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Posts tagged "constraint"

Feb 03, 2014
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Geoff Emerick, My Life Recording The Beatles

Emerick was there at the very first Beatles recording sessions, and he wound up engineering, among other albums, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road. This book isn’t terribly well written, the portraits of the Beatles seem unfairly judgmental (Ringo is a dullard, John is a maniac and a jerk, George can barely play guitar—Paul is the only one who comes off remotely likable), and the pacing and structure are very uneven, but for a look at the Beatles recording process and insight into their sound, it’s a very interesting read.

Some notes:

At a few points, creative decisions were often driven by legal constraints. When coming up with the sound effects for “Yellow Submarine”:


  Phil McDonald was duly dispatched to fetch some records of Sousa marches, and after auditioning several of them, George Martin and Paul finally identified one that was suitable—it was in the same key as “Yellow Submarine” and seemed to fit well enough. The problem here was one of copyright; in British law, if you used more than a few seconds of a recording on a commercial release, you had to get permission from the song’s publisher and then pay a negotiable royalty. George wasn’t about to do either, so he told me to record the section on a clean piece of two-track tape and then chop it into pieces, toss the pieces into the air, and splice them back together. The end result should have been random, but, somehow, when I pieced it back together, it came back nearly the same way…


The limitations of the primitive, 4-track recording equipment at EMI led to much of the recording innovation:


  George Martin has said in many interviews that Pepper wouldn’t have been as good had it been recorded in twenty-four-track, and I completely agree. It was because of those very limitations that we were put on the spot, forced to make creative decisions every step of the way. Necessity was the mother of invention, and that was part of the magic of the album. You had to put the right echo on, the right EQ, the right signal processing; the playing had to be right, the vocal had to be right. It made things easier in a way, because otherwise there are too many variables and too many decisions to be put off until the mixing stage.


The Beatles were into sound collage and cut-ups:


  John and Paul were both heavily into avant-garde music, especially compositions that were based upon randomness. At home, they often kept their televisions on with the sound turned off while simultaneously playing records. The next morning, they would regale us with tales of how the music often dovetailed, as if by magic, with the on-screen visuals. At one point, Paul even brought in a film projector so he could demonstrate the principle.


On leaving in mistakes:


  If someone made a tiny mistake or sang something a little funny in a Beatles session, it would generally be left in if it was felt it added to the character of the record. Sometimes we’d even accentuate the mistakes during mixing, just to underline the fact that the music was being made by fallible human beings. Today, there’s plenty of technology, but precious little soul.


And whether there could be another Beatles:


  There aren’t breeding grounds like Hamburg anymore, places where bands can develop in anonymity and hone their craft. Every musician is isolated in his or her bedroom now; there’s little collaboration, little opportunity for ideas to be nurtured and developed.


Again: it’s a really uneven book, but Beatles nuts and recording geeks (like me) might like it.

Filed under: my reading year 2014

PS. I’m posting the cover of the Portuguese version, because it’s 100% cooler than the English version.

Geoff Emerick, My Life Recording The Beatles

Emerick was there at the very first Beatles recording sessions, and he wound up engineering, among other albums, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road. This book isn’t terribly well written, the portraits of the Beatles seem unfairly judgmental (Ringo is a dullard, John is a maniac and a jerk, George can barely play guitar—Paul is the only one who comes off remotely likable), and the pacing and structure are very uneven, but for a look at the Beatles recording process and insight into their sound, it’s a very interesting read.

Some notes:

At a few points, creative decisions were often driven by legal constraints. When coming up with the sound effects for “Yellow Submarine”:

Phil McDonald was duly dispatched to fetch some records of Sousa marches, and after auditioning several of them, George Martin and Paul finally identified one that was suitable—it was in the same key as “Yellow Submarine” and seemed to fit well enough. The problem here was one of copyright; in British law, if you used more than a few seconds of a recording on a commercial release, you had to get permission from the song’s publisher and then pay a negotiable royalty. George wasn’t about to do either, so he told me to record the section on a clean piece of two-track tape and then chop it into pieces, toss the pieces into the air, and splice them back together. The end result should have been random, but, somehow, when I pieced it back together, it came back nearly the same way…

The limitations of the primitive, 4-track recording equipment at EMI led to much of the recording innovation:

George Martin has said in many interviews that Pepper wouldn’t have been as good had it been recorded in twenty-four-track, and I completely agree. It was because of those very limitations that we were put on the spot, forced to make creative decisions every step of the way. Necessity was the mother of invention, and that was part of the magic of the album. You had to put the right echo on, the right EQ, the right signal processing; the playing had to be right, the vocal had to be right. It made things easier in a way, because otherwise there are too many variables and too many decisions to be put off until the mixing stage.

The Beatles were into sound collage and cut-ups:

John and Paul were both heavily into avant-garde music, especially compositions that were based upon randomness. At home, they often kept their televisions on with the sound turned off while simultaneously playing records. The next morning, they would regale us with tales of how the music often dovetailed, as if by magic, with the on-screen visuals. At one point, Paul even brought in a film projector so he could demonstrate the principle.

On leaving in mistakes:

If someone made a tiny mistake or sang something a little funny in a Beatles session, it would generally be left in if it was felt it added to the character of the record. Sometimes we’d even accentuate the mistakes during mixing, just to underline the fact that the music was being made by fallible human beings. Today, there’s plenty of technology, but precious little soul.

And whether there could be another Beatles:

There aren’t breeding grounds like Hamburg anymore, places where bands can develop in anonymity and hone their craft. Every musician is isolated in his or her bedroom now; there’s little collaboration, little opportunity for ideas to be nurtured and developed.

Again: it’s a really uneven book, but Beatles nuts and recording geeks (like me) might like it.

Filed under: my reading year 2014

PS. I’m posting the cover of the Portuguese version, because it’s 100% cooler than the English version.

Nov 25, 2013
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The songwriting game

Every week, Bob Schneider emails an invite-only group of musicians (several of them Grammy winners) with a challenge to write a song containing a certain phrase. If, by the end of the week, they don’t meet the challenge, they’re off the list.

The primary factor stopping people from finishing songs is the critical voice in your head that says it isn’t good enough. Then there’s the part of your brain that thinks every idea you have is wonderful. Those two are in constant battle when you’re writing. With [the songwriting game], you simply have to turn it in. If it’s bad or mediocre or half a song or maybe just a good idea not realized in a workable way, it doesn’t matter. Even the worst songwriter in the world, forced to write a song every week, is going to write some good songs from time to time. Law of averages.

Schneider has written a song a week for 12 years. More on the challenge here.

Sep 28, 2013
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Feb 21, 2013
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Wire’s rules of negative self-definition

From Wilson Neate’s 33 1/3 book, on Wire’s Pink Flag:


  Wire’s aesthetic was built on subtraction, a consistent withdrawal of superfluous elements. “The reduction of ideas, the reduction of things down to the minimal framework—it just seemed completely natural,” explains Colin Newman. “By closing down possibilities, you very often open up possibilities. You have infinite possibilities of simplicity and subtlety within a frame.” Natural minimalists, Wire pursued a negative sensibility, defining themselves in terms of what they were not…
  
  "The only things we could agree on were the things we didn’t like," observes Bruce Gilbert. "That’s what held it together and made life much simpler." Recalling some unofficial Wire rules, Graham Lewis summarizes this negative self-definition: "No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms.”

Wire’s rules of negative self-definition

From Wilson Neate’s 33 1/3 book, on Wire’s Pink Flag:

Wire’s aesthetic was built on subtraction, a consistent withdrawal of superfluous elements. “The reduction of ideas, the reduction of things down to the minimal framework—it just seemed completely natural,” explains Colin Newman. “By closing down possibilities, you very often open up possibilities. You have infinite possibilities of simplicity and subtlety within a frame.” Natural minimalists, Wire pursued a negative sensibility, defining themselves in terms of what they were not

"The only things we could agree on were the things we didn’t like," observes Bruce Gilbert. "That’s what held it together and made life much simpler." Recalling some unofficial Wire rules, Graham Lewis summarizes this negative self-definition: "No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms.”

(via postpunk)

Aug 13, 2012
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The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates “more options” with “greater freedom.” Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users: “How do we pack the maximum number of options into the minimum space and price?” In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options.
— Brian Eno, “The Revenge of the Intuitive,” (13 years ago!)

Jul 29, 2012
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When ineptitude leads to originality…

In this epic New Yorker profile of Bruce Springsteen, E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt remembers recognizing Springsteen’s “drive to create original work”:

In those days, he said, you were judged by how well you could copy songs off the radio and play them, chord for chord, note for note: “Bruce was never good at it. He had a weird ear. He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords. When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original.”

It’s a fun idea — a shortcoming (his “weird ear”) leads to the signature work… but Springsteen is also a terrific thief. A great demonstration of this was in his SXSW keynote, when he said, “ Listen up youngsters: this is how successful theft is accomplished,” and proceeded to sign and strum the beginning of The Animals “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” then transposing it into the main line in “Badlands.” “It’s the same fucking riff, man!”

Jul 18, 2012
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Jack White on inspiration vs. constraint

In this clip from the 2010 documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, Jack White talks about the “secret” of the White Stripes:

Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want — that just kills creativity.

You might recognize this quote from chapter 10 of Steal Like An Artist.

(Thx, @wcraghead!)

May 20, 2012
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On Regina Spektor’s “gift of small hands”

There’s a piece in the NYTimes today about how Spektor’s “shortcomings as a classical pianist turned her into a songwriter.” Spektor has very small hands, and while studying classical piano, “scores had to be rearranged, her left hand taking on part of the role of the left.” After a while, it became clear that “the life she expected was perhaps not so attainable.” So she quit classical piano, but sat at the piano and wrote songs instead.

Adding Spektor’s story to my list of artists with physical shortcomings that led to their signature work:

  • Art Spiegelman has amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” which flattens depth perception. He says he suspects it’s one of the reasons he’s a cartoonist—because the world looks flat to him

  • The guitarist Django Reinhardt lost the use of 2 of his fretting fingers, and played all of his solos with two fingers

  • Tommy Iommi, guitar player for Black Sabbath, after he lost fingertips in an industrial accident, was inspired by Django, and formed homemade prosthetics, and detuned his guitars down to C#, so there was less tension on the strings. This detuning is part of what makes Sabbath’s guitars sound so heavy, and thus we have heavy metal…

  • Henri Matisse’s failing eyesight and health led him to make his “cut-out” paper collages

  • Chuck Close, along with his paralysis, “suffers from Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, in which he is unable to recognize faces.” And yet, he’s most famous for his face paintings, which help him remember faces.

I’m always on the lookout for more examples — let me know if you have any?

Feb 11, 2012
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Constraint → creation

A screengrab from Kate Bingaman-Burt’s Creative Mornings lecture. (via)

Constraint → creation

A screengrab from Kate Bingaman-Burt’s Creative Mornings lecture. (via)

Feb 10, 2012
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Limitations are really good for you. They are a stimulant. If you were told to make a drawing of a tulip using five lines, or one using a hundred, you’d be more inventive with the five.
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