Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Distortion happens before the mic is even flipped on

The process of creating art induces distortion! How ridiculous does that sound! But how true it is!

If you've read my earlier musings (c'mon, it's not like I've got a vast repertoires), you know I am fascinated by Brooks Jensen and his writings. He's a very keen observer and thinker. Once again, it's proved here. "The process of being a photographer is to work diligently to minimize the degradation in each step from conception to the final result" italics are mine for emphasis. Read the book that it's in, Letting Go Of The Camera. I love it.

I just immediately thought that there is no reason I should find this to be so profound. Of course, we only find music and other arts to be so beautiful because we can see through it into the minds of their creators which is the object of real intrigue. It's very easy for me to call music beautiful when it's beautiful on its surface. The best music, the stuff that give me ERS, is the music that is so clear that I can KNOW without any hesitation what was in the creator's head.

Think of all the ways any artist can wreck what was initially a flash of life-altering creative vision. That'll take us forever, and I must sleep tonight, or I'll be cranky and unsympathetic when you call tomorrow with a blown tweeter and need it back by Saturday.

Let's start smaller. Think of 10 ways a singer/songwriter can adulterate what would otherwise be his career defining song. Specifically, 5 technical flaws and 5 creative flaws. When you're writing your list, consider that these flaws might not be immediately evident upon first listen, and the song might still be very good, even touching, but it just didn't move you because...

Technical Flaws-
1. It doesn't sound like it's in an intimate space that I feel like I'm sharing with the singer when I hear it played back.

2. Said singer/songwriter just didn't connect with his voice and guitar that day. It's just merely a bad performance. Or, the artist just isn't a master of his craft. That's not to say you have to be a virtuoso, you just don't want your impeccable vision blurred by your inability to control your voice, guitar, whatever else you play.

3. Other noises, goings on, punch ins, print through on the tape, etc. that you never intended to be there and don't add anything to the performance or presentation. Let's be professionals here y'all. You don't have to own Ocean Way to make a quality recording.

4. Unless your vision very deliberately includes liberties with the tuning of instruments, please play in tune. And, no, that doesn't mean auto-tuning it later. Take the time to tune EVERYTHING. It counts, it really really does. Oh, if your vision DOES include liberties, be prepared to defend yourself, number of cents you meant to be off included. Or, better yet, it should be so clear to me after being unbelievably moved by your song that I shouldn't have to ask why you only played your A string out of tune.

5. Make sure your voice sounds just like it did when the song came to you in your head. When you conceived your song, remember how excited you got when you heard the pre-chorus singing to yourself in your head? Voices have such nuance. Please let me hear every one you heard in your head.

1. It's really easy to always think that every little thing that happens in the studio or in collaboration with your producer means something and should be part of the song. Not every accident is a happy one. Happy accidents do occur and can really ice the cake of an already good song, but we don't always get the little inside jokes or irony behind little accidents that happen. Choose the ones you include wisely.

2. As silly as it sounds to some, I'm sure, put the song in the right place relative to the rest of the album. This is probably more a matter of personal preference, but I think choosing and arranging the songs that go on an album together is an art unto itself. A great example is hearing Ryan Adam's harmonica wail into "Come Pick Me Up' right after "Damn Sam". There's just about nothing on this album that surprises me any more; I've played it gazillions of times. But I'll be damned if that part doesn't raise the hair on the back of my neck every time. I don't get it when I hear the song in a compilation like the Elizabethtown soundtrack.

3. If something bothers you as an artist a little bit in the studio or while writing it, you won't possibly be able to listen around it, and rest assured it'll drive you nuts. Maybe it'll drive you so crazy that the song doesn't mean anything to you anymore by the time you're done with it. I botched a snare track once pretty badly, but I was able to 'save' it in the mix. I even did such a great job fixing it that I got complimented on how right the snare sounded on the song by the very professor that critiqued my mix. But, a few others picked up on it, and every time I hear the song, I can't help but wish I got to re-track the snare.

4. Don't be afraid to let your vision evolve, grow, or be altered, but be sure it changes for the right reason. For example, don't change it for technical reasons like you can't quite lick that riff. Just learn how to lick that riff. How idealistic is that!

5. You'll know you really nailed it when it's done and you can still be excited about it, at least smile. If you just wipe your forehead and say geez, glad that's over with, something probably went wrong somewhere along the way.

I realize that this turned into more of a plea to the artists. I didn't mean for that to happen, nor am I really qualified to make such claims. But, that's my list and I'm stickin' to it. Send me yours as a comment. I'd really like to hear your thoughts.


PS - ERS is "Endless Repeat Syndrome". It's the kind if thing that used to break your cassette tapes in the car at the same song every time you'd buy a new copy of the tape.


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