Unlike the last two “lessons” post, there is no unifying theme to these ideas. These are just random thoughts that I jotted down over the last year while I was working on tunes. Hopefully you can find something useful in one of these savory thought nuggets.
1. Instant inspiration
When I need to work on something fresh, I’ll take a song that has already been somewhat fleshed out and start a new unrelated song section using the same set of plugins. I might keep a drum part or bass line from the original song to use as an anchor, and I’ll try and build something new in one or two sittings. Since I’m “restricted” to the plugins already in the track, I’ll spend no time patch/plugin hunting. The entire time I’ll just be writing music. It’s most often a cathartic exercise, and occasionally I’ll write something worth keeping. I could either fold this new part back into the original song, or use it independently.
2. Focused song writing
When I’m trying to write a new melody line for a tune, I’ll create a loop in a song section and start jamming. As soon as I play something interesting I’ll stop recording and drop whatever I just played in the section. I’ll tidy up the bad notes and off rhythm, and then play around with the notes in the midi editor. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m an abuser of quantize. I used to just jam on the loop for like 20 minutes and then scrub through the entire recording until I found the interesting ideas. This new approach is way more efficient way to make progress on a song (though maybe not as fun as the endless jam approach). I may do several passes in a section to see if I can create a few different melodies, but I often stick with my first idea and move on.
As of late, I’m letting finished songs sit idle for long periods of time – like 6 months to a year – before revisiting them. Then I’ll have fresh ears, and am much more willing to modify (and hopefully improve) the song. Similarly, it’s fun to go through unfinished songs that I haven’t looked at in a while and re-evaluate then. Often I find a single section in one of these songs that I think is strong, and throw the rest of it away. I might try to meld this section with other cannibalized song sections. I love the challenge of trying to connect two unrelated song sections together – transposing sections to related keys and trying to find a way to make interesting transitions from one section to another.
4. The hustle
The vast majority of opportunities for your art are not handed to you on a silver platter. When there’s a musician I want to rope into playing on a track, a producer that I really want to meet, or whatever – I find a way to make the connection happen. It’s showing up to gigs early or staying late after a show to make an introduction. It’s knowing when a person of interest is going to be at a place and finding them. It requires good timing, confidence, humility, and friendliness. Like anything important, there’s the risk of failure. In the long run, you rarely regret trying, where you will almost always regret not trying.
5. The whole story behind the music
I recently had a recording session with a violin player that I thought went really well. Upon reviewing the material, I found that I wasn’t happy with the way things were recorded – the phrasing and dynamics of the recorded parts didn’t sit well with me. I initially got depressed since I thought I had wasted my time. Later, I remembered that the recording session was necessary to clarify what I wanted the violin parts to sound like. I’m confident that during subsequent sessions, I’ll record the parts the way I want them. I’ve been through this experience many times. It just takes a lot of time and patience. Listeners to my music have no idea how many failures and changes I made to these songs before they hear them. Moreover, they don’t care (and I don’t blame them), much like you don’t care about the many edits I made to this post. Looking back, I don’t remember the painstaking hours I spent obsessively tweaking my tracks.
6. Letting tunes ferment
When I released my last album (Soulful Filling), it was the first time I had no lingering doubts about a release. Almost two years later, I still feel the same way, which is sort of astonishing. I know I’m not going to be able to do it with every release going forward, but I now know it’s a goal worth pursuing. Currently I have a dozen or so tracks taking shape with a similar enough vibe, so I started mentally assembling the track order of a new album. When I looked at what would comprise the next album, I knew that I wasn’t going to feel as good about it as I had about Soulful Filling. So I removed any tracks that I had doubts about from the track list. I can always release them as bonus tracks. Of course this advice could easily be taken too far. There’s no need to be paralyzed by quest for perfection. The goal of an artist is to constantly grow and improve – so I’m not hoping that this next album is the best album I’ll ever release. My goal is to release something that I believe I will have few regrets about a couple years later. Set your bar high, but not out of reach.
7. Making progress
Previously, I mentioned that I always iterate through tracks to reduce frustration. Another thing to add to that is that when I open a track, I always try to either add or modify something before closing it. This helps me feel like I’m moving it forward, even if I abandon it later. Unless I’m really in the zone working on a song, a music session will last about 20-60 minutes (my free time is pretty limited these days anyways). I’m pecking away at these tunes, but I don’t care. I used to get so lost in my obsession to produce music that I forget I make music because its fun and emotionally fulfilling. Its important to not to lose sight of this.
8. Self mastering
I’ve self mastered all 5 of my albums. I am by no means a mastering jedi – infact, I’m quite an amateur, with almost zero training in the subject. I sent out my second album to get mastered and was totally unsatisfied with the result, so I figured it would be better if I just did it myself. Its a terribly painful and tedious process, and I’m not very good at it either. The best thing about mastering your own tunes is that I inevitably always find mistakes in the mix along the way. This is invaluable. So even if I send out my next album to get mastered by someone who knows what they’re doing, I will always do a first pass so that I can hopefully identify all the mistakes in the mix.
9. Ableton Live
Little magical musical accidents sometimes occur in Ableton Live. As soon as I have a set of clips that are working well together, I lay them out in the arrangement view. I’ll create a loop for this section in the arrangement view, and then add new parts back in the session view. By default, the last clip recorded in live will playback when I hit play in the arrangement view. When I move to a different section of a song, the last thing I recorded will automatically (and non-intentionally) play in the new section. Occasionally it will sound inspiring (though never spot on). So I’ll investigate, reorganize the melody and rhythm of the clip so it works in the new section, and BAM, new unintentional part to the song that may even help connect two sections together.
Please let me know if you found any of these useful, or if this post reminded you of other lessons you’ve learned along the way. . .
When I was growing up back east, I had a very hard time accepting feedback from other people, especially my parents. I was particularly defensive when it came to my ideas, which was probably to compensate for how emotionally fragile I was. Over the years, I have dialed back this defense mechanism since it turns out that other peoples ideas can be valuable. By which I mean, worth money. For example, Garbage Pail Kids was not an idea I came up with, and that guy was laughing his way to the bank when I was 8 (and deeply defensive).
I’m currently nearing the end of my second paternity leave. This was very different then round 1, since Jasper has developed into a little dude and we have a nanny 3 days a week. Knowing full well that I was going to have some time to work on projects during this leave, I tried to come up with a challenging computer project that would force me to learn some new mad nerd skillz.
The initial idea came to me when I was last in Newton, and I attempted to explain it to my dad. He had some feedback, which I initially rejected. I later mulled over his words and happened upon some shiny useful nuggets which somewhat reshaped my initial idea. This is a hard learned technique I picked up from surviving a long term relationship. More over, I realized I could get more nuggety goodness by sharing my project idea with lots of other people and seeing what they had to say. So for the first time in my life, I actively solicited lots feedback from tech savvy people. The rewards for this approach have been bountiful (in terms of insightful ideas, not cash). The trick was to be open to all feedback, and take my time evaluating what people had to say. I believe this to be the most valuable thing I’ve learned during developing this web application, which has nothing to do with all the intentional computer learning that I set myself up for.
Now that I’m finished the first pass at this app, I’m really interested in the feedback that my beta testers have to give. Instead of being bruised by negative feedback, I’d like to see if I could use any of this information to improve the app.
The basic idea behind the app is a general fuzz song unlocker, where people earn the right to unlock bonus songs by promoting my music. It’s a little ironic to spend so much time and energy building something that I know my fans will actively dislike. Almost all my previous music was free to download before – how could I have the nerve to make people jump through hoops to get new stuff? This is the advantage of being slightly more established then I was a decade ago – there are at least ten people across the globe who are willing to do a little more then nothing to hear unreleased tracks.
I had a relevant conversation with Stina at dinner. She was talking about how amazing our friends wedding website was. When I asked, she admitted that she hasn’t taken the 5 seconds to write them an email telling them how much she liked it. We consume, and rarely provide feedback to those who produce. I’ve already fully come to terms with this behavior. Therefore, I’m trying to incentivize people to take that easy extra step. It’s an interesting idea which may not work at all. If nothing else, I had a really fun time building the app (I had almost forgotten that I actually enjoy programming), it’s a very solid piece of code that I can add to my resume, and I’ve internalized a valuable life lesson. That is, money is good.