So, some people have done their 2011 annual report on their blogs about their blogs. You know – the most popular posts, etc. Last year I did it too. Not this time. This time my annual report is about my projects. You know, that stuff I do when I’m in the studio. That’s what you’re hear for, isn’t it? Enough naval-gazing.
2011 was a big year. Five major projects, nine official releases. Depending on how you count it. This post is a summary of projects under my own creative direction. Astute readers will notice that there have been other projects that have not been mentioned here – these are projects that weren’t under my creative control. For those projects, I had much less control over the outcome and aren’t as interesting to write about.
Warning: This post is long. You might want to bookmark it or print it out or something. And if it loses the fight with your attention span, I won’t be hurt. I’m writing it as much for myself as for you.
Let’s start with the most difficult. This breaks my heart.
Torch was a project that started in 2010. In fact, most of the production was done in 2010 – writing and recording five songs for release as an EP. The sound was one of my favourites – heavy downtempo electronica with emotional female vocals.
At the beginning of 2011 I planned to record final vocals and finish postproduction (mixing and mastering) of the EP, commission graphic design and web design, and release it within the first few months of the year.
It was a disaster. The artist had stopped showing up after the rough initial vocals were recorded, but had provided assurances that the final vocals would be recorded at some stage. I pressed ahead with postproduction, in order to maintain our schedule while still remaining open to final vocal recording at any stage. The artist had been AWOL ever since the deadlines for final vocal recording started to slip. By the time January rolled around, the message was pretty unambiguous that the artist was no longer committed to the project.
I should say at this point that this was a personal project – the artist was not my client (in a professional sense).
The EP was mixed and mastered and the graphic designer got halfway through the design processes when it all fell apart. As a courtesy, I provided some initial design concepts to the artist for her thoughts and feedback. She wasn’t happy. After a few terse emails back and forth, I found myself accused of being difficult and unsupportive.
And so, fully mixed and mastered, the project was shelved.
Sorry I can’t provide more details – I’ve tried to summarise it as best I can, but there’s a lot of nuance and history which I can’t cover in this space. It’s also still a sensitive subject, and there’s a personal dimension that I’d rather not discuss in public.
There’s some good that came of this though. I learned a lot. I can’t stress enough how important it is to read – and confirm – people’s intentions early. I had an inkling early on in the project (in 2010) that the artist’s commitment might be questionable. Instead of addressing it with (what would probably have been) an uncomfortable conversation, I chose to turn a blind eye and remain unrealistically optimistic.
I was unrealistically optimistic about the artist’s willingness and ability to prepare for final vocal recording. I was also unrealistically optimistic about the artist’s blessing to take the project over the finish line.
If I’d caught it early, I could have either worked with the artist to remove whatever barriers were in our way. Or worst-case – I could have saved myself the time and emotional investment I put into trying to finish it.
A year on, I’m much better at reading and addressing early warning signs. And I’m better at removing external dependancies from my personal projects.
Punch Card Poet
Like Torch, Punch Card Poet was a project that began in 2010. By the time 2011 hit, we were about a third of our way through production and halfway towards our final deadline. That doesn’t sound so bad when I write it, but trying to fit about 8 months of production into 5 months isn’t easy.
Punch Card Poet did make it to release. It’s a brutal mix of industrial metal, spoken word poetry, world music and hip hop. It’s such a disparate set of influences that most people have difficulty connecting with the music.
The goal for Punch Card Poet was to finish production by the middle of the year and release it in the second half of the year.
Surprise – it actually happened! Well, we slipped by a month, but that’s not such a huge loss in the scheme of things.
The problem was that it was a scramble. We had a lot of songs in half-finished states and it wasn’t easy to work out how much extra time each song would need for completion. Our workflow was all over the place.
When embarking on non-trivial projects (basically anything over 10 sessions), it’s critical to have everything in order. The reason we started the year behind schedule is because we weren’t tracking our work very effectively. I didn’t track how many sessions we did in 2010, but it was probably about 20. It took us a further 42 sessions in 2011 to bring it across the line.
If we’d made a proper project plan in mid-2010 when we started, we’d have known earlier that we had unrealistic expectations for how much work it would be and what rate of progress we should have made. Knowing that would have allowed us to balance the project more effectively. It might have even helped us avoid the mad scramble in May-July.
Fortunately, we finished the project and were happy with the result, but working so close to the line increased the risk dramatically. Any small hiccup could have had a massive impact. And hiccups happen – people get sick, computers break down, families happen, etc. The thinner your margins, the harder it is to respond to hiccups smoothly and gracefully.
And now for something different. Despite the hard-hitting early single ‘Truth’, Crash Honey is more about piano-driven rock ballads and self-reflection.
Crash Honey started up in early 2011 as a different kind of project. I assembled a songwriting team – a lyricist, a composer, a vocalist and myself as producer. The plan was to write and record six songs over about seven months and release late in the year.
Well, it all went pretty swimmingly until the lead vocalist vanished. Unspecified family problems up the east coast. Nothing any of us could do about it.
Workflow was better, though. We planned to approach the EP in two groups of three songs. We managed to record final vocals for the first three, and the disappearance occurred partway through recording the next three. Unfortunately we didn’t even record initial vocals for those three, so by the time we decided to go ahead with what we had (the vocalist still hasn’t returned), we only had vocals for three songs. The other three are fully recorded as backing tracks, but without vocals there’s not much we can do with them.
Obviously, there’s nothing I can do about people having family problems. But this release could have been much more if we’d arranged our workflow to record initial vocals for all six songs as early as possible. Even if we didn’t get around to recording final vocals or backing vocals, there’d still be a chance that what we had would be good enough to edit and mix.
Well, here’s an interesting one. I hesitate to include this project here because it hardly got off the ground. Sorry, there’s nothing for you to listen to, but it’s an interesting case study.
This was going to be a somewhat different style of project. Like Crash Honey, Gag Doll was to be a team effort. Unlike Crash Honey, I was going to have a much smaller role in engineering – my role would primarily be in project management.
The team consisted of a lyricist, three instrumentalists/composers and a vocalist. I had a pretty strict workflow organised and made sure everyone knew what everyone else was doing.
The big wildcard was that almost everyone was overseas – online being the only means of communication. The vocalist was local, and we’d planned to record vocals and do post production at my studio but everyone else was hiding somewhere inside the computer.
We got off to a good start, but things started to drag pretty quickly. Despite trying to keep everyone on the same page with regular weekly email updates, progress was slow and unpredictable. Some people did their work quickly, others took a while to get around to it.
Unfortunately, it kinda fizzled out. People lost interest. Things weren’t happening. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t worth chasing people when they no longer emotionally invested in the project.
I think the collaborators checked out of the project because it didn’t feel real. I certainly felt that the team was looser and more disconnected than physical teams that I’ve worked with. Things might have been different if we were able to physically meet in person every week, or if I could have picked up the phone and made some calls.
I suppose something like Skype or Google’s new meetups might have helped, but it still feels pretty ephemeral. Non-verbal communication is so important – and it’s not just body language. It’s speech intonation, timing, microexpressions, posture, etc… and how all these elements work together. I’ve done Skype video calls with some of my other artists and collaborators here in Melbourne and the video quality and latency still get in the way. And that’s when both parties are in the same city. It’d be even worse across the globe.
For now, I’m going to focus on working with local talent. Fortunately Melbourne’s got no shortage of it.
Zen Do Rhyme
This is (yet) another project that turned out differently to how I intended. Noticing a theme here? Did I mention I learned a lot in 2011?
Late in 2010 I met a poet/vocalist who really inspired me – he had a great smooth flow and wrote with vivid rapid-fire imagery. He was also keen to pursue his career and take it further with some recordings. In fact, he’d already started working with an amateur producer on a few songs, but was disappointed with the producer’s lack of work ethic (a common complain I hear).
I offered him a choice at the beginning of the year – to either hire me (for a fee) to realise his creative vision, or be a partner in a project under my own creative vision. He chose the latter.
As you can probably guess from the website, one of my creative goals was to generate and (mostly) process all the synth sounds using hardware. I didn’t do it much for the sound – but to explore the workflow. Up until then, my sound sources were almost entirely software-based. With hardware, I had to manually wire things up, and I had the opportunity to do some not-quite-linear things with signal flow and modulation. The Dark Energy and FreqBox, in particular, have a lot of flexibility with their extra CV ins and outs. Also, the T-Resonator, while digital, can make some sounds that are *very* rare in software – mainly due to its multiple analogue feedback paths that weave dual analogue filters through the stereo DSP.
The other aspect I wanted to explore was real-time performance with the hardware. Usually I use software in a ‘set-and-forget’ manner, which can often sound pretty static. Sometimes I’ll automate a few parameters. With hardware, however, I was able to adjust any and all parameters while recording. And because I couldn’t simply drag automation points for perfect linear transitions, the adjustments were more organic and human.
Workflow-wise, I had a lot of fun but I don’t think I’ll return to a 100% hardware workflow. It’s just too time-consuming to patch sounds and rehearse performances for every part. What I’ve been doing since Zen Do Rhyme is using the hardware for feature sounds and main parts such as leads and basses.
As for the project?
Well, it was going to be an album, but the vocalist started losing interest halfway through the project. His idea of where he wanted to take his music was diverging from mine. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell me straight away – he was just coming to sessions less and less prepared, and taking less interest in pushing the project forward. By the time we got halfway through the year, I had to have a frank and fearless conversation about the future of the project. We finished the fifth song and went our separate ways.
Well, aside from the fun I had playing with hardware, the real learning here was in people management. I won’t be embarking on major (album-length) collaborations with people I’ve never worked with. I’m also much more sensitive to early indicators that might reveal that a person isn’t as committed or hardworking or reliable as I hope they are.
When I embark on a project with an untested person, I take on a risk that the person will flake out and change their mind before the project completes. Similarly, they take on the same risk – that I will not follow through to the project’s completion. We don’t know each other, so neither of us would be in a position to confidently assess the risk. In future projects under my creative direction, I will be paying my collaborators. This is a form of compensation for their risk, as a token that I believe in the project and will take it seriously. It will also reduce my risk by placing pressure on the collaborator to make the project a priority and treat it professionally.
It’s easy to look back and see a trail of failures. But even though they didn’t turn out how I initially hoped, they weren’t a waste of time. I pushed myself. I took on challenges that I wasn’t sure how to fulfil. And I learned a lot. As I’ve previously written:
The greatest success isn’t measured by the quality of the thing you built. The greatest success is measured by how much you learned while you did it.
And learn I did.