Perfectionism Is Not Your Friend

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There is a phrase regularly uttered in the studio that is fast becoming one of the most irritating phrases I hear.

The phrase is this:

“One more take for luck?”

I assure you, there is nothing lucky about doing seven takes of the same vocal part. If you didn’t get it right in the first three, the chances of some magic performance manifesting after you’ve exhausted your voice and rendered yourself incapable of singing the rest of your songs are very much subject to the law of diminishing returns.

The quest for “perfect” is a fool’s errand. There is no such thing, and pursuing it leads to frustration and burn-out. “Perfect” is also boring. It is uninteresting. Uninspiring. It lacks the kind of humanity that draws us in and keeps us engaged. There’s an apt quote from Steve Albini that I have been unable to locate, but goes something like this:

“The 99¢ bin at Walmart is filled with records that don’t have a hair out of place. No-one gives a shit about them”.

Digital recording offers us convenience, but something that makes me long for the sweet simplicity of recording on analogue tape is the ability – the presumed necessity – to endlessly fuck around with the recording until it’s “perfect”. I have seen musicians driven to the brink of mental illness worrying about trivial details that, in view of the bigger picture, really aren’t important. I’ve received emails at 4am confiding that, on the 47th listen, they’re not sure about that extra kick drum after all, and I’ve seen projects meander on for so long that by the time we’re approaching the end of it, it no longer represents the artist’s current tastes and so, the suggestion goes, it should be further hacked up so that their new aesthetic preferences can be crow-barred into it.

Enough.

Stop.

You’re becoming delusional.

Somebody slap some sense into him, for God’s sake.

Recordings are historical documents. By definition, a recording represents a moment in time:

record

verb

/rɪˈkɔːd/

to set down in writing or the like, as for the purpose of preserving evidence.

to cause to be set down or registered.

The idea that your recording should sound “perfect” is symptomatic of a kind of self-conscious delusion that you are needlessly inflicting on yourself, kindled by the unlimited firepower of modern recording technology. You fail to notice how forgiving you are of every band and every song that inspired you to get to this point, instead comparing yourself to an imagined ideal of absolute perfection, where every drum hit is identical, the tempo never deviates, every guitar twiddle is executed with unerring accuracy, and every vocal line is perfectly in tune.

You know what the name for that is?

Fucking boring.

All the best albums by all the best bands are replete with imperfections, and they are better for it. You know you love it when you hear your favourite frontman clearing his throat in the background of the music; the cough underneath the solo in Serve The Servants, the phone ringing at the end of Life On Mars, or the late distortion switch in Satisfaction. Did you know that Paul goes “fuckin’ hell” in the background of Hey Jude? Go and see if you can spot it. Fret buzz, voice breaks, a slight wonk to the drum beat – all these things are wonderfully human, and add interest to the music rather than detracting from it. With modern recording, all of these things would have been “corrected”, and that would in turn make them less interesting.

It’s curious that we allow ourselves to be cajoled into believing that stale, boring “perfection” is desirable. This constitutes the successful marketing efforts of software developers, rather than something for which we have an inherent pining, and all it does is increase our anxiety that we can’t live up to an impossible standard.

Take mixing for example. We scrutinise our own mixes far more forensically than we have ever done for the music that made us want to do this in the first place. Do you know how often you “couldn’t hear the snare in the heavy bit” in all the recordings you loved growing up? And how little you ever gave a shit about that, because it was the sheer aggregate force of the music that made the hairs on your neck stand on end, not how perfectly defined each snare hit was. You happily projected that snare drum into its place in your own mind, and you never questioned it. Now, when it comes to your music, suddenly it’s a massive problem that requires digital weaponry of nuclear proportions to rectify, just so you can live with yourself.

You’re being fooled, and you’re missing the point. No one cares. Is the song good? Does it rock? Do the instruments sound good? Are you a good band? That’s what people respond to. Not whether that kick drum should be over here or over there. Those kinds of concerns are mostly irrelevant, and seldom worth fussing over.

It’s a photograph, and it’s beautiful as it is. Stop obsessing.

Embrace truth. Finish it. Move on.

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James Gasson
I am James Gasson, music warrior. With my mighty skills of imperfect objectivity and excellent tea making, I am on a mission to encourage critical thinking whilst trying to avoid tripping over stuff. Fancy chatting about audio, drum recording, life, the universe, and/or everything? Drop me a line!

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