Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Small Decisions

A "simple" problem in music production, for example not being able to understand what a singer is saying (in an otherwise good mix of a song), rarely has a simple solution.  In this case, solving the problem might involve carving out frequencies from other instruments and extending pre-delays on reverbs to keep them from obscuring for the vocal line, adding multiple layers of dynamic compression to the vocal track(s), applying EQ to bring out consonants, adding some multi-band compression to reign in the consonants (usually S's) that are now too prominent, and manually tweaking the gain on the remaining few problem spots.  This is, in fact, pretty much what I did over the past week to gain a bit of clarity on a vocal line.  In my opinion, the end result is an obvious improvement, but each step along the way was a very subtle one. 

In my experience, this is the way most of the creative process goes.  In writing, arranging, mixing and mastering music, the vast majority of my time is spent making small, difficult judgment calls - very rare is the "eureka" moment where I happen upon the perfect chord that gives a chorus lift, or the right EQ boost to a the kick drum that makes a lackluster beat into a good groove.  Those moments happen, and they're thrilling, but they're not representative of how I spend my time in the studio.  Of course, those moments make the best stories, so they're what movies, "behind the music" shows, and pretty much any other entertainment-oriented depiction of the creative process is focused on. 

My main point isn't that "real life isn't like the movies" - which, of course, it isn't, but most people are aware of that already.  My point is that great artists aren't necessarily* great because they're able to spontaneously create fully-formed masterpieces, but because they can consistently and efficiently make many small decisions that lead to an end product - be it a song, painting, screenplay, etc. - that's great.

* I emphasize necessarily because this is precisely what a few geniuses, particularly young prodigies, are known for.