Recently I was watching an excellent documentary on origami called “Beyond The Fold”, and in it there were a lot of parallels I found with people who make music. One of the points that some of the ‘older’ artists brought up, was that people just new to the art form spent so much time concentrating on technique, versus emotional message. They were more concerned initially about pushing the boundaries of how many folds their pieces had (because more is always better don’t you know!), and less concerned with pushing what the piece was trying to say.
In a lot of ways this reminded me of myself when it came to music production, especially when I made the jump from hardware to a software based set up. Since I no longer had to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on each EQ or compressor I had at my disposal, I was MUCH more inclined to use as many as I could. Not just those either, for the first time I had so much flexibility at my fingertips, that I needed to spend a lot of time and effort really learning what each tool did and how to use it properly. Not to mention all the intricacies of digital audio recording.
I started on a crusade, a mission to learn as much as I could about about audio production and engineering. I read every magazine I could get my hands on, front to back, even the sections about how country producers would DI a bass guitar, or how the FOH guy at a mega-church balanced the singers in the choir. I borrowed old college text books from friends, I read every interview online I could, every white paper, you name it. I was devoted to learning as many techniques as I could, it was an all encompasing life passion at that point.
And then one day a few years later, I had sort of an epiphany. I realized that a lot of the techniques that directly related to my craft and the way I wrote music, well… I didn’t need to think about them anymore. Gain-staging, recording a signal at the proper level, the basics of digital audio, etc, these things had all been practiced and pondered so much that I no longer was really devoting much mental thought to how I incorporated them in my writing. They were part of my workflow, they were being used daily.
At about the same time I realized this, I also noticed just how much effort I was still putting into trying to learn as much as I could, about everything music related. It’s a neverending task, and got to the point where I had maybe stopped trying to progress as an artist, and had spent too much time trying to progress as an audio engineer. Pretty sure this portion of the epiphany occurred after finishing a hellish 8 hour session in the studio where I had worked furiously to create two little drum fills. I mean, I’m sure they were really good, but was getting THAT wrapped up in hyper-editing and trying to cram as much as possible into 1 measure really helping me progress as an artist?
So, I took a step back and re-looked at the situation. I made a conscious effort to stop putting the technique first, and instead really think about what it was I was trying to say with my music. I started reading interviews with artists not to see what gear they used, but instead focusing on why they make music. Or what advice they could offer in regards to creativity, regardless of the medium they preferred (painting, dance, architecture, etc).
It’s been a real struggle at times too, as I’ve learned to really embrace the less is more mindset. My music is often a lot simpler, and dare I say it, less polished sounding now. But on the flip side, I hear a lot more of ME in my music these days too. And it’s more fun as well, as I stop worrying about if I’m doing things the ‘right’ way, and instead just focus on having fun and creating in general.
I guess what I’m ultimately trying to say is this. It can be good to spend a lot of time learning the tools and techniques of your craft, but there comes a time when you have to step back from all that and forget what you’ve learned. Practice it to the point where it becomes second nature and facilitates your art, instead of using those techniques AS your art (*cough* wobble basslines, stutter edits *cough*). When the nitty gritty details become so ingrained that you no longer need to think about them, the more mental capacity you’ll have to make something truly unique and reflective of what you’re trying to say as a musician. That I think is the real journey we’re after, what it really means to be an artist.
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Peace and beats,