When I was in High School, one of my art teachers told me something that, for whatever reason, has stuck with me for a long time. She said “true artists are never done with a piece, they just learn when to move on”. For a long time I didn’t really understand what she meant by this, of course artists finish a piece of work, how else would they be able to show it to others?
As I’ve spent more and more time working on my own music, I’ve gradually come to understand what it was she was trying to say. In this day of computers and Digital Audio Workstations, it’s entirely possible to spend forever working on just one song if you were so inclined. In fact, for 4 years now I’ve had a client who has had me master the same song probably about 15 times. Every few months he comes and gives me a new version, usually with only a couple of minor tweaks to it. Sometimes even I can’t tell what is different. Unfortunately, it’s an extreme example of how it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the idea of something being ‘perfect’, that you never learn how to let it go and progress to other challenges. (and yes, I’ve discussed this with him many times)
But it doesn’t have to be that extreme, the principle applies to all areas of music production. For instance, I’ve learned over the years that working with MIDI in my DAW is not a very productive thing for me to do. Recording softsynths for example, most DAWs are designed to record the MIDI notes you play via MIDI controller. This of course gives you the ability to go back and fix any mistakes, though for me that usually ends up being an endless black hole of wasted time and effort.
I tend to take it to extremes and correct all the life out of whatever it was I played in the first place, even when I consciously know that I always do this and try to avoid it. So for me the answer has been to record everything I play directly to an audio track, so that the temptation for me to fix things that really don’t matter isn’t there. It keeps me moving forward, and not focusing small mistakes that others might not notice.
Of course, knowing that you need to move on at times, and knowing WHEN to move on are two different things. Recently I was giving an interview about the process I use when preparing a new live set, and I was asked how I knew when I was done with the set and it was ready to perform. After a few minutes of thinking about this, I realized I really didn’t have a simple answer. It’s never been anything more than a gut feeling for me, a sudden realization that “right, this is done, time to call it a day”. This has always been true for me, with any art form I work with.
More often than not, I start a new song with really high goals. It’ll be stunningly complex, have lots of fills and edits, layers and layers of deep sounds to draw you in. But more often than not, I get to a point in the writing process where suddenly it feels done, even though I haven’t yet completed half of the things I had planned. I reach a point where I know that yes, I can continue to work on this and put all those little flourishes in the track, but ultimately, no one will probably notice and I’ll just be wasting my time. Or worse, I’ll overdo it, and ruin the best parts of the song by making it too complex. So instead, I just stop where I am and wrap things up so I can release the song.
I had other examples I was going to share about this concept, but I’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes struggling to think of one that would allow me to end this post in a witty and memorable way. Guess it’s ultimately not needed though, I’ve already made my point. Time to take my own advice and just move on…