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29 June, 2008

Perfectionism is a painful path

Location: the recording studio
Mood: oh, i don't know

I think that I would enjoy being a professional musician. Someone who is paid to play tracks in the studio all day, every day. I would enjoy the situation you hear about where a band will spend weeks in the studio just "getting the sounds", with a producer to assist and an engineer to position all the microphones and tell you exactly what sound will fit. I would even enjoy the idea of being that recording engineer, though I would probably not be thrilled to work with players who are not that skilled, because my patience is not exactly stellar, sorry to admit. That's not to say that I think I am anywhere near stellar, because I really do not think that. I just don't take that much time to deliver "pretty good". That's my specialty. I am a master of rapidly producing B+ work. That has been true in most things in my life. It is harder to get A+ work from me, and I question whether or not it is even possible. I think the only time you get A+ from me is if it accidentally comes out of me on the first try. I don't know. Maybe I am being too self-critical, as usual.

Back to what I was saying.

I would love to record full time. But I must say that recording part-time, for a few weeks out of a year, is challenging.

When we recorded the CD, we had a time constraint, we had a budget constraint, we didn't really know what we were doing, entirely. We had a generous engineer who did a lot for us "pro bono" because he was starting out his studio. But the problem is that it is hard to put your finger on the right level of "this is good enough". When you start off your sessions, you know you want to get a lot done, so there is a tendency to play a track, and if it sounds okay, you say "this is good enough, let's move on to the next one". But then over time, you start discovering little things here. Little things there. And they annoy. And sometimes it becomes difficult to go back and fix them, because the settings on the board are different. Or the settings on your amplifier. Or whatever.

The flip side is to start off your recording and be completely anal from step one. Not tolerating anything other than your perfect take, with a perfect tone. And you can drive yourself insane really fast if you come in with that attitude. But if you don't have that attitude, then you find yourself repeatedly listening back and thinking "I could play that a little better" or "I wonder how that would have sounded if I tried this" and you might talk yourself into redoing everything. With any form of art, I guess, whether it be painting, sculpture, music, writing, or whatever, there is a big unknown of "When is it done?"

How can you ever know?

When I was seeing Denise, I asked her one time about her paintings. I said "How do you know when you're done?", because her paintings always had many layers of color, and texture, and often different types of media would be pasted on to her work. And she would just grab this, grab that, and it was not clear if there was a plan. She said that there wasn't always a plan, but that she would keep going until she reached a point where she was like "I think this is kind of all done". With a painting, I can understand that, though I don't know if I could be that person who hangs up the painting and says it's all done.

But with music, which is obviously the only thing that I do that could remotely be called "art" and even then, only loosely, I have a lot harder time envisioning that comfortable "done" point. With the first CD that we did, I felt like one or two of the songs were just fucking fantastic. For instance some songs, I would not touch again if my life depended on it. If for some reason I needed to play that again, I am not sure I could do anything that would make me happier than what is on that recording. The song that I wrote is a different story. I was happy with my guitar sound. But I didn't play it perfectly. And we all agreed that perfect to the point of being "mechanical" was not the goal, but it was essentially a pop tune, and I felt I just didn't execute that well. Of course, I think the guitar that you hear on that recording was the first take we did of that song, with zero overdubs or punches. And I mean that literally. That was the scratch track! We never went back and redid those guitars, because they were "good enough". The engineer did a great job with tone, and I guess we played it well enough. Mark redid a lot of his guitar parts, if I remember correctly, or at least corrected mistakes. But mine was the original. So my guitar track on the final recording was one that was played while I was simultaneously singing the scratch vocal (which I did redo twice).

But with that one, I remember we thought the song was done, but I had not sung it well enough. Obviously it had passed the muster of the band members, and of the recording engineer. But every time I listened to it, I could hear myself a hair out of key, or just a hair "not right" and it made me cringe. And I knew, if this stays like it is, I will be forever cringing for the rest of my life.

But where do you draw that line?

Because I did go back and fix those mistakes that I heard. But even in the end, I still hear a new batch of cringers in that song, that are albeit far less cringeful, but it's still there. I guess it is always going to be hard to listen to your own playing. Except on those rare circumstances. I was pretty happy with how the guitar tracks came out on the first CD.

Now we are doing the guitar tracks for my new band. And I want them to be good. We're recording on our own time, "for free", so to speak, because the band has its own recording arrangements. But you still don't want to annoy the shit out of your bandmates. So how do you know when it is good enough? Is "no cringe" the bar? Or is "perfect tone", "perfect playing", "transcendental experience" the threshold? I don't know.

I try to remind myself that a lot is usually done to things in the mix to make them richer, and smoother, and fuller, and so they sit right with the other instruments.

But I want it to be very good! I don't want the reviews of the next CD to start off "Another strong batch of songs from Jim and his team, though newcomer rhythm guitar player unfortunately provided a sonic backdrop that is anemic and uninspired... it is sad to see the band is now irretrievably hobbled by his ineptitude"

Of course, I am being facetious. But I guess I just want to be "GREAT".

All that said, I think it is possible to go insane if you are a) perfectionistic, and b) compulsive. One thing they told me when we started the studio was "We do not want you to bring every guitar and every amplifier you own", and this was actually liberating to be given this constraint. Because it would be easy to go that way, and just get every possible sound. I suppose there's a delicate balance, but it also comes down to budget. If you record 10 takes of the song, you need to decide which to use.

Even when I am at home recording by myself, I have a hard time deciding on vocal tracks which is the right one to use. It's not easy. Because you could pick it apart word by word, phrase by phrase, and assemble the best one. But it becomes a Frankenstein 100 headed monster. I guess in the old days when vinyl was the only recording medium, people performed the song, and they did it correctly from start to finish. And if it was not perfect, they did it again. It was organic. Even when they started using tape, and splicing was a possibility, there had to be a good cost-efficient reason why it would make more sense to do a splice than to just replay the part.

Okay. I am not sure if I can say anything else about this right now.

I just want it to be good.

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