Since the turn of the millennium, drawing conclusions from tried and true experience doesn’t always result something expected. We live in a world of options, change and constant acceleration, so the tools and techniques of yesterday might not apply anymore or not work as well. Returning to the past to solve the problems of today and dismissing difference can be a serious problem. I think of it as a warning sign of rigid thinking. It is something that I’ve worked to drive out of how I work, and yet it still creeps into my life in unexpected ways.
As is often the case, rigid thinking can ruin best intentions. To draw upon music analogy, instead of a steady beat, we live and work in a world of layered patterns. When patterns interfere, dissonance surfaces; when aligned, harmony rises. The same is true for how we get things done. A method that has systematically worked for decades may actually turn out to be dissonant within our fast-paced digital present. The tried-and-true could be a siloed perspective and the most complicated way of solving a problem today. In short, dogmatically adhering to the way things were is likely not the best way to address the challenges of the present and future.
Whether redefining the customer experience or crafting a song, rigidity raises roadblocks and those roadblocks can be quickly and negatively amplified. Case in point, the creation of the first cut off of my EP started as a frustrated reaction to the outcome of my previous album, Eight. In short, Eight didn’t come out the way I wanted — it lacked a certain punch and feel that I was looking for. The more I tried to fix the songs on the album, the worse it got. Eventually I became frustrated, declared Eight done and moved on. I channeled the frustration in my own skills toward a new project, which led me to create the song, “Hours,” on the Reply EP.
While important, vast experience doesn’t always lead to the right answer and in hindsight, that’s what negatively affected Eight. Many decades ago, I learned how to produce music in a 24-track all-analog recording studio, and was a live FOH engineer who lived and died by my reaction time to realtime issues. While quite different back then without the benefit of automation and adaptive tools, I learned techniques that translate to modern digital production. Unfortunately, I also succumbed to rigid thinking rooted in past experience around console-style, hands-on manual mixing that doesn’t fully translate to digital composition and producing. Eight suffers from old, rigid assumptions that adversely affected the desired outcome. My final mastering is way off for a variety of analogreasons and some of the mixes still feel congested rather than saturated.
Frustrated, I needed help. In this case, I turned to my local Apple store. I had a few stems left over from Eight, so I signed up for a “Today at Apple” session that had a do your own thing element to learn and get some advice. I packed up my MacBook Pro and Blue Lolas, and headed over to take in a scheduled session.
I shared the stems with one of the store’s staff, Ryan, and the first thing he pointed out was that they could benefit from movement. Movement? Old skool me immediately jumped to a panning delay, but that’s not what he meant. He was referring to motion in a psychoacoustic spatial field (my words). Growing up in a rigid world of analog knobs, I had no clue how to even approach that challenge and my panning delay solution exploded into a horrible sonic mess. With Ryan’s coaching, I discovered the potential in an open digital sound field. By the end of the first session, stems had motion rooted music of today, not a vintage approach from yesterday.
One stem had a pretty solid bass line built upon layered synths, so we had a conversation about that. We talked about bass doing more than providing a foundation to tie everything together and at his suggestion, the bass became the centerpiece supported by everything else. It worked. To offset the bass punch, I went back to his first comment motion and turned to pads that shift around the sound field. The field quickly filled and became congested like many of my pieces on Eight. Hearing this, he suggested taking things out to make the music feel bigger. Creating sonic space opened things up and changed the direction of the song. A classic approach applied to my problem, nuanced by present-day experience.
After a few more sessions, the stem turned into a song and that turned into “Hours.” In the process, I broke some old habits and developed some new techniques. Rigid thinking gave way to not thinking about virtual knobs and sliders to define my sound. In the end, Ryan pushed me to make the song what it is now, defined how I approached the entire EP and changed my production technique for the better.
Today, there are so many different ways to approach a problem that defaulting to experience to drive oneself toward an outcome may lead to more frustration than productive good. When you hit a wall, my advice is to take a moment to set dogma and nostalgia aside and be inspired by a different perspective. Step back from your own habits, norms and rigidity, and focus on what you want to achieve rather leaning on “proven” steps for an answer. Those steps that served you well for years and maybe even decades might instead prove to rehash worn assumptions and techniques that need to be refreshed. Experience is good, but take time to disrupt yourself.