I have always been fascinating by the recording and mixing process. I even went to school in music recording once, but ultimately went a different route in my career. Still, I never lost that love of recording engineering.
Over the past few years I've accumulated a giant pile of original material that exists only in my mind and as little musical snippets scattered throughout my digital life. I kept thinking someday, I'm really going to sit down and record some stuff. But then life gets in the way and that though-train becomes when am I ever going to get enough time to record?
This was my hang-up. I felt like I never had enough time to record anything "properly", meanwhile I'm slowly driving myself nuts by never letting all of those musical ideas find their way into the world. Not only was I getting frustrated by not recording, it was starting to back up the whole creative "pipeline" in my head.
Get Over It
Here's the deal—we're all busy. We all have obligations that take us away from the things we'd most like to do. It's easy to fall into the trap of wishful thinking about some magical day when my time will be free and I can do as I please. That day may never come or, at least, it ain't showing up anytime soon. If I wanted to record some stuff, I was going to have to figure out how to make it fit into the life I'm living now.
That meant letting go of some deeply-held assumptions. The first was ridding myself of the false belief that I needed large chunks of time to get anything done. Would I love to spend an entire day on recording? Hell yeah I would. I'd love to spend a week on it. But the truth is, that's not going to happen. So then the question becomes how much time is enough?
This led me to the next mental hurdle. Deep down I didn't think I could do anything good or meaningful or artistically satisfying without having big chunks of time to do it. Clearly I wasn't getting anything done with this assumption, so I had to clear my head of this notion. I had to open myself up to the possibility that time wasn't really what was holding me back.
That led to questioning every assumption about why I felt like I needed so much time. A good part of it was simply my own inefficiency in the recording process. But hey, that's something I can learn and get better at. No, the much trickier part was getting over the hump of making something "good enough".
Punching The Critic In The Face
Yeah. "Good enough". Boy, that's a tricky phrase. Just what is "good enough"? For me, it's usually just out of reach. It got me thinking about what's really holding me back from recording? I don't think it's actually the time (though more wouldn't hurt).
No. I'm pretty sure it's the little critic that knows I'm going hate what I finally commit to bits on disk. If I feel frustrated now, imagine the potential disappointment of going through all of that effort to record and mix and end up hating the result. Oh dear.
But wait—now I think I'm getting somewhere. Now I think I know why there hasn't been a lot of movement on this front. I think maybe it's time for that guy to shut up and take a seat.
I Love It When A Plan Comes Together…
So I've done some deep soul-searching. Great. Now what? What am I actually going to do?
I spent a little bit of time sitting back and thinking about real concrete actions I could take to make this better. I came up with this short list:
- Work in 30-60 minute chunks
- Have a plan
- Focus on the task at hand
- Don't over-think it
Working in 30-60 minute chunks is actually really liberating. It plays well with the other rules, especially the one about keeping focused on the task at hand. Another benefit is that in audio recording our ears get fatigued quickly and it's easy to lose perspective on what you're hearing. When you can't indulge in four-hour recording marathons, you don't have this problem!
When you work in smaller time-chunks, you can't really get a lot of different things done. But with some focused attention you can get one or two things done really well. Once you take this approach, it's amazing how much you can accomplish over the span of a week. Maybe no single session yielded significant progress, but taken as a whole I found I got a lot done. Typical things I tackled in these time chunks were things like tracking a single bass or guitar part, or tweaking drum fills.
It really sucks to get to the end of a "time chunk" and still not have that task finished. These "open loops" are maddening. One way that really helped me was to remember not to over-think it. Yes there are about five million different things I could do, but 4,999,999 of them weren't worth the distraction.
I couldn't really do that unless I had a plan. In this sense a plan isn't a comprehensive, step-by-step, detailed narrative of each and every move I was going to make. No a plan here is really more about knowing what I could and could not do at each step of the process.
Despite the DAW revolution and the promise "non-linear editing", audio recording is still pretty much a linear, multi-step process. You record the source material, you edit it, you mix, you tweak, you master it. Yes, sometimes you bounce back to an earlier stage, but for the most part it's a pipeline that works best when things move through it in one direction.
I always knew this in a sort of bookish kind of way, but this was the first time it really made sense deep down in my bones. Not only was this a linear progression, but I realized that the further I progressed along, there was less room to make any significant changes. No amount of mixing tricks will cover up a poorly-played track with terrible tone.
This turned out to be liberating. At each stage of the process I could just stay focused on what I needed to do at that moment. If I'm tracking guitars, I don't need to worry about reverb or EQ. I need a decent tone I can work with and a good performance. That's it.
Once I realized this, it was so much easier to avoid getting bogged down in details, especially the further I went along. I even had a mental picture of what this looked like:
In this picture time moves from left to right. Tracking and performance are at the beginning. In the middle is the rough mixing and at the far right-end is where the final tweaks like spatial placement, compression and mastering come into play. The further to the right I moved along, the less control I had on the overall sound. That meant that it made less and less sense to try to make big moves in the later stages—they simply weren't going to impact the sound that much.
With that perspective, it became pretty easy to figure out when I was done. As I told a friend, I knew I was done when I ran out of meaningful changes I could make.
Okay, all of this may seem like an excessive amount of navel-gazing for simply getting one track completed. Yay for me. You're probably thinking "come back when you have an album done". Hey, fair enough.
But I'm pretty happy with the end-result, and I'm even happier with the process that got it out the door. Are there things I could tweak? Sure there are, but I don't know that they would really make that big of an impact on that song. Moreover, going back to that tune would necessarily take away from the next recording I want to do. That doesn't seem worth it to me. I'd rather keep moving forward.
There is still plenty of low-level audio-nerdery we can talk about, but I'm going to save that for another time. For now I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the immense satisfaction of actually getting something done.