Friday, 21 October 2016

On being mid-project and the fascination of stepping stones

One of the most difficult times for me, personally, on any project is the middle section. You have some stuff done and it all seems like it's fitting into place but you know there is still a long road ahead until it's finished and often you don't see how to get there clearly. I find this time really difficult and I have a habit of comparing the current state of a project to finished examples. Most of the time this comparison is not exactly favourable on the unfinished work.

For me this whole stage of the project process is a little bit like the infamous scientific proof where one section simply reads "magic happens here". That "magic" is this middle part of the project or more specifically it's the transition between the middle section and some beautiful end state. At some point it stops being a middle of a project and becomes the beginning of the end. The home stretch, the last lap.

My main issue with this process is mental, it's the mental malaise that comes with comparing to finished work and not knowing how to get the current project to that state. Even if I do know how to get there, that can still be difficult because it doesn't feel like it's possible to get to that end state. I can genuinely start to feel depressed about the fact that I don't seem to be any closer and can't get past that middle ground and over the "magic" bridge into a clear path to the goal. Recently though there are two techniques that I've been using to combat this.

The first technique is something that I call current-state-mindfulness. This is the mental act of trying to take delight in the current stage of the process. If I am recording guitars then I am trying to really enjoy recording them, geek out and get really into it. Find the joy in mic placement, amp selection and all the other stuff that goes along with it. To quote Ze Frank "Try not to view the current state as just a stepping stone to something else, and if it is then try to become fascinated by the shape of the stone".

My second technique is cathartic side projects. These are basically projects that aren't what I would consider core to my main goal or are styles that I don't really particularly have anything to add to but they make me happy to create. Recently i've been working on a serious of metal tracks under an EP called Adrenaline Fuel. These have no vocals and I set up the basic mix of these in a pre-production stage before I started. The goal of them is to enjoy making them but also to allow me to have something musical that has a quick turnaround. I don't spend days agonising over the mix or this sound or that, I just make them some good-ish and then release them. The point is that finishing them gets me through that mid-track malaise. I often use them as a method of getting a break from something that is much more involved or mentally taxing. They also don't sound bad at all which is a nice aside. I often listen back to them just for the fun of it. It's almost free-ing to listen to something i've made and not criticise it.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Scratch tracks and recording with a different sound

So recently I have been experimenting with recording tracks with a different sound to that which I intend to have in the final mix. The reason for this is that I'm trying to separate my concerns when it comes to the sound versus the performance. When I record guitar I like to record with a very bass heavy, muddy, oversaturated tone. Why? Well quite frankly because I play better with that sound. I grew up playing guitars in my bedroom with no other instruments and I got used to the sound of the guitar taking up all the frequency spectrum because I had no other instruments to play with it. When I play with that type of sound I get a really good performance because it feels natural to me. The problem I have been finding though is that this isn't always the best sound when it comes to mix time. In particular I struggle to get the drums and guitars to gel without muddying up the entire mix. It occurred to me that what I really want to do is record with the tone I like but have the actual tone be something more fitted to the track. The way I handle this is to record a dry version of the guitar input to the daw and then re-record the amp tracks, from this dry tone, later. I monitor through my usual guitar setup so what I hear while i'm recording is my familiar tone. This is re-amping as we all know and love and nothing spectacular. What to me was the revelation was the idea that I didn't have to actually record in anything like the tone I planned on having in the end mix. For a start the tone I like to record with is a Marshall and the track I was working on ended up using a Mesa Boogie. This got me wondering if other guitarists have this same problem of hearing a good tone as something that is virtually unusable when it comes to mix time, or whether this is just a very peculiar affliction on my part?

I remember listening to an interview with Celldweller and Blue Stahli where they both talked about making demo versions of tracks, and then changing them later. They use crappy sounds to begin with to get the idea down and then work on the better version later. I find this really interesting because it is exactly what i'm discovering as a way to work, you are treating the different stages of the process as separate. Writing is writing and producing is producing.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Working to a timed plan

One of the time management techniques that I have been fond of for quite a while now is setting out what I intend to do in each day in a mind-map. It's sort of a chore list, I guess, but has things on it like "work on music track" or "do exercise". The main idea was that I would check off the items on it when I finished them each day. This went through several iterations along with various tweaks but I just couldn't find a method of working or set of tasks that I could get done consistently. There was always something that got left off the list or just didn't get completed. This was both disconcerting and quite frustrating. I felt that the list of items was achievable, but no matter how much I paired it down I just couldn't finish it on any given day. How could this be so difficult?

Some time passed, struggling with this method of working, and I read a book called "The way we're working isn't working" by Tony Schwartz which laid out a lot of things about work and productivity. I don't agree with every point the book makes but a lot of them do seem very sensible. One of its main points was the idea that human beings have a well of will power each day that can be both replenished and withdrawn from when required. Every decision we make in a day takes some energy out of this well but decisions that require a lot of work on our part, against some resistance, are particularly draining. As such this brought me to realise that even though I had a plan for what I wanted to do with a day, the act of having to decide to begin doing an activity at any given time was actually draining a lot of my will-power. In short it was actually making the tasks more difficult as I was already depleted when starting them. The problem was that even though I had a set list of what I want to do on a day, I hadn't defined WHEN I wanted to do these things, other than on that day. It's the old problem of starting, but I had made it so I had to "decide" to start tasks lots of times throughout the day and often this meant stopping something else, making the decision twice as hard.

As such I decided that instead I would look at what I had planned each day and actually make a time plan. I set out what each block of time was going to be for and had it planned out for all the hours I intended to be productive during the day and for each day of the week. The difference? Well pretty astounding so far. Before doing this my productivity was sparse and fairly spasmodic. Sometimes I would gets lots done but often I would just not start or only do 10 minutes here or there, usually with not the greatest results. The first week of trying this new method, I did 8 hours over the course of two days and was really happy with the results. The week after, the same again and this week so far has been the same yet again. That's a whole lot of productivity for me! Probably more than i've ever managed consistently in my entire life (without making myself sick). I'm hoping this will help to keep things moving forward. Sometimes when I have these nice ideas I find it hard to stick with them, so it should be interesting to see if this time is different. The signs so far though are very good.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Dave from Boyinaband's "I'm not dead"

To anybody that hasn't already seen this, it's a quite fantastic summary of the difficulties of creating and a comment on the subject of defining your self-worth by what you create. It's something that is very close to my heart and it's both troubling but selfishly comforting to see someone I look up to suffering from the same issues.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

How the world stops us appreciating the little things

One of the things I appreciate most in the entire world is walking along a city street in the rain, when everyone else is trying to get out of it. I imagine myself in some film noir film or painting, my long coat keeping me covered and secure, while the rain pounds off the street surface around me. People sprint left and right to try to get into shelter, their worried faces flashing my quiet contented smiling face a dagger'd scowl. It's a small fascination I have and one that most people don't share but it helps me get through my day. You see most mornings where I experience this feeling are those in which I'm on my way to the office to do a day's hard work. These types of little things get me through and in that sense are quite important to me.

This brings me to my main point, the modern world around us discourages this kind of quiet appreciation of little things that cost nothing. We are almost perpetually driven to want bigger, better, faster and crucially more expensive things, possessions and experiences. We are also told that if something is bad then it is bad, if it's good for most then it should be good and enjoyable for all. Everything is portrayed as black and white, and all the details are lost. We are somewhat discouraged from finding joy in small things that everyone else finds a nuisance or a hassle or even just unenjoyable. I think it's important to be able to do just that because it keeps us anchored both to ourselves and to the world around us, the real world. It helps us not get caught up in a world that is more and more appealing to our base selves and is largely controlled by people who don't have our best interests at heart. Advertising is almost always cynical, crude and designed to make people unhappy. If it makes us contented then it's not really doing it's job.

So how do you combat this? How do you deal with it? The trick, in my mind, is to recognise when something small is making you feel happy or content and make sure to actually experience it. Focus your time around these things instead of just taking them for granted. The next time i'm walking through the rain i'm going to try to not think about the day ahead or the day's past. I won't be walking along paying no attention but instead will enjoy the moment and try to live within it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Excellent performance of doom on Vulkan !

So this morning I got the updated version of Doom (2016) on pc that lets me use the new Vulkan API. All I can say is WOW. I am running a fairly low-end pc, an AMD FX-6300 with 8 gig of Corsair Vengeance ram clocked at 2133Mhz. In terms of graphics card i'm running a 2013 Saffire R9 270X with 4 gig of VRam. I'm overclocking this card as in the following image from MSI afterburner.

I have most of the settings in Doom turned up to high and the anti-aliasing set to the highest level. With v-sync turned on i'm getting basically 60fps, pretty much locked at 1080p. The reason that this is surprising is that without Vulkan support I was experiencing drops to 30fps pretty regularly in this game. The V-Sync in doom is particularly aggressive and if you drop much below 60 it throttles everything back down to 30. Adaptive V-Sync isn't an option for AMD cards so I had actually just resorted to locking the game at 30 Using rivatuner. Long story short, if you are running Doom, get yourself onto VulkanRT, it's great.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

On sickness, pressure and mental energy reserves.

Recently I was pretty unwell. I had a bad case of flu and because i'm asthmatic that means i'm usually out of it for at least a month while I recover. This is the same if I get a chest infection or really any kind of upper respiratory condition. I don't like feeling sick and unfit etc but the thing that gets to me most is the disruption to the things I enjoy doing like making music and playing sports. I'm usually bed-bound and it really gets to me being stuck there unable to do anything. It starts as frustration but usually ends with me punishing myself for not powering through and doing stuff. Quite simply this is a ridiculous thing to feel bad about, there is 100% nothing I can do and I just have to accept it. The moral of the story here is that feeling like that about yourself actually makes you worse, and less likely to get things done. When you are unable to do things, for whatever reason, rest and give yourself that time off to recover. It's not a bad thing, you aren't being a slacker, you are listening to your body. I'm over feeling sick now but I still honestly feel absolutely shattered and have some of the symptoms hanging around purely because i'm so tired. As such i've been easing myself back into my normal schedule of work and creativity and trying not to put too much pressure on. If I can't manage it on a given day, then I can't manage it on that day. I will go for a walk, spend time with a friend or just sit drinking a coffee quietly.

I think a nice way to frame this whole thing is to do with energy reserves. We all, as humans, have a well of energy from which we can draw. This can be in the form of mental energy or physical energy but the basis remains the same, it gives us the fuel to do something. The problem is that we have to replenish that well with things like those I mentioned before, things we enjoy that aren't too taxing and give us peace and/or a sense of ease. When we are sick, this well is pretty empty a lot of the time because our body is constantly fighting against the illness, draining us. Some days the well is dry even at the beginning of the day and that's okay, it's just something we have to accept. The key, for me, is understanding how much we have in the well that day, how much that will allow us to do and then work with that. Trying to fit in totally unrealistic amounts will just leave us physically and emotionally drained. Trying to sustain that state is virtually impossible and certainly runs counter to our body's natural state.