Good Coding Music

October 13, 2008

I thought I'd take a break from the seriousness and ever-depressing state of Internet security affairs to post a brief note about good coding environment.

For those of us caffeinated coders lucky enough to have dedicated periods of time for programming, one may notice a common concentration mechanism: Headphones. Nothing gets a coder "in the zone" better than the banter-blocking, "I'm busy"-transmitting, audiophonic bliss of a good set of headphones. You won't see managers wearing them because they like to meet, yap, and politicize; and with headphones they might miss out on the latest office rumor. You won't see admin assistants wearing them because how much would that piss off bosses and walk-ins alike? Nearly every office role from CFO to intern cannot afford to be completely zoned out and focused on the computer screen like the programmer at work.

Face it, we have a special privilege of being on the hook to produce bug-fixes and new features. And we can't do it if we're always in meetings or listening to why some coworker's kids did awesome at a soccer game. We need our music-- to pace us, to passively support our brainwaves as we tackle the problem at hand, and sometimes even to give us bolts of inspiration.

Here are a few things I'd like to suggest to make that computing experience even better:

  • A good set of cans A good coder knows how to appreciate good set of cans. (Hmm... inappropriate?) Don't settle for Apple's stock earbuds or stock anything. Your ears and brain deserve much better. I tell you, once you've tried a pair of comfy circumaural headphones or silicone in-ear monitors, you'll wonder why the masses continue to spend so much on music technology only to experience so little. Personally, I've enjoyed anything by Ultimate, and currently code to Sennheiser HD650's. These kinds of headphones aren't your typical gaming or DJ headphones, they are meant to tease out every subtlety and nuance of a master recording. Initial experiences make music you've always known seem like you're hearing it for the first time, for real. Better sound comes from open cans, but if your neighbors might go ballistic it's better to stick with "closed" phones. Either way, don't settle. Get a good pair of cans.

  • A good Digital-Audio Converter (DAC) (optional) Sure, that headphone jack on your old Dell desktop might be good enough for government work, but some sound sources pack so much range and beauty that you can't let it get compressed and flattened willy-nilly. If you keep good lossless rips of your CDs, or better yet play actual CDs, the presence of a separate DAC will work wonders.

  • A headphone amp (optional, and optimal, based on impedance of your phones) If you decided to go for a reference set of headphones, you will likely need to drive them with a headphone amp. There are many of these on the market, but I'd say a custom-built CMOY amp or an old-skool vacuum-tube amp will suffice without being ridiculously expensive. (Not to mention the coolness factor.) There are also Cute amps. Again, this is optional, and only if you want to power something like a 300-ohm set of headspeakers.
  • Good music Okay, this point may be obvious. The world's best gear won't do much for you if all you have is Celine Dion and Genesis. But how do we get to the good stuff? No matter how big my iTunes collection, I'll somehow find a way to get bored of the music I own. It's in these cases that I highly recommend going with a service like AOL Radio or Pandora to discover that randomness free radio once brought. Personally, I think the best coding music genre is Trance or Electronica.

Some say all this is overkill, especially for a desk job that you might be hating right now. But if you're like me, you want to shoot for the best working environment you can create. While the code you're refactoring may be ugly, and the problem intractable, you do control how much auditory deliciousness can happen during the workday.

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Note: I'm not saying to pirate music, but if you find something on AOL Radio or Pandora that you like, Amazon MP3 Downloads offers DRM-free music. w00t.