today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.
first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:
a) not as good as it should be
b) not “right”
c) going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway
d) is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway
e) sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)
I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times. blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂
but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.
a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”. this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.
I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played. those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!! all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.
how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).
much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!
but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.
surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.
surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.
and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:
a) song is better than I thought – much better
b) it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable
c) it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision
d) not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision
e) luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!
so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.
what I take away from this is at least twofold: one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.
another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason. I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).
so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!
once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music. time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one. I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.
now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden! you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another. I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.
but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good. very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.
but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them. sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one! depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view. some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.
as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you” as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack! give you a break… 🙂
now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed. or, you may find a hidden gem or two…
I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.
while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.
a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”. over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.
some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.
but here’s the interesting thing. I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.
as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed. I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”. but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.
eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was. a good take!
however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions! because…I didn’t want to know! I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not! what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably. I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it. a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂
instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”. 🙂
I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.
I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.
I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.
as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow. I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂
being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that. I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”. so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively. I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.
of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music. [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]
happy mixing and mastering to all!!
peace and love
a reader in nova scotia, who is also a fellow scape user, has commented on one of my earliest blogs regarding “scape”, the generative ambient music creation tool designed and realised by brian eno and peter chilvers, and in his comment, he asked me a question, which was simply, could I tell him anything more about what the three “sliders” in scape, the ones that control “density”, “complexity”, and “mystery” – about what those controls actually “do”.
I have always made sure that whenever a reader sends in a question, that I will do my level best to answer it – but in this case, I was struggling a bit, because while I’ve used these three controls, I did not feel like I could speak authoritatively about what each one does!
so I wanted to first of all, throw this question out to the scape user community at large – can any other scape users throw any light on what, exactly, the “density”, “complexity” or “mystery” controls do?
I have a standard process when answering any question, if I happen to know a substantial amount about the topic, then I just answer from my own experience, however, if I know less about it than I would like to, I would seek out information on the internet, so I could learn as much as possible, so I could speak from an informed and enlightened position…before framing any anwer or framing an appropriate reply to the question.
however…even this “look it up on line” approach was thwarted; when I typed in the question into google; I got a number of hits back, but only the first two were actually about the three controls, the rest, were “off topic” – and I am afraid, that the first hit pointed to the original dave stafford blog post that our nova scotian reader was commenting on; and the second hit pointed to another blog post about scape that I had written – so the ONLY two references to these three mysterious controls, anywhere on the internet is…two blog posts that I myself had written!
at that point I then realised I would not be learning anything more about the controls from any internet search, even so, I’d still like to attempt answering the question from a sheer logical standpoint. but before I attempt that, I need to explain one of the peculiarities of “scape”: when you save a “scape”, the app saves the visual instructions that you created, and of course, you can “play back” the scape at any time. however…
the duration (or length) of a scape playback is set to “random”. so even though I created a scape that ran 7 minutes 32 seconds the first time I play it back; the second time I play it back, it might run 5 minutes 21 seconds. the third time, maybe 8 minutes 3 seconds. the fourth time, 2 minutes 35 seconds, and so on, ad infinitum – it’s never the same length, and, because of that, it’s never the same “tune” – it “starts” in a random spot, and it plays random sections, so there is just no repeatability whatsoever.
the reason I am mentioning this is that the only “scientific method” to determine what, say, the “mystery” control “does”, would be to record a scape with “mystery” set to 0 or off, and then play it back and listen to the results; and then, change the “mystery” control to 100 or full on, and play the scape again, and try to determine what the “difference” is – i.e. what is now happening in the second playback, that did NOT occur in the first playback – describe that, and you have described what the “mystery” control does.
but this whole theory falls apart – because you can’t play it back a second time and have it be the same entity it was the first time you played it back – so there is no way to gauge the difference with the “mystery” control set either off or on – it’s just not possible, because of the random duration of scape play back.
so this leaves us with pure, logical conjecture as our only remaining possible way to answer this question (barring the unlikely event of eno or chilvers reading this and offering to explain to us what each of the controls does!) – so here is what I believe, based solely on my internal logic, my understanding of the three terms used, and my experience with ambient and other rules-based music:
1) since we do not have eno or chilvers to explain what these three controls do and
2) since we cannot test the controls scientifically, since scapes never play back the same way twice – we cannot gauge the “difference” between a track with zero “mystery” and “full” “mystery” – as we might with other devices – we cannot compare an “effected” scape with a “non-effected” scape which would have allowed us to understand what the controls actually “do”
3) logic, based entirely on the name of each control, might dictate the following (your opinion may differ):
“density” – I would suggest that density, like the other two controls, does exactly what it says on the tin – it controls how dense the scape is – and density must relate to the sheer count of musical events in the piece. I suggest that a “not very dense” scape might have, say, 10,000 musical events or “notes” in it, but a “very dense scape” might have, say, 50,000 musical events or “notes” in it. of course, on a more basic level, “density” is controlled by how many “objects” the user places into the screen (and there is a limit on that, if you place too many objects, scape removes older objects to compensate), but I suggest that this control will ADD more density, it will create extra musical events that wouldn’t normally be there, making the piece more musically “dense”.
“complexity” – I would suggest that this is similar to “density”, but will have more to do with the complexity (or difficulty) of the musical events – so when “complexity” is set to zero, the piece will be “baseline” complex – as complex as the normal scape rules allow for, no more; but, when you increase the “complexity” towards “full”, the rules are altered to create more complex melodies, more intricate harmonies, more convoluted bass lines, etc – the music becomes “trickier” – like taking a normal rock piece, and transforming it into prog rock by adding complex passages, odd time changes, etc. – in a scape, simply making the melodies, harmonies, bass lines, drum parts, etc. more complex than they normally would be. it might introduce time changes, or extra / difficult melodic, harmonic, or percussive information, that we don’t normally get in a normal scape – more complex forms than usually occur in an “un-effected” scape.
“mystery” – I would suggest that “mystery” is all about randomness; possibly involving random musical events occurring that normally wouldn’t, so with “mystery” set to zero, there are no surprises, the scape operates “normally”, and nothing unusual happens. when you turn “mystery” up to “full”, then unusual things begin to happen, odd events that normally would not occur, occur and occur frequently, and again, it’s just what it says on the tin, mysterious events occur, increasing the scape’s “mystery” – of course, this assumes that we actually know what to expect when we build a scape, which isn’t necessarily the case anyway!! “mystery” is my personal favourite, I just love the idea of a control that controls “mystery” – I think that is genius!
so, these are my “guesses” at what these three enigmatic slider “controls” do – and with no owner’s manual, no information regarding these controls forthcoming from eno or chilvers – there isn’t really any choice but to guess.
I’d say, based on how very difficult that question was / is to answer, that this was a very, very good question from this particular reader (thanks, Evan!).
I’ve done my best, but my guesses are just that – guesses, so we’d love to hear from you – what do you think the “density”, “complexity” and “mystery” controls do?
original question submitted by “evan” from nova scotia, whose scapes are posted here:
my own scapes are now beginning to be collected into a large album, which is located here in high quality audio formats:
a partial collection of specially made dave stafford scape videos, using scape screen shots as video material, is here:
and for you soundclouders, another small collection of audio scapes is here: