It's Gotta Be the Shoes...

What would you do if you woke up tomorrow with a large lump sum of money to invest solely into your audio career?

Hans Zimmer's Studio

Hans Zimmer's Studio

While you mull over your imaginary investment, lets look at another famous thought experiment. A sixteen year old Einstein couldn’t ignore a hunch. He felt that light didn’t behave the way the rest of the world thought it did. But technology was lacking for physical experimentation. Because this was 1895, he used the most powerful simulator available to him - his imagination. He started racing around the universe with a beam of light. His intuition told him that the race he experienced would be different from the same race a neutral spectator observed. He then began to watch himself race a beam of light around the universe from other view points. Sometimes he’d pull out a mirror while surfing a beam of light and look at his reflection. He imagined trains that could travel at incredible speeds. He’d take clocks aboard and bounce light around the cabin from a flashlight while chugging along at the speed of light. He realized no matter how fast he was going, he couldn’t feel the effects of gravity while moving with it. He observed, tested, analyzed and iterated with creativity as his only limitation. These brain simulations eventually lead to an insight that he referred to as the happiest thought of his life. Years later he published a short paper with a small equation regarding this happy thought. Relativity. Einstein challenged the world to test the phenomenon he had already explored and calculated in the confines of his imagination. A century later, satellites, atomic clocks, and super computers continue to confirm the superior testing he had conducted in the laboratory of his mind.

The BBC’s Sherlock Holmes character was able to defuse bombs, organize interrogations, and even survive life threatening injuries by virtue of his ‘mind palace’, a variation on the ‘method of loci’ that used spatial memory to store ‘data’. This ancient mnemonic system takes advantage of memorization through forming imaginary structures of images that are associated with a desired target. Because the classic “Every Good Boy Doing Fine” was too sexist at the time I was a music teacher, I relied on "Even George Bush Doesn’t Free Animals" to help students remember their bass clef spaces for the musical notes: E G B D F and A. The mental image of the then president caging up cute animals was enough to trigger a phrase that organizes the ascending spaces of a bass clef staff, which is a special organization of a range of musical pitches in a larger musical language even though the catalyst image is complete fiction. In every day conversations we unconsciously ascribe ideas to our hands and extend digits one by one as we activate the list we are reciting. We exercise our brains so it can do more work. Musicians experience all sorts of physical stimuli from hearing music. We might drum, air guitar, or tense and release with corresponding dissonance and resolution. These can even be thought of as physically interfacing with the intangible. I’ll ask you to pause reading and find where the first “the” is, in the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. You may find with surprising ease your ability to access the song’s lyrics and melody, fast forward the song quickly in your head and slow it down on “up above the world so high…”, while preserving the pitch of the song. Hardware and software can't manipulate audio as elegantly and delicately as your brain just did. The brain is incredible! Young Einstein’s ‘mind lab’ provided an immaterial solution to a physical problem. He felt the weightlessness of space nearly a hundred years before astronauts did. These surreal meditations and resulting visions are a case study in the creative process. But Einstein’s lack of tools may have helped focus his mind palace and change the world.

A 22 year old Beethoven also had a hunch he couldn’t ignore involving a poem written by Friedrich Schiller and a theme simple enough for a child to plunk out on a keyboard. He had the foresight to recognize the theme’s opportunity for development, and the patience to store it away in his mind palace and run simulations. This idea would live, breathe, and receive nourishment completely within his intellect for the next 19 years before it took shape into one of the most astonishing accomplishments in all of art. But in 19 years Beethoven would be completely deaf. His entire creative livelihood was dependent upon the accuracy his mind could recreate music he could no longer physically hear. Just as Einstein would die before physically entering space or traveling through time, Beethoven would never physically hear his 9th symphony even while conducting it. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” poem, modified for the choral finale, would personify the deep satisfaction of Beethoven’s triumph over tragedy and deafness with his finely tuned imagination. This symphony, never heard by the composer, would resonate with audiences like no other symphony before.

We composers, sound designers, and producers have an interesting relationship with technology. Music of all the fine arts is the most influenced by technology. The evolution of musical theory, aesthetics, and genres is locked in step with the evolution of musical tools. Equal temperament tuning, mixing consoles, amplifiers, copper tubing for brass instruments, the microphone, fretted strings, the synthesizer, the pipe organ, the turn table, the radio, and surround sound are a smattering of influential technological developments in music and audio. Where theoretical physicists and classical composers could shape the future of the world with ideas and ink, audio professionals now rely on more tools than ever to interface with media, distribution, and audio fidelity. We not only have to come up with an idea, we have to test it, execute it, and demonstrate it.

Let’s return to the opening thought experiment that was hopefully cooking in your subconscious mind oven. What investments in your music and audio career did you decide would bring about the most progress? Most of your brains envisioned dazzling floated studios, pristine sound treatment, modular synths, large vocal booths, SSL consoles, and velvet couches for clients to sink down into while sipping wine as they bask in the magnificence of your art. And for a creative person, this is a really dull and disappointing answer to a simple question.

Here’s another thought experiment. You now have Hans Zimmer’s beautiful studio pictured above as your personal work space. Now what? Well I suppose you learn how to use the gear, make presets, and templates. Awesome! What magical force will flow out of that gear, seize you, and empower you to suddenly become a great composer. Will you spontaneously develop the ability to compose at a higher proficiency? Will your ears become sharper? Have you ever written a score as good as Ennio Morricone? Have you ever produced something as sublime as Brian Eno? Did you ever design a sound as interesting as Ben Burt? No? Then why do you need their gear? You should want their talent and creativity! Talent and creativity can be developed for free. But like Einstein found out, time may be the variable in question. 

None of us are under the delusion that a pen and paper puts us in the same company as Einstein and Beethoven. Or that an indie car makes us peers of Mario Andretti. Does an expensive studio put you in the same company as Phil Spector or Brian Wilson? Some of you may say, ‘of course not, but it would improve my career!’ The real question is, do you think the people mentioned above are successful because of their tools? Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” So, let’s make sure we are asking the right questions of ourselves. If you are encountering challenges, ask yourself what is going on. What does this project need? What is the main idea in this mix? Why is this chorus dull? Why is this snare so quiet? What can I do to make sure I don’t make this mistake again? If you aren’t creating good ideas or perceiving bad ones, Hans Zimmer’s studio is of no use to you. And if you are already making great music then you probably don’t need his studio

"This sounds great, what were you thinking when you created this? What sparked the idea to record this sound this way? Why did you choose to develop this subject with this orchestration? " I’m struck by the questions I never hear audio professionals ask about the work they admire. With the myriad of decisions, processes, influences, and techniques that contribute to well crafted music and sound design, peers are most interested in the material.  Sitting down with Hans Zimmer and inquiring about his artistic process would be a lot more helpful than access to his gear. “I like this track… what DAW are you using?” This common question is kind of insulting to be asked. It insinuates that the main contributor to your work isn’t your talent. It isn’t really even you. I call it “Air Jordan Syndrome". It originates with the belief that Michael Jordan’s incredible ability to dunk had nothing to do with him jumping up and down for 300 reps multiple times a day for years. As Spike Lee said looking into the camera in the famous Nike commercial, “It’s gotta be the shoes”. This is why as a kid, I observed everyone who wanted to be good at basketball, buying Air Jordans before they ever set foot on a court. (I got the Dennis Rodman's with the zipper because I was an individual). There are an adult set of Air Jordanites whose philosophies have a stranglehold on the audio industry. They are gear heads. Gear head syndrome may be the reason music lessons, apprenticeship, music theory, books, recordings, tutorials, residencies, and concert tickets didn’t come to mind when you were asked how you’d invest in your talent in our thought experiment.

It's Gotta Be the Shoes...

It's Gotta Be the Shoes...

There is a growing consensus that a "professional sound" cannot be achieved without specific studio prerequisites. It is an idea often propagated by amateur producers on forums who worship the gear gods running those forums. There is no paint by numbers system to achieving a great sounding mix. A veteran will tell you that they use their ears. But there is more interest in the engineer’s console than interest in how he trained his ears. “It’s gotta be the console”. It can be comforting to latch onto tangibles like wall treatment, studio monitors, and sample libraries. You can read a guide on room treatment and calibration. You can become an authority on signal processing. But you can't find musicianship, intuition, instinct, inspiration, and creativity on sale at Interface with the intangible. 

It is scary for young producer’s to learn Skrillex made some of his best tracks on a laptop with headphones. It scares bands to learn The Beatles recorded some of their hits on a 4 track. And it scares designers when they find out the simple vintage sounds Ben Burt combined for some of the incredible sound effects in Star Wars. It is scary for vocalists to learn Frank Sinatra would record hits with a single take. It is scary to come to terms with the fact that what goes on between your ears determines the success of your work. "I already possess the tools I need to make a good mix or sound. It's not my tools failing me, it's me failing me!”, This is a happy and honest thought. It is no longer the responsibility of your wallet, speakers, or DAW when you reject Air Jordan Syndrome. It becomes your responsibility. And it is a responsibility you can’t buy your way out of. But the idea that professional music and audio comes exclusively with an expensive took kit is very comforting. It alleviates the pressure on improving your ideas, talents, and ears and pushes the responsibility away from you. "Of course [insert admired artist] is successful. He/she has expensive X-Y-Z gear and mastering that I do not have access to. It simply can't be that he/she works harder than me. Ahhh, now I feel better! I'll save up for that new SSL hardware and then I'll have the ability to make better music". This may be a happy thought, but it is not an honest one. There is a murky materialism that pulls focus onto gear, and off of the ideas going into it.

Proper monitoring, expensive libraries, acoustic treatment, of course can and will help. Most professionals attest to their tools being of great value. But it is because they understand their relationship to their tools and how to use them as a springboard to ideas, instead of a substitute. Of course a singer needs a quality microphone. But an expensive microphone is of no use to a singer who can't stay on pitch. When Seth MacFarlane (creator of family guy, talented voice actor and singer) wanted to improve his ability to croon like his idol, 'one take Frank' Sinatra, he didn’t buy Sinatra’s mic.  He found the 90 year old couple who trained Sinatra and took lessons. Abbey Road studio fees won’t give you a license to Beatles quality songs. Air Jordans won’t help you dunk. And no, a mastering engineer probably can’t fix your sloppy mix.

Fredrik Chopin was a keyboard composer. And like most of his contemporaries, his piano was his 'audio work station'. It was his tool to test ideas. His proficiency with the piano allowed him to instantly experiment, iterate, and react to the music heard in his head. Chopin had such an extraordinary relationship with his piano, that he rarely played a piece the same way twice. This made recording a definitive version to paper a creative challenge. The pianist-critic Karl Filtsch recalled: “When it came to writing down and recapturing an original inspiration, Chopin endured days of nervous strain and terrible despair”. Does this sound familiar? So how did Fredrik Chopin overcome these challenges and cement himself as one of the great romantic composers? He didn’t buy more pianos. He didn’t wait for a new keyboard to be invented. He didn’t blame his circumstances. He took sole responsibility and relied on his work ethic. As the novelist “George Sand” wrote watching her lover, Chopin work:

“His creative power was spontaneous, miraculous. It came to him without effort or warning . . . . But then began the most heart-rending labor I have ever witnessed, It was a series of attempts, of fits of irresolution and impatience to recover certain details. He conceived a melody as a whole, but when he tried to write it down he analyzed it too much, and his regret at not recovering it in clear-cut form plunged him –buy his own account—into a sort of despair. He would shut himself in his room for days, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, repeating and modifying one bar a hundred times. . . . He would spend six weeks over a page, only to end by writing it out finally just as he had sketched it in the original draft.”

This despair sounds as much fun as jumping up and down 300 times in multiple sets to strengthen your legs. It sounds as much fun as locating a retired voice coach for lessons. Homework sucks, buying stuff is fun. If you are looking for fun solutions to serious problems in your work, by all means, get a new toy and enjoy it. But if you aren’t getting the results you want, before you put the responsibility on your circumstances, ask yourself the right question. Am I willing to spend 6 weeks on this single problem like Chopin? Do I even care that much? Or is my progress contingent on time and ease? Failure is a big part of the creative process,. Your mind, your ears, your work ethic – these are your primary tools. Invest in them as much as your studio. Practice, read, and ask the right questions. When younger audio artists make excuses because of a tool they think they lack, I wish I could warp whistle them to Hans Zimmer’s studio and observe. I'm willing to bet  that rather than working on a project, they’d spend the day playing. Hoping the right combination of knobs turns and patch cables would spontaneously generate that elusive million dollar idea.

Most people know a chain saw is a worthless tool for cutting metal. They are usually surprised to find out how simple it is to cut through wood with one. And they have the foresight to know that owning a chainsaw doesn’t make them an ice sculptor. We have all experienced loading up a preset that solves all of our problems as it ignites a surge of productivity. Or processing a library sound effect to an instantly inspiring result. But let’s be clear with what happened. A plugin may have done work for you. But you decided its role in your project. Your ears recognized and discerned value and you acted upon it. The preset synth patch didn’t write the song for you. The processing and recording of that sound effect may feel like it did all the work for you, but it was your creativity that recognized its usefulness. A chainsaw can dig its teeth effortlessly into a block of ice. But discerning the complex angles, envisioning contours, and carefully carving through ice is what makes the sculpture. It isn't the chainsaw. And it still isn't the shoes dunking! When Beethoven heard the simple theme for Ode to Joy, that was the easy part. Perhaps an algorithm could have produced the melody. The hard part was conceptualizing the theme’s potential. He heard it and knew that this theme, with a lot of work, could be the crown jewel to all symphonic finales. Einstein imagined himself riding around on a beam of light. It’s a day dream anyone might conjure up during a boring meeting. But of all the great thinkers who imagined the behavior of light, how many had the vision to suspect that time itself was the variable. I keep returning to Einstein because scientists recently made a discovery Einstein predicted they would find a hundred years ago. Scientists detected gravitational waves rippling through space from two black holes colliding. I can’t help but wonder if like Beethoven, Einstein already knew what it would sound like before he heard it.

Brainstorming and conceptualizing are the most overlooked parts of being an artist today. When you get the locked edit of the film, or the takes from the vocalist you’ve been working with, or a new build of the video game, stop. Before you start flicking on gear and loading up plugins, imagine your finished product. What does it sound like? Imagine being in the room with someone the first time they hear it. What do they like about it? What do they notice? What are they focused on? What is your role in communicating these things? Imagine what comes out of the theater speakers, or car stereo of your target audience. Physically interact with the intangible. Start singing it. Start dancing to it. Picture your sounds and notes as shapes. Ask yourself the right questions, then dive into your vision. Be a surgeon. Envision the anatomy in detail, plan the cut carefully, and measure. After doing this the surgeon knows what tool to use for the incision. Imagine if the surgeon just started cutting with random scalpels until he found the problem area. Don’t bludgeon your project because you don’t want to think. Einstein said “A theory can be proved by an experiment; but no path leads from experiment to the birth of a theory.

I’m hearing lots of television, and web media with telephone quality voices. Dialogue for film is getting nuked by heavy izotope Rx processing. Nine out of ten times, a line of dialogue can be fixed with EQ, cross fades, and edits. If you don’t know how to take the energy out of a plosive with some fades and an EQ, the complicated Izotope RX workflow will only add more variables into your problem. But engineers in purchasing this powerful forensic level software feel they’ve paid the price of admission to dialogue editing and are too eager to use it. They remove every trace of noise and half the voice along with it. Can you imagine using CG to slightly blur an actor’s face in an effort to hide a bead of sweat from the hot lights on set? Izotope RX is a fantastic piece of software, and works perfectly the one in ten times it is needed. The art of dialogue editing lies within the ears. Perceiving good noise from bad noise, performance over cleanliness, clarity over loudness is what a talented editor can do.

The same goes for producers. Is the drop not sitting well with the build up? Did you start turning knobs or did you listen first? You might find it isn’t your compressor’s fault, or your synth’s fault. You might find you should have dropped the 4th beat out of the bridge build to suck the ears in to the silence before the compressors reset and smash into the chorus. Or that your louds are too soft because your softs are too loud. Or that your structure is wrong in general. Listen to other tracks you like and chart out their structures before you buy Xfer’s Serum. Listen carefully for feedback. When someone gives you the compliment that your music reminds them of a popular artist, pay attention. They’ve just told you they’d rather listen to someone else. Conceptualize what that chorus needs to do to be effective. Hear it. Then you can start turning knobs and picking tools.

If you need to interact with technology to inspire you, if you need toys to keep you from losing your creative spark, invest in new influences. If the reward and privilege of making art for yourself and others isn’t enough, and you’d rather be entertained throughout the process, invest in your work ethic. If tools are a means to imitate other people’s creativity, invest in your own creativity and find your voice. If you rely on your tools to generate content, you aren’t an artist, you are a technician. Technology should help us make better decisions, not relieve us from our creative responsibilities. Our tools should help us execute our ideas, not generate content. It should confirm or deny our intuition instead of allowing us to work on auto-pilot. When we face challenges we shouldn’t blame our tools first, or seek an immediate material solution. We ought to retreat back into our mind palace, ask the proper questions, and make art. Technology shouldn’t impress or excite us as much as the astonishing power of our mind. Just as anyone with a word processor or pen and paper has the complete tool set to write the next great novel by taking the words in their head and transferring them onto paper - I hope one day audio technology will allow anyone to record and produce the sounds in their head instantaneously. Then art can be fueled by pure ideas. Don’t be a consumer, be a creator. It’s not the shoes.