Failure Is Always An Option

or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Mistakes

My approach to making and recording music has completely changed in the last couple of months. I thought I’d share what’s behind that. You never know, it might be of use to someone, maybe.

My old process was a mess, and as far removed from “spontaneous” as it could possibly be. Many, many hours at the laptop, taking apart everything I’d jammed during writing and improvisation sessions and tweaking, refining, perfecting every note.

I’d go through parts one MIDI note at a time, dragging things into time, correcting bum notes by hand, adding layers of automation and effects. All of this on a laptop, in Ableton Live.

Result: decent tunes, good production. But I wouldn’t have the first idea of how to reproduce any of it live.

So next would come the second phase – re-de-constructing all of it into some format that I could play or perform, usually in the form of chunks of pre-recorded tune that I’d prepare, along with a mental script of what button to press and when. Some “live” parts, but rigidly re-learned and rehearsed. Getting prepped for a live gig became an absolute nightmare (and actually performing it was terrifying – wayyyy too much reliance on the technology).

Now, I’m not a fool, and I’m not a cheat. I still view myself, at heart, as a musician rather than a programmer. But it couldn’t go on like this. For one, I was feeling dishonest in front of an audience. Instead of accepting errors as a natural part of the creative process (indeed, an essential part of that process), I was just editing them out, and minimising any risk of putting in a poor performance by (can’t find another word for it): cheating.

So, what to do about it?

First step to change was to set myself some door-rules for the new-music bouncer:

  • If you can’t record it in one take, it’s not coming in
  • If you can’t trigger that sample by hand whilst also playing something, it’s not coming in
  • You can’t turn six knobs simultaneously in the real world; stop using software to make this happen, it’s not coming in

 

Having set some rules, the next thing to do was to wrap some kind of plan around them that would a) allow me to create but b) still allow me to use the tech; I’m an electronic musician, after all – the tech is a big part of what comes out.

First step to solving this: unplug all the gear and re-arrange it into a form that puts the physical elements at the core. This led to what was, for me, probably the most radical element of my new world:

There will be no screen in your eye-line

When you’re used to doing everything in your DAW software, this is a frightening prospect; that screen is your score, your view of the orchestra, your security-blanket. Taking it away is like playing blindfold. Scary stuff, but necessary.

So, the big keyboard goes front-and-centre. The mixer goes above, along with the sample triggers (which also behave like another keyboard) and the step-sequencer (which most of us synth-toting folks class as an instrument, to be fair). To my left, easily reachable, the rack of mono-synth modules (where one knob = one thing, so again, happy to class that as a sort-of instrument). The laptop is still there – but it’s wayyy over my left shoulder, and I can’t see the screen whilst playing.

So far so good. Now to play.

And d’you know what? A month into this, I am loving it. The laptop and Ableton have been relegated to being not much more than a drum-machine, clock, LFO source and two-track recorder (and I can see it vanishing altogether with the acquisition of a coupla more bits of “real” kit). Everything I do, I’m doing with my hands, whether that’s playing lines, mixing, triggering one-shot samples (hardly any loops any more), twisting knobs on the synths to evolve their sound, editing sequencer patterns on-the-fly. It’s great. I’m in control but I’m far busier at the gear than I was, which should (hopefully) translate into a more interesting performance. There’s a great randomness to what I’m doing that has, no surpise, upped both my game and my output.

Everything I’ve recorded and put on SoundCloud in the past few weeks has been recorded in one take, as it happened. There are buckets of errors, meandering bits where I’m trying to work out what the hell to do next, bum-notes by the bucketload. And here’s the real point of this post:

Bum notes are important and are not to be edited out; use them to learn to be a better musician instead.

I love my mistakes now, and I don’t mind putting a piece full of cock-ups out into the world, because over time they’ll prompt me to become a better musician and a better performer. My confidence in my own capability to just sit down and play can do nothing but grow from this point onwards, and that’s what really matters – because we don’t do any of this to make the music we’ve already made, we do it for the music we’ve yet to make. This new approach, hopefully, means that the music I’ve not yet made will only ever be better than the music I’ve made before. As far as performance is concerned, I have the huge advantage over my old way of working in that I already know I can play this stuff live, even if I still have to go back and practice it, I at least know it’s humanly do-able.

Have a listen for yourself – the latest three pieces on my SoundCloud page are all single-take, mostly made-up-as-it-went-along pieces, and they’re loaded with randomness. Despite the glitches, I feel that they’re a lot more organic, less regimented and just plain musical than my previous stuff. Let me know what you think – drop me a comment on SoundCloud or below.

Each piece is now a journey, not a destination; a process, not a product.

I’m so glad I get that now.

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