That Perplexing Business of Getting Better

Courtesy of ATR Magnetics

Yes, you read that right. I really mean it. Within the space of an album project, the result of progress can be, and often is, perplexing. We strive, we work hard to get better. We worry if better isn’t happening or it isn’t happening fast enough. But there’s a very real down side to getting better. Sometimes it can be painful to look back, especially from a short distance. Sometimes the the contrast between your skills at the beginning of the project and the end of the project can bother you.

I’m in the final stages of a film project. I’ve spent the last four months sound designing for the film. That involves engineering, performing Foley, creating sound effects, composing, recording, performing and mixing some parts of the score, managing and editing the rest of the score, and finally mixing the film. Now, in the last stages of the project, I can really hear the growth that occurred in my skills along the way. In many ways it is like an album project that gets spread over some time: there is a focused period of intense effort with challenges that demand growth from you. You respond by growing and increasing your skill set. Your art and craft get better and better as you go along. Finally, it is time to go back and mix the movie or album. And often, you find that within that project is a roadmap of the lessons you learned, the way you grew. The first parts you produced glare at you and seem somehow… rustic… incomplete... while the last parts that you produced shine at you as far more brilliant, far more polished work, far more satisfying. Your client may not notice at all, but you do. You surely do.

If you have any perfectionist tendencies at all, the tendency is to want to go back and bring everything up to the same level, to either re-perform or re-produce or re-record parts. However, rarely does that opportunity present itself completely. Your deadlines rear themselves and intervene so that every time you go back and listen to the project you hear the same progression of your skills. Oh sure, the contrast dulls a bit with a few day's distance, but you can usually hear the difference between the first efforts and the last. It can nag at you, niggle you, and bug you, every time you listen back to a completed project.

So how do you deal with it? Back in the 1980s, one of my college composition professors had a great take on this. He said, “A musical piece is never completed. The composer just STOPS.” He agonized over wrapping things up just as his students did, but he had discovered that you'd never move forward if you didn't move on. And that’s the lesson to be had in this, a lesson that is often forced upon you once you get into a professional environment: you simply have to STOP. You learn your lessons. You get better. You carry your new-found knowledge and skills to the next project. You rejoice that you ARE growing. Eventually, with enough time and distance, the little discomforts and the negative memories of the struggles involved with a particular project will most likely be replaced with satisfaction. You forgive yourself for your shortcomings and that location in your psyche is replaced with a warm little glow from the achievements that came with the project.