Learn To Forget

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,

16 Replies to “Learn To Forget”

  1. Ultimately it comes down to a good song. Many songs recorded in the sixties had lousy equipment but they sold like hotcakes and are still heard today. Nowadays with zillions of plug-ins the songs are not that well-crafted, rather a wall of effects, me thinks.

  2. I think that’s certainly a good example. At the same time I think it’s possible to have a really good sounding, well-written song, it doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of situation.

  3. This post is timely, as I think I’ve just had that same epiphany (how coincidental given the liturgical calendar). Working on a track the other day, reverb here, additional effects there, thinking what effect would “go” here. . . and then a question: why? why the reverb? why the effect? what is it contributing to the song (not the sound)?

    it’s a tricky thing (what are a lot of EM “pieces” without THAT sound?), but asking these questions i think leads to simpler approaches, or approaches that at least help to convey or support meaning rather than muddying it.

  4. “Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch is no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.”

    I think if you substitute “snare” for “punch,” Bruce Lee could’ve been talking about making music.

  5. Hehe, I’m a huge Bruce Lee fan, not so much for his martial arts, but for his philosophy. I have all this books, read them many times. My favorite quote of his is always on my studio wall:

    “Art reaches it’s greatest peak when devoid of self-conciousness. Freedom discovers man the moment he loses concern over what impression he is making, or about to make.”

  6. Nice thoughts here. I think the ambitious learning phase is essential, but as you say the trick is knowing when to cut it off or at least balance it out with a focus on creativity over know-how. That said, sometimes the learning is just so fun and so addicting that it’s hard for me to approach projects without something ‘new’ (on the tech side, I mean) as part of that project. Ever start a project using the same set of tools as before and just feel like you get the same results you did last time, and find yourself frustrated? This happens to me all the time, and so I get stuck in that drive to always find new stuff, learn new stuff, always capture a sense of being challenged by new tools, processes, approaches, etc, and conquering them. I guess the trick is challenging yourself by learning new ways to use what you already have and know. Cevin Key has talked about re-arranging his studio before going into recording each SP album; what was used most on the last album goes to the back of the studio, what wasn’t used comes to the front, routing gets changed up, etc etc. I need to figure out the digital/software-era equivalent of that studio re-arrangement to keep things fresh and exciting each time around.

  7. Ah, cEvin Key, another hero of mine! I’m not surprised at his working methods, then again have you seen all the gear they have at Subconcious Studios? Lots of thing to constantly put to the back!

  8. A necessary article. I’ve heard amazing affective music from people with very little technical foundation. It IS possible. It is those beautiful people who are making music from the heart, mostly uncalculated and very freeform in some cases. They are using their ears in an entirely different way than some people who only wish to make music to be recognised like their favourite influential artists. One must compose and forget the world beyond the sound in the ears for a while then come back and learn to put the polish on. I too have gone full-circle. I became my own worst critic and it really depressed me not so long ago. I am glad that I snapped out of it before it was too late. I’m on the recovery still amof. Just sit down and make the damn music your heart desires to get out. That is my new mantra. When an initial impression is made within the self the rest will follow.

  9. Top notch and bang on again Tarekith.

    Love your blog man, you keep writing and posting a NSB link, I’ll keep reading 🙂

  10. Nice article, reminds me of a parallel that exists in computer programming, where a lot of people are obsessed with writing “beautiful” code, or using the latest technology. But they forget that people don’t really care about how a bit of software was written, they just want it to do the job. What you really need to concentrate on is “what problem are you trying to solve”, and I suppose the musical equivalent is what emotion or feeling are you trying to express? I guess the technology / techniques you use can make solving the problem easier, but they’re not a solution in themselves.

    Not sure if “learning to forget” is quite the right way to put it, but I guess you kind of want to practise until you don’t need to consciously think about the correct technique, and then concentrate your higher level thoughts on actual musical or emotional ideas. Hope that makes some sort of sense 🙂

  11. Yes, I know what you mean. I have an ongoing argument about this with Audiofile Engineering guys and their Wave Editor app (which I love). They are so concerned with keeping things in line with Apple’s terminology, that sometimes in doing so they make things more difficult for the user.

    For instance, Wave Editor can open formats like MP3, FLAC, etc, but since they are not natively supported, you have to use the Import command instead of the Open command. Ditto with saving, there’s a Save, Save As, Save To, and Export function to save the different file types, when all the end user really needs is Save and Save As.

  12. Can I just add how happy it makes me to see Bruce Lee and cEvin Key referenced in the same discussion? It’s like someone’s been digging around in my subconscious. 😀

    My current struggle on this topic is something like this: I think electronic musicians have lost their damn minds when it comes to the “necessities” of music making. You can’t place a kick drum anymore, you have to stack FOUR kick drums and compress and EQ carve the hell out of them before submixing your frankenkick into your drums group where it will be compressed and EQ’d again then sent to the master where there will be more compressing, EQ’ing, limiting (not to mention that if you pulled that kick from a sample library, the original producer of the sample probably ran through this process once already). Oh, and then mastering.

    On the one hand there’s a certain amount of glee that comes from this, in a Tim Allen “AR AR ARR!!” sort of way. On the other hand, it’s getting really really hard to remember the names of dance-oriented songs that came out as recently as a year ago because, well, they all kinda run together after a while, don’t they? I can’t remember the names of ANY songs in the last mix I put together, and that was at Christmas. However, I can rhapsodize at length and in detail about the beauties of The Young God’s 1997 album “Only Heaven”. I think clearly we, as a whole, have lost our way a bit, but I also wonder how the public would respond to electronic music that takes a step backward in the technical arms race? For example, I saw LTJ Bukem last year and was completely disappointed because what he was spinning was the same obnoxious drivel everyone else was that night and had nothing to do with the nearly magical tunes I was used to from him (I have a Radio1 session with him from the late 90’s that is just magnificent). At the same time, I couldn’t imagine trying to work “Demon’s Theme” or “Atlantis” into a DnB set because it would just sound so, well, old when placed next to newer stuff. So I’m conflicted there.

    Final kvetch: I really REALLY hate that we call songs “tracks”. I think that’s indicative of half the problem right there.

  13. Well, it’s not something I can necessarily objectively prove, it just seems like music (like everything else I guess) is becoming increasingly commodified at every stage. Blame iTunes. 😀

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