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Using Color in the Studio

Use color to improve your studio workflow

 

by Craig Anderton

 

In seminars, I’ve often mentioned the importance of staying in your “right” brain (the hemisphere that processes intuitive and artistic thinking) while recording. When your “left,” analytical brain gets involved, it diverts attention away from the creative process, and it’s hard to return to "right brain" mode.

 

Ideally, you wouldn’t have to think at all while recording. It used to be this way: You had an engineer and producer to take care of the analytic tasks. But if you’re producing or engineering yourself, the best way to stay in creative mode is make your work flow as smooth and intuitive as possible.

 

WHY COLOR MATTERS

 

Your right brain parses non-verbal media (such as music and color) well. When dealing with words, your brain has to recognize the symbols first, then process the information. Color is like a “direct memory access” process that has a more direct pipeline into your “personal CPU.” Stoplights use colors rather than signs that say “Stop,” “Go,” and “Caution” because you react instantly to that red light.

 

Here’s one example of using color: Check out a modern TV or DVR remote, and you’ll see that several of the buttons have different colors. Once you know what the colors mean, it’s a lot easier to see “red” or “blue” than parse the different labels on the keys. If you have remotes that don’t have colors, adding self-adhesive removable labels to buttons will make it a lot easier to pick out important buttons.

 

VARIOUS APPLICATIONS

 

Here are some tips about using color in the studio.

 

For patch cords, buy a selection of enamel paints (model and craft supply shops are a good source) and put a dab on the same color on each end of a patch cord. Ideally, each cord would have a different color. This simplifies tracing a cable’s patching.

 

If you use a hardware mixer, you likely have a “scribble strip” to write down which instruments are on which channels. But try taking this one step further; use some small, round or square colored labels to color-code certain types of tracks. For example, use red for all the drum channels, orange for percussion, etc. This “visual grouping” helps you locate instruments faster.

 

The Mac makes it easy to color-code labels by letting you tag files with colored highlights (Fig. 1). For exmaple, with a sample library you can highlight different types of instruments or sounds (as well as favorites) with different colors, or assign different colors to different project folders.

 

Fig. 1: The tags at the bottom of the context menu let you highlight file and folder names with various colors.

 

SOFTWARE COLOR CUSTOMIZING

 

Today’s software programs often let you tweak the UI colors. There are two, sometimes conflicting, goals: Choosing colors that minimize eyestrain, yet provide enough contrast to emphasize a program’s most important aspects.

 

One issue is readability—yellow type on a black background is considered highly readable. But a black background can be less restful than muted gray or dark blue. As a result, consider using yellow-on-black for important graphic elements that don’t involve lots of background area. For program elements that are less important than others, choose a typeface color that doesn’t contrast as much with the background. Your eye will be drawn first to the important parameters, which have greater contrast.

 

A PRACTICAL EXAMPLE

 

SONAR allows significant color customization, and the Platinum version includes a Theme Editor for extensive customization. The default "Mercury" and "Tungsten" color themes tend toward the “restful on the eyes” philosophy, which makes sense for the greatest number of users.

 

However, different work methods suggest different colorization. I tend to use the Console View for final mixing and fader automation, and the Track View for recording and editing. As a result, I need to see parameters fast and unambiguously in Track View. With the Console View, I’m more interested in something that I can stare at for hours on end.

 

The upper half of Fig. 2 shows that the Track View name text was changed to yellow for tracks, while retaining blue for folders.

 

Fig. 2: Cakewalk SONAR has had a couple color tweaks to make the interface better-suited to my preferences.

 

This makes it very easy to see the track names and differentiate them from folders . The lower half shows colors in the console channel strings, but the meters have also been modified to more of a lime green to make them stand out, with a white instead of orange "you're about to hit red" zone. 

 

FUN WITH SATURATION

 

I often have multiple tracks of the same instrument like lead and background vocals, harmony voices, lead and rhythm guitars, and the like. I not only color these the same, but will increase the saturation on the track that's the current focus of my attention. This makes it easy to pick out a specific track from a group of tracks.

 

COLOR MY WORLD

 

Once you become aware of color’s importance, try using it to improve your workflow. It will make a difference!  -HC-

 

______________________________________________ 

 

 Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

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Chamark  |  October 12, 2017 at 9:49 am
Nice article. Makes good sense. Appreciate your sharing.
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