This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.
Inspiration As The Picture Gets Clearer
Demos are like fuzzy, out of focus pictures; you can hear the broad strokes and big ideas, but the details are usually clouded in the lack of clarity, tightness and refinement of a demo. After all, that's what makes it a demo and not a final recording. As we begin to see this picture more clearly, it becomes more obvious what we should be doing to make a song reach its potential. It's inevitable as the picture becomes clearer that you'll begin to see mistakes, timing inconsistencies, clashing notes and other flaws in your song.
One of the hardest parts of recording music is it doesn't sound mixed and mastered while it's being recorded. Garageband demos can sound unbearably harsh and cloudy, making it difficult to know if you need to work harder to achieve that feeling you get from your favorite records. Even in an expensive studio with a great producer/engineer, the rough mix doesn't quite sound like a finished record, so it can be confusing whether to critically judge what’s being heard or if it'll sound better as the process goes on. To make matters worse, our brains have a tendency to see new flaws once we're able to concentrate on other details. I find singers get tunnel vision in their consideration of a song until their vocal is done, then suddenly they can see parts of a song they never noticed once their tight focus on the vocal is completed. Since commitment and solving problems give you clarity to focus elsewhere, it's only natural to gain the ability to notice new elements in a song.
When you've been working on a record for a while, it can be a tense moment when someone points out a flaw that should’ve been caught a few weeks ago. Just as despised is when someone realizes during the mix another melody or harmony is needed to complete the song. While we can wish this epiphany came weeks earlier, until a song is heard in it’s in near completed form it's often hard for musicians to know how a song sounds. The reaction of those paying for the session or trying to get home at a reasonable hour can be harsh when a drum track recorded a month ago all of a sudden has a newfound flaw.
Experimentation - One of the biggest fights in the studio is when someone decides to start "experimenting" when another member of the team is concerned there's not enough time to accomplish everything that’s needed to make the song actualized. When this experimenting is being done "on the clock," it can start to become detrimental to the recording coming out optimally. While this doesn't need to be a fight, the anger is not without justification in many cases. If studio time is limited so that you can only record the ideas you had before entering, taking precious time to experiment can be detrimental to the overall project.
Before entering the studio, it should be considered that even the least inspired musicians gain some inspiration in the studio as they hear what's possible. If time isn't allocated for reconsideration, you won't be able to bring your songs to fruition as you see where new parts should be added. This means if you want a song to reach its full potential, you need to consider experimenting with solutions as the picture becomes clearer.
Developing Performances With Increased Perspective
This inspiration also goes for the development of nuance in performances. I recall the first time I got to record one of my favorite singers. I wasn't as nervous as I was when working with some of my favorite musicians in the past. Instead, I felt ready for this moment of working with a peer. He got on the mic, asking me to give him three takes on each part of the song. After each take that was up to his standards, he'd say, "Keep that one." When he got to the end of the song, he said: "OK, burn me that as an MP3!" I was horrified since these takes were way below my standards based on what I‘d heard him do before. I then figured that some magical editor fairies must be making him sound great in the post-production process, so I better brush up on my skills, since what I had to work with was far below my expectations. Thoughts started going through my head of how embarrassing it would be to have my name on this track, but I kept my cool.
As I tried to figure out what to say, he urged me to track keyboards for a bit. I saw him listen to his iPod with a piece of paper in the live room, taking notes with headphones on for a while. Upon completion of the keyboard track he informed me, "I'm ready to do this vocal for real." We then went line by line working to get great takes where we both challenged him to get the best of the vocal. By the time we reached the end, I heard the incredible vocals I was used to hearing from him. But to get to that level of performance, he needed to take the time to consider the nuances of his performance with as clear a vision as possible.
This taught me a valuable lesson: performers need time to contemplate their compositions by hearing them back. Often times when a musician completes a performance they exclaim they can do it better, but a producer is hesitant to devote more time to the performance. When a musician performs a part they are gaining a deeper consideration of the nuance they can bring to the performance after hearing it clearly. It's hard to have clear perspective to think about tone and inflection, along with all the other aspects of a performance until you have the chance to hear it back to react to what can be done with it. Once they gain a clear perspective, allowing someone to develop their performances is usually some of the best time spent.
I regularly employ this method when I get a lackluster performance from a musician. I make them a mix and say “tomorrow you’ll have listened to this and thought about how to bring this song to a more emotional place.” I tell them to take detailed notes and listen to some of their favorite artists to get ideas on how to emotionally elaborate on their performance. This is one of the best tools in my production toolbox.
Working With A Clear Picture
One of the quickest ways to lose perspective is to build a song on unedited tracks, thus laying an unsteady ground for other decisions. When you lay down your rhythm tracks, be sure they're tracked tightly as they will determine the feel of every track put on top of it. If you don't deal with quantization or any other editing you need to do immediately, these timing or pitch inconsistencies can blur the overall picture and cause bad judgments. This rule also goes for fixing flaws. Hearing an unedited track for too long commonly skews your perspective on editing decisions. If you hear an out of tune vocal for thirty straight listens, a tuned vocal can sound odd. But if you tune the vocal after a few critical listens, it's easy to make judgments on whether the tuning has sucked the life out of it. All editing in my productions happens immediately after a track is done so that I lose the minimum amount of objectivity.
The looser a track is, the more small inaccuracies in the groove of a track become blurred. This is why many classic rock recordings were able to be so loose yet still feel good. Whereas once you start playing to quantized drum machines, the timing inconsistencies in each track become more apparent. The same goes for pitch; once a digital synthesizer applies its perfect pitch to a song, the intonation of a guitar or vocal becomes glaring. This is why dance music vocals are commonly tuned more heavily than rock songs. Whereas in a 70s rock song when a vocal used to be coupled with poorly fretted guitars and bass, mild intonation was easily covered up by the already "loose" overall inconsistencies in the track.
Fixing It In the Mix - Not only is "fixing it in the mix" one of the laziest, most destructive habits in music, it leaves flaws that blur the picture in your view. To make good decisions, you need to track with as good a mix as possible to get the best possible tones to build upon. This also goes for spending the time to work with a clear rough mix. Experienced producers work with a mix that's as close to a finished product as possible without slowing the momentum of a session.
One of the most notable improvements in the quality of the vocal performances I get from singers is to mix the instrumental of a song before I do vocals. Not only do musicians perform better to a good mix, but the judgments made are enhanced by hearing a more clear vision of how the song will sound later. Most musicians aren't trained in hearing what a rough mix should sound like, so by telling them “everything will be fine when it gets fixed in the mix,” their concerns during the process are silenced, making for diminished participation and doubting of their instincts. This closing down of a conversation hinders creativity immensely. To alleviate this, I give playbacks of a vocal performance with a typical mixing and mastering chain on so that musicians with untrained ears can judge what we've done without having to qualify it with "it's not mixed."
Many beginners feel empowered by never having to commit to a sound when they start recording on DAWs. They let virtual instruments stay live to be tweaked until the final mixdown or guitars that can be reamped along with five mics on a snare drum which can give you all the options in the world to get the exact sound you're looking for. Yet, nearly everyone who makes influential records does the exact opposite by committing to sounds to narrow their options throughout the creative process. They develop techniques to commit to decisions made as they go. This comes with a variety of benefits:
Freeing Your Mind - Commitment allows you to free your mind to concentrate elsewhere. To make good decisions, we need to know commitments have been made in order to focus laser-like on the next concern. Psychological studies show that once we feel a decision is made, our focus can shift. If we have too many decisions to make, we're more likely to fall into option paralysis.
Narrowing Your Attention - Commitment allows your attention to be put in other places. Similar to freeing your mind, if you don't have five tracks of snare options to tweak, you have a finite amount of tools to make it work such as compression, distortion, EQ, etc.
Reacting - When you commit, you’re reacting to a less varied sound, which can determine the groove, pitch or other parameters in your song. If you don’t commit to MIDI Instruments in your song while constantly tweaking them, it can be hard to focus on the tones and mix. You should commit in stages of your song so you can enhance your focus to different elements of the song.
COYA - The contrarian's argument against commitment is: what happens when it hinders your creativity since you're stuck with a less optimal outcome? When we talk about commitment, we're not talking about it in the sense of the Catholic church's "’till death do us part" marriage stance; we're talking about making some decisions, which if you need to go back to once in a while, you can always divorce what you choose. This isn't some game you're playing with yourself where you need to pretend a technology no longer exists where you can't easily replace a snare sound once you’ve realized it isn’t working. Many musicians commit by simply making certain options inactive or leaving their options in previous versions which can be revisited. If you don't yet feel confident enough to commit to guitar sounds, commit to one and save your DI track so if you need to bail yourself out later, you're all set.