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Thread November 5, 2016 editorial: comments

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1 November 5, 2016 editorial: comments

The Valley of Diminishing Returns

Albert Einstein allegedly once said that the definition of insanity is, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That quote popped in my head as I was recording take 15 of a guitar solo recently. Was it insanity or just delusion that made me think that I would eventually capture that “magic” take if I just kept trying?

Why is it that early takes are often so much better? It’s not necessarily logical. You could make the argument that after 14 tries, I was a lot more warmed up, more familiar with the ideas I was trying to state in the solo, and therefore closer to nailing it. That seems like a reasonable analysis, but the opposite is frequently true. Most of the time, you only have X number of tries at something, before the quality starts to ebb, especially if what you’re doing involves creativity.

Part of the problem is that the more you repeatedly fail at a task, the more nervous you become about whether you can succeed at it. The time-honored engineer's trick of telling the singer or instrumentalist "Run one down so I can get levels," but actually putting the track into record, was born from the hope of capturing some of that early magic, when the talent was relaxed, thinking it was a non-consequential practice take.

Knowing when you’ve reached that point of diminishing returns when overdubbing — or when mixing, for that matter — is tough. It’s particularly difficult in a home studio situation when you're all by yourself, with nobody to bounce ideas off of or get opinions from.

I’ve often had the experience of listening to a mix the next day, after working on it late into the night, and having one of those “what was I thinking?” moments — unable to believe how out of whack one or more of the mix elements sounded.

In the heat of the session, it’s easy to think, “This sounds good, but I can make it better.” Then, two hours later, after changing the panning, raising the vocal level, adjusting the bass in relation to the kick, re-EQing the guitar, and making countless other “tweaks,” you’ve actually made it substantially worse.

There are ways to minimize the problems related to losing your perspective in that way. If you’re tracking or overdubbing, keep all your takes. You may not realize it at the time, but there could be some real gems in there, especially in the early ones.

When mixing, always save your session incrementally. That way, you have a breadcrumb trail in case you need to backtrack to find the point before the mix went off the rails.

In the heat of a session, it’s best to hedge your bets, because it’s really hard to know when you’ve crossed that line and are heading into the valley of diminishing returns.

2
do it all the time and end up restoring the previous version and start over again
3
Hello, Mike!
It's very nice to read one of your editorials again! You're absolutely spot on with what you say. I can really relate to the points you bring up.
Part of the best thing about early takes is that edgy excitement of doing something you haven't done before - maybe one is not quite sure how to record the part and tackle the performance aspect! And quite often, something is recorded which is different or unexpected, or the sentiment with which it is approached is just right. When you've done something you like, the temptation is to go back over it thinking that it could surely be done better on a subsequent take. Off the cuff, I can remember never being able to recapture the sound and attack of one particular vocal take which goes up high and sounds slightly angry at the end of one of my songs! And this was also the case for the first take I did of an organ solo in a ballad I did.
I must have tried retaking them dozens of times, although in the end I don't know why I thought they needed redoing in the first place. I suppose we musicians tend to have a sense of insecurity that "No, it can't possibly be right on the first take!" It is all with the aim of perfection!
Hope all goes well with your projects, Mike.
Astra.

Astra: Lead Guitarist, Singer-Songwriter.

www.astramusic.org

4
Hi Mike,
I learned this lesson many years ago when my then writing partner was also a journo (still a common combination, I see).
We wrote and produced the music for about 15 docos and a TV series.
My "polish till perfection" was very quickly thrown out with both the pressure of deadlines (in music for vision you are near the last in the process and in the directors eyes it is cut and ready to go - 'what's the hold up') and his newspaper way of producing contently accurately and very quickly.

Despite my protests it turned out to be an incredibly productive part of my life.
It also taught me, although an anachronism in today's world, that although "second is the enemy of best" best is not necessarily the most valuable or desirable.

In Australia there is an expression about the foolishness "polishing a turd", but I sometimes wonder about how much extra value there is in polishing a gem.

I now try to strive for excellence and after doing my best, move on to new things.

All the best
Royce
5
Great point Michael!
One additional comment to add:
One can get value from the time spent perfecting yoir takes by simply throwing down a few new ones the next morning. You see, your brain will continue to practice while you sleep. Then when you wake up fresh the next day, it will deliver to you the ability to perform the takes with a newfound comfort and smoothness - because you will have gotten the part under your skin at the level of the brain. I explain this deeper in my Music Success Video Nuggets - free at joesolo.com.
6
Hi, Joe! You've just pointed out something I'd noticed too. Rehearsals of harmonies, singing, playing, whatever it is, are indeed much easier the day after. The brain's like a hard drive working all the time (probably it's defragmenting all those little grey cells you know!). Are you familiar with the experience when a person asks you something akin to, "What was the name of the actor in that film?" or some such. You just can't think of the name - it's on the tip of your tongue but no go! The next day, you think back to the question and you say, "Ah, yes, I can remember the name now!" The brain process must be similar.
By the way, we enjoy receiving your "Nuggets"!
All the best,
Astra.

Quote from joesolo1:
Great point Michael!
One additional comment to add:
One can get value from the time spent perfecting yoir takes by simply throwing down a few new ones the next morning. You see, your brain will continue to practice while you sleep. Then when you wake up fresh the next day, it will deliver to you the ability to perform the takes with a newfound comfort and smoothness - because you will have gotten the part under your skin at the level of the brain. I explain this deeper in my Music Success Video Nuggets - free at joesolo.com.

Astra: Lead Guitarist, Singer-Songwriter.

www.astramusic.org