Robair Report: Make It Hard on Yourself

People like to complain that there is too much music being created. When I hear musicians say that, it often sounds like sour grapes: What they’re really saying is that they want their music to tak

Gino Robair

People like to complain that there is too much music being created. When I hear musicians say that, it often sounds like sour grapes: What they’re really saying is that they want their music to take up the bandwidth. However, I like the fact that anyone can make music now, whether it’s with an app, an arranger keyboard or a loop-based DAW. The more the average person knows about the music-making process, the better they’ll appreciate the artists who really know what they’re doing. And in the age of shrinking music sales, we could use a bit more of that.

Nearly anyone who spends a little time with programs such as Propellerhead Reason or Apple GarageBand finds that they can make something enjoyable fairly easily and quickly because of the way software engineers have designed the tools. These kinds of apps are not specifically designed for a paint-by-numbers experience, but there is enough content available that novices can use it that way if they desire. Meanwhile, someone like Brendon Small can score an entire season of Metalocalypse in his apartment using Reason, and Erykah Badu can develop an innovative album in GarageBand. No matter how such programs are used, they allow us to make more music more quickly if that’s what we want.

As a result, we often let the tools dictate how we work and what kind of music we make. With so many choices of DAWs, we like to believe that we gravitate toward the one or two that best fits our needs. But the anecdotal evidence I find shows that people stick with the first product they learn. Other products seem inferior or annoying; they do not work the way we expect them to because we’re used to one particular system.

Of course time is money, and workflow is about maximizing productivity against time. For example, we usually end up with a preferred signal path for vocals because we can predict how it will behave, and we know it’s a winning formula. And the clock is ticking, so we follow our routine until something forces us to change it.

But what about our own projects? Should we mindlessly use the same setup when it comes to a creative endeavor that is off the clock, so to speak? Do we become a prisoner of all of the time-saving workflow enhancements that were added to our favorite DAW because of “user demand”? Workflows that—to put it bluntly—removed a portion of the creative part of our imagination by making things too easy? Or should we continue to tell ourselves that we are working within the DAWs limitations, despite it being an increasingly streamlined system.

As a writer, I use a word processor because it allows me to write and edit large projects quickly. But I’m often in a place where I can’t get to my laptop, so I have to rely on some other form of capturing and working with ideas. Often, that means using a piece of scrap paper and a pencil, which at that moment feels like the most inconvenient and inefficient way to work. Yet, it’s at those times that unusual and interesting things happen because, for me, the combination of pencil and paper opens up ways to capture ideas that go beyond organized groups of letters and numbers.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was difficult to make music. Not just good music—any music. You had to be proficient enough on an instrument to get your ideas across. There were fewer choices in every aspect of the MI and pro-audio markets, and decent gear was expensive. The technology didn’t allow you to do everything—write, record, mix, master, replicate and distribute a song—all by yourself. At nearly every point, there was a struggle, and conquering this adversity had the potential of making the project that much stronger.

Who the hell wants to deal with that anymore?

In a conversation with art critic David Sylvester in 1966 (Interviews with American Artists, Yale University Press), composer John Cage said that his “concern for the irrational, and … belief that it is important to us in our lives, is akin to the use of the koan in Zen Buddhism:” That “by asking a question which could not be answered rationally,” we transcend our normal “observation of relationships and our rational faculties.”

That immediately brought to mind the story Bruce Swedien tells of how Michael Jackson doubled vocal parts: Rather than stand directly in front of the mic to get the optimum tone and volume level for each new overdub, he would position himself at different distances and off-axis positions to simulate the placement of voices in a choir. These days, one would try to re-create the sound of an off-axis voice using a plug-in, but the differences in performance between the various takes requires an old-school approach.

At a time when creativity is becoming increasingly outsourced to the engineers that design our gear, the challenge is to get past the interface and re-connect with the barriers that kick our ass and make us find interesting solutions to problems that naturally occur. It may slow us down, but the results are likely to give our work a chance to stand out against the multitude of projects that are generated on autopilot.

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