Don't be Afraid of the Obvious

Quoting one of my earlier posts, rule number two states , “It’s always simpler than it seems.” Okay, so the rule is a bit simplistic. But it  can furnish a sense of optimism, false or otherwise, in the face of overwhelmingly difficult tasks. Creating a piece of music consists of the same multi-tiered process as cooking a great meal or putting a man on the surface of Mars. When considered in its entirety, the process, from conception through development and execution, can be daunting, and every artist has a distinct method of logistical organization.

cubaseSome of us take the trial and error route and agonize over every conceivable possibility before finalizing a guitar solo, a kick drum eq or even which color to use for the EFX channel strip. Then there are those who seem to float through the process effortlessly, the so-called “naturals.” Both extremes and all points between are valid but I think that what makes a musician, athlete or even an accountant seem like a natural consists of two things. First, and this is a topic all to itself, being exquisitely prepared through education and repetition. When you really know what you are doing, things tend to come naturally, or so it seems to those less prepared. And second, with intense preparation and knowledge comes the ability to predict the future.

Okay, so before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I’m saying that competence allows one to predict the future by taking the guess work out of the creative process. With the ability to filter irrelevance before the fact comes courage. And a courageous artist is not afraid of the obvious. There exists an image of the mythical studio musician who can read fly shit on paper and play every Charlie Parker solo at 260 bpm. Many young musicians, thinking that this is the yardstick by which they are to be measured, start right off bumbling their way through be-bop solos before they can play Happy Birthday or even Row Your Boat without making a mistake. And when it comes to putting a rhythm track together for a pop song, they will reach for the most complicated fingerings or extended chord voicings instead of the major triad waving from the back of the room begging to be called upon.

With all the great new toys available, one person can be band, engineer, producer and mastering studio without ever leaving the chair. The possibilities for creativity are endless. But when working alone, I try to put my head back into sessions where the room was filled with real people who were very good at whatever it was that they were there to do. Great drummers play even the simplest parts with conviction. Great bassists play big fat grooves that lock with the drummer and stay out of the way of whatever is happening up top. Right down the line-up it can be striking how very simple a guitar or keyboard part can be when taken out of context. But all those simple little parts can add up to a killer track because they are played with conviction. Experienced studio musicians have huge vocabularies but their main talent lies in quickly and unemotionally eliminating material irrelevant to the song no matter how cool it may be.

autopsyIn working with musicians of limited recording experience, and using my own early years as prime example, young musicians can be stymied by knowing what to leave out more than what to put into a recording. Experimentation is a great device, but the knowledge resulting from detailed analysis can allow an artist to develop a personal style based on skill and preference rather than the limitations of a truncated vocabulary. All of us have musical heroes or favorite artists to whom we look for inspiration. So why not go further and perform an autopsy on a favorite recording? Cut it open from chin to scrotum and find out what’s really in there. Figure out the chord voicings and guitar articulations. Pull the bass pattern out of the deceased and give it a good once over. It might be absurdly simple laying there all by itself but observe how exquisitely it interacts with the other instruments. Take the vocal apart and imagine yourself singing the song. Out of everything you hear, what would you need in the headphones in order to make it feel that way.

In practical terms, don’t be afraid to go with the obvious whether it’s a guitar lick, a drum pattern or a reverb preset. The important thing is the song and there is absolutely no danger of some grad student in an audio engineering course tearing apart your track and accusing you of not diddling enough with the high frequency roll-off of the reverb plug-in. And don’t worry about impressing your fellow musicians. Some might criticize your work because you didn’t use the Lydian mode in the fourth measure of the solo…but those types don’t buy music anyway so don’t waste your time. If you’re using Guitar Rig, Amplitube or something like Line6’s Pod products to get your guitar sounds, don’t let all the wacky toys overwhelm you. You might create an amazing sound that turns to mush as soon as you try to cram it into your mix. Somewhere in that program there has to be a decent Marshall Plexi, Vox Top Boost, or Fender Tweed that will sit in there just right.

And don’t be afraid of doing the work that will give you the time saving skills of a natural. You can spin your wheels around all the ways to improve your skills. But ask anyone competent in their field, any so-called natural talent,  and they will tell you how easy everything became after they really knew what they were doing. Work your ass off and you will realize that it is indeed always simpler than it seems. Don’t be afraid of the obvious.

3 Responses to “Don't be Afraid of the Obvious”

  • Hey

    Completely agree with you Pete once again. Why don’t you live close to Paris? :)

    Anyway… We’re going in the studio in January and those different point of views will be taken into consideration.

    The only thing that scares is that I don’t want to repeat “Piece of Cake” once again. I’d really like to explore a little bit more. I want to record Sgt Pepper’s and not Please Please Me.

    To you, what is the difference between those 2 recordings? Isn’t it the exploration of new sounds, new ways of recording, new ways of considering arrangements?

    I’m eager to see your answer about this.

    oh, and btw, how do I suscribe to your RSS feed?

  • Great article Pete! “It’s always simpler than it seems.” That couldn’t be more dead-on.

    With all of the different hardware and software out, it’s so easy to get overwhelemed. And if you blink for too long, it seems like it’s going to take you 3 years to get back up to speed! It’s just nuts how fast everything has started to develop the last few years!

    Thanks for the post, Pete!

  • Thanks Pete. There are so many softwares out there that I have no idea what to buy =(.

    I’m not by any means a professional music artist but I do like mixing my own music and having a good program to help me do just that goes a long way to developing my little music hobby. I’ll give these programs a try. Thanks again for the recommendation.