Capturing Ideas

I think one of the best ways to boost your creativity is by capturing ideas as they come to you. Instead of just ignoring them or hoping you remember them later, you have to get those ideas down in some format. There’s a kind of magic that happens, almost like priming the pump. Once you get into the habit of capturing your musical ideas it seems to signal to your brain, “hey, I’m ready for some more cool ideas.” But if you ignore that creative part, it just seems to whither and die.

For as long as I’ve played guitar, I’ve also been interested in recording. Not just the propellerhead details of mic-placement, gain-staging and the like, but even the down-and-dirty process of simple “capture”. Over the years the technology has changed, but I’ve always used something to put little snippets and ideas down as they come to me.

These days, the prevalance of mobile technology in my life has changed everything. Where I used to capture stuff on a four-track or a little dictation recorder, now I can use my iPhone at the drop of a hat to get an idea down. I still haven’t found the perfect app for this, but I’ve used a few that come close. (Lord help me to fight the urge to write such an app). So here are a couple of tools that you might find useful. Note that these are on iOS, so if you have an Android phone, you probably want to stop reading and go play your guitar instead.

Voice Memos

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iOS has shipped with the Voice Memos app for quite a while. It’s a good interface for quickly recording audio through the built-in mic. It captures audio at a reasonably high resolution so that your recordings don’t sound like they’re being played back on a phonograph from the 1920’s. 

If you have an iCloud account (and perhaps iTunes Match), it appears that your memos will automatically get backed up and appear in iTunes. I love it anytime things just magically sync across devices and I don’t have to explicitly plug in and download items.

Video Camera

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One thing that an audio-only recording doesn’t capture is how I played a particular part. Sometimes a simple chord progression is easy to reverse-engineer just from the sound, but for more complicated licks and riffs, I find that it’s really helpful to have a video recording. These days I often capture ideas with the front-facing video camera. The sound is as good as Voice Memos app, and you get the benefit of seeing your hands. The only downside is that the files are bigger and they don’t automatically sync anywhere, even through Apple’s PhotoStream feature.

Evernote

If you aren’t already familiar with it, Evernote is an ambitious platform for hosting and synchronizing notes between multiple devices. It can handle a variety of media and random file attachments. I pay for the Premium service and put all sorts of stuff in there. I have a real love/hate relationship with Evernote because it still has a lot of buggy corners. But I haven’t found anything better that lets me capture information and ideas and easily sync it across multiple devices.

Evernote has built-in audio capture, but it’s worthless for music. The fidelity of the recordings is too poor, especially if you have subtle details you’re trying to capture. However, I will use Evernote for sync and simply attach videos I’ve recorded on the phone from the Camera app. This process isn’t as smooth as I’d like since there’s no direct way to sync a video to Evernote from my iPhone. Instead I have to go to the Photos app, and email the video to a special Evernote email account.

The sync’ing works pretty well. I can open Evernote up on my Mac and, boom, there’s my video. I just wish I didn’t have to go through the extra steps of getting it there.

Garage Band

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For multi-instrument ideas, I use Apple’s own GarageBand. For $5, I don’t think you’ll find a more impressive piece of software on iOS for the price. It is simply an amazing app. If you own an iOS device, stop reading and go buy it.

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Garage Band has a nifty feature that will sync your tunes via iCloud. Unfortunately it only works for Garage Band on iOS. Apple still hasn’t updated Garage Band on the Mac to work with iCloud. Fortunately, you can still get your tunes out of Garage Band by emailing the project file, marking the song for export to iTunes or exporting to any compatible apps on your device. In the screenshot to the right I could export the final audio to Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud or iMovie. Each app then does what’s appropriate with that audio. Slick!

SoundCloud

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Speaking of SoundCloud, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. These guys have been around for a while, but they seem to be picking up steam recently. The SoundCloud app is a nice way to capture an idea and share it with the world. Once you capture a recording, you can trim it before you upload it.

I don’t use SoundCloud much for pure idea-capture, since it’s main focus is on sharing publicly. If it had a way for me to mark things as private I’d probably use it a lot more. As it is, not every idea I capture is something that needs to be publicly available. Though, I suppose, if you wanted to embrace this as a sort of artistic constraint, I can see the advantage.

Several other tools like AmpKit have built-in SoundCloud integration so you can recording something in a different app and send it off to SoundCloud.

So far I haven’t found the perfect tool for capturing ideas. But, with a little perspective, let’s realize that we’re talking about some extremely fine optimizations. These little devices in our pockets can do an amazing number of things. I sure as hell never got my old Fostex four-track to sync ideas across multiple computers automatically.