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“Killing your darlings”

guest article by John P.

It’s a rainy day, perfect for holing yourself up in your room to work on a new song—and if you’re like most of the music-making world, that means firing up your Mac or PC, connecting your MIDI keyboard, hunching your neck and shoulders, and playing endlessly with your virtual drum machines, pianos, and saxophones.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Computer power has liberated home music producers in too many ways to list in this short article. Pair up some modest multi-tracking software with a basic six-hundred dollar PC and you can create sonic wonders. But this very blessing can be a curse. How would “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” sound if Eno and Byrne recorded it today? It would sure be easier for them. Maybe too easy. Without limitations to overcome, artists get lazy and bored.

I’m suggesting that you step outside of the box—the box being the virtual world where your instruments live, where your tracks are recorded, where your project is mixed and mastered. Aren’t you a little tired of editing those wave forms? Remember that old Tascam 4-track cassette recorder buried in your closet? Dig it out. Get out some real cables, by God. Your hardware misses you.

Or how about a sampler? Right—you already have one. Maybe it’s the NNXT that lives in Reason 4.

Why not get a hardware sampler with some real knobs on it? I’m a big fan of the Roland SP-404. It might sound crazy, but getting away from your computer screen can really help your project. A hardware sampler forces you to make edits with your ears instead of your eyes. Maybe that boring loop will come to life if you feed it into some hardware and tweak it away from the screen. Maybe even run it through some outboard effects. What ever happened to that old chorus pedal that you got for Christmas back in high school? Dig it out and give it a new 9-volt. Make some room on the kitchen table. Set up some real, physical audio gadgets and make some noise. You’ll feel like a kid again, I promise.

When you live inside of the box, you start to forget about the great big world outside. It’s easy. Your virtual guitars sound almost like the real thing. Why bother hooking up your six-string and playing the part live…it won’t sound as clean anyway.

That’s just the point, my friend. Maybe that computer is a little too clean. It might be sucking the life right out of your music.

Hear me out. The box will always be there. One of the most glorious things about the DAW is its non-destructive editing power. You can always go back. But for now, on a rainy day like today, why not dig out the old stuff…send that computer-generated drum loop back in time onto cassette tape…slow it down and make it grimy. Turn off the dbx noise reduction and let it crackle and burn. Ahhh, that’s just the spice your song was craving.

Now you can send your work back into the box. In the same way that travel changes a person, travel changes your sound. Sending your audio out into the real world will change it in subtle ways that you could never dream up in your DAW.

What William Faulkner said about writing applies equally to sound. “You’ve got to kill your darlings.” If you find yourself too in love with a sound, chances are good that you should kill it. Or at least maim it a little.

So take that perfectly clean loop that you love so much and kick it out into the real world. Don’t coddle it. Let it see that life is hard. You might love it even more when it comes back home.