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.
Once you’ve written a great song, the most treacherous part of creating is maintaining objectivity. If you lose objectivity, the ability to judge options is compromised, resulting in poor decision making since you can only guess what's right. When discussing music among those who work at perfecting songs, the most commonly cited problem is a loss of objectivity. What makes crafting music so difficult is that even if you have intent and know exactly what you want, you can lose perspective along the way. If you hear a song the same way too many times, you get used to the element's relationship with one another. You subsequently lose the ability to objectively hear changes to decipher whether they improve or detract from your intent.
Just as treacherous is you can make poor decisions if you don’t listen to a mix properly. If you're too focused on the details, you can lose track of the big picture. All of these choices are crucial to consider, yet there's rarely any good insight into how to properly use the tools at hand to stay as objective as possible. Before we go deeper, there are two plagues that kill musicians’ objectivity constantly that we should define:
Demoitis - While the CDC has never studied it, the most common affliction among musicians is Demoitis. This affliction occurs when someone has heard a mix of a song for so long that any change to it sounds wrong. The only way the song sounds right is the way it was in the mix the afflicted person is used to. Demoitis is contracted by overly listening to a mix of a song. It's inevitable to contract it after prolonged listening of a single mix of a song. A rare breed of musicians are immune to it, but for most of us, the more we listen to a version of a song, the more we get used to it in that form and the harder it is to be open to changing it.
Analysis Paralysis - Anyone that's ever tried their hand at perfecting a song has probably experienced what's known as Analysis Paralysis. Barry Schwartz explains the term in his book, The Paradox of Choice, as the phenomenon when we become paralyzed by the different options in front of us. In music, this is most experienced when we've heard so many options, we can no longer make a good decision. This regularly happens when surfing through plug-in presets or drum samples.
This affliction can cripple us creatively. The loss of perspective from working too long on a song or hearing too many alternative ideas is debilitating for artists. The song sounds different, but all emotional resonance to judge an option is depleted, leading to confusion about what the best option is. This usually causes the creative process to cease, as the song becomes abandoned or is completed as is since the artist can no longer tell which choice to make.
The Ticking Clock Of Objectivity
Producer Greg Wells (Katy Perry, Adele) has said: "The hardest part of making music is you can never hear it the way a listener does the first time." Now, before you crucify me about how much I've written about making the music you want to hear and not concerning yourself with the listener, take in the concept. As you craft your music, it gets harder and harder to tell if you’re doing the right thing since your excitement for a song declines in time as you get used to it. Just like the songs of others you enjoy, resonance dies with repeated listens. To make matters worse, while you work on a song, your objectivity gets more and more skewed as you get used to the way parts sound. Elements you find emotionally resonant on a first listen compared to elements you find interesting after hearing the song for the hundredth time are often quite different.
To make good decisions for our music, we need to acknowledge this is a race we're running whenever we develop a new song. At some point, your objectivity gets depleted and your ability to make good decisions will be reduced. You must always be conscious of the balance between under developing a song and developing it for so long that you lose objectivity.
Effectively Listening To Maintain Objectivity
Whenever you're creating a song, there's a race to keep the momentum and excitement of the song going. While you want to give enough consideration to the composition, you must execute it fast enough to not lose your perspective. This struggle is one of the hardest balances to strike in the creative process. If you flog a song to death scrutinizing every detail, it can suck the life out of it. With that said, focusing on details can also bring out the magic in it. Finding that balance is crucial to the execution of making a great song.
In order to maintain my objectivity as a producer, I abstain from writing songs with a band from day one. After I initially hear what they’ve written, I may send a band back to the drawing board and say, "The verse works but scrap the rest of the song," but I won't be there while they rewrite it. If I have to be in the room as a band tries out 400 variations, I have then lost the same level of objectivity as them, which defeats my purpose as a producer. To do my job effectively, I can't sit through the infinite possibilities of songwriting, since I need to maintain an objective, quality control role. I must still have objectivity after a song is as fleshed out as a band can make it on their own, so I need to minimize micromanagement throughout the process. While this doesn't sound very efficient, it keeps me with an objective mind to evaluate what they write. This is much more valuable than any time saved.
To maintain this objectivity, I outsource the tedious tracking of guitars and synthesizers to my co-producer. I leave the room while they get a tone to return with fresh ears once it's dialed in. When it comes time to track guitars for 6-8 hours of tedious tuning and punch-ins, I have to leave since my perspective gets lost if I sit through that. If an extensive development of harmonies is needed to make a song work, I'll also leave the room for that so I don't get tainted by the options and tedium of tracking them. This allows me not to be biased in my judgment of a performance by the effort expended to record it or how long it would take to redo it if it doesn't feel right. If I don't have to punch in the guitars for three hours to fix them, then I can make my decision based solely on making the song great, not my annoyance with the process. I should say I'm not the only producer who employs this method – both Rick Rubin and Howard Benson are famous for this technique.
Demoitis: The Struggle Is Real
If you sit a bunch of musicians and producers down in a room, you'll get an earful of stories on the woes of the creative process. Inevitably, there'll be stories of the big studio budget that couldn't outdo the demos recorded at home. The next story will be how a band constantly compared studio recordings to their demos, leading to the downfall of their record since they weren't open to developing their demo ideas to their full potential. The funny thing is they both may be right or completely wrong in their assessment. Whether or not they were right is obviously subjective, but they may have made a different decision if their objectivity wasn't tainted by getting too attached to their demos.
One of the most difficult balances to strike is doing enough drafts in your demos to get a full picture so that you can make a great song while not drafting them to the point that you're so attached to the demo's sound that you can't hear the song another way. You must give thorough consideration to your demos but not at the sacrifice of your objectivity; you need some to spare when recording the songs your audience will hear. This same idea goes for band rehearsal. While everyone wants to be well rehearsed when going into the studio, there’s a point where you're so used to the way a song sounds in rehearsal that any tweaks for the better sound unnatural. This leaves little possibility of objectivity when production decisions are made in the studio crippling the development of a song.
First Version, Best Version
To make the struggle worse, the first version of a song that someone hears and wants to listen to again and again is usually the one they'll like best. Test yourself on this: the next time you hear more than one version of a song from a musician you love, see if you consistently enjoy the first version you hear of the song more. As someone that's polled their friends on this for the years I've been writing this book, the resounding answer is the first version you listen to continuously is hard to get over. This means all of your teammates who listen to your demos numerous times are on team "demo" whenever making a choice as to whether a part of the demo is better since they heard it that way first.
However, there's an exception that shouldn’t be overlooked. About 25% of the time, the demo can be beaten, even for those who loved it. But this is so hard to measure that it's almost irrelevant. On projects with a decent budget, you'll regularly see bands who have lost perspective take their record to a mixer or a different producer at the end to help make better decisions. Today in pop music, we see countless producers on a pop song, since suits commonly think a song hasn't reached its potential after a producer completes their work, so they employ another producer to further explore what can be done. The fresh perspective they have can clearly see the dilemmas that have left the musician in paralysis. This objectivity goes for every mastering engineer's job, which is mostly about objectivity in that they're to be fresh ears that put some final touches on what perspective you may have lost in the mixing process.