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March 31, 2015

Embracing Constraints

March 31, 2015

recording equipment

The digital world is a seemingly infinite space. Endless ideas can be explored and realized.
Computer memory is so deep that even the constraint of limited storage is no longer a real concern. But this can also be very counterproductive. There comes a time to produce — to get things done,  to close out the options and focus on what you have.

When I was in college I lived in a very musical house with 3 other guys. We all played and listened to music constantly. Somewhere in between we went to class and worked. This was back in the analog days. Our equipment was a 4 track cassette recorder. 4 tracks means just that – 4 tracks to work with, no more. Today’s recording, which happens mostly in computers, is almost the polar opposite. You can add as many tracks as your computer’s memory can handle. Dozens or even hundreds. This can be a wonderful thing but it can also result in stuff not getting done. Endless tweaking and editing.

The beauty of these 4 track tape recorders was focus. It pushed us to make decisions and commit. Sometimes we would even add additional constraints to our recording. We found that these experiments brought even more focus to our work.

One of the experiments we tried when we lived together in college was to challenge ourselves to write and record songs during a specific time. For instance, we would do 4 songs in 4 hours – a song an hour. Or we would do an “EP in a Weekend.” Pushing ourselves to make decisions, to commit, put music to tape and move on. This tradition has continued and now Musical Family Tree (a non-profit I started in 2004) does regular "EP In A Weekend" sessions.

The analog world, at least the one we experience, is very limited. A day only has so many hours. A record only has 20-25 minutes a side. A reel of tape has only 30 minutes of recording time. As we move from analog to digital, we gain almost infinite space, but lose the important creative tool found in natural constraints.

As we enter the digital world of Photoshop, Pro Tools (sound recording software), Google and others, we are tempted to fall into endless exploration. Commitment and execution is threatened and often compromised. Deadlines are ignored or forgotten.

In the analog recording world, mixing a recording (taking the individual tracks and mixing them down to a stereo or mono tape that would be used to press records) was usually done quickly after recording, even in a matter of hours. You might be surprised how fast the Beatles recorded, mixed and pressed records – often just a few weeks between the recording sessions and the record being in stores. For instance, in 1964 they recorded and released 19 singles (7” 45s). That’s almost two per month!

Now mixing can take months (and even years) as musicians and producers tweak each track to get the very best possible sound. In the end you usually end up with an outcome that isn’t much better (and often worse) than what you would have gotten before those digital tools existed. I personally know of many albums that took months to finish because the band couldn’t stop playing with different mixes in Pro Tools. Not only does this kill the work, it means other work isn’t getting done. All the songs and sounds that came next never got to exist. Instead everyone spent their time pursuing “perfection."

I see this same dynamic playing out with marketing and design. When you take the limitations of the physical away and bring creative work into the digital realm you can get lost in that infinite world. Millions of colors, thousands of fonts, a hundred taglines… It’s like walking into a kitchen with a thousand ingredients and trying to make a sandwich. Of the 40 different cheeses available which one is right? Chances are you will build a better sandwich with fewer choices. Certainly you will build it faster.

Great things can be done quickly. But it takes commitment and preparation. When the band Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark was asked by the filmmaker John Hughes to deliver a closing track for his 80s classic “Pretty In Pink” they wrote and recorded it in 24 hours. "If You Leave" became their biggest hit. But this didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened because they were ready to work fast. They had spent years experimenting and exploring sounds, most famously a couple of years earlier on their masterpiece “Dazzle Ships.” This album was considered a dud at the time, but clearly built artistic muscles that they consequently flexed for “Pretty In Pink.”

In the digital world we simply must embrace constraints, even when they don’t naturally exist like they do in the analog world. Artificial constraints, whether they be time, colors, tools or people, can bring focus and urgency to your work. Constraints push us to rise to the challenge. We must embrace them, or else find ourselves staying up all night looking for the right shade of green.

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