when in doubt…

When I create songs, I do it in a single session whenever possible, or two if necessary.  From the point where experimenting/jamming crosses my “I have to make this a song” threshold to when I put the headphones down and walk away, it is rarely more than 4-5 hours.

Usually it’s fine.

Usually the first thing I say to myself when I have done so is “I’m not sure about this one.”  It’s too boring, it’s too harsh, it’s too weird, it’ll never work with the rest of the album…

The next day when I listen to it?  It’s fine!

It’s not that I have some kind of house elf who comes in and fixes my recordings while I’m off sleeping or playing video games, it’s just my perception.  (A) I’ve been listening to variations on the same thing for a few hours and am getting pretty jaded, vs. (B) I have fresh ears and am listening to a 4-9 minute song in the context of other things I’ve recorded recently.

Not everything I record gets released.  Turning songs into an album usually requires filtering a few things out to make it a stronger whole.  Some of them are weaker, some of them just don’t really fit.  I currently have 16 songs in a folder called “other unreleased” and another 6 simply called “no.”

This method of working quickly has been really helpful to me.  Through 2016-2017 I recorded over 380 songs this way.  After several months, I found myself consciously critiquing my overall output and realizing that some things worked and others didn’t.  Decades of scattershot music-making — trying to do almost everything that interests me, which is a lot — were brought into focus.  After a few more months of refining both my gear and technique, I started recording albums again with this new focus.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear.  One of my favorite things I’ve read this year.

Going back to make little tweaks and adjustments and additions to a song dozens of times didn’t really serve me so well.  Many changes didn’t necessarily improve anything, just make it different, satisfying my ear fatigue.  More importantly, those changes only affected a single song — what I needed was to improve my whole practice.  I stopped arranging the pine needles in my forest just so when I realized I preferred oaks anyway.

It would be nice to tell the story that I went to this single-session thing as part of a grand plan.  Really, the single-session thing was driven by my transition from 100% software music-making to a mixed approach — and some faulty, unreliable little desktop synths I was trying to work with at the time — and the fact that using these synths meant taking up space on my desk that I needed for other things.  It was easier to just get it done and put it away, than to keep it set up and running for multiple days while hoping nothing would crash or get accidentally unplugged!

I stuck with these habits — to me it fits perfectly with the transitory nature of patching a modular synthesizer.  About which I’ll just throw out another quote:

“I think the modular sound has less to do with timbre and more to do with the fact that when people are patching a modular, they seem to be less interested in micro-management as a music-making process.  The extreme magnification of musical event time and pitch provided by modern DAWs seems to curate what people believe to be perfect music through the aid of a machine.

Music made with the modular system is, in my opinion, a pure and interesting collaboration between human and machine.  It displays well the beauty and the blemish in both (human and machine)… it might be less perfect by judgement of mainstream music taste, but perhaps more exciting to those of us seeking a deeper connection to the music.”

Tony Rolando, founder of Make Noise

My process is this:  I set up the entire song:  sound design, composition, sequencing and/or performance plan, mixing, effects, all of it.  And then I record it “live” to a stereo channel.  If I feel it’s a good take, that’s it — it’s committed.  I take notes to satisfy my later curiosity, shut it down and unpatch the modular.  There’s no multitracking, no going back and making small changes or revisiting mixing decisions.  The only editing possible from that point is on the “finished” mix.

Sometimes a lot does happen in that editing, but generally it falls into “mastering” enhancement and cleanup, or bold-stroke creative changes — not revisiting past decisions.  Always moving forward, no going back.

Regret that I can’t make those changes is rare and minor at most.  For all of the fear that some people have of working with a synthesizer that can’t save presets, this is never a thing that has bothered me about modular synths.  Instead of saving and loading sounds with perfect recall, I remember general techniques that will lead to new creations in the future.  Always moving forward!

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