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Embrace your idiosyncrasies
If your experience in the world is anything like mine, you compare your work to other people’s. It’s hard not to do, if you’re wired like me.
And, particularly with work that has a technical component to it, this comparing can lead to negative self-talk! It’s easy to hear someone else’s (very polished) recordings, and to think to yourself, “My work is so far away from this.” To feel like there’s such a distance between your work and the work you admire that maybe you might never get there. Which can feel super discouraging.
(This isn’t helped by the preponderance in internet music-production spaces of Men With Opinions. Usually men with superior, dismissive, “There is only one right way and I know it and you don’t” types of opinions. Reading Gearspace, for example, can be very discouraging! It’s toxic a lot of the time, and mansplain-y, and specifically not friendly or even particularly safe for women.)
It’s easy, faced with this constant onslaught of “There Is One Right Way To Do Engineering” messaging, to develop a critical inner voice. And this of course isn’t helpful, for the obvious reasons — it’s hard to get to the clear and unfettered mental space where our best work happens when we’re constantly second-guessing ourselves.
But, also, I want to challenge the very idea that there’s a Right Way to do things in the first place!
I grew up with what I think of as an alternative-music background. For me, this encompasses punk, post-punk, new wave, alt-rock, hip hop, rap, their stylistic descendents, and of course pop music from those movements and eras. And what’s the one thing common to all those genres? Experimentation and rule-breaking.
It’s easy to listen to genre-breaking records and attribute the creativity and unusual sounds solely to the artists. They’re definitely the ones who get most of the press and plaudits. But the technical contributors to those records often — always? — had a whole lot to do with that genre-breaking experimentation as well.
I think of engineers like Martin Hannett. His work on those Joy Division records was deeply unusual. Those are not normal drum sounds! By the standards of the day, those aren’t even necessarily “correct” drum sounds. But those records leapt out from their surroundings at the time, and in retrospect they still sound brilliant and timeless.
Or take Prince’s longtime engineer Susan Rogers. Would the Purple Rain album have had that distinct and genre-defining sound without her engineering contributions? Absolutely not. And would that album have been as cool and interesting to listen to, as totally set apart from its surroundings, if it had been recorded and mixed in a more “normal” way? Probably not.
This is of course not to suggest that you shouldn’t learn how to listen properly, and how to know when something’s out of whack. Even if you’re doing something unusual, it’s still possible to do it in a way that sounds obviously wrong. And obviously we don’t want that! There is still a space for artistic discipline and technical mastery alongside the idea that doing your own thing is valuable and should be encouraged.
The point is: you might have some things you do that are not the same as what other people do, or what other people say you should do. And I want to encourage you not to try to change your working practices to be more “normal,” but rather to run with them! To develop and refine them. This is how you arrive at a sound that’s your own, rather than trying to chase someone else’s sound. And that’s what the world needs more of — your idiosyncratic, unique voice.
You can go your own way — jamie