Narrow Your Focus

The longer I work on music, it seems the more ambitious my projects become. These days I’ve found I enjoy the challenge of structuring live sets, or complete albums more than working on solo songs (though I have plenty of those in the works too).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of the great advantages of working on larger projects is that it’s very easy to bounce around and always have something new to work on. Of course the flip side of this is that for the majority of the project, be it a live set or complete album, you have a lot of things in progress and unfinished.

Sometimes, even though I should be used to it by now, it all starts to feel a bit overwhelming. Especially if there’s deadlines looming and I know I’m falling behind on getting everything wrapped up. At times like this, you have to start working as efficiently as possible though, and usually the first thing to do is step back and take a look at the big picture.

For instance, the last few months I’ve been working on prepping a new live set for some larger gigs I have lined up this summer. The recent warmer weather though has turned into a stark reminder that summer is almost here, and I’m starting to feel the pressure to get things completed.

For me, the hard part is that I have a lot of big ideas for how I want to have the set laid out, but I know many of these are going to happen over the next year or so and not in the near future. Definitely not in time for my summer shows at least. So I’ve had to take a pause to re-evaluate exactly what I need to do to get things to the point where the set is playable and I’m happy with it.

In this case, it means a few specific things need to be done, and in order of most importance:

– No more new songs added to the set. I have enough for the time slots already booked, plus some in reserve, so that should be good. It’s fun converting all my older studio songs for the live set, but for now I need to focus on finishing the prep work of what I already have.

– It doesn’t make sense to worry about fine-tuning the mixdowns of the songs, when the track order hasn’t even been finalized. And I can’t finalize the track order until I’m done remixing and editing the songs to perform live. Often times they will change drastically in terms of energy level when I do this, which will affect when in the set I want to play them. First step then is the most important, wrap up the remixing so I know what all the songs will sound like.

– Once the tracks are all ready, it’s time to focus on the next important step to complete, figuring out the track order. To me in many ways this is the most important part, as it helps define the feel of the whole set, and in many ways, my music in general. So I tend to really spend a lot of time here trying to get the song order and my transitions exactly how I want them. If you think structuring a song is hard, multiple that by 10-12.

– Get the “mixdown” of the whole set dialed in. After the track order, this is what I consider the second most important part of my live set. I tend to really focus on trying to build the set sonically as it progresses, so this part can’t be started until the track order has been finalized.

– Take time to focus on the little things.. Finally, once all the important stuff is addressed, I can use any time I have left to go back and really work on the little embellishes I like to add. Fills, more synth modulations, perhaps some interesting movie samples, a cool intro, that sort of thing. Fun stuff, and easy to get side-tracked on, and that’s why you have step back and look at the big picture for larger projects like this.

While I’ve focused on the live set for this example, the same type of thinking holds true for any larger project. If it’s an album, it might not make sense to spend all day trying out different crash cymbals if the the main melodies for 4 songs aren’t done. Or perhaps you have a big TV pitch you’re trying to complete on deadline. Doesn’t make sense to spend your time trying to find the perfect reverb for things, if your main theme isn’t done, and you haven’t lined up all your sounds to the visual cues.

The basic premise remains the same, if you find yourself starting to stress about a project that’s beginning to feel like you took on too much, pause and think about what you can do next that will have the greatest impact on pushing things forward. Leave the small details for the end if you have time, and instead put all your energy into completing the more important tasks that are what most people will focus on. Only when you’re done with the important stuff, should you let yourself get side-tracked by the little details.

Whatever you do though, don’t give up, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of inactivity when things get tough. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that every great leap in my musical career has involved taking on a project that was just slightly above my comfort level. Learning to cope with the stress of deadlines effectively and at the same time work efficiently has always been the key to pushing through these challenges.

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On an unrelated note, questions for my Production Q&A series have started to taper off again, so I think for now I’m going to do those a little less frequently. Certainly continue to send me any questions you have, or any topics you’d maybe like to see discussed in more detail on the blog though. I’m always looking for new ideas.

Tarekith

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