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5 Ways to Beat Creative Burnout as an Audio Engineer

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I believe pretty strongly that audio engineering is just about always a creative pursuit. Yeah, the artistes in the room might find your fader-riding and knob-turning ways to be a lesser art form than what they do, but I’m here to remind you that you’re not crazy for finding creative satisfaction in something like dialing in the perfect EQ settings on a track.

Of course, that’s just on the good days. On the bad days, it can feel like you’re just a cog in a machine or a facilitator helping the artist get what they want out of a computer. It can feel like a paint-by-numbers exercise, exhausting and not nearly as cool as so many people think it is.

Battling creative burnout comes with the territory of music production. Because we often have to work long hours on a tight schedule, it can be more crucial to manage burnout than it would be in a job where you can count on perks like paid vacation time. These are a few of my favorite ways to shake off burnout and stay creative, day after day after day.

1. Change up Your Gear and Plugin Choices

We’ve all got our favorites: a go-to vocal mic, a fool-proof compressor or an EQ that adds sparkle just right — and for good reason. Knowing you can depend on a piece of gear or a plugin to give you the sound you’re after is crucial, and wasting a client’s time shooting out options that aren’t cutting it is a terrible feeling.

That said, none of us (really!) can claim to be bouncing perfect mixes, day after day. Even the most seasoned, respected engineers will assert that they feel like they continue to hone their craft after decades of experience.

A sense of curiosity and discovery is, I think, present in every great recording ever made. That feeling of surprise and excitement is probably most palpable when we’re hearing the artist experiencing it in front of a microphone. But there’s no reason that you need to be cut out of the most exciting parts of making music just because your role is a “technical” one.

I find that a great way to keep myself engaged is to set things up so I have to learn new ways of doing things while I work. There’s no better way of doing that than forcing myself out of the routines I create with my proven favorites.

Next time you’re doing something you’ve done a million times before (such as setting up drum mics or creating an effect chain), switch things up! Use a different mic, a different placement in the room or a different compressor. Nobody is holding a gun to your head forcing you to stick with an option you really hate. But chances are you’ve got more than one mic, more than one plugin and more tools in general that are capable of handling the job.

If it’s been a long time since you deviated from your routine, you might find that your ears pick up on some quality in this new option that you didn’t notice before. I find that my critical listening gets sharper with every project I do. I often find myself returning to gear I had set aside and discovering new things to like there.

2. Cultivate a Hobby Outside of Music

If you’re making music professionally in any capacity, you’ve probably had the experience of meeting somebody at a party who, upon learning what you do for a living, remarks “oh, that must be fun!” Naturally, the gracious thing to do is agree that it is. It’s certainly fun enough a lot of the time, so why split hairs?

If you’re paying your bills by spending 8-14 hours a day staring into a Pro Tools session, though, you understand exactly what’s not fun about being an audio engineer. Work is work. Getting to do something professionally that other people elect to do as a hobby is cool, but doing something all day every day can be exhausting.

Yes, we are all lucky to be able to work in this field. There’s a lot of competition, and in case you’ve forgotten, making music is pretty cool! Still, expecting the thing you do for clients from 9-5 (or whatever your hours are) to provide you with an uninterrupted flow of passion and inspiration is just not realistic.

If you don’t already have a hobby you feel passionate about, and you’re finding that working on recordings is more of a source of exhaustion than excitement, it might be time to find another outlet. I personally find a ton of potential for creative expression in cooking (and I won’t shut up about it). I go backpacking, and generally get out into nature as often as I can. Lately, I’ve been working on making tiki drinks. Like everybody’s pal Mark Zuckerberg, I’m a big fan of smoking meats.

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Zuckerberg likes smoked meats

I believe pretty strongly that audio engineering is just about always a creative pursuit. Yeah, the artistes in the room might find your fader-riding and knob-turning ways to be a lesser art form than what they do, but I’m here to remind you that you’re not crazy for finding creative satisfaction in

My outlets aren’t necessarily going to work for you, but finding something that brings you joy and satisfaction outside of music is, in my opinion, pretty crucial if you’re in this for the long haul. Bonus points if it doesn’t involve a screen. Extra bonus points if it does involve sunshine or breaking a sweat.

3. Get Into Genres of Music You Don’t Normally Work On

I don’t know about you, but I can’t just listen to music anymore. Not how I used to, not the way my 10-year-old self would bounce off the walls hearing Nirvana coming out of his tiny, awful sounding clock radio.

When I hear a recording of a song, I hear how the drums were recorded, I hear how prominent the bass is, I hear how far forward the lead vocal is in the mix, I hear the panning, I hear compressors pumping and I hear frequency buildup when there are lots of vocal overdubs. I speculate about what might have been done to achieve those sounds. I wonder if I might do things differently or if there’s some inspiration I can draw from there. Rarely do the lyrics break through this technical fog long enough for me to notice more than a few choice lines.

What I also find is that I think about those considerations (the whats, whys and hows) a whole lot less when the music I’m listening to is different from what I typically work on. If my ears don’t have a strong context for evaluating the production process, my brain won’t even try. It’s nice!

Of course, listening to music in the genres you work in is crucial for honing your skills. Also, chances are you work in the niches you do because you, you know, like the music. But switching our brains off from “work mode” is important, and not just for audio engineers. A lot of people rely on music to help them unwind after work. It’s great for that. But if work for you means sitting in front of speakers listening to music, and unwinding after work also means sitting in front of speakers listening to music, you might find that the unwinding part doesn’t happen as easily if the music is the same in both settings.

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4. Get Out Into Nature… and Turn off Your Phone

Changing up the music you listen to on your own time can be great, but you know what can be even better? No music at all!

Ooh, but what are all those other sounds? Sirens, helicopters, car alarms, ice cream trucks, barking dogs, screaming kids… Yikes, no thanks.

You know where you can avoid all that stuff? The forest, the mountains, the desert, a lake or whatever it is you’ve got close. Take your pick. You’ve got to get farther out than the picnic area by the parking lot, though — you’re going to keep hearing those screaming kids and barking dogs there. Find a trail, a fire road or get out in that lake.

Ok, what do you hear now? Birds singing, squirrels chattering away, a creek trickling, the sound of the wind… maybe some tinnitus from that one show you went to where you ended up standing a little too close to the PA.

I would argue (and I know I’m not alone) that there are inherent benefits to removing ourselves from places with lots of people and enjoying the feeling of some space, surrounded by nature. Maybe that sentiment is a little too hippy-dippy for you. But if you work with sound, getting away from human-made sound periodically can make a huge difference in your mental state and the way you approach your work.

Leave your headphones and your bluetooth speaker at home. We live our lives surrounded by the noises other people make to the point that we don’t even consciously notice the effect they have on us. Real quiet (which is never quite silence, but close enough) is precious. We don’t experience it in our day to day lives. Go find some and see how it makes you feel.

5. Work Faster, Trust Your Gut

I personally subscribe to the Ricky Bobby/Sonic the Hedgehog theory of mixing: gotta go fast.

5 Ways to Beat Creative Burnout as an Audio Engineer

A recent photo of me at work on a mix

Why move so fast? Am I running away from something? I’ll tell you the answer: yes! I’m trying to get away from ear fatigue and burnout. Look over your shoulder — see them back there? They’re coming for you, and you better start moving!

I don’t know how long I can keep this thread going, so I’ll get serious. Working quickly has intrinsic benefits. It can be intimidating for those who are newer to music production. What if you make a wrong choice? What if that wrong choice screws the whole mix up?

That’s not an unreasonable concern, but I’ll counter with this: what if you work so long that your ears become numb to all the issues in your mix? What if you spend 45 minutes with one track soloed trying to hear the difference between a 10 and 20 ms compressor attack time… and then you stop hearing how the drums have a cardboard-y midrange, how the lead synth is harsh and how the vocal sounds flubby and unexciting? If you go long enough without addressing those sorts of issues, I promise you will stop noticing them.

And then guess what? You’re going to start making lots of wrong choices, choices more wrong than choosing the 10 ms attack when 20 would have worked better. You’ll make bad choices that will inform further bad choices, and when you’re done crying after listening to your mix in the car, wondering what went wrong, you’ll have to go back and do it all again.

Ok, maybe I’m sensationalizing this a bit here, but I bet some of you find that description relatable. The solution to the situation I described can be hard to swallow, but here it is: trust your gut.

Try a mic. Hate it? Try another one. Don’t hate it? Cool. Dial in effects to the edge of where you’re sure you like what they’re doing, and stop. Don’t do anything you aren’t certain is making a positive difference.

I realize that if you’re new to music production, everything I’m suggesting here may be easier said than done. I also understand that going slow enough to take in the nuances of the choices you’re making can be a crucial part of learning how this stuff works. Just understand this: if you’re currently spending half an hour considering every EQ band in your mix, improving doesn’t mean still spending a half hour but getting a better result. It means hearing what works right away and moving on.

And guess what? You’re probably much closer to being able to do that than you think.

Conclusion

It can be tough to realize that your dream job is more tiring than you ever thought it could be. Fortunately, battling burnout is very possible with the right mindset. The work we get to do as music makers is pretty cool — we just have to find ways not to forget it.

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Danny Echevarria

Danny Echevarria

Danny Echevarria is a producer and audio engineer born, raised, and based in Los Angeles. When he isn't tightening his mixes or sawing a fiddle on the honky tonk stages of the greater LA area, he can be found chasing ever-elusive fresh mountain air. Get in touch at dandestiny.com.