Kids. You gotta love their imaginations.
So many worlds and creatures and exotic situations in their minds… all set free like Noah’s Ark busting open, and a kaleidoscope of life stampeding ‘cross their interior movie screens.
So free in their simple enjoyment and focus on the moment. Very Zen, in a way.
No outrageous story is wrong. No bizarre combination of toys is forbidden. Few rules inhibit their exploratory path. And through it… their insights shape their intelligence… and their future.
As we strive to be a “gear-wise musician” and continue our quest for recording and music mastery, I believe we can benefit from a child’s approach. And, as we’ll see, there’s something innate in a kid that leads to ultimate proficiency… IF… we don’t smother it.
Kill the Cat
If you happened to read the latest articles this year in April’s edition of the “Pediatric Research” journal (and, I mean, who doesn’t?!), you might have seen the findings concerning the one surprising trait that seems to help all kids succeed in school, and then in life, no matter what their socioeconomic background. It is, simply, CURIOUSITY.
Those that have it, do well. Those that don’t, struggle.
Part of a child’s focus when they play is fueled by this exact trait. Because so much is brand new to them, they don’t know what will happen when they put that waffle you gave them for breakfast underneath mommy and daddy’s bed sheets. That’s part of the magic – it’s a whole new world of uncertain but epic adventure!
Trouble is, as we get older we forget and leave behind this entrancing power-pack called curiosity. We’ve been there, done that. We know exactly what will happen when we turn that knob, engage this plug-in… It’s all cut and dried now, dude.
Too bad. ‘Cause if we maintain our level of curiosity in our music and recording, we can continue to break new ground in our artistry, and shrug off “maintaining” success and instead search for the elusive “next step” in our potential artistic evolution.
Luckily, there are some things we can continually do to make sure this dynamic and influential force never dissipates from our recipe for success. What it really comes down to… is, in some ways, not growing up.
Life’s Short – GO PLAY!!
The most important way to become a Jedi Master of your audio universe is to simply spend time with your equipment playing for no reason except enjoyment. Outside of a job, play your instruments. Play with the outboard gear. Get your hands, fingers, lips… heck, any appropriate body part on that gear. Go for both quantity AND quality time.
In other words, as I like to say, go “date your gear“. Spend easy, non-demanding time with the lucky lady, asking her questions by turning, pushing and changing her controls, and seeing what answers she gives you.
You’ll probably be going out again soon with a smile. 😉
Ask yourself: when was the last time you sat down with your instruments, or your recording gear, and just practiced or fiddled around with NO GOAL WHATSOEVER? Probably been a while, right? It’s this “on the treadmill” approach to studio use that often keeps us from cool discoveries; we’re too busy to just examine and “try stuff” – we’ve got a deadline to meet!
All that’s part of modern life, I get it. But making it a priority to sit and play, with no agenda or job attached, is needful if we’re going to keep things fresh in our music, and in our mood.
Remember when you first started to play music? It was great, right? Back, as Jeff Lynne says on his most recent album, “…when there waaaaas, nooooo money!” Getting back to that simple enjoyment and curiosity about what you can achieve with each piece of music gear is what will keep you journeying to fresh, inspiring places in your methodology and your output.
The reason this approach works so well is because each piece of music equipment is unique. And how you interact with it is going to be unique. So the only way to really plumb the depths of possibility in each piece is to explore. Investigate. Tinker.
Slow Down; You’re Movin’ Too Fast…
Have you ever noticed that kids aren’t rushed to play?? They’re oblivious to the clock. They are just wholly engrossed in where their imagination is leading them.
I’ve found, in the same way, that one great way to gain insight into your gear and open up new sound frontiers, is to maintain the time mindset of a child. That is, don’t consider it at all!
Now I know that we’ve got work to do, and that projects have deadlines that we need to meet. I’m not endorsing, by any means, not being responsible. I’m merely pointing out that we must find time in our hectic lifestyles to, at least once in a while, play in our studio when we’re not in a hurry.
When possible, that’s how we should explore our gear – NOT in a session. NOT for a specific goal, or scheduled recording. Just in leisurely, childlike R&D, when you don’t have to be anywhere for few hours. That’s when curiosity can really lead you places!
Rushing through the time you spend with your gear only means you’ll miss the good stuff: the unexpected surprises. The unforeseen coalescences. Unpredictable discoveries made possible by slow, focused attention to, and appreciation of, little details.
Do you want to be the master of your equipment? Do you wish to be skilled at all the pertinent methods and features available to you in the music industry and on your equipment?? Then stay curious in a NON-RUSHED environment.
I Know, But I Don’t Know
The next really helpful approach to instruments or pieces of outboard gear is to bring childlike creativity & faux ignorance to the mix.
What does that mean?? Well, I know, and you know, that YOU KNOW already how to use these things. You’ve used them many times before.
But pretend you don’t. Yup, that’s right; pretend you’re a kid with no former knowledge of this piece, no idea of what “the rules” are.
Turn knobs, push sliders, strum, strike or push things like you’ve never used them before… and see what happens. Go extreme. “But you should never push the threshold so high – it’ll make the signal stutter!” Yea, it will. And maaaaaybe, that might be a cool effect for the song you’re working on right now.
But you won’t know if you don’t try things that are “wrong”. Remember the robotic vocal effect from Antares Auto-Tune made famous by Cher’s tune “Believe”?? That song didn’t become hugely famous because someone played by the rules. It was their playfulness and willingness to try what was “not the way it should be used” that put their creativity on the map around the world.
When was the last time you used an instrument in the “wrong way”?? It just might be time to do just that!
This & That
The third way I find exciting & fresh sounds in my studio is to link up new combinations of gear, just like kids do when they tire of the same ol’ sets of toys, and deliberately substitute other totally unrelated objects into the equation.
We bought my son a German castle with knights and kings, peasants and even a dragon when he was a toddler. I’d often go down to find maaaaany other creatures in this company: Star Wars figurines; shoe horns; alphabet blocks; his talking “Shrek”; bundled socks…
It’s just like what we did as children: igniting grand outdoor adventures with our G.I. Joes, Darth Vaders, miniature tanks, tie-down strings, bathtub sharks and LOTS and LOTS of firecrackers!
Well, at least… that’s what I DID. LOL
Or playing the game of “Mousetrap”, but not with the mouse it came with, but rather with plastic animals, orange Cheetos Puffs, live bugs from outside, stones from the lake vacation last week, or those other socks on the floor, or…
You get the picture. And kids get it too – life’s fun when there are no rules!
So… ever tried putting a distortion pedal on a cello signal? A flanger effect on the snare? Playing a bass track through a pocket guitar amp??
One of my favorite sounds on my upcoming album is a guitar solo I did using a combo I’d never heard of, but came from just trying different pieces of gear in a long, weird signal chain…
I started by finding a strange, almost mosquito-sounding amp patch on my guitar processor.
Then, I plugged in my wah pedal.
Next, I engaged my Ebow for sustaining, dynamic wash of meandering notes.
Finally, I slapped a delay on the whole shebang, and in the end… I’d created a magic, expressive guitar solo unlike any I’ve ever played or even heard before. To this day, it’s one of my most signature sounds in my sonic landscape.
When was the last time you tried a wacky combination?? A dysfunctional duo?? A misfit mashup??!
I think it’s time, don’t you? 😉
One o’ These Things… is Not Like the Other!
Finally, a great ploy for tricking your mind into genius discoveries is to this: don’t use parts of your gear that you normally would always use.
Ever see a kid playing a board game without all the parts? “Well, that won’t work!” some would say.
But it does. It just works in an unconventional way, not in the prescribed manner. Instead, it forces the mind to come up with new fixes, new workarounds, new possibilities not formerly laid out for us.
Hmmm. That sounds like what high school and college tries to train us to do… and kids are doing it already before they’ve even entered school!
Peter Gabriel did some great “leaving out” on his third solo album (the one referred to as “Melt“).
What did he leave out?? Well, he decided right from the get-go that the drum tracks would include NO CYMBALS! All the drummers had to play that way, without a single cymbal on the kit. Even Phil Collins, who played on a few tracks.
The sound of that record is unique to the point of being legendary. So totally different. Mesmerizing, and most don’t know why.
It’s because of what he didn’t let you hear.
Sometimes leaving OUT things can be the next, hot “IN” thing. So be a trail-blazer, by contracting your parameters rather than expanding them. That’s the way to start letting your “legend” out!
When a day’s ledger has at last been fully spread out before us, on the table of our time, what have we done with it? Have we made the most of each second?
Not by rushing, mind you; not by cramming in too much… but rather by really, deliberately living each moment and focusing on the possibilities each breath provides? That’s what kids do, and when they crawl into bed, they take with them a day in which they’ve really lived!
We don’t have to follow Buddha to know that quality & quantity time spent “playing” with our music gear will always lead to new insights and better mastery of our craft. Dashing & scrambling sometimes is needful, but rarely does it produce serendipitous surprises of fresh method and head-turning sounds. For that, we need slow, attentive interest and a “No Distraction” zone. Call it… your “toy box”.
I hope you’ll join me in giving yourself the gift of play in your recording environment. When you uncover new, unconventional settings, combinations and, ultimately, state-of-the-art music using this method, you’ll have that grinning kid within you to thank.
And don’t forget to leave us a Comment telling us all about it. Sharing our audio journey is what Seriousgas is all about, and we always are enriched to hear from you.
So, let’s do it. Let’s answer Cat Steven’s question of the 70s, “Where Do The Children Play?”, by simply saying…
… in the studio, of course.
Now, go… make… sounds!