10 Tools Under $100 That Can Help Enhance Your Home Studio Productivity

Looking for some new gear to spark your motivation in the studio? Most gear-heads immediately turn to a new synth, effect, MIDI controller, plug-in, or musical do-dad in hopes of new ideas. But sometimes it’s the smaller things that count.

Apple Magic Trackpad ($79)

The mouse (or trackpad for laptop users) is something that most of us take for granted. We use it so often that it’s become an extension of the hand and the brain, our most often used interface for creation. The mouse is therefore one of the most demanding physical objects we use in daily life. It never seems so, a little flick of the wrist, a little click – it’s all very light use of the body. But perpetual use of our hand, arm and back muscles can lead to wrist pain, back aches, headaches, and sometimes quite serious medical problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome. For this reason we recommend that you spend money on a good mouse. Some companies such as Logitech offer ergonomic mice that hold your hand/arm at a proper angle and they also offer high-resolution sensors for better precision. The Apple Magic Trackpad ($79) is another option that some producers prefer – its flat surface and multi-gesture input allow the hand to sit at a more natural angle and it works just like the trackpad on your laptop.

Kensington Expert Mouse Trackball ($99)

If we were to pick one device to use as your mouse, it would have to be Kensington’s Expert Mouse Trackball ($79). This device has been around for a couple of decades and championed by video editors, audio editors and designers alike. The large ball rolls smoothly and allows for fast movement across the screen with very small movements. The ergonomics are fantastic, saving you wrist strain after hours of use. And the four, large buttons can be programed to do just about anything you want, all making for a simple and effective workflow with minimal movement from your hand and arm.

Additional Memory (RAM) ($50-$99)

RAM is another one of those things we rarely think about. But every time that pinwheel / beach ball starts spinning on the screen, a small frustration sets in as we wait for the computer to finish processing whatever it’s doing. Let me be the one to remind you that RAM will shave those precious seconds off your wait time, making your computer experience much more enjoyable. Adding more memory will enhance many parts of your creation experience: programs load faster, your DAW processes sound faster, you can run multiple applications without getting that frustrating delay. I’m running a Macbook Pro 13″ that had 4 gigs of ram until last week when I installed 8 gigs ($89). The change is quite noticeable, especially with Logic which would take a very long time to load / process previously but now screams through any process I throw at it.

EditorsKeys Keyboards / KB Keyboard Covers ($20 – $99)

Key-commands are one of the best weapons in your DAW arsenal. There is usually a keystroke for every action you could want to do, the only problem is taking the time to memorize all of those commands. EditorsKeys, a music gear company out of the UK, aims enhance your workflow in Ableton Live, Logic, Reason and other DAWs with their Audio Editing Keyboards ($96), custom keyboards with keystrokes printed on them for your DAW of choice. The company also offers silicone keyboard skin covers ($45) and sticker sets ($21) for those who wish to use their existing keyboard. In the US, KB Covers also overs an extensive line of keyboard covers for Mac users.

IKEA Brada Laptop Support ($2.50) / Griffin Elevator ($29)

I’m sort of obsessed with things like this Brada Laptop Support ($2.50). It’s cheap, sturdy, and holds Maschine, an APC 40, Launchpad, laptop, or other musical devices at a perfect angle. If you’d like something a bit more sexy, I’d recommend the Griffin Elevator laptop stand ($29) which holds your gear at a nice height and breaks down to a small package for travel. It’s amazing how much fun music making can be when you’re not straining your neck to see the controls.

A Notebook and a Pen ($1 – $20)

Write your ideas down in a notebook. I wrote about this idea a couple years back on our blog and I’d like to offer this advice again. I was working at an Ad Agency a few years back when my boss gave me a really good tip. She suggested that when I come to work in the morning I should grab my coffee and a notebook and “sit on the couch and write for an hour.” It turned out to be a habit I kept long after that job. Most of us turn to the computer for our first move with just about everything these days. But the computer offers too many choices and too many chances for mis-direction. I found that writing my ideas on paper helped me to refine ideas and workflow before I got started. With a clear direction of where you want to go before you begin, the process becomes much quicker and enjoyable. If you keep these ideas in a notebook they can become a reference for more ideas when you read over them again. I continue to find new inspiration in things that I wrote and forgot about.

Stopwatch or Kitchen Timer ($10)

Most of us have so much to do in any given day that by the afternoon we’re trying to push our way through 14 projects at the same time. One way to help organize your time is to schedule tasks in one hour segments. For instance – build drum kits and work on synth presets for an hour. Spend an hour updating your Soundcloud, Facebook and social media pages. Spend an hour building a track. The key here is stopping whatever you are doing when the hour is up. Use a stopwatch or kitchen timer to keep track of your hour long sessions and try to start and end each project within that hour (you can always come back to it later). By organizing time in this way you’ll find your days to be more productive than attacking it all at once.

A Piano Chord Chart ($5)

Assuming that you are using a MIDI keyboard to input notes, it’s a good idea to keep a piano chord chart around. Even if you don’t know music theory (and especially if you don’t know theory), this is a great tool to have. Say you start writing a simple melody with single keys and you want to develop those keys into chords. Pull out that chord chart and you can begin to create real harmonies without knowing much at all. Over time you’ll begin to know the keys and the chords and understanding music theory as you refer to this chart. It does take an extra step to actually plan out what you are going to play, but this method will help you create more interesting and complex music as well.

Cable Ties / Colored Electrical Tape ($0 – $10)

Cable ties help keep your cables tidy. You can pick up some cable ties from manufacturers like Hosa, who make the cable tie pictured above (yes, it’s a piece of Velcro), or you can find something around the house like Velcro, twist ties, or electrical tape to neaten-up the cable mess that you have happening in the studio. You can also use colored electrical tape to color-code the ends of your cables, for an easy reference to see what is plugged into what. It’s amazing how many times I forget what channel I’ve plugged into. This is a very simple solution to that dilema. Additionally, If you are a producer on-the-go, check out the the Grid-It organizer ($9  – $19) which brings an interesting but functional method to keeping all your gear in place.

Oblique Strategies (free iPhone App)

In 1975 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created the Oblique Strategies card set. Subtitled “Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas,” the cards offer new perspectives in our approach to creating art. The idea is that when you are stuck you can pick a card and then use the message to move forward in your work. For an example of how it works you can check out an online version of the card set, download the iPhone application or pick up your own deck directly from Brian Eno.

Michael Walsh is a producer of audio/visual art and a journalist living in Southern California. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com