Having worked along side composers like Hans Zimmer, Graeme Revell, and more recently Steve Jablonski, Rupert Gregson-Williams, and SCOREcast founder Deane Ogden, I’ve gleaned much by watching how the big boys do it. One thing I’ve noticed about the really successful composers — They are all healthy. Hans Zimmer rarely gets sick. If he does, it is the kind of sick that is over in a day, and I’ve never seen it cost him anything in terms of down time. Same with my current composer, SCOREcast founder Deane Ogden. When Deane first hired me, one of the first things he told me was to “stay healthy. We are no good to each other if we are on our backs.”
How do you stay healthy in the studio? It is possible, and most of it has to do with what we are talking about this month: Workflow. Even though you are sitting for the majority of it, life in the studio can be back-breaking work. Any environment where you are spending 14+ hours a day needs to be set up in a way that accomodates a relaxing workflow… one that helps, not hinders.
I’ve spent an incredible amount of carefully thought out time and energy planning and conceptualizing my studio layout for one reason: I don’t want to get hurt. I have worked in some very nice situations in this town as a scoring assistant, witnessing first-hand the most comfortable studios that money can buy along with some of the most poorly laid out studios one could imagine. I know guys that have horrible back problems that stem from sitting in cheap chairs for days. I have seen many composers have to start wearing glasses because of the activity of assailing their eyesight with poorly color-calibrated monitors while trying to get music written. Orchestrator Susie Benchasil said in a SCOREcast interview once that she knows a lot of people in the business that have issues of poor circulation due to simply not moving their legs enough and sitting on their posteriors for days at a time with little to no physical activity happening. Composing, it seems, can be hazardous to your health, so it’s no surprise that any composer worth his or her salt will tell you that health is of optimum concern in the studio. In fact, at my old stomping grounds of Remote Control, a mandate was handed down by the Lion King himself that every composer use the same brand of desk. Hans believed that a particular desk from a particular company kept back fatigue to a minimum, so everyone was supplied with one, whether they liked it or not.
I spend a lot of time watching how pro composers do things when I get invited into their “inner sanctums”. That is a rare treat and I never want to squander the opportunity. Since not having to re-invent the wheel is priceless knowledge to have, I’ll attempt to outline a few of the things that I’ve picked up along the way. It might take me a few posts to get in everything that I want to, but I’ll get it done. We’ll call this the first in a series for this month from me.
In our studio, Deane and I listen to a lot of podcasts. When we are wiring, assembling demos, or some other menial task that doesn’t require us speaking to each other for lengths at a time, we listen to what others are doing in various fields and try to apply those new ideas to our own craft, if applicable. We recently heard Stephen King say that he likens “writing in your studio to ‘creative sleep’.” What he meant by that is this: Everything in your bedroom is engineered to help you fall asleep so you can dream. It’s dark, the doors are locked, and the temperature is right. The pillows are the perfect softness, and comforter is just the right thickness, and the bed doesn’t have any lumps in it. Your studio should be the same way. When you close the door to your writing space, you should now be completely free of any discomforts so that you may “dream” the right score for the film.
The cornerstone to making this happen is the chair you are sitting in. You are in your chair for up to 14 hours a day, so you need to have one that is not good, but great. Your task chair is not something you want to be cheap about, believe me. It is one of those things where you are either going to pay now, or pay later. But you will pay. (Preferably in the form of dollars to a place that sells chairs and not dollars to a chiropractor!)
Your chair should be first of all, sturdy. These chairs that you see at places like Staples and Office Depot — those aren’t going to work. In the office furniture business, there is a lingo… much like what we have as composers. There are chairs that are specifically designed for “tasking”, and this is a paraphrase, but it basically means “jobs that are done while hunched over a workstation desk”. That’s us! When searching for the right chair for your studio, you want to be looking specifically for a “task chair”.
My advice would be to look at two “task chair” companies: Steel Case and Herman Miller.
They are a little expensive, but again, you cannot skimp on this part of your studio. Remember what I said: You’ll either pay the price now or pay the price later. Your choice. Aeron Chairs are completely adjustable and come in several different sizes. They also have one of the best warrantes in the business and Herman Millr is a trusted name in seating and has been for decades. This is not some fly-by-night mom-and-pop that will be gone tomorrow. HM chairs are everywhere — even Donald Trump sits in one!
Herman Miller also makes a chair called the Celle Chair. Celle Chairs are less expensive than the Aeron Chair, but provide many of the same features such as adjustable lumbar support and adjustable armrests. The major difference between the two is that the Celle lacks the total adjustability that the Aeron Chair is famous for, but if you don’t need that or you are fairly average sized, the Celle will work great for you. Plus, it is considerably less money — about $400 for a brand new Celle Chair.
I get Deane’s HM chairs from a company in Chicago called The Ultimate Back Store. These guys often have great deals on HM products and sometimes even have floor models they’ll sell for less, but still have the same warranty as a brand new one. They also will ship the chair for free and have service centers that will come to your studio and fix the chair should anything ever break or go wrong. (When does THAT happen ever?)
Herman Miller Task Chairs
Fully adjustable, comes in various sizes to fit your body type, 12-year “no-fault” warranty
Price range: $400 USD (Celle) -$700 USD (Aeron)
The Ultimate Back Store
Steel Case is also another company that makes amazing task chairs. Their Leap Chair is a favorite at several studios I’ve worked in like Capitol Records and the Power Station in New York (which is where I first sat in one). They are a little more expensive than the Herman Miller Aeron Chair, coming in at around $850, but they are well worth the money and come with a full lifetime warranty.
Steel Case also makes a handful of other models that sport several other configurations to accomodate both your price range and feature set requirements. I would suggest checking out their company website to see what they have to offer. The Ultimate Back Store also carries Steel Case, and as the Herman Miller stuff, they regularly offer floor models for sale at heavy discounts. The best thing to do with UBS is call them and talk to a human being. They are great to deal with.
Steel Case is a great alternative to Herman Miller on many levels, especially price.
Steel Case Task Chairs
Fully to semi-adjustable, comes in various sizes to fit your body type, limited lifetime warranty
Price range: $300 USD (Uno) – $900 USD (Leap)
The Ultimate Back Store
So, obviously there a hundred different ways to go with a task chair, and these are only two of my favorites. Of course your studio has certain requirements that we don’t have in Deane’s studio — every space is different. Maybe you turn to the side to play your keyboard controller or perhaps it is centered under your desk in front of you. Maybe you use an outboard mixing console, so you need to be able to “Alex Keaton” your way across the room and roll to where your outboard rig is set up.
Whatever the case, your chair is the epicenter of your whirlwind. It has to be great, not just good. It will be the one piece of gear that sustains you over time and keeps you from pain.