COVID-19 and Mental Health

Hi all,

With the world being overwhelmed by the Coronavirus, I know a lot of people who are really struggling with stress and anxiety. So this post has nothing to do with audio or music. I just wanted to offer some simple and practical ideas to help combat stress and anxiety in these uncertain times. I am a total self-help / self-discovery book junkie and a lot of these ideas come from these kinds of books. Some might be applicable to you, others less so… that’s ok. Take what you can and ditch the rest. Keep in mind I am not a psychologist. If your anxiety, stress or depression is too great, please seek professional help.

  • Let’s start with an easy one: keep an eye on your caffeine intake. For me, if I have more than 2 cups of coffee in a day, I start getting anxious. I find tea to be a much more gentle caffeine lift but see what works for you. Too much caffeine will mess with your brain and your ability to focus.
  • Start your day right – do NOT reach for your phone as soon as you wake up and especially do not reach for your phone if you are planning on looking at the news! The way you start your day really sets the tone for the rest of the day so be very intentional about focusing on gratitude and other positive thoughts as you arise. Youtube has lots of awesome motivational videos so that’s one time you can reach for your phone (there are also so many corny ones so beware).
  • Brain research tells us that a single negative thought will flood your brain with crappy stress hormones (there is a cool way to test that out – if you know me, ask me about it sometime). Unfortunately, a single positive thought does not have an equal but opposite reaction in the brain. You need more of them to counter the single negative thought. So if you catch yourself thinking a negative thought, immediately think 3-5 positive thoughts – things you’re grateful for, a Bible verse that inspires you, how much you love Nickelback, whatever. The more you do this, the better! You know how our brains create neural pathways? And the more we do a certain thing, the more entrenched that pathway becomes? That applies to negativity too – so the more you think negative thoughts, the easier it will be to think negative thoughts and you’ll be heading into darker waters of anxiety and even depression. So fight it!
  • One really simple way to grow positivity is to check in at night right before you go to sleep – either write down (or discuss with your partner) 3-5 things you are grateful for. It’s hard at first but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Joy and gratitude are directly proportional to each other – the more you practice gratitude (actively do it), the more joy you will have in your life. Also write down 3 things that went right that day. How often do we dwell on the things that went wrong? All the time! We play them back over and over… but if we track the things that went right, not only are we setting ourselves up to grow in positivity, but we are also strengthening and encouraging new practices in our lives (“oh that new thing I tried with the kids worked really well, I’ll remember it for next time.”)
  • Be careful of your news intake… yes, we need to know what’s going on out there but if we begin to obsess over the news (which is pretty much all bad news right now), that will get our brains swimming in stress hormones. Also be really mindful with whom you share news… some people are a lot more sensitive to all the bad news and it may trigger anxiety for them. And be really careful about spreading fake news. It is everywhere right now! A Whatapp group chat where someone mentions “a doctor friend in Germany” does not count as a credible source.
  • Normalize your anxiety – in other words, you’re not weird for being anxious at a time like this. NO-ONE could have predicted a worldwide pandemic with a reality show president calling the shots. This is new for EVERYONE. Remember that! And never, EVER feel any shame about your anxiety or stress. It is normal. Don’t repress it – acknowledge it without judgment. It is ok, if not expected, that we will all grieve this. It is a weighty time for humankind. Just a few days ago I found myself angry at everything. I eventually realized that I was experiencing grief – grief at all the loss, heartache and tragedy we are witnessing. It is ok to grieve.
  • Lastly, try out some mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is essentially a workout for your brain. There are so many benefits and some even believe that in 50 years, doctors will recommend it just like they recommend exercise and getting enough sleep. It’s not easy at first (no new skill ever is) but push through and keep going. There are too many benefits to list and all you need is 10-20 minutes a day. There are so many great resources on the web and a lot of great apps to guide you in it. One variant is to think of something really positive to you (it could be a single word like “love” or “peace” or a Bible verse, anything!) and to close your eyes and focus on that positive thought. Let it fill you as much as possible while you breathe normally. Just keep focusing on it. Brain research has proven that when you do this, the emotional centers of the brain calm down. And if you do this for 6 weeks or more, your brain LITERALLY changes size… your amygdala (which drives and controls your fight/flight response) actually shrinks and the parts of your brain that handle memory and language grow which means you’ll stress less, have a better memory and be happier!

I hope you might find some of these useful. Share them and find someone to do them with – someone you can encourage and who can do the same for you.

We’re all in this together.


A Word on Tardiness

So this post is for all you artists, musicians and songwriters out there (although the principle applies to everyone). As an engineer and studio manager, I can’t tell you how often I book a session with an artist for a particular day and a particular time only to have that artist arrive 15 or 30 minutes late… with a Starbucks in hand. Or to text me 5 minutes after our scheduled time to say “I’m on the way!” Or to have a tracking session waiting because the bassist is running late.

I do understand that artists and musicians are creative types and not always the best when it comes to time management. And yes, if there is nightmarish traffic or some other genuine circumstance, that is ok. But persistent tardiness with time is a different story.

If I am producing you as an artist and you regularly arrive late to our sessions, that tells me a lot more than you would like about you – that you don’t respect my time and that you don’t take your business seriously. Because your art is a business and you need to run your business professionally. Certainly at my studio, I would rather you arrived 10 minutes early. Not just because it conveys professionalism, but because it gives you, the performer, time to settle in, to relax, to shake off the day and bring your whole focus to the task at hand. It gives us time to chat and put you at ease, to talk about the job at hand and prepare us all to get the best possible product out of the time in studio. If you are running late, your session is at an immediate disadvantage – unless you have limitless budget, you walk in feeling the clock ticking and your recording will suffer for it. You won’t perform at your best and your engineer probably won’t be able to take the time he would like to ensure the best recording possible.

So remember, arrive at least on time, ideally 10 minutes early! Show the people you are working with that are passionate and professional about your art and they will be that much more willing to go the extra mile for you.

Preparation is Key

I feel a sense of deja vu as I write this because I feel like I have said it many times before to many, many people. But it worth reiterating here…

When it comes to recording your music in studio, preparation is the key!

Let’s face it, unless you are a superstar with a giant recording budget to blow, you probably won’t have the luxury of spending weeks or months in studio, experimenting and fine-tuning your songs. For the average independent artist, you are more likely to have a few days. What this means is that you need to do as much work as possible before you ever set foot into the studio.

What does this look like?

  • It means communicating with your producer as much as possible before the session to discuss the sound you are looking for. This covers the instruments you might want for each song (do you really need drums, bass, guitars, keys on every song?), the vibe for each song, the key and tempo for each song etc. If you just show up with a room full musicians and simply hand them a chart, you will most likely get tracks that sound like pretty much everything else around. Be prepared with as much artistic input as possible for them to sink their musical teeth into! Ideally this will look like lots of pre-production: laying ideas down with the producer outside of the studio where time isn’t as precious.
  • It means making sure your instruments are ready for the studio if you are going to be playing something (change your guitar strings a few days before the session etc.)
  • It means spending time with a vocal coach as much as you can before you record so you can spend less time on getting a better vocal performance
  • It means working with your producer to pick the right musicians (not your buddies) to play on your recording.
  • It means that the song is written… fully… before you get to the studio.
  • It means communicating clearly the expectations for your time in studio – how much do you hope to get finished in your time, do you expect to cut your vocals live with the band or after the fact?

If you go in knowing what you want out of the session and knowing what needs to get done to get that end result, you will find your time in studio to be much less stressful and much more efficient.

Tips For Singers / Artists / Bands Sitting In On or Evaluating The Mix

Mixing is one of the most exciting times in the creation of a record because it is when everything comes together… all the ideas from all the songwriters, musicians, producers & engineers (what must amount to thousands and thousands of tiny decisions) are unified into a single product.

Sometimes you, as the artist or band, will sit in on the mix with the mix engineer and other times not. But either way, you as the artist/band will be able to give feedback on the mix. This is essential but can be tricky! Here are some pointers to help make everyone’s lives easier:

  • Before you go in to mix, really take time to listen critically to music that might be sonically similar to yours (this is especially important if this is your first release). Listen to where the vocal sits compared to the other instruments… is it louder than anything else or is it sitting under some instruments. Pay attention to what they want your ear to follow and then pay attention to all the other stuff (some of it might be a lot lower than you think). These are some of the things that mixing engineers spend decades analyzing and implementing in their own mixes. Why is this important, you ask?
  • When listening to a mix, most people listen to their part. If you are a drummer in a band, your ear will be focussing on the drums. If you are a singer, you will be listening to the vocal. That’s ok but you also have to listen to your part in context of everything else. If you Mr. Singer only focus your ear on your vocal, you’ll probably just end up telling me to turn the vocal up because it is your part. But try to listen to the mix as a whole and with your references from above in mind… where is my vocal sitting?
  • If there is an element of the mix that you are unsure of, before telling me to change it, rather first ask me why it is the way it is. This is particularly important if you are sitting in on the mix and you hear the engineer doing something unexpected or different. There is a good chance I have a reason for doing it (e.g. you hear me solo the acoustic guitar and make it sound really thin and tinny… yeah, on its own it sounds terrible but I have to get rid of all that mud so it doesn’t get in the way of the bass or other guitars). But even if you are not sitting in, give me the benefit of the doubt and ask me. This shows me that you trust my judgment and skill and creates a working environment where we are working together and not fighting for competing goals.
  • Another great tip: sometimes you just need to listen to the mix a few times to let it all sink in. Maybe something does jump out at you on the first listen, but on follow up listens you understand why it was done that way and you learn to like it. Don’t just listen once before giving feedback!
  • Remember, not everything can be loud. There is only so much space in a mix so some things have to be softer and others louder. Many times, artists will want the guitar louder, then the vocal louder, then the synth louder etc because they want to hear every element loudly! But you will just end up with a loud mess. Allow your engineer to turn some things down (or even off!)
  • Try to learn the right terms and words to be able to communicate effectively with me. Or give me references (“I like how the vocal sounds in this song”). This comes with time and experience, but the better you are able to articulate what you want, the better I can implement your feedback.

There are so many more tips but these are a really great start to help you work with your mixing engineer to get the best possible mix for your music. I hope they help!

What’s the Rush?

A singer-songwriter friend recently told me that she had started working with a marketing and PR company to help her with the launch of her upcoming album (which she just finished). My friend had initially planned to release her album around 2 months after finishing it but they strongly advised her to delay the release of her album by 3 MORE months as they felt that in order for the album to have as long a lifespan as possible, they would need that extra time to generate interest and momentum. Her initial plan of 2 months would simply not be enough.

It reminded me of all the times I have worked on projects where “the mixes have to be finished by X date so it can go to mastering and duplication so they can have physical copies by such-and-such a date for the release party.” Release party?! We haven’t even finished the album! And now you want me to rush the mixes because you are too hasty with your release?

Stop and breathe!

Don’t get me wrong – deadlines can be crucial to get an artist to commit to finishing their works. But in my mind, never put unnecessary/false deadlines on your music (e.g. “I want it to be out for the holiday rush”, except you rush it out so quickly that no one got a chance to find out it was out!). Rather take a bit longer, make sure every track is 100% even if it adds an extra 3 months to your timeline. If you are not happy with how one of the songs turned out, take the time to go back and fix it (even re-record if necessary). Then you can focus your energy on a proper release strategy… the release that it deserves. If you do rush it, you will regret it and you never want to look back at your art and feel regret.

Because this is art – it is a representation of YOU. You never want to put anything out into the world that you don’t believe in. And you also want to give it the absolute best chance for success it can have which sometimes means waiting longer than you would like. Trust me, it will be worth it in the long run!

(PS. Unless it is a Christmas record. Releasing a Christmas record in January is probably not a recipe for success.)

Sean Spence is a record producer, engineer and owner of Blue Grotto Sound, an award-winning recording studio based in Brentwood, TN, just outside of Nashville.

DAW Summing Comparison

Welcome to the first Blue Grotto Blog. For today’s post, I wanted to investigate for myself claims that I have heard on many occasions: “I heard a set of stems in DAW A and then those same stems in DAW B and DAW B sounded noticeably better.” Being a cynic, I never trust those kinds of demonstrations especially when the developer of DAW B is the one performing them! Of course they want you to think DAW B sounds better. So I decided to do my own comparison (there are many others available on the web, but I wanted to know for myself).

Back In My Day…

A little bit of background on me: I grew up on Cubase. It was my first DAW but at some point I had to use Pro Tools at work so I mostly used that for a number of years. When I came to Nashville, I initially decided to use PT since it is the ‘Nashville way’ and ‘everybody uses it’ but I eventually grew frustrated with it (and with Avid’s relentless and expensive upgrades) and now use both Cubase and PT (depending on the kind of session), but almost all of my mixing is done in Cubase. Thus, the 3 DAWs included in this test are Cubase Pro 8.5, Pro Tools HD 10 and Pro Tools 12.

I am not doing this test to try to convert anyone away from any DAW. As I write this, I have not yet done the actual experiment. I know that most engineers are understandably hesitant to switch DAWs. Most use the DAW they first learnt or oftentimes, the one that is most compatible with most other studios and engineers (Pro Tools). And I will freely admit that even if I discover that Pro Tools sounds better, I would probably continue to mix in Cubase because I find it easier and quicker to mix in and with fewer hassles. At the end of the day, the end user doesn’t notice a difference – they just want a great song, performed and presented in a compelling way.

The Nuts and Bolts

To do this experiment, I took a song that I recorded and mixed in Cubase 8.5. The session is at 96kHz 24bit with the stereo pan law at -3dB. Using Cubase’s handy channel batch export feature, I exported every single track individually (in 1 pass) with all their processing, automation and panning into stereo files (57 in total, 1 for each track). I then pulled those files into each DAW (including back into Cubase), added my bus compressor (the same plugin with the same settings) and bounced the mix out. So this is a test of summing only – I did no panning in the individual DAWs as all panning was included in the original tracks used.

Some Time Passes…

The results are in and here is what we have: I’m almost disappointed because they sound almost identical. I would have loved a euphoric moment of the heavens opening up with audial goodness. But alas, they’re very close to each other. Interestingly, the Pro Tools 10 and 12 mixes are exact replicas. I don’t know if this should surprise me – I had imagined that with Pro Tools 12 being a complete ‘rewrite’ of the engine that there would be some kind of difference.

I was hoping to try and describe the differences between the bounces, but there is nothing definitive. Just when I think I notice a trend, it changes, like my brain is starting to hear things that aren’t there. Perhaps the Cubase mix sounds a touch more open right up top but nothing drastic. I imagine that with computer processing being so powerful these days, that the math of summing on all DAWs should eventually be fairly identical if they aren’t already (we are just adding ones and zeros after all).

If you want to listen for yourself, I have uploaded the full-res WAV files so you can make up your own mind. Please let me know in the comments section which one (if any) you prefer or other tests you might find interesting.

Happy mixing in whatever DAW you choose!

Cold (written by Ben Johnson / Anelda Spence)
Performed by Track 45
Produced by Ben Johnson and Sean Spence
Engineered, mixed and mastered by Sean Spence at the Blue Grotto


Hi and welcome to the new Blue Grotto Blog!

As a studio, we have the privilege of meeting some amazing people and making some amazing music. Along the way, we also learn a lot… about people, about the trials of making audial art with these people and about using the tools at our disposal to bring it all to life. So we want this blog to be a place where you can hear stories and lessons, tips and techniques as well as some reviews of some of the gear we use. I, Sean, won’t be the only one posting here. We will have guest posts from some other incredible people so be sure to follow us on Facebook where we will post about new blog entries.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!