Escaping The Weeds

Throughout the music-making process there are a lot of distractions and shiny objects that can slow our momentum. We can become bogged down by the details and complexity of the craft, fixating on gear, techniques, or minor details of a song. It’s important to remain curious and always be exploring but when does it become counterproductive? When does obsession sideline our progress and divert our energy? The details are important but they can be taken too far. We have finite resources at our disposal before we get frustrated or bored with a track, and this demands a focused use of our time and attention. Too many listens to a song and we lose all objectivity. Fixating too deeply on a singular element of a song, like a drum fill – can cause us to lose the plot and miss the big picture of the song. How does this happen, how do you stay on track, and how do you still encourage the creative process?

Getting “lost in the weeds” is a common phrase to describe getting off track, stuck in the muck of unimportant details that can truly threaten the outcome of your creative work and overall career. It reminds me of OCD behavior that seems to reward unimportant tasks with bursts of dopamine. I personally go through monthly phases of fixation where I take a deep dive into a side hobby like wine or photography, remain fixated on a subject, then later return to the surface hopefully grasping some takeaways: skills, knowledge, or ideas. Usually, I’m feeling anxious that I went so deep into one particular area, and I have that nervous tingle throughout the process.

I’ve seen some regular rabbit holes in music that suck people in. Modular synths, hardware & software gear lust, a singular focus on sound design, technology performance benchmarks, and spending more time consuming and creating social media than music. Some people get really into esoteric debates about 432 Hz vs 440 Hz. What do you want to be doing with your time – flaming someone on a forum or making timeless music?

rabbit hole 1

Let’s explore some methods to avoid the weeds, so you can stay focused the work that matters:

1) Simplify your tools: work with less hardware and plugins than you think are needed. Use stock plugins first, then try the fancier 3rd party ones. I know I’m off track when I start A/B’ing drum loops and different compressors. Stop tinkering and just apply techniques during active sessions. Nobody really cares about the process and what modular synths you used – they just want compelling results. Having to retune your gear and fix crashing plugins and authorization issues will grind your session to a halt.

2) Divide the labor and conserve your energy: Where do you want to spend your energy? Every song has an energy “budget” before you burn your ear out, hear the song too many times and either scrap it or settle or something half-baked.  This is why collaborations work. Tag teaming with another producer to get fresh ears on a project is a big advantage, and the main reason why I bring in co-producers and an outside engineer for stem mastering. Every producer has strengths and weakness, so hire your weaknesses. You don’t get extra credit for doing everything yourself” – Rick Rubin

3) Zoom out: Are you editing pixels and polishing atoms? If you’re zoomed in too closely, how can you possibly see how the broader work will be perceived? It’s like looking at a Chuck Close painting from a foot away. Remember to listen to your song start to finish and see what deadwood can be cut out from the arrangement, lyrics, and layers. Take a step back and ask yourself – is this detail really important to the work?

chuck-close-working

4) Graft rather than sow: In agriculture – plants are often grown as a combination of a scion (cutting from a “mother” plant) and rootstock grafted together. They are never grown from seed because the results are too random and take forever to reach maturity. Instead of spending 3 hours on a drum fill, use a sample. If you’re going to do elaborate sound design, batch it for a specific day so you’re not slowing down the creative process. You don’t need to invent atoms – just rearrange them. Start with great samples, great performances, and great recordings – rather than spending more time editing them.

5) Work with intention: At some point after the clicking point where a song gains momentum and sprouts legs, and you’re no longer throwing random ideas against the wall, you’ll need to assume the role of editor and “kill your darlings.” What is serving the song, and what is just unnecessary voltage? What mundane elements are masking the key players? It’s up to you flex those executive muscles and decides what gets cut. Be decisive and brutal with your choices – you can always revert back to previous sessions. Working with intention means committing to decisions and clearly defining what elements are top priorities, and which ones are just b-roll.  Recognize the weeds and know when to exit. It’s up to you to decide when you’ve been working too long on one section or component of a song. You’ll have to learn what is typical “resistance” or laziness, and what is an unproductive fixation.

rabbit hole 2

So there you have it – five ways to get out of the weeds. They are a seductive place, and the hardest part is often recognizing when you are lost in the woods. Keep your tools simple, work with great people, learn when to zoom out, start with great samples and source material, work with intention, and build a volume of work. It’s the only way you’ll make progress. Keep grinding and I’ll see you in the next blog post!

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