The Elusive Pursuit of Perfection
I remember my first serious attempt at recording a song like it was yesterday. During my freshman year of college, a friend of mine and I thought that it was a good idea to start a rap group together. I had JUST started making beats with Garageband and he had some experience writing lyrics so we thought “hey, it shouldn’t be THAT hard to record our own tracks, right?” Well, let’s just say that our first attempt at recording a song was a complete disaster. The genius freshman in me thought that recording directly into Garageband with my laptop’s built-in microphone would immediately yield a song that sounded on par with the music I was listening to at the time. The massive amount of feedback that occured when I armed the mic made us realise that there was way more to it than that, but even solving the feedback issue wasn’t enough to prevent the incredibly shitty recording that ensued.
There were two consequences of this epic failure of a recording. The first is that our rap group broke up immediately and we never tried to work on music together again. The second, more important one, however, is that I swore to learn as much about the recording and mixing process as possible until I could make the “perfect” sounding song myself. So I spent the next four years buying new equipment, recording vocals, and doing trial and error experiments with my mixes. All of this hands on experimenting culminated in the release of The Bigger Picture during my senior year in 2013. The mixing on this album is the absolute best I could do while still being self taught and even though it still holds up remarkably well today, there were still noticeable issues that I just couldn’t figure out how to fix. Since I absolutely could not afford to hire a mixing engineer at that time, I decided that the best way to improve my music was to pursue a formal education in that area. So I enrolled in New York University’s music technology masters program so I could continue learning about the music production process (and to get a job in a related field, but that’s a whole different story).
Two years later, I applied everything that I learned at NYU to Origins. Despite this album being the best mix job that I’ve ever done and the first album of mine that was professionally mastered, there were still noticeable issues with the final product. A lot of this was from the fact that I did not have access to proper mixing equipment and ended up mixing the entire thing with consumer grade headphones and speakers. As a result, it sounds “perfect” on the equipment that I mixed it on, but it does not sound “perfect” on other types of speakers (some car systems tend to be particularly problematic). So when I started the super electro and agro follow up project to Origins, I felt like I had no choice but to shell out the money to hire a mixing engineer in order to get the “perfect” sound that I was pursuing. Fortunately, I came to my senses before I spent any money and scrapped the entire project.
Why exactly did I scrap the entire project? The primary reason is that I flat out couldn’t afford it. A mixing engineer that I was put in contact with charged $600 per song and since my album was 12 tracks long, it would’ve come out to $7,200 before mastering and promotional costs! That isn’t an amount of money that I can casually write a check for. I eventually found someone else who charged half as much, but even $3,600 is an amount that I could not afford at the time, especially considering the amount of money that I had just blown on trying to market my last album. So, I ditched my plan to hire a mixing engineer and eventually ditched the whole album altogether for other reasons covered in my last blog post.
After pulling the plug on all of my attempts to be a more “legitimate” artist in 2018, I went on an indefinite hiatus from music that allowed me to reflect on the apparent dead end that I just hit. How in the world was I supposed to improve the quality of my music without a fuck-ton of money that I’m incapable of obtaining? I couldn’t figure that out, largely because it ended being the wrong question I needed to ask. Instead, I spent time revisiting all of the music that influenced me while I was growing up. Most of this music was not created by people with large budgets and state of the art equipment, it was created by people with huge limitations and constraints that they found creative ways around. Even timeless classics that still sound good today have been recorded and produced on equipment that has less processing power than a modern day computer.
So the question I needed to ask myself instead was this: how can I continue to find creative ways around the limitations that have been placed on me? I always found ways around these limitations in the past but I was never satisfied with the result, mainly because I was obsessed with this pursuit of perfection and this arbitrary idea of what music is supposed to sound like. But why does music need to sound “perfect” in order to be appreciated or valued in the first place? And how is “perfect” defined anyways? Many projects that are considered classics are far from perfect, but their imperfections contribute to an overall aesthetic that is indicative of the time period, culture, and circumstances that birthed that music in the first place.
So after reflecting on all of this, I decided that the best way to improve my music is to embrace the imperfections that I’ve been trying to eradicate for the past 10 years. It’s better to creatively implement them into my music’s overall aesthetic instead of continuing to pursue this elusive idea of perfection. Sure, the sound of my next album may reflect the fact that it’s not a big budget project that was made with state of the art equipment, but that’s honestly not a bad thing.