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.
Little consideration is given to developing the skill to zoom the view you’re looking at a song in when analyzing music. What I mean by zooming is usually talked about in the classic saying, "seeing the forest for the trees." In music this commonly refers to listening to a single instrument instead of the whole song (or vice versa). Learning to do this type of zooming is how you consider both the details of the song you're making as well as the overall picture. If you only focus on the larger forest picture, you'll miss crucial flaws and the opportunity to accumulate subtleties in your music. If you only focus on small tree details, you'll make decisions that may hinder the overall resonance of your song by neglecting the bigger picture.
This problem is musically illustrated in the classic story of the mixer who spends eight hours EQing a kick drum instead of listening to the interaction the kick drum is having with a song; they spend so long zoomed in on this small element that they fail to see obvious flaws and never get a proper perspective. This common beginner problem also plagues those well into their career since they forget to change their perspective by zooming in and out regularly while evaluating their music.
When I hear a new part of a song, I commonly give it two listens. One to analyze the performance considering a micro view of the pitch, timing and inflection and again to consider the part's place in the song overall. Each of these listens requires a concentrated focus on their specific function. When evaluating a record as a producer, I make these evaluations in various zooms:
· Does this fit with the sound of the record?
· Are there too many parts like this on the record?
· Is this adding to the diversity of the record or making it too diverse?
· Is the song too long?
· Does the chorus repeat enough?
· Is there enough tension built before the release?
· Is the bridge the right one for the song?
· Is the drum fill going into the chorus right?
· Is the vocal melody too cluttered?
· Are there too many different parts in the accompaniment?
· Does this part rush too much?
Obstruct Your View To Change Focus
While there are micro and macro zooms, unlike in photography, a blurred picture often shows us a valuable perspective. When developing a song, you can be zoomed too hard or soft and get stuck in that zoom. When I have a song on playback while checking email or reading Twitter, I'll notice very obvious things that were oblivious to me in a focused state where I zoomed in too far. This semi-distracted state isn't one to strive for continuously, but it can be helpful to take us out of the zoom we're presently in. When I'm on a particularly involved mix that's been thoroughly labored over, I find it helpful to take a break but keep it playing while I sit in the other room doing email. The flaws in the mix usually jump right out when I can't hear subtle EQ balances or a stereo image. This technique is used by countless engineers making music in every genre.
This is similar to why you'll see multiple speakers in a recording studio. The big monitors in the wall are there to give you a detailed and loud picture. The medium sized ones on the console are there to give a medium view that's optimized for critical decisions in the studio. The small speakers give a less detailed, more real-world vision of how a mix translates to the general public. Headphones give a hypercritical listen to tiny details that zooms in further than most speakers, which some feel is too tight of a zoom to make good choices.