How Adult ADHD Is Like An Audio Signal.

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I’m an audio engineer and record producer, and I’m one of the many adults living with Adult ADHD. This disorder is extremely frustrating to live with at times, and is widely misunderstood by the non-afflicted. Far from being a “Woe Is Me” type of person, I know I have to work around these limitations rather than try to ignore them and push through the same way everyone else can. That path leaves me overwhelmed and disappointed in myself for not being able to push in the same way as those I admire.

A while back, I decided I was finished trying to work against this disorder. It’s like trying to push a rope. It’s not gonna happen. I realized that I needed to learn more about how my brain works, because once you understand yourself you can put mechanisms in place to keep yourself from being your own worst enemy. For example, with ADHD, if it’s out of sight it may as well not exist. This is why I have several dry erase boards around my home, and in my studio. They’re within my line of sight, and anything that’s important (like pending projects, daily task lists, and mix notes) goes on those boards. If I’m in someone elses studio, I have a notepad nearby at all times. I don’t type notes, because typing notes takes no mental energy and I won’t remember what I need to. Instead, I handwrite them. It’s been proven that handwriting notes helps you retain that information, and someone like me can’t afford to lose track of important info during a session (such as which channel is which when running in from the live room into the patch bay, which preamps are used on which instruments, etc). Hell, I forget the names of songs unless I save the session as the song name at the start of the tracking session. (For the pro tools guys, I know that’s necessary anyway to create a session. But in REAPER, which is my current DAW, it’s not.)

While researching how my differently wired brain tends to work, I began to realize something. This is meant only to apply to me, based on my experiences with adult ADHD, but my brain works like an analog audio signal! If you are going in too hot or too cold, you may run into problems. There are times when you’re intentionally doing those things with your gain structure, but for the most part you’re trying to keep a healthy consistent level that isn’t clipping and has a low noise floor. That’s my brain. There are sweet spots, and there can be trouble with signals that are too hot or too cold. Allow me to ellaborate.

When you’ve got a strong healthy focus, it’s like hitting an analog channel when you’re at 0vu=1.23volts. Thoughts are coming and going as they should. Noise is at a minimum. You’re able to manage what’s coming and going with no unexpected problems. And anything that comes in a little hot has headroom to become a focal point without overloading you.

When your focus is too weak, it’s living near the noise floor. Simply trying harder to focus may work for a moment, but you’re fighting a constant noise floor of distraction that’s also fighting to be heard. Simply fighting against it in an attempt to retain what’s happening is useless, and it’s hard to focus clearly on the task at hand. It’s hard to focus on much of anything, really. This is like having a low signal-to-noise ratio in your analog signal chain. No matter what you do, you’re going to have noise that you have to deal with that will distract you from what you’re trying to accomplish. The signal is unfocused, and there’s nothing you can do about it aside from finding a stronger signal to clean things up. It’s very easy to relax during these times and live in the moment creatively, but it can be very difficult to switch to the technical side of the coin on command.

On the flip side, there’s hyper-focus. Hyper-focus is clipping. You’re going in too hot, overloading the circuits. You may be tuned in at maximum gain to 10 different things at once, which is like hitting the master bus too hot. You may be really focused on one thing to the point that you’re lost in it, which is like clipping an individual channel. Nothing else outside of what you’re doing is getting in, even if it’s important. In either scenario, you have no headroom to fit anything else in. You can’t pull yourself away from the task at hand, no matter how hard you try, because you’re stuck there.

The latest round of treatments for my adult ADHD has focused on stimulating dopamine production rather than the typical stimulant approach. This works for me because there’s no crash associated with amphetamine stimulants, and no nausea associated with other non-stimulant alternatives. Dopamine is the “feel good” compound your brain creates when pleasurable things happen. In my case, the dopamine wakes up my brain when I’m completely unfocused, which helps me be more motivated and puts my focus closer to the sweet spot. This is like using an expander on something recorded too quietly to push down the noise floor so you can bring it up to a healthy level without the noise.

This is why gallons of coffee don’t leave me bouncing around a room, but it can help me calm down and can help me focus for a session. My body feels the jittery effects, but my mind stops screaming for sensory input so I can get my bearings and listen.

To put it another way, Dopamine is the input trim for my brain’s preamp section. It feeds me a healthy focus signal, which pulls the focus signal away from the noise floor. If the focus signal is too hot, it sends less of the signal so I stay in the sweet spot by distracting my brain from it’s hyperfocused state. I take a non-stimulant medication once a day that stimulates dopamine production in my brain, and I time it each day for when I know I need to be the most productive.

For someone like me, it’s impossible to work the same way as someone else. While many of my heroes teach their methods, I can only analyze them and see what makes sense for me. Trying hard to work against my ADHD to incorporate something that doesn’t work for me is like trying to cram a square peg through a round hole. It’s not gonna get me anywhere. Knowing the way your brain works is important for crafting a workflow that compliments you. It helps you understand when the best times to do certain tasks would be based on where your focus levels are throughout the day. It helps you understand what you need to do in order to put yourself in the sweet spot when you need to be there.

We all function differently. Pay attention to yourself, and don’t be ashamed of your own mind. It’s the only one you’ve got, and you need to work with it til you die. Knowing when you’re typically in your sweet spot can help you determine when the best times to get to work will be. Understanding when you’re at your most analytical verses when you’re feeling more spontaneous and creative can help you know when to focus on the technical vs the artistic. Knowing what to do if you find yourself clipping or stuck in a noise floor can help you pull back up so you can get work done. There’s nothing you can do to change how you’re wired, so you have to work with it by changing your awareness of how you’re wired and how to overcome the challenges that may present themselves because of it. If you know where the short circuits & dead ends are, you’ll know what you need to do when you find yourself caught in them.

Have you struggled with similar limitations or quirks? How did you address them? Did this blog make sense, and give you a light bulb moment? Please comment below and leave your thoughts!