The road, as they say, is a fickle mistress. Between high-decibel gigs, mind-numbing travel and a perverse sleep schedule, staying on top of production, remixes, and other creative projects while touring is no easy feat. That said, the technology exists to do so when needed, and in today's 24-hour business cycle the pressure is always on. So what's the trick to staying ahead of the curve?
Keep Your Batteries Charged
Both literally and figuratively, this is essential. Getting at least an operable minimum of sleep won't always be possible – especially on travel- and gig-heavy weekends – but if you want to take advantage of the inevitable downtime in airports and airplanes, you'll want to be rested (and of course you can always try to sleep on the plane if necessary, but that's not the point of this article). In addition to getting a reasonable amount of sleep, you'll want to be getting proper nutrients into your system so you have the energy to get quality work done. Besides trying to keep a balanced diet, taking a high-potency supplement such as Spirulina tablets can help keep your immune system and energy levels intact despite the rigors of the road.
Now to the literal: make sure your devices are charged before you leave the hotel. Try to remember to plug them in before you crash so they'll be at full power for the next day's travel. While some airlines have USB and other power sources in their seating, many don't – so you'll want to keep an eye out for power sockets at the airport if you plan to make headway on your remix or other projects while waiting for your row to be called for boarding; this way you'll still have full battery life for the plane. If you're working with mobile devices, there's some great resources online for optimizing battery life; usually centered around disabling automatic updates and communication for apps, the techniques vary depending on your operating system, so you'll want to search for what's most relevant to your device.
Headphones: A DJ's Best Friend
Without the benefit of studio monitors, headphones will have to do in transit. Many DJs opt for headphones that are built specifically for DJing with over-emphasized bass response and high-mid-range transients – which can be rather misleading when attempting a mixdown. As with any monitoring system, the most important thing is to understand how mixes “should” sound on a given reference, allowing you to make the compensations necessary without falling for any exaggerations or misrepresentations the speakers or headphones you're using might present – as the saying goes, the most important monitor is between your ears.
In light of all that, there are plenty of closed-back monitor headphones on the market that do an admirable job both in the DJ booth and mobile studio. While the legendary Sennheiser HD-25s are great for beat-matching, they also provide a great deal of clarity in the mix; however, their frequency response is far from “flat”, and their smaller ear cups don't lend themselves well to extended audio mixing sessions. Audio-Technica's ATM-50s are a good example of a versatile headphone that combines durable build quality with great mix response and more than adequate power for the DJ booth. Your choice will be based on personal preference and comfort, but the main point is not to expect a specifically DJ-designed headphone to provide a great deal of accuracy when it comes to studio work.
Most of the time you'll be plugging directly into your laptop's built-in headphone output simply for ergonomic reasons, but if you get the chance to set up for an afternoon or longer at a hotel or somewhere else with a desk to yourself, a compact high-end audio interface such as Apogee's Duet can help kick things up a notch or two with quality D/A converters, while Focusrite's VRM Box offers Virtual Reference Monitoring technology that's designed to emulate a range of room and speaker configurations within the comfort of your headphones.
Mobile Apps for Mobile Ideas
Inspiration has a way of striking suddenly and without warning, especially with the heightened novelty and sensory input that comes along with traveling. If you can equip yourself to take advantage of fresh ideas that come to you in transit, you'll have a wealth of ideas to work with when you get back home to the studio.
A primary source of inspiration are soundscapes and odd noises we might actually hear in new places. If you can pack a high-end portable recorder such as offered by Olympus, Roland, Yamaha, Tascam or Sony, you'll be able to record professional-grade stereo files at high bit-rates – but failing that, you can probably make do with the recording options built into most smartphones. Apple's Voice Memos might be somewhat restrictive, but third-party options like Røde's Rec or Focusrite's Tape allow for more intricate processing, editing and exporting options.
Then again, inspiration may also strike simply in the form of a routing idea or plug-in configuration you hadn't thought of before, so simply recording a voice memo or making a text reminder in your Notes app could be sufficient for those cases.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's a wealth of synthesis, sound design, sequencing and beat making apps available for the iOS and Android platforms, so even if you have a more fully-formed melodic, rhythmic or synthesis idea you want to try, there are plenty of ways to get it done on the go – and export for future use.
Make Friends and Hit the Studio
Especially useful if you've got a few days of downtime between gigs – make friends! There's a good chance people will be excited to welcome you into their studios. Whether it's simply to check some mixdowns in progress or test a new arrangement, the opportunity to get in a properly treated room with decent monitors can be nothing short of a miracle on the road. And who knows? A new collaboration born from a studio session on the road might just be your next big hit. So keep an open mind and be ready to make effective use of any studio time that comes your way.
Work the Clock
Effective time management is another key to getting work done on the road. Got a relatively short 90 minute flight? Probably a good time to import new tunes to Rekordbox or Traktor, organize new samples, or wrap your head around a new plug-in. Settling in for a long-haul five-hour or longer flight? Plenty of time to sink your teeth into that new remix that just landed on your plate.
Don't Force It
Whether you're on the road or at home in the studio, one truth holds eternal: you can't force creativity. If you're just not inspired, wait until you are – both you and your fans will be much happier for it.