SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.13 No.1. November 1997
by Chris Carter
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RECORDING
The purpose of this article is to give some insights and possible solutions to a couple of aspects of studio work I'm sure most of you will have come across at some time or another, motivation and stress.
There are many problematic psychological and physiological aspects to studio work, nerves, personality clashes, drugs, smoking, drinking, RSI, financial worries, fatigue and of course the age old question, shag pile carpet or polished floor? The list is almost endless and it's possible that some of these subjects may be covered in future articles but in the meantime let's consider two of the most common problems, motivation and stress.
GOING ROUND IN CIRCLES
A lack of motivation, particularly when working in a home based studio, is a surprisingly common problem. But what causes this change in attitude? Picture this familiar scenario, you are recording a song or demo but it just doesn't seem to be working out as you had hoped and is frankly going nowhere, when only a couple of days ago you and the rest of the band were telling everyone about this fantastic song you were working on. The lyrics now sound naff, you're still trying to get a groovy bass line and half decent rhythm and the melody is beginning to sound tired and tuneless. You feel as if you're locked into a cycle of maximum effort and no return with the smallest defects taking on gargantuan and irrational significance. The situation can seem even worse when working on MIDI based projects where it's easy to get bogged down with the intricacies and minutiae of a track and you find yourself spending hours and hours endlessly tweaking and fiddling with MIDI information hoping to strike lucky when in reality you're just going round in ever decreasing circles.
OI, WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM !
So what's going on here? Well, after a few days you get over familiar with the tune or arrangement, boredom sets in, your once positive attitude takes a spiralling dive into lethargy and indifference and your motivation begins to trail off, you know that 'I just can't be arsed anymore' feeling. This feeling is quite common and is aptly called Project Fulfilment Fatigue Syndrome and once it has a hold, is pretty hard to shake off. So what do you do if you have reached this stage in a project and admit it, we've all been there! It's time to consider your options.
For a start you need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, do you carry on getting nowhere fast or, even though you may have spent days (or even weeks) sweating blood over it? Do you just stop and trash it? Well sometimes yes, it may be better to cut your losses and move on to something new. Or you could consider playing what you have done so far to someone not involved in the project, as anyone outside this umbrella of doom will most likely hear the track in a completely different light. Often this is all that is needed, a new perspective. You could try friends, relations, teachers, DJ's, producers, anyone really who you feel might give a valid opinion, good or bad. If it's a bad reaction then move on to something new, if it's a good reaction then take on board what they say and try and come at it from a fresh angle.
If you are working solo or don't have anyone you can immediately discuss it with you could put the song to one side for a couple of weeks and distance yourself from it for a while. Things can sound a lot different after that long, occasionally worse, but often not as bad as you remember.
THREE POINT PLAN
This is just a basic example and in reality there are usually lots of complex interrelated factors that influence a loss of motivation but there are usually three fairly significant factors involved. These are: 1) What are your aims or goals. 2) How well do you cope with distractions and 3) That age old problem, self discipline.
Let's deal with point one first. If you're embarking on a project what is your ultimate intention? Is making music a hobby and are you just putting together some ideas for your own enjoyment? Or is this meant to be a top-notch demo and your stab at fame? It helps if you have some idea what you are going to do with the finished track, it doesn't have to be overly ambitious but without some sort of an objective it's all too easy to run out of steam. However, what if you've already got your record deal and are still having trouble getting motivated. Well, money and finances can be a double edged sword when it comes to motivation. If you've been given a royalty advance before the obligatory 'contractual' album or single has been delivered and the money has just frittered away before you have even put anything significant on tape, it can be pretty difficult getting your act into gear. This also applies to remix projects and commissions, and personally I've always found the carrot and stick promise of fee a lot more motivating than payment up front.
But what about distractions and not just the usual ones such as phone calls, faxes, visitors and the TV. If you have a day job, with only your evenings and weekends free to work on your music, just mustering up enough energy and enthusiasm can be a problem. Does your concentration drift, is your mind on something else, like your job maybe, or is it just fatigue? Apart from taking time off work there is little that can be done in this unfortunate situation. But the most serious distractions you are likely to come across are equipment break downs and computer crashes and depending on their severity they can be pretty stressful too. Major equipment failure is probably the worst thing as far as motivation is concerned because if your only keyboard, sampler, DAT machine or 8 track is off somewhere being repaired you're placed in a helpless and frustrating situation. By the time you get your gear back (which could be weeks) it can be a major headache trying to pick up the threads of where you where and getting motivated again. Moral: keep your gear serviced and in good working order, ignore the phone and fax, don't answer the door and while you are working keep all TV's, radio's and computer games out of sight.
With self discipline you often find distraction in the equation also. You know the feeling, you should be finishing this mix before tomorrow but there's a really good film on TV and you could do with a pint. So you pop down the pub, then watch the film but it's late and you feel too tired to finish the mix, "oh sod it, I'll do it tomorrow". But tomorrow comes and the track doesn't sound as fresh as it did yesterday, you've forgotten some of the mixer and effects settings and now you want to move onto something new. Moral: Don't put off today what you THINK you can do tomorrow and keep a blank tape in the video machine.
Ironically a certain amount of stress can be beneficial as it excites and stimulates the body and many people work perfectly well in mildly stressful situations. However as stress levels rise the physical effects become more pronounced and apart from the obvious signs (shouting and screaming) stress can make an appearance in a number of ways, headaches, irritability, anxiety, palpitations, moodiness, depression and fatigue. But how do you cope with, or even avoid, stress in a studio environment?
While it probably seems second nature to most people reading this, a studio environment can be a very intimidating place to a recording novice and anxiety and nerves, even if hidden, can manifest themselves in any of the above symptoms. While you may be in a permanent state of total cool and calmness consider your colleagues or clients. If you are working with someone new to recording they could well be a bag of nerves, tottering on the brink, ready to snap at the slightest thing. If things do escalate into a stressful situation try to be as reasonable, considerate and if necessary, as diplomatic as you can. This is particularly important with vocalists, as the voice of a stressed out singer can disintegrate before your ears, in a matter of minutes. When an engineer or producer says "You're singing out of tune" followed by "Is that vibrato getting stronger?" it usually means he's just about to get a kick up the arse. Diplomacy can work wonders, "Lets try that again in a different key", followed by "would you like a glass of water?" may be a better option. If everybody is getting stressed out and these things do tend to have a knock on effect, the situation can only get worse, if you can keep the atmosphere from boiling over there is always a chance that the session will end happily ever after.
Stress and motivation often go hand in hand and both can make an appearance when technical problems occur. One faulty MIDI lead in a rats nest of cables and interfaces can take what seems like forever to track down. If you've got a studio full of irate (and paying) musicians the situation can get about as stressful (and abusive) as you want.
And when I say technical problems I don't just mean a few dodgy leads, although that's bad enough. Because from a musicians point of view there's nothing worse than an engineer saying "sorry can we try that take again I forget to press record" or "sorry I got a bit of reverb spill on the track, can we try that just one more time". There are only so many times this sort of thing can happen before stress levels rise and motivation takes a dive. Make sure all your gear and leads are working as they should, BEFORE you start a session, it could save a lot of problems (and abuse) later.
If you are working in your own studio or at home and it's a large project or one with a particularly intense and heavy workload, plan a series of incentives and rewards to break up the monotony that often creeps into sustained cycles of writing, recording and mixing. After a long session these could take the form of a trip to the movies, a big nosh up at a restaurant, zip off to the beach, take a stroll in the woods or countryside, in fact any activity not connected with recording. If you are working in a state of the art pro-studio with access to swimming pools, tennis courts, games machines, pool tables and sunny climes these can be a great way of winding down and relieving stress but beware, they can also become indulgent and a major distraction with regards to motivation.
Massage is an excellent stress reliever, just ask anyone who's tried it. It's especially effective after a long day spent slaving away in a studio and a great way of winding down at the end of long session. I know of a particularly good masseuse, who specialises in visiting studios and record companies, and performs a very effective and relaxing shoulder and neck massage. You could try calling one of the professional visiting masseuse that advertise in yellow pages (no, NOT the ones in telephone boxes!). Alternatively you could encourage a friend to learn a massage technique or try some other relaxation routine such as meditation or deep breathing exercises.
This may sound a bit whacky but soft lights and a few floor cushions (or comfy chairs) and an aroma therapy oil burner can make quite a difference to some stressed out situations. When things are getting a little strained tell everyone to chill out for 15 minutes, light the burner, turn off the music, dim the lights, get comfortable and try to relax for a while, it really can work wonders.
THE OUTER LIMITS
As you can probably tell by the non-academic tone of this piece, I'm in no way suggesting that it is a definitive study of studio psychology. In fact, all the points raised and examples covered are gleaned from years of personal experience and from discussions with friends and colleagues. Remember, this is not an exact science and what works for one person or situation may be inappropriate or unsuitable for someone else. Half the battle is knowing the type of psychological traps and pit falls you can fall into and armed with this information knowing how to avoid them. I hope I've given you a little understanding into the sometimes puzzling, contradictory and intricate mental processes that drive most of us in that unique twilight zone we call the 'studio environment'. Happy recording!
ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES
TIPS TO EASE STRESS:
• Ease your workload and get plenty of rest, mental and physical exhaustion is a major cause of stress.
• Avoid very long sessions, particularly in front of a VDU.
• Monitoring at high volume can be stressful for some people, bear this in mind.
• Positive thinking works wonders.
• If a track isn't working out try to stay calm and reasonable, DON'T start shouting at each other.
• Keep your gear in good working order, running repairs are a big no no.
• Cut down your coffee and cola intake, or drink decaffeinated instead.
• Get a massage.
• Small diversions can break a stressful atmosphere but beware of loosing motivation.
• Keep a good joke book to hand.
TIPS TO KEEP MOTIVATED
• Avoid distractions like the plague.
• If you are grinding to a halt bring in an outside opinion to get a new perspective on things.
• Don't submit to negativity.
• Try to set yourself a deadline, and meet it.
• Don't put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
• Ease you're workload, don't try to do too many projects at once.
• Keep your gear in working order.
• When a serious dilemma occurs use Oblique Strategies (see box).
• Take the Holistic approach, use all the above.
Oblique Strategies was a set of small flash cards written by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and released in 1975 as a signed, limited edition of 500. The set includes approximately 100 or so cards containing short and sometimes philosophical or oblique phrases. The phrases are intended to help musicians when they reach an impasse or dilemma in the writing/recording process. Some of these phrases are self-evident: others are intended to suggest avenues you might otherwise not have thought of (see below). The idea is that you shuffle the pack then pick one or more out at random. The chosen phrase acts like a catalyst or mediator, diverting you in a different and hopefully more rewarding direction. Getting hold of an original set is all but impossible ( and expensive). I've had my well thumbed and battered set for 22 years and still keep it close at hand for most projects, and no I don't want to sell it! However you could try making a set of your own, using your own criteria and phrases.
A short selection of phrases from Oblique Strategies:
Look at the order in which you do things
Mute and continue
Listen to the quiet voice
You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas
You are an engineer
What mistakes did you make last time?
Take a break
Use fewer notes
Fill every beat with something
Breath more deeply
Don't be afraid of things because they're easy to do
Shut the door and listen from outside
Do the washing up
BUYING YOUR WAY OUT OF A PROBLEM OR INTO A MESS
Ask musicians and home recordist's what aspect of recording and studio life they find the most refreshing and motivating and you'll find the reply is often buying new gear. There is nothing quite as inspiring and motivating as getting a new keyboard full of fab sounds or an effects unit with tons of devilish new algorithms. Of course one of the problems of pursuing this transient line of 'self help' is that shopping for new gear every time you feel at a productive low could work out a mite expensive. Another problem, and one that brings us full circle, is the stress involved trying to work out how to operate your brand new pride and joy.
Copyright © 1997 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.