A musician facing option paralysis in their messy and poorly set up home studio
| January 29, 2024 |

Are You Sabotaging Your Own Recording Experience?

How to make the most of the guitar and studio gear you’ve got, and make less fuss along the way

If a sense of being overwhelmed rises inside of you as you enter your home studio, it may be a potential signal that a complex of “analysis paralysis” and “option paralysis” is holding you back. These two are related concepts, but they are not exactly the same.

Analysis Paralysis refers to a situation where an individual or group is unable to make a decision due to over-analyzing data or overthinking the situation. This often occurs in environments where there is either too much information available or a fear of making the wrong decision. The process of analyzing becomes so involved that it prevents any decision from being made.

This can happen in various contexts, from business decisions to personal choices. It can happen in a music studio where you’re constantly starting from a blank slate in order to compose—it feels like there are too many abstract possibilities,  and getting started becomes difficult.

Option Paralysis, on the other hand, is a specific type of analysis paralysis that occurs when an individual is overwhelmed by the number of choices available. In this situation, the paralysis is caused by the abundance of options—too many drum samples, too many compression plugins, and too many amps, making it difficult to select one for fear of missing out on a better choice. This is commonly seen in consumer behavior, where too many product choices can make a purchase decision difficult.

It’s especially easy to fall into this situation in the digital age where high-quality freeware and gear from bygone eras (that would be financially out of reach or too rare to own) are now matched by great emulations of that same desirable gear. Suddenly, you can have this wonderful stuff, and one becomes a hoarder and not a composer who finishes tracks for public release. If you spend more time authenticating plugin installations than composing, it’s probably a sign something is unbalanced in your life.

KRK GoAux portable monitors for mobile recording

These are genuine phenomenons, and the way out of that limiting experience is often to decide and articulate what you are trying to accomplish with music. Write it down—this will force you into a special frame of mind where the dross of life is burned away, and you’re left with pure desire. What do you want to accomplish? When you know the final goal, the pure goal, and it’s right there in black and white on the page, the path forward often emerges. What would you attempt to do if you knew you would not fail? That little question cuts right to the quick. Settling on an answer may truly help you because it uncovers the heart.

What are you aiming for with your musical production efforts?

Are you set on creating songs and instrumentals and growing as a person? Are you resuscitating teenage aspirations in a midlife crisis? If the tools at your disposal are not supporting your goals, put them aside for a while and focus on incremental but real steps toward a master plan. Strive for the outcomes you want—the ones you’ve written down after thinking them through. 

With the ubiquity of digital tools created specifically to help musicians grow in both physical skill and theoretical knowledge, you may need to do a fair amount of research in order to find the right fit for your goals. You may also need to pare down the number of tools or sandbox a few of them so that you can focus on your project more deeply. We have an entire channel dedicated to helping you decide what gear is best for your situation and articles with the same goal.

Analyze who your influences are and how those data points might positively and negatively affect what you are doing each time you compose or practice. Musical heroes are important and often serve as the initial inspiration to pick up an instrument. There’s a reason you love them; you just need to articulate it in a clear way.

Those early learning experiences and influences stack up and eventually produce rudimentary skills, which, if you stick with them, will form the very bedrock of your technique. Mimicking your influences will transfer a bit of their artistic DNA into your own. That transfer could inform your established muscle memory, or it could be something more abstract, like an attraction to certain orchestration choices.

When you hear an artist like Robin Trower, it’s pretty obvious who his major influences are, but it doesn’t stop him from having originality, either. It’s just there in the idiomatic choices and expressions, tonal preferences, and the like—and regarding his personal inspiration for growth, Trower told Classic Rock:

“I have to continue playing live because I greatly believe if I stop touring, I’ll stop being creative,” he says. “It’s getting up in front of an audience which fires up the whole thing.”

We live in unprecedented times in our gear options—is your equipment set up for maximum productivity?

We’re in a golden age of gear right now—cheap gear, pricey gear, vintage gear, and a plethora of Swiss-army-knife gear. So many of us are filling our home studios with tools, both analog and digital. All that stuff surrounds us like a starship console, yeah? It’s worth the time to think about how to incorporate Feng Shui into your equipment, including furniture and speaker placement. 

Can you reach your guitars quickly, set them down quickly, and move around without cabling being a tripping hazard? When there are impediments in a setup of any kind, these create a sense of chaos, which causes you to avoid using that piece of gear. So, it’s best to get things sorted in such a way as to maximize actual utility. There’s nothing wrong with having a ton of pedals that are sidelined yet ready to be patched into a signal chain, but the more small steps you have to take to record performances, the more likely you are to avoid the process altogether. 

Templates in a DAW can be a good first step toward simplification, too, but a DAW can also be a rabbit hole—it goes back to the concept of option paralysis. Your physical space is really important, and it must be designed properly. Bruce Hanington and Bella Martin’s book “Universal Methods of Design” defines behavioral design:

“The intentional use of design to influence people’s behavior, translating insights from different disciplines into design techniques applicable to interfaces, products, services, and environments.”

So, you may have a great hardware synthesizer with a great interface, but can you reach it comfortably from your seat? Is it already patched into the console? If not, that’s a clue: you may need to revisit the design of your workspace. Analyze all the ways your setup is holding you back and redesign them for better ergonomics, sound, and organization. Speed matters in terms of getting straight to the ideas and capturing the imagination.

Sound on Sound magazine’s team made this astute observation:

“We’re often so focused on the gear and the sound that we forget that a recording studio is supposed to be a creative, inspiring place. A comfortable chair (and another for your collaborator!), good lighting, a lick of paint, inspirational artwork, better storage solutions … all these things can really help to make your space promote creativity and productivity.”

Are you making the right choices with your gear purchases?

You’ll undoubtedly experience Gear Acquisition Syndrome (AKA G.A.S.), that lovely temptation for just one more guitar, delay pedal, or gadget for the growing pile. There’s nothing wrong with owning lots of equipment, but it’s important to have settled within yourself why you are making music and where you are going to put all the devices necessary to operate as a creative person. If you don’t do that thinking and planning upfront, you’ll end up violating a lot of ideal patterns that promote social, health, and environmental outcomes. 

What are the implications of failures in that regard? Well, if it’s hard to walk through your studio due to clutter, that will damage the social interactions that you might otherwise invite into your life. If you can’t easily reach your gear or it takes quite a bit of time to set up a recording session, that’s going to affect your attitude toward the environment itself, and it may contribute to bad posture and simple avoidance behaviors since the layout of the place activates frustration. That is not healthy for your body or mind! And if your room sounds terrible because it’s not well-isolated or there are standing waves happening all over the place, well, that’s another thing to consider and fix.

Regarding the importance of the room you are recording in, veteran producer Mark Hornsby said to Play It Loud Music:

“ … I think rooms are great, rooms are important, rooms are characters, just like microphones are characters. It’s all different paints on the palette, but at the end of the day, it’s not about the room or the building; it’s about “How is this drum set? What kind of tones is it giving off, and how is it reacting with its environment?” When you set it up, you can listen and decide if it is good or bad and then proceed accordingly. Sometimes, a rehearsal space is great—where everybody’s playing live in one big room, and you’re using packing blankets and some baffles to isolate some stuff so that you have control over it later. There’s lots of different ways to slice that.”

What is making music in your own perception and conception? Is it purely a recreational hobby? Is it earnest preparation for a career? Is it a lifelong passion that, without which, you’d feel incomplete? Besides the joy of self-knowledge, answering this question will help you control your budget, especially if you lean toward a collector’s mindset as much as a composer’s mindset. Again, nothing is wrong with that, but be aware of the pitfalls.

Make mindful efforts to expand your influences and sources of creative inspiration

Once you have all such things lined up in your mind and your physical workflow, it’s time to stretch the boundaries a bit. One can experiment with new genres—if you’re a classic rock junkie, watch some YouTube videos on how to make Synthwave, for instance, or if you’re a metal head, give a blues tutorial a chance. There’s always something to discover. Growth is sometimes its own reward, no matter what your personal reasoning is for practicing the art and craft of making music. 

Also, experiment with new instruments as well as samplers and synths. It is very satisfying to sample your instruments and things around your home to create melodic or percussive material—and doing so ups the chances of creating your own unique sonic grammar.

As for unusual instrumentation and studio tricks, regarding his new album, Alex Lifeson recently told Guitar World:

“There’s lots of straight-ahead guitar, but there’s also mandola and lots of manipulated sequenced things,” he says. “And I’ve really become an aficionado of backwards guitar as well. So there’s everything from acoustic fingerstyle stuff to really heavy stuff, trippy kind of backwards things to Hendrix-y melodic parts. I’m really quite pleased with it. We have ten songs, and they’re all sounding really, really cool.”

Figure out why you make music and then maximize your gear and environment to achieve that goal. Try not to stunt yourself. Instead, learn to love simplicity and well-chosen tools rather than hoarding them to the point that you can barely find them! 

Parting thought: Do you suppose in all these documented Jeff Beck studio appearances, these lucky engineers spent hours upon hours fiddling with gear while Jeff paced around the studio? It’s doubtful, and much more likely that the situations were ready to go in large part. Nobody in their right mind would be sitting around with direct access to Jeff Beck and his talent, dragging out amp after amp or dirt boxes instead of focusing on capturing performances.

One wouldn’t be installing new compression plugins, either. You’d already have some trusty things on hand with experience and knowledge about how to make the most of them. That’s really the point: to have some good gear and know how to use it. Add extra gear during downtimes and not while you’re trying to compose or document performances.

Check out KRK’s GoAux 4 monitors, which are perfect for mobile recording and getting set up for a hassle-free recording situation.