In times of darkness, remembering this story and its moral brings me a huge relief. I've been going through some rough patches in my musical development lately that certainly feel like "broken legs". When everything should be ready to go and I should be, at last, pumping out material consistently, my audio system keeps on pooping on me, with abstruse problems that are too geeky to explain to audio people, and too audio oriented to interest the average computer geek (and the worst part is: NONE OF THEM FUCKING BELIEVE ME.)
So I try to see it as a challenge to become better. No problem can be solved from the level of thought where it was created. So this can also be seen as an invitation to evolve. Don't wish for easier stuff, wish to be better. Oh, how I wished to be better right now... Anyways, by now I know well that time corrodes everything, even the tighter wall of shit. This too shall pass, and looking back I'll even see it at some point as a good thing. Well, maybe...
I remember reading some time ago about a brilliant guitar player in David Lee Roth's band who had to step out from a tour, a recording session or something like that, because he was diagnosed a disease.
The guitarist was Jason Becker, and the disease, as I've come to find out recently, was none other than the splendid shit sandwich known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. For those unfamiliar, it's a disease in which the neurons in charge of sending orders to your muscles start to die, one after another, until you get completely paralyzed.
I've been recently digging into Cacophony, the band mr Becker formed in his teens with the also supernatural guitar player Marty Friedman. In such early ages, and he was already doing incredibly technical stuff. I cannot imagine the horror that must have been for an extremely gifted player like him having to lose at first his guitar ability, and knowing what came next (and what a loss for music is this, too! Imagine what world would we have if Jimi Hendrix, Tony Iommi, Gary Moore or so many others had been deprived of the possibility of playing their guitar...)
In most of the cases, people who suffer ALS die in about two years (breathing is a movement, and the neurons in charge of it end up failing too). There is, however, a small percentage of people who survive longer, the best known case being Stephen Hawkin. And this has also been the fate of Jason Becker. He has endured this horrible torture of sickness for about 25 years now, if I remember correctly, and he's for a long time already been reduced to a state of no mobility at all, with the exception of his eyes, which he uses to communicate with the world using a system invented by his father.
And yet, Becker has managed to stay musically active, and in these days releases his new album "Triumphant Hearts". The first single, "Valley of Fire", is a beautiful and atmospheric tune, a celebration of beauty and love to life. It includes collaborations from a lot of famous players, "The magnificent 13", and, as it is to expect, they give the best of themselves, which is a lot to say, for this very special project.
Such gathering of talent is in itself a very special event too; I hadn't seen so many guitar luminaries together since the Guitar Legends festival in Barcelona, all the way back to 1992...
The song, besides being top notch (it's an unexplainable phenomenon how often, while I'm listening to it, I get specks of dust in my eyes... ;) ), has also become to me sort of a go-to mini-enciclopaedia of guitarists that I want to check out further. My favorite discoveries as I write are Mattias "IA" Eklundh (to whom I dedicated a post a couple of months ago, and it was a nice surprise finding him here again - besides ultrafast, a player of great sensitivity, punch, a healthy sense of humor and a killer tapping technique), and Richie Kotzen (what a distinct style this guy has, and it's not only about the fact that he plays without pick; what delicacy, what character, what expression...)
It's hard to say something about Jason Becker's story without sounding a bit trite. So I'll start by saying something politically incorrect: the guy's stubbornness is beyond my understanding. I for one know that, if I ever "won" this shitty ALS lottery (it seems it gets "awarded" to 1 out of 25,000 persons), I would have taken ASAP the necessary measures to take myself out of the picture. I wouldn't have wanted to stay around and find out if I'm in the group who, lucky me, survive to turn progressively into a living statue.
(Of course, that's what I think I'd do now, I hope I never have to find out!)
And yet, in interviews Becker says that he's alright with his fortune (from other sources I remember, Hawkins also considered himself a kinda happy person... wow). In this kind of extreme, stripped down situations, it's interesting to see what the person focuses on, and in the case of Jason it is clearly love. You can see it for example in the beautiful drawings that accompany the album and the video. He feels grateful because he is surrounded by people who love him. He speaks of peace. And he manages to put into this sad world of ours something new and wonderful, using tools as meager as this:
Just for fun, put the letter board in front of you, and spell one word with your eyes. And I used to pity myself for all the processing I had to do to get a passable emulated bass sound... This guy has turned making music, for all of us musicians with mobility, into a moral imperative.
At least, I guess being such a musical genius from early ages must help him to communicate his ideas quicker and more effectively to other fellow musicians; to "skip steps" and get to the point quicker, as you can do in any field only once you master it.
This brings me to mind something Leonard Cohen said in his last days, when he was finishing "You Want it Darker", besieged by disease, and lucidly aware that it was going to be his final album. In the 2000s he withdrew for some time to a zen monastery and became a monk (something that the press, of course, made a big fuss about in those days). He explained in an interview how that training in meditation was helping him now enormously to cope with the pain. (Here is the interview, in case you feel like listening to it):
The biggest connection between these two cases, I guess, is that they both are inspiring: you find courage out of watching them, they make your life better, and thus their suffering at least is not without meaning. Human beings mirror each other, we help each other cope or get into despair with the things we do or not do. In the latest days, it has happened to me, while I was in some bitching situations, to see Jason's face clearly, his expression that seems to be full of irony, like saying "this sucks but what you gonna do..." And naturally, the problem has lost quickly octanes and become relative. I don't think Becker does what he does to become an example, but he has become an example to me: just use whatever you have to do your thing, bring into this world something more than complaints and unease. Let's go.
I've looked a bit into the state of research on ALS. Luckily, it seems pharmaceutical companies have an eye on the disease, so advances are being made. Until now, all that was available was medication to slow down the decay. However, it seems that recently a new line of research has been discovered, and for the first time scientists are starting to speak, although still timidly, of the possibility of a cure some day. Who knows, in this age of prodigies and fast speeds of ours, what could happen in the upcoming years... I hope and desire intensely, which is my way of praying, that great advances and even a cure are soon available... :)
Some kind of "coincidence" has gathered very close in my production line two songs that are very unlike each other, but somehow both very similar to Dead Kennedys' "California Über Alles".
This one was written 2 years before "Zombie Barf", and in a very different frame of mind; one of the "moods" I get into when I try to write a little linear punk song is a persona I would call "the moron with a stick". Such moron was within me this time when I grabbed the guitar. All I knew was that it had to sound stupid, frontal, obtuse, as unequivocal as a stone hitting in the face ("Oh, a stone in my face... I wonder what is he implying...") All of this while keeping things humorous and far fetched, of course; humor is one of the most subversive tools I know.
So the guitar was played almost as a percussion instrument I intended to break (therefore the retarded, semitone-after-semitone, monotone riff, the first thing that came up, no time for complexity, too busy being aggressive), and the "seed" for the lyrics came pretty fast too: I wanna kill your father, I wanna kill your mother... And why would that be? Well, the conclusion kinda popped out by itself: because they shouldn't have had an asshole like you. Such message, in the song, was crammed and poorly expressed, but of course you wouldn't try to point that out to a moron with a stick, would you? :P
Then there came other some more bits about mocking the randomness and futility of violence (who hasn't wanted to kill someone else's chiropractor in a fit of rage?).
I'm sorry for the production, which is very crude. I'm not a mixer, and I think I reached in the mix a state of "house of cards", afraid of tweaking anything else. Production-wise, however, I'm quite proud of what I have learned about flanger and that stuff; I knew I wanted that characteristic "plane taking off" sound in the guitars, but, alas: given that a flanger, precisely, is an effect based in sweeping the whole frequency spectrum, I ran into all kind of problems, and tried all kind of solutions (using phaser instead, putting the flanger in the vocal harmonies instead -don't ask-...) Luckily, in those days I started to listen to Morbid Angel's "Covenant", an album that uses flanger profusely, to great effect. And what they do is just panning the flanger to one side only, to avoid the smearing, I guess. I figured if that was good enough for Morbid Angel it had to be for my song too...
As for the composition, a few musical influences I can think of:
The break where the voice stays on its own probably has its origins in The Misfits ("Mother, can I go out... AND KILL TONIGHT?")
The final accentuation in the guitar parts probably has to do with this Butthole Surfers' song:
Another reference, difficult to track for the non-Spanish reader, would be in the choral sections, clearly inspired by this song by Siniestro Total; a Spanish band who, in my view, launched two first genius, totally deranged punk albums, but whose later production, it saddens me to say it, does not wake up a single of my cells...
(Boy, nobody will ever accuse me of hiding my influences, even when it itches a little... But it's something I feel obliged to do, as some kind of homage due, and also for the pure pleasure of mentioning those guys who are "my crowd"... Even in cases when my ego is screaming all the way: "don't... don't..." :) )
It was the best of times... for music listeners.
Case in point: the other day I thought "hey, I'm curious about that group Gar Samuelson was in before joining Megadeth. I think I read somewhere they were technical and a bit jazzy..."
I didn't even have to remember the name of the band. Just type in the tube "Gar Samuelson", and in about 8 seconds I was listening for the first time to Fatal Opera. The whole album.
About 10 years ago, the exact same typing would have probably generated only excerpts, information about the band... In fact, I still remember the moment when this switch in accessibility happened for me. It was 2011; I knew that a certain band was about to release a new album, so I shyly made the query on the album, hoping to find some info on the release, track listing, some interview... To my (bittersweet) amazement, I found the whole thing was already available online; it almost "jumped" on me.
Going a bit backwards, in the pre-Internet times, my aforementioned curiosity for Samuelson's band would have been only an isolated thought. Then, if the odds were good, in a few months I would have perhaps found, and read avidly, some small reference in a magazine, and if stars aligned right, at some other point maybe I would have found someone who knew someone who could record a tape for me. (Of course, all those hurdles also made the experience more valuable in your eyes when you finally got "the prize"... and you listened to it over and over and over...)
(To provide additional contrast, I also remember a movie I watched that happened in the 16th century. In a certain scene there was a couple in a palace, and at one point she asked him "fancy some music?". When he said yes, the lady clapped twice and a bunch of guys appeared from behind a curtain, with lutes and flutes and tambourines, and started playing as they continued the conversation. When the couple had enough music, the lady clapped again, and the guys stopped at once and disappeared behind the curtain again. Having live music is always great, for sure, but I think it's safe to say that this kind of "music players" were not available to so much people as they are now! :) ).
It was the worst of times... for music makers.
The dark side of this situation is that music, in the popular lore, has become something that is not considered worth paying for (recorded music, I mean).
The exception would be perhaps streaming services, of which I've spoken before. They do generate business, it seems. But in those services people is paying music "by the ton", very little, and besides the music makers get zip from those deals.
Music making has become something that you do just as an act of love, because you "can't help yourself", it is your gateway of expression of choice, or think that a world with music is more beautiful than without it. Streaming services, in my view, "pimp" that love ruthlessly, giving nothing in return. I'm alright with the fact of not getting paid by my music, if that's the sign of the times. But I'm not alright with the fact that at the same time other people is in fact getting very well paid. That's where I draw the line. That is fishy. That is a swindle.
At the same time (but this is a different matter), the same technology that makes the thievery possible has also made quality recording way cheaper. This is a great possibility to create good music for every one; but at the same time, without a criteria of selection, the flood of released stuff makes it a bit difficult to differentiate good music from plain amateurism (those guys for whom the computer led them to music, instead of the other way round).
Regarding music worth that name, what I'm seeing is a lot of first efforts that don't continue. Everybody has a band in their 20s. Everybody writes. Everybody acts. Everybody makes short movies. Because at that age, the world is like your buffet; you like to try everything once. Traveling abroad. Recreational drugs. Sexual experimentation. Recording an album. Etc.
Don't get me wrong, some of those albums are great, but they have the limitations that are typical of the first efforts: the good ones are usually like a big "soup bowl" of influences, that would need further developments to deepen their character, narrow down the style... ("Fatal Opera" is precisely a good example of this. Another illustrious one for me would be Smile, the original band that would later evolve to become Queen). The novelty wanes and then the twenty-somethings move on to the next hot thing. Why should they keep at it when fun is the only motivator? (Only a few masochists/genetic mutations, like myself, usually do). For the rest, bungee jumping will be more fun next week.
So I see a very dark side to all the music abundance I mentioned at the beginning; it is focused on the past only (how long ago since Gar Samuelson passed?) None of those bands that we are enjoying could appear or survive in the current state of things.
And being focused on the past only is depressing. A society without plans for future is bad news. As in many other areas, we are just looting a treasure we've been given, without making any effort to protect it or renew it...
These are just a few unconnected thoughts, that could be perhaps summarized simply by saying that "the whole thing is a mess". Music is intensely connected to life, it's as natural in human beings as breathing or walking. Nothing can take such purity away. The rest, all around, above, behind it... is disgusting. But music will always be there, in some form. I guess the core of my sadness is living in a society that is so sick in my view, that gives such a huge value to things that I don't give a fuck about, things that are silly or downright harming, and yet neglects things that for me are basics of dignity. But what you gonna do, this problem (the individual-society tension) is not new, I guess being a dissident in Hitler's society wasn't a walk in the park either...
I've noticed a terrible affliction in some "extreme music" albums I've been listening to lately. It's about yelling/growling.
Put in a nutshell, I've noticed plenty of vocal passages, in plenty of songs, where the expression used is way bigger than the actual sentiment it is intending to convey. That, if I'm not wrong, would be a good definition of the word "affectation", which is always a sign of bad art.
Of course things are always multifactorial, and I can detect this kind of flaw in a piece of music that is, still, crazy good in other areas, with great chops, instrumentation, general lyrics, etc. It's just a matter of listening it for what it is and not fooling yourself about it (in my case, those moments sound to me almost "cute", as you would feel in front of a kid struggling to tie his shoes: "aaaw... so big and they struggle to express emotion..." And if this sounds too condescending of me, let me add that I'm aware that people who listen to my music will also find lots of vulnerabilities -also cute, I hope- in all kinds of areas.)
But I find this affection specially concerning given the genre it relates to; radical music, extreme music, is all about torrential emotion. About a guy who cannot stand one more single piece of crappy ear candy in the middle of the collective stink, and says let's pervert it. Let's crazy speed it up. Let's distort it. Let's make it as twisted and dissonant as it is our pathetic, hypocritical world. Let's put it on the table. I can't take this shit anymore.
So it's bad news when a highly expressive resource like yelling turns into pure formula. In some of the songs I'm thinking of (and whose names I don't want to give away, because like I said they are in other aspects amazing), it feels as if the singer had thought "oh, I'm supposed to yell here for a bit". As a convention of the genre, as something that the audience has come expect; not because there's actually something worth yelling out. "Just like a proper sonnet must have 14 verses, radical music must include its pinch of yelling here and there".
A motivation of that kind is not emotional, but exclusively rational. And that's where you get the affectation, the lack of balance between what's told and how it is told. Here are a few examples, taken to the parody, of what this mismatch feels like (imagine low case words as borderline yelling, and upper case as proper yelling):
...and I have to leave right now OR I WON'T BE IN TIME FOR THE DENTIST!!!
...I like chocolate ice cream BUT STRAWBERRY IS FINE TOO!!!
...remember to make a note SO YOU LATER CAN FIND YOUR CAR!!!
GRRGGGHH!!! Wow, murderous thoughts, radical concepts, aren't they? These examples are over the top for explanation's sake (and the fun of it). Of course in reality, as always with artistic creation, there are more grey areas, matters of opinion or taste... But I hope I made my point and maybe now you start to get an ear for this kind of "pimples"...
By the way, this resource, this mismatch between what you say and how you say it (the "how" in music is both the voice inflection and the accompanying music), can also be used deliberately, as a great ironic device for example. I'm thinking of two examples outside the realm of the cookie monsters:
Dead Milkmen's "Bitchin' Camaro": "Bitchin' Camaro/Bitchin' Camaro/I ran over my neighbors..."
Faith No More's "Anne's Song": "...followed by Jamilla/who's got the cream soda..."
In both songs, the music is happy, anthem-like, easy going, while the lyrics, instead, are used to say idiotic or quite criminal things.
When I started to write a post about yelling, I didn't though I would end up speaking of Dead Milksmen or Faith No More, but, there you have it, those two examples are way more radical and extreme than any other group who yells every few kilometers ONLY BECAUSE YOU'RE SUPPOSED TOOOO!!!! GRRRR!!!
All along these process-focused series, I have been singing the excellencies of the TWI Job Breakdown list, and I thought I'd discuss in some more detail my experiences with such a deceptively simple and powerful tool.
Firstly, here's a bit of (50,000 ft) history: the TWI (Training Within Industry) program was created during WWII by the US to face the sudden need of training huge masses of inexperienced population, in a way as quick and efficient as possible, in making war machinery. The bulk of those trainees happened to be women and child, as men in those days were busy... well, using the machinery.
(This is one of those cases of that frequent historic phenomenon where the biggest achievements of the human race have to come attached to the worst of its moral bankruptcies: a war; humans killing humans. Another more audio-related example of this sad phenomenon would be the sturdy SM58, microphone of choice even to this day for millions of musicians -me included-, in its moment developed, if I'm correct, by militaries in need of a microphone that "just worked". Anyways, back to TWI.)
Funnily enough, after the end of the war, the success of the TWI did not transfer to civilian life. For a long period, the program fell into oblivion in its country of origin. Maybe, I venture, because after being done with a war you don't want to know about anything that even vaguely reminds you of it... But mostly perhaps, like the quality guru W.E. Deming often points out in his work, because the US at that moment had no real motivation to become efficient. They could afford sloppiness: with post-war Europe turned into a wasteland, any product they made was going to be better than the rest of the world's no production at all. Therefore, US took absence of competition for self virtue, "let the good times roll" and became somewhat complacent.
At the same time, another war had started short after WWII, although of a different kind: the Cold War. As a strategy to keep countries from falling into communist Russia's influence, the US got involved in the reconstruction works of several of them, and in those works the TWI methods, although long forgotten in its origin country, found a perfect home to be exerted and developed.
One of the countries that received such teaching was Japan, and they really "got it" and ran away with it; to the extent that, in a few decades, the "Made in Japan" products in the US turned from being the running joke ("cheap junk that breaks almost before you leave the store"), to causing market disruptions with their killer combination of quality and low price (in cars and electronics, for example). People started to wonder what on Earth were they doing differently in that tiny country, with no natural resources, that was however sweeping the floor with the powerful US' mass production systems (as a tale-telling example that shows perhaps the spirit of the age, NBC broadcasted in 1980 a famous documentary called "If Japan can, why can't we?").
The interest in these techniques was thus rekindled in the US and the rest of the world, and several studies on Japanese companies were made that brought TWI and its related techniques back to the light (like the book that perhaps restarted the movement, "The Machine That Changed The World", which also coined the term "Lean" -as in "doing more with less"- to describe the operating way of these companies).
Not broad; oceanic, measured in parsecs, are my strokes in this historic summary; but I wanted to give a feel of what these methods come from. Having been selected, among all the other contenders, as the method for fighting a war, is no small feat. It guarantees that you're going to get a 0 BS system (because you're in a scenario where doing anything silly means more people dead or mutilated, at the battlefield or the factory). These techniques are not trendy, they don't have flashy works or the slogan of the day. They just work and get out of the way. And their results, it has been proven time after time, are astronomically good.
Now on with my particular adaptation of the Job Breakdown, the list, out of the whole TWI arsenal, that I've found most useful for my music making purposes so far.
My adaptation has been completely DIY and self taught, with a lot of trial and error, and it is always changing and evolving; there's not a single day when I don't learn something new. As in previous posts, take only what works for you, and I hope some of these experiences can help your productivity in some way, either if you use standard lists or not.
Firstly let's look at what's a Job Breakdown list like. Here is a screenshot of the template in the version I posted in the previous post (slightly modified):
Intended to be a "transparent" tool, the list itself is very simple. There is description field on top to let you know which process we're addressing, and what tools and parts (I've changed those to programs and files) you're going to need, safety equipment (not very needed in audio), plus a "list common key points", that I usually fill with an overview of what's the task purpose.
Then there are the steps. In its more streamlined version, you can do with only three columns: 1) What (step to take), 2) How (how to take it), and 3) Why (reasons why things must be done in that way). (I've eliminated the Training aid column, that for some reason cannot be edited in my word processor, and use the second or third when I need to insert the occasional picture).
In fact, depending on the task, I have sometimes even streamlined it to two columns: 1) What, and 2) How/Why (using the cell for either how, or why, or nothing, depending on what's required in that particular step; some tasks are self evident and don't need a how; the same with why).
Regarding that "why" column, I used not to pay a lot of attention to it (perhaps I misconstrued it as too "philosophical"), but the repetition of a certain experience made me finally understand its value: it used to happen to me that, perhaps, I figured out a clever way of doing a certain thing ("heh, doesn't look like it, but starting this way saves a lot of time later because..."), and then I wrote it down, but revisiting the task after a few weeks, I no longer remembered why was that way so clever, so I shrugged my shoulders in confusion and went back to the vanilla way of doing things (perhaps only to notice a few minutes later, oh, I remember now, it would have been better if instead I had...)
A short explanation in the "why" column avoids this silly to-and-fro, and besides, the "why" column is in the third place for a reason; depending on the process at hand, I know I only need to read it for extra clarification, etc...
In addition to this "what-how-why" golden triad, when working with computers, sometimes I've found useful to also add a "where" for certain steps. In my current implementation it appears as a "@LOCATION:" in the first line of the step (@REAPER:, @PLUGIN:...) Having to switch attention among a lot of open windows, desktops, screens, fields, menu options... Is a situation that the initial list was not designed to handle (but it is so flexible, mind you, that see how well it accommodates to it :) ).
Another important element of the list are those four little signs, precursors of our computer icons, that "jump" to you easily whenever you put them on a page (I've put them on the header of the document, so that they are accessible in all pages and easy to copy-paste). For example, in my audio related lists, I've found the cross symbol ("could injure the person") very useful regarding volume levels in audio chains. The number of times I've "fried" my ears for skipping the step of checking the correct volume indicator has dramatically dropped since I use these symbols.
Now a bit about how I use the tool. From what I've gathered, Job Breakdown lists, at least in manufacturing, are normally used as a training tool: the worker memorizes and practices the lists maybe for weeks, and then they are only checked for brief consultations or improvements. My guess comes mainly from videos I've seen from the champion of Lean, Toyota: those guys assemble a whole car in 58 seconds -more or less the time I take to put on my pants, t-shirt and shoes!-; no time to consult a list there...)
My case is different to begin with in the fact that I have a very high number of different processes, which on the other hand I don't necessarily visit that often. For example, a "mastering the song" process will only be run when I have a song to master... currently every [cough cough] months. Therefore, there's no need to learn things by heart, and in most of the processes, it makes sense to just have the list in front of you and follow it reading step by step.
As an exception, I sometimes do something called "playing by ear" (what other simile could I use here, being a musician? :P ); I skip the process list and try to do things with only what I remember. It is sort of an experiment that helps me discover unnecessary steps that sometimes can sneak in if I've become too "formal". but here I want to underline the word "exception"; doing everything I do "by the book", i.e. following -or creating and then following- the corresponding process list, is for me a discipline; by now I know too well the consequences of just winging it.
And speaking of creating, now a bit about how do I go about writing a Job Breakdown list. I start with the template mentioned above (mine is in version 4 and looks quite different from the original by now; mostly I've been taking stuff away, plus the other changes I've mentioned).
I give the file a name (sometimes the name is temporary, because I'm not even sure how big of a "chunk" the list is going to cover). Then I start doing step by step of what I want to do "in slow motion", writing each successful step in the cells of the first column, and the hows and whys when they are needed.
I don't know if it's just me, but another thing here that for me is a matter of discipline, that I have to constantly keep an eye on, is: first doing the action - THEN writing down the step in the list. Not the other way. You tend to think you now how things will turn out, but the doing more often than not brings surprises. So it's better to first do the action, and if it is successful, then you write it down. Besides, by doing, even if you were right in the first place about what to do, you've for sure learned something that can be brought to how you write the step, which words you use, size of the chunk...
The thing that took me most time to get a hold of in this process was finding the correct "grain" level; my initial lists used to have in the "what" things that were very overarching. E.G.:
1 Compress the track
, with the actual steps in the "How" column:
*insert a compressor plugin
*start playing the track
*open the compressor
*rise the ratio
*reduce the threshold until it shows...
After some time of doing it this way, I noticed that I didn't need the explanation provided in the "what" (and it felt weird that the "meat and potatoes" of the process were on the second column), so now I put those smaller steps directly in the "what" column. How many of them per cell? As many as I can "chew" in one sitting. The moment a cell becomes too complicated, I divide it again into two and distribute the contents.
For example, in this compressor case, I guess one step for me would be:
1 Insert compressor plugin and start playing the track
(The how column would be left blank, unless I discover something useful that will speed things up next time)
Then in the next row, the "What" colum:
2 open compressor, rise the ratio, and reduce the threshold until it shows
Those would seem the logical units to me. This example, by the way, is hypothetical; the "grain" I currently use is finer than this, this would still make me think too much. I use it because I think it makes the example easier to understand. But my list would go more in the lines of:
1 right click on the track, left click 3compressor
("3compressor" meaning "you'll find the compressor in the 3rd row of the drop down menu".)
Lists, and the degree of granularity, are highly personal. For example, here, if you are a person who likes to try and mess around with plugins frequently, maybe it would not make sense to you to point that compressor is in the third place -because it is not steady-.
As I run this process time after time, I'm going to discover new things; and those new things will find a great accommodation in the list. For example, at some point I can discover that the compressor I use allows to save presets. So I can find some settings I like, save them, and then change the step 2:
"2 open compressor, rise the ratio and reduce the threshold until it shows"
to a more efficient
"2 open compressor, open preset X"
This step, on its turn, will be the basis for future improvements, etc...
As for the how and why columns, besides what I've already said, I don't think I can improve anything over the original design: write the key points that can make or break the job, injure you, or make the job easier... And list the reasons where they can help you move on quicker; we have a war to win here...
As another trick, it's also very useful to create a series of abbreviations for very common actions (e.g. left click, mouse wheel...), function keys (control, alt, caps...), and areas of the screen or window (e.g. right side, top right corner, left column...) All you do in front of a computer is pressing or clicking places, so this kind of tricks have a high return...
These lists take some time to make, but even the process of creating them can be very exciting, there is a continuous feel of growth and discovery in it. And you know that, once done, they are like a highway, easy to follow. "Do I have a process for that? - Yes - Phew, what a relief." "No - Well, let's get to it" It's a work that you'll have to do only once, and at the other side of it there's clarity. Having a process of this kind is like an investment in your future, like a bucket that guarantees that no rain drop will ever be wasted again. And, like I've mentioned in the former posts, it also causes that, from now on, the problems you're going to face will always be new, original, interesting, not the same old ball you're tired of taking up the hill only to see it fall again back to the beginning...
I hope you find in these examples something interesting that you can take to your practice. Stay tuned next week for "my engine, the proton level", where I'll discuss...
Just kidding! Enough with all this density, let's go and make some music. I for one know I'm going to...
Here is "Zombie Barf", a song that has taken me a particularly long time to finish due, I think, to the combination of the (unofficial but very real) upgrade of equipment and systems I've been through in the latest 1.5 years, plus the intricate nature of the particular song.
As I've mentioned in former posts, the songs in the upcoming Black Sheep Riot album will show a series of different layers of technical proficiency. This one would be in the layer 2, with 4 being the most modern. In other words, sonically, there are things about the final result that don't make me very happy (as a consolation, I try to think that perhaps this is the way it always is with your music; the stuff you put through the door is never the most perfected, because you already have something else in the works, and now you know how to do things better...)
But this song was way past overdue the "it it what it is" stage, and I decided to keep it and release it with its flaws and all because I like the composition and the message. I promise myself to re-record it at some point in the future, but it will have to be already with a proper human band: four or five musicians fully equipped and full of anger, fear and disgust against this shitty world of ours; not just one with a guitar and a laptop... By the moment it'll have to do, the feeling the song reflects is very real and, I think, other people can relate to it.
The song was composed in 2013, and entered the production process during my seismic year of 2016. Sadly such a long elaboration period hasn't made its theme any outdated. How could it, if precisely the song is about how things don't change, and we are living the constant regurgitation ad nauseam of a way of doing things that never worked in the first place. Watch one of those noir movies from the 1950s you can find in YouTube... it's abso-fricking-lutely depressing how little has everyday life changed in more than half a century; with the exception, that is, of the fact that by the mindless repetition of that same zombie routine, now we have overpopulated the planet and exhausted its resources to unprecedented levels... and yet we keep at it. We live inside a model that was established short after WWII and hasn't been changed since then AT ALL; mindless consumption of products, pushed on us through sensory manipulation and peer pressure; those actors exciting our primal instincts from screens, the version 1 you have to throw away tomorrow because the flashier #2 has arrived... The same, the same, the same... A huge machine of solitude and waste and fear and death, changing along the way only the excuses, the official version, when required, so that it can just keep doing its thing. It didn't work when I was in my 20s and started to notice, and iterations of the same empty crap only make it worse and worse. We're eating the same barf time after time, and it's making us sicker and sicker.
This is the point of view of the song; partial, as the point of view of all songs must be, in order not to dilute in trying to be too many things at the same time. I also think there are grounds for hope in certain areas of our current reality, but they must be found elsewhere...
Anyways, I hope that you get a good slap out of the song, and that it stands as a piece on its own, with this commentary being just a bonus addition for those interested. The lyrics are influenced, I think, by the "Mike Patton school of lyrics": metaphors and similes that would be perhaps too far fetched and over the top on their own as poetry, but that (hopefully) work well with the intuitive addition brought in by the music. The vocals have a lot of Dead Kennedys, obviously; you can sing "Califorrr-nia...über-aaalles" on top of the verse quite comfortably, although apart from that I take things in another direction. There is also some Fugazi and Black Flag there, a bit of the first Megadeth album in the vocals, perhaps some Metallica in the final breaks... The list could go on and on because that's usually the "acid test" for my songs; if a song of mine reminds me a lot to X, that's plagiarism. But if the song reminds me at the same time a lot to Y, Z, A, B, R, S, T, U... as it cannot be so many things at the same time, it means to me it's just influences... And this one past the test because it reminds me a lot of other good music, and I also feel I'm portrayed in it (perhaps the other condition necessary...)
I thought I'd discuss a couple more details about my system that I couldn't address in detail in my previous, more overview post.
Those not interested right now in putting some kind of system in place for their music will probably find nothing of value in here (and perhaps dismiss the whole thing as something in the nearby of OCD land, I'm afraid). But for those who feel it's time to add some "bone" to their "muscle", I think these additional details can perhaps inspire you and shave valuable hours off your learning curve.
A few cautions, though, before starting.
1) My system is a dynamic entity, changing as I write. This is not about putting a machine in place and then sitting on your fat butt and "let the cash roll in"; every experience, every situation you encounter as you use your system will teach you something, and it will serve you well if you get in the habit of incorporating the new lessons back into the process. Otherwise, your system will not resist the everyday assault by amorphous reality, it will degenerate and die, and you'll be back to square one having wasted a lot of time.
On the other hand, if you stick to your processes and reinforce them periodically, as you face and solve problems, at some point you'll get to a new level where you will find... Surprise! More problems! But at least they are new problems, more refined problems, different problems; because I cannot tell you how many times I've had to face one repeated same problem until I finally learned how to standardize things right (example that pops in my mind: playing sampled instruments. Occasionally, for a section in a song, I may require a convincing flute or harmonica sound, which I get by finding a nice audio sample and then playing it through the keyboard; as this occurrence is not as frequent as recording vocals or guitars, what used to happen is that I forgot how to do things from one time to the next. Drunk from my success in the moment ("I made it! There's a flute in my song!"), I moved on to the next hot issue without leaving a few considerate notes to my future self on how to replicate the results. And I cannot tell you how humiliating is having to DuckDuckGo again from scratch something that you know you already nailed a year ago...)
2) No copycats possible. I provide my system for "multipurpose inspiration", inspiration which can range from a simple "Hey, having a system is good", to "I like the format he uses to visualize x", or maybe "I'll adopt it as-is and see in which ways it crashes and burns for me". Take only what resonates with you, I invite you to pillage, mutilate, colonize, invade and contaminate (also to foster, develop, sponsor, protect...) whatever you feel like at your leisure, all conditioned to your musical needs, priorities and goals.
3) As an additional disclaimer, for good and for bad, I've been know to be a "statistically remarkable" person, something that often manifests in the fact that I find very easy to do some things that others find hard, but the other way round is also true. So some things in here can perhaps sound very corny, and others perhaps too profound, I never know which one is which so here comes the whole lot... :)
And so, with all the notes of caution out of the way, here is the part of my process I want to focus on today (red grid in the image):
In my previous post I said, for the sake of simplification, that each of the blue rectangles at the top has "an instruction list associated". Such simplification can lead to a bit of a rabbit hole, so I thought I'd better elaborate a little.
Extensive processes, full of options and moving parts, like tracking, editing or adding fx are, are too complex to be crammed into a single instruction list (even the slim and time tested TWI Job Breakdown that I mentioned in my last post - Here is the template I adapted). You would end up having a list with too many steps, very difficult to navigate and manage.
I've found it works better to keep those lists' length at around 1-3 pages, and you manage those lists, that now are many, by creating an intermediate layer. So, in fact, each of the blue rectangles doesn't have a list, but a whole FOLDER full of lists associated.
And the content of that folder, this is the key to the kingdom, is standardized; it sticks to one fixed structure in all cases. Here is the structure I am using as of now for those folders (from now on, I'll refer to the blue rectangles as "Stages" and to the individual lists as "processes"):
The file DIAGRAM is actually named in caps, because that makes it easy to differentiate at a glance. It is the first thing that my eye looks for when I enter any folder.
This file is intended to give me a quick overview of what goes on in the defined stage. In most of the cases, I use for it a simple spreadsheet document with a few lines, showing in which order the process lists must be run. But depending on the needs of the task, a simple txt file can suffice, while in others more complexity (pictures, a few quick notes, sometimes a small decision tree...) can be useful too. Also, I sometimes write little notes on the diagram when I finish a session; anything that can help my brain "rewire" quickly when the time comes. No matter what I use, the purpose that must be served is that the document has to provide, at one glance, an overview, a "map" of where to find things. And any change in this document is done sticking as much as possible to the "don't make me think" principle; I can get as complex as I need later, at process level, in the different job breakdown lists.
That's how standardization works; by "anchoring" something, it liberates your brain for other decisions. That's why all cars have the gear shift in the same location; if each car chose a different place, it would be yet another thing to have in account. Abusing the simile, this Diagram file is a bit like my "gear shift". I know automatically where to find it and it puts me in control.
I tried other options before I settled with this system; for example, for a time, instead of establishing the order of processes through the diagram, I tried just numbering the files and let just the list in the file manager serve as the "Diagram"... But I found that this was a bit high maintenance, and caused me resistance to change things.
Here's an example from just the other day: inside the editing stage, I have a process called "volume homogenization" (especially required in vocals, which always have a huge dynamic range per se, let alone when the track has been "patched" from a lot of different takes), and also another process called "cleaning the take" (removing buzzes, accidental noises, breathes and gasps...) At first, it seemed a good idea to put "cleaning the take" BEFORE "volume homogenization". But when I actually ran the whole series, I discovered very quickly that it is better to do the cleaning AFTER the volume has been homogenized, as only when the volume is homogeneous you can make sensible decisions about which noises to take out, how much is too little or too dry...
With my current system, all that was required to make the change was swapping the order of two lines in the diagram. With numbered processes I would have had to change file names, maybe the content of the documents too... (Plus you were never sure if the contents of the folders were up to date and therefore you could trust the order... Plus when I had to put some new process in between two existing, I soon found it was better to name the files 10,20,30 instead of 1,2,3... So there you go some rework, plus this way of naming always felt messy, etc...)
Another point that I've found is key to make this system work is keeping a very tight name consistency among the different levels; If a process in the diagram is called "Comping track", the corresponding process list must exactly be called "comping track"; not "comping", "track comped" or some other fancy thing. I tended to slack on this point because it sounds so silly and it's a drag to stop what you're doing to close a file you're using, renaming it, reopening, finding where you were... but this consistency pays off quickly, as it reduces your mental overhead, and makes the system way more robust.
As with all standards, this structure is only sort of a "starting point", intended to provide a guideline, not to be followed blindly. In my case, it is turning out to work as a "bare minimum"; in any of my folders, I'm always going to find this "Diagram+process lists" structure (if I don't find it I'll create it right away). But in addition to that, I can always put more stuff in the folders, stuff that is particular to each task; cheatsheets, handy files or links... anything that can make things easier and quicker next time. Also, lately, I sometimes write to myself a "README" file too, usually if I left in the middle of a process, or when I meet an obstacle that "lives" between two processes... If I enter the folder and see the "README", it is it the one that I open; it takes prevalence over the Diagram. Once solved the issues, I delete the readme and go back to the Diagram, but I don't know how this readme could evolve in the future.
At the moment, I'm happy with this mixture of "the structure" plus "other things needed" living in the same folder, but if at some point things became difficult to find, I guess I would create a new subfolder for those "other things needed", and include that subfolder within the standard, etc...
You will appreciate that what this system intends (perhaps is what all systems do) is creating a balance between free flow (out of which creativity comes, but which can degenerate in chaos), and structure (needed so that you don't do silly things and waste effort... but always at the risk of becoming stifling).
This all may sound pretty convoluted, but in the end the final result is that I turn on the computer and, boom, in 8 seconds I know what the current state of all my music is, and boom, in 5 seconds I'm advancing in one of my songs, and when I get saturated with it, boom, in 5 seconds I'm working on the next one...
And this happens invariably either if I had sleep last night or not, if the week so far has been stressing or calmed, if I've been feeling energetic the whole day or a neck pain is bugging me... Of course the outcome will be bigger or smaller depending on those circumstances, but every day there's some advance, and it is always consistent, even if the order of magnitude some days is 5 and others 0.2.
This new way of functioning sometimes makes me feel like a farmer ploughing his furrow, and what a joy it is to see all the fruits as they grow a little every day... :)
As always, I hope that among these ideas you find something you can take to your own turf; at the very least, the notion of a system, and the huge benefits you can get out of it.
"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's" - William Blake.
I've discussed several times in this blog the need of a certain periodic "cooling down" that seems to go with the territory when you're writing, producing and everything else your own music.
I've found this kind of "cooling down" is necessary in, at least, two areas:
1) "Cooling down" of a particular song: as in "no, I cannot work on Song A right now". You've listened to it too many times in a row, and you simply cannot tell right from wrong in it at this moment (and by the way, what a delicate torment for the DIY musician this is: you get your biggest kick out of blasting your way through a song, always different, rejoicing in the uniqueness of what happens... and immediately after comes your biggest torment: having to relisten to the same thing time after time after time after time...)
2) "Cooling down" of the process you're currently in: maybe you still can listen to a certain song with a modicum of objectivity, but you feel a strong resistance towards the process you're in: "Oh no, not again, not another hour of those silly, tiny movements called comping". This one is perhaps not exclussive of music makers; in all human activities, you need a bit of change and variety now and then to spice up things. You don't want to be like that guy whose job was tightening one particular screw for 8 hours a day. It's good to rotate tasks; good for your creativity and also for your sanity (and this is meant to be fun).
My current production system kind of addresses both obstacles; I'm happy of having built a "little machine" of sorts that balances things and reduces the friction, helping me work more without doing anything "heroic", and providing a nice, steady feeling of daily advance.
It is by no means a revolutionary method, just my personal application of the kanban technique, after a lot of calibration, trial and error. Here are a few images to show how it works (just a warning: I reached this system by experimentation; all the explanations I've given and am going to give are "a posteriori" aha moments; after having something that works, I give some thought to why is it that it works. I didn't come up with all the theory, which then led to the system, but the other way round).
This first image represents the basic "engine":
Each of the songs is in a different stage of development ("processes" in the image). I move from song to song, starting from the closest to the finish line (right side) and working my way backwards ("direction"). After working on the least advanced, I go back to the most advanced one. The black arrow tells me which song I'm going to work on now, and that's the first pointer I look to whenever I start a music session.
Now then, after making clear which song's turn is it, there are two possible things I can choose to work on (see Image 2):
In the case portrayed in the image, I could start editing Song B (lower arrow), or... I could work on improving the "editing" process (upper arrow).
What makes this way of working possible is the so-called "standardized work"; for each of the processes (the rectangles at the top) there is a list of instructions (standardized work). It takes a while to make one of those lists (because you write down every step with careful wordsmithing, sticking to 7-years kid vocabulary, and stopping to solve every problem you encounter along the way), but once you have it done, they are like a "conveyor belt" that takes you from Y to Z; and your resistance to work becomes then greatly reduced.
So in the case of the picture, my first idea would be starting to edit Song B (in other words, running the "Editing" instructions into Song B). But then let's say I find that my editing process list is not very mature yet. I'll feel resistance, because it is not clear how to do things, so my brain, in the conventional model, would start to ache because it is trying to do two tasks at the same time: 1) figuring out where all the levers and options you need for editing are, and 2) doing the actual editing of the song.
That was the old way of working. Now both things receive separate treatment, so it's a simple datum: "Oh, editing... do I have a process for that yet? Let me see... Yes, there are a few notes, but they are old and not very structured... I'll better develop them before running them on the song".
So in this case, I leave the song be for the moment, and enter a modality of work called "process mode". I'll rehearse and debug in slow motion how to do the editing, and put everything I come up with in written. A slow (although sometimes fascinating) work, but that you only have to do once. (The format I use for the lists is an adaptation of the almighty TWI's Job Breakdown system; after trying several methods, I figured: "why reinventing the wheel when you can have a system that won a war?")
And here's the kicker: once I think I have created a satisfactory list for editing, the decent "vehicle" to take me from X to Y... At that point I've spent maybe a couple of hours immersed in the editing process, and the last thing in the world I want to do is spending two or three more actually editing Song B. Remember what I said about "cooling down" of processes? I need a change of activity, "the fresh side of the pillow", like Stravinski once put it...
SO I MOVE RIGHT AWAY TO THE NEXT SONG, where, again, I will ponder the two corresponding options (see image 3).
An advantage of this method is that from this point on, I'm creating desire to go back to Song B during the whole rotation ("how will the new editing process work out? I can't wait to give it a try...")
Another advantage of the "process mode" is that it allows things like: drinking coffee, finishing with calm the album you were listening to before the session... Activities that are impossible to do, for obvious reasons, in many areas of the process, when you just "get down to it". Working the process is a bit like a chess game, with slow thoughts and movements... A different mindset, something that provides you a new option, a new "flavor" of valuable work.
So following the image, now I've moved to song=C, process=tracking (a sub-list will tell me which instrument I'm currently tracking; these images are stylized to simplify the explanation). Again I ask myself: do I have a nice process for tracking? Yes I do! Pull that list out and it's tracking time...
Additional benefits I'm discovering in this system are:
1) It takes out of the equation the "feel like" factor. I never realized before how much time I used to waste deciding which of the songs I "felt like" working today, what to do next... In each of those doubt moments there was not only a waste of time and mental energy, but a danger of being overthrown by resistance and deciding to call it a day. Now the black arrow tells me what to tackle right away, and what comes next when I'm done with that. If the song in progress is not something I find very appealing, I'll just do some minor "check the box" kind of task and move on to the next one, but in any case there is no more of that continuous start-and-stop, "what should I do next"...
2) It avoids earworms: My number of songs in process is currently 6. A rotation through all of them takes me (as I write) about 2 days. In the heroic times, when I worked longer and more intensively on each song, the song often stayed with me more than what's desirable after the session, due to the extreme repetition. This continuous variation, on the contrary, keeps things fresh and dynamic, so I feel I "travel lighter", and I forget completely about the songs once I'm done, as if the songs in a way "cancelled each other".
Like I said, the must for a system like this is the standardized work, which requires an investment of time in your processes; in my case a very worthwhile investment that I'm happy to make, but I understand it is not for everybody. In any case, I invite you to have some kind of system in place, to reduce mental effort and help you work more steadily through good and bad days...
Inventory is the cardinal sin of the Lean philosophy, as it brings with it all its other ugly buddies (transport, movement, waiting, overproduction, overprocessing, defects and underutilizing skills).
In the material world, mentioning "Inventory" will generate an image of an enormous warehouse, painstakingly maintained, expensively rented... In the case of incontinent composers like me, it is more like an enormous computer folder, full of subfolders with .wavs, .oggs, .mp3s, .docs and what have you... Plus this other "warehouse", harder to pinpoint because it only shows intermittently, that lives in your brain and in your guts.
It is this second inventory that is the hardest to manage. What makes it particularly so is the fact that it is alive; the moment any of those proto-songs receive any "air time" from my brain, they change, they mutate. It's like a collection of uncaged animals, feeding on what they have around (sometimes other animals), and evolving in unexpected shapes. And they don't stay still.
So I sometimes run into this peculiar situation: I'm filling the gaps of a song I want to take to production, it consolidates, it pumps, I'm happy of how everything is coming along, and then, in one of my sessions, I realize: this or that part is a plagiarism. A plagiarism of another of my songs, ANOTHER SONG THAT I HAVEN'T EVEN RELEASED YET.
So nobody would ever notice. Heck, perhaps, even when both songs were released, nobody would ever know or care either. But here, with me being the author, someone with skin in the game, there's a different matter at stake: self preservation.
What happens next is often disagreeable and frustrating (especially when it's taken me long to discover the self-plagiarism an the song was already very mature in my view), but whenever I run into one of these issues, I stop and take the time to dismantle and change the song. Sometimes it takes forever (and time after time, ah the frustration, the new stuff I try ends up turning out to be a covert variation of what I already had; I guess there was a neural path already created and you tend to glide through it again). But the way I see it, not doing so, skipping the fact, is a dangerous form of laziness, bad maintenance of your own creativity. If the song that I'm making does not surprise myself, why bother? Playing it would become "homework" for me. I prefer to take my time, although sometimes the process bores me like hell, feels unnatural, etc...
Sometimes all that was needed was a variation in some sense; we all know records or books that have "siamese" songs or stories, and we love both. All is good as long as such similarity is intentional, some kind of lateral exploration the author considered worthwhile to pursuit. The problem is when the only intention behind is "let's get this over with". There are musicians, there are albums that are like that, and it's not beautiful.
And again from the point of view of the inner realm, I think letting go like that is a dangerous path to follow. Just like body articulations become stiffer with years and you have to be vigilant of it and maybe take additional measures, there is a counterpart in the mental realm. For the mature artist, as the heap of his production grows, it becomes easier and easier to just go for what you know, just chop pieces of things you've already done and assemble them in a different order, like Lego bricks.
I'm not saying that this kind of creations completely lack value sometimes; as a listener, I can still play and enjoy some of those albums (particularly, if the original pieces had great quality, there are always interesting and moving things to find in the derivative works). But as a creator, I don't want to follow that road. I prefer to become a slower composer, taking as long as it takes till the song is done, but when it finally is, being sure that it is "its own little ride" in some way. Life has too much homework already.
Probably, if the animals didn't spend so much time captive in the warehouse (years sometimes), they wouldn't get so impatient, and wouldn't have so much time to bite and hump each other... And that, kids, is another reason why inventory is bad, and it's imperative that I increase my productive capability :)
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it