Last week, I embarked on an organization and purging binge I have dubbed “Organizatiageddon.” The end goal of this is to have my studio cleaned up and functional, the rest of the house decluttered, and nearly all of the unpacked cardboard boxes sorted and out of the garage.

I’m a proponent of the “One Home” approach to organization – everything has a single place in which it lives. When you need it, you use it, then immediately put it back in its home. Putting this in practice, however, is not always easy. To quote Andie in Pretty in Pink, “that’s a beautiful theory.”

I’ve attempted this many times in my life, but I tend to be a stacker. After a few weeks, I end up with piles of things that I had to defer due to other things taking priority. Sometimes it’s a more important task; sometimes it’s a Dr. Who marathon. But the end result is the same: piles of things scattered around the house that end up getting shuffled each time I need to use the space. Or worse, company’s coming over and I move lots of piles to a different room to “clean up.” That’s how the studio got out of control.

One limiting factor of the “One Home” approach is that you have to have enough homes. I’ve long had a dream of neatly organized storage. The kind you see on Pinterest. The kind that makes you look at your own clutter and just know that a crew from Hoarders is going to be showing up any day now.

When reaching my latest “Something must be done!” moment, I realized that the primary thing that keeps me from attacking the problem is this: I don’t have sufficient homes. I have plenty of storage, but it’s mostly U-Haul small boxes or big  (70 quart) storage tubs. Cardboard is the greater evil – out of sight, out of mind. I have no idea if I was accurate when rushing to label boxes while the movers were taking them to the truck. The problem with the plastic tubs is that I end up being too coarse with my sorting. This one is “electrical,” that one is “computer,” and those are pretty broad categories.

I needed better granularity. More specific sorting. USB cables, unbalanced patch cables, balanced patch cables, audio snakes, soldering supplies, GoPro stuff… this requires lots of smaller containers.

Now, I’ve bought plastic containers before, but they’re expensive and there are never enough in stock at the store for what I have in mind. If only there was a place where I could buy them in bulk. Oh yeah… Amazon. And it was a perfect storm because I paid off my student loan for grad school in June. I decided to use what I had been paying monthly to do a bulk purchase of containers.

There are now 92 new Sterilite containers in my house of various sizes from 6 quart to 70 quart, and all with locking lids. I did end up going over budget, but I didn’t want to give myself an excuse. I also made an impulse buy: 400 velcro cable ties. The keyboard racks are still a little messy, but they’re so much better than they had been.

Last weekend I got the studio cleaned up. It’s probably 80% there, but I’m waiting on some gear that’s out for repair before tackling the last bits. The living room is full of containers. Eventually, most of them will go in the garage. I’m processing one box at a time; I don’t move to the next box until I’ve completely emptied the current one. I’ll probably need a new shredder by the time I’m finished.

I estimate another few weeks before I have the majority of it handled, but my approach is finally working. I haven’t gone into vapor-lock-avoidance mode because of an overwhelming number of things that must be dealt with and no place to put them. Things are getting homes.

Organizatiageddon is upon them!

From the Ashes…

There must be something about the city of Phoenix that puts me in the mood to evaluate and take action. This is my second time visiting, both times to attend the Gartner CIO Leadership Forum. It’s one of the most informative and energizing things I get to do all year.

While attending the conference last year, I woke up in the middle of the night with my brain already in 6th gear. Many things were going right in my life, but so many other things were at best unsatisfying. One thing the GTD methodology has taught me is that writing things down is a great way to get your brain to relax, so I grabbed a notepad.

I’m not sure if I was being overly literal or overly dramatic in the wee hours, but I titled the page “Dark Phoenix.” I then wrote down thirteen changes that I wanted to make in my life. Some were habits to break (“more disciplined work hours”), others were aspirational (“learn any modern programming language – Max?”), and some were more targeted at things I was fundamentally unhappy about (“lose 2 pounds / month to 185”).

This list was the culmination and expansion of many things I outlined in my Let’s Try That One More Time post, written about two months earlier. Clearly, the ideas were still running around in my brain to the point where my brain said, “I’m tired of thinking about this. Wake up and do something about it.”

A year later, my estimate is that I’m running this list at about 65% efficiency. I got most of my productivity burrs ground down, put a hard stop to perpetual crisis mode at work, and focused on establishing healthy habits to take me into the second half of my life.

The most successful change was the weight loss. I started working on this in earnest last July, walking regularly and changing my diet. The changes were sensical, not radical. The exercise was moderate, but regular. I feel great and have more energy than I have in decades. And last week, I bought new dress shirts that have the words “slim fit” on the tags. I had some “Biggest Loser” emotional moments in the dressing room.

Other areas haven’t seen quite as much progress. I haven’t learned a new programming language yet, but I’m working on VBA for Excel, more for personal satisfaction than for any professional need. My artistic side also was a bit neglected, though that was due in part to moving to a new house and having to get things set up again.

There were some purges – Facebook and Google+ haven’t seen me since December unless it was for work. Most social media interactions are now on Twitter and LinkedIn, but even those are less common than they once were.

More things are now bubbling up, and the “Dark Phoenix” notebook in Evernote keeps getting new bits and pieces and clippings. I’ll be interested to see what changes the city of Phoenix inspires this time around.

Cable Hell

The physical placement of gear and furniture is complete and I’m now starting to wire everything up. This is where my studio ceases to be a lovely catalog photo and becomes the cable equivalent of the paperwork monster from Brazil that swallows Robert De Niro whole.

It would probably be easier if I didn’t have this neat-freak-anal-retentive-OCD desire to keep everything looking nice and neat. Worse, I’m not able to do everything at once this time around. The new layout is going to require additional cable purchases, different power distribution, more line level shifting from -10 to +4, a couple of long midi runs, and tying together two different sections of the room so everything lands in the computer.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with music gear, most of what’s in my studio has the following things to connect and route:

  • Audio (anywhere from two to 16+ cables)
  • MIDI (typically two cables)
  • Power (one cable)

On the surface, not so bad, but multiply that by 40 or 50, then add in wiring patch bays so that things can be routed to different places and the computer interfaces and it starts getting a little overwhelming. The cherry on top is that it’s really best to keep all of the power cables physically separated from the others. That might not be so bad if power was always in the same place on each piece of gear, but of course it is not.

It’s kind of like playing Tetris with cooked spaghetti.

Today, I’ve been learning that some of my gear that I thought had unbalanced outputs actually is balanced. Ordinarily, that would be great, but it screws up the patch plan I had already worked out in Excel. To make it worse, some of the units don’t have anything definitive in their specs, so I’m relying on Internet knowledge for some of my decisions.

I’m kind of at the point where I’m saying, “screw it,” and just hooking a couple of things up. My goal for today is to have the master keyboard and left side of the composition station hooked up, the computer running, and sound coming out the mains. I’m going to try working without a subwoofer for a few weeks and see if that helps with mix translation.

One additional thing I’ve decided to do is start creating pages on my site for key pieces of gear. This will mostly be my personal reference area where I put all of the links and documents I’ve found useful, but if it helps others, great! I’m considering using the pages as homes for my “isolated gear” music experiments, where I focus on only writing and recording with a single synth. As I’ve written before, I want to get to know my equipment much better than I do now, partly to stave off gear acquisition syndrome, and partly because I think that may help with my instrumental work.

The Studio Version 11.0

This is the eleventh major time I’ve set up my studio after a move. I’ve come a long way from Version 1.0 which consisted of an Ensoniq EPS and an HR-16 drum machine, run through a Radio Shack mixer into a cassette deck. (The alpha version was a Korg Poly-800 and a two cassette decks where I’d overdub by using one channel for the previous dub and the other for the new synth part… how different things are now…)

These days, I’m trying to wrangle multiple synths, effects units, midi, power management… I haven’t added it up yet, but I’m fairly certain I have over a kilometer of cables waiting to be connected.

MIDI Madness


Just laying out what gear is going to go where in the room was a headache this time. I recently moved into a much smaller house (46% smaller) and, while I like the new house very much, moving equipment that had been in a room the size of a two car garage into a typical suburban bedroom was a bit of a challenge. Additionally, over the last few years, I’ve purchased a few more pieces of gear, and decided to start using my 32 channel mixer again – there’s something inspiring to me about having faders under my fingers. And while it’s mostly a style over substance thing, but there’s nothing like a dimly lit studio with a gazillion blinky lights showing the music to your eyes.

So my secret weapon for the last four or five studio overhauls has been Excel. I have a workbook that includes a database of all my gear (including inputs, outputs, serial numbers, replacement value, etc.), all of my available rack spaces for deciding what gear sits where, and separate sheets for audio, midi, and power distribution. While it might seem like overkill, I have a worst-case possibility of over 100 channels of computer audio i/o and 64 midi cables alone. When you add in patch bays, multi-channel snakes, balancers and line level shifters, power strips, and foot pedals, it can get overwhelming quickly.

Additionally, my time in IT has taught me that spending a few days mapping out exactly what’s going to happen (like, say, 900 ethernet cables and patch bays for the 3rd floor offices and data closets) can save you massive amounts of time and money. You don’t buy things you don’t need and, if you’ve done a halfway decent job of labeling your cables, it becomes trivial to know what cable goes where. No more digging through spaghetti trying to wiggle that one midi cable to figure out which port it came out of.

Here’s part of the Version 11 audio patching plan:

Excel Madness

Even though this room is smaller, the restriction I have on where things go actually makes some of the cable runs longer. Rather than having one big blob of a studio, I now have two discrete areas. I didn’t want giant audio snakes running across the doorway, and have figured out a way to place the computer, midi, and audio interfaces so that I think I’m only going to need to run one firewire and one USB cable. The downside to this is that I knew I’d need to buy some more patch bays and level shifters. I was figuring six or seven new patch bays and at least 5 level shifters to get everything smooth and happy.

Excel to the rescue! First, it helped me figure out that I didn’t have enough rack spaces in the studio furniture to even start down that path. Then, I realized that I was making things overly complicated (surprise!). In the end, I only need three patch bays and two level shifters. There are three pieces of gear that aren’t in the wiring plan, but only because I’m not sure if they’re going physically fit anywhere. But once I figure that out, I’ll know exactly what patch points are available.

I haven’t started on the power supplies or specific midi routing, and I know I’ll need to buy some additional audio cables, but the hard part is over.

Studio Cleanup Day

Today is Studio Cleanup Day. Time to throw away all of the paper scraps, untangle the spaghetti, reconsider the routing matrix, track down that ground loop, rip the pile of CDs that’s starting to fall over, get rid of those eBay boxes and peanuts, and figure out what the hell I’m going to do with the extra crap from the World of Warcraft collectors edition I got.

I also need to start putting all of the software I’ve acquired over the years into piles: obsolete, not using anymore, must have. If you make great software with crappy DRM schemes (Waldorf and Native Instruments, I’m looking at you…), you’re likely to go in the “sadly acknowledge that I won’t be upgrading again” pile.

It’s also time to revisit the studio wiring diagram and decide if it still makes sense given the increasingly hardware-based approach I’m taking with the studio. Everything old is new again, and I’m heading back to the 90s – before I bought into the idea that plugins were the answer to my problems.

Or, I might write some music in a desperate attempt to avoid all of that.