything myself, I just handle the quality control for the tracking and editing process, as well as creative input and feedback during the entire process.
In the long run, I now take on more mixing\mastering jobs, and less jobs that involve full production. This has made my life much less stressful, and I get burnt out much less often.
This allows me to enjoy the few bands I produce each year, as they are either bands I know well, or bands whose music I genuinely enjoy (or both).
Many of you may have noticed that I’m not the only producer in metal that has taken this approach. Joey Sturgis works with several different engineers, Will Putney has a guy that handles the majority of his guitar\bass tracking, and my friend Josh Wickman is in the process of hiring a full-time engineer for his studio. These aren’t the only guys with assistants either. Hell, even my old assistant had an assistant at his own studio.
You may come to a completely different conclusion than me, but I’m certain that you can figure out a path to reducing your least favorite parts of the job.
80% of your problems come from 20% of the bands.
This is something that took years for me to figure out, but once I did, I began creating ways to spot that 20% of troublesome bands. I started noticing little things those bands did that every one of them had in common.
I could make an entire blog post about this one subject, but I’ll breeze through it for the sake of brevity.
An actual email I received from a band:
Hey whats up brian? I’m Xxxxx Xxxxxxx, vocalist of ‘Xx Xxx Xxx’. We are a new band from Xxxxxx Xxxxx. i’ve been in local bands for years and thats changing now because of amazing advice from my friend Ben Ferris [woe, is me [rise records ]] I dont want to take up to much of your time, but i’m being 100% serious that we ARE the band to record.
We have amazing material being written and we know what it takes to be in a major signed band. No, we arent huge right now and we havent played a show, but thats the point. Ben told me to record some HUGE and amazing demo’s with a well known studio and i tried getting us into chango studios but now they dont take in bands that arent signed anymore. I really think you should consider taking in our band. Our plan is to record 2 original flawless demo’s and a fun cover song[cover song depending on the price per song].
While recording, we are going to promote like hell and take profesional promo’s, nd make video updates and make some HUGE hype about us and get ben ferris to do guest keys and vocals in a song and get tyler carter to do some guest vocals to! Then once we’re done recording, we will release everything at once on facebook and myspace and everything, and have huge talk going on about us and then word will get to rise records and big things will happen! .
The sound we are going for is heavy, but marketable. ‘The word alive” ‘Miss May I’ ‘Woe, is me’ ‘of mice and men’ etc.. We are all professional in recording to metronomes,all have a music theory backround and we’re all laid back awesome dudes! I sing and scream and i know anyone can say that but i actually CAN sing and scream,im known for it in my local city. Anyway man, sorry for taking up some of your time but i wouldnt be sending this if we werent serious about booking some studio time and getting on the road to RISE Records because we know 100% we are getting there. Much love bro! Hope to hear from you back soon! attatched our some rough material ideas, not with real instruments, We need high quality recordings with your mixing/mastering and then some keys and synth added in our songs.
-Xxxxx Xxxxxxx ‘Xx Xxx Xxx’.
Good god…I wish every nightmare band was as easy to spot as this. This band would have required at least 3x the amount of work of a normal band.
They were simply not living in reality, and they would have had wild ideas about what I should do to their mix. I am 100% certain I would have hated the end result, as well as my life during the process.
Unfortunately, most nightmare bands aren’t as easy to spot as this, but there are things you can do to spot them.
First off, bands that can’t follow simple directions should be a red flag. These tend to be the bands that come in with the wrong gear, no lyrics, no drum heads, the wrong guitar strings, no tempo figured out, and their girlfriends in tow (despite the long readme you sent them specifically stating no additional people were allowed).
What I did, was create a system that showed me bands that could follow basic directions before I worked with them. It may sound simple, but asking the band a few key questions can go a long way in spotting trouble ahead of time.
My system is nothing more than a requirement for bands to fill out a detailed quote form (located on my website) before I will price their project. I also ask a few simple follow-up questions: What gear they’re using, who they’re tracking with (if it’s a mix\master job), what their expectations are for the process, and what I can do to make sure everything runs smoothly.
You don’t have to get fancy with this. Just start a conversation with the band (through email, on the phone, or through text), and try to feel them out. You’ll make a few mistakes, but eventually you’ll become a pro at spotting the traits of a band that just doesn’t “get it.”
Once you stop working with the 20% of these nightmare bands, and 80% of your problems magically disappear, you probably wouldn’t care if your income dropped by 20%. The weird thing is that it won’t drop…it will actually increase from giant boost in productivity and happiness you just gained.
80% of your mixing decisions account for 20% of your final product.
This was one of the most controversial points I wanted to touch on. So many people spend countless hours tweaking mixes in such minuscule, pointless ways.
I firmly believe that when mixing, you can achieve 80 – 90% of your “final mix” in about 10 – 20% of the time, if you know how to spend your time wisely.
Hilariously cheesy inspirational poster aside, I realize that is a pretty bold statement. Allow me to elaborate:
In the past, I’ve tweaked eq’s, dialed in just the right amount of compression, obsessed over getting the best drum tones possible, found the “perfect” guitar tone (which I ended up reamping again for a “much better tone”), and then scrapped it all to start again from scratch.
There are TONS of potential decisions to be made in every single mix, and sometimes I would end up spending days mixing a single song.
To the average band, you look like the absolute GOD OF THE AUDIO ENGINEERS, with such incredible mastery and devotion to the craft that their inferior pea-brains could never truly fathom the magnitude of your raw fucking talent.
The sad reality is that the hundreds (if not thousands) of overly obsessive, tiny mixing changes you made were nothing more than adorable fucking wastes of time. 80% of those changes amount to no major difference in the mix.
We currently live in what I’ve deemed “The Era of the Home Studio,” where any kid with a Macbook Pro and a pirated version of Cubase and Waves Mercury Bundle can call themselves a “producer.” Because of this, some people feel the need to endlessly obsess over a mix in order to set themselves apart from the ever increasing crowd (whether it’s a conscious decision or subconscious).
These people are basically just spinning their wheels to trick themselves into thinking they are making real progress. Getting caught up in these petty details accomplishes nothing and only robs you of precious brain power.
Working deliberately instead of putting in aimless, unproductive hours is absolutely crucial.
Some of my best mixes have come when I was rushed to finish quickly. When I look back on those mixes, they all have the same thing in common.
The first mix sucked.
The great thing about “shitting out” a terrible mix in a relatively short amount of time is that you can quickly spot the weakest parts of the mix, as well as what is actually working. The other benefit is that you can start getting feedback from the band sooner.
Nothing wastes more time than obsessing over “the perfect” mix for weeks, and the band ends up hating it.
The sooner you can get the first mix done, the sooner you can start compiling notes, and referencing it to other mixes with fresh ears. This is where the real progress begins.
Next time you start mixing a band, focus on getting that major 20% right. The “easy wins” should get you 80% there, and should enable you to get that final 20% with much less effort.
I realize the advice that you should “shit out the first mix quickly so the ‘real’ mixing can begin” may not resonate with everyone. I totally get it.
It just makes you feel better when you’re making thousands of miniscule adjustments. Fine. Whatever.
Regardless of your mixing style, here are 3 key things you can do to maximize efficiency:
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1. Focus On The TasksOnly YOU Can Do
Every single full time audio engineering professional has something about themselves that appeals to the bands they work with.
Whether it’s “your sound,” how well you mesh with the bands, how nice you are, how meticulous you are with your work, how creative you are, your ability to write, or a combination of these things.
Instead of focusing on these unique talents, a major mistake I see happening (in more than just the recording studio world) is business owners that waste their time on “$10/hr jobs” that any decently trained employee could do.
I’ve seen people waste so much time on menial tasks that they rarely get to do the things that set them apart from everyone else. In their minds, this busy-work makes them feel like they’re really working hard.
The sad reality is that these “hard workers” are the same people that brag about working 80 hours every week.
Instead of being the guy that uses overtime as an indicator of “hard work,” be the guy that was able to finish the same amount of work in 25 focused, uninterrupted, highly productive hours.
Everyone had heard the age-old adage “work smart, not hard.”
That is absolute bullshit. Work smart and hard. Stay focused, find your 3 most productive hours in the day, and you should be able to get more done in those 3 hours than you normally could in a full day’s work.
The only thing working 80 aimless hours every week is going to accomplish is burning yourself out.
Here are just a few of the things I now hire out to other people
1. Pitch Correction – so many people do this as well as I do, or better.
2. Drum, guitar, and bass tracking/editing – I train my assistants to do everything to my specifications, and I do constant quality control checks throughout the process.
3. Orchestration – Again, there are people who are extremely skilled with this and do only this for a living. I cannot come close to competing with people like that.
4. Certain post production –If I have a long list of easily-done-but-time-consuming post production, I have a guy that I’ll pay to add it in for me.
I’ve spent roughly $15,000 on hiring contract workers so far this year. That makes it my single largest expense (just above what I pay for a year’s rent).
You might think you’d rather save yourself that $15,000 this year and just handle the work yourself. While that may be an easy conclusion to jump to, take a look at this:
I’ve already made $45,000 more this year than I did all of 2013,
Just to give you an idea of how well I did in 2013, it was my best year ever (at that point).
How did I manage to do this? I focused my time on the things only I can do.
“Well then what do you actually do??”
1. I still handle all of my own mixing\mastering: It’s what I’m best at and what I enjoy most.
2. I handle quality control and provide creative input for projects recorded here: I track most of the vocals (especially singing vox)
3. I handle my relationships with artists: Relationships play a huge part in what projects you do and do not get.
4. I network: Whether you go to “networking events”, or you just focus on building friendships with people, you never know where your next big project could come from.
5. I reply to quote requests from bands, and determine what I charge for each project: This is where most of my monetary transactions actually happen.
6. I blog: This is not something I do often (as you may have noticed), but when I do, a single post can take up a MASSIVE amount of time. This post alone is over 4,300 words long and has taken well over 20 hours of my time for research, typing, thinking, more typing, formatting, reformatting, editing, re-editing, reading, re-reading, and re-re-re-reading, etcetera and so on. There will still be typos.
7. I’m a co-founder of a software startup: This startup is completely unrelated to the music industry, but it’s something I love working on.
9. I’m obsessed with real estate: I mainly read about buy and hold multifamily investing, and this is something I see as more of a long-term way to build wealth.
I’ll probably talk about these “side hustles” more in later articles, but I like to diversify my life by not have my entire identity tied up in one thing.
2. Streamline Your Mixing Sessions
The majority of my work lately has been mixing\mastering jobs. The single most time-consuming thing with this type of work is setting up the mix session.
Every single engineer has their own special way of setting up, naming, organizing, and sending their tracks.
Some engineers have an overly complex way that not only wastes their time, but can waste your own time trying to decipher.
Some engineers have absolutely no idea how to do this properly, and you can spend hours just labeling and organizing each of the 500 tracks they sent.
My way of mitigating this painful waste of time was to type out a very detailed email that I send to every single engineer. It details exactly how I want everything tracked, labeled, and organized, down to the folder and subfolder names.
Feel free to steal and adjust this template for your own usage:
Please make sure all files are organized similar to the sample file below.
Do not send this as a Pro Tools session file. WAV files only.
Please be sure to put all the songs into 1 single session. I do not want individual sessions for each song. Include a MIDI file for me to import the tempos (if drums or bass are MIDI, then that should import it correctly).
Every track should be consolidated from zero until the end of the session. This is to make sure everything lines up correctly once it has been imported.
Please ensure that all mono tracks are sent as mono WAV files. Most files will be mono(guitar DIs, individual drum mics, vocal tracks, bass tracks). The only things that are usually stereo files are drum overheads\room mics, certain effects and synth tracks, and anything that was recorded with two mics.
If the drums are in MIDI, please include a MIDI map so I know which midi notes go to which drums.
Also, include a rough MP3 mixdown of the session for me to reference as I’m setting up my session. Feel free to include any songs from other bands that you want me to use as a mix reference.
Please send all files in the same sample rate\bit depth that they were recorded with(usually 44.1\24 or 48\24).
If the files are not sent in the way I’ve laid out above, there will be additional charges added to your remaining balance.
That last line is very important. Until I added that into the template, a lot of the bands\engineers insisted on doing things their own way.
Since adding it, every single project has been sent to me correctly, and no additional charges have been added to anyone’s remaining balance.
3. Focus on the 80% of your to-do list you can eliminate with 20% of your time
This is a helpful observation I made today.
At any given time, my to-do list can have 5-10 things on it. What I noticed is that about 1 or 2 of those things will require at least 1 full day of work each, if not more. The rest of the 4 to 8 tasks can be done in less than 1 total day of work.
Sometimes the larger projects may be time sensitive and cannot be pushed back, but when possible, finish the quicker items first. You will feel infinitely more satisfied with your day’s work, and you will be able to focus on the larger tasks without the other 8 small tasks looming over you.
I’ve written thousands of words on this topics by now, and I feel like I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what the 80/20 principle can do to your business and personal life.
I hope that this article at least sparked your mind so you can start coming up with your own ways to apply this to your life.
If there are any topics you’d like to see me write about, feel free to leave a comment, or email me directly at [email protected]. I read every single email, and I’d love to answer any of your questions. I SERIOUSLY NEED MORE TOPIC IDEAS FOR THIS BLOG, SO EMAIL ME. This is the main reason I blog so rarely… I’m horrible at coming up with article ideas.