I have a love/hate relationship with writing and recording on the road. It always seems like such a great idea from home, like some miracle answer to all of my writer's block woes. Exploring new cities, field-recording as you wander through the streets, and churning out your best songs from cramped seats on planes, trains, and automobiles... it's all a dream until the jet-lag sets in, and your back starts aching from the excess gear you're hauling around but barely have time to use.
Creating music while traveling can be one of the most rewarding experiences as a musician, but it requires a bit of finesse if you want to avoid neck pain, or dodge those shades of disappointment when you come home with fewer new tunes than you were hoping for. Here are my personal guidelines and packing list for writing effectively while on the move:
1. Keep your expectations low
I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer on the very first guideline, but being completely honest with yourself about what you're capable of doing with 24 hours in a day is the MOST CRUCIAL aspect of planning your trip. Carefully evaluate your itinerary or schedule, and be realistic with how many hours of writing time you have available to you. If you have back-to-back travel days, or a packed schedule with 12 hours of activities, do you really think you're going to spend your nights in the hotel room furiously writing your magnum opus? Probs not. You're human, not a robot. It's much better to set your expectations low and feel incredible when you surpass them, rather than set them high and come home feeling drained.
Even if you have a few free days in a city, do you really want to spend them all trapped inside your airbnb instead of getting out and exploring? Depending on the intensity of your schedule, you can simply treat this time on the road as an opportunity to gather new ideas and information, then process them all when you get back to home base. Focus your time and energy on creating quick, judgement-free sketches of the moment, then return home with notebooks or hard drives full of fresh resources to start building with.
Extra tip: never leave the site of an inspired idea without taking at least one or two actions to make something of it. For example, if you've been out all day gathering field recordings, then don't go to bed without dumping your SD card onto your computer and sketching one quick song idea with what you captured. Getting just a bit of this process started BEFORE you get home can help keep the momentum going when you're back in your usual creative environment. Don't be that person who lets weeks (or months, or years) go by with a gold mine of ideas just sitting on your hard drive, going stale.
2. Pack light, then ditch half of it.
I really don't need to explain this one. Please just pack way less than you think you need. Not only does this give you more narrow parameters to work within (and thus boost your creativity), it saves you the major discomfort of lugging everything but the kitchen sink around the world with you. When in doubt, leave it behind because you don't need it. I promise you'll be much happier without that awkward MIDI keyboard or 24-piece pedalboard. It'll all be there for you when you get home again.
Extra tip: apply the Coco Chanel rule for dressing to your gear-packing process. Get everything together that you think is of the essence, and then put one thing away before you leave.
3. Use what's around you.
You're not traveling halfway across the world just to make music with the same pieces of gear that you have back at home. Get creative and use the tools or sounds that are around you. Leave space in your luggage to bring home a new instrument or noisemaker, attend local concerts to learn new styles of playing, or get out in nature and record some sounds from an environment much different than what's around your home turf.
Extra tip: find a local music shop and buy the cheapest pedal or small device they have. You can usually get some of the most interesting and unique sounds out of these (and you won't go over your trip budget). Also, don't forget to check the dollar bins at record stores.
4. Have peace of mind.
Gear gets lost and stolen when you travel and tour. It sucks, but it happens to nearly everyone at some point in their careers. Instead of spending your entire journey in fear of the inevitable, get some musician's insurance for your most valuable pieces and travel worry-free. Don't be that person who has to launch a crowdfunding campaign because all of your stuff was stolen from backstage one drunken night. It's far easier to pay a small annual fee to make sure that your instruments and computers (aka livelihood) are covered while you're on the road. I personally use MusicPro Insurance, but there are a lot of other good companies out there too.
Extra tip: Back. Up. Your. Files. Every. Single. Day. Or. Else. Cloud-based storage is a huge help when traveling to prevent any loss of your work when you’re moving from place to place.
Last but not least, here is my standard packing list for nearly every trip I take:
This little guy is like the swiss army knife of my recording tools. If nothing else, I'll throw this in a weekend bag along with a journal and a toothbrush, then be totally set for the trip. It gives you incredibly clear stereo recordings with the built-in microphones, has two additional XLR ins, AND it can also be used as an interface to record directly to your computer. If you’re on tour, pass it to the sound guy to record the board mixes from your shows. Or pair it with a couple of sm57s and you have a halfway decent way to record live drums from anywhere -- just use the built-in mics as overheads and external mics on the kick and snare.
Macbook Pro and LaCie Hard Drive
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones
If I'm being honest, these aren't my absolute favorite sonically-speaking, BUT they're mad durable and loud enough to use for impromptu DJ sets. I'd rather leave the more expensive studio headphones at home and take these on the road.
Push is the Mercedes of MIDI controllers. Works seamlessly with Ableton, plus I can track all of my chord progressions and melodies easily without hauling a 61-key controller around with me on lighter trips.
Additional gear for performances
This sometimes includes the Apogee Duet 2 Interface, Blue EnCore 200 dynamic microphone, guitar, pedalboard, Nord Electro 5D, extra cables/strings/USBs, etc. It all depends on what I need for the set.
Voltage converter for overseas travel
Heads up: the little socket adapters won’t cut it for certain devices. Please don’t cook your phone or computer!
Printed travel documents
This one is a little boring, but it’s a lifesaver to have in case your electronics fail you. Things get lost and devices die, and it can save you major headaches if you have tickets and copies of your passport or photo ID tucked in a safe compartment of your pack (especially if you're traveling internationally).
Sturdy and comfortable shoes
Seems obvious, but footwear is a major priority and cannot be stressed enough. Suffering for fashion will not cut it on the road. I'm a Doc Martens girl for daytime wear, but I always throw an extra pair of running shoes in my luggage to get those early morning jogs in while traveling. It's the best way to see a new city, and it helps me to avoid those travel colds while staying healthy.
An actual book. With pages and printed words.
Ancient technology, I know. But it’s nice to have something to pass the time that doesn’t involve a screen. Don’t spend so many hours on your phone that you completely miss out on those beautiful details that make trips so memorable.
Clothes and toiletries.
Please don't skip the toiletries. If not for your sake, then for everyone who has to travel with you.
Written by Kate Ellwanger for Unspeakable Records.