The Devil Is In The Details

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 6:15 pm

There is a patch of rust on a fence, underneath an overpass, in Massachusetts, that is unlike any other patch of rust in the universe. No two patches of rust are identical, and hence they are all unique. Most people don’t think about this sort of thing, unless you point it out to them. The complexity of the world is simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming. There is essentially unlimited detail, yet we have a limited amount of focus with which to take it in. No two clouds are identical. No two trees… No two cookies! Can you imagine remembering every detail of every cookie you’ve ever eaten? So, for the sake of our sanity, the unique, detailed patch of rust becomes just a patch of rust. Walking by, you may just remember the fence as being rusty. You remember the fence, but not all the details and irregularities of it. You could stop and take in more detail, should you feel the need… or even take it to a lab, and scan it with an electron microscope. On the other hand, if you drove by in a car, you might not remember the fence at all.

In the studio, it’s easy to drown in unnecessary detail.  People lose hours fiddling with EQ or FX, compulsively massaging details that are so small as to essentially be static. It’s quite insidious, because often you’re too laser-focused to realize how much time you’re wasting. You get up to take a piss, and when you get back, you say, “…the hell was I doing, fiddling about with that so much?”

Goals break down into smaller goals, ad infinitum. Once you get a few layers down, it becomes easy to lose the overall picture. You have to periodicly back off and check yourself.

Clarify what you’re trying to do, and train yourself to avoid pits of distraction. If you get mired down in EQ, take some time to understand what you’re trying to achieve with all that tweaking, if anything. In all likelihood, you’re just fumbling around blindly, because you’ve lost sight of what you’re doing. If there is some grander goal, figure out why you’re having problems achieving it. Later, when composing, this analysis will come back to you, and hopefully short-circuit the trap. Sometimes it can actually take quite a bit of willpower to just leave it alone!

Finally, and most painfully, sometimes you have to forego indulging yourself on things that don’t give you a good return on your effort. There have been times when I know exactly what snare noise I want, but I can’t for the life of me find the sample. It’s infuriating, and there have been times I’ve literally wasted an hour digging through WAV files. The proper response is to just use another snare noise, and get on with the song. By the time I find the one I want — if I ever do — I’ve lost the overall vibe of the track. The snare noise matters, but not as much as the overall song itself. You have to compromise.

If you go search the Analogue Haven archives, there is a thread called “The TR 808 Myth” from 2004. Allegedly, 808s all sound unique, with their own sonic personalities and quirks. A quote from “panflet”:

You only have to listen to old Chicago house records and early Detroit
techno to hear all the 808 variations
Especially if you get into listening to one artist,derrick may`s 808
sounds really slappy..ok trax are produced differently but you can still
hear the differences.

Ive had 2 808`s and the bass drums were almost identical ,which created
a mad flange when played together but nearly all the other sounds were
really different and run side by side sounded totally wicked!

Ol’ panflet sounds serious, though it’s possible he was just having a laugh, trying to make people go deaf playing Derrick May’s snares over and over. So, curious, I started queuing up tracks in Winamp, intending to figure it out for myself. Then I realized: I don’t have an 808, I don’t have the money for an 808, and I definitely do not have the money to start collecting 808s. So what the hell am I going to do with the ability to recognize “quirky” 808s? Nothing. It’s just compulsive curiosity, which would be better aimed at things I can actually make use of.

Your time and energy are limited. Choosing to spend your time on one thing means choosing not to spend it on something else. Don’t let curiosity, perfectionism, and compulsion drive you all over the map — set a direct course.

For some practical tips on this, try my post on creating a set of rules.

Categories: philosophy, productivity

2 Comments on “The Devil Is In The Details”

  1. This is an awesome blog!

  2. panflet is Richard D. James, by the way.

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