Six things I sort of believe about making music
I've now been recording music at home for most of my life. I started at around 14. I would record things into audacity, sometimes with my friend Cameron, but more often by myself. I had no real idea of how to write, arrange, or record music. Besides a few covers I would mostly record incredibly abstruse 'experimental music'. I would make 'field recordings' then manually edit them and add random effects I could find until I got something that sounded good to me. Here's an example (ignore that this was published in 2016, I recorded it way earlier).
At this point I was recording using the cheapest microphone that was available at our nearest computer store. My parents got me so I could talk to strangers on the internet while playing Guild Wars.
When I tried to record more traditional multi tracked music I would play the existing music through my computer speakers whilst recording. After a few layers this would start to lead to huge build ups of certain frequencies - usually bass - which would make everything sound muddy, and would probably upset anyone that tried listening with a subwoofer.
For a while I didn't really understand why all my recordings had this issue, I would try and EQ out the bass notes - but that never worked very well. Eventually I discovered that if I monitored using headphones I didn't get the same problem. This was a huge epiphany for me, and was a massive step forward in my ability to record things. This leads to my first lesson
1: Try and record the thing well in the first place. It's the best and easiest way to get a good result.
As I mentioned: my microphone was awful. Eventually I bought a slightly more expensive USB microphone that could make things sound reasonably nice. At this point I realised I had horrendous latency issues.
I had moved from Audacity to Ableton, where I would listen back to my recordings, trying to overdub new parts, feeling like I was playing pretty tight and in time. But when I listened back my playing would sound totally off. I was always miles behind the beat, sounding incredibly sloppy and rhythmless. For months I thought this was a deficiency in my playing, until eventually I discovered some latency setting, read about what latency was and realised what was going on.
I tried my best to fix my latency problems, failed, put up with it for ages, and then eventually used my student loan to buy an audio interface and a shure SM57 microphone. These are two of the best buys I’ve ever made. I could suddenly record things that were pretty much in time, and also everything I recorded sounded way way better. So this leads to lesson two
2: Sometimes (but not very often) your equipment actually is the issue. If you want to record audio, you should buy an audio interface.
So at this point I had the sufficient technical skills and the equipment necessary to record basically any music that I would want to make. But I started running into what is a very common problem. I would never finish anything. I’d start pieces, make reasonable progress, and then spend hours making irrelevant changes no one would notice getting more and more confused about what I was doing, and whether the piece I was working on was any good. Finally I would give up, start something new, and leave whatever I had been working on to fester forgotten on some external harddrive. As far as I know that’s where it still remains today.
This was bad. I now believe that the best way to improve at anything is to finish work, put it out into the world, and see how people respond. Spending hours finessing things you will never release is a recipe for frustration and stagnation. The only time I would manage to release anything would be during weird semi manic episodes when I would have time by myself, feel full of ideas and manage to record a bunch of stuff in one day. For example, I recorded these three tracks in one morning/afternoon. They're by no means good music, but they are at least interesting - and ‘finished’, which is more than could be said for most of the things I worked on at this time.
Anyway, I eventually discovered a life changing life-hack which I have now used for years to force myself to finish and release music. It’s called ‘Christmas Music’.
Yes, Christmas Music.
It's the perfect tool to force an over thinking musician to buckle up and finish something. It provides three key benefits:
A theme - what to write about is always a hard question. Christmas music massively narrows your options, and gives you a world of existing references to draw on.
Low Stakes - Generally people don't like Christmas music, and consider it as essentially a joke. When you release your art into the world, it always feels like the stakes are high, even when there is absolutely no risk involved. If you can tell yourself 'no need to worry it's just christmas music', then you have art without fear
A DEADLINE - This is the real key. Christmas music needs to come out before Christmas. So you have to finish it. Voila.
I've now released some sort of Christmas music every year since 2013. Some is good. Some is bad. But it all exists and is published.
3: You need to find ways to force yourself to finish things. Arbitrary deadlines are actually sometimes good.
Technology again (benefits)
At some point I started getting more involved (lurking) in online communities that focused on music production. I realised that there were lots of things that I could have learnt faster by watching tutorials. I also realised that lots of people had lots of cool equipment that let them create lots of weird sounds. This coincided with me having my first job, and thus disposable income to spend on luxuries. So I bought an Arturia MiniBrute and a Dreadbox Erebus. I love both of these synths, which I would use together and play into my recordings. They opened up a new world of sounds for me - even though I'd been using their software equivalents for years. Being hands on with the controls of these things finally made me understand how subtractive synthesis worked - and pushed my music in a much more electronic direction.
4: using different tools and equipment can shake up your established processes and let you create things you wouldn't have otherwise
Technology again (dangers)
So this was a good time, and I was making music I was happy with. At some point I became a software engineer, had more disposable income, and had discovered the concept of modular synthesisers. Obviously this is a terrible combination. I bought some modules, built a system and really enjoyed playing it. Being able to make pretty complex music without having to look at my laptop felt like a real gift.
The problem was that the music I was making had changed entirely. This is the first coherent release I made with the new setup:
it bears no relation to my previous work which, as mentioned, I liked and enjoyed making. But now I was spending all my music time on modular music, which was not really interesting to anyone besides myself, and my ability to make the kind of music I had before melted away as I didn't use it. Which leads to my next ~lesson~ warning:
5: Tools and equipment impose themselves on you. If you change your processes too much it is hard to built up an identity other than as someone who is inconsistent.
I've more recently been moving back towards making more structured music, and integrating my various musical interests. It's exciting and I am looking forward to having something finished which I can share. Which leads me to final point:
6: Making your own work is a good thing to do, even if no one else is interested in what you are making. To create is to be human
By the way
I've been talking about music. But I think these ideas roughly track onto any other creative endeavour (including bodybuilding). If you think they don't I'd love to talk about it, but I'm actually quite busy right now.
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