Procrastination

I’m finally on the ‘home straight’ of a track that started out simple, and has ended up taking ridiculously long to finish.  I’m basically at the stage now where there’s two significant things that need to be done in addition to mixing and general final polishing… ‘decorating’ the build/peak points of the track, and adding all the incidentals.  Even though these two tasks should be straightforward, I’ve been subconsciously dodging them for the last week or two… and I’m now at point where I’ve done every other minute (and occasionally unnecessary) tweak to other parts of the track in an inadvertent effort to avoid them.

Today I consciously realised that I’ve been side-stepping these tasks for days, and after some thought the reason became clear.  Both of them are time consuming, and a little tedious… often involving listening over and over to small sections of the track and making repeated small changes to automation curves.  It’s a ‘routine’, rather than ‘creative’ process… I can clearly envisage the end point I want to be at, but unfortunately getting there requires a lot of time, trial and error, and repetition of the same task.

Interestingly, before 2016 I often experienced similar procrastination when trying to come up with new ideas for tracks and parts within tracks.  However, now that’s a process I usually enjoy… so it made me think about what’s changed.  I think it boils down to 2 main things…

  1. A lot of the procrastination around coming up with new track ideas stemmed from a fear of failure… i.e. fear of the disappointment of spending a lot of time trying things, and not coming up with anything good.  Now though, I really look forward to and enjoy discovering new ideas.  My experience during 2016 proved on numerous occasions that I could come up with ideas that were way outside of my expectation, imagination, and perceived limits of my own ability.  The fear has been replaced by a curiousness, and almost an excitement about what kind of ideas I’ll discover, that I can’t imagine right now.
  2. My understanding and knowledge of the instruments I’m using has improved a lot… not only can I experiment with more ideas in a shorter time, but I have a greater ability to think about a way of manipulating or creating sound, and then actually realising that sound through the equipment (i.e I’m better to being able to audibly create sounds I can hear in my head).

So I’ve eliminated procrastination in writing new material, but it’s still slowing me down with more routine tasks.  I think it boils down to what I touched on in point 1 above, and can be well explained using the following analogy… Coming up with new track ideas has become like going on holiday to a country you’ve never been to before… you don’t know what you’ll discover, but there’s a fair chance it will be new and exciting, and even the process of getting there is often an adventure.  Conversely, creating incidental parts is a bit like doing the weekly shop for a big family… the end result is not particularly outstanding nor exciting, but is necessary… and the process of getting it done is lengthy and a repeat of something you’ve done many times before.

So what’s the answer to avoid procrastinating? Unfortunately I don’t have any easy nor groundbreaking solution… what needs to be done can be easily interpreted from a quote I heard many times from former mentor (and i believe variations of which have been used by Lewis Carroll, George Harrison and others)… “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do”… i.e the best thing you can do is just make a start and get moving.

I guess I’ll leave it there… I’ve got shopping to do.

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Getting Into a Mental Space To Be Creative

If you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired

In my usual (i.e pre-2016) work as a system engineer, I never used to have to think much about getting into the right mental space in order to work productively.  Ofcourse making software is fundamentally a very different discipline to producing music, but I always found with software I could start working pretty much immediately… there was a clear, tangible problem that needed to be solved, and to get to the solution you just had to start working on it.

With music production it’s often very different… to be effective (and sometimes just to get started well), it’s important to be in a creative headspace.  This is moreso the case with certain stages of the production process… e.g. being in a creative headspace is much more important if I’m trying to come up with new parts or tracks, than it is if I’m doing something more routine like mixing.

Also, the success of the start of a day producing can be heavily influenced by the success (of lack thereof) of the previous day.  Specifically… if I’ve ended the previous day frustrated that no good ideas were coming, or trying unsuccessfully to fix a problem in the mix, it could make it more difficult to motivate yourself, and to get off to a positive start.

So, it’s critical to try and get yourself into a mental space that’s conducive to being creative… and a really good routine I’ve found to do this is…

  1. Start the morning in a place separate to the studio – It can be difficult/intense to spend 8+ hours a day in a single room… I particularly found this in early 2016, having come from a busy and spacious office environment and constantly changing locations (for meetings etc…), to being stuck in one small room and in front of a PC all day.  I would always start the day in a completely separate physical space (usually a coffee shop close to home).
  2. Listen to some music you like – This is something I usually do while having said coffee.  It always helps to spur creativity by absorbing inspiring examples from the same creative discipline.
  3. Read some material which gets you thinking in depth about producing – For me, this is the most important technique… if I can read something inspiring about production (or in fact anything music related), it immerses your thoughts in that space, and has a hugely positive effect on getting you into a creative place.  It’s also a great antidote to the kind of frustrations or lack of inspiration mentioned above… often giving you fresh ideas, or approaches on how to attack a problem.  Specifically, the material I commonly use is…
  • Inspiring music news sites and blogs (CDM is a favourite for me)
  • Seeing how other producers approach their work (e.g video channels like Fact TV and Electronic Beats)
  • Magazines like Sound on Sound… esp practical columns like Session Notes, Inside Track, and Mix Rescue

Inspiration tends to come and go unpredictably… and if you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired.  Being able to put yourself into a more creative headspace moves you towards having more control over periods of inspiration, and allows you to best utilize your time.

Finding Creative solutions to Mix Problems

Last month I wrote about how your ‘ear’ for identifying and fixing problems improves significantly when you dedicate yourself to producing full time.  Recently I had a situation which showed exactly this, and where my solution for fixing a problem was far different (and much more successful) than I would have come up with 9 months ago.

When I was writing ‘Cantana 1‘, I had come up with a patch for the main synth ‘stab’ sound…

The patch was made in V-Station using some FM between 2 of the oscillators, and I was fairly happy with the sound… thought that the FM gave a cool kind of gritty edginess to it.  But when it came to making the sound fit in the mix, it was really difficult to get it to properly stand out… it just seemed to get lost behind the other instruments and percussion.

I’d faced the same problem in the past (often with V-Station patches), and in those cases I’d often used large mid-range EQ boosts to try and correct the problem.  But this had also had limited success, often making the sound a bit ‘bloated’ and muddying up the mix.  When faced with this problem in the past, it could have quite possibly led me to abandon the sound altogether, just because I couldn’t get it to mix nicely.  I guess my thinking was along the lines of “it’s not fitting well, and I don’t know what else to do to fix it, so I’m just going to get rid of it”.

However, armed with the experience of the past year, plus the additional confidence that comes with that, I looked at the problem a bit more analytically…  The chord and the original patch I was using was quite low in terms of pitch, and as the FM was turned up quite high, there were a lot of ‘fizzy’ harmonics in the sound.  Hence, it seemed that the problem was a simple lack in mid-range frequency content… in the context of the track, the bass line and percussion were already supplying the low and high frequencies, and I needed this sound to ‘fill in the middle’, and provide the main theme.  But due to the patch and chord used, the mid-range was quite lacking… EQ would likely not have fully solved the problem too… you can’t EQ frequencies that aren’t in a sound to begin with.

In this case, I used a second instance of V-Station with a similar patch, but one with no FM and whose oscillators were much more centred around the mid-range.  It had a much cleaner and more rounded sound…

I fed both V-Station instances from the same MIDI track, and blended the V-Station audio outputs.  The result was as follows…

Whilst in isolation I actually prefer the original FM patch, the blended version was much easier to fit into the mix, and saved a lot of headaches trying to correct things with EQ (and potentially tedious automation of the EQ to adjust to the filter sweeps used on this instrument).

In retrospect, it was nice to see that I’d discovered more creative solutions to problems, and was able to analyze a problem to provide a solution, rather than giving up… my thinking was more along the lines of “there’s a problem here… now what’s causing it”, and this led to a preventative solution, rather than the corrective (and likely less successful) solution of messing with EQ.  It shows that (as mentioned in the previous post) your mixing and producing skills can really improve with dedicated and regular practice.